Over the weekend, my favorite girl asked me to help her with a project for her biology class. She’s a freshman in high school now. This is what she looked like at age 8 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I took this photo the day before my bilateral mastectomy. This is my favorite girl today.
I know, right??? How does that happen???
Anyhoo, back to the story: my favorite girl is doing a project for her biology class on a disease or disorder that has a chromosomal component. She chose breast cancer.
She needed the basic info of my cancer: stage, treatment, etc., as well as ancillary materials (photos and such) that tell “the story” of her subject’s experience with said disease or disorder. I pulled out my bulging “cancer catch-all” — my binder that holds all my paperwork, like pathology reports. That was easy because it’s all facts: this scan was conducted on this date and found this. Then she asked for the not-so-easy part: details on how my cancer affected me. While there are indeed facts involved with that part too, something else is involved as well, which is what makes it, for me, the not-so-easy part.
Feelings. The dreaded feels.
I don’t like feeling the feels associated with my cancer experience. (I refuse to refer to it as my cancer “journey” because to me that word implies an end point. With cancer, there doesn’t seem to be an end point. I don’t like it, so I’m not gonna use that word.)
Six years out, I don’t think about my cancer experience nearly as much as I used to (hence the loooooooong periods of radio silence from this blog). As with most calamities, time does smooth out the rough edges. But with my favorite girl asking me for all the gory details, that dark period of my life surrounded me, again.
When, exactly, do we “get over” this? At what point does the calamity of cancer lose its potent punch? I’d like an ETA on the return of peace and tranquility. Can someone please tell me when to expect an easing from the powers of the cancer calamity? Because I need to know that at some point, cancer will no longer upend my day like a sucker punch and leave me reeling, wondering why I feel as I’ve been run over by a truck.
That will happen, right?
Even though my cancer experience is no longer the petulant toddler whining for a pack of Skittles in the grocery-store checkout area, apparently that cancer still packs quite a punch. The simple act of flipping through my medical binder to locate information for my girl’s project sent me on a one-way trip through bad memories and scary places. I see myself from a distance, as if I’m watching myself on a screen. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a survivor whose scars are a badge of courage. Instead, I’m instantly transported back to that time. Those days. That period.
I hate that cancer has the ability to do this. I hate that cancer still controls me. Like a bad habit or a selfish lover, my cancer has a hold on me. Other people’s cancers have that power over me, too. Like my sweet mama’s cancer. That rat bastard smiles and licks its lips, knowing it is the puppet master and I am the puppet.
I should know better than to expect to be “done” with cancer. After all, I’ve been thinking about it and blogging about it for years. As I wrote early in 2011:
Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.
I should know damn good and well that there is no end. So why do I keep looking for it?
The story of Austin Fisher is making the rounds, and I’m determined to do my part to keep it going. It’s especially appropriate today of all days, as it’s my sweet mama’s birthday. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than wrapping a gift and making a coconut cream pie for her. Happy Birthday, Mom. I sure do miss you.
This boy, Austin Fisher, deserves a medal, a college scholarship, a witty & beautiful prom date, and a hot fudge sundae. Maybe more.
He certainly deserves to walk across the stage in Carrollton, Ohio, next month with the rest of his senior class and receive his hard-earned diploma.
Austin’s mama, Teri, has metastatic breast cancer, which she’s been fighting for 7 years. That’s almost half of Austin’s life. Her one goal in her cancer battle was to survive long enough to see her son graduate high school. That goal was nearly compromised by a stupid policy and a dogmatic bureaucracy. Carrollton High School principals told the varsity baseball player that he could neither walk at commencement nor attend the senior class trip nor go to the prom.
What’s up? Bad grades? Unruly behavior? Smoking in the boys’ room?
Nope. Austin wasn’t going to walk or go on the trip or go to prom because he had 16 unexcused absences from school. Before this school year, Austin had perfect attendance.
Why was he absent? Not because he was cutting class or ditching school. He was caring for his mom while she was being pummeled by breast cancer. Teri Fisher says that her son is “her hero, her rock” and that with no adult male in the household, the role of caregiver was valiantly taken on by Austin. He willingly sacrificed to care for her, saying that school took a backseat to doing the day-in-day-out, hard work of primary caregiver. “You never know how much time you have left and that was one of her big [goals]–to see me walk and get my diploma and go off to college,” Austin says. “I wouldn’t change it, everything I did. Family first.”
I’m blown away by the depth of character of this young man. What a stellar example of priorities, commitment, and loyalty. We could all take note.
Austin’s aunt wrote a letter to the local newspaper once the story broke, to shed a little more personal light on the Fishers’s situation:
“A single mom juggling medical bills with the usual expenses of living, fighting a foreclosure, working her job, traveling to Canton for chemotherapy — no easy task. Throughout all of this, Austin continued to attend school as he could while caring for her, working two jobs, and participating in varsity sports.”
When Austin learned in January that he would not be able to participate in the much-anticipated rites of seniors such as commencement and prom, he and his mom went straight to see Principal Dave Davis but was told that “rules are rules” and “it’s policy” to deny these things based on the number of unexcused absences.
Thanks to the power of the people and the sweeping reform accomplished by social media, Superintendent Palmer Fogler reversed the decision yesterday, and Austin will get to walk, and Teri will achieve her goal of seeing her boy graduate.
Hallelujah! Rock on, people!
The Facebook group “Let Fish Walk” played a part in the reversal, I would think. The group grew quickly, from a respectable 10,000 yesterday to some 32,000 members and counting today. A petition through change.org also helped, with some 100,000 signatures. FYI, the population of Carrollton is 3,211.
I’m thrilled for Teri and Austin. Kudos to the Carrollton school board for making the right decision, and to the world at large for being decent and giving a hoot about one family’s plight. Cancer sucks. It devastates families and wreaks untold havoc. But once in a while, something good and heartwarming comes from the vicious disease that steals so much from so many. Today that something is Austin Fisher and his mama Teri. As I remember my own sweet mama today, I’m crushed by her absence in my life and the fact that yet another birthday of hers comes and goes without her. She would have been 74 years old today. I wonder how much she would have changed had she been here the last 7 years: would she have finally stopped dying her hair blonde and let it go white, as she spoke of wanting to do? Would she be a little hunched-over and frail, or still the busybody, energetic dynamo we all knew and loved? One thing is for sure: she would be spoiling my children and fussing at me to leave them be, let them play, give them more treats. Another thing is for sure: the hole in my heart that will forever remain because of cancer. I do hope that Austin Fisher never has such a hole in his heart.
It’s Thanksgiving and I would be remiss if I didn’t remark upon the things for which I am thankful. This time last year I was fresh off the post-mastectomy infection train and trying to navigate life as a survivor. This year, the infection is finally in the rear-view mirror, and 8 surgeries later I’m on the road to reclaiming my normal life.
Living in Texas, where it’s warm enough to swim on Thanksgiving. People joke about how Texas is a whole ‘nother country, and it’s true. Everything is bigger here, and better.
Tennis. I’ve learned so much from the game, most notably humility, and continue to be challenged. People laugh when I say I started playing tennis because I like the clothes and had no idea how hard a game it is, but it’s true.
Things that challenge me to get outside of my comfort zone. Like modeling in the Couture for the Cause a few weeks after my latest hospitalization last fall. Yikes. After wondering what in the sam hell made me agree to do it, I ended up having one of the single best experiences of my life. And plan to do it again in March. Get your tickets now, before it sells out!
At the risk of alienating friends and loved ones and inciting harsh judgement against my Scroogy self, I say it again: I hate Christmas.
The reasons are many, and I won’t rain on anyone’s parade or crush anyone’s candy cane by listing them here. Suffice to say that the “holiday season” fills me with dread, and I grit my teeth and power my way through it. I wish I enjoyed it. I really do. While I do smile sweetly at the cashier who wishes me “happy holidays” on November 1st, it’s a pretty fake smile.
I do enjoy the annual Christmas Eve get-together with my cousins — a great meal, festive drinks, and the tradition of gathering in a circle to exchange gifts. My cousin Jimmy’s Texas Trash is a most-favored gift every year. I enjoy getting cards and photos from far-flung and nearby friends, seeing how big the kids are getting and taking in new additions of puppies, boats, and what-not. Ok, and the music. I do like Christmas music.
But that’s pretty much it.
I love Thanksgiving, and it’s a shame that it’s overshadowed and steamrolled by the creep. Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday: gathering around a table to celebrate the bounties of life with nary a gift exchange in sight. It’s about the sentiment, not the stuff.
Each year I wonder, sometimes aloud and sometimes in my head, at what age my kids will be old enough that I can skip putting up a Christmas tree. Last year I finally caved and bought an artificial, pre-lit tree, to ease some of the drudgery. I should have done it several years ago when our real tree had a wonky trunk, only to be discovered after it was encased in gallons of water, lit to the heavens, and laden with fragile ornaments. The day that tree came crashing down, literally, I added another entry to my “I hate Christmas” list. Water and pine needles all over my hardwood floor, ornaments shattered into millions of pieces, lights half on and half off, and two doggie cardiac arrest cases later, I should have pitched the deficient tree and its remaining lights and ornaments right into the street and sworn off this wretched holiday altogether.
But I didn’t. I went to the garden center and got another tree and started all over, cursing all the way.
My dislike of the most wonderful time of the year hasn’t mellowed, and this year when the Christmas merchandise appeared in the grocery stores the day after Halloween, I was ready to punch Santa square in the face.
I know, I know that would rocket me straight to the top of the naughty list, but I suspect I’m already there.
Halloween candy bags had barely been picked through when the marketers decide it’s past time for a holly jolly Christmas. It’s especially painful to endure in Texas, when it’s 89 degrees and shoppers are sweating their way through Target. There’s something just plain wrong about summertime conditions juxtaposed with a winter wonderland. ACs are blasting, but we’re dreaming of a white Christmas.
The Christmas creep seems to start earlier every year. Maybe it’s right on time and I’m just getting crankier every year, but it seems like the school supply displays are barely dismantled before the light-up wire reindeer lawn ornaments magically appear in a big box retailer near you. One of my neighbors has a Christmas light installer every year for the outside of his house. They started last weekend. Oh joy. Maybe they’ll get the Griswold Award this year. Or throw a breaker. The wreaths have been up on the shopping center exteriors and neighborhood entrances for a while now, too. I can’t very well avoid the grocery store, and I have to get into my neighborhood somehow, which means it’s hard to avoid the Christmas creep.
The Black Friday deals are already on, and inciting panic attacks. Just this morning I had 2 emails in my inbox, one from The Gap and one from Off 5th, telling me that Black Friday Starts Today!! With Black Friday Prices Now!!
But it’s only Wednesday. Black Friday should be on Friday, not Wednesday. No exceptions. Stupid creep.
My favorite girl hates the creep, too. Loves the gifts, but hates the creep. She writes a little blog herself, and recently posted about the creep. Now, let me warn you that her writing is a little out there. She’s a big-time outside of the box type thinker. Sometimes her writing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s always creative and wacky. For example, her recent post on Reasons Not to Carry French Fries Around Buffalo:
We all know that you shouldn’t carry French fries around buffalo,but do you know the reasons?
1. Buffalo come from Belgium, where French fries were originally made, they find it offensive that’s it’s called French.
2. Scientists find it unhealthy for buffalo to be eating French fries,also scientist are always watching you.
3. Buffalo have the worst fast food craving out of all the animals except mice, and when you eat a French fry they want a French fry then they pelt you with mushrooms. So stay away from those undersize Musk Ox.
Her post on the creep is titled Nobody Cares About Thanksgiving, and she has a point, if I do say so. An excerpt:
This news was discovered by an insane 9 year old. You know when it’s 3 weeks before Thanksgiving and there are already Christmas specials on TV, and in magazines there are 20% off on Christmas gifts for the little acorns. Now it’s a way to become a Thanksgiving Hater- Christmas Maniac-Rainbow Zombie!!! The worst part is the Pilgrims come back and they are all upset that nobody cares about them and their back hair!! So stop the Christmas specials before all of the zombie rainbows and apple sharks start to fight over the cow that makes the best milk!!! Or was it spaghetti nobodies turn into spaghetti somebodies? Either way no one wants that to happen, (except the spaghetti nobodies because they all want to be a somebody).
Last summer was pretty bad for me and my family. It started innocently enough, with a bilateral mastectomy at age 40 on May 13th, and while I healed quickly and nicely from that, it all went downhill fast.
Just after my 41st birthday, I got a nasty post-surgery infection. No one saw it coming, and to say it took us all by surprise would be a gross understatement. The odds of contracting a nosocomial infection are not small, but my infection is somewhat rare, quite wily, and super slow to treat. In the scope of inconvenient infections, I won the lottery.
Last night was the first game of the All Star tournament for Payton’s team–something I missed entirely last summer. Being present last night to watch my boy do what he does best with his team of like-minded and uber-talented buddies was one of the simplest yet deepest thrills of all time. We take a lot of things for granted in this life of ours, and being able to sit on metal bleachers in the Texas heat in June to watch youth baseball is one of those things. I’ve sat through thousands of games for my little ball player, and hardly thought twice about it beyond the random, mundane thoughts associated with this endeavor: who are we “versing” (as our catcher, #10 Carl says)? Where is Payton in the line-up? Are we on the shady side of the field? Did I remember my stadium seat? How many times will Macy hit the concession stand? How many pieces of bubble gum does Pay have in his mouth at once?
Those are the thoughts that traverse my brain during a game, along with the usual baseball stuff: What’s the run rule in this tournament?; How did we fare against this team last time we met? If the ball hits the bat then hits the batter, he’s out, right? Rules and regulations course through my head as I follow the many games my boy has played.
Last night was different, though. As I was ready to walk out the door, our bestie Ed reminded me that I’ve come a long way since this time last year. Several of the parents on our team remarked at the park that it’s nice to have me there this year. A couple of the coaches said something about having missed me and my big mouth last summer; once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader.
I have come a long way since last summer, and watching my kid play ball is something to be savored, something to most definitely not take for granted. The metal bleachers, the roar of the crowd, the (gross) smell of hot dogs, the infield dirt blowing in my eyes…every bit of it is special to me on a whole ‘nother level.
Last night also marked the first time a newspaper reporter has covered the game, and seeing my boy’s name in print in association with his rock-star team’s blowout and his personal success is something I’ll be savoring for a while. Before cancer came into my life, I would have enjoyed reading the article, and likely would have forwarded it to our nearest & dearest, but this time, I’m carrying the feeling of that article along with me, inside my heart, in that little space where the gratitude lies.
I was flipping through my old Caring Bridge blog, and happened upon this entry, which seems even more prescient a year later. I wrote this on the morning of my mastectomy, before leaving for the hospital. No doubt I was antsy, preoccupied, and ready to get the show on the road that morning. It seems appropriate to reprint it today, in light of the theme of today’s blog.
I realize that when cancer comes into one’s life it disrupts everything and changes “the normal” forever. Dr Dempsey, my superstar breast surgeon, told me you no longer schedule cancer around your life, you schedule your life around your cancer. Life takes a backseat to war.
With cancer, I join a club that I never signed up for and for which I never wanted to become a member.
No matter, I now have a new normal. The new normal is all about taking care of what’s most important. We hear this all the time, but when you really put it into play in your own life, you know exactly what it means. For me, it means facing this beast head on and telling the bastard repeatedly that it doesn’t stand a chance. It means never once, not even once, considering that this cancer will win. It’s not even in the game.
It also means all the pithy stuff you hear about, like savor every day, make the most our of whatever you’ve got. That’s also true. For me it means truly embracing and enjoying my kids and my family, and letting my friends into my life — warts & all — on a whole new level. Y’all may well see my house a mess, which doesn’t happen much. You may see me in a grumpy mood (ok, you’ve seen that, esp on the tennis court!). You may see me just a teensy bit vulnerable, but only for a short time so don’t expect a repeat performance. No matter what, there is a new normal, and I’m all over it.
One of the many blogs I read is a fine one published by a lovely woman named Marie in Ireland. It’s called Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and Marie’s goal via her blog is to provide some guidance on how to navigate the “post-treatment limbo” that cancer survivors find themselves in once “it” is all “over.” There’s plenty of information out there for those who’ve recently been diagnosed and for those who are actively in treatment, but not much out there for the “what next?” portion of the “cancer journey.” I was honored to be a guest blogger on Marie’s site in February, and I always come away from Marie’s blog feeling enlightened and empowered. (And really, I’m not just sucking up because she’s giving away a copy of Sheryl Crow’s new cookbook, which I really, really, really want. I mean it. Marie’s blog is fantastic.)
Marie posed a challenge to her blog community to write a post about our “other” lives, about who we are when we’re not fighting cancer. We cancer-chicks who blog tend to know a lot of intimate details about each other, as is the nature of the beast we all have in common, but we don’t always know a lot about each other besides the beast.
Never one to back away from a challenge, I ruminated on my B.C. (before cancer) life. It took me awhile to remember, so wrapped up have I been in the cancer-vixen lifestyle. I racked my brain to recall what it was that I used to do with myself absent multiple doctor’s visits, endless testing, countless trips to the pharmacy, and hours of feeling yucky.
It was a perfectly ordinary life. I’m not one for a lot of drama; I’ve been to high school, and don’t have any desire to replay it. I have no patience for grown-up “mean girls” and so have a tight circle of true friends. We live an ordinary suburban life, most of us at home during the day, having forgone careers to raise kids, although several of my besties do work outside the home and do amazing things like crude trading and nursing. Ok, I’d better clarify: one friend trades crude oil, and another is a nurse. Since this blog is usually about all things boob-related, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m talking about crude nursing, as in off-color breastfeeding.
So my life was pretty ordinary, pre-cancer. Ordinary, but good.
I left my editing job 12 years ago, when Payton was born, to become a full-time mommy, and after Macy joined the herd my workload doubled but so did my heart. As my kids got older and started school, my life took on the pattern of theirs and I volunteered at their school a lot while also spending some time doing my own thing. I walked that fine line between being a full-time mom but still being my own person. Like millions of other moms at home raising young kids, I packed my kids’ lunches while doing laundry and tried in vain to keep up with the household chores. I stole some time from the domestic hustle & bustle every day to go to the gym or play tennis, and made my to-do list while waiting in the carpool line.
My pre-cancer schedule was pretty full of ordinary things: kids’ dentist appointments, play-dates, sports, lessons, and parties. I served on the PTA board, was a tenured room mom, and worked the school book fair every year. Shortly after my mom died I was at the book fair, surrounded by books and overcome with loss. I missed my mom so much; she was an avid reader and we always talked about the latest stack of books on our nightstands. I met another mom who was volunteering that day. Jenny was new to our school, having recently relocated to Sugar Land. We chatted about books, and she shared with me that her dad had recently died, and she was swamped by grief, too. I decided then and there to start a book club, and to invite her to join me. Instead of allowing my sadness to rule, I wanted to find a way to diffuse it.
I had no idea at that time that Jenny was a breast cancer survivor and would become my mentor and tour guide through the “cancer journey.”
Meeting Jenny was an extraordinary event in my ordinary, pre-cancer life. Along with my Runnin’ Buddy and our nurse practitioner friend Laura, Jenny and I comprise a quartet of book-lovers who meet once a month and discuss the book we’ve read. Five years later, we’re still going strong. We’ve read some amazing books as well as a few clunkers, and are constantly on the look-out for the next great read.
When I first started running the book club, I would research book group discussion questions and print out a list for each of us. Over time, I’ve gotten lazy and now just highlight an interesting passage, a particularly pivotal plot point, or a bit of prose that speaks to me for whatever reason. This is the basis for our book club’s discussions nowadays.
I’ve always loved books, for their ability to transport us to other worlds. The written word is precious to me, and I suppose it’s in my genes; my mom was an English teacher, after all. I chose my college major (journalism) based on the right ratio of the least amount of math & science and the maximum amount of literature. My career in publishing and editing surprised no one, and I continued to read copiously after leaving the industries for motherhood. True, most of what I read was written for the preschool crowd with a heavy emphasis on pictures, but I started building my kids’ libraries long before they could read. I suppose it was perfectly natural for me to start a book club.
Just in case you’re wondering if I sit around and read all day when I’m not fighting cancer, the answer is no. I spend as much time as humanly possible playing tennis, then I sit around and read for what’s left of the day.