Dream legs – that phenomenon of being in a dream, and trying to run quickly, but not getting anywhere. No matter the urgency or effort, you cannot get ahead. The horizon doesn’t near; there is no sense of forward movement. Dream legs can happen in reality, too. When we are trudging through the swamp of adversity, it feels like we’re not making any progress. Once you’ve thought you’ve moved ahead, the horizon has only pushed back equal to your steps.
Dream legs – how living with breast cancer feels to me.
The diagnosis was one of the hardest parts; the surgery and recovery were like a marathon I had to physically fight my way through. I moved closer to the horizon when I had my bilateral mastectomy almost three weeks ago, but once I marked that step, I realized now is when the hard work begins. Now is when things are going to really get tough. Now is when I start nearly five months of chemotherapy, and the thought gives me dream legs.
I got my drains out on Friday, March 13, which felt amazing after sixteen days with them. Well, it didn’t feel amazing when they were actually being removed; that hurt a lot – but only for several seconds. Being free of these drainage tubes? Ecstatic. I didn’t have much time to celebrate getting them out, however, as I met with my medical oncologist that same day. That meeting took the little wind I had right out of my sails.
Suddenly, but not surprisingly, it was time to start the next step of treatment. The surgery ship had sailed; the recovery time had ended. This next voyage seems like the hardest part.
I received so much information from the doctor about my chemo plan. Initially, they had thought I might need surgery, radiation, and then a two-month chemo cycle. After the new pathology report from surgery, however, my treatment plan changed, which I clearly understood would happen.
A 20-week chemo cycle, with three different drugs – Adriamycin, Taxol, and Cytoxan, was elucidated to me. I would get some bloodwork that day for baseline readings of things like white blood cell counts and platelets; I would need to get a MUGA scan to assess the strength of my heart. I would need to get a port implanted in my chest for chemo infusions. That surgery would be under twilight anesthesia, and was scheduled for March 25. The radiation oncologist later informed me that I was to have five weeks of radiation after chemotherapy. I envisioned myself trudging with dream legs through a mire of ugliness.
Old Bras I Don’t Need Anymore
My New Breast Cancer Journal
I went from healing from my mastectomy to preparing for chemo pretty quickly. Though I’d known it loomed ahead, I wasn’t sure what exactly lay next until this appointment. It was a bit of a tough one. My husband Ron sat patiently with me as we both took in all of the information. Though I’d been healing from surgery and knew there was a lot more to come, it was overwhelming to get dates and times laid out.
I left feeling like I hated this place; every time I left, I had worse information than before.
I was deflated. And literally, too, as my expanders had lost some air since the surgery. I would have to wait to determine if I was getting radiation before I could have the expanders filled with saline; the plastic surgeon will need to know soon, as radiation affects the chest skin and what size I can be.
I was really angry and depressed that night. I’d been so excited about getting my drains out, and all of that energy had been sapped. Chemo scares the heck out of me, like many other cancer patients feel. There are so many unknowns – how will I respond, will I have terrible nausea and vomiting, will I have that terrible bone pain I was told about; the list goes on. Though I have a general idea of the side effects, everyone reacts differently. The very thought of it is claustrophobic: I will have to sit still for two hours while poison is pumped through a port in my chest to my bloodstream. It’s hard for me to sit still for two hours, let alone while I have an infusion coming in through my chest. I am really not looking forward to it.
Mostly, I’m not looking forward to the side effects. I will see how I respond, but no matter what, it’s sure to be an uncomfortable and challenging experience. Losing my hair? I am really sad about that; it’s part of my identity, my image, my sense of beauty. I’ve had long hair most of my adult life, and I’m attached to it on a vain level. Perhaps I will be open and strong enough to redefine a new sense of beauty for myself, but right now, I’m envisioning myself having a really hard time with losing my hair. I recently cut it shorter to start getting used to having less of it. Though I’m trying cold-caps, there’s no guarantee they’ll work.
I feel like I’m only about to start the really hard work, the excruciating part. I thought I’d made some progress with surgery, but I feel my dream legs slogging through the swampy mire of chemo. I could apply my athleticism to my surgery and recovery, a bit, but I’m not sure how much it will help me through chemo. I plan to exercise as much as possible, but I really won’t know how much until it starts.
I imagine there will be times I feel like the horizon is moving back; like I am getting nowhere. I don’t want to get stuck in the mud, for my spirit to get stuck in the heaviness of chemo and its side effects. I don’t want to sink in the quicksand.
I am terrified of chemo, but there’s only one way to get past that – and that’s to get started. For now, that may mean waiting a few more weeks. I may be walking with dream legs toward a moving horizon, though I am happy to be walking at all.
It’s been three weeks since surgery; today is Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Tomorrow is the Vernal Equinox, though Monday was our true equinox for the Santa Cruz area (the sun rose and set at 7:17, making for equal day and night). I am feeling pretty good overall; no nerve pain, not much tightness, and I have almost all range of motion in my shoulders. Lifting and stretching my arms overhead is still a little tight, but yoga is helping to undo that. I feel like I’m healing up strong. It is nice to be showering like normal again!
I am continuing to take brisk hikes and stay busy as much as I can, but there is a sober undertone to it all: the coronavirus pandemic has exploded. Santa Cruz County, along with several other Bay Area counties, were ordered to shelter in place as of Monday night. That means only we can only take essential trips out of the house, including going to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments, and going for walks. Thankfully our leaders recognize the need to leave the house for a walk. If I see someone on the trail, we are all careful to stay six feet apart and pass purposefully along after saying an obligatory Hi. Gatherings are restricted to fewer than ten people. This order will last until April 7, at the earliest, and schools are likely going to be closed until the end of the school-year.
No one alive today has lived through something quite like this. There are thirteen confirmed cases in the county as of today, and this viral tsunami hasn’t crested yet. Santa Clara County has 155 cases as of today. Understandably, hospitals are getting ready for an unprecedented, and potentially untenable, influx of patients suffering from Covid-19. I worry for all of the people who are going to suffer from this.
Today, my MUGA scan scheduled for this Friday was canceled due to the coronavirus. I have a port implant surgery scheduled for next Wednesday, March 25, but understand that could rescheduled, too. Which leaves me in a tricky place regarding my next steps of chemotherapy – when will it start? If it is delayed, how much does it matter?
It’s another lesson in patience, and its adaptive nature. It is imperative that I go with the flow right now, and not stress out if my chemo regimen is postponed, because I feel totally vulnerable at the bottom of everything. I am at the mercy of the medical industry, and their justified triage of higher-priority patients who will simply need to breathe with the help of a ventilator, granted there are enough of them. These are legitimately scary times for everyone, cancer-patients or not. Matters of life and death are on the table for our most vulnerable populations. I am relatively young and healthy; I understand, and support, prioritizing higher-risk patients over myself right now. My doctor said chemo typically starts no later than six weeks after surgery, and with my surgery date of February 26, that puts me at April 6, a little over two weeks away. Things should go on as planned, but I’m keenly aware, and it’s been communicated to me, that things could change. They’ve done a great job of contacting me when things need to be rescheduled, so I’m trusting there are caring professionals working from home to keep people’s treatments from slipping through the cracks. Hats off to our doctors, medical professionals, and support staff who will be heroes for who knows how many people in the months ahead.
As I wait for my next steps, still scheduled as of today for my port surgery next week, I am hopeful that my treatment will continue in due time, no later than April 6 as my doctor assured me. I could use a little bit more time; I am uncertain about whether or not to have radiation therapy. Even though it was prescribed as part of my treatment plan, I have the right to deny it. Why would I do this? Collateral damage – paying for that radiation later in life with another malady, another form of cancer. Radiation increases your risk of both heart and lung cancers, although they use breath-holding techniques now to limit exposure. It will also change my skin around my left chest wall, possibly leading to fibrosis, or scarring around my expanders. This would preclude me getting a proper implant at the end of treatment, and would mean trying a flap surgery on my left side; they will not have to irradiate the right side. The cosmetic result may not be as good. I’ve heard many times Life over breast, meaning one should never put the cosmetic value of a breast over health or increased longevity. However, given the other side-effects of radiation, including prolonged fatigue, perhaps my statistical increase in life-expectancy isn’t worth it.
Collateral damage is something I’m quite concerned about at thirty-nine years old; I’d like to think I have some years ahead of me to look forward to. At what cost is a slight increase in my odds of ten-year survival worth it? What price am I willing to pay if I am wrong? What if I opt not to have radiation, and I have a recurrence in a different part of my body ten years from now? Thirty years from now? Will I always look back and rue the day I decided not to follow my doctor’s urging? I am open to poisoning my body from chemotherapy, hellish as it sounds, but I am skeptical of radiation in a different way. It’s a different kind of monster, in that it can alter cells in ways only measurable after many years. I’m no expert on radiation, but I’ve been reading enough to know it is far less dosage than used twenty years ago, even ten years ago. It’s still exposure, though, and even if it’s targeted to my left chest wall, what might it do to the rest of my body? I am inclined to follow doctor’s orders most of the time, and am feeling like I will probably follow their order for radiation; I’m just not totally sure yet.
As I ponder my next steps, I am grateful for this shelter-in-place time. I’ve basically been told to keep doing what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks since surgery – solo hikes, beach, and time at home. It’s an introvert’s dream – no forced socialization, just lots of time to yourself to do what you love. I love people, of course, but I cherish time alone. There is always something interesting to dive into, something fun to do! I can keep myself entertained just fine. When I’m not out hiking or at the beach, I have a lot to do at home, lots of books to read, things to research, gardening, guitar to play, and some indulgent television to watch for good balance.
San Gregorio Fault
I ran for the first time last night on the beach, which felt like freedom! I didn’t run too fast or too long, but it felt incredible and got some more endorphins going than power-hiking can. It was the hardest my heart’s beat since before surgery, something I usually relied on my bike to do. I love a good cardiovascular workout; it’s good for the heart, the skin, the whole body, and just as importantly, the mind. The runner’s high is real.
This is the longest stretch of time I haven’t ridden my bike for in seven years, and I miss it like crazy. I was able to mount up for the first time today, and might try a short, flat ride on pavement tomorrow. I am cleared to do flat, smooth, low-speed riding where my risk of falling is low after three weeks; after six weeks, I can start easing back into downhill riding. I’ll have to see how my body responds, and most of all, avoid crashing!
And avoid getting sick after chemo has started. If I get the coronavirus now, while my immune system is strong, I’d probably be just fine and recover at home like most people. If I get it after I’ve started chemo, however, I could develop pneumonia, and it could be far more serious. Everything now is on a wait-and-see basis.
This cancer-patient’s patience must adapt even more. Everyone’s patience must adapt during this crisis. I’m going to keep on walking as much as I can, going outside and appreciating nature as much as I can, maintaining a safe distance from people, few as they may be in more secluded spots.
Art of Erosion
San Gregorio Fault
I must become more patient for the reality of chemo, of sitting in that chair for two hours, of dealing with whatever side effects will come. I must be patient with myself when I feel nothing like myself. Regardless of improvements in chemotherapy drugs, I don’t expect any of it to be easy.
I must be patient with feeling like I have such heavy dream legs, to feel like I am walking in place, not moving ahead. There’s an urgency to cancer treatment, but there’s also dynamic forces at work here beyond my control. While I expect to start chemo within the next few weeks, I accept the reality that it could be delayed.
I’ll have to keep walking ahead, dream legs at work, because I can’t just sit at home all day. Nature is my therapy, especially right now, and being outside is the happiest part of my day. It makes me forget that I am waiting to take back my health, that I am waiting to attack terrorist cancer cells in my body, left over from the original tumor. It makes me forget that I have cancer at all, even if only for a few minutes. It makes me feel like I am moving forward, I am progressing; that I am not bound by dream legs running in place toward a moving horizon.
I’ll keep on walking, dream legs or not, because it beats the alternative of sitting-in-place during this shelter-in-place.
The sky is falling, yes indeed
Pieces of water vapor collect and fall to the ground
Some as light as snowflakes, others heavy as lead
Defiant thunderheads roar with authority
Before submitting to prevailing winds
Persistently pushing in off the Pacific
Their clash of wills parting the darkening sky
Clearing a porthole of sunlight
Piercing through like a shining sword
Cutting through the storm
A bird sings unaffected, Spring’s pull so forceful
Only one thing is important now –
Life – the continuation of, extension of, preservation of, reproduction of…
Tom Petty sang it best: The waiting is the hardest part.
I’m a pretty patient person, generally speaking. I once spent ten hours perched high up in a Douglas Fir tree for a college assignment; I spent the night on a mountain bike trail in Downieville without water; I waited nine years to marry my husband Ron. I know I have no control over time, or other’s schedules, and am happy to let life’s timeline unfold at its own pace. We all grow more adapted to being patient as life throws unexpected challenges at us over the years, more accepting of that which we cannot control.
Some things test your patience more than others, though. Cancer is one of those things.
It’s been over a month since my life changed forever. At thirty-nine years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That initial coping period was quite intense, but it quickly showed me how crucial patience would be throughout this whole process. It also reminded me how quickly human beings adapt: we accept the news, we feel all kinds of emotions about it, and then we move ahead as best we can.
Waiting for my surgery date, for example, was a test of patience. I did not know when my big day would be, only that it was super important, and intimidating. I let my breast care coordinator know I was ready to schedule my appointment, and was told I would be contacted by the scheduler for my appointment sometime during the week. I went about my life as best I could. The weather was nice, so I rode my bike everyday, went to the beach for sunset, and enjoyed that time with my husband. I was okay with waiting a few more days for surgery, until Saturday evening 2/22, when I suddenly felt anxious knowing I had this tumor in me with no end in sight, no scheduled surgery date on the calendar. I sent a message to my doctors to make myself feel better, reiterating that I was getting a little bit antsy to get in for surgery. I’ve never experienced such anxiety before, but my good old bike proved therapeutic once again. The minute my two wheels rotated, I felt immediate relief. Nature is powerful medicine, and so is mountain biking.
A few days later, on Tuesday, I was contacted by the scheduler; she wanted to know how much notice I needed, and could I be ready tomorrow, even. I said yes, and she said she’d call me back later that day. About an hour later, she called back and said I was scheduled for the next day.
I’d read books, blogs, and articles; I’d watched other women’s YouTube videos about mastectomies, and looked at pictures online. I felt as ready as I could be for the surgery. In fact, I was oddly looking forward to it. I was getting on the path to treatment, and was ready to board that train. I’d had enough time to become inured to my new reality, and the gravity of what lay ahead. Two books in particular really helped me prepare: Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, and Anticancer: A New Way of Life, by David Servan-Schreiber. Thank you to my older sister Bonnie for the Susan Love book, and my Auntie Christie for Anticancer. Both books were instrumental in helping me prepare, and I learned so much from them.
The eve of any sort of big event usually evokes strong emotions and poignance; the day before you get a double-mastectomy evokes an unusual sense of meaning. This was my last day with my breasts. I went for my last ride with my real breasts, the boobs I’d known since adolescence. Ron and I had a great day together, an excellent dinner at our favorite restaurant in Santa Cruz, Chocolate, and finished off the evening with a magnificent hot tub. I felt as ready as I could be.
I awoke the next morning on Wednesday, February 26 – Ash Wednesday, coincidentally. I’m not religious, but I did find the timing amusing. Ron and I left the house at 5:15 a.m. for Kaiser San Jose. We got checked in, and within minutes I was led back to the pre-operating room. I changed into my gown, and laid down on a rather comfortable hospital bed, complete with a hot-air fan that warmed me up like a fireplace. I felt cozy; I was also tired, having stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before.
The three surgeons came in to see me before surgery, which was comforting. Though I’d met them before, there was something calming about seeing them before being in the operating room. The anesthesiologist checked in with me, too, and the nurses were caring and attentive. I felt like I was in good hands.
By about 7 a.m. I was wheeled into the operating room, which was freezing cold. I understand why, but it was such a change from my hot-air blanket in the pre-op room! The surgeons and nurses began doing their security checks, as the anesthesiologist explained to me, which is where they state who they are, who the patient is, and exactly what they will be doing. Of course, this has been reviewed many times before surgery, but it’s the final clearance; the final check of the airplane before take-off, so to speak. As I lay there listening to my surgeon take her turn, stating her name, my name, and that she would be performing a bilateral mastectomy, the anesthesiologist gently said:
I’m going to give you something to send you off to Hawaii now, okay?
Within seconds, I was out.
The next thing I remember, I was in the recovery room. I scanned the room and knew I was out of the OR; surgery was done. The anesthesia? Not so much. I was really sedated, and quickly fell back asleep for awhile. The nurses checked on me a few times, and said I would be able to go home that day. The doctors had told me I’d be spending at least one night in the hospital, so this was music to my ears. I got to go home and sleep in my own bed, see my cat Beau, and be in the comfort of my own home – and avoid Coronavirus exposure at the hospital, perhaps. This was a great way to wake up from surgery!
Next, I awoke to a beautiful sound – Ron softly crying, sitting next to me, his hand on my forearm since the IV was in the back of my hand. He said he was so happy to see me; that surgery was over, and everything went well. I’d been under about five hours. I lay there another forty-five minutes or so, sleeping peacefully, before I asked to get up and use the restroom.
They had warned me my urine would be blue from the dye they injected. The plastic surgeon who specializes in this technique explained it would help him trace the lymphatic fluid after they removed my lymph nodes, possibly divert that flow, and may reduce my odds of developing lymphedema after surgery. Lymphedema is a life-long condition involving swelling, heaviness, and tingling; once you get it, you’ll have to manage its symptoms for life. There are many stretches I learned in the lymphedema clinic I went to before surgery, but with my axillary lymph nodes removed on my left armpit, my risk of developing it increases.
I peed blue, as expected, but what shocked me next was my body temperature. I was feverishly hot all of the sudden – sweaty, feeling as if I were in a sauna. Exiting the restroom, I told the nurse, who promptly sat me in a wheelchair. That hot-air fan used to warm me up before surgery was now directed at my face, but switched to air-conditioning. It felt amazing. She put an ice-pack on my head and back of my neck, and within a few minutes I was cooling off. I guess it’s a precursor to the hot flashes I’ll likely develop from Tamoxifen, which I’ll have to take for at least five years after chemotherapy.
Ron’s father, Ron Sr., and his wife Cindy came up to the hospital to see me, which was really nice of them. Ron drove me back home, and I pretty much slept the rest of the day, waking up for a short dinner before returning to bed.
The next morning, I felt hungover from the anesthesia. I threw up, which was awful. I felt terrible – headache, nauseous, sore, and like my chest was going to explode. I had immediate reconstruction with expanders put in, and they were certainly doing their intended purpose, stretching me out like a balloon. The reward for that was keeping my nipples, which made me cry. I didn’t realize just how much they meant to me until I saw they were still there. The plastic surgeon had explained that they weren’t sure they could save them, but hallelujah, they were still there. I felt more like myself; I still looked like myself, sort of. The expanders were filled with air, so I even looked like I had boobs, or foobs, even though they were awkward-looking and had clearly been through the ringer. While I knew they were no longer my real breasts, it definitely helped with the transition to see something there when I looked down! The nipples were the icing on the cake, even though they could still have to be removed down the road.
The drains take some getting used to, though. One on each side, a plastic tube drains fluid into a silicone bulb that you must empty and clean daily. You can’t take a full shower or get your bandages wet at all. You have to milk them to clear clogs. I had read about them and how annoying they were; how women couldn’t wait for the day they got them out. Looking down on these new drains attached to my body, I realized I would be in a sort of Body Jail for the bulk of the next two weeks, tied to them like a leash. I could be bummed about it, grossed out, and claustrophobic that these things were married to me day and night. Or, I could distract myself by focusing outward on the amazing world going on all around me. Though I knew I had a long journey ahead, I resolved that I would keep myself busy so as not to focus on the drains too much.
First, I had to get over the anesthesia. I spent the day mostly sleeping and fighting nausea; Ron’s dad and Cindy came over for a short visit after picking up my post-mastectomy camisoles from Nordstrom in San Jose. Family is so awesome! I wasn’t in too much pain; I just felt hungover. There was persistent tightness and pressure in my chest, though.
The second day after surgery, Friday, February 28, I woke up early. I was charged and ready to go; lying around for two days straight had me feeling over-rested. My dad came down to visit me, and I decided I needed to go outside for a walk. We walked up the lane behind my house, a quiet street lined with redwood trees, and a slope that stretches the calves like a gravity-stretch. We were rewarded with an expansive mountain view at the top, and it felt so good to be moving again. My breasts were gone, but my two feet were still propelling me forward; my body was still working! I felt inspired.
I had a great day with my dad, and then my wonderful mom came down to cook me dinner. She stayed the night and brought a whole bunch of goodies with her. While there may be many people who nurture us in life, there is simply nothing quite like the tender loving care of your parents. I am so grateful for the love of family and friends right now.
That weekend, I increased my walking each day. I went for a magical hike in the redwood forest by my house in the Santa Cruz Mountains; I relished the warm sunshine of a nascent Spring, enjoying the early bursts of wildflowers that blanketed the hillside. It was beautiful outside, and my surgery hadn’t changed that.
At Home in the Redwoods
Keep Looking Up
Day After Mastectomy
I’ve always looked to nature for an escape, a playground, a quasi-church, as therapy. It is so healing to be outside, whether in my garden, or on a trail. Knowing I was limited in what I could do, I committed to hiking as much as I could each day. I kept my lymphedema exercises and stretches going, too; I elevated my left arm after long walks. I did light yoga, and plenty of namaste, a perfect pose for my arms right now. I didn’t want to push myself too hard, but I also knew exercise was good for me. I’ve spent my life exercising pretty much daily, so sitting around inside wasn’t going to do it for me, although I surely enjoyed my evenings relaxing with a good book, or a good TV show for levity. I needed to go outside, whether reading a book on the chaise-lounge in my garden, or walking on the trail.
Post-Mastectomy Camisole With Drain Holders
Pacific Hound’s Tongue
Each day felt a little bit easier. The more I did, the less I dwelled on the situation; the more inspired I got, really. The world goes on with or without me, and it was comforting to have so many different things to focus on besides myself. Yes, the drains were a pain, but my camisole had little pockets for them, and once I was hiking, I didn’t notice them. I put on make-up; I washed my hair over the kitchen sink. I took showers with a detachable showerhead, careful not to get my chest wet, and sponge bathed my armpits, which was super strange; my left armpit is still pretty numb, so I can’t really feel how hard I’m scrubbing with the cloth. I also had to avoid getting my gauze wet.
I took the Gabapentin (Neurontin) once a day for seven days, as directed, and took one Norco each evening for the first five nights. I must say, they really helped with the pain. Although I was uncomfortable, I wasn’t in extreme pain, and felt better not taking them. The next night after stopping the Gabapentin, however, I had my worst bout of insomnia – up until sunrise, just could not sleep. I looked up withdrawal symptoms from Gabapentin and Norco, and sure enough, insomnia was one of them. I had no other conclusion to draw except I was having mild withdrawal symptoms; just one pill a day for several days, and it was enough to trigger that response. I never wanted to feel like that again, and decided I was done with those pills, regardless of the pain.
The next evening I slept normally, which was a relief, but the stabbing pain began. I’d heard about this nerve pain before, but it shocked the heck out of me when it first happened. It literally felt like someone was stabbing me in the chest with a knife repeatedly, for several seconds; then, it would just stop. Next, a burning branding pain would ensue, followed by a tingling, electric shock feeling. It was pretty intense, about a seven on a pain scale. I consider myself pretty strong and have a good pain tolerance, but this was a bit much. It happened several times throughout the day for a couple of days before subsiding; it’s only happened a couple of days since, and none the last couple of days. I’ve read it can last for weeks, months, or years, so we’ll just have to see how my body responds. At least I know what to expect now.
During this entire process, I’ve been reminded of the old adage, We fear what we don’t know. Everything that has felt scary has been something I needed to learn more about, just like this nerve pain. I’m adapting, patiently, to my new reality on a daily basis. I have a positive attitude by nature, but that doesn’t mean recovery has been easy. It sucks, yes; I have breast cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy lie ahead. The will to carry on, however, supersedes self-pity. We are resilient beings, and everyday I am reminded of this.
I continued each day after surgery trying to stay as busy as I could. The less I thought about my situation, and the more I dove whole-heartedly into life around me, the better I felt. I read, I watched women’s videoblogs who’d gone through breast cancer, and kept my daily newspaper and crossword puzzle habit going. I had some amazing conversations. I relished beautiful sunsets over the ocean that made me so grateful to live where I live.
I saw a bobcat sleeping right next to a hiking trail; I saw snakes, newts, and birds-a-plenty. I’ve always been a naturalist, and have honed my observation skills over the years through experience, but lately I’ve been a real animal whisperer. I had to walk slowly in the beginning, before graduating to my standard power-walk (I’m known for walking really fast!). There is an art to wildlife observation, and I’ve built it over the years; I’m still growing. These post-mastectomy hikes have presented a great opportunity to see more wildlife I probably wouldn’t have seen were I flying downhill on my bike – something I miss dearly.
I’m used to riding my bike almost everyday, and I cannot wait to feel the flow of two wheels under me again. This has been the longest break since my last concussion years ago. I got on my bike twelve days out from surgery, just to see what sitting on it would feel like. Just the pressure on my wrists and forearms was enough to feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe how something as seemingly small as holding the handlebars was. I’d never thought too much about my arms; just hold the bars and off you go. I realize it will be at least a couple of more weeks before I’ll be on my bike again – and that’s optimistic. It will be a test of patience staying off of my bike, but my body needs to heal first.
I am human, however, and there are times I’ve felt claustrophobic from having these drains attached to me; I just want my normal body back. I will get them out this Friday, March 13, five years to the date that I received title and keys for our first home in Ben Lomond. Ron and I also got engaged on a Friday the thirteenth, February 13, 2015. I’m not superstitious, but it’s an auspicious date.
Thirteen days out from surgery was one of my harder days of recovery. I had gone in on day twelve, Monday, for my appointment; I thought I’d be getting them out. My surgeon went over my updated pathology report with me, which noted a 44mm tumor, a few fibroadenomas, including the two I’d already known about for years, and extremely dense breast tissue. My Nottingham Histologic score went up to a 9/9, the worst grade.
And I wasn’t getting my drains out. My doctor was worried about infection from early removal, and proceeded to elucidate what she’d seen over the years. They used to take them out earlier, but this correlated with an increase of infections at the drainage site, which sometimes spread to the breast cavity, ultimately necessitating the removal of expanders and implants. I trusted her experience, of course, but I was disappointed to not get them out. I did get my bandages and tape off, though, which was a welcome relief. My sister came with me to the appointment and spent a couple of nights hanging out with me, which helped ease my deflated hopes (there’s a lot of puns I could run with here!). Bonus? I could finally take a full shower, which felt heavenly. I set the drains on my shower rack, and enjoyed the sweet relief of hot water flowing down my entire body. Hot water always feels wonderful, but this was exceptional. I shaved my armpits as best as I could, which felt so weird because my left one is almost entirely numb still. After almost two weeks without a full shower, I was so grateful.
I spent the next few days hiking and going to the beach for sunset, and saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in months. It inspired me to keep the big picture in mind, to keep my eye on the horizon. The world goes on with or without me, we all die someday, and it’s all okay. Do I want to die now? Of course not, but it’s possible. It’s surprising how quickly your mind adapts to that new reality. Granted, it didn’t come easily, but I do feel more at peace with the prospect of death than I did before this cancer diagnosis, hands down.
I feel more patient, although I have a lot more growth to do, surely. Once chemotherapy starts, that will elicit a new sort of patience. I am amazed at how natural it is for patience to evolve in the face of adversity. Yes, I think attitude has a lot to do with it, but we’re innately hardwired to do so already. Once you choose it consciously, the pieces fall into place. Sometimes, you have no choice in the matter; it’s a matter of taking care of yourself – survival, almost – of living in a place of anxiety and fear, or living in a place of peace and openness. When I was first diagnosed, I’ll never forget what a friend and colleague said to me at work. She explained that her friend had gone through breast cancer, too; what helped her most, she said, was learning to control her mind. It made perfect sense when she said it; I was in that shell-shocked, terrified first few days after diagnosis, and my mind was cycling through all kinds of sad scenarios. Riding my bike was major therapy during that time, luckily, but it wasn’t enough to eschew my fears altogether. Her advice was timely, and appreciated; I took it to heart. I’ve meditated many times before, and consider forest bathing and time outside in nature to be a meditation, of sorts. There are many shades of meditation, but her words – control your mind – really resonated with me. It’s become one of my mantras throughout this whole process. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this gem of wisdom.
Today is Thursday, March 12, 2020, and I’m on Day 15 with the drains. Tomorrow, I’ll get them out. I’ll also meet with my oncologist to go over the plan for chemotherapy and possible radiation. I can’t wait to wear a normal camisole without the drain pockets; to put on a cute outfit again. I want to exercise more than just a brisk walk and yoga. I miss riding my bike so much it makes me cry. I miss the endorphin rush of intense cardiovascular activity that I’ve become so accustomed to over the years. I miss feeling like my full self, and I’m only at the start.
I worry I will never get back to my full self. I worry that I’ll never ride like I used to. I worry that I won’t be the wife I was. I worry that I will die young, which always seems to make sense to me for some reason. I’ve lived my life pretty enthusiastically, keenly aware of its brevity and sanctity, living by the old cliches of Carpe diem and Live like you might die tomorrow. I have a fire lit under me most of the time to get after it, whatever it is. I know I can still grow more grateful, more passionate for life, but I feel like I’ve already been living like that for a long time. Was this vigor and lust for life enough to keep me from getting cancer? No.
Finding out you might die soon makes everything come into clear focus – that which you are happy for, and, on the contrary, that which bothers you. That includes everything from environmental problems to unsolicited medical advice. Cliches that oversimplify the situation don’t help. At the end of the day, I appreciate any and all positivity, and am grateful for anyone who authentically cares about me. My sensitivity is heightened, though, and I find myself having a shorter temper than usual. It makes a casual comment, like, Your cancer isn’t that bad; you’re going to be fine, meant with good intention, surely, sting a bit. No, the cancer is pretty bad, and no, I don’t know that I’m going to be fine; I don’t know that it won’t come back to kill me. There’s the Someone I know had it way worse than you story, intended to make you feel better, but it just makes you feel guilty for feeling sad about your situation. If someone else went through something so much harder, then surely my experience can’t be so bad, right? No; of course not, but it can evoke such thoughts.
Hiking the Santa Cruz Mountains, California
I’ve been reading like crazy, and I listen to what doctors are saying; what years of clinical trials and research have proven. I’ve pretty much already been eating the healthy diet they recommend for years; no, I’m not perfect, but I can honestly say I’ve eaten well in my life – pescatarian for twelve years, no alcohol for seven, I drink a lot of water everyday. Did it count? Did it protect me? Apparently not. I am always open to improving, learning, and growing, but when it comes to medical advice, I’ll listen to the experts. I am not opposed to advice, but I don’t like being pressured into something that doesn’t work for me. I will try something on, but if it doesn’t fit, I’m not wearing it. I don’t like being told what I should do or not do, especially when it comes to cancer. I don’t need to hear what I should be eating, what I should be doing, or how I should be feeling. My friend Tracey and I once joked that we hate when people should on us. Don’t should on me! we laughed. Just do you.
Arrogance is one of my biggest pet peeves – that, and lack of awareness. I don’t appreciate it when someone acts like they know it all and aren’t even paying full attention; they don’t see the writing on the wall. Sometimes, I want to say, Humble down. Take a humble pill. When I say people, I’m not implying specific people; rather, a general form of the word, from people on the comments section on blogs and social media, to a few people in my own life, too. I’m a pretty open and honest communicator, and will tell someone as directly yet gently as I can if I’m feeling unsettled about something. Again, I mean people in the general sense of the word, so please don’t read too much into it if you know me personally; trust me, I would tell you if something bothered me.
We are never done learning; there is always something more to learn, more depth to explore, more questions to ask. While I’ve read a few informative books and a myriad of articles online, I wouldn’t pretend to speak of cancer with any degree of expertise. Arrogance is the last thing I need here. I am very much a student in all of this, trying to stay as open to the experience as I can so as to saturate myself with the essence of this disease, only to squeeze myself dry of it like a desiccated sponge should I make it out alive. I don’t joke when I say make it out alive; I really don’t have full faith or evidence that I will. That’s why I am more sensitive to what others say right now. Forgive me while I vent; this is part of the process of anger. Like I said, everything is magnified right now, and I can’t help but notice. I feel like a wounded animal. I just want to curl up alone and hide; to lick my wounds in solitude. Bless anyone who tries to help. However, there are times in life where it’s best to admit you don’t have all the answers, you’re not an expert on breast cancer, and just listen; that goes for myself, too.
Lately, I find myself wanting more of that – listening. The patient, I’m just going to sit with you and listen while you talk kind of help. My family has done a stoic job of this, from the early days of diagnosis, to the early days of post-surgery recovery. I’ve had some incredibly inspiring conversations with them that have buoyed my spirits in that way only family can. Talking and messaging with friends has been really comforting as well, and every card I’ve received in the mail has warmed my heart.
My husband has been a professional-grade therapist, letting me jump from happy to serious without missing a beat. He’s ridden the roller coaster of emotions with me, cried with me, laughed with me to ease my nerves. He knows there’s nothing he can say to fix the situation, and he has grown to be an even deeper listener. He sits with me and empathizes, but doesn’t offer platitudes, or oversimplify my struggle with an order to just keep my head up.
He listens like my paternal grandmother, Sheila Prentice Craig, did. She passed away last year, and her absence left a hole in our family that no one can fill quite like her. Sheila was one of the best listeners in our family; she was one of the few people from an early age who really just seemed to lean in to others when they talked. She gave her full attention; she reacted honestly and genuinely, leading a graceful dance of a conversation that would bounce from topic to topic. I would talk with her about everything, from our shared love of birds, to our shared love of the environment. I felt like she saw me for who I was.
I’ve been really wanting to talk to her lately about all of this. I told Ron the other day, and he asked me what she would say to comfort me. I paused, and replied:
Nothing. She wouldn’t say anything in particular; she would just listen and look at me in a way that I knew she understood me. She wouldn’t judge me or try to fix me. She would sit with me and hold my hand, but offer no sympathy; she didn’t care for that. Just pure, true empathy.
I miss her so much, but I realize how much she taught me about compassion, about being a good listener; about not being self-centered. We had a lot in common, and I’ve been told I’m a really good listener myself. I especially appreciate a good, patient listener these days. Patience: a golden virtue.
Patience is adaptive; it is constantly responding to life in ways we aren’t even aware of. When we think we can’t handle it, or can’t wait any longer, we prove ourselves wrong by persevering. When we’re overwhelmed, patience sits with us until we’re out of the woods. When we’re waiting to get surgical drains out so we can take a nice, hot shower, patience is paramount. I am amazed not at myself, but by how our minds are so well-adapted to adapting – we are meant to grow accustomed to life’s changes. Natural selection has shaped us for these challenges, and I am really feeling the effects of its power right now. It’s in my genes to get used to this.
I’ve also been reminded of how important it is to not judge ourselves, or others. I have to forgive myself when I get angry, when I feel despondent, and I have to allow myself to laugh and feel happy without feeling like I’m lessening the severity of the situation. Though one in eight women will get breast cancer in the United States, people deal with it in different ways; there is no right or wrong. I read so many people’s stories before surgery, and was in awe of the variety of stories; it helped me so much, and motivated me to share my story, too. Everyone’s journey is unique to them. What works for one woman may not work well for another, and that includes pain medication. I don’t judge anyone who takes pain medication, let alone after a major surgery, and I also don’t judge those who didn’t take any pain medication. To each their own. I hope that anyone who reads this understands this is merely my experience, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else.
I surprisingly enjoyed some of this down-time. I am on a leave-of-absence from work, so each day has presented me with the gift of time. While I’d rather be on a real vacation, it’s still nice to have this time off, especially now. I’m a positive person by nature, but healing hasn’t been a cakewalk, either. What helped me cope most was hiking, being outside, and reading. When I would get sad, I’d try to make a conscious effort to dive into something interesting; to put my energy outward, learn something new, get outside of my own head. The important thing is to listen to my body, and take good care of it; that’s really what matters.
A cancer diagnosis befalls you like a rain-soaked cloud, obstinately sitting on your shoulders, but it doesn’t keep you from seeing the beautiful world that remains in front of you. As long as I’m able, I’ll keep going outside, keep appreciating the natural world, and keep getting outside of myself. I may have this shadow following me around now, but so far, I can still see the rainbows and light in front of me. I realize how much more good there still is in the world, whether or not you are sick, and that will always be the case. Even when I die, the world is still full of more good than bad, more beauty than decay, more love than hate, more humility than arrogance. Life isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, as they say, but they’re out there – and that’s enough for me right now.
Here’s a video I made on March 12, 2020, about my journey so far.
I know myself really well; I should, after all, at thirty-nine years old. That includes knowing my body’s idiosyncrasies, like the fibroadenomas I had diagnosed in each breast twenty years ago. I know exactly how they feel, their size, and check them often. Ultrasounds and mammograms over the years confirmed I had dense breast tissue, and fibroadenomas to monitor for changes as time went on. I wasn’t too concerned about them; breast cancer doesn’t run on either side of my family as far back as anyone can recollect. I’m active, eat healthy, and live a low-stress lifestyle. There wasn’t a big cause for alarm, just awareness. I remained aware of those lumps, checking them multiple times a month, almost like a fidget. I would find myself watching television and touching one of them. I knew all the curves of them by heart. For years, they didn’t change, and no one worried. I had my last mammogram and breast ultrasound in 2018, about two years ago, and was told I was good for two more years.
Fast-forward to the holiday season in December 2019. Winter hadn’t even arrived, and California had already been blessed with an abundance of early-season snow. Ron and I had been snowboarding at Kirkwood a few times already, and were stoked about the upcoming season. At some point while fidgeting with the almond-size lump on my upper left breast, I noticed it felt significantly larger – and harder. The texture of it was not the same as the slippery little almond that used to be there. It was irregular, about the size of a chestnut maybe, and was a little bit tender to the touch. This was something different.
I told my husband Ron about it, and he immediately replied that he’d noticed it a few days earlier; you could even see sticking out a little bit from under my skin.
Always tell me when you notice something like that! I quickly told him.
It was the start of Winter vacation now, and the Winter Solstice, December 21. I had two weeks off, and with the epic amount of snow, we had a lot of snowboarding planned. I opted for a January 13, 2020 appointment to get the lump checked out, and had an awesome Winter vacation. Ron and I got in nine days at Kirkwood and it was still early season. We had a White Christmas, like I’d never had. It was a magical time of year, and we soaked up vacation heartily. We kicked off the new year strong, mountain biking everyday we weren’t snowboarding.
January 13, 2020
When my appointment to get my breast examined began, my doctor was with the mother of one of my former students. I was surprised to see her, but also comforted by her kind, familiar presence. It’s another example of what a small town we live in. She examined me and felt the lump. There was a silence, how pronounced or perceived I’m not sure, before she said,
Yeah, I’m going to refer you over the hill for this one to get checked out.
I didn’t think anything serious of it, other than, Darn it, I’ll probably have to get this thing biopsied, finally. My appointment was scheduled for a couple of weeks later, and off I went.
We had a vacation planned for Canada from January 17-22. It was a trip of a lifetime, and is best summarized in my most recent post. I am so happy we went on that trip when we did! Kicking Horse was the best mountain I’ve ever snowboarded – yet.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
My ultrasound and mammogram were at Kaiser San Jose, about a forty-five minute drive from my home in Ben Lomond; we call it over the hill. I wasn’t too nervous about the appointment, and was eager to get to the bottom of it. I started with an ultrasound, and then continued for a mammogram.
Almost right away after the mammogram, I was told there was something suspicious in my left breast, and axillary lymph node in my armpit, that they wanted to take a closer look at; essentially, they wanted to perform a biopsy. We continued into a different room where some sort of care coordinator was suddenly present to hold my hand and just provide moral support during the procedure. While the nurses and doctor prepared for the biopsy with intimidating core-sampling needles, the woman was trying to connect with me – make small talk, answer questions, put my mind at ease, presumably. Once the local anesthetic was administered, and the biopsy began on my left breast and lymph node in my armpit, she held my hand for comfort. Although she was there to calm me, in retrospect, I almost resent that she was there; not resent her, but why she was there. She was probably only there because they knew it was bad.
After the biopsy, I went home and was told I would get my results within two weeks. Ron and I went up to Kirkwood for snowboarding over Super Bowl weekend, February 1-2. We had an amazing time, as usual. I knew there was nothing I could do until I got the results, and based upon everything I’d heard over the years – You have lumpy, bumpy, dense breast tissue, but no breast cancer in your family so your risk is low – I didn’t worry about it at all.
Monday, February 3, 2020
After work, I had a voicemail from a doctor. Her tone was somber. I called her back once I got home, about 4:15 p.m., and she asked if I was at home and in a good place to talk. I knew she was about to drop a bomb on me.
We got the results of your biopsy, Katrin, and unfortunately, all samples tested positive for breast cancer.
She paused long enough to make sure I’d heard her, before continuing on about the details they had.
There’s a mass in the upper left breast, and a smaller mass in your axillary lymph nodes. I’m so sorry.
Shocked beyond belief would be an understatement. I asked her questions: what stage, what kind, what next. I told her to give me all of the information she could.
It’s early-stage, but we need to do more tests to really understand what’s going on. Translation: we don’t know how bad it really is yet. She scheduled an appointment for Friday of that week, four days later, to meet with my team of doctors. I had a copy of my pathology report, which confirmed Estrogen-Receptor positive cells in 90% of my breast, and 70% of lymph node tested. It was HER-2 negative, something I was only just beginning to understand.
I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Translation: my life as I knew it was over. That chapter was done.
What followed next was deep fear and sadness, but I was mostly consumed with shock. Ron was out, so I called my sister Mary. Crying and slightly panicked, I texted her that I had some pretty awful news and to please call when she had a second.
Immediately, my phone rang. I asked if she was in a good place to talk, just like my doctor had asked me. I told her the devastating news, breaking down into sobs as I said the words out loud to another human being for the first time. This was getting realer by the second. She listened empathetically, crying with me, shocked with me, just right there with me. After a few minutes of talking to her and sharing what information I knew, I saw Ron’s van pulling up in the driveway.
I felt guilty for what I was about to tell him. I felt sorry that I was about to dump this on him as I got off the phone with my sister. In the door he came, and I gave him a tearful hug right away.
I’m okay, but I’m not okay, Baby, I began. I got the results of my biopsy. They found cancer, I sobbed.
He hugged me tightly and let me cry like a baby before I shared with him what information I knew. He was shocked, cried, and then affirmed that we would fight this and get through this. The best way to describe how we were both feeling was simply blindsided.
We all deal with grief in different ways. This was no different; I had received news that was causing both of us to suddenly grieve the old me – the pre-cancer me, the pre-fight-of-my-life me. And we didn’t even know how bad it was yet.
That first night was like getting on a roller coaster through anxiety, sadness, anger, and mostly, shock. We couldn’t believe it. Up until midnight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to work the next day, so I scheduled a substitute. I was researching the Internet like crazy, reading all kinds of stories, studies, and statistics about breast cancer, and it quickly became overwhelming.
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
The day began with more shock. It was indeed happening. There was nothing I could do until Friday, however. I was also no different from the day before; only now, I knew some more information. I took it as a sign to go out and celebrate the day.
Ron and I went on a beautiful mountain bike ride at one of our favorite spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We spotted unique fungi, birds, and signs of Spring. The weather was sunny and cold, no sign of the Winter storms that should be slamming the California coast during this time of year.
Where is Winter? We both pondered. It had started off so strong in December.
We went to Bonny Doon Beach afterwards, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets. Sitting atop the cliffs, it was starting to get darker.
Let’s go, Ron said. He seemed a bit impatient.
I kept stopping to take pictures of the sunset as we started meandering back to the car, and Ron seemed increasingly insistent about leaving.
Come on, let’s go right now, he nearly demanded.
Is everything okay? I asked. He mumbled yes and hied along, hurrying back to the car.
When we got back to the car, he broke down crying.
This is not the last sunset we are spending together! We are not just going to sit there and wait for the sky to get dark; I had to get out of there, he said through tears. It’s like a movie, where it’s like They had their last normal sunset together before everything changed; I can’t do it, Baby. I can’t just sit there and think about that!
I realized then that even though he didn’t have cancer, this was happening to him, too. He was every bit as scared as I was, if not more. After all, if I die, he’s the one who has to mourn me.
We comforted each other in the car for a few minutes before heading into Santa Cruz for dinner at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate.
I went next door to Bookshop Santa Cruz and thought I’d give the Cancer section a quick scan. Almost right away I noticed one book shining from the shelf – Running for My Life: My Marathon With Breast Cancer by Michelle Anne Stewart. The Michelle Stewart who works at the District Office in my small school-district; the cool, nice Michelle who was principal at the elementary school, and a teacher for years, whom I taught Summer School with back in 2008. I picked it up, read a few pages, and proceeded to the check-out line to buy it. I’m not superstitious or religious, but I did take it as a sign to read her book. I would end up reading it by the next evening, and it comforted me like a warm blanket during those anxious first couple of days. She is someone I look up to for inspiration!
I went to work the next day on Wednesday. I let my school principal, site secretary, and attendance clerk – all wonderful, caring women – know about my early diagnosis, and that I was still finding out more; that I would be absent again this Thursday for a Breast MRI, and Friday for a bigger diagnostic appointment. They reminded me compassionately to make work my last priority, and that they hoped for a good prognosis.
I realized I needed to let my kids know something about why I’d been absent so much, and thinking about all of the time I’d need to take off in the future. I didn’t want to tell them I had cancer and scare them, but I also didn’t want to just abandon them with no explanation. I decided I would start by telling them simply that I was going through a personal issue that was very important, and I was okay, but would be missing quite a bit of school over the next month or so. I held it together, emphasizing that I was okay, but that there would be some substitutes over the next couple of months until I dealt with my issue. I would be out tomorrow and Friday, but back on Monday of next week.
Seventh graders are astute for being kids, still. I could sense their concern, as if they knew I was facing something serious. I didn’t want to panic them, but I knew it was a matter of time before they would find out. I teach in a small community. My primary doctor is the mother of one of my current students; as noted earlier, my OBGYN is the mother of a former student. Word would get out sooner or later, but I wasn’t ready to go public yet.
Thursday, February 6, 2020
I made it through Wednesday, and when Thursday came, Ron drove me over the hill for my breast MRI. There was a bad traffic jam on Highway 17, the main artery, so we took a back road, Bear Creek Road, to bypass it (catch the medical joke in there?). As we were driving through the mountain road, I saw a squirrel get run over by the car in front of us – not just run over, but every little second of it. I could swear I saw the horror on its face after the wheel went over it.
I freaked out and lost it.
It’s an omen – a bad sign! I’m going to die! I wailed like a child. I sobbed uncontrollably, feeling like I’d just seen a foreshadow of my breast cancer battle.
Ron had been doing a great job of just letting me be all over the place emotionally, but suddenly his tone changed.
Baby, you need to stop that, okay. I really need you to not think like that and put your game face on for me right now, okay? I could tell he was holding on by a thread fighting back tears. He couldn’t stomach me talking about dying anymore.
We drove on in relative silence for awhile, him putting his hand in mine to comfort me. No words were needed. This whole situation sucked and there was no sugar-coating it.
I took an Ativan before the MRI, since I’m really claustrophobic. Luckily, it was an MRI in the prone position, so I was face down, like a massage-table, not supine on my back, where the ceiling of the tube is mere inches above you. I also felt the sedative kick in. I laid there peacefully, earplugs muffling the odd sounds of magnetic resonance imaging. I was doing something to help with my diagnosis, and I felt a mild sense of relief.
After the appointment, I was completely drowsy from the medication. Ron drove me home and I slept like a baby for four hours. I stayed up late that Thursday night, until almost 2 a.m. I was so wound up about the next day’s appointment. I was to get more information about my diagnosis and prognosis, and although I was worried, I was looking forward to getting an antidote to fear: more information.
Ron’s grandmother, Blanche Deetz, passed away in November 2019. There was an interment ceremony planned in Riverside at a military cemetery, months in advance, for Friday, February 7, 2020, the day of my big appointment. He wanted to be there for me, but I really didn’t want him to miss it. He didn’t want to miss it either, but he was consumed with worry about me. He drove down early Friday morning for the service, and I drove myself over the hill.
My mother, Kristin, and stepfather, Al, insisted on supporting me that day at my doctor’s appointment. I told them it would be hours, but my mom didn’t let that stop her. We’re coming down to support you! She lovingly insisted.
Friday, February 7, 10:00 a.m.
I met my breast care coordinator first, a Nurse Practitioner. She was compassionate and patient with me, but also looked at me like I was dying. The sad look in her face as she put her hand on mine and said I’m so sorry seemed like she knew it wasn’t good. I didn’t like it. They’d found signs of cancer in my right breast on the MRI; she described it as a sort of ropy, long mass extending into my armpit. The tumor on the left side was actually bigger than shown on the ultrasound; it was about three by two centimeters in size. They’d need to do a biopsy of my right breast and axillary lymph node that day. As she comforted me, I appreciated the sentiment, but it just made me more nervous.
In the few days I had before Friday’s appointments to process the news, I’d considered all kinds of scenarios. Mostly, I’d been concerned that it was worse than they thought. That instinct was now being substantiated. How much worse is it? I wondered.
I met my surgeon next. She explained my options for lumpectomy with breast conservation surgery versus double-mastectomy. We didn’t have all of the information yet to really weigh our best option, but either way, surgery would be needed.
I met my oncologist next, who explained I would need anywhere from two to six months of chemotherapy, followed by five to ten years of hormone blocking therapy, like Tamoxifen. This would trick my body into some form of menopause, and there was no guarantee I’d get my period back once I stopped it, presumably at age forty-four at the earliest. It would prematurely age me. This made me really angry; now it wasn’t just my life in jeopardy, but my mojo, too? I was becoming overwhelmed.
I am a sharp cookie. My memory is meticulously detailed and vivid. I soak up information like a sponge. I didn’t need to take notes on what they were telling me; I was taking in every word. I felt myself getting mentally exhausted for a moment, feeling less sharp than usual. I was tired. This was a lot to take in. My mother was wonderfully supportive of me as I sat quietly, sobered by the news I was getting.
Around noon we got coffee and a snack, enjoying a reprieve from the onslaught of information. We waited around until nearly four o’clock for a biopsy on my right breast and lymph node. This one hurt worse than the last. My node under my armpit was so swollen and tender, the ultrasound wand alone was enough to make me wince in pain. The technicians kindly did their jobs, but there was no avoiding how sensitive it was. The needles for local anesthesia came next, and I let out a whimper like a puppy.
If this hurts, how’s treatment going to feel? I quickly thought to myself.
They extracted core-samples from two locations efficiently, considering what was being done. By the time I was finished, it was 5:15 p.m. I’d just spent my first full day of work at my new unpaid, mandatory job. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Saturday, February 8, 2020
I’ve known for only five days now, and it’s been an intense roller coaster I wish I could get off. My father Laird came down to visit today, and we had a magical hike on the Zayante Trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, one of my favorite places in the world. We stopped off on a beach on Zayante Creek to take in the view and tranquility. We talked and talked, and walked and walked. There were as many empathetic messages communicated subconsciously between us as there were spoken. My father grounds me, and I know he is right there with me through all of this. I am exceptionally grateful for all of my family right now – my sisters Bonnie and Mary, my mother Kristin and stepfather Al; Ron’s family; relatives. I feel the love from so many directions, and that’s comforting. I haven’t shared the news with everyone yet, as I’m waiting to understand my diagnosis more.
My cat Beau even knows. When Ron and I cry and talk together about it, he interrupts us with persistent mews, demanding our attention. He keeps looking at me like he’s seen a ghost – perplexed, concerned, and a bit scared. He knows something is up. Perhaps he’s one of those pets that can sense it; maybe he’s just picking up on our stress. Either way, he has been demanding cuddles on the couch, all the while looking up at me with a forlorn look on his face. Right now as I type, sitting on the couch, he is on the footstool next to me in guarding position – paws tucked under his chest, looking out for intruders.
Beau came into our lives nearly ten years ago on June 20, 2010. Ron and I don’t have children, but Beau has been the closest thing to it. We love this cat whole-heartedly. I’m 99% sure he knows I’m not well. He keeps looking at me with a terribly worried look on his face, and it’s making me a little unsettled.
How am I doing?
I am a melting pot of emotion, but the shock has definitely gone down. While I have a lot of information, I don’t have a complete picture until I get my biopsy results next week, likely Wednesday. Then everyone will have a clearer picture of the next steps. However, it could also mean more testing is needed; that they don’t have a clear picture yet. Perhaps it is a lot worse than they thought and has metastasized to other areas in my body besides the lymph nodes. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
I love people, but I’m an introvert by nature. I’m kind of a loner; I am really good at spending time alone. There are so many interesting things to do and learn about! I enjoy the company of others, but really need my time alone.
I recently took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test as part of one of my student’s Science Fair projects. I tested as the rarest kind, apparently: the INFJ, or Turbulent Advocate. Though the subtitle Turbulent raised some hackles when I heard it as I always thought of myself as pretty easy-going, I strongly identified with the descriptions when I read them. It gave me more confirmation of why I am the way I am.
When I’m going through a hard time, I tend to retreat and withdraw, going inward to deal with the problem. I don’t want to talk about it with many people; I need to sort it out for myself first. Though I am researching like crazy online, I am feeling like a wounded animal, retreating to its den for protection. I am scared to be so vulnerable and weak in front of others, let alone the general public.
The thought of people fawning over me and helping me makes me nervous; I don’t want to accept help from my loved ones. I fear the stares of strangers; the shock of students at my school. I want to be the strong, independent woman I am. I don’t want people to see me like this. I don’t have a lot of friends, anyway. This isn’t a complaint or a pity-me hook; it’s merely the truth. Sure, I keep in touch with people via social media, but on a weekly basis, I don’t physically hang out with many friends. I know few people give two cents about what I’m up to anyway; this blog post will probably go ignored like most others I share.
I realize how overlooked and dismissed I feel in my life in general. I’ll never forget the final Oprah Winfrey episode where she articulated three key questions we all really want to know from others in life:
Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?
I do not always feel this way, I realize.
I know I can put up walls, but if I die tomorrow, I don’t know that I’ve felt seen, heard, and significant. Though I mostly feel that way about Ron, family, and close friends, there are times I just feel dismissed, underestimated, and flat out overlooked. I’ll go to gatherings where no one even asks how I am, what I’m up to, or cares to hear about my latest mountain bike races or adventures in the mountains; or, they listen with a placating Um hum… before moving onto a more presumably interesting topic. I’ve literally sat through so many social gatherings just feeling invisible, like I could just disappear and no one would notice. The last thing I want is sympathy from people who think less of me.
I love talking with others, but again, I’m introverted. I don’t want to make myself the center of attention, so I won’t just start sharing stories about my life unless someone shows interest. Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt more and more lonely. I admit I can act reserved, or may not seem too open at times, with people I don’t know very well. I know I’ve contributed to this feeling of loneliness; that my actions help build those walls. Although I love my alone time, I need love and connection, too. I feel like many people just don’t care about getting to know me. Some people are just not very good listeners, of course, and you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea; I try not to take it personally, but obviously, I can. We all want to belong.
Then there are some holier-than-thou people who dismiss me because I don’t have children; some women legitimately look down on me, or anyone like me, for not doing so. No matter your confidence level, it doesn’t feel good to be criticized. I’ve dealt with passive-aggressive barbs, judgments, and intrusive questions throughout my reproductive years, and there are some people who just can’t stomach that I wouldn’t want to have kids. Now that I’m no spring chicken, I feel written off by some people as boring or unaccomplished. Chemotherapy will all but destroy my eggs and any future chances of having children, unless I freeze my eggs now, which I don’t plan to do given my hormone-receptive tumor. Though Ron and I are all but certain we don’t want children of our own, we’d rather not have the door slammed in our face prematurely, and it does sting a bit.
Did I mention I am feeling a little defensive? Suddenly I want to fight the world.
I want to care less about whether others see me, hear me, or care about what I say. I want to get that in perspective, because caring about what others think of me should be the least of my concerns, especially right now.
I am mad at my cancer, but suddenly, every little thing I’m angry about in life is coming into clear focus.
I am angry at the mean memes about me on Instagram that a few students made, circulating them among abetting kids who liked, commented, and followed along in cyberbullying. Kids are kids, but this was different. I’m mad my name was trashed, at least among some people, in our small town. Thirteen years at this school, and the last two have been somewhat of a roller coaster. There’s a lot more to that story.
I wish I were immune to people’s actions, but I’m human, too. I’m angry I’m giving that nonsense any energy at all during this time, but I truly wonder if all of the stress from that time contributed to my cancer. I’m angry at myself for the times I lost focus on all of the other good kids in my classes who need and deserve my attention. After all, for all the thirteen years I’ve taught at my school, the majority have been wonderful. That’s what I should focus on, of course.
I realize every and all area of my life I feel wronged. I can’t help but point it all out.
Now that I have cancer, yeah, part of me feels like rubbing it in any potential hater’s face: Are you happy now that I have cancer?
Maybe one of my biggest lessons will be to learn to truly not give a darn anymore; to not give a darn that I can’t please everyone; that not everyone will like me. To not give a darn what others think about me at all.
I want to keep enjoying the world; I don’t want to sour in bitterness. I’ve always had a bright spirit. I’ll always remember trail running at DeLaVeaga years ago, when a passing hiker paused and looked at me with a somewhat astonished look on his face.
Is everything okay? I asked him.
Yes; I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just, you have this sort of glow about you. It’s really strong and just, beautiful. I hope you don’t mind me saying so.
I was instantly flattered, and thanked him for his sweet observation. I ran off, and yes, I felt like I had a glow about me.
Another guy in high school, Rhett, once told me, You have good color, like your overall tone and everything is just really pretty. It was one of the nicest compliments I ever got.
Right now? That glow feels dimmed.
This flame wants to flicker alone.
I want to be alone; then, maybe, no one will notice at all. I can just fade into the background.
Deep down I’m terrified I’m going to die; I fear I might actually die. I fear the battles of surgery, radiation, and chemo that will lie ahead. I fear being a bald near-skeleton in front of my husband. Mostly, I fear I will die young. I don’t have a good feeling about any of this.
I try to leave these thoughts pretty soon after I accept them. I allow them to enter, and then I try to escort them out the door. I realize a lot of this is out of my control, so worrying about it right now won’t help. I try to let it go and distract myself with something – cleaning the house, writing, singing, riding my bike, listening to really loud music, going somewhere beautiful outside – and for awhile, it really helps. But there is undoubtedly a shadow following me around, and I don’t know how dark or foreboding it is yet. It could be a tornado cell, or a blizzard. I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, regardless.
The plastic surgeon said something that really stuck out to me: You’re about to go into a tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of that tunnel, and you will get there.
I feel like I’m preparing for battle. I feel good, physically, but I am overwhelmed and exhausted. I am reflecting on all of the things I’ve done in my life that could have contributed to this. During my appointment on Friday, I shared those concerns with the doctors, prefacing it with the obvious dilemma of patients trying to understand why. Why did I get cancer? What did I do to deserve this?
She patiently listened as I rattled off hypotheses, from drinking milk all my life, to not wearing good enough sports bras, before warmly stopping me.
I’m sorry, but that’s the mystery of cancer. We’ll probably never understand why, so there’s no value in blaming yourself for every little thing you didn’t do perfectly in your life, she interjected kindly.
She added that it was rare for someone of my age and family history to get cancer, and that they’d be doing genetic testing to see if I carried any mutations for aggressive breast cancer, but otherwise, there wasn’t much they could do to determine the exact cause. I knew this before the meeting, but somehow thought she might concur that, Yes! That’s what might have done it.
This is probably the hardest part about accepting my diagnosis – I will never fully understand why this is happening to me. Worse? If I beat it, it may come back someday to haunt me again. If I beat this, I’ll have to live in fear of it for the rest of my life.
My life will never be the same again. No matter what, I will never be the same girl I was.
That chapter is done.
I will never be the Energizer-bunny, go-getter, thirty-something Katrin again. That chapter is done. Those memories lived, those paths trodden, I am walking in a new direction.
Should I recover from this, I will turn forty on October 10, 2020, starting a new decade of my life. I hope I get to start that new chapter, but I fear who I will become. Will I still be able to do the things I love now, to live the lifestyle I so cherish? I’ll have menopause, aging, and a shadow following me around for the rest of my life should I beat this. Not exactly inspiring things to look forward to, but it beats being dead, I suppose.
My last post, The Gravity of the Hill, mused about whether aging is harder for athletes, like myself, since we have built our identities so strongly around the sports we love. Will I lose myself even further than my breasts and physicality? Will I lose that sense of belonging to those sports I love so dearly? Will I ever be competitive again? It’s never been about winning a race, but darn it, it felt good when I did.
There’s one thing I’m feeling pretty proud of right now, at least: I’ve lived my life with a carpe diem spirit for years, appreciating it pretty darn fully. I haven’t taken my life for granted too much, as far as I can tell. My life has been incredibly rich so far – full of experiences, fun, and beautiful, loving relationships that have shaped me. I am so lucky for all I’ve been able to experience so far, and ought to be grateful I am still here after all this time. Others who’ve died younger than I didn’t get that privilege. I feel guilty thinking about people who’ve had it worse than I have.
It is a privilege to be alive. Life is a real gift; I find its sanctity in everything from insects to giant old-growth Redwood trees.
But this changes everything. No matter what, my life will never be exactly the same again.
Being grateful for what you have doesn’t protect you from getting cancer. I’ve read many sentiments along the lines of, Getting cancer made me stop and realize how much I needed to appreciate life more, and while I know there is always more room for gratitude, I feel like I don’t really need that wake-up call. I’m sure I will grow more grateful in ways I don’t even know are possible, but for now, I am proud that I have lived thus far with such a deep reverence for life.
I hope I come out the other side a survivor. I hope I still am a sexy little Miss Thang, not just for my husband, but for my own self-esteem. While I may not seem like a make-up and heels kind of girl, I take pride in my image, like any woman. I’ve always believed you can be naturally beautiful, even as a tomboy, which I was often called all my childhood. I may not dress up in fancy outfits and full make-up very often, but I still appreciate being beautiful and sexy, even if it’s in a t-shirt and jeans, or riding my bike.
I hope I am still a badass mountain biker. I hope Ron and I can still spend our Winters snowboarding together. I hope I can simply go for a walk with my husband.
Mostly, I just want to live – not just survive, but live to get old. While I care immensely about the five-year and ten-year survival rates of breast cancer, I care most about the forty and fifty-year survival rates. I want to live to see one hundred, or at least eighty. I fear it will come back and kill me later in life.
I fear so much, but none of it is helpful.
This is a true lesson in patience. I must wait for more information, more clarity. Then, I think things will start happening quickly. I will enter the Tunnel. And life willing, I will emerge out the other side healthy.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
It feels different already, Ron said, tears in his eyes. It feels different between us already. It wasn’t a complaint, a judgment, or a plea, just an authentic observation.
I feel guilty. I feel like I’m going to be such a burden. I honestly think this might be harder on you than me, because you’re going to basically watch your wife die – or maybe, actually die. Then hopefully I’ll come back to life again, but I’ll never be just like I was now, I offered.
I sometimes think it is harder for him to grieve the loss of his old wife, all the while uncertain about how much of the old wife is going to come out the other side, if at all, after all of this.
We were in the thick of a sad, reality bites conversation, sitting on the kitchen floor in front of the heater.
I can sense you withdrawing. I understand you need to process things yourself, but Baby, I’m on your team. We’re in this together; don’t shut me out, okay? I know you want to just curl up and retreat, but I want you to fight that. I need you to let me fight this with you, my loving husband said earnestly.
I felt genuinely guilty that there were times over the next several months or so that I wouldn’t be there for him – emotionally, physically. I felt sorry for him.
He noted how I was cowering like an embarrassed child, and told me not to feel guilty, not to hang my head low. Look me in the eye, Baby. I love you.
A few minutes later, he showed me something he’d found online about the difference between guilt and shame. He read me some of it, and it resonated like a bell. I was feeling guilty, yes, but mostly, I was feeling shame. I am pretty in touch with my emotions, and usually can express them clearly and timely. As soon as he said the word shame, though, it clicked. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how I’d been feeling since I found out about my diagnosis, but shame was underlying all of it.
Once the emotion was identified, I felt relieved. Ron added that although I’m entitled to feel whatever I need to feel, there is nothing for me to be ashamed of throughout this whole process; to not shut him out and withdraw.
I was blown away by how much of a revelation it was. It was an example of how teamwork and love change your life; how I wouldn’t have come to that realization, at least not as soon, without my husband’s love. I felt so grateful for him. It was such a powerful moment between us: I needed to let him in, worst self and all, and trust him to love me through it. There was nothing to be ashamed of. I was not a failure.
Emotions are like rocks, at least to a Science teacher who loves geology. I’ve been allowing myself to feel whatever I feel, visualizing each emotion as a rock.
Some are light pebbles, soft and polished from years of wisdom, and nearly bounce off me like wedding rice being thrown on a bride. Some are jagged stones, rough and fractured. Some are heavy like boulders, needing heavy lifting to maneuver.
I’ve been letting myself sit with each rock, each emotion, taking it in for what it’s worth, before gently setting it down. I am trying not to carry any of them around, although there is a constant circulation of samples inside me.
This emotion – shame – was a boulder I could not move out from under on my own. I needed the help of a loved one to set it down. I needed my amazing husband to show me what I could not see for myself.
First, I needed to feel all of that shame – that I am thirty-nine years old and got cancer; that I am losing my younger self.
What did I do so wrong to get this?
I’m ashamed that it wasn’t caught earlier, if that were even possible. I’ve been a mild hypochondriac all of my life. I used to look up illnesses in the PDR all the time when I was a child. I have always been super on top of my doctor appointments, screenings, and know my body well.
Over the last couple of years, there have been a couple of changes I noticed: increased fatigue, which I attributed to sleep apnea and aging, and I started getting a day-long flu every couple of months or so. Some would say it was kind of like an exercise-induced migraine headache. I experienced two mountain bike races in this state of nausea, tension like a mammoth vice grip on the back of the neck, and total exhaustion. I suffered through teaching, and some days, I couldn’t make it through sixth period, having to go home early. The best solution was to go to sleep, and not just for a short nap, but at least a few hours, if not longer.
I wrote off entire days from these experiences. I investigated all sorts of causes, from dirty water bottle mold, lack of proper nutrition while overexerting myself, to my sleep apnea; I thought of so many different things. I went to the doctor and got bloodwork; I was healthy on paper, and in the flesh, seemingly. I still don’t know exactly what the culprit was for this onset of sickness at somewhat often intervals, but now I think it was related to my cancer.
I’m ashamed at the thought of looking like a dying skeleton while I’m going through treatment. I don’t want my kids to see me in such a bad state. I don’t want to scare the hell out of them, and I also don’t want to feel completely embarrassed – ashamed – by my haggard presence.
I’m ashamed that my body is failing me at such a young age. I’ve always considered myself to be in prime physical shape, an athlete. I’ve been pescatarian for twelve years, and haven’t drunk alcohol in seven. I try to avoid pesticides, and the multitude of chemicals that we’re exposed to in this day and age. I’ve long thought about living to be 100, but now, I know my odds are decreased. No matter the outcome, this shadow will follow me around for the rest of my life.
I am mostly ashamed that I am failing my husband as his wife. We met when I was twenty-four years old, waiting tables together at Shogun sushi restaurant in Santa Cruz, before getting together when I was twenty-five. He’s only known me as a young, pretty thing, and that’s how I want him to always think of me. I felt like that version of myself was about to die.
He reminded me of a time I had foot surgery at twenty-three years old. Though we didn’t know each other then, he knew I was off my feet for eight weeks, and that it was a full year before I felt fully strong again. It was a big challenge for someone so used to being active, and the first time in my life my mobility was legitimately limited. He analogized cancer to that recovery time: yes, the gravity of the situation was much worse, but there was nothing wrong with me as a person. I was just injured and would need to heal with a lot of downtime, but there was nothing to be ashamed of.
I wasn’t failing him as a wife by having breast cancer. Yes, things were going to be different between us on many levels, but we would face those obstacles as they come. It was going to be terribly difficult, full of peaks and valleys, crests and troughs, but we needed to fight.
That began with fighting the shame; fighting the feeling that I had failed as a person.
Next, we would be in for the fight of our lives – or the fight of my life, specifically. That’s what we needed to focus on.
Monday, February 10, 2020
Anger. Just anger. I am so freaking pissed off at everything. I went to work today, and realized how much I need to not be there. I need to focus on my health, not my job.
After work, Ron and I were going for a bikeride, and he forgot his helmet at home; I just about lost it.
The world is conspiring against me! Nothing is working out! I cried.
We had time to go back home, get the helmet, and go for a much needed, stress-reducing ride together, fortunately. MTB Therapy. But I am so mad today at everything today. Screw cancer.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
I feel fragile. The gravity of the situation is getting quite heavy. Work was really hard. I feel sober in the truest sense of the word. I have started letting some close friends and relatives know.
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
I took today off work for my genetic testing appointment. Ron and I were able to go for a fun bikeride together which temporarily lifted my spirits. More MTB Therapy. Realizing my rides are numbered as I approach treatment, I feel somber.
I finally got my right breast biopsy results today; some positive news, finally. The biopsy was negative for cancer; all samples were benign. I celebrate this sliver of good news and celebrate the rest of the day.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
It’s been five years to the day that Ron proposed to me at Indicator’s break in Santa Cruz, tandem surfing together. I cannot believe it’s been that long.
Right before Ron proposed to me! Indicator’s, Santa Cruz. Photo credit: Steven German
I had my last day at work today before my medical leave of absence starts next week. I couldn’t bear to tell the kids since I felt like I’d just start balling in front of them; I didn’t want to scare them or make them sad. I’m going to miss them, though; their levity, humor, and energy keep me going! It felt too real once the bell rang for my last class. I was done. I didn’t need to come back until August for the new schoolyear, but this wasn’t a happy leave. I fought tears until my car, crying all the way home. I emailed all of the parents that evening to let them know I was taking a medical leave of absence to fight breast cancer, and how much I’d enjoyed teaching their students this year.
Friday, February 14, 2020
Ron and I have never been big Valentine’s Day people. We slept in, and went for a beautiful bikeride together. I am cherishing each and every ride. I don’t know how long it will be until I can ride again like normal, whatever that will become, but I do know how therapeutic it is for me. It is a true anti-depressant.
Later, my amazing sister Mary came up from San Diego to visit. We talked and talked and talked, and laughed over a ridiculously expensive shopping trip to the local health-food store.
Saturday, February 15, 2020
It’s been almost two weeks since I was diagnosed, but it might as well have been two months. I am already in a different place with the news, and I realize my emotions will keep evolving. Ron has been an absolute hero for me – listening, talking, comforting me every moment I need him.
My family has rallied around me and surrounded me with love, with phone calls, emails, and visits. Today, my mom came down and took Mary and me out to lunch at Rocky’s Cafe down the road. I always feel good being with my family. We got one-hour foot massages afterward, which was a lovely respite from everything. We had a wonderful time together, and although there were somber moments, I was grateful for all of the laughs we were able to share. That’s one thing our family has going for us: we’re all pretty positive people. Even if we’re realists, we tend to keep a good attitude.
That evening, my dad came down for dinner with Mary, Ron, and me, at one of our favorite restaurants in Felton,Cowboy Grill. We had a rich, satisfying dinner, followed by a special treat after dinner: looking through old photo albums from my father’s family. I always love looking at old family pictures. He even brought down a priceless family Bible, signed over the generations with people born into the family. It was a sentimental end to a pleasant evening.
My oldest sister Bonnie has gone above-and-beyond to reach out to me from across the pond in London, and I can feel her warm presence although we’re thousands of miles apart. Skype calls, emails, phone calls, all lovingly and thoughtfully sent; questions to consider, cool blog posts she found, words of encouragement, and sweet friends of hers to connect with who’d survived breast cancer themselves. She’s already planning trips out here to come visit, too. The biggest gift of all has been feeling her empathy, but she gave me another huge gift: Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. I am nearly through reading it, and it has informed me beyond my expectations about cancer, my treatment, and what I can expect should I beat it. Knowledge quells fear, and reading this tome has really quieted some nerves for me. For example, I was surprised to read that fibroadenomas don’t typically turn cancerous. Whatever this new tumor was, I could find some comfort knowing it was a different beast.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
I am really feeling the love from Ron and my family right now, and am extremely grateful for them. I look forward to building more fun, light-hearted memories with them in the future; to traveling; to sharing inspiring moments out in nature.
Soon, into the tunnel I must go. May I emerge into the light as a healthy woman. It is nearing go-time. Time to face reality and start treatment, with surgery first. This is getting real. I’m terrified, but remind myself it could be worse.
Whatever happens in these next several months, I know one thing for sure: I won’t ever be quite the same again. Though my spirit is strong, my life has already changed.
My youth fading into the background, that chapter is done.
I love the mountains. I’ve spent my life exploring them on bikes, snowboards, and my own two feet. This California girl has seen a lot of mountains, but I hadn’t ever been to Canada. I only scratched the surface of the Canadian Rockies on my maiden trip, but I was blown away by what I experienced. For someone who loves the mountains, it was no wonder I felt like I’d been missing out all my life.
Dramatic, stoic, imposing. Majestic, dynamic, towering. These are some real mountains, alright.
My husband Ron’s father, Ron Sr., lives in Invermere, British Columbia. We got a fantastic deal on plane tickets to go see him from January 17 – 22, and booked our trip excitedly.
Flying into Calgary at roughly midnight, we were picked up by Ron’s stepmother Cindy’s daughter Michelle – a real trooper picking us up at 1 a.m. from the airport, taking us to her house for the night. It was about -30°C (or -22°F) that first night.
Early the next morning, we set out for Invermere with Michelle, her boyfriend Sheldon, and their adorable dog Kasey, who would rest his sweet head on my lap every now and then along the beautiful drive. As the sun came up, we stopped in Canmore for a quick coffee. I was stunned by how gorgeous the landscape was revealing itself to be, and so excited for the trip!
It was about a three and a half hour’s drive from Calgary to Invermere, where Ron Sr. and Cindy have a nice condo. Cindy’s kids Angie and Garrett, along with their spouses Pipes and Katie, and their children, joined us for what would be a fun weekend of snow, adventuring, and getting a taste of Canadian life.
We settled into the beautiful condo, and set out to Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, about fifteen minutes down the road. With kids and family in tow, we had a great time frolicking among the slopes. Ron and his father skied their first run together in 25+ years, which was an awesome moment to capture. Fairmont is a great family resort, with about 1,000′ vertical descent, and just a few runs.
The icing on the cake was playing on the sledding hill at the base of the mountain with all of the kids at the end of the day; Ron even served as a sled for them all to ride atop! We had a great family dinner that night with everyone, and went to bed happy and content.
The next day, Ron and I went for a morning adventure with the kids and Ron Sr. out on Lake Windermere. I’d never walked upon a frozen lake, and it was such a cool experience. The lake boasts the longest ice-skating track in the world at 34km. We watched as some competitors hied past us along the ice before returning back to the condo.
Next, Ron and I set out to Panorama Resort. I’d already been in awe of the mountains I’d seen so far, but driving up to Panorama I was like a kid in a candy store. The steepness! So dramatic! All that snow! I could tell we were in for a treat.
We spent the day excitedly exploring as much of the mountain as we could. Although there was a lot of good snow, it hadn’t snowed much over the last week or so. There were some moguled sections that we avoided although they were soft on impact. There were some nice off-piste lines, but the trees were generally densely packed, making tree-skiing difficult in most areas.
Ron Strapping In
There was some genuine champagne powder over at Taynton Bowl, though, and it was worth the effort. You have to do a short hike, about fifteen minutes, from the Summit to the bowl. It was by far our best, and longest, run of the day. Panorama boasts 4,300′ of vertical descent, and charging down from Taynton Bowl all the way to the base was definitely a journey, bringing a smile from ear to ear.
Such Magestic Mountains!
Short Hike to Taynton Bowl
Love My Burton Custom Flying V 158
Top of Taynton Bowl Steep and Loaded
Bottom of Taynton Bowl
Summit Quad Up to the Top
We finished off the day exploring different chairs and runs, and I had an insane run down the Downhill, just carving fast from top to bottom. This is an Olympic training run, and it doesn’t disappoint! The angle will get your heart pumping if all those turns don’t. So much fun! We had such a blast at Panorama, and headed back to Invermere for dinner at the Copper Point Resort, which was hearty and complimented by the latest football game on multiple televisions.
The next day was Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. As I listened to U2’s song “Pride (In the Name of Love)” on the radio, I thought about his innumerable contributions to society, his selflessness, his inspiration to others. Although I’m sure he’d rather inspire others to act in defense of others, I felt inspired that Monday to really seize this day, to make the most of our biggest adventure yet: we were heading up to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, BC.
We’d spent the previous night looking at trail maps and YouTube footage of Kicking Horse, giggling like school children at all of the black and double-black runs, but most of all, we were ridiculously excited to snowboard over 4,300′ of vertical descent! Our longest runs at our home mountain Kirkwood boasts about 2,000′ maximum vertical drop. Little did we know just how much longer these runs would feel!
We got our tickets and boarded up the Golden Eagle Express, a high-speed gondola that whips you up to the top of the mountain at 8,218′ in just a few minutes. I was so impressed by the quality of amenities at all of the resorts we’d been to so far; compared to Kirkwood, which has awesome terrain but sometimes lacks in conveniences, it was eye-opening to see so many high-speed quads, mid-mountain cafes, nicely maintained facilities, even warming Yurts on the mountain. Canadians do Winter better than we do, that’s for sure. Then again, their version of Winter is a lot more intense than ours, especially when it comes to temperature.
We were lucky it wasn’t super cold during our trip, about -5°C most days. Everyone kept asking if I was cold, which I found comical as I spend most of my weekends snowboarding. California may not get Winter like Canada, but we get Winter weather, down into the negatives, too. The coldest I’ve snowboarded in at Kirkwood was -7°F (-22°C), and the solution was to bundle up more. I’ve been skiing since I was 3, so I’ve got some experience when it comes to keeping warm among the cold. I did come prepared with good snow clothes, layers, jackets, gloves, boots, and a hat. I’m pretty prepared when it comes to Winter activities, and felt that way in Canada on the slopes.
When we got to the top of the mountain, it was howling windy with limited visibility. We high-tailed it down to the Stairway of Heaven chair, which accesses the famous Ozone wall. There was a ton of amazing terrain in this area, and good tree riding. This is one of the few zones where the trees are well-spaced out; most stands were densely packed, which made finding tree-spots extra special.
Eagle Eye Restaurant, 7,700′ Elevation
Top of the Mountain, Top of the World
Just a Little Wind
Riding up Stairway to Heaven
Visibility Changing by the Minute
Eagle’s Eye Restaurant, 7,700′ Top of Kicking Horse Mountain
Such Steep Slopes!
Really Loved the Stairway to Heaven Area
We bounced around the mountain trying run after run, smiles growing wider by the chair. It was sunny at the top of the mountain, and then it snowed mid-mountain. There were ferocious winds with blinding, blowing snow, followed by leeward slopes laden with fresh, champagne powder. We were just blown away by how awesome the mountain was. All of the variety it had – from bowls, to groomers, to chutes so steep you feel like the bottom might drop out from under you – was overwhelming, in the best way possible. We’d never skied such a big mountain like this, with such expanse, dramatic drops, long vertical descent, and light, fluffy snow. They call it the Champagne Capital of BC. Kicking Horse truly kicks ass! This was our favorite resort of the three we sampled this trip.
Coming down a chute into Crystal Bowl was like snowboarding blind. It was so windy and snowy, the visibility was almost nil. I could barely see Ron coming down from the top, except for some of these pictures I got. The snow was still soft underfoot, and we went for it with flow and grace.
Visibility Was Terrible at the Moment
CPR Ridge in Low-Vis
This was our day. We attacked with passion and kept going back until the last run of the day, which we used to do a little hike and skate over to Super Bowl. Super Bowl is a wide bowl with chutes entering it, but the chutes were closed off to public for an upcoming contest (they always save the good stuff for the pros, of course). We came down the main bowl, best run of the day, stopping several times to take in the breathtaking views of the Rockies.
Ski Patrol Hut – We’ve Arrived!
Bottom of Super Bowl
Goggles Make it Hard to Smile All the Way
Flowing Over Light, Fluffy Snow
Starting a Short Hike to Superbowl
Stairway to Heaven Chair, with Yurt Cafe!
Bottom of Stairway to Heaven Chair
Soft, Champagne Powder Abounds
Kicking Horse Village
Base of the Mountain
High-speed Gondola up to the Summit
Base of the Mountain Magic Carpet Ride
Gondola Ride Up
I can’t explain exactly how I felt, but on the drive home from Golden back to Invermere, I teared up, feeling like I’d just found a new home; like I’d been missing out on something all of my life, and now I knew what it was. It was a spiritual feeling in a sense, that I needed to explore these mountains more; that scratching the surface of the Rockies on this trip was just the beginning of a new passion for me. Again, I’ve always loved the mountains. I live and breathe the mountains as an avid mountain biker, trail runner, and snowboarder. To finally experience this level of mountains was life-changing for me. It reminded me of what a big world we live in, and how much more I want to see. It reminded me that I am always at home in the mountains, no matter where they are. It made me want to go back.
Ron Taking in the Moment
Ron & I
This Coffee Kicks Ass!
Eagle Eye Restaurant (Didn’t eat here, but they had the nicest bathrooms!)
Apres Ski at the Base of Kicking Horse
I Love Trains!
On Tuesday, it was time to head back to Calgary. We stopped off for lunch in Banff with Ron’s dad and Cindy, enjoying a quick stroll through a snow sculpture exhibit. I can see why people would enjoy coming here! It was beautiful for the little bit we saw.
Ron, Ron Sr, & Cindy in Banff for Lunch
Banff from Trans-Canada Highway
We had pizza in Calgary at Pipes and Angie’s house that night with the family, which was wonderful. Ron and I checked into our hotel near the airport, enjoyed a nice hot tub, and a good night’s sleep.
The next day on Wednesday, our flight was to leave at 4 p.m. Ron wanted to go snowboarding once more to Nakiska, a resort about an hour out of Calgary. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep in, content with all the snowboarding we’d already done, and opted to sleep in and take a nice, long hot tub instead. He returned about 12:30, having said it was a fun morning, but ice-rink hard without any new snow. I’m glad he went to check it out, but I enjoyed my spa morning very much at the hotel!
Leaving the Canadian Rockies from Calgary
Best Chocolate Ever! Rocky Mountain Chocolate
We flew home that evening on Air Canada Express into San Francisco. I felt rejuvenated, inspired, and enlivened from our vacation. Seeing family was enriching, and experiencing the Rockies was, too. Though we’re not ballers, Ron and I keep talking about how awesome Kicking Horse must be after a two-foot dump, and how awesome it would be to just buy some plane tickets and head on up to BC when that happens. Revelstoke is also in the same area, and we’re excited to check that out next. And if we were true ballers? We’d go heli-skiing, duh. That’s up there on our bucket list.
Maybe we’re already ballers enough, though. To be able to take this trip was a true gift I’ll never forget. That’s balling enough for me.
SF Rush Hour
San Francisco Bay Area
Golden Gate & Bay Bridges
Flying over the San Francisco Bay
Life is short and passes quickly, even when you take the time to cherish everyday, appreciate what you have, and seize the day doing what you love. I’d always wanted to go to Canada, and I’m so happy I went when I did. You never know what life will bring next. Take all those trips you want to take when you can, because there’s no guarantee of someday, only today.
Life is but a series of cycles, symbiotically played out over the course of time. We are born and we die only once, but we experience many different stages throughout our lives. Our childhood, youth, and phases of adulthood can feel like different lifetimes. Weathered by the climbs and descents of life’s peaks and valleys, we grow wiser and more resilient with each hill we summit.
Special attention is often given to one particular hillin life: the hill of getting older. Being over the hill is often associated with being over the age of forty, although that’s just another stereotype. I’ve mused about this topic before, but now that 2020 has arrived, it’s taken on a new significance: this year I turn forty years old.
I recently registered for a bike race, and was shocked to see myself in the Women’s 40-49 year old age bracket, as race age is determined by the last day of the race year, December 31. I’m still in my last year of my thirties, but a new decade has begun, even though my birthday isn’t until October 10. Until then, I’m in the trite position of contemplating my senescence and mortality, like every other person on the cusp of adulthood and middle-age (cue dismissive eye-roll). It must be a rite of passage to ponder your aging body as you approach what society, and some medical research, to be fair, has deemed the top of the hill.
Forty is the notorious hallmark for the gateway to middle-age. As I cling to being thirty-nine years old for ten more months, I question my own hullabaloo about turning the big four-o, as I can see the signs of its arrival already etched into the lines on my face. As a woman, I am also immensely aware of closing the window on the reproductive stage of my life. I feel like I’m sitting near the cusp of my physical peak, getting ready to go down. Clearly, it’s giving me some unpleasant feelings about getting older, especially in regards to athleticism.
This is not a rant about a woman getting older, however. That’s a story as old as time, and my intention is not to be a spoiled brat complaining that she’s getting older; yawn. I am genuinely curious about the psychology of aging. I am particularly interested in how athletes feel about physical aging, since so much of our identity is tied to our bodies. Many professional athletes have described having a hard time letting go of their prowess, of course.
I know I am lucky for every day I get to grow older; it beats the alternative, as they say. It’s an absolute treasure to have lived so long. I’m extremely grateful for the years I’ve been blessed with so far. All of the experiences, relationships, and knowledge I’ve gleaned made me who I am today. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an eighteen year-old, physically speaking, but my looming birthday carries a weight I cannot ignore, and not simply for the societal emphasis it gets. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve built my life upon daily exercise, based upon a pure love of movement, and getting older presents the possibility of slowing down.
I am not afraid of getting older in and of itself, as I firmly believe people get more interesting as they age. There is something so inspiring about a ninety year old woman sharing stories from The Depression, or a one hundred year old sharing heroic stories from Pearl Harbor. Our elders are our guides in society, and deserve recognition for all of the wisdom they have cultivated in their storied lives. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope I’m fortunate enough to live so long to tell my tales, to be an esteemed sage.
I am especially inspired by our elders who continually break age barriers and expectations, running marathons in their eighties, mountain bike racing in their seventies, and swimming laps into their hundreds. I am equally inspired by my elders writing books, helping charities, and being amazing grandparents – there are plenty of activities besides sports that enrich someone. These are the idols I aspire to be like as time goes on; the ones who prove the old adage (ahem), Age is just a number.
What am I so afraid of then?
My greatest fear is not being able to feel the gravity of the hill – or feeling the gravity of the hill, depending upon how you look at it.
First, there’s the gravity of flowing downhill, and then there’s the gravity of climbing the hill of life, a cliche metaphor for aging. The former stokes a lust for life, while the latter challenges it. Though we all know we’ll age and die someday, it’s not until the footprints of age emerge on our lifepaths do we heed its gravity. I am starting to feel the gravity of the hill of aging; I can’t deny I’m entering a new stage of life. Though I may still feel young physically, knowing what lies ahead is humbling.
What worries me most is losing the gravity of the hill – the good hill, that is; the fun hill, the sweet flow of moving downhill. That scares me, and keeps me up at night as I watch the sands of my hourglass trickle near the half-way mark. I think any athlete feels this way when they evaluate their own mortality.
When we’re young, we don’t have to think much about aging, although we often do anyway. The gravity of age hasn’t hit us yet, and we are free to live with freedom and abandon, recovering quickly from injuries and setbacks. We progress in our given sports, getting good, and grow proud of our finesse. As we approach older age, and big birthdays that usher in new decades of our older lives, it’s only natural to reflect upon our health, lifestyle, and goals for the future. When you’ve spent your life centered around sports and physical pursuits, the prospect of losing your acumen in those realms is not only humbling, but disconcerting.
I’ve never really struggled with insomnia, but lately I’ve had a few restless nights, caught in the tunnel of aging anxiety. Ron and I only have so many more bikerides together, I fret. Only so many more snowboarding trips, so many more adventures in the mountains… I start panicking about running out of time. I visualize the number of rides left in our lives counting down, shrinking by the day. I think about aging loved ones and family, and all the memories I still long to create with them.
When you think you’re running out of time, any second spent idly is a second wasted, even if it’s the middle of the night. There’s an urgency to seize the day, enjoy it as much as you can, and fill your heart with as many memories as possible. I don’t take life’s blessings for granted, but even when you appreciate every day, time still goes by too fast. My husband Ron and I do a pretty decent job seizing the day, going riding and snowboarding as much as we can, and I still feel like there’s not enough time.
I remember being in my mid-thirties and consciously thinking to myself, I’m at my physical peak; I’m the best physical shape I’ll ever be.Appreciate this time. I did appreciate it, and still do. Gratitude doesn’t slow down the hands of time, though. Inevitably, time catches up with you. I appreciate all of the experiences that got me where I am today, the wisdom I have, the peace of mind (except about aging, obviously), but it still doesn’t make aging any gentler.
Aging isn’t easy no matter who you are, but is it emotionally harder on athletes?
Athlete or not, we all need our bodies to live a good life. We are nothing without our health. We all want to live independently, to move comfortably by our own volition. Whether reading a book, knitting a sweater, or running a race, we enjoy the world through our bodies, manifesting our dreams.
As athletes age, though, we face not only physical decline, but losing part of our identity; at least that’s how it feels to me. The threat of losing my ability to be outside doing what I love seems insurmountable. Feeling the gravity of moving downhill is exhilarating, breathing life into our veins. We cherish the feeling of a good day on the mountain or on the water; we chase the rush of flowing through a gnarly section with grace. The inherent challenges of the sports we do provide us not only with a sense of accomplishment, but happiness. Stoke and flow are popular buzzwords for good reason. Meaning of life stuff, as I often remark.
The deep-seated joy we get from doing our sports is like therapy – clarifying our minds, sharpening our skills, and leaving us with a contented sense of calm. The emotional benefits of exercising outdoors are grounding and powerful, but the fun part is what hooks most of us into a sport.
For most athletes I know, physical activity is simply part of who they are; it is more than just a hobby or sport, but part of their existence. They live and breathe their passions through physical movements, honing their craft over years of muscle-memory building experience. They are their sports. They’re often also happy, contented people. One of the main reasons I am so active, aside from feeling like I’m driven by a motor at times, is how amazing, even euphoric, it makes me feel. I’ve always been active, and I love how I feel during and after being physical. There’s also a spiritual aspect to it, as if being in a holy Land.
I love the intensity, rhythm, and focus of mountain biking; it’s my main love. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a dream for riding. I enjoy the feeling of freedom I get from trail running – powerful and independent, relying on my own two feet, no gear or interface between me and the Earth, except my shoes. I feel like I can seriously do anything when I’m in a solid running stride. Rock climbing, yoga, snowboarding, a little surfing and paddling have also been big interests over the years. I’m happy if I can just go for a walk through the forest, though. Being outside in nature is where I belong.
Living in Santa Cruz, California, there are plenty of active people living in our community; most notably, surfers and mountain-bikers, which makes sense given the waves and terrain. Weekend parking lots are full of trucks with bike and surf racks. West Cliff Drive teems with runners, walkers, bicycles, and sightseers from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people out enjoying the incredible natural habitats we are lucky to live among. There are many towns like Santa Cruz across the world, full of active, outdoorsy people taking advantage of the gorgeous areas they live in. Whether it’s a mountain town, beach town, or valley town, if there’s a strong contingent of athletes living there, you’ll notice pretty quickly. It definitely keeps you inspired, and occasionally, accountable.
Perhaps just as important as the physicality of sports is the camaraderie and community we develop within those realms. It’s deeper than the stereotypical image associated with our sport; more than the clothes and brand names, more than pop-culture references from movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vertical Limit. We experience bonding adventures, overcoming challenges only other athletes within our sport would understand. We share knowledge, gear advice, and time together doing what we love. There’s a lot of unspoken understanding and communication. If we don’t share our sport with someone directly on the trail or on the water, we most likely share our love for it online through social media or websites dedicated to our passions. I read the Comments section of many forums, and I usually learn something new from them. In this day and age, we are tied in many ways to the sports we love, and develop a sense of belonging from that relationship.
Our sports also become part of our identity, something we can label ourselves as with pride. When athletes are asked to describe themselves, we are quick to identify ourselves as mountain bikers, runners, soccer players. While ego can get involved with sports, and it’s okay to be competitive and proud, most fellow athletes I know are in it for the true love of it.
How can we maintain our connections to the sports we love as we get older? Aside from the established efforts of a healthy diet, exercise, and low stress, one piece of advice emphatically stands out lately:
Keep on moving.
That’s it. Just keep moving, as long as you’re able. I’ve heard this from more elders than I can remember, and succinct as it may be, it rings true.
I thought of this recently when I was snowboarding at Kirkwood, one of my favorite places on the planet. It was a super cold day, maybe 12℉ with wind chill at the top. I’m used to wintry weather, but I was feeling especially tired. I thought about the warm hotel room waiting for me, the hot tub, the comfortable bed to curl up in. It sounded so wonderful, and though lifts were turning for another hour or so, I considered stopping early. I took a short break and got some hot coffee, which always helps improve the situation.
Looking out on the windy, icy expanse outside, I got a gut-punch feeling to go back, like a push. Get out there. The memory of how fun it is to glide down a snowy mountain face is like nothing else, and powerful enough to motivate. It’s the same thing that happens every time it’s a uniquely cold Winter day. I went back out and got a few more runs, getting one of the best of the day.
Returning to the hotel room later that evening, and basking in the heavenly embrace of a perfectly heated hot tub, I appreciated it down to my chilly bones. Though not the coldest or hardest day I’ve had by any means, I reflected on how moments like these shape us into more resilient beings. Every time we are uncomfortable, cold, nervous, whining (especially whining), and otherwise reluctant, it is easier to just stay home and give up. It’s easier to find one of the many valid excuses not to subject yourself to freezing winds and blowing snow, and stay cuddled up in the hotel room nice and warm.
Every time we get outside, despite our complaints and minor discomforts, we persevere as more confident, and disciplined, athletes. We also streamline our habits and get the best gear possible to stay as comfortable as possible; we evolve, ideally, to become more efficient at withstanding any kind of weather. Think back to when you were a kid and first went skiing; you likely complained that it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. If you kept at it, though, you soon got over those inconveniences and accepted them as part of the fun; you probably also found what clothing worked best to keep you warm.
As we get older, it may seem easier to just stay home and skip the discomfort, which is why that sage advice becomes more important: keep on moving. Especially when it’s cold, especially when it seems tempting to just stay in, keep on moving. Keep going outside. It’s always easier to stay comfortable, but we grow stronger when we make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable, and then push through it. I’ve learned this lesson before in more challenging situations, but as I reflect on aging, it carries a lot more weight. There’s another piece of advice I live by, that came to me years ago when I was being hard on myself and comparing myself to other athletes:
It’s not what; it’s that.
It’s not what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it at all.
It’s not what trail you’re riding; it’s that you’re riding.
It’s not about what boulder problem level you’re sessioning at the climbing gym, it’s that you’re climbing at all, that you came into the gym in the first place. You could have stayed home, but no, you chose to challenge yourself and move. You kept moving. You showed up to the trail, gear and all. It’s about honoring our efforts to show up and participate, which is often the hardest part.
It doesn’t really matter what level you’re at; it just matters that you’re doing something you love. While it’s wonderful to be talented at something, we can always find someone better than us, or someone we think we’re better than. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially as an athlete. The mantra that, not what keeps things somewhat in perspective for me. Moreover, keep on moving.
May I be so blessed to live long into elderhood, for life is so unpredictable. Life is more than just peaks and valleys, stages and phases; it’s a vibrant, emanating force that drives us all to feel the gravity of the hill, to love deeply, to live courageously, to examine our short little lives for all they’re worth.
I don’t know if aging is any harder for athletes to cope with, but I do know life is sacred, and warrants our full attention. More importantly, it calls for reverence – for those who have lived before us, and for all of the experiences we have had in our own lives. The collective experience of humanity bonds us all, from zygote to ashes. Someday when I die, these words will evaporate into the universe. Until then, everyday is an opportunity to appreciate life, and that includes the gravity of a sweet downhill.
When I’m eighty years old, I don’t expect to be charging down the same trails I ride now, but if I can ride my bike even just a little bit, I think it would bring a smile to my face. When I’m ninety, I may not be snowboarding like I do now, but if I can get on a pair of skis and hit the hill, I’m going to do it. When I’m one hundred, I may not be running up and down hills through the forest, but if I can stroll through the Old-Growth Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, I know that’d satisfy my soul.
When I’m old, I may not be winning mountain bike races anymore, but if I’m riding a bike at all, I’ll be stoked. If I can’t ride? Then by all means, put me on two wheels somehow and tow me around so I can feel the wind in my face. The gravity of the hill is what I need.