I’m Okay, But No Need To Ask

Are you OKAY?!

I am tired of smiling politely, explaining myself to strangers, because they just had to stop and ask if I was alright. I’ve been passionately into outdoor sports all of my life – everything from snowboarding, to rock climbing, and most of all, mountain biking. I’m pretty used to being underestimated at the sight of my femininity; to guys automatically assuming I can’t ride a certain line, or handle myself on the trail.

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring the pulse of sexism that underlies outdoor sports like mountain biking, but lately I find myself at the end of my rope. My tolerance for the constant skepticism, questioning, and dismissiveness from people on the trail has run out. 

Like everyone else who rides, mountain biking is my escape, my time to channel flow and grace on two wheels. I am lucky to live near some of the best mountain biking trails in California – the Santa Cruz Mountains. I cherish the simple act of disappearing into the forest, just me and my bike, as often as I can. Though I’ve ridden these trails thousands of times, they never get old. 

A few years ago, I wrote about my experience with sexism on the trails in my post Just Do You: I Got This. It’s 2021, and my patience has only gotten thinner.

Maybe it’s the result of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. As with every outdoor sport during this time, mountain biking has gotten extremely popular. People aren’t working as much or as regularly, and are understandably looking to recreation for a release from the tension of life amid Covid. I’ve never seen the trails so busy; I find myself riding during off-hours before sunset, avoiding the main parking lots, as if you’d be able to find a place to park. Highway 9 is jammed with cars on both sides, all trying to get a slice of some Santa Cruz sweetness. I can deal with the crowds, as I know that I am part of the crowd, too; after all, I’m out there riding as well. 

What I’m finding hard to tolerate is interrogation by doubting dudes who treat me like I’m fragile cargo. I can no longer oblige sexism on the trails. While it’s a small minority of men who exhibit this behavior, it’s a loud, obtrusive contingent that has grated my nerves raw. 

In the last few months, things have hit an all-time high. It’s about every one out of five rides that I come across a guy, or guys, that question me for no apparent reason. I’m not talking about the usual, “Hi! How’s it going?” that most guys greet me with. It’s kind to say hi to each other on the trail. 

I’m talking about looking at me like I’m a broken porcelain doll, dramatic concern in their eyes, asking me ARE YOU OKAY?! It’s all in the tone and delivery, which conveys the message that I don’t look okay. It’s like they’re the mayor, and it’s their business to check up on me.

It’s not like I’m struggling or fiddling with my bike on the side of the trail when this happens. I’ll be some twenty feet off the trail, stretching, drinking water, taking a picture of a cool mushroom with my phone, closing my eyes and soaking up the sunshine; anything but presenting myself in distress. Clearly taking a rest, clearly doing alright, until a guy rides up to check on me. 

Are you alright there? Are you waiting for someone? You lost? 

Over the years, I typically respond by explaining myself. Yes, explaining myself to a complete stranger, who paused to question me. I’m just stretching; taking a picture. I’m good, thanks, I offer.

There’s nothing wrong with saying hi and asking someone if they’re okay. The difference is all in the tone, in the way the question is asked. A quick check in is different from an alarmed, doubtful slew of questions. I’m talking about asking me if I’m okay as if I had a Helpless sign on my forehead, with an overly concerned tone that doesn’t match the situation.

While it may seem like a nice thing to check in on a girl on the trail, what is the motivation underlying it? Do you see a girl and assume so quickly that she doesn’t know what she’s doing that you don’t even notice your implicit bias? By asking if I am okay when I am clearly doing alright, you are sending me a message that there is something questionable about a girl alone in the forest. 

Do you not think I would ask for help if I needed it? By asking me if I need help, you are assuming I am not assertive enough to ask for it, further underestimating me. If I need something, I’ll let you know. 

This is what irks me year after year. I am tired of being treated like a damsel in distress, like a lost child who needs to find their parent, particularly when I don’t present as one. 

Imagine if most of the rides you went on people quizzically asked you if you were okay – like you weren’t okay. Again, it’s all in the tone and delivery. It would get annoying after a while, to say the least. Especially if you were going through cancer treatment like I was last year, and every time someone asked you if you were okay, you were reminded that maybe you didn’t look okay. We never really know what other people are going through when we see them out on the trails. Though they may look relatively normal and healthy, they may be pushing through a mountain of hurdles just to finish another pedal rotation. That’s how I feel now, my cardio stamina shot from chemo and radiation. The trails have become even more sacred to me, highlighting all that is good out there, but also that which doesn’t serve.  

It’s more than just being constantly asked if I’m alright, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t the worst. 

It’s an accumulation of interactions that have written this story for me, evidence built up over the years. While it’s certainly the minority of men who treat me this way, there’s been more than enough experiences that have brought me to this point. 

I’ve been nearly ridden off the trail by dudes who were dropping the start of the uphill climbing route, making no effort to yield or slow to me, forcing me off the trail, smirking at me as they passed. If you want to send the uphill route, then be prepared to yield to the climbers. 

I often encounter guys at the start of the downhill, who quickly jump in front of me though I am pedaling to drop. They see me coming and assume I’m going to be slower than them, so they hurry to drop in front of me. The best part is when I end up passing them. Success is the best revenge.

I’ve also been questioned when I pull over to let someone pass, like an E-bike. 

You okay there?

Dude, I pulled over to let you pass! Again, asking if I’m okay…like I’m not. If I’m laid out on the side of the trail in distress, please ask if I’m okay; but if I pull over to let you pass? Thank me. 

I’ve been taking pictures on the side of the trail –  of a banana slug, mushroom, flower, whatever – clearly engrossed, when dudes pass and ask if I’m alright, seemingly perplexed by me taking a picture. What does it look like I’m doing?

If I’m riding with my husband Ron, people assume he’s the better mountain biker. Same with snowboarding, although he might be a little better than me on the snow.

Recently, I was crossing the train trestle over the San Lorenzo River on my usual route, lifting my bike up a steep path to the railroad embankment. A couple of guys standing on the tracks asked me if I needed some help. I couldn’t be polite and smile anymore, and retorted curtly: 

Do I look like I need help?

Another pair of guys just happened to be passing and witness our interaction, and chimed in with a supportive, That’s right girl; you tell him!

I immediately offered a half-hearted apology. I was sorry if I came off rude, but when people see you’re a girl and assume you need help all the time, it gets old. I rode off, but I was irritated. I was even more irritated that I started apologizing, something I do way too much of. 

No, I don’t need help. No, I’m not waiting for someone, and no, I’m not lost. No, I don’t need advice about how to ride this trail.

And I don’t need to be cheered on, either. A patronizing Good job! doesn’t help. I don’t need encouragement. I made this video below after that encounter. 

Most of the time, what I really want is to be left alone. I ride my bike to get away from it all. I appreciate a friendly Hello or an acknowledging nod, but I am done being treated like I don’t belong out here, like I’m out of place in the woods. 

Recently, however, I realized what a complex I’ve developed. 

There was a large group of male riders who took a break near where I was at the top of Airborne, a popular trail in the area. As they started dropping, one of the guys asked me if I was okay. 

I took a breath, and instead of answering him like I normally would, I said,

Can I ask why you’re asking? Does it look like anything is wrong?

Looking puzzled, he said, Uh, because you’re by yourself on the side of the trail…

I started explaining myself:

I was here just taking a break when you guys all rode up. Are you asking if I’m okay because I’m a girl?

I realize how bad that sounds. Poor guy, just asking if I was okay, didn’t know he was about to unleash years of my sexism complex. 

His friend stood there, agape, as he replied,

No; I ask everyone if they’re okay. 

His friend chimed in for defense: Yeah, he’s totally that guy on the trail who always asks people if they’re good.

I realized right then and there what a fool I’d presented myself as. His tone hadn’t been accusatory or derogatory. I am so conditioned to expect this behavior on the trail that it almost doesn’t matter what someone says, and that’s not cool. Yep, I’m that over-sensitive girl who snaps on you when you ask her if she’s okay, apparently. No matter my experiences, I’d become so hypersensitive that I automatically assumed everyone was questioning me because I was a girl.

I apologized to the gentleman, who stood there looking flummoxed by my response. I felt I owed him some explanation at that point. 

I’m sorry; it’s just that, I’ve been riding a long time, and I’m usually by myself. For years, I’ve come across guys on the trail who doubt me and question me as soon as they see me. I’ve been asked if I’m lost, was it my first time here, was I waiting for someone; given unsolicited advice, warned about technical sections ahead. I get asked all the time if I’m okay, usually with a doubting, questioning tone: Are you OKAY? like I must not look okay or something is wrong. I’m a girl, alone in the forest; I’m good. There’s nothing wrong. After a while, it adds up and you start feeling like you don’t belong out here. 

He nodded his head in labored understanding, seeming to glean where I was coming from.

My girlfriend complains about that, too, when she goes mountain biking. I can kind of understand what you’re talking about, he commiserated.

But hey, I’m sorry for responding that way; I’ve definitely developed a bit of a complex. If you’re that kind of guy who asks everyone on the trail – male or female – if they’re okay, then that’s cool; it’s better to be like that than the kind of person who ignores everyone. 

I immediately felt embarrassed. Are you asking me because I’m a girl? I replayed it over in my head, realizing how crazy I must have sounded. 

Perhaps curious to better understand, the rider asked me, 

Is there something else I could have asked or said that would have been better than Are you okay?

I was so happy he asked that question, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. It also showed openness and courage on his end. 

Just say Hi. Or maybe How’s it going? or How are you? Just saying hi and making contact opens that door for communication, for me to let you know if I need help. It’s better than Are you okay? which can imply that I don’t look okay. Trust that I’m assertive enough to speak up and ask for help if I need it.

He took it in and pondered it, perhaps understanding a glimmer of what I’d said. 

He actually thanked me for making him think about it in a new way. I hope he was sincere, because it felt like a somewhat productive conversation despite my overreaction. I really appreciated his braveness in engaging with me like a human, instead of just dismissing me like the brat I was behaving. He and his friend left to join their group. They seemed like genuinely nice guys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve become the butt of their jokes for the next few weeks. Are you okay?! I could imagine them teasing each other. 

I don’t blame them if they did. Regardless of my past experiences with perceived moments of sexism, I felt bad about my reaction to this guy. 

There are many similarities to racism and sexism, and while I may not have much experience with the former, I know the latter. Both come from a place of instantaneous doubt, skepticism, and assumption of unworthiness, that we aren’t good enough to be here. Over time, you start to expect this sort of treatment from others; it becomes your lens through which you perceive the world. Every time someone reinforces that reality, the lens only becomes sharper; you start noticing all kinds of examples of sexism. 

It is imperative to not become myopic through this lens, however, warping every experience into the narrative you’ve established. Though my experiences are real and my feelings are valid, I can’t be riding around picking fights with unsuspecting dudes on the trail who ask if I’m okay. Not a good look. 

I also realize that I haven’t lived through the challenges of my predecessors, who weren’t even allowed to do these sports, or had to fight incessantly to prove themselves when they were total standouts. I’m lucky to be here as a woman, able to do any sport I want, in a country that overall welcomes it. With more female athletes dominating outdoor sports these days, there may come a time when women don’t feel so doubted. 

I know other women feel this way; I also recognize there are women out there who feel it far worse – historically, and today. I don’t think my experience is harrowing, traumatic, or smacking of systemic misogyny, but after forty years on this planet living as an athletic female, I can’t deny the nuances of sexism that pervade our society – in sports, careers, family roles, politics. I’ll work on my hypersensitivity, but It’d be nice if some guys would reevaluate how they perceive women on the trail, and the assumptions they may make about us. 

Thank you to the majority of men out there who just say Hi, who give a smile or nod, looking at me like I belong out here. Most guys I come across on the trail are pretty awesome. I appreciate you treating me just like you would anyone else. I’ll try and focus on you all a little more on the trails, and less on the guys playing mayor. 

And if you ask if I’m okay, I might just say what my husband Ron recommended: 

So. Because I am so okay

And if I’m not okay? I’ll let you know. I’m a big girl who can speak up for myself.  

Spring 2021: Reflections on the Past Year

Your HAY-er!!! Your HAY-ER!!!

With each hair drawn out into two dramatic, gasped syllables, her face grew more inquisitive. 

Your HAY-ER!

I’d just said Hi to an old colleague in the market by my house, someone who’d substitute-taught for me many times over the years. We hadn’t seen each other in at least a year.

And who are you? She skeptically asked. She looked at me like I was homeless, but I don’t blame her. I also had a mask on, of course.

It’s Katrin Deetz, from the middle school? You used to sub for me?

Oh sorry, I didn’t recognize you; your HAY-ER!!!

I didn’t want to unload on her that I’d recently finished breast cancer treatment, and that this HAY-ER, disturbing as it clearly was, made me happy with every wayward new strand that stood up straight from its follicle. It also drove me mad and mocked me, wildly sticking up in protest of being decimated by chemotherapy. 

I changed the subject and made awkward small talk as I neared the front of the check-out line, never mentioning what I’d been through. She probably assumed I was in a really bad place, like maybe I’d become a tweaker or something.

Granted, I might be shocked if I saw me too, especially if the last time I saw me I had long, thick, beautiful hair. 

But I left that market, went home, and cried – not because of what she said, and I know she’s a nice lady who didn’t intend to make me feel bad. It was just another reminder of what I’d been through. She wasn’t the only one who’d been taken aback by my appearance. Everywhere I go, it seems people notice my awkward hair. At the checkout line in the grocery store, I’m called Ma’am without question; out and about, I sometimes people notice and stare. I used to be greeted with Miss, and a friendly smile; now, I feel like people don’t even notice me. I’m a strong woman, but the pain of losing your trademark long hair is a hard pill to swallow. Unruly hair blesses my head with millimeters of keratin each week, but it’s a slow process. 

It’s been seven months since I finished my last radiation appointment on September 23, 2020, and over a year since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer on February 3, 2020. Many milestones and “anniversaries” have happened over the last couple of months, from remembering my biopsy on January 29, to my diagnosis, to my double-mastectomy on February 26, to my first round of chemotherapy on April 9, 2020. Each one-year anniversary brings a paradoxical sense of distance, like it was so long ago, while on some levels it feels like only yesterday.

Paradoxical would be just about the best word to describe how I’m feeling these days. I’ve written about this feeling in past blog posts, and it certainly hasn’t subsided. 

Most of the time, I feel remarkably grateful and happy to be alive each day. I am filled with a sense of urgency and attack to go after that which I love. If there were an award for seizing the day, I think I might deserve it. I’ve been getting after Life zealously. I’ve always had a strong lust for life, appreciating its brevity, but I feel doubly committed to the things, and people, I love now. I’ve been on my bike almost everyday, and those pedals have been the antidote to occasional moments of profound feelings of loneliness. There’s nothing like seeing a bobcat at the end of your ride to brighten your day!

Things are also looking up in terms of the pandemic. I had my first day teaching Hybrid instruction back in the classroom on March 29, 2021; it had been over a year since my last day teaching in-person on February 13, 2020. It felt momentous and celebratory to be back in my classroom again with students. I felt compassion for these young people, who’d endured over a year out of the classroom. To meet my students in person, masked up of course, felt amazing. We did a fun Science lab of electrolysis of water, and made some slime with borax and glue. My classroom was once again filled with the sounds of laughing students, talking with each other as they stirred their slime mixture into long, sticky polymers. It was music to my ears. 

I was vaccinated for Covid-19, and overall I’m not too worried about being in the classroom with students. I am keeping a close eye on these unruly variants that researchers are finding on the rise, though. If there’s anything we ought to have learned from Covid, it’s that you can’t predict the future of this virus with any certainty. I was happy to get the vaccine to help get teachers back in the classroom, but only time will tell whether the vaccine will be deemed effective against these new variants.

Little did I know I would have the added challenge of teaching from home during a pandemic on top of breast cancer treatment. I worked hard to digitize my curriculum, to explore new apps and platforms I could use for distance learning. There was a lot of heavy lifting in the beginning, but it definitely got easier as the year went on. I’m proud of myself for all of the different things I tried, and ways I expanded my curriculum. I grew immensely as an educator, and will continue to use many of the resources I found this year in my future teaching. I’m proud of my students for being so adaptable. There were parts of distance teaching that I grew to enjoy: I can’t deny that it was nice to work from home on a shortened schedule while I recovered from cancer treatment. 

But It saddened me that these kids were missing out on so much. There were also really hard days where I felt like I was teaching to an empty room on Zoom; Hello?! Anyone there? I’m sure I said that at some point this year. There were days it felt like pulling teeth to get my students engaged. I had to get more creative, keep expanding my digital resources. I am glad we are back in-person four days a week, and I can’t wait until we are all back full-time. It is a true milestone to be in the classroom again, if only on an abbreviated schedule. I am so happy for all the kids out there who get to see their friends again, and have some sense of normalcy return. 

This Winter, Ron and I were lucky we could do our normal favorite activity: snowboarding. We had our best snowboarding season yet this year, racking up 23 days on the mountain – a personal record for me. We live a four-hour drive from Kirkwood, and I work a dayjob, so getting in 23 days was pretty stellar. Almost every weekend this Winter was spent on the mountain, carving powder while cultivating a wider smile. We had so much fun, and if you’re a powder-hound yourself, you know the feeling! I am so grateful for all of those magical days. It’s meaning of life stuff.

We also explored an abandoned ski resort, Iron Mountain, right off of Highway 88, for our first time. Most of it has been decommissioned now, but all these years I drove by it not knowing it was there. It was cool to check out the old bull wheels and towers, and there were lots of snowmobilers around. 

Every weekend was like an escape away. I felt vengeful, almost, of wanting to make up for lost time when I couldn’t snowboard at the end of last Winter. On the weekdays, I’d go mountain biking on my favorite trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

One of My Favorite Places in the World!
California Chutes

I also spent a lot of time tidepooling at low-tide, something I absolutely love to do. It’s a nice balance to the high-speed activities I enjoy. 

Time outside, whether doing sports or simply walking, is therapeutic, inspiring, and necessary. Every minute I’ve spent outside has helped me maintain a positive attitude of gratitude, most of the time. The majority of my days are spent appreciating the fact that I get a second chance to live.

On the flipside, I’ve had some impassioned moments of feeling angry and irritable, part of that whole paradoxical way I’ve been feeling, and part of the post-traumatic stress symptoms I’ve experienced over the last several months. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. 

I’ve been snappy while driving; Move your ass, Moron! I find myself venting to my empty car. My patience is thin for inefficiency and incompetence. My temper is a lot quicker than it used to be.

When I found out the liquor store down the street had been charging me $.39 for every credit card transaction, without disclosure after years of patronage, I filed a complaint with the attorney general. 

Even the best powder couldn’t keep me from getting irritated with people in the chairlift lines at Kirkwood with no masks on, or their nose out, or worse: the Preacher who showed up one Sunday morning to Chair 4, and reminded me just how angry I still was. 

Shouting from the top of his lungs to a crowded line full of skiers and snowboarders, the Preacher yelled indignantly about how we all needed to repent, find Jesus, and that we would be going to hell if we did not accept him as our savior. He was citing scripture, and trying to engage with anyone that would respond. Typical downtown San Francisco, Market District kind of stuff – or Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, at times.

After a few minutes, some people started yelling back at him to be quiet; that we were just there to have a good time. One guy dropped to the ground in a dramatic fashion, writhing in the snow, shouting, I’m going to Hell! Everyone laughed at that. It was a good release of tension, but people were getting annoyed by the Preacher, invading our earspace with his proselytizing. People would regularly shout at him to Shut up! 

By the time we neared the main line to board the chairlift, about fifteen minutes later, he was right in front of us. Normally, I would have ignored the yelling, knowing that he wanted attention from all of us. I’m not religious, and have no problem with someone being passionately so, as long as they’re not trying to convert me.

But that anger and irritability I was talking about? It got the better of me. I was so tired of hearing his screaming, especially now that he was right in front of me. I bit my tongue as long as I could, until I couldn’t take it anymore and retorted:

Look Man, I didn’t go through breast cancer treatment last year to sit here and listen to you tell me I’m going to Hell. You have no idea what I’ve been through. Shut up and stop screaming at all of us!

Yep, I pulled that Cancer Card right out of my back pocket and played it, hoping it would quell his righteousness. It didn’t work, of course. 

My heart was beating fast, and my temper was high. 

The Preacher responded with a short Bless you before continuing on his rant asking me if I’d accepted Jesus Christ as my savior. Ron chimed in and told him to leave me alone and shut the hell up. Other riders were joining in, too, telling him to be quiet. We were all tense and ready to escape his ranting. 

Suddenly, a ski instructor rode up in the Jets’ cut line to the front of the line with his students. I immediately told him that this guy had been shouting at us incessantly, and could he please do something about it? 

He was quick to dismiss it and tell me it wasn’t his job to deal with that. Nice; thanks Dude.

Then, as fate would have it, we boarded the chairlift right after Preacher dude. Ten minutes up the mountain, Preacher turning around shouting at us, reciting proverbs by number, next chair up. We ignored him most of the ride, but then shouted back at him mid-mountain in protest. 

The best part? Ron asked him what his name was, and he yelled back his name. Ron then said, No, your name is Larry – cause that’s exactly what you are, a Larry! I know it wasn’t helpful to engage with this guy, but I’ve got to hand it to Ron: he always has the best comebacks. 

We ignored him the rest of the ride, and when we got off at the top, he was greeted by two ski patrols who immediately laid into him about his preaching. I could only imagine how the ski patrols would respond to being shouted at by this guy; I’m pretty sure they’d use their blackballing privileges to 86 him. 

Of course, none of the shouting back made me feel any better. It only made me feel worse. I don’t typically engage with people like that, letting a total stranger get the better of me. The old me would have ignored him altogether, feeling compassionate for whatever pain and loneliness he must be suffering to stand there yelling at all of us. It reminded me how angry I still am about cancer, and how I haven’t gotten over it yet. I cried later that day, realizing how much anger I was evidently carrying around.

Where was this anger really coming from? Hurt and pain. I was hurting for all I’d been through; I was hurting for my losses – of innocence, identity, and health. My body was still recovering from all that it’d been through, and adjusting to the new version of myself. No matter how much fun snowboarding or mountain biking were, no amount of flow and grace could take away this stirring, gnawing discontent within me. I am so mad that I got breast cancer. I struggle with this deep-seated, pervasive feeling that I just can’t seem to shake since my diagnosis. I’m angry at my hair loss, my loss of aerobic capabilities, and anything in my life that isn’t working well. There is a sense of urgency to fix all that is broken.

I’m angry at humans – our overpopulation, pollution, pillaging the planet to ruins; our Me-First attitude. My heart breaks for everything from the dead animals I see on the side of the road hit by cars, to the ever-increasing records being set with climate, to every news article outlining yet another species’ decline toward extinction. I feel hopeless sometimes about the future of the human race, and our trajectory with this planet. People can be total jerks, especially when it comes to the environment. 

I’m angry I didn’t catch my cancer sooner. I drive myself crazy thinking of all the times over the year or so before I was diagnosed that I knew something was wrong; that I went to the doctor telling them I didn’t feel well, that I had blood tests showing everything was fine; that I was so tired all the time. I think back to my last mammogram at age 36, when I was told I was fine and didn’t need to come back until I was 40. I think of all the times I examined my breasts, keenly aware of the large fibroadenoma I’d had since age eighteen, which to my touch didn’t feel any different. I think of how that cancerous tumor hid underneath said fibroadenoma, insidiously growing underneath it until it was large enough to be felt sticking out the side. By that point, of course, it wasn’t early; it had spread to three of my lymph nodes, and had grown to a total diameter of over 4cm. It drives me crazy. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it, but I know it’d be healthier for me if I did. 

What I am most angry about is that I still don’t feel 100% physically. I still have my expanders in and am awaiting my exchange surgery for proper implants. I am reminded everyday of my mastectomy, and what I lost. With Covid delays, who knows when I’ll be scheduled for my surgery. 

I am still having some truncal lymphedema on my left side around my ribcage, exacerbated by heat, long periods of sitting, and overexercise. It feels like someone grabbing me, and pouring warm water on my ribs; quite a strange sensation.

I’ve also been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my neck on my cervical vertebrae (C5-C7), where I have osteophytes, or bone spurs. My neck really started hurting this Fall after starting Tamoxifen, and I noticed my vertebrae felt enlarged. Tamoxifen is linked to increased arthralgias, or bone and joint pain. I had my neck x-rayed, which revealed bone spurs that had likely been developing for years. Doctors said my neck looked more like an older person’s in their sixties or seventies, but with all the high-impact sports I’d done in my life – especially mountain biking – they weren’t surprised. I also have some arthritis in my left knee, hip, and am feeling signs of it in both of my hands now after playing guitar. Osteoarthritis is irreversible, but I can work on practicing good ergonomics in all of my physical activities, including computer use. 

My left rotator cuff on my shoulder is constantly tight, not only from radiation and lymphedema, but from hitting a tree snowboarding back in February this year. I’m okay, but I have to stretch it all the time to keep it from freezing up. Yoga, self massage, and elevating it while resting really help. 

By far, the toughest part about everything post cancer-treatment has been muscle fatigue, and feeling hypoxic while exercising. There’s a shortness of breath that’s never been there. It’s not from being out of shape; I exercised through my treatments almost everyday. My workout habits haven’t changed, but my endurance has.

I feel a tightness in my throat as well, like my airway is shrinking; I even make a snoring sound now when I breathe hard in certain positions. I’ve read that bone spurs on your neck can protrude into your airway, so that could be a possibility, too. I already have sleep apnea, so I fear I’m suffocating even more in my sleep each night. I’m sleeping with propped up pillows on my side as it seems to help keep my airway more open. I’m also going to try the CPAP again, even though I couldn’t tolerate it the last time I tried.

When I stand up from a crouched position, I feel like I’m going to pass out; when I’m tidepooling and squatting down to check out an anemone, and stand up, I feel like I’m going to faint. This has been, quite frankly, frightening. 

My energy level isn’t where it used to be, and my lungs cannot keep up with the activities I normally do. When I’m riding my bike uphill, I get so winded and out of breath, my heart racing past its maximum heart rate. I have to stop and take several breaks on my climbs because I feel like I cannot get enough oxygen. It is humbling – and scary – to feel like you can’t catch your breath on your usual routes. For someone who’s been in exceptional cardiovascular shape all my life, doing all kinds of sports, I feel a marked decline in my aerobic capacity. My muscles and lungs are quick to fatigue.

This was especially apparent last weekend at my first Enduro race of the season, the Exchequer Enduro. I registered for the Expert category, but after pre-riding the weekend before, I had to walk a couple of sections of the Gnarnia trail. If I can’t ride it clean, I don’t typically race it, so I moved down to the Sport Category, which didn’t include Gnarnia. I also knew I’d need lots of breaks on the transfers in between the timed stages.

The first stage, Tarantula Trail, was extremely pedaly, with a fair amount of climbing; I knew it would be my weakest stage. I moved through it slowly on my preride, thinking the course felt more like a cross-country race than an Enduro. 

On race day, sure enough, I maxed out quickly on the first stage, lagging behind from the start. I just couldn’t push any harder, slogging up the hill, breathing hard, heart racing. I could feel my lymphedema in my left rib flaring up, too. Obviously, I was nowhere near 100%.

I was so discouraged that on my second stage, Flying Squirrel, I felt like I barely tried. I also felt timid; after spending so much time last year fighting for my health, I have some hesitation about charging all out on a relatively unfamiliar course and risking injury.

What was I doing here? A forty year old has-been amateur racer – who am I kidding? My attitude was pretty sour. I can be a little hard on myself.

By my third and final stage, Down and Out, I was ready to have some fun and finish on a positive note. This was my favorite stage of the race, and the most gravity-assisted, downhill style trail of the race; the other two laps were cross-country style. 

In my element, I got third place on that stage, which was some redemption for my abysmal overall placement: square at the bottom of the Sport Women category. Ouch! 

Yes, I lost this race. It was the worst Enduro race I’ve ever had.

I wasn’t too surprised, but it really stung. I felt somewhat good about my third stage time, but overall I was disappointed. I ride for the love of it, but I’m competitive, too; I like to do well. Losing is hard. I admit, I cried. 

Was I done with racing? Did it even matter? I know I’m not going to become Isabeau Courdurier at my age, but I like challenging myself with racing. There’s such a feeling of being damaged goods after breast cancer. I fight to dismiss it, but I really felt that way after this race.

I had to remind myself that I am healing from cancer treatments, and to be gentle; to forgive myself. My poor body is tired and beat after all it’s been through, no matter how good of shape I was in before. 

People warned me of long-lasting fatigue post-treatment, and situations like these really highlight it. Other breast cancer survivors have talked about the feeling of being done with treatment, but nowhere near being done. I totally relate to that. Everyone thinks you’re done, but you’re still living with the side effects. This isn’t the same Katrin as before; this is a woman who’s lived through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. I am nowhere near 100% of what I used to be, and I don’t know that I ever will be, but I will cherish everyday that I’m blessed enough to be gifted. 

I am in touch with my doctors to better understand my shortness of breath and decline in cardiovascular performance. I was warned pre-treatment that the chemotherapy regimen could damage my heart. Aggravated heartburn and epiglottitis are being considered as well; I’ve been put on Pepcid-AC everyday to see if that decreases the swelling in my throat, but so far I don’t notice a difference. 

My doctors ran a full blood panel on me, including testing my iron levels to see if I was anemic, my hormones, and even a tumor beta test to measure possible tumor growth. All the tests came back basically normal. I had an ultrasound of my carotid artery to check the blood flow, which was also normal. In a couple of weeks, I’ll have a stress test and EKG of my heart. 

Some signs point to radiation fibrosis, a permanent scarring of the lung tissue. This can result in reduced lung volume, which could explain the feeling of being hypoxic I seem to be having so often these days. I do feel like I’m living with less lung capacity. 

Whatever the case, as always, my biggest worry is the shadow of recurrence; I feel it everyday. With every moment of gratitude and happiness I have, it isn’t long before I’m reminded that there may well be something lurking inside of me, just waiting to kill me. 

I know I’m not alone in having cancer, but I feel overwhelmingly alone sometimes – like nobody understands what I’m going through, despite there being such wonderful people in my life. Going through cancer is intensely isolating. I feel like I’m fighting a battle that no one can see, yet think they can. I love people, but I like spending time alone, and have always been that way. Peace, quiet, and being outdoors are extremely important to me. Most of my hobbies are independent, and you’ll almost always find me riding solo when I’m mountain biking. I can’t fault myself for being introverted, but when I read that breast cancer survivors have a higher risk of recurrence if they were lonely, and it struck a chord for me. Humans need connection. My small but priceless group of family and friends have been anchors for me throughout this whole process, making me feel a little less alone. 

There’s been a lot to celebrate and be grateful for, and certainly a lot more happiness than pain. Life is incessantly beautiful, meant to be appreciated, and the pulse of its magical diversity beats on. No matter how much residual anger I still have, it is greatly outweighed by gratitude and reverence for the miracle of Life. 

I feel like a humble bad ass having lived through what I’ve been dealt. Distance learning was a challenge this year, but it had nothing on cancer. Things that used to make me nervous don’t have a foothold now. I’m still a little scared of death, but I’ve made a lot of progress on that. 

I don’t need special treatment from anyone, but I do have a request: 

If you see someone with crazy short hair that you haven’t seen in awhile, don’t quizzically say, Your HAY-ER!, even if it’s a shock to you. 

Because I guarantee you, it’s not as much as a shock as it is to the person living with it everyday. 

Immovable Objects and Humility

I’m going to hit this tree and die! I tried to adjust my snowboard, but the patch of hard snow I’d hit only added to my momentum toward that tree. My next thought was:

Whatever you do, don’t smash your face into this tree!

In a split second, I leaned my face forward and tried my best to avoid hitting the tree head-on. My snowboard barely cleared the roughly one-foot diameter pine tree, but my left arm, shoulder, and rib had hit directly. It all happened so fast. The shock wave traveled through my body so powerfully it made a whoosh sound that I could hear in my head. 

My shoulder felt as though it had been yanked out of socket, the force of hitting the tree while the rest of my body was still propelling forward evident. My rib felt as though I’d been hit with a baseball bat. I came to an abrupt stop in deep powder, just past the tree. My first thought was, I’m going to need Ski Patrol to come get me. 

I had just hit a tree, and I was hurt. Luckily, I hadn’t hit my head, especially because I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Yes, that’s right: no helmet. Stupid, I know. 

My left arm, shoulder, and rib were throbbing immediately, tightening up my range of motion. Within seconds, my husband Ron caught up to me. Desperate to make sure he saw me, I shouted, Help! Help!

He stopped next to me, and I told him I’d hit a tree, but hadn’t hit my head. I felt it was important to let him know that right away after telling him I’d hit a tree. He helped me take off my jacket and assess my arm, which was already bleeding and swelling where I’d hit the tree, just below my elbow. My ribcage was red, but no blood. My shoulder was definitely strained in some way, if not dislocated, but I was basically alright. Here are some pictures of the scene of the crash. That little pine tree doesn’t look like much, but it stood there like a concrete wall when I crashed into it. It didn’t give one bit.

I’ve been snowboarding for nearly thirty years, and I’m pretty ripping for an average rider. It’s my main activity on the weekends in Winter, and Kirkwood is my spot. I love riding in the trees, carving fresh, creative lines through a maze of evergreen. I’ve had some close calls with trees in the past, getting a good scare; a few times I’ve encountered branches whose skinny little limbs grabbed me like an octopus’ arm, smacking me to a complete stop. Trees don’t move. Even their relatively small branches hurt. 

I’d had my first really close call with hitting a tree last Winter in 2020 up at Kirkwood. It was Superbowl Weekend, the first weekend of February, and would end up being my last snowboarding weekend of that season. I almost hit a tree; I had even pushed off of it with my hands at the last minute. I wasn’t going very fast, but it was close. It spooked me. 

When I first started snowboarding as a kid in 1992, pretty much no one wore a helmet. As the years went on, helmets became more commonplace, which makes perfect sense considering the heightened risk of head injury that comes with an outdoor sport like skiing or snowboarding. From icy slopes, to trees that don’t move, to rocky outcroppings, there’s no shortage of hard surfaces to potentially hit your head on should you lose control for a split-second. That’s all it takes: a split-second. I learned that intimately when I hit this tree on February 6, 2021.

My Baby

I’d been meaning to get a helmet since my near-miss in February 2020, but my life as I knew it was put on hold to face one of the biggest immovable objects I’d ever faced: breast cancer. I was diagnosed with it the day after I’d almost hit that tree up at Kirkwood, on February 3, 2020, and went through months of chemotherapy and radiation afterward. 

Now, barely over a year later, here I was, back at Kirkwood, and Bam! I hit a tree.

I’d been meaning to get a helmet, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet this season. I felt unbelievably lucky that I didn’t hit my head, even though my body was knotted up in pain. 

After the crash, I got emotional. I almost hit my head! I could have died! I could have smashed my face in!  I started crying a bit, taking in the gravity of the moment. There are few times in my life where I’d thought I was actually about to die, and this was the most intense, by far.

How did this happen? How does an experienced, expert snowboarder hit a tree?Ask any skier or boarder that question, and if they’ve been at it long enough, I guarantee you they have a story of their own to tell – a close call, if not a direct encounter. It’s like any precision outdoor sport; there are multiple factors that go into it. All it takes is for one or more of those factors to go awry, combining in a perfect storm, derailing your flow and grace. In my case, it was a combination of a few different things. 

First and probably most important, my stance was off. My binding screws had come loose, so my front foot had slid all the way up to the front of my board. I decided to do just one more run before I would stop to adjust it. Basically, I was having so much fun, I didn’t want to take a break from riding to fix my binding. Even though my stance was widened, and I could feel the loss of control from my awkward positioning, it was still rideable, and I wanted to get just one more powder run before I took the two minutes it would take to adjust my bindings and tighten the screws. I should have fixed my bindings right away; it’s a safety issue. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Second, I was going a little too fast for taking a slightly new line. Though I know Kirkwood like the back of my hand, I still uncover new subtle nooks and crannies every now and then. Ron had shown me a new sideshoot of an area we frequently ride, and though I knew where we were, I hadn’t directly ridden this particular section before. I was going too fast for not having ridden it, in retrospect. You’re always supposed to be looking ahead when you’re snowboarding (or mountain biking, for that matter), and my body had gotten in front of my eyes. I was moving faster than my eyes could scan the horizon and assess what was coming next. Suddenly, I saw that little pine tree in front of my path of travel; I didn’t have as much time as I usually might to react. Riding in blindly to this section, I hadn’t anticipated this tree lying beyond the knoll.

The third and final kicker was hitting the exit-path out for skiers that crossed just above this tree, between me and the powdery section I’d just come from. In an instant, the snow texture changed from soft and light to rock hard, frozen bumps, chunky from skiers and snowboarders riding it over and over. With my feet out of my normal stance, my board wasn’t as quick to respond to my corrective movements. Instead, I slid on the ice even further toward the tree. And I was going fast. At that point, I knew I was going to hit, and thought to myself, I’m about to hit this tree and die!

It was absolutely terrifying. In all my years of snowboarding, and outdoor sports for that matter, I’d never had such a close call. I’ve had few moments where I thought consciously that I was about to die. I’ve been scared before, and done things that were life-risking, but rarely have I thought I was literally about to die in the next second. This was the scariest experience I’d ever had snowboarding. 

It was really humbling. I’m a big fan of humility all around, which is the balancing trait to the confidence that comes with doing outdoor sports, but sometimes it’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when it hurts you. It’s a balance of charging, and conserving. This reminded me how dangerous things can be, and how quickly things can turn. Moreover, it reminded me how important precision is with outdoor sports. Your equipment and gear need to be just so, fitted just right to you and your needs. It makes a world of difference when you are set up well, as opposed to trying to maneuver an ill-fitted board. I usually have my board set up perfectly, and I should have stopped to fix it as soon as my front foot had slid forward out of alignment. 

Additionally, it reminded me that sometimes, we can lose control. I’ve done a lot of snowboarding in my life, and even with all that experience, I hit a tree. I was probably going too fast for the new terrain, and didn’t give myself enough time to scan the horizon. Of all the times I’d ridden fast through the trees, I usually kept a good look ahead, no matter what. But all it takes is one time to lose control, and possibly, lose it all. It is fun and exciting to challenge yourself outdoors, but not at the cost of your life. 

‘Bout to Drop

This crash was the final impetus for me to buy a helmet, already. Crazy enough, on the chairlift up to that fateful ride, I had been thinking that it was high time already for Ron and I to get ourselves helmets. I bought myself a helmet, and will wear it every ride moving forward. 

I should have gone to the doctor, but I was afraid to get more radiation from x-rays after all the radiation I had last year from cancer treatments. After a week of soreness, I emailed my doctor pictures of the new bump on my left clavicle, and my bruised arm that hurt like fire to the touch. She inferred that I might have a hairline fracture on my arm, and should get x-rayed. I was out of town the next four-day weekend for President’s Day, however, back snowboarding at Kirkwood. Last week, I had other appointments in the afternoon, so I never ended up getting it x-rayed after all. I feel better, though, with less soreness in my shoulder, rib, and arm, and am sure I’m healing. 

Life will throw immovable objects in your path. Some of them are slow-moving, like cancer, while some will be sudden and abrupt, like crashing into a tree, or something else. They may be near-death experiences, or catastrophic and fatal. In both cases, the best defense is prevention, but there is inherent risk regardless of your preparation. Outdoor sports are risky, and the stakes can be high. Accidents happen, even to the best of us. Awareness, anticipation, and agility are all essential for a safe snowboarding experience, but none of them are possible without your brain. It is wise to protect it. Fortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson the hard way – this time. 

2020 Closure

2020.

Just say the year, and everyone has a story to tell. Life amid a global pandemic has stretched us all in new and, to use one of the most popular words of the year, unprecedented ways. 

As the year comes to a close, I look back and see a fork in the road, etched deeply into my body and soul. This was the year my reality forever changed, from the initial shock of breast cancer diagnosis in February, through chemotherapy and radiation, and now, recovering from months of treatment while adjusting to life on Tamoxifen.

2020 was the year that my life as I knew it was pulled out like a rug from under me, flinging everything I knew and cherished into jeopardy. This was the year I learned, with all-encompassing certainty, that I am going to die – someday, but that day could be a lot sooner than I’d always thought. 

Conversely, 2020 was the year I was reminded how much I loved my life, and how grateful I was for it. My patience and strength were tested incessantly, but my appreciation for life deepened, including its fleeting nature. We never know how much time we have, but when cancer comes along, it feels as though a clock is set on a countdown inside of you. Time is eternally precious, each day an opportunity you don’t want to waste. Opportunities abound in this world, regardless of covid or cancer. This year has delivered many chances for growth, reflection, and recalibrating gratitude, and as the year comes to a close, I’m focusing on all of the good that has persisted despite very real and trying challenges. 

Astronomically speaking, it’s been a banner year. From the pink supermoon back in February, timed perfectly with my diagnosis; to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower; to the awesome comet Neowise; to the streaking fireballs of the Perseids; to the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn lighting up the sky recently. There’s been no shortage of wonder and marvel to help put things in perspective. I’ve probably been out stargazing this year more than any other, and it’s been a powerful antidote to self-pity. 

It’s also been a fantastic year for beaches and sunsets. I’ve spent more time at the beach this year than any other, even when I used to live a half-mile from the beach. The arcing horizon of the ocean has been an escape, comfort, and source of peace for me. I can spend hours at the beach carefully exploring tidepools, and watching the light play off the water. 

Aside from a few weeks off my bike after my mastectomy and lingering fatigue, it’s been a stellar year for mountain biking. It’s been my main outlet, strengthening my body and mind. The freedom of flowing on two wheels, gracefully through the forest, is definitively therapeutic; hands-down the best anti-depressant I know of. 

Most importantly, it’s been a remarkable year for gratitude. I love my little life with grit and passion, and I feel exceptionally protective of it after going through treatment. Sure I’d still like to make more money and have a bigger house, but I feel so lucky to have what I do. All I want is more time doing what I love, living my life with the people I love. More time on my bike, more crossword puzzles, more birdwatching; more going to the beach, playing guitar, snowboarding, dancing around my living room. More time with loved ones; more fun. 

My husband Ron and cat Beau are beacons of joy and love; my family and friends a sea of warmth and connection. I am so grateful for the kindness, compassion, and generosity extended to me this year by so many. Some people really reached out, and it meant the world to me. My family, my sisters – calling me often to check up on me, and truly listening to me when I spoke, filling me up with comfort and love; my father’s regular socially distanced visits during lulls in the pandemic, always emotionally close to home; my mother and stepfather visiting on the front porch just to see me for a short visit while we could. My in-laws, whose love and care were steadfast. Some friends, and people I’ve not even met in person yet, only online, stepped up to show support, which moved me. I appreciate anyone who genuinely wished me well and took the time to extend that concern this year. Thank you to everyone who showed me love and empathy!

I wish the love of family and friends could cure cancer, but ultimately, I have to remain vigilant about my health going forward. I worry about recurrence everyday. My lymphedema, which had recently all but disappeared from my left upper arm, has come back a little, this time mostly in my truncal region, swelling around my ribcage. I continue to do my daily exercises and stretches, hoping to keep it at bay. 

As I wrote about in my last post, I am having a hard time with Tamoxifen. I’m feeling better since, knowing that Tamoxifen is at least partly to blame for my blues, and have an appointment with my oncologist next week to discuss my side effects. I joke that Tamoxifen makes me a TamoxiMonster, but the sad reality is that it has made me feel depressed, fatigued, cranky, and my joints and leg muscles sometimes ache. My temperature regulation is shot; I’m either cold, or raging hot, tearing off clothes as I’m climbing uphill on my bike, sweating like crazy. I’m thirsty all the time, peeing all the time, gaining weight, irritable, and just overall not feeling like my old self. My old self: something I’ll never have back. Though I’m still the same person, a line in the sand has been dug so deep, there’s no going back to the innocence of youth, of life pre-cancer. Turning forty this October just sealed the deal.

As 2021 nears, I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer: accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This couldn’t be a more apt message for my experience with cancer this year. There has been so much out of my control, that I cannot change, that I had to accept as my new reality; so much adversity and loss. I could change the way I felt about it, however. Emotions, as instinctive as they may be, are also choices; we have some power to channel and release them, to change our perspective. That’s why I choose to do something everyday that uplifts and inspires me, that reminds me I am more than just a breast cancer patient, that reminds me how much bigger the world is than myself. Throughout treatment, the more time I spent outside, the better I felt. Whether going to the beach, mountain biking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or hiking through the forest, every breath outdoors fills me with inspiration and strength, especially through the darkest moments. 

We have a choice everyday as to how we spend our day, and how we feel about our circumstances. As I begin my new year of 2021, I choose to bring with me all the good that 2020 brought. People keep emphasizing how bad 2020 was, and yes, there was no shortage of legitimate crises. I certainly experienced a few trying ordeals this year! But as I like to tell my students with distance learning, Find another excuse. I’ve heard it all: My internet’s glitchy; My camera won’t work; My homework didn’t get sent from my outbox. 2020 has brought nothing but excuses; all I care about is what you’re going to do about it.

Pandemic or not, cancer or not, everyday brings the chance to appreciate life, to witness the magic of the world in the simplest of things; adventure beckons us daily. Life is begging to be appreciated, to be recognized, to be revered. It’s up to us to choose to heed its call, to open our eyes to its beauty. That’s one of the main lessons I got out of this year. Look up to the sky, look down at the tidepools at the beach, at the spores of fungi rising from the forest floor. Life persists, and life is eternally awesome; take notice! There is a rhythm to life that beats fiercely, a synergy of flow and grace. That’s what I’m choosing to stay focused on – in 2020, 2021, whatever year I’m lucky enough to be alive in.

Happy New Year! 

Post-Cancer Treatment Blues

My life feels a little bit like a post-apocalyptic movie these days. A torched Earth smolders as survivors scan the horizon for signs of life, all but unrecognizable under a silvery ash. While grateful to be alive, they can’t help but feel a bit shell shocked. Stunned, people emerge from the shadows, wondering out loud: 

What happened?! 

It’s been over two months since I finished radiation treatment for breast cancer, and I feel like I am living in such a land, wandering around my new reality of life post-cancer treatment. I feel like I’m walking in the burnscar of the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire that happened in the Santa Cruz Mountains in August 2020. The landscape is familiar, but the devastation is pervasive, even with signs of regrowth. The analogy to cancer is stark.

I am exceptionally grateful to be alive at all, but the uncertainty of recurrence, coupled with a gnawing anger about why I didn’t catch it sooner, haunts me on a daily basis. I’d read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among cancer patients, particularly after treatment ends; it helped to know that some irritability, worry, and depression were to be expected. As I wrote about in my last post, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jekyll and Hyde, vacillating between feeling extraordinarily grateful for life, and feeling totally down about cancer. 

Adapting to my new life post-treatment presents a slew of challenges I couldn’t quite appreciate until I was actually done with the bulk of treatment, chemotherapy and radiation. I am still in treatment, technically; about eight weeks ago, I started taking Tamoxifen, a daily anti-estrogen pill, in hopes of reducing my risk of recurrence. I may be on it for the next ten years. My current sadness and worry could be compounded by Tamoxifen, which is linked to depression and changes in mood, and I don’t doubt its influence. 

As I’m learning, there are really no guarantees of reducing your risk of recurrence, despite all the measures you take. Accepting this reality has been the hardest thing to adapt to in my new life. When I finished radiotherapy on September 23, 2020, I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. It was soon overshadowed, however, with a nagging, dubious worry: did treatment work? Were there still any cancer cells in my body, and if so, how many, and where? To what degree – if any – could I influence whether these cells would go on to proliferate? How much was within my control, and how much was just random chance? And what was I supposed to do with all this newfound fear I was feeling? I’ve been wrestling with these questions daily. 

It is totally unsettling to know that there’s no promising anything worked, and that it could still come back. Only time will tell. Coming to terms with the mystery of what caused my cancer in the first place, and the ambivalence about my treatment’s efficacy, is tough. There’s a lot of grey area that I have to learn to live with, and as I’m starting to see, being mad about it doesn’t really help in the long run. I haven’t yet reconciled my anger, clearly.  

I’m a pretty tenacious, strong person; a realist-optimist. I will sit on a ridgetop in sixty mile per hour winds in a blizzard, and relish in the potential that awaits in the descent on my snowboard. I’ll pedal up a punishing mountain pitch, day after day, because I know how fun it is to ride down it. I enjoy making myself uncomfortable – pushing out of my down-filled comfort zone, stretching my seams. I am a self-proclaimed master of delayed gratification, understanding the give and take of earning your turns. I love a good challenge, and I’m not afraid to work hard for a reward. I’ve been skydiving, rock climbing hundreds of feet off the ground, and I fly through the forest on my bike like a bat – agile, responsive, completely aware of its surroundings, guided by echolocation through the trees. I am human, of course, and I do crash into things from time to time; I’ve had some pretty scary – and painful – falls.

But breast cancer? This has been a bit much. This is by far the scariest thing I’ve ever dealt with, hands down. I don’t feel like such a badass in the face of cancer. I am learning to navigate this new world of uncertainty, and it calls for more humility than I’ve ever known.

I take pride in being an athlete, and an intellectual. It has been relentlessly difficult to accept that my strength and fitness didn’t prevent me from getting sick. Equally, it’s hard for me to accept that I’m having slight symptoms of chemo brain; over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed moments of it, as much as I hate to admit it. Sometimes, when I’m watching Jeopardy!, the answers don’t come quite as quickly, or at all; I can see the first letter of the answer in my mind, but the rest doesn’t come. Then again, I’m able to recall many answers with rapidity. There’s other signs, though. When I’m writing, occasionally I have trouble thinking of a word; it may take longer to identify it. There are moments when I can’t remember a fact or detail about a topic right away that I would typically know. Occasionally, I find myself repeating things, thematic as this time in my life may be. 

It’s not constant, but I know myself well enough to notice a difference sometimes. I feel my brain working a little bit harder than usual. I do crossword puzzles and word jumbles everyday; I read; I practice my Spanish. I’ll do all I can to fight it, even if it is a normal side effect of treatment. A lot of it could be compounded by fatigue, but I hope it resolves soon.

The shame that goes with cancer is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. No holds barred, just writing about chemo brain makes me feel a little inadequate. Sometimes I feel like damaged goods, like I’m eternally flawed. There’s a feeling of failure so complete that it can blind you of your prevailing assets; like there’s something wrong with me – something terribly, irretrievably wrong. It’s torturous. I’ve gone over every detail of my life with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing everything from my past to the soup of pollutants I’ve been exposed to since my birth in 1980. The mystery of cancer is maddening. It is incessantly frustrating to have no clear answer for why I got it, or what I’m doing now that may invite it back. It makes me feel powerless. 

In a way, I feel like I’ve been marked for death. Dramatic as that may sound, when you have a roughly fifty percent fifteen-year recurrence rate according to some studies, you might feel the same. Based on my young age at diagnosis (39), large primary tumor size at resection (44 mm), metastasis to 3 lymph nodes, and Nottingham grade of 9, I don’t have the best long-term prognosis. Of the dozens of articles I’ve read on NCBI, my favorite website of late, most of them outline elevated risks of recurrence for someone in my shoes. I was Stage IIB, with ER/PR+, HER2-, BRCA-, invasive ductal carcinoma. My odds aren’t as good compared to someone who was diagnosed at Stage 1 with a small tumor confined to one breast. I didn’t catch it early, and I’ll forever regret it. Granted, my odds maybe aren’t quite as bad as someone diagnosed Stage IV. Likewise, someone who caught it early may have a recurrence, while someone who caught it late may live to die old. There are shades of grey in the world of breast cancer, and none of us know if our cancer will come back until it does or doesn’t. The research is growing, and studies can provide estimates and averages, but cancer remains enigmatic.

I’ve been reading lots of breast cancer blogs and forums about life post-treatment, trying to hear some echoes in the cybersphere. I can hear them loud and clear; it comforts me when I read about someone else feeling how I do, worrying about recurrence, or having post-treatment fatigue. PTSD is mentioned often, and I feel like I may be experiencing some level of it lately.

I’ve been feeling extremely irritable, getting riled up at things that I may usually let slide. Someone’s nose sticking out of their half-on mask? I almost see red. 

Cover your beak! I fume inside. 

Someone stares at me stone-faced and doesn’t say Hi back on the trail? 

Why does everyone always have to act too cool?! I lament internally. I really do wish people would say hello more often out on the trails, even during, or rather, especially during, a pandemic. Enough with the stoic aloofness already. 

Admittedly, I am regularly annoyed. I’m not handling any sort of stress very well; I get an immediate pit in my stomach. I’m sensitive, and find myself more defensive than usual. I’m like an injured dog who just wants to be left alone to heal. I’ve got a real case of the cancer blues. 

I felt some of it earlier during treatment, but now it’s worse than it’s ever been. Every time I don’t feel well, I wonder if it’s back. A headache, stomach ache, or even neck tension can put me on alert. My body, usually a source of pride and joy, feels tarnished by an insidious, lurking agent of death. I feel like a timebomb has been implanted within me, and I have no idea how much time is on it; it could be months, or years. 

The uncertainty I live with now is all encompassing. It feels like I’m constantly waiting for the bottom to drop out. I used to be excited about the future, like the blank slate before me was inviting instead of menacing. Now, I feel worried about the future, untrusting. It’s like getting bitten by a dog; you’re always on guard for it to snap at you again.

Pelicans Over the Pacific

Exacerbating matters is the loss of my beautiful, long hair. Though the Paxman cold cap saved my hair for the most part, it got really thin at the end and is pretty awful looking at the moment. I’ve cut it to about chin length, with my new growth spiking up a few inches long, coming in thick all over my head to my excitement. Overall, I lost probably over 75% of my hair. When I pull it back into a ponytail, it looks somewhat decent, but I don’t feel like my old self; I see yet another thing cancer has taken from me. Ultimately, I’m glad I did the cold cap treatment, as it was a blessing to keep my hair during treatment. 

When I could see my tumor, right before my mastectomy, I was so terrified by how it had started to protrude out of the skin, as if staring me in the face. I am taunted everyday by the fact that I didn’t catch it earlier, that it hid so well under a well-known and large, examined fibroadenoma. I can’t help but wonder where else in my body it may have taken up residence. Like a zombie fire, lurking beneath the forest floor after a wildfire, cancer can smolder insidiously before roaring back to life, swallowing everything whole. Recurrence often means death within a few years. 

I may flippantly joke that at least I don’t have to suffer getting old if I die young, but it doesn’t come close to easing my truest fears about dying from cancer. I think about how I’ll die, specifically; will it be pneumonia? Will I stop being able to swallow, and then die a couple of days later? Will I suffer a stroke or heart attack amid the stress of disease? Will it be sudden, prolonged, painful, or peaceful? Controlled, or random?

Or will I die from a distracted, texting driver on the road who hits me on my bike?

I’ve always had a pretty good handle on how short life is, and that we could die at any time, but I think about death far more often than I ever have these days. When I look back on everything I’ve been through this year – from diagnosis on February 3, to double mastectomy on February 26, to eight rounds of dose-dense chemo, to five weeks of radiation, to now being on Tamoxifen…it makes my head spin. I do feel like I’m walking through a post-apocalyptic world, where the scorched Earth is my poor body. 

I am alive and kicking, however, and I have an insatiable lust for life. 

I keep riding my bike, almost everyday, because it’s one of the few things I can do to instantly improve my mood, lighten my load, and put a big smile on my face. It’s been my refuge, my solace, my therapy, my motivation, and I am thankful for each and every ride. I don’t think about cancer when I’m riding downhill; I simply feel like a badass mountain biking bee-atch. I feel inspired, confident, grateful, and happy when I’m flowing on two wheels. 

There is a curious, fighting spirit in me; a positive streak, refocusing my energy to gratitude, to all the things that are going well in the world, and all the people that do say hi back on the trail; to all of the incredible living beings that inhabit this amazing planet. 

This is the flipside of the dichotomy of healing: the amazingly appreciative attitude that emerges after fighting for your life. On the other side of fear and anger is love and acceptance, a reverence for the miracle of life. I have had many days where I feel like I’m living in a dream, where I feel blessed beyond measure. I can spend hours marveling at tidepools, rock formations, birds in the forest. We had a heavenly trip to Yosemite and Mono Lake this Autumn, which felt like walking through a watercolor painting.

El Capitan
Halfdome

The recent King Tides have brought a wonderful world of exploration along the California coast. 

I feel calm, content, and free when I’m out in nature, and I prioritize time outside. There’s a childlike wonder for the universe that thrives inside me, perhaps saving me throughout this challenging experience, keeping my perspective in check. Immersing myself in the beautiful, infinitely intriguing world – its plants, animals, geology, and complex history – has provided a stable escape all my life. I feel comforted when I’m learning something new, and it always reminds me how much bigger life is than me and my “problems”, real as a problem as cancer may be. Losing yourself in a good book, or good online article for that matter, is one of life’s simplest yet most powerful pleasures; it can be therapeutic, really. I am grateful to live in a day and age where so much information is at my fingertips. Learning serves as somewhat of an antidote to self-pity; you have to focus on something beside yourself, gleaning valuable information, which then makes you happy. 

California Sunset

I am learning emotionally, too – to accept that feeling down is normal, and human, after everything I’ve been through this year. Forgiv