Collateral Damage, Cancer, and Lightning Fires

The wind tore in through our bedroom window like a vortex, whipping the helpless curtain against my face like the beat of an eagle’s wing. I awoke with the urgency of an alarm clock, sat up in bed to look out the window, and hurriedly roused my husband from his sleep. It sounded like a tornado was raging through our yard.

Baby, wake up! Look how windy it is! I exclaimed.

The pitter patter of blowing debris, redwood cones and needles, desiccated as desert sand, were flying into our house as loud as pebbles. Then, the sky lit up. An illumination rarely seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains, lightning was putting on a show. The bellowing crackle of thunder soon followed, short-lived and indicating its proximity. We were both glued to our windows watching Earth’s awesome power manifest, slightly afraid of a tree or limb falling on our house, rapt by the spectacle before our eyes. A brief downpour ensued, followed by more gale-force winds, lightning, and thunder.

It was the morning of August 16, 2020, and it served as somewhat of a metaphor for the last six months of my life. On February 3, 2020, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer; invasive ductal carcinoma,  ER/PR+, BRCA-, HER2- to be exact. This whole experience has been like a thunderstorm in many ways – sparking fires as collateral damage, roaring fearsomely like a lion, leaving me humbly cowering at times, its lightning striking away at my health and safety. Now, a series of unprecedented wildfires rage in the mountains West of our home, brought on by that lightning; the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has already destroyed over 100 structures, with thousands of residents displaced.

We were evacuated from our home in Ben Lomond early Thursday morning on August 20. The day before, August 19, had been like peeling off a band-aid; I’d had my first day back to work as a teacher after a six month leave of absence to deal with my cancer treatment – a professional development day without students – and was quickly overwhelmed. We were due to start teaching on Monday, August 24, under a full distance learning model. Though I consider myself to be relatively tech-savvy, the plethora of online tools – Zoom, Peardeck, Screencastify, to name a few – sent me into a tailspin. We had a staff meeting on Zoom where we couldn’t even agree on the most efficient way to take attendance, despite all having a good rapport with each other. Clearly, it was going to be a very different kind of year.

I also had my first radiation appointment that afternoon, which had been a long forty-five minutes of lying with my arms stretched out above my head, and my neck turned to the side. It was as if I’d been pulled like a rubber band, and my neck was aching like crazy. They’ll get faster as the appointments go on, but that first one is always the longest, they assured me.

We went to sleep on Wednesday night under an evacuation warning, skies filled with smoke and ash. The fire was still relatively far from us, but we were told to prepare for imminent evacuation. The pink glow of fire loomed on the horizon North of us, and the sounds of propane tanks exploding, presumably, boomed like bombs in the far distance. We had both of our cars packed up with our valuables – bikes, snowboards, old letters, pictures, and memorabilia; clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other odds and ends. We had the grace of packing up with time to spare, unlike other folks who had to rush from their homes with minutes to spare. It is a heart wrenching process to choose which items you want to take with you, and which you must leave behind, during such an ordeal.

Around 3 a.m. that night, early Thursday morning of August 20, we were awakened by a repetitive uptone siren blaring from a sheriff’s car, followed by the eerie echo of his voice through our quiet canyon in the San Lorenzo Valley:

“There is a mandatory evacuation order for this area. Please evacuate immediately.”

He repeated the order, driving methodically throughout our neighborhood to the few remaining residents with cars in the driveway. Most of our neighbors had preemptively evacuated on Wednesday. A reverse 911 call had gone out earlier in the night, but we didn’t get it. The patrol car pulled right up to our house, lights flashing, and repeated the evacuation order via megaphone.

We immediately put Beau in his crate, and got into our cars. We knew there were shelters already set up in Santa Cruz, but were worried about how our cat would react in the chaos of other evacuees and their stressed pets barking and meowing. Unsure of where to go, I went to the closest shelter I knew of: my classroom.

It’s a strange feeling being on campus in the middle of the night; the security lights aglow through a blanket of ash and smoke, illuminating pockets of haze. We settled into my classroom, set up Beau’s food, water, and litter box with a large cardboard box normally used to hold some of my rock collection. We laid our sleeping bags onto the floor, and tried to comfort Beau as he cried in anxiety and confusion. Of all times, now was one I wish I could communicate with him and tell him what was going on. We didn’t sleep really at all that night, but by first light, Beau was curled up in my sleeping bag against my stomach, as if trying to crawl into me for comfort and security. Soon after, we heard the custodians arrive, and figured it was time to go.

Although our town was still under evacuation order, we made the decision to return home and grab a few more things; there were many people out and about still, cars packed to the brim. We’d checked the fire map and saw we were at least a few miles from the fire, and by the afternoon, Highway 9 was closed at Glen Arbor Road, the turn off for our neighborhood. I had to show my driver’s license to get back in. I had the worst tension headache from the radiation visit the day before, returning to work, and of course, the stress of evacuating. Though not the wisest choice, I took a nap in my bed, catching up on lost sleep, before getting up in the afternoon to drive over the hill to Santa Clara for my second radiation appointment at the Kaiser Cancer Treatment Center. I was astounded by the hoards of cars, RVs, and trailers filling parking lots; cars full of surfboards, bikes, kayaks, filled with as many valuables as could fit. The urgency was palpable as I drove North over Highway 17.

By the time I returned home, ash and smoke were ominously filling the valley. A compassionate, generous, and gracious friend of mine in Santa Cruz reached out to me, offering us a place to stay. She was taking her family out of the area to escape the suffocating and unhealthy air quality, and said we could stay as long as we needed.

I was so moved by her grace; we drove down that afternoon to her nice home in Santa Cruz, where we are safe and sound now, Beau included. Anxious about the status of our home, currently about a mile from the CZU Lightning Complex fire burning west of Highway 9 as of today – Sunday, August 23, 2020 – all we can do is wait. Officials have repeatedly noted it may be weeks before we can return to our homes. With the start of the school year delayed for at least a week, who knows when I will start teaching again. We are making arrangements to likely head up to mother and stepfather’s house in Walnut Creek next.

As we wait for next steps, I reflect back on the last six months of cancer treatment amid a global pandemic. Like the ferocious winds of our recent thunderstorm, cancer uprooted my sense of stability and invincibility, threw everything up in the air, and reminded me I am not completely in charge of my life. I’ve worked hard to find flow and grace throughout this adventure, but I haven’t come out unscathed. The collateral damage of cancer treatment is revealing its insidious side effects, much like the wildfires sparked by lightning that continue to burn in the Santa Cruz Mountains and throughout California.

As our governor Gavin Newsom eloquently surmised, “If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California”. No one deserves these fires, but they signal the collateral damage of years of pollution and abuse to our planet. Scientists have been warning us for years that fires like these would become more widespread and destructive. How severe, how long, and how recoverable they will be, like my own side effects, remain to be seen. 

I finished my eighth round of chemotherapy on August 5. It was slightly anticlimactic; I wasn’t expecting to feel a huge sense of relief or accomplishment, but I was excited to reach the milestone. It was also my longest appointment yet; they’d forgotten to turn on the cold cap machine, and there was a delay in getting my chemo ready, so I was there for seven hours from start to finish. Then, the nurses sang the Graduation Song to me, but called me Karen instead of Katrin, something I’m used to after having my name butchered for years. It wasn’t a big deal, and bless them for working during a pandemic! I am just extra sensitive these days.

I left feeling like I’d reached a checkpoint of my treatment, but humbled enough by the experience to know I might be back someday. I won’t say I’m done with chemo, for I heard enough women talk about being back for chemo years later in the infusion clinic. I’m not superstitious, but I believe humility is important here. I didn’t like the certificate of completion they presented me with; it seemed like tickling the tiger’s tail. Though I finished my currently prescribed chemo regimen, I won’t gloat that it’s my last, or talk about how I’m beating cancer. Only time will tell. 

I started a five-week radiation therapy regimen on Wednesday, August 19, where I’ll go in for daily, short appointments, Monday through Friday. This week, I also returned to work after a six month leave of absence, including summer vacation. Aside from being a toddler, this was the longest continuous stretch of time off in my life, where I wasn’t working, in school, or both. It hasn’t been a vacation, but there’s been many moments I’ve enjoyed.

This will be my fifteenth year of teaching. I’ll dive into the world of distance learning as a Seventh Grade Math and Science Teacher, delivering lessons via Zoom, at some point. This is the new reality for most students and teachers in the United States, but a return to in-person instruction is surely the ultimate goal on the horizon. When that is safe to do so remains a contentious topic of debate and careful weighing of risks, restricted by the parameters of an inadequately funded public school system that needs more resources to protect everyone on-campus from COVID-19; and, of course, how this fire behaves. 

The last day I was in my classroom with students was February 13, 2020, and I don’t know when I’ll meet my new students in-person. I do know it’ll be an adjustment for me going back to work, back to the routine, but I look forward to focusing my energy on something other than taking good care of myself. I yearn for that sense of normalcy, of living my life free from the tunnel of cancer treatment. We are all yearning for a sense of normalcy after living in some form of shelter-in-place during this pandemic, and now having gone through the stress of evacuating our homes. The coupling of these challenges has tested me in ways I’m still uncovering. 

It hasn’t been a tunnel all the way, however. I’ve had some profound, enlightening realizations during this time – about life, myself, and how I want to continue living, should I have that chance. I think every cancer patient goes through something like this. Your biggest fear is death, but once you reconcile with that, it heightens your gratitude, enriches the love in your relationships, and deepens your patience. It’s also difficult, depressing, and defeating, at times. Balancing these emotions calls for finding flow and grace wherever you can; sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them, but they’re always there in some shape or form. As usual, mountain biking continues to be a huge source of flow and grace for me.

Reflecting back on my treatment so far, I am extremely grateful for the good graces I’ve been blessed with. Between having a place to stay right now, the delay of the start of the school year, and the support and love of family and friends, I have been quite lucky. My sister went above and beyond and started a GoFundMe account for me and Ron to help us with whatever unforeseen costs may be associated with this fire and our evacuation, and to help with costs already accrued from cancer treatments. It moves me to tears how kind and giving people have been; I almost don’t feel worthy. Gratitude doesn’t express how much it means to me.

Having a place to stay right now is another huge blessing. I am so grateful for having four walls and a roof over our head, especially with Beau. Although he has been crying every night, keeping us from getting a thorough night’s sleep, I am so relieved he is with us and out of the fire zone. It’s been a stressful time, and we worry about our house, checking the fire maps and news often. It is completely out of our control, but we still spend a great deal of time everyday looking at our phones or computers, gathering all the information we can. We are filled with appreciation for the hundreds of firefighters working to defend our communities on the front lines.

I feel sad for everyone who’s already lost their homes, and equally so for the wildlife. It breaks my heart thinking about the damage at iconic state parks like Big Basin, reported to be badly damaged. Statewide, thousands of people are in the same boat as us, wondering whether they’ll have a home to go back to. It’s a dynamic and changing situation, with many ramifications yet to unfold, and we will all be inexorably linked after this shared experience.

It’s crazy to think just a week ago we were still enjoying the Summer. I was lucky to get outside a lot this Summer and recreate in beautiful places. From mountain biking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to beach days in Santa Cruz, to out-of-town adventures in Shasta, the Tule River, Lake Tahoe, and Downieville, I’m happy for what we’ve been able to do in spite of everything.

Celestially, it’s been a banner year. From the pink supermoon back in February, to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower in May, to the cameo of the comet Neowise, to the streaking fireballs of the Perseid meteor shower in August, there’s been no shortage of excitement in the sky. I love knowing how infinite the universe is, and how tiny we are in comparison.

We were lucky to see the beautiful comet Neowise several times before it faded out of view, gone for another 6,800 years. My phone camera certainly doesn’t capture its brilliance; when viewed through binoculars, it was exceptionally phenomenal! Seeing it from the Santa Cruz Mountains was good, but from the total darkness of a new moon in Mt. Shasta was breathtaking. Its tail was so long; its nucleus so bright. I found it remarkably rewarding to see, and made a point to visit with it several evenings.

We went to Mt. Shasta for a California Enduro Series mountain bike race, a place I’d never ridden before. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the race with all of the fatigue I’d been having with chemo. Fellow mountain bike racers know how hard these races can be, but at least this race had a few lift-assisted race runs being at Shasta Bike Park, and only two climbs. I raced in the Expert Women’s category, and pre-rode all but one of the race stages the day before with Ron. We had a super fun time together, and it was awesome to see Neowise again at night. 

Mt. Shasta

On raceday, I lagged through my first stage, the only one I hadn’t preridden the day before, of course. The next four stages were better, although I didn’t want to crash and possibly rupture my port, so I metered myself carefully, balancing between charging fast, and staying in control while dirt-surfing new terrain. The volcanic dirt was slippery, deep, and unavoidable. That’s one of the things I love about mountain biking – how well it connects to geology. The geology of a region determines how you can ride it. The terrain from location to location varies in both subtle and overt ways, but Mt. Shasta was surely the antithesis of the loamy, redwood forest dirt of Santa Cruz. It was a fun, challenging race, and I did really well on my final stage, the Downhill, which felt great. I was happy with fourth place at the end of the day; I hadn’t expected to make the podium. Although I could’ve ridden faster, I was proud of how I did considering the circumstances. 

Ron and I set out the next week for a camping trip with my sister and her family, my mom, and stepdad, on the Tule River in Sequoia National Park. It was hot, beautiful, and perfect; the Tule River glistened with refreshing beads of water, flowing freely and steadily. I love water, but I especially love rivers. Playing all day in the sun, jumping in the river, lizarding on warm rocks, only to repeat the cycle again, was exactly what I needed. I think the cold water even helped with my bone pain, a side effect from the dose-dense Taxol infusion I had two days before going camping. Cold therapy helped save most of my hair, and I believe it also helped my musculoskeletal pain. It was an amazing camping trip. Ron and I even did a short bike ride up the Wishon Trail. 

Tule River Heaven

We had so much fun camping, we headed out a few days later for Downieville, Lake Tahoe, and Northstar. We had an incredible ride down the Downieville Downhill, getting dropped off at about 7,000’ at Packer Saddle, descending some sixteen miles down to the tiny town of Downieville at 2,900’. I’ve done this ride dozens of times, and it never gets old; it only gets more fun! The more you know a trail, the better, and faster, you can ride it. We camped off a dirt road off Highway 49, and rode Northstar Bike Park the next day, a total blast. The perfect end to a sweaty, dusty day on the slopes? A dip in Lake Tahoe! Absolute heaven. These are the moments I live for.

I was due for my next chemo treatment after our trip, but my white blood cells and neutrophils were low, again. My doctor prescribed a stronger dose of Zarxio (480 Mcg) for me to take for a couple of days to get my numbers up, which worked; my WBC jumped from 1.8 to 57! Normal range is about 3.7 – 11 K/uL, so seeing this spike was a bit alarming; my oncologist assured me this was okay. She wasn’t sure why my WBC kept dropping so low, so prescribed me to continue with the stronger dose for my week of Zarxio shots post-chemo. Bone pain is a side effect of Zarxio, and this cycle I really felt it; it was as if I’d run a marathon as a ninety-year old woman everyday for about a week. My knees, hips, and legs felt as heavy as lead. It was my worst cycle yet, and was compounded by continued hair loss. Every time I took a shower or combed my hair, I parted ways with locks of hair.

I had a thick head of hair before I started chemo, and using the Paxman Cold Cap, I am lucky I didn’t lose it all. It is extremely thin, however, and I’d estimate I’ve lost at least 75% of my hair. In the early cycles of chemo, it wasn’t super obvious, but it is really noticeable now. I’m grateful for what hair I do have, but I can’t deny I don’t look or feel like myself when I look in the mirror. I’ve cut it to about shoulder-length, where it sometimes looks like I have a mullet because it’s so thin! I have a thin spot on the back of my head where my part begins, which can be covered with some of my hair like a comb-over, but is pretty clear to see at times. Putting my hair up in an old-lady bun, as I jokingly call it, gives me the fullest coverage. My sideburns are starting to grow back in, though, along with the thin spots on my scalp. I am encouraged by every hair that emerges. Had I not used the cold cap, I would have been completely bald after the first or second treatment. My eyelashes and eyebrows have almost all but fallen out, with only light, wispy hairs sticking it out. I look in the mirror and see the eyes of a cancer patient, but I see myself alive, which is most important. 

Ron and I got out of town a few days after my final scheduled chemo treatment, spending two glorious nights at the Downieville River Inn. We did a long bikeride the first day on the Gold Valley Rim Trail to Pauley Creek Trail, connecting with Butcher Ranch and Third Divide back to town. Ron got a flat tire, which he promptly fixed; Downieville is famous for flats, so we come prepared, especially after Ron’s first ride in 2016! We both ride tubeless, but that doesn’t grant you flat immunity.

Gold Valley Lookout

We even startled a bear off the trail! The noise of it blazing through manzanita brush got my attention, as I watched it run away with purpose. I love seeing wildlife! That’s one of my favorite parts about outdoor adventures.

Yuba & Downie Rivers Confluence

The next day, we rode the Downieville Classic Downhill route, our usual, where we had one of our fastest rides until the very end of the trail, where I flatted. Ron fixed my tire with ease, and we cruised back to town for a rejuvenating dip in the Downie and Yuba rivers’ confluence. We spent a second night of stellar stargazing, watching the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. It was the most dramatic show we’d ever seen – huge fireballs racing across the sky every couple of minutes. The darkness of the Sierras provided the ideal viewing opportunity. It was simply magical.

The next day, we swam in the Yuba River, taking out our airbed on it, and drove to the Truckee Bike Park in Truckee for some laps on their pump tracks. We spoiled ourselves that night with a luxury suite at the Peppermill in Reno, with our own hot tub. It was worth every penny, and every risk of coronavirus; we didn’t even leave the room until checkout the next morning. It was a much-needed relief, and I felt myself let go of the tension of the previous months. We rode Northstar Bike Park, flying down first runs on Livewire, and had an awesome day! This was a real vacation for us, and much deserved after all we’ve been through. My husband has, after all, been right by my side every step of the way, bless him dearly. 

The icing on the cake was swimming with bioluminescent plankton in Santa Cruz! We went two nights in a row to play in the waves, rejoicing as the water lit up while we moved our limbs, tiny dinoflagellates bioluminescing in reaction. The waves were glowing purplish-blue, rushing around us as we splashed around. It was absolutely ethereal, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! These phone pictures don’t do it justice, but it kind of shows the idea. It is so much brighter when you are in the water interacting with it.

Swimming With Plankton

Aside from our adventures outside, I am super grateful for my entire family coming to visit me this Summer; the first such gathering ever in the 22 years I’ve lived in Santa Cruz. It speaks volumes of my family to come together during a pandemic to make it happen. My oldest sister flew out from London, quarantined with her two young children for two weeks just so she could see us all; she would then have to quarantine another two weeks upon returning back home. My other sister drove up from San Diego with her family, and my parents came down from the Bay Area. It meant the world to me!

Having us all together in one place was such a blessing, something I deem a triumph. The fact that we could all make it happen – with our masks, outdoor gathering, and socially distanced behavior, of course – was nothing short of victorious. I will forever look back on this Summer as the Summer my whole family came to visit me. Though my cancer may have been the catalyst for our meeting, we had fun and celebrated our time together, a synergy of positivity. We had so much fun together, and I am filled with gratitude for all of them coming to visit me. Now that I am going through the risk of a wildfire ravaging my home, their love and support means even more to me.

I feel like it’s been a lifetime since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That old Katrin is still there, but I am undoubtedly different today, indelibly marked with battle scars and collateral damage. I remember reading about collateral damage, how your body suffers in the long run from the multitude of surgeries, chemotherapy, hormonal, and radiation treatments involved with breast cancer. Neuropathy, lymphedema, secondary sarcomas, heart disease, and cataracts are just a few examples of the detrimental side effects of breast cancer treatment. 

While I fared relatively well through my eight rounds of chemo, save for some fatigue and musculoskeletal pain from a few of my Taxol infusions, I am already seeing my own collateral damage. The worst part? Lymphedema. I developed it about a month ago; my left thumb, fore, and middle fingers began to swell on a daily basis, after only the slightest activity. I’d unscrew the hose nozzle, or floss my teeth, or do the dishes, and I’d have a ridiculously fat thumb, decreasing its range of motion as it swelled. My forearm also felt tight, like a rubber band was contracting it. I had continued to do the anti-lymphedema exercises I learned in the pre-surgery clinic I attended, do yoga, and watched some YouTube videos for other stretching methods, but somehow it flared up. 

About a month ago, I started getting shooting, electric pains down the back of my upper arm, or triceps, and swelling in that area. My forearm and fingers continued to be tight. Lymphedema is a drainage disorder of the lymphatic system, in my case caused by the removal of my left lymph nodes. They caution you to monitor for the HAFNTS – Heaviness, Achiness, Fatigue, Numbness, Tingling, Swelling – and the second you feel one of those symptoms, you’re supposed to stop what you’re doing and stretch, elevate, or rest. I was feeling the AFS part, for sure. 

I don’t know if it was all the mountain biking I did, the Summer heat, a scratch on my left arm from a twig I’d grazed, or an itchy mosquito bite that may have triggered its onset, as there are many causes. When you have your axillary lymph nodes removed during a mastectomy, as I did, you already have a 20-30% risk of developing lymphedema; this number increases with the number of nodes removed, and if you have radiation treatment, which I am. I had 33 lymph nodes removed, three of which were cancerous; my surgeon remarked she’d never seen so many lymph nodes. I had another surgeon perform an anti-lymphedema drainage procedure during my mastectomy to possibly reduce my odds of developing lymphedema. I was told it may help, but there was no guarantee. Perhaps it helped me not to suffer a more severe case, but now that I’m fighting it, I know it can worsen over time. I’ll be seeing a physical therapist soon for more exercises, and my surgeon ordered an ultrasound of my arm to check for a blood clot, just in case; fortunately, no clot was discovered. 

I am spending at least an hour per day stretching, stopping often during activities. Typing is straining enough that I have to take breaks. I am sleeping with a pillow under my left arm again, even though it’s not very comfortable; I wonder if I hadn’t stopped that a few months ago if I’d be here now, but lymphedema is complex. It’s likely a combination of factors that got me here. Yoga is really helping, as is always the case with any malady. Lymphatic drainage massage is something I’m working on, too. When I have my implant exchange surgery, hopefully about six months after radiation therapy ends, my plastic surgeon said he would inject some fat into my armpit, which may reduce my symptoms. I am determined to get it under control somehow, but radiation is only supposed to worsen it. 

I had a bit of a scare with some swelling in my rib area, near where my tumor was. They didn’t know if it was costochondritis, or something else, so they ordered a CT scan of my entire chest, which revealed no signs of cancer. I was relieved the swelling wasn’t indicative of a recurrence. They attributed the swelling to leaks in my expanders, although it wasn’t the definitive cause. I was relieved that the scan was clear.

I haven’t noticed any chemo brain, or other side effects yet, but I am only just now starting radiation, which brings its own slew of side effects; most notably, fatigue, and radiation burns to the chest wall (I’ll never have breasts again; it is now simply the chest wall). I am already seeing some reddening of my skin. It also increases my risk of lung cancer, and pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic cough with varying degrees of severity and persistence over time. It may increase my chances of survival by 10%, however, and it may reduce my risk of recurrence by even more. I am due to start Tamoxifen two weeks after radiation therapy is done, which I’ll take daily as an estrogen-blocker for ten years, as suggested by my oncologist. Statistics are tricky with breast cancer, but I’m following my doctors’ treatment plan in hopes of good odds.

2020 has been much like the thunderstorm that plowed through California, starting multiple lightning fires whose damages are yet to be revealed. As the world adapts to the new normal of life in a pandemic; as students wait to return not to the classroom, but to their computer screens from home; as thousands of people sit in worry, displaced from their homes; as I continue to do all I can to fight my cancer, we are all forever changed by this year. We all will feel some sort of collateral damage from the storm this year has been. We have the opportunity to find grace where we can, and to find perseverance, whatever the challenge we’re going through. I know I’m not the only one going through a hard time, and that gives me some grace. It’s all relative, and I know there are people out there suffering worse challenges, which makes me count my own blessings.

I’ve had a decent time going through treatment so far, as good as can be hoped for in some ways. If someone had told me before chemo that I’d be mountain bike racing, camping, and able to do all of the activities I love to do most days, I wouldn’t have believed them. Now that I’ve lived it, I am immensely appreciative of the graces I’ve been granted. I am grateful for the drugs that may enable me to live a longer life; for living in the day and age of modern medicine. My love for my husband, family, and friends has grown exponentially. In some ways, I feel like cancer has only strengthened my resolve to live an adventurous, passionate life; to cultivate flow and grace in all aspects of my life. It makes me want to do the things I love even more, my way of saying I can still do it in spite of all that cancer has taken from me. I’m fighting for what I love with a stroke of vengeance.

Beau Guarding Our House

Ultimately, my biggest fear is that I will die from cancer, so I might as well live with as much vigor and attack as I can. Surely, I don’t want my house to burn down right now, either, but mostly, I just want my health. At the end of my life, I want to look back and know I gave it everything, that I dove in like a boulder to the pond of life, my splash as high as my zest for it. As much as dying from cancer scares me, shying away from living the life I love so dearly scares me even more. Even if I were to die this year, at least I know I’ve lived fully, despite having breast cancer during a pandemic, and a historic wildfire threatening our home.

Day by day is the only way to move forward, one step at a time. Signs of life persist – Monarch caterpillars and butterflies in our friend’s garden; hummingbirds gathering nectar from Salvia blooms; dogs out for walks with their human counterparts, taking advantage of brief moments of fresh air as the winds shift direction. Life is but a series of cycles, death included, yet we can rely on its willful force to push on.

Monarchs Mating

While many people joke about how bad 2020 has been, and I concur that it hasn’t been the best year, I realize how much mercy I’ve been granted. There is still more good than bad, and I have a lot to be grateful for yet. Just as the ashes of lightning fires regenerate land, the tapestry of my life experiences enriches me, hurdles included. May I be blessed enough to keep adding to it, and may I continue to find grace in the face of adversity, even if I lose my home; for property is replaceable, but life is not.

Finding Flow and Grace During Chemo

If adaptation and patience are the nature of this game, then flow and grace are its cornerstones. 

I am six chemotherapy treatments in for Stage 2-B invasive ductal carcinoma, and cases of COVID-19 are surging in the United States, including my home state of California. The world is turbulent on many levels. There’s been a lot of adaptation and patience since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 3, 2020, at the start of the pandemic. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, everything from a cold, to low white-blood cell (WBC) counts have caused delays in my chemotherapy. Once again, I had low counts in early June, and my fifth infusion was delayed a week until my WBC came back up.

I enjoyed the extra week off, visiting the tidepools in Santa Cruz, California, during minus-tides, which is absolutely breathtaking. I love spending hours exploring the biota and geology of beaches, especially on California’s tectonically dynamic coast. I’m a Natural History fiend. I find a lot of flow and grace living where I do, and am exceptionally grateful to live here!

On Friday, June 19, I had my first Taxol (Paclitaxel) infusion. It comes with a higher risk of allergic reaction, so the doctors prime you with 4mg Dexamethasone pills (brand name Decadron) – five the night before, and five the morning of; they also prescribe Pepcid AC, and Zyrtec the morning of. Due to the July 4 weekend in a couple of weeks, they delayed my next scheduled infusion #6 to Monday, July 6, instead of Friday, July 4. 

During my infusion (Day 1), they closely monitored my blood pressure, heart rate, and checked in on me regularly for signs of allergy, but fortunately I didn’t react. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was ice-packs for my hands and feet to help reduce the odds of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. I’d heard this was a possible side-effect of Taxol, but when my nurse told me it could become permanent, my nerves flared. I didn’t have any ice for that first Taxol infusion, which was a marathon infusion – 6 hours from check-in to check-out! Two full hours of cold-cap (30 minutes before infusion, and 1.5 hours afterward), plus three hours for the infusion itself…it was a very long day in the chair. I brought my awesome Geology book, though, and read it like crazy, which was an effective distraction; a way to flow through the appointment. I imagined myself in the mountains I was reading about; exploring the striations of folded rocks melded together by forces so colossal beneath our feet. Learning is one of the best tools for distraction and finding flow. It really helps to lose myself in a good book – especially one about my favorite subject, Science. The more time I invest in learning about the world around me, the smaller my problems seem. There is grace in perspective. There is always something more to learn, coupled with an incessant need to know more. Flow is procured by the pursuit of knowledge. 

I felt fine the next day (Day 2), and perhaps was energized from the steroid pills I’d taken the day before. I didn’t need to take the anti-nausea medicines, Zofran and Zyprexa, that I’d taken with the previous chemo cycles, as Taxol wasn’t known to cause bad nausea. I felt better knowing I didn’t need to take any pills aside from the ones I took before the infusion. The Zyprexa had even made me gain a few pounds, not that it really mattered. 

Later that day, I went for a long bike ride, which has been my saving grace throughout this journey. It was the Summer Solstice, and a beautiful day. The escape, fun, and confidence I get from being on my bike is impossible to articulate. It’s all about flowing with grace. I feel like a rockstar when I’m on my bike! 

It was also the ten-year anniversary of us adopting our beloved cat Beau, rescued from the streets of Santa Cruz by Ron. We spoiled Beau with treats and pets throughout the day, reminiscing through old photos of him as a Spring kitten. 

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Beau!

When I awoke on Day 3, I was sore beyond belief; not just typical post-ride sore, but creaking in my bones, slowly moving up and down the stairs like an old-lady kind of sore. I’d heard that musculoskeletal pain was common with Taxol, called arthralgias (joint pain) and myalgias (muscle aches), especially on Days 3-5, and here the pain had arrived, right on schedule. I felt like I’d run a marathon the day before (something I’ve never done before; 14 miles is my longest run yet). My knees felt like they had no cartilage; my ankles weak. My hips were as tight as a guitar string. It was pretty excruciating, but I knew sitting around the house wasn’t going to help, so I forced myself out for a short hike.

My legs felt heavy, and everything from my hips down to my feet ached like crazy, but it did feel better than sitting. Keep on moving! I may not be able to mountain bike everyday through chemo, but hiking, yoga, and merely puttering around the house and garden all help. That night, however, I was super uncomfortable just trying to get to sleep; I put a pillow between my knees because I couldn’t stand the pressure of my kneecaps touching. I cried a little bit from the pain, but managed to fall asleep. 

Sunday, June 21 was Ron and mine’s fourteen-year anniversary. Of all anniversaries, this one came with the least fanfare, understandably. I felt bad we couldn’t celebrate properly, but knew we’d make up for lost time eventually. 

Monday, Day 4, was the worst. It hurt to walk up and down the stairs of the house; my knees felt shaky and weak. Determined to keep on moving, I forced myself out for a hike at Big Basin Redwoods, roughly seven miles round trip up to Buzzard’s Crest. Again, it felt better to move than to sit still. It was my first time up here, and the views were incredible – Pacific Ocean to the West, Loma Prieta mountain to the East. This sandstone outcropping is evidence of the San Andreas Fault system which makes the mountains we mountain bikers so cherish here in Santa Cruz. I was pretty much limping by the time I went to bed that night, but I knew it was better than if I’d just sat around at home all day. I didn’t take any pain medication because I don’t like taking pills if I don’t have to, and I wanted to see just how bad the pain would be; I needed to know what I was up against. I like persevering through pain. 

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Another weird side-effect of chemo? You’re toxic for a few days after each infusion. That means closing the lid and flushing twice after using the toilet; using separate eating utensils, cups, and plates, all which must be washed carefully; not sharing any food or drink; and washing my sheets and clothing on the sanitary cycle. On top of the fatigue, dry skin, sensitivity to sunlight, and hair loss, you’re temporarily poisonous. 

Tuesday, Day 5, was a much better day. I was sore, but not in pain. Ron and I had an amazing day – our first date out together in months! We went to the Verve Coffee in Santa Cruz and got mochas to go; they had a strict No Cash policy, like many other stores these days. We went to Schwann Lake and checked out the beautiful families of nesting cormorants in the Eucalyptus trees, which was mesmerizing, before heading across the street to Twin Lakes Beach for a stroll, and a body-surf in the ocean for Ron.

Afterward, we went to the Crow’s Nest Beach Market and got take-out dinner, which we ate outside on a dock at the Santa Cruz Harbor. It felt amazing to be out with my husband, doing something normal. It also felt great to see other people out and about after months of shelter-in-place. And, my bone pain was fading. 

I woke up on Wednesday, Day 6, and felt totally fine. I’d made it through the hard part! I had a stellar bike ride to boot.

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My Baby

Thursday, Day 7, June 25, I woke up early to go up coast for a minus-tide exploration at one of my favorite beaches. It is night and day how different the landscape looks between low and high tide! I slowly strolled the beach, always avoiding stepping on living things. That’s most important when exploring tidepools: never step on anything living! It’s not worth seeing a creature if you have to step on even one barnacle to get there. Biota is lava! Don’t step on it. Tidepools can be severely impacted by hoards of people carelessly trampling them, so it’s imperative to Leave No Trace when exploring them. I spent five hours from the morning until afternoon, happy as a clam, in my element. These are some of the moments I live for.

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Ling Cod Washed Up

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Serenity

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Coastal California

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Minus Tide

That night, I had my first social event in months – since my last day at work on February 13, to be precise. Our awesome school principal, Mary, was resigning after nearly twenty years, taking a promotion over the Hill. We wanted to celebrate her years of dedication despite the pandemic, so a few wonderful teachers organized an outdoor gathering at a teacher’s home in Santa Cruz with a huge backyard. I was so excited driving over there; it didn’t occur to me how much I missed socializing until I was on my way! People! I would get to see people in a group, who I knew well and whose company I enjoyed. Friends! Camaraderie! Oh, Joy!

That evening was so uplifting. There were about twenty of us there, and we maintained social distancing quite well in the backyard. It was so good to catch up with each other, especially since I hadn’t seen any of them in over four months since I went on my leave-of-absence. I was giddy. I went home that evening feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm, cozy blanket. I’ve known many of my colleagues for thirteen years, so it definitely feels like family!

Friday, June 26 was equally fantastic. My spectacular father, Laird, came to visit me. We went out to lunch for our first time in months at one of my favorite restaurants in the San Lorenzo Valley – Casa Nostra. They have a huge outdoor patio for seating, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with perfect weather. I really cherish these dates with family, especially my dad. He was the first man to take me out to a really nice dinner back when I was a teenager, after all. We went back to my house afterward and relaxed outside in my garden, just talking for hours. It was one of those special days that simply evolves ever so beautifully. I felt so much love around me – from seeing my colleagues the day before, to this splendid day with my father. 

That weekend, I got out on my bike to Demo, one of my favorite places to go for a long ride; I rode Flow Trail, the perfect name for what I need right now in my life. 

I also went to the grocery store, which probably needs no further explanation; needless to say, it reminded me of the stressful times we are living in. I felt like I needed to get away from it all, to change my scenery and get out of town. Ron and I hadn’t been able to go anywhere out of the county for over four months (except doctor’s appointments in San Jose, and I made a trip in June to see my folks up in the Bay Area for the day), and I was really feeling like I needed a break. I have a positive attitude most of the time, but I’m human, too; this is a hard time I’m going through. Furthermore, we hadn’t enjoyed a hot tub in over four months, since February 25, the night before my mastectomy. We both love hot tubs, and usually take them often, but haven’t been able to go to our usual spot with SIP restrictions. 

We resolved that it was time to get out of town for the night – somewhere not too far away, but far enough to change perspective, and certainly get a hot tub in. We also were due to celebrate our anniversary from the week before. 

Monterey fit the bill perfectly. About an hour’s drive South of us, we set out on Monday, June 29 for what would be an idyllic two days spent amid ubiquitous beauty. It was sunny, fog-free, and glorious. We explored many different beaches, driving as far into Big Sur. We got scrumptious takeout from Rosine’s in downtown Monterey before returning to our hotel, which had its own hot-tub. It was absolute heaven – worth the escape in its own rite. It felt so amazing to finally take a hot tub!

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Big Sur

The next day, we rented kayaks in the morning and paddled out of Breakwater Cove around Fisherman’s Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, making a beach-landing on a secluded cove for a snack. It was just perfect! Rafts of sea-otters rolled in kelp beds nearby; salps floated near the surface like aliens encased in pods. Fish schooled near the surface, as seabirds dive-bombed them for lunch. Monterey Bay is a remarkable habitat, deserving of its status as a National Marine Sanctuary. It was the best two days we’d spent since February 3, and helped add some flow and grace back into our lives. We wore masks when we went out, and barely interacted with anyone.

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Later that week, I headed up to my mom and stepdad’s house in Walnut Creek for the day to see my sister and her awesome three kids from Carlsbad, and my dad; it was the first time we’d all been together in months! We spent the day outside exploring Las Trampas Creek behind their house, and really enjoyed seeing each other.

For Independence Day weekend, Ron and I spent both days playing in the waves at the beach in Santa Cruz. We felt like kids together, reminiscent of when we first got together, when I was just 25 and he 36. We also had our first real dinner-date in months at one of our favorite restaurants, Chocolate, eating at one of their sidewalk tables outside on Pacific Avenue. It was an ideal weekend; one of those perfect Santa Cruz Summer days. 

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It capped off over a week of a somewhat return to normalcy; to socially-distanced socializing, and getting out a bit more. It would also spark a spike in COVID-19 cases, as we weren’t the only ones happy to get out after months of restrictions. 

At the end of the weekend, I got my blood drawn in preparation for chemo, and alas, my bloodcounts were low. My WBC tanked to 2.7 K/uL (2.7 thousands per cubic kiloliter of blood, or 2,700), my lowest number yet; my platelets and neutrophils were low, too. On Monday morning July 6, the day I was scheduled for my sixth infusion, my oncologist informed me she was delaying my infusion by a week, until July 12. 

At that point, I voiced concerns over so many delays: eleven days delayed for my first infusion due to a cold I had, and got a negative test for COVID-19; seven days delay for low bloodcounts; another seven day delay for low counts; and now, she was proposing a nine day delay since I’d already been rescheduled from July 3 to July 6 for the holiday weekend. I understand that delays are part of the process, and data reigns supreme. Patience is the nature of the game, but I was going on a month of combined delays. I’d come across some articles online citing reduction of survival odds when chemotherapy regimes aren’t followed on schedule, when there are too many delays, and despite my oncologist’s attempts to allay my worries, I was pretty bummed by the prospect of another delay. 

My doctor heard me loud and clear, and suggested I take a stronger Zarxio injection for two days to boost my numbers; I’d re-test Tuesday July 7 in the afternoon to see if my numbers were up. Fortunately, they spiked rather freakishly, with my WBC all the way up to 57! I was cleared for chemo on Wednesday July 8, though, and was relieved at not having to wait another week for my sixth infusion.

Chemo #6 went okay; my nurse gave me ice-packs for my hands and feet this time, saying she didn’t want me to develop neuropathy. I assured her I’d bring my own ice-packs for the next two infusions, and thanked her profusely for her thoughtfulness. The day was long again, nearly six hours from start to finish, but I was happy to be progressing along. I even came home to a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from a sweet friend. If all goes to plan, I should have two more infusions of Taxol left. I preface that with an if simply because it’s likely my treatment plan will be adapted again, and there’s really no guarantee that the chemo will work at all. 

You won’t hear me saying, “I beat cancer!” or “I’m kicking cancer’s butt!” because I know the odds aren’t necessarily that great in the long-term. Humility is important here. I’ve read enough research, and personal stories, to know that cancer can come roaring back, and when it does, it’s almost always incurable. I’ve told Ron before that he has to be ready for that news, should it ever come, because it’ll mean I’m looking at an extension of life, not curing my cancer. People can live for years with metastatic breast cancer these days, by far longer than years past, but there is still no cure – yet. If this beast comes back, I realize it’ll be a whole different ball game. While I try to celebrate the positive progress I’m making in my treatments, I know it’s just a shot in the dark for good odds. It’s like an alcoholic or drug-addict; you’re never really cured of your disease, but you learn to live with it and, hopefully, avoid triggers. You must remain vigilant for the rest of your life, and can never let your guard down all the way; which is why adapting, having patience, and gleaning flow and grace are paramount to my happiness right now.

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I’ve written about it before, but I feel I’ve been blessed with many graces in my journey so far: the ability to take a leave-of-absence from work so I can truly focus on my treatment; getting my surgery done before such operations were delayed from the pandemic; a loving, rockstar husband who has gone above-and-beyond taking care of me emotionally, spiritually, and physically; a supportive, loving family, and a network of friends who check in on me, send me actual hand-written cards and letters, and even beautiful flowers; a roof over my head and food to eat; living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. And mountain biking! My gosh, it’s been a saving grace, deserving its own category. The more time I spend on my bike, the better I feel; it’s true therapy. Gratitude is key, and the list goes on for things to appreciate. 

I was blessed with an exceptional birding experience recently, right in my own backyard. As I was reading the book What It’s Like to be a Bird by David Allen Sibley, aptly given to me by my father, I was soaking in the pages about hummingbirds, and how their neck feathers are iridescent, flashing brilliant color directly at whomever’s looking at it. As I’m reading these pages, a gorgeous Allen’s Hummingbird buzzed the Salvia blooms right next to my garden chair. I sat motionless, squinting my eyes and closing my mouth to blend in further. The last thing a bird wants to see next to it is a pair of large eyes and a big mouth facing it – clear signs of a predator. Over my years of birding, I’ve gotten pretty good at blending into the background so as not to startle them. I took Ornithology classes in college and got into birding at UC Santa Cruz, my alma mater, but I learned so many interesting facts from this book.

As I sat there watching this beautiful bird gather nectar from flowers, it surprised me by flying right up in my face to check me out. I was wearing a bright, orange ball cap, which probably caught its attention, as its main color is orange. After inspecting me, it flew right next to my left arm resting on the chair. I didn’t move a muscle as it buzzed right by my arm, close enough to feel the wind of its feathers, within maybe half-an-inch of me. This was the closest any bird has ever gotten to me. I cherished the moment before the little hummer took off for the next Salvia plant. It was such a special experience! 

I’ve also been graced with a boon of celestial events: a pink Supermoon back in March; a mind-blowing meteor shower of the Eta Aquarids, with slow-flying meteors gracing the sky every ten seconds or so; and many stargazing night hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We livestreamed the solar eclipse on the Summer Solstice, which wasn’t visible in North America, and watched the recent penumbral lunar eclipse on June 13, albeit barely visible. I love how small I feel when I look into the sky; it is so comforting! 

Now it’s Thursday, July 9, 2020. I’m bracing for the musculoskeletal pain to kick in tomorrow, lasting for a few days, but I’ll see. Hopefully it won’t be too bad, and I won’t develop neuropathy in my hands and feet. I hope I can complete my last two infusions on schedule, finishing early August if all goes to plan. 

The Paxman Coldcap is mostly working, but I’ve lost well over half of my hair by now. My part and crown are thinning dramatically, and I have bald patches above my ears. Adriamycin, the chemotherapy drug I had for my first four cycles along with Cytoxan, almost always makes you lose your hair, so I am grateful for the hair I do have. Taxol is also known to cause hair loss, but the odds of the coldcap working on it are better than Adriamycin. Creative styling helps to cover my part in the meantime. It is too hot, and I’m too athletic to wear a wig, so hopefully I can make it through treatment without having to cut it all off. I’ll just have to wait and see. My eyebrows and eyelashes have also thinned quite a bit.

I’m due to return to work on August 24 for the first day of school, whatever that will look like. We have a few contingency plans in place for a hybrid schedule of part home, part in-person schooling, but it all depends on what the data for COVID-19 shows. We are all living in a world of uncertainty and waiting, a world in which adaptation and patience are the nature of the game, just like breast cancer. Who knows what August will bring? I’m due to start five weeks of radiation therapy after chemotherapy, something I’ll likely be doing after school each day. 

For now, all I can do is focus on all that’s good in life, for there is still far more good than bad. There’s a lot of gratitude, patience, adaptation, flow, and grace to be found. Though it’s somewhat deserving of its Bummer Year status, 2020 ain’t all bad. We’re all just adapting to some kind of new normal

 

Hoping for the Grace of Good Odds

Risk is as abundant as air in our daily lives: we live under a cloak of uncertainty, with regular threats to our well-being and survival. We are adapted to such a reality, to the point that we don’t even notice these risks. We drive our cars, zipping along at high speed head-on into others doing the same thing; what we have no control over is whether that person is texting, toying with their car’s navigation screen, or fixing their hair in the mirror. We hear stories of gruesome automobile accidents, see the statistics on traffic fatalities year after year, and then we brush them off, continuing to drive, just hoping for good odds. We hope that this one trip won’t be the time we become a statistic. 

Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. From microscopic viruses like Covid-19, to the pervasive reach of forever chemicals like PFA’s in our raingear, we live in a world full of peril. There are punctuated catastrophes, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that can alter our landscapes, if not end our lives, should we be unlucky enough to lie in their paths. Over the long-term, the bioaccumulation of those chemicals we’ve become so permeated with living in the age of Better living through chemistry combine with the odds of poor genetics, or lifestyle choices, to predispose us to the ticking time-bombs of cancers, illness, and disease. 

Then, there are all of the people we interact with, from those we share the road with, to those we share a place in line with at the grocery store, everyone of whom we have no control over; everyone of whom could potentially cause an accident, or worse, intentionally do something, to hurt or even kill us. And don’t forget the freaky, unpredictable nature of life, where strange things happen all the time; where bad things happen to people without any rhyme or reason, any sense of justice.
Need any more reminders of the risky world we live in? Probably not, as it only makes you think of every other danger I haven’t yet mentioned. 

I don’t live in this state of mind very often, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, it brought me back to an old adage that keeps proving itself: Life isn’t fair. I don’t mean this in the entitled, complaining manner someone might bemoan after not getting their way; I mean it in the most serious, life-changing way. It’s been said by millions of people – Life isn’t fair! – usually when we are at the receiving end of some seemingly impossible bad luck, wondering why our good merit hadn’t spared us the pain of tragedy. We compare our hands in life to others, from strangers to our closest family, keeping score of who’s got it worse, who’s got it better, who we think has it so easy. We are naught to compare ourselves to each other, to wonder why a good thing happened to a bad person, or why a bad thing happened to a good person. For life isn’t fair to everyone – we all die someday, and you know the other old saying, everyone’s crap stinks. No one is inherently better than anyone else. 

It’s simply a matter of how unfair life will be to us, and whether it will demand the ultimate price from us: our lives. We live everyday just hoping for the grace of good odds; hoping that today isn’t the day we get the phone call of a cancer diagnosis, or the phone call of a death of a loved one, or the phone call of losing a job we depend upon. 

Pain and suffering imbue a wide spectrum of grief. Another’s hardship may seem worse than ours, and our own challenges can always seem worse than someone else’s. There are unequivocally worse troubles that no one would deny are harder than something less severe; there are shades on the grief scale that, no matter our perspective or life experience, clearly reflect an unsullied color that cannot be muted or distorted. There are stories so harrowing that we cannot deny the breadth of their impact, the scars to be left by such an ordeal. It is this shared experience of grief, however intense and life-changing, that unites us on a basic human level. We all know suffering on some level, at some point in our lives. We can empathize, at least on some level, with others even if we haven’t experienced their unique suffering. 

Take the history of slavery in the United States, for example. Its indelible mark persists today through the many branches of systemic racism, from our schools, to our police departments, to our criminal justice system, to name just a few. No matter your race in this country, it should be self-evident how much injustice and persecution Black and indigenous people have endured throughout our history. Though I know not the weight of such discrimination as a white woman, am certainly no expert on the history of racism, and will never know how it feels to live as a Black person, I can imagine the pent-up frustration one might feel, living to see a man like George Floyd, or a young woman like Breonna Taylor, murdered by law enforcement, and I can empathize with the pain and outrage that follow such loss. You simply need to be human to empathize with such atrocities. 

The Black Lives Matter protests around the nation over the last few weeks only seem due given the continuing discrimination and injustices being perpetrated against Black people. This seems like an example of when life isn’t fair, but not because of the randomness of it all; on the contrary, it’s because of the deliberate acts of people who have created a hostile environment of racism for people of color living in our country, from slave-owners, to those who gunned down Ahmaud Arbery, or the scores of other Black men and women killed simply because they were, essentially, just living while Black. 

It is a non-negotiable that black people have disproportionately struggled, and died, at the hands of racism in this country. This is an injustice in which every citizen in our country is tasked to take ownership of to ameliorate; this is an instance of life not being fair, but we can do something about it to change it. We can’t undo the past, but we can do better moving forward into the future. Life didn’t need to be unfair, and doesn’t have to continue to be, to any minority group. When we witness such wrongs, we ought to take action to fix them; it is not the time to claim, Life isn’t fair. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and take ownership of our role in the problem, to educate ourselves further, and to try to make the situation better, no matter the color of our skin.

Environmental problems demand our attention and accountability with a similar urgency. We’ve been manipulating, polluting, and destroying our natural resources for so long that we accept it as part of our reality; we have not been fair or just with the ecosystems we live among. The cognitive dissonance most of us have – being educated on the seriousness of climate change, while driving our cars and eating meat from a factory farm – is astounding. We go about our lives, making sacrifices here and there, but most of us, myself included, continue to use resources unsustainably, whether it’s the food we eat, or the electricity we use in our homes, or the remarkable amount of waste we generate. 

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We all have a big impact on the environment. It’s not fair that we destroy habitat for the animals we share the planet with, basically choosing which species will go extinct forever, and which might have a fighting chance. It’s not fair that we pen in thousands of animals into close quarters, pump them full of chemicals, and then slaughter them for us to eat, complaining when The chicken is too dry, or This T-bone isn’t tender enough. Everyone must follow their own compass when it comes to diet; there is no one-size-fits-all way to eat. However, when you have nearly eight billion people on the planet all competing for resources, perhaps we ought to consider other ways to nourish ourselves that don’t involve increasing greenhouse gases and strain our natural resources, from cow burps of methane, a legitimately big sources of the gas, to the amount of water needed to grow feed to support such livestock. The food web is a complex system, and it’s understandable that people may want to eat meat. What’s different now, however, is that we’ve become so overpopulated; there’s too darn many of us on this planet. Our old ways may not serve us so well anymore; we may consider a more thoughtful approach to how we eat, and the natural resources we consume. 

When I hear stories about there only being some fifty-seven Amur Leopards left on the planet, I know in my gut that isn’t fair, and it’s a direct result of human actions. It confounds me that we allow the take of entire species in the name of economic development. There are so many environmental injustices worsening on a daily basis, and these are the fights that need fighting. It’s yet another example of when we shouldn’t just throw our hands in the air and declare, Life isn’t fair. There are so many problems that don’t have to be that way; that someone, or ourselves, has the power to change. There are a multitude of issues around the world that deserve our care and fight. I could go on.

It’s usually pretty obvious when an issue isn’t fair because of a group of people’s actions. It takes more wisdom, however, to know when life just isn’t fair – and despite all of our hoping for good odds, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. 

It’s hard for us to accept that something random and bad has happened to us or a loved one. We are sidelined by something we didn’t expect, and something we definitely didn’t think we deserved. We cry out in protest, Life isn’t fair!, and it makes no difference to the situation at all.

These are the times when we needn’t point fingers at others, especially ourselves, for befalling such poor luck. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, I definitely felt that way. I went over my life with a fine-toothed comb looking for any clue of where I’d possibly set myself up for such disease. I am still learning to let go of this rumination, to let go of what’s done, and accept the mystery of cancer, that I’ll likely never know what caused it. 

One thing that keeps proving itself? Life isn’t fair. At some point, life will be unfair to us; we just hope we don’t have to die for it, although that’s often the case. There’s no point in comparing our plight to others. Life catches up with all of us when we die. During the blessed time we’re granted to live, though, we will all experience some level of life not being fair to us. Some may have it worse, some may seem to have it better; the only thing we have control over is how we respond. Though we may look upon others with envy, thinking they may have life so easy eating with a silver spoon, or seeming to have it all, we never really know what lies beneath the surface, what goes on behind closed doors. None of us are perfect. 

We need to be compassionate to each other during hard times; we all go through hard times that test our faith and patience. Though I’m going through a challenging time right now with chemotherapy for breast cancer, there are people suffering worse than me: people dying from Covid-19, or losing loved ones from it; people who are working through their own cancer treatments because they must put food on the table; people who live without a dependable source of freshwater and sanitation infrastructure. The spectrum of grief is wide, and I can see my privilege on that scale even as I fight cancer, albeit someone else may look at me and wonder why I have it so hard, and how much it must suck to be going through this during a pandemic. It’s all relative, and that’s why I try not to compare myself too much; why I try not to pity myself, nor gloat my good graces, for someone always has it worse. 

Recently, a tragedy rattled our small mountain town of Ben Lomond, driving home just how unfair life can be. On Saturday, June 6, 2020, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller was murdered responding to a call of a van full of explosives and weapons, only to be ambushed by the deranged shooter. Two neighbors’ heroic actions, and that of his dog, detained the active Air Force member turned shooter until police could arrest him. There is a lot more to this story, as more details are yet to be revealed in this active case. The immense loss – of a husband, father, family member, friend, sergeant – erupted within the San Lorenzo Valley community like a volcano, its violent lava flows taking an innocent man’s life, and its toxic gases and ash permeating the lives of so many who knew and loved him, leaving some breathlessly choking for air, and others downwind with the singe of sadness, knowing such tragedy took place here in SLV. It was a huge reminder that life isn’t fair. 

I cannot imagine the stress, terror, and adrenaline all responding law enforcement officers had that day; some forty agencies responded, from all over the greater Bay Area and Central Coast. With that response came an incessant barrage of sirens, starting around 2 p.m. I live in Ben Lomond, less than two miles South of where the incident took place. Highway 9, the main artery running North to South through SLV, is about a quarter-mile West of our house, so we always hear if there’s a siren, or particularly loud motorcycle, for that matter. 

As my husband Ron and I were puttering around the house doing chores, we noticed there wasn’t just the usual one or two sirens; several more wailed at full volume, and we could hear their engines roaring up the road with urgency. We both sensed something serious was going on immediately. Then, more sirens. Even more sirens. It became a steady scream of tension, and we could hear ever more units coming in the distance. The valley echoes sound really well, and all we could hear were sirens. 

Gripped by the onslaught of arriving law enforcement, wondering what was going on, we were rapt with awe, staring out our windows, knowing all well we couldn’t see anything relevant, but we were at least looking in their direction. We went online to check the local news sites; nothing was up yet. I tried to pick up a book, but it was pointless trying to read. I knew after about twenty minutes of constant sirens that something really bad had happened; I felt it in my gut, and started tearing up. Someone’s died, I sensed. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to infer this, but I felt so saddened; who had died? Had they suffered? Was there a killer on the run? I imagined whomever had died, and thought about their loved ones; did they have family? A spouse? Children? I imagined those people getting the worst phone call of their lives. I am an empathetic person, but this time I just let myself cry for whatever had happened, details of which I still didn’t know. 

I’d never heard so many sirens in my life. Then, the helicopters showed up. Highland Park is about a half-mile North of our house, and it’s where all the Medivacs land if there’s a bad car accident or injury up in the Valley. We’re used to hearing them on occasion, but combined with the sirens, we knew it was a serious injury, or death, this time. After one landed and took off, another one came in. There seemed to be another yet circling low, as if in search of a suspect. In their rotations, they would pass directly over our house, rattling the windows, their sound quite amplified. The cacophony of high-pitched, stress inducing wails quickly became both gripping, and distracting. I could not bring myself to do anything else but stand outside and listen, growing more anxious. 

It had been about an hour by now, and Ron was busy looking online for information, when he found early details of an officer involved shooting with a possible fatality. It was an active shooter situation with possible suspects on the loose, and the town of Ben Lomond was advised to shelter-in-place until further notice. They had closed off the Highway and main road around our house. We definitely weren’t going anywhere. 

More sirens came. It seemed endless; I couldn’t imagine how many cars were speeding up to the scene of the crime. More helicopters. I realize how pitiful I must sound talking about the sirens, the noise, and the stress of hearing all of this, when real officers lived this in real life, and one had paid the ultimate price. But this was one of the most tension-filled afternoons I’ve had in a really long time. I could not distract myself with anything. I stood, paced, looked online for information, and then paced some more. 

At some point during the afternoon, we learned that a deputy, only 38 years old, had been shot and killed, and that a man with explosives and guns had shot him, but few other details were clear. Knowing an officer had been murdered broke my heart. I cried for the thought that this man had shown up for work that day, just doing his job with integrity, and now he was never coming home again. I didn’t know much about him, yet, but I imagined how his family was feeling. Surely there were some who had gotten the news amid the roar of sirens and helicopter blades piercing the air like swords; someone was having the worst day of their life, compounded by the audible symbol of the unfolding tragedy that had just taken their loved one. I thought about the dirty clothes in the laundry that he had worn, waiting to be washed; the breakfast plate that may have been left in the sink; the last Goodbye that he may have shared with his loved ones. I just lost it crying for this person I hadn’t the honor of meeting; in our small town, I think many others cried, too.

Life isn’t fair, I lamented angrily. Why do bad things happen to good people?! 

It wasn’t until around 7 p.m., about five hours after the approximate start, that the sirens started tapering off. Suddenly, there was a quiet gap of thirty seconds or so with no new sirens, only to be replaced by several more trickling in. By around 8 p.m., things were all but quieted down, but the tension for so many was most certainly not. I barely ate dinner, and couldn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. that night; I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about life in general, about my cancer, about everything. The next morning, I had a terrible tension headache, neckache, and threw up. I’ve reacted from stressful situations in this way before, so wasn’t too concerned and went back to sleep until 6 p.m. the next night. 

As I read more details about what had occurred, I felt so sad for his wife, who is pregnant, and their two-year old. It was not fair that they were left behind. I imagined how crestfallen the Sheriff’s department must have felt; how robbed his family and friends were of future memories. It just wasn’t fair. For whatever reason, he suffered terrible odds that day. He never deserved to die like that. Though the shooter is in custody and currently facing nineteen felony charges, including murder, no amount of criminal justice will ever make this tragedy right, nor bring back Sergeant Gutzwiller, may he rest in peace.

Life simply isn’t fair, and we live day-to-day just hoping for good odds. We hope that life isn’t too unfair to us, that statistics are on our side. All it takes is one event, one moment, to change everything. We live our lives accepting this risk everyday, making peace with the chances we take. We hope for the grace of good odds, that we make it through another day unscathed. 

We must fight for what isn’t fair that must be changed; to right the wrongs of our past, and the wrongs of our present. Whatever your passion or cause, if it’s for the betterment of people or the environment at large, or everything in between, stand up for that; give it a voice. You don’t need to be the loudest person in the room to make a difference, but genuinely caring and being informed are a good place to start. There’s no need for things to be unfair that can be rectified. This includes standing up for yourself when someone isn’t treating you well, or you’re the victim of discrimination, or you’re witnessing the mistreatment of another person, or animal. With the support of others, we’re capable of affecting catalytic change. 

For all the things we can’t control, for the poor odds that might strike us with tragedy, there is no comfort that can fix it, or magically make things right again. What we do have is compassion, love, and the shared experience of our friends and family. We still have the good memories we’ve lived, and all of the ways that life was more than fair to us in the past. Tragedy doesn’t negate what’s already been lived, but some things will never feel fair, or justified. We can only control how we respond to them, should we be blessed enough to live through them. May we live with the grace of such good odds. 

 

 

Life 12-Weeks Post-Mastectomy

It’s been over twelve weeks since I had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, and I am three infusions in for chemotherapy. I am overall happy with how I am healing, though I still have a ways to go in my treatment. I recently took off my surgical tape and saw my scars for the first time; I waited ten weeks to remove the tape, as my doctors recommended leaving it on as long as possible for the best cosmetic result. They were definitely right – I am pleasantly surprised by how minor they are. Granted, I will have to almost repeat this process once I have surgery to replace my expanders with implants, and will have to go through the healing process once again, but I am feeling really positive about the results and celebrate the success of my surgery. I have full mobility and strength, just a slight numbness in my left armpit that feels like it’s half-asleep.

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Thus far, chemo is going rather well – at least compared to what I had initially expected. Chemo – the word evokes thoughts of skeletal, vomiting patients, beat down with fatigue like a fly from a swatter. At least that’s how I imagined it. Sure, I’d read how anti-nausea medicines and careful dosing had improved over the years, but I feared the bottom would drop out on me once the toxic yet life-saving sera would be injected into my jugular vein via my PowerPort. 

My first infusion brought one brief episode of vomiting, but aside from that, I haven’t been sick with nausea. I am taking the anti-nausea medications as prescribed: for three days after each infusion, I take Zofran twice a day, and Zyprexa and Decadron once a day. Thus far, the regimen is working well for me. I also administer Zarxio for seven days via a shot in my stomach to stimulate white-blood cell production, although my neutrophils and white-blood cell counts tanked after my second infusion, and they had to delay my third infusion by a week, giving me five more days of Zarxio to compensate. My numbers rebounded, but every two weeks when I get tested, we’ll keep a watchful eye on those numbers. I have nine more rounds to go; I am 25% through my scheduled infusions. With the risk of contracting Covid-19, now is the time when I am immunocompromised, and should be especially careful. 

I am using a Paxman Cold Cap, which I talk about in the video below. I have lost quite a bit of hair, as to be expected even with a cold cap, and still have more infusions to go. We’ll see how long I get to keep my hair for, but I am extremely grateful for what I’ve still got. Hair loss is most pronounced above my earline, but it’s thinning everywhere else.

Heartburn has been a bit strong for a few days after each infusion, but my appetite has been strong, and I am eating well. That’s a side-effect I wasn’t expecting, though I was forewarned: ravenous hunger for a few days after treatment. I am intensely, tear-down-the-house famished sometimes, and have been eating more than usual! That skeletal, starving image of a chemo patient I had? Knocked out of the water. I am thrilled to be nourishing so completely, as I visualize the apoptosis of my cells – generating waste from their organelles, stopped cold in their mitotic division, desperate for the nutrients to rebuild themselves. 

With all that waste production, water becomes paramount. I have always drunk a lot of water; I may drink upwards of 300 ounces of the life-giving elixir throughout the day, depending upon the intensity of my activities. Thirst is a pet-peeve of mine; I abhor a dry mouth. As a teacher, I am used to speaking often throughout the day, and having a well-hydrated palate is essential to keep my oration flowing. My students know me for walking around with a giant 64-ounce Kleen Kanteen water bottle in the classroom, always encouraging them to do the same. Water is a basic necessity for life, but when you’re going through accelerated cellular death within your body, it becomes even more essential. I find myself incessantly thirsty, always needing more of it these days. 

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Dry skin will make you crave more water, too. I’d been warned, like all of the side-effects I’m feeling, that my skin would shrivel and crack like a sun-baked prune. I invested in my favorite L’Occitane Shea Butter, and shea-butter rich lotion. My skin drinks them like milk everyday, and it helps fend off the advanced aging my skin is undergoing.

The biggest side-effect has been fatigue. It’s not like I am sleeping long hours, or taking lots of naps, but there are times I just feel spent. I really notice it when I’m exercising, something I’ve built my life upon. I am in excellent cardiovascular health, which was probably a good place to start going into treatment; however, I fatigue significantly faster than normal now. When I’m climbing uphill on my bike, I may take several breaks to let my heartrate go down and catch my breath. I get winded, like I am maxed out. I’m not in a hurry, so I take breaks as needed, but I definitely feel the difference. 

There’s also mental fatigue. I don’t know if it’s chemo brain or not, but sometimes I have to rest my cogitation of complex information. I love reading about Science – online, in books, and of course by reading the natural world around me. As a Science teacher and Environmental Studies major who took a lot of Science classes in college, my curiosity for learning more about cancer and my treatment is like an urgent alarm. I can’t help but want to understand more, though I certainly don’t understand it all, as someone who didn’t major in Biology or a similar field. One of my favorite websites is the National Center for Biotechnical Information, NCBI. This is where I find articles related to my recurrence and survival rates, whether radiation is unequivocally recommended for a patient in my situation (there’s some controversy), and how variables like supplements and nutrition may or may not influence the efficacy of my treatment. It is fascinating, and endlessly interesting; a great escape, albeit a harsh dose of reality at times. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that the information will still be there later, and put that reading aside because my brain feels oversaturated and exhausted. While not overwhelming, I can feel myself tiring out on pithy topics more than usual lately. 

Emotionally, I’m lethargic as well. Though I’m leaning into this experience, warts and all, I’m tired of feeling so much – feeling uncertainty, sadness, worry, and a pervasive inquiry of What did I do to bring this upon myself? The blame-game is real, and it’s not productive. When I first was diagnosed, I was grasping at straws trying to find a culprit for my young diagnosis; doctors have all been quick to stop me in my tracks and force me off of the blame-train. You will probably never know why you got cancer, so stop beating yourself up, is what they said. No point in ruminating over every imperfect decision I’ve made, over the plethora of chemicals I’ve been exposed to as a child of the eighties and an adult of the millennium, over the catechins from green tea I didn’t drink, or the children I didn’t have when I was younger that would have likely lowered my risk of developing breast cancer.

That’s probably been the hardest part for me to reconcile with – the mystery of cancer. There are times when I feel like it’s my fault, or I’m damaged goods somehow, but those moments of self-pity are almost immediately replaced by the gratitude for what isn’t damaged, what isn’t cancerous, or imperfect, or faulty within my body. I have to focus on all that is working well, all that is miraculously still thriving each day. Death is the great equalizer of life, and all of us will get there someday. While we’re here, we owe it to ourselves to appreciate life and our bodies, faulty as they may be. 

Thus, when people ask me how hard this has been, and how am I really doing, as if I’m not being forthright otherwise, I can honestly tell them I’m doing well. Well is good enough; wellness is health, and without that, we have nothing. Turning my energy toward wellness as a simple yet vital baseline, recognizing the path I’m on is one toward increasing wellness, hopefully. Because at the end of the day, the biggest fear I have is dying young. That fear probably won’t ever go away, but I believe I’ll adapt to live with it without letting it overwhelm my perspective for the long-term. 

Am I ready for a break? A real vacation? An escape from dealing with cancer amid a global pandemic? Yes, infinitely so. I would love to get out of town and have some fun, go in a hot tub, swim in a big pool, order room service. Though I am a big fan of relativity – from the scientific theory itself, to the idea of finding comfort in the fact that someone always has it worse than you, and someone always has it better, so best not to compare yourself too much to others – there are moments when I accept the solemnity of my situation. Yes, things could be worse, but it sucks to get breast cancer, especially at thirty-nine years old, near the prime of my health; to imagine the next ten years of my life taking Tamoxifen, throwing my body into early menopause; to imagine the gravity of a metastatic recurrence, of a prognosis of months or years to live. I long for the bliss of carefree life pre-cancer. None of this is fun! I would love to take a break from all of this, from this new job I was enlisted in against my will. 

I’m doing well considering what I am going through. I’ve always been one to make the best of a situation, as I think is innate within all of us, but I’m also a pragmatic realist who doesn’t like to sugarcoat or bury anything. I am trying to seize everyday as best I can, learn all I can through this experience, and hopefully, continue to live a happy, healthy life for as long as I can. I feel incredibly grateful to be sheltering-in-place in one of the most beautiful places, Santa Cruz, California. From the beach to the forests, there is no shortage of natural wonders to keep things in perspective.

Keeping active helps me flow through this torrent of rushing river rapids. I feel like a rockstar when I’m on my bike, like I can do anything. The pure act of play becomes ever more important when going through a hard time. Keep on moving – some of the simplest yet best advice I’ve heard. It’s not just physical, but mental, too. Keep thoughts and feelings moving, keep learning, keep deepening your understanding. Stay curious. 

I try to keep moving as much as I can, but there are times when it’s okay to just float among the flow of the world, to surrender yourself to the currents of factors more powerful; to accept that while we have some control to keep moving, sometimes we have no control over where we are going. I try to make peace with that, and not drive myself crazy worrying about where the next rapid or waterfall may lie on the river of life. 

We have no guarantee of time, but I can guarantee the world will keep on going whether I’m here or not; I find solace in that. A mote of dust among the abyss of the universe, made of the same simple elements, I’ll drift along suspended in the rich breath of life, until I become the seed for a raindrop, condensing into a water molecule, precipitating with a gentle splash back into the watery realm of Earth.

Which reminds me – I need another glass of water.

Recalibrating Gratitude

The art of gratitude is something we’re never done with; there’s always room for deepening our appreciation. There are marked times in your life that most certainly demand your full attention – to what is going well in your life, to what is good, helpful, and sustaining. We all want to live in daily reverence for life’s simple blessings, but we’re also human, and days can blur into weeks, into years, before a major hurdle comes our way, beckoning us to find the silver linings as we stand under the inevitable passing of life’s occasional rain clouds. 

There are some events that, despite our aversion to their occurrence, end up teaching us more than we could ever have anticipated; that shift our thinking in directions only possible under such duress. One example of such adversity is cancer. 

I’m in the early stages of a 16-week chemotherapy regimen for Stage 2 breast cancer. It’s been two months since my mastectomy, and I’m two infusions in. No visitors are allowed right now, so I’m bringing books to keep busy during the appointments. I am coping fairly well with the side-effects so far, save for a few bouts of nausea the first round, and some fatigue. I get pretty tired sometimes and need to rest or take a nap. 

Then, there are the shots in the stomach for seven days, which I’ve gotten the hang of; technique matters, of course! Squeezing the skin, injecting quickly at a 45° angle, followed by a slower injection seems to work well so far. There’s also a slight numbness and tingling in my left armpit and upper arm that feels like it’s half-asleep. My port is on my right side and not giving me any problems, except that I have a roughly one-inch scar from it, and it hurts if my port is hit directly. I was changing the pillowcases the other day, and when I pulled off the case, I hit my port with the back of my hand; it hurt so bad I winced and grimaced, and it throbbed for hours afterward. It’s not something I want to hit any harder!

There are so many layers in the effects of cancer – some easily seen, others invisible if not pointed out. There’s so much mental energy; my day is occupied at least at some point by researching something online, or reading something to learn more about it. As a Science teacher, I am fascinated by the molecular processes occurring within my body, and want to learn about that as best as I can understand. I’m only at the beginning stages of my chemotherapy, so I’ll see how the rest of treatment goes. 

Worse than my cancer story, the world is suffering amid the Covid-19 pandemic (in case you’ve been living under a rock). It’s heartbreaking how many people are dying. It’s tragic, and gives me perspective – even though I’m going through cancer, other people are dying from this virus; the gravity of the situation is far worse than my individual situation. I feel so sad for all those affected, and it reminds me to count my blessings. 

Cancer threatens to take away all that I love and hold dear, and it makes me exceptionally appreciative for all that I have. While allowing myself to feel down or sad about having cancer is normal and healthy, the fighter in me is fiercely roaring, forcing my attention toward all that is on the up-and-up in the world, all that is positive. It’s got me thinking about all of the blessings I am so lucky to have in my life. I love my little life. Everything from my nightly Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune habit to the bike rides in the mountains I love so dearly; from the amazing people in my life, to the career I love. I feel like I have a new lease on life.

My gratitude is being recalibrated, sharpened in a new way – for my husband Ron, my cat Beau; my sweet family; my small but close circle of friends and acquaintances; my house in the beautiful mountains, living in a place I love. 

Yes! These are all good things, and cancer doesn’t take them away. Even if cancer kills me, it doesn’t negate the good years I’ve lived and the memories I’ve made. 

Ron asked me recently how I was really doing, fighting breast cancer amid the coronavirus pandemic. Without so much of a thought, I  replied, “Honestly, okay. I have my you and Beau by my side, a beautiful home in the mountains, and food to eat. As a plus, we haven’t run out of toilet paper yet”. Simple truth in these times of shelter-in-place. 

It’s true, though; I feel pretty amazing. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for how happy I am, for how active I am able to be; for not suffering worse, for not having a harder time. It’s silly and futile of me to do so, and I remind myself quickly that it’s in my nature to make the best of the situation. We all have the ability within ourselves to adapt and make the most of a challenge, and right now, that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t really feel guilty, of course, but I realize how much harder of a time I would be having if I were in this all alone. 

People fight cancer without the help of loved ones everyday. I have the good grace of my husband living within the home. I am so blessed to have Ron helping me through this. He is my torch, my light, my breath of fresh air. His generosity, love, and acts of compassion have moved me. He has always been a gem of a human being, but now he is even more so my hero. 

I’m finding so much grace lately, in places where I was once angry or discouraged, followed by a tunnel-vision focus on the foundation of such grace: gratitude.

Gratitude – a word that’s become trite, cliched, hackneyed to the nines, for good reason. Poetry, songs, self-help books, Instagram posts, and self-possessed gurus have gratitude permeating through their cores. It is one of the basic tenets for happiness, regardless, if not in spite of, possession or circumstance. 

It’s something I thought I had a pretty strong handle on before being diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve always felt like I’m making up for lost time, trying to squeeze as much into the day before the book is closed on me. 

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I cried, of course, coming to terms with my total lack of control over the situation; I certainly did not feel gratitude. When I imagined my funeral – my ashes being scattered among loved ones in my favorite natural environs – like Kirkwood, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean – I rued the thought of dying young, that is, before age eighty, because eighty is about the age I consider old. Moreover, lifespans are growing longer by the decade. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll all get there, though. I was quite angry about the prospect of cutting my life short, of losing the time I was owed to get older. 

Owed? That’s where I was wrong. I’m not owed anything in life – not time, not love, not opportunity. Life is but a combination of attitude and circumstance, with gratitude at its fulcrum. Only we can find that balance, and we owe it to ourselves to achieve it, lest we live our lives stuck in a cat-and-mouse game between happiness and strife.

Though I’d thought I’d been living for years with a passionate appreciation for life and my blessings, I’m surprised by my calibration of gratitude. It’s growing daily. In the morning, the robins singing in the forest spark my curiosity for the day ahead. Though I’m not usually a morning-person, I find myself being pulled out of bed earlier than normal to stand witness to the glory unfolding outside my bedroom window, air thick with the dew of moisture blown in off the Pacific Ocean several miles away. Everyday I want to do as much as I can. I dance in my living room, play guitar to my favorite songs, and get moving outside.  

Though I’m a pretty positive person by nature, I’m also a realist, and I don’t shy away from challenges, including tough feelings. I love learning all I can about everything, and using that knowledge to quell any such fears or misgivings. I’m not afraid to go there emotionally; to let myself experience the full gamut of feelings, from sadness to euphoria. I love giving myself to an experience fully and whole-heartedly. There is nothing inside my mind that scares me. I’ve felt so many different emotions during this experience, many of them uncomfortable and overwhelming, but I sat with them, and they passed along. That’s what emotions do; they don’t stay forever. We have the power to move them along at will, but there’s value in looking them in the eye, in sitting face-to-face with your fears and troubles. Better yet, it makes you feel relieved once you realize the bottom isn’t going to drop out on you just because you let yourself feel sad, or angry, or terrified. The human will to move forward ultimately prevails, and we focus again on positive, more helpful emotions, like gratitude.

A cancer diagnosis prompts you to look inward, and walk the winding paths of hypotheticals in your mind with aplomb and detachment; to consider each thought or what if for what it is, and then let it go. There is one feeling, though, that I find myself myopically focused on these days: gratitude. Its shade of grey may change from day to day, but it’s only grown stronger in the last couple of months.

I find blessings where I may have once dismissed them, too caught up in discomfort and unfamiliarity to notice their quiet heroism. I’m not one of those I’m so blessed! people who will bury their heads in the sand ignoring the hurricane above, but I am giving myself that mercy lately to feel that way, and to own it. Yes, I am blessed! It’s okay to acknowledge it, to state it out loud, to write it down, to shout it from the mountaintops, almighty. 

It’s not just having a roof over my head and food to eat; it is having a roof over my head and food to eat. Those very basics are true blessings. Amid the struggling time we’re all living in right now, I feel exceptionally happy for these fundamentals.
Climbing  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am thankful for a community of loving people, from near and far, who’ve rallied to support me during this time. There is nothing like the warmth of loved ones coming together to make your life easier. I have such admiration and respect for those who go it alone through the battle of cancer.

I am blessed I got my surgery when I did, on February 26, 2020, right before elective surgeries started being canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions in hospitals. I am blessed I had enough sick-leave accrued over my years of teaching to take a paid leave-of-absence, a testament to good planning and discipline on my part, and the stability of a government job. I am blessed with my job itself; I am blessed with the students I teach, the staff I work with, the community I live in. 

Now I’m starting to sound like one of those I’m so blessed! people I bemoaned earlier, but cliche as it sounds, that’s how I’m starting to feel. That’s how a lot of people who are diagnosed with cancer say they end up feeling, too. When everything is at risk, you’re forced to reevaluate.  

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Monterey Mariposa LIly

Perspective will give you a lot in life, or take a lot from you. It all depends upon how you see things. Knowing the world is suffering from coronavirus helps put my cancer in perspective; someone is fighting a harder battle, a worse prognosis, a more dire health issue. There is always someone or something that will be the comparative or superlative; whether better or best, healthier or healthiest, worse or worst, we all live on a spectrum of relativity. It’s up to us to calibrate ourselves on that scale; to find the data points we most align with, to dismiss outliers for what they are; to not demean our experiences through comparison, but make sense of them. We are never done with this work; there’s always room to grow. At the bottom of it all is a pure desire for human connection, and the digital age we live in fosters this community. 

There’s plenty of awesomeness to go around in the world. We ought to encourage each other to be our best, to express our idiosyncratic beauty as fully as we can. We don’t know how much time we have to do so. I know now for sure that I don’t want to get to my deathbed and wish I’d lived more fully, that I’d expressed myself more. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, any passion not explored. 

Which leads me to the biggest blessing cancer has given me so far: the freedom to let go of having biological children. Chemotherapy drugs will all but destroy whatever potential I have. That choice has been finalized for me, and it feels like a big relief, actually. I have a strong maternal instinct, and there’s been times in my life that I wanted to have kids; however, I never really wanted it when it came down to brass tacks. And I made myself so wrong for that. 

Like most childless women approaching forty, I’ve been peppered with questions and comments about whether or not I should have children; I’ve learned to not be too bothered by those. What’s tougher is my own insecurity – that I somehow believe so steadfastly in the construct that a woman’s purpose and ultimate value comes from her motherhood – and in the absence of fulfilling that action, I feel like I’m not good enough. 

Though I’m confident with my life, I realize the areas where I don’t feel so. The fact that I’m not a mother, that I’ve never experienced childbirth, or watching my own child take its first steps, makes me feel inadequate on a certain level. It’s not something I dwell on daily, but I feel its pangs when I’m in the company of happy mothers, whose joy I’ll never know. There are other ways to experience motherhood, and I have a fierce maternal instinct, but having a biological child is something I won’t experience; it’s a club I’ll likely never be a part of. And I chose that, years ago, by my mid-twenties I knew. 

I shelved that conviction for the odds of an accident, or a sudden change of heart, knowing as each year passed on, the chance declined like a biplane stalling in an airshow. I thought I should want children of our own; I thought I’d get the urge, baby fever. I’ve lived Summer to Summer for years, as a teacher, and a student, and with every one, I’d think, Maybe next Summer. I loved spending time with my nieces and nephews; we played, had fun, and explored. I loved teaching my seventh-grade students, with all of their energy and curiosity. 

I’ve always loved kids. Babies? I love them, too, but I wasn’t always inclined to them. I admit I’ve probably changed less than ten diapers in my entire life. I used to babysit when I was a kid, but babies weren’t my forte. The first time I ever held a baby was in the climbing gym in Santa Cruz when I was twenty-one years old – yes, that old! A friend of mine had just had a baby, and a mutual friend of ours couldn’t believe I’d never held a baby before; he immediately made me hold that cutie-pie. I took right to holding him, but they laughed at how awkward I was. I’ve spent a lot more time with babies and children since then, but the need to have my own didn’t compel me to act upon it. 

I love kids and babies because they’re people, after all, and I love people.  For someone who loves people, I sure can be a bit of a loner. I can entertain myself endlessly, and I need time alone everyday to be happy. It’s not about excluding or avoiding others; rather, it’s about doing the things I love. Living under a shelter-in-place order has been pretty easy for me, though I miss my loved ones. We all live on a spectrum of introversion and extroversion. Sometimes that includes spending time with others, but much of the time, I’m riding solo – literally, on my bike. I’ve fought with the judgment of being selfish or self-centered for years; that someone who spends so much time doing what they want to do must be all about themselves.

I’ve struggled with feeling like people must think I’m so selfish, or self-absorbed, though I’d like to think I don’t care about their opinion. I try to justify myself to others, explaining that it’s not about spending time alone with myself, so much as it is spending time immersed in the activity I’m doing, and totally getting outside of myself; it’s really the opposite of being selfish or self-centered. I am completely present, rapt in the moment at hand, only focused on living that hobby, or sport, or meditative moment of solitude. 

For someone who doesn’t have kids, and spends so much time alone, I feel like I have to defend myself; that people are judging me for being selfish. This is the concern that breast cancer is helping to kick. It really doesn’t matter if someone approves of my life choices or not; it only matters that I get to live another day to make my life’s choices. It doesn’t matter if I reproduce or not; it matters that I live a healthy life. You can’t live every life option in your life; you really can’t do it all, though we all like to try. I know I can’t have the life of the outdoorsy adventure girl and the stay-at-home mother married to her high-school sweetheart. I’ve spent so much time over the years feeling unsettled about the prospect of having kids, so much care about whether other people thought I was good enough, successful enough, woman enough to be a mother. It’s not something I was aware of all the time, but now that I’m at the end of the road for having kids, I feel the compounded effect of inadequacy. On the flipside, I feel an overwhelming sense of affirmation for my life, and the choices I’ve made.

Which is why I say:

Thank You, Breast Cancer. Thank you for affirming my life’s choice to not have kids. Thank you for affirming that I can spend my free time how I choose, enjoy time with my husband and cat, and start everyday with a blank slate I get to fill. Thank you, Breast Cancer, for affirming that I’m on the right path, that I will continue on for as long as Life will let me; that I can appreciate my simple days, living out my passions. Thank you for affirming I am happy with my life, and that I want more time to live it.

For all I am really trying for is more time to spend with my loved ones, more time to do the things I love. Chemo is part of this fight for more time, and I’m grateful these drugs exist to help people like me. It’s a good time to have breast cancer if there ever were one, though there remains so much room for advancement. 

Nothing is perfect in life, and the same goes for my cancer. Although I can fall into the coulda-should-woulda trap, going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, trying desperately to glean some sort of explanation for why I would get breast cancer as a healthy thirty-nine year old, all that matters now is the present, so I try to keep my energy centered there. 

I always felt like I was a person who lived with gratitude, with reverence for the beautiful landscapes we are so privileged to experience on this Earth – whether in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, or Fort William in Scotland, or Whistler, Canada (the latter two are on my bucket list). 

When I first got diagnosed, my patience had to adapt. Now, I feel my gratitude has adapted. I have grown protective of my life, even; it is so important to me that I will do everything I can to prolong it. I must be my own Mama-Bear, and give it all I’ve got. The next few months will challenge me further, but if I can keep my gratitude calibrated, I’ll keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel – no, not that light, but the light of the mercy of healing, the light of a new day … or maybe just the light of an awesome ride!