That chapter is done
That time of my life behind me
Young, carefree, all about me
Sexy, hot little Thang
Using my chest as an asset when I needed,
A burden when I just wanted to be free
That chapter is done
Stage 2, we don’t know how bad
It really is yet
Poked, prodded, analyzed
To determine my odds of life or death
I want to crawl into a warm blanket and disappear
I know myself really well; I should, after all, at thirty-nine years old. That includes knowing my body’s idiosyncrasies, like the fibroadenomas I had diagnosed in each breast twenty years ago. I know exactly how they feel, their size, and check them often. Ultrasounds and mammograms over the years confirmed I had dense breast tissue, and fibroadenomas to monitor for changes as time went on. I wasn’t too concerned about them; breast cancer doesn’t run on either side of my family as far back as anyone can recollect. I’m active, eat healthy, and live a low-stress lifestyle. There wasn’t a big cause for alarm, just awareness. I remained aware of those lumps, checking them multiple times a month, almost like a fidget. I would find myself watching television and touching one of them. I knew all the curves of them by heart. For years, they didn’t change, and no one worried. I had my last mammogram and breast ultrasound in 2018, about two years ago, and was told I was good for two more years.
Fast-forward to the holiday season in December 2019. Winter hadn’t even arrived, and California had already been blessed with an abundance of early-season snow. Ron and I had been snowboarding at Kirkwood a few times already, and were stoked about the upcoming season. At some point while fidgeting with the almond-size lump on my upper left breast, I noticed it felt significantly larger – and harder. The texture of it was not the same as the slippery little almond that used to be there. It was irregular, about the size of a chestnut maybe, and was a little bit tender to the touch. This was something different.
I told my husband Ron about it, and he immediately replied that he’d noticed it a few days earlier; you could even see sticking out a little bit from under my skin.
Always tell me when you notice something like that! I quickly told him.
It was the start of Winter vacation now, and the Winter Solstice, December 21. I had two weeks off, and with the epic amount of snow, we had a lot of snowboarding planned. I opted for a January 13, 2020 appointment to get the lump checked out, and had an awesome Winter vacation. Ron and I got in nine days at Kirkwood and it was still early season. We had a White Christmas, like I’d never had. It was a magical time of year, and we soaked up vacation heartily. We kicked off the new year strong, mountain biking everyday we weren’t snowboarding.
January 13, 2020
When my appointment to get my breast examined began, my doctor was with the mother of one of my former students. I was surprised to see her, but also comforted by her kind, familiar presence. It’s another example of what a small town we live in.
She examined me and felt the lump. There was a silence, how pronounced or perceived I’m not sure, before she said,
Yeah, I’m going to refer you over the hill for this one to get checked out.
I didn’t think anything serious of it, other than, Darn it, I’ll probably have to get this thing biopsied, finally. My appointment was scheduled for a couple of weeks later, and off I went.
We had a vacation planned for Canada from January 17-22. It was a trip of a lifetime, and is best summarized in my most recent post. I am so happy we went on that trip when we did! Kicking Horse was the best mountain I’ve ever snowboarded – yet.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
My ultrasound and mammogram were at Kaiser San Jose, about a forty-five minute drive from my home in Ben Lomond; we call it over the hill. I wasn’t too nervous about the appointment, and was eager to get to the bottom of it. I started with an ultrasound, and then continued for a mammogram.
Almost right away after the mammogram, I was told there was something suspicious in my left breast, and axillary lymph node in my armpit, that they wanted to take a closer look at; essentially, they wanted to perform a biopsy. We continued into a different room where some sort of care coordinator was suddenly present to hold my hand and just provide moral support during the procedure. While the nurses and doctor prepared for the biopsy with intimidating core-sampling needles, the woman was trying to connect with me – make small talk, answer questions, put my mind at ease, presumably. Once the local anesthetic was administered, and the biopsy began on my left breast and lymph node in my armpit, she held my hand for comfort. Although she was there to calm me, in retrospect, I almost resent that she was there; not resent her, but why she was there. She was probably only there because they knew it was bad.
After the biopsy, I went home and was told I would get my results within two weeks. Ron and I went up to Kirkwood for snowboarding over Super Bowl weekend, February 1-2. We had an amazing time, as usual. I knew there was nothing I could do until I got the results, and based upon everything I’d heard over the years – You have lumpy, bumpy, dense breast tissue, but no breast cancer in your family so your risk is low – I didn’t worry about it at all.
Monday, February 3, 2020
After work, I had a voicemail from a doctor. Her tone was somber. I called her back once I got home, about 4:15 p.m., and she asked if I was at home and in a good place to talk. I knew she was about to drop a bomb on me.
We got the results of your biopsy, Katrin, and unfortunately, all samples tested positive for breast cancer.
She paused long enough to make sure I’d heard her, before continuing on about the details they had.
There’s a mass in the upper left breast, and a smaller mass in your axillary lymph nodes. I’m so sorry.
Shocked beyond belief would be an understatement. I asked her questions: what stage, what kind, what next. I told her to give me all of the information she could.
It’s early-stage, but we need to do more tests to really understand what’s going on. Translation: we don’t know how bad it really is yet. She scheduled an appointment for Friday of that week, four days later, to meet with my team of doctors. I had a copy of my pathology report, which confirmed Estrogen-Receptor positive cells in 90% of my breast, and 70% of lymph node tested. It was HER-2 negative, something I was only just beginning to understand.
I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Translation: my life as I knew it was over. That chapter was done.
What followed next was deep fear and sadness, but I was mostly consumed with shock. Ron was out, so I called my sister Mary. Crying and slightly panicked, I texted her that I had some pretty awful news and to please call when she had a second.
Immediately, my phone rang. I asked if she was in a good place to talk, just like my doctor had asked me. I told her the devastating news, breaking down into sobs as I said the words out loud to another human being for the first time. This was getting realer by the second. She listened empathetically, crying with me, shocked with me, just right there with me. After a few minutes of talking to her and sharing what information I knew, I saw Ron’s van pulling up in the driveway.
I felt guilty for what I was about to tell him. I felt sorry that I was about to dump this on him as I got off the phone with my sister. In the door he came, and I gave him a tearful hug right away.
I’m okay, but I’m not okay, Baby, I began. I got the results of my biopsy. They found cancer, I sobbed.
He hugged me tightly and let me cry like a baby before I shared with him what information I knew. He was shocked, cried, and then affirmed that we would fight this and get through this. The best way to describe how we were both feeling was simply blindsided.
We all deal with grief in different ways. This was no different; I had received news that was causing both of us to suddenly grieve the old me – the pre-cancer me, the pre-fight-of-my-life me. And we didn’t even know how bad it was yet.
That first night was like getting on a roller coaster through anxiety, sadness, anger, and mostly, shock. We couldn’t believe it. Up until midnight, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to work the next day, so I scheduled a substitute. I was researching the Internet like crazy, reading all kinds of stories, studies, and statistics about breast cancer, and it quickly became overwhelming.
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
The day began with more shock. It was indeed happening. There was nothing I could do until Friday, however. I was also no different from the day before; only now, I knew some more information. I took it as a sign to go out and celebrate the day.
Ron and I went on a beautiful mountain bike ride at one of our favorite spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We spotted unique fungi, birds, and signs of Spring. The weather was sunny and cold, no sign of the Winter storms that should be slamming the California coast during this time of year.
Where is Winter? We both pondered. It had started off so strong in December.
We went to Bonny Doon Beach afterwards, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets. Sitting atop the cliffs, it was starting to get darker.
Let’s go, Ron said. He seemed a bit impatient.
I kept stopping to take pictures of the sunset as we started meandering back to the car, and Ron seemed increasingly insistent about leaving.
Come on, let’s go right now, he nearly demanded.
Is everything okay? I asked. He mumbled yes and hied along, hurrying back to the car.
When we got back to the car, he broke down crying.
This is not the last sunset we are spending together! We are not just going to sit there and wait for the sky to get dark; I had to get out of there, he said through tears. It’s like a movie, where it’s like They had their last normal sunset together before everything changed; I can’t do it, Baby. I can’t just sit there and think about that!
I realized then that even though he didn’t have cancer, this was happening to him, too. He was every bit as scared as I was, if not more. After all, if I die, he’s the one who has to mourn me.
We comforted each other in the car for a few minutes before heading into Santa Cruz for dinner at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate.
I went next door to Bookshop Santa Cruz and thought I’d give the Cancer section a quick scan. Almost right away I noticed one book shining from the shelf – Running for My Life: My Marathon With Breast Cancer by Michelle Anne Stewart. The Michelle Stewart who works at the District Office in my small school-district; the cool, nice Michelle who was principal at the elementary school, and a teacher for years, whom I taught Summer School with back in 2008. I picked it up, read a few pages, and proceeded to the check-out line to buy it. I’m not superstitious or religious, but I did take it as a sign to read her book. I would end up reading it by the next evening, and it comforted me like a warm blanket during those anxious first couple of days. She is someone I look up to for inspiration!
I went to work the next day on Wednesday. I let my school principal, site secretary, and attendance clerk – all wonderful, caring women – know about my early diagnosis, and that I was still finding out more; that I would be absent again this Thursday for a Breast MRI, and Friday for a bigger diagnostic appointment. They reminded me compassionately to make work my last priority, and that they hoped for a good prognosis.
I realized I needed to let my kids know something about why I’d been absent so much, and thinking about all of the time I’d need to take off in the future. I didn’t want to tell them I had cancer and scare them, but I also didn’t want to just abandon them with no explanation. I decided I would start by telling them simply that I was going through a personal issue that was very important, and I was okay, but would be missing quite a bit of school over the next month or so. I held it together, emphasizing that I was okay, but that there would be some substitutes over the next couple of months until I dealt with my issue. I would be out tomorrow and Friday, but back on Monday of next week.
Seventh graders are astute for being kids, still. I could sense their concern, as if they knew I was facing something serious. I didn’t want to panic them, but I knew it was a matter of time before they would find out. I teach in a small community. My primary doctor is the mother of one of my current students; as noted earlier, my OBGYN is the mother of a former student. Word would get out sooner or later, but I wasn’t ready to go public yet.
Thursday, February 6, 2020
I made it through Wednesday, and when Thursday came, Ron drove me over the hill for my breast MRI. There was a bad traffic jam on Highway 17, the main artery, so we took a back road, Bear Creek Road, to bypass it (catch the medical joke in there?). As we were driving through the mountain road, I saw a squirrel get run over by the car in front of us – not just run over, but every little second of it. I could swear I saw the horror on its face after the wheel went over it.
I freaked out and lost it.
It’s an omen – a bad sign! I’m going to die! I wailed like a child. I sobbed uncontrollably, feeling like I’d just seen a foreshadow of my breast cancer battle.
Ron had been doing a great job of just letting me be all over the place emotionally, but suddenly his tone changed.
Baby, you need to stop that, okay. I really need you to not think like that and put your game face on for me right now, okay? I could tell he was holding on by a thread fighting back tears. He couldn’t stomach me talking about dying anymore.
We drove on in relative silence for awhile, him putting his hand in mine to comfort me. No words were needed. This whole situation sucked and there was no sugar-coating it.
I took an Ativan before the MRI, since I’m really claustrophobic. Luckily, it was an MRI in the prone position, so I was face down, like a massage-table, not supine on my back, where the ceiling of the tube is mere inches above you. I also felt the sedative kick in. I laid there peacefully, earplugs muffling the odd sounds of magnetic resonance imaging. I was doing something to help with my diagnosis, and I felt a mild sense of relief.
After the appointment, I was completely drowsy from the medication. Ron drove me home and I slept like a baby for four hours. I stayed up late that Thursday night, until almost 2 a.m. I was so wound up about the next day’s appointment. I was to get more information about my diagnosis and prognosis, and although I was worried, I was looking forward to getting an antidote to fear: more information.
Ron’s grandmother, Blanche Deetz, passed away in November 2019. There was an interment ceremony planned in Riverside at a military cemetery, months in advance, for Friday, February 7, 2020, the day of my big appointment. He wanted to be there for me, but I really didn’t want him to miss it. He didn’t want to miss it either, but he was consumed with worry about me. He drove down early Friday morning for the service, and I drove myself over the hill.
My mother, Kristin, and stepfather, Al, insisted on supporting me that day at my doctor’s appointment. I told them it would be hours, but my mom didn’t let that stop her. We’re coming down to support you! She lovingly insisted.
Friday, February 7, 10:00 a.m.
I met my breast care coordinator first, a Nurse Practitioner. She was compassionate and patient with me, but also looked at me like I was dying. The sad look in her face as she put her hand on mine and said I’m so sorry seemed like she knew it wasn’t good. I didn’t like it. They’d found signs of cancer in my right breast on the MRI; she described it as a sort of ropy, long mass extending into my armpit. The tumor on the left side was actually bigger than shown on the ultrasound; it was about three by two centimeters in size. They’d need to do a biopsy of my right breast and axillary lymph node that day. As she comforted me, I appreciated the sentiment, but it just made me more nervous.
In the few days I had before Friday’s appointments to process the news, I’d considered all kinds of scenarios. Mostly, I’d been concerned that it was worse than they thought. That instinct was now being substantiated. How much worse is it? I wondered.
I met my surgeon next. She explained my options for lumpectomy with breast conservation surgery versus double-mastectomy. We didn’t have all of the information yet to really weigh our best option, but either way, surgery would be needed.
I met my oncologist next, who explained I would need anywhere from two to six months of chemotherapy, followed by five to ten years of hormone blocking therapy, like Tamoxifen. This would trick my body into some form of menopause, and there was no guarantee I’d get my period back once I stopped it, presumably at age forty-four at the earliest. It would prematurely age me. This made me really angry; now it wasn’t just my life in jeopardy, but my mojo, too? I was becoming overwhelmed.
I am a sharp cookie. My memory is meticulously detailed and vivid. I soak up information like a sponge. I didn’t need to take notes on what they were telling me; I was taking in every word. I felt myself getting mentally exhausted for a moment, feeling less sharp than usual. I was tired. This was a lot to take in. My mother was wonderfully supportive of me as I sat quietly, sobered by the news I was getting.
Around noon we got coffee and a snack, enjoying a reprieve from the onslaught of information. We waited around until nearly four o’clock for a biopsy on my right breast and lymph node. This one hurt worse than the last. My node under my armpit was so swollen and tender, the ultrasound wand alone was enough to make me wince in pain. The technicians kindly did their jobs, but there was no avoiding how sensitive it was. The needles for local anesthesia came next, and I let out a whimper like a puppy.
If this hurts, how’s treatment going to feel? I quickly thought to myself.
They extracted core-samples from two locations efficiently, considering what was being done. By the time I was finished, it was 5:15 p.m. I’d just spent my first full day of work at my new unpaid, mandatory job. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Saturday, February 8, 2020
I’ve known for only five days now, and it’s been an intense roller coaster I wish I could get off. My father Laird came down to visit today, and we had a magical hike on the Zayante Trail in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, one of my favorite places in the world. We stopped off on a beach on Zayante Creek to take in the view and tranquility. We talked and talked, and walked and walked. There were as many empathetic messages communicated subconsciously between us as there were spoken. My father grounds me, and I know he is right there with me through all of this. I am exceptionally grateful for all of my family right now – my sisters Bonnie and Mary, my mother Kristin and stepfather Al; Ron’s family; relatives. I feel the love from so many directions, and that’s comforting. I haven’t shared the news with everyone yet, as I’m waiting to understand my diagnosis more.
My cat Beau even knows. When Ron and I cry and talk together about it, he interrupts us with persistent mews, demanding our attention. He keeps looking at me like he’s seen a ghost – perplexed, concerned, and a bit scared. He knows something is up. Perhaps he’s one of those pets that can sense it; maybe he’s just picking up on our stress. Either way, he has been demanding cuddles on the couch, all the while looking up at me with a forlorn look on his face. Right now as I type, sitting on the couch, he is on the footstool next to me in guarding position – paws tucked under his chest, looking out for intruders.
Beau came into our lives nearly ten years ago on June 20, 2010. Ron and I don’t have children, but Beau has been the closest thing to it. We love this cat whole-heartedly. I’m 99% sure he knows I’m not well. He keeps looking at me with a terribly worried look on his face, and it’s making me a little unsettled.
How am I doing?
I am a melting pot of emotion, but the shock has definitely gone down. While I have a lot of information, I don’t have a complete picture until I get my biopsy results next week, likely Wednesday. Then everyone will have a clearer picture of the next steps. However, it could also mean more testing is needed; that they don’t have a clear picture yet. Perhaps it is a lot worse than they thought and has metastasized to other areas in my body besides the lymph nodes. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
I love people, but I’m an introvert by nature. I’m kind of a loner; I am really good at spending time alone. There are so many interesting things to do and learn about! I enjoy the company of others, but really need my time alone.
I recently took the Myers-Briggs Personality Test as part of one of my student’s Science Fair projects. I tested as the rarest kind, apparently: the INFJ, or Turbulent Advocate. Though the subtitle Turbulent raised some hackles when I heard it as I always thought of myself as pretty easy-going, I strongly identified with the descriptions when I read them. It gave me more confirmation of why I am the way I am.
When I’m going through a hard time, I tend to retreat and withdraw, going inward to deal with the problem. I don’t want to talk about it with many people; I need to sort it out for myself first. Though I am researching like crazy online, I am feeling like a wounded animal, retreating to its den for protection. I am scared to be so vulnerable and weak in front of others, let alone the general public.
The thought of people fawning over me and helping me makes me nervous; I don’t want to accept help from my loved ones. I fear the stares of strangers; the shock of students at my school. I want to be the strong, independent woman I am. I don’t want people to see me like this. I don’t have a lot of friends, anyway. This isn’t a complaint or a pity-me hook; it’s merely the truth. Sure, I keep in touch with people via social media, but on a weekly basis, I don’t physically hang out with many friends. I know few people give two cents about what I’m up to anyway; this blog post will probably go ignored like most others I share.
I realize how overlooked and dismissed I feel in my life in general. I’ll never forget the final Oprah Winfrey episode where she articulated three key questions we all really want to know from others in life:
Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?
I do not always feel this way, I realize.
I know I can put up walls, but if I die tomorrow, I don’t know that I’ve felt seen, heard, and significant. Though I mostly feel that way about Ron, family, and close friends, there are times I just feel dismissed, underestimated, and flat out overlooked. I’ll go to gatherings where no one even asks how I am, what I’m up to, or cares to hear about my latest mountain bike races or adventures in the mountains; or, they listen with a placating Um hum… before moving onto a more presumably interesting topic. I’ve literally sat through so many social gatherings just feeling invisible, like I could just disappear and no one would notice. The last thing I want is sympathy from people who think less of me.
I love talking with others, but again, I’m introverted. I don’t want to make myself the center of attention, so I won’t just start sharing stories about my life unless someone shows interest. Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt more and more lonely. I admit I can act reserved, or may not seem too open at times, with people I don’t know very well. I know I’ve contributed to this feeling of loneliness; that my actions help build those walls. Although I love my alone time, I need love and connection, too. I feel like many people just don’t care about getting to know me. Some people are just not very good listeners, of course, and you can’t be everyone’s cup of tea; I try not to take it personally, but obviously, I can. We all want to belong.
Then there are some holier-than-thou people who dismiss me because I don’t have children; some women legitimately look down on me, or anyone like me, for not doing so. No matter your confidence level, it doesn’t feel good to be criticized. I’ve dealt with passive-aggressive barbs, judgments, and intrusive questions throughout my reproductive years, and there are some people who just can’t stomach that I wouldn’t want to have kids. Now that I’m no spring chicken, I feel written off by some people as boring or unaccomplished. Chemotherapy will all but destroy my eggs and any future chances of having children, unless I freeze my eggs now, which I don’t plan to do given my hormone-receptive tumor. Though Ron and I are all but certain we don’t want children of our own, we’d rather not have the door slammed in our face prematurely, and it does sting a bit.
Did I mention I am feeling a little defensive? Suddenly I want to fight the world.
I want to care less about whether others see me, hear me, or care about what I say. I want to get that in perspective, because caring about what others think of me should be the least of my concerns, especially right now.
I am mad at my cancer, but suddenly, every little thing I’m angry about in life is coming into clear focus.
I am angry at the mean memes about me on Instagram that a few students made, circulating them among abetting kids who liked, commented, and followed along in cyberbullying. Kids are kids, but this was different. I’m mad my name was trashed, at least among some people, in our small town. Thirteen years at this school, and the last two have been somewhat of a roller coaster. There’s a lot more to that story.
I wish I were immune to people’s actions, but I’m human, too. I’m angry I’m giving that nonsense any energy at all during this time, but I truly wonder if all of the stress from that time contributed to my cancer. I’m angry at myself for the times I lost focus on all of the other good kids in my classes who need and deserve my attention. After all, for all the thirteen years I’ve taught at my school, the majority have been wonderful. That’s what I should focus on, of course.
I realize every and all area of my life I feel wronged. I can’t help but point it all out.
Now that I have cancer, yeah, part of me feels like rubbing it in any potential hater’s face: Are you happy now that I have cancer?
Maybe one of my biggest lessons will be to learn to truly not give a darn anymore; to not give a darn that I can’t please everyone; that not everyone will like me. To not give a darn what others think about me at all.
I want to keep enjoying the world; I don’t want to sour in bitterness. I’ve always had a bright spirit. I’ll always remember trail running at DeLaVeaga years ago, when a passing hiker paused and looked at me with a somewhat astonished look on his face.
Is everything okay? I asked him.
Yes; I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just, you have this sort of glow about you. It’s really strong and just, beautiful. I hope you don’t mind me saying so.
I was instantly flattered, and thanked him for his sweet observation. I ran off, and yes, I felt like I had a glow about me.
Another guy in high school, Rhett, once told me, You have good color, like your overall tone and everything is just really pretty. It was one of the nicest compliments I ever got.
Right now? That glow feels dimmed.
This flame wants to flicker alone.
I want to be alone; then, maybe, no one will notice at all. I can just fade into the background.
Deep down I’m terrified I’m going to die; I fear I might actually die. I fear the battles of surgery, radiation, and chemo that will lie ahead. I fear being a bald near-skeleton in front of my husband. Mostly, I fear I will die young. I don’t have a good feeling about any of this.
I try to leave these thoughts pretty soon after I accept them. I allow them to enter, and then I try to escort them out the door. I realize a lot of this is out of my control, so worrying about it right now won’t help. I try to let it go and distract myself with something – cleaning the house, writing, singing, riding my bike, listening to really loud music, going somewhere beautiful outside – and for awhile, it really helps. But there is undoubtedly a shadow following me around, and I don’t know how dark or foreboding it is yet. It could be a tornado cell, or a blizzard. I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, regardless.
The plastic surgeon said something that really stuck out to me: You’re about to go into a tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of that tunnel, and you will get there.
I feel like I’m preparing for battle. I feel good, physically, but I am overwhelmed and exhausted. I am reflecting on all of the things I’ve done in my life that could have contributed to this. During my appointment on Friday, I shared those concerns with the doctors, prefacing it with the obvious dilemma of patients trying to understand why. Why did I get cancer? What did I do to deserve this?
She patiently listened as I rattled off hypotheses, from drinking milk all my life, to not wearing good enough sports bras, before warmly stopping me.
I’m sorry, but that’s the mystery of cancer. We’ll probably never understand why, so there’s no value in blaming yourself for every little thing you didn’t do perfectly in your life, she interjected kindly.
She added that it was rare for someone of my age and family history to get cancer, and that they’d be doing genetic testing to see if I carried any mutations for aggressive breast cancer, but otherwise, there wasn’t much they could do to determine the exact cause. I knew this before the meeting, but somehow thought she might concur that, Yes! That’s what might have done it.
This is probably the hardest part about accepting my diagnosis – I will never fully understand why this is happening to me. Worse? If I beat it, it may come back someday to haunt me again. If I beat this, I’ll have to live in fear of it for the rest of my life.
My life will never be the same again. No matter what, I will never be the same girl I was.
That chapter is done.
I will never be the Energizer-bunny, go-getter, thirty-something Katrin again. That chapter is done. Those memories lived, those paths trodden, I am walking in a new direction.
Should I recover from this, I will turn forty on October 10, 2020, starting a new decade of my life. I hope I get to start that new chapter, but I fear who I will become. Will I still be able to do the things I love now, to live the lifestyle I so cherish? I’ll have menopause, aging, and a shadow following me around for the rest of my life should I beat this. Not exactly inspiring things to look forward to, but it beats being dead, I suppose.
My last post, The Gravity of the Hill, mused about whether aging is harder for athletes, like myself, since we have built our identities so strongly around the sports we love. Will I lose myself even further than my breasts and physicality? Will I lose that sense of belonging to those sports I love so dearly? Will I ever be competitive again? It’s never been about winning a race, but darn it, it felt good when I did.
There’s one thing I’m feeling pretty proud of right now, at least: I’ve lived my life with a carpe diem spirit for years, appreciating it pretty darn fully. I haven’t taken my life for granted too much, as far as I can tell. My life has been incredibly rich so far – full of experiences, fun, and beautiful, loving relationships that have shaped me. I am so lucky for all I’ve been able to experience so far, and ought to be grateful I am still here after all this time. Others who’ve died younger than I didn’t get that privilege. I feel guilty thinking about people who’ve had it worse than I have.
It is a privilege to be alive. Life is a real gift; I find its sanctity in everything from insects to giant old-growth Redwood trees.
But this changes everything. No matter what, my life will never be exactly the same again.
Being grateful for what you have doesn’t protect you from getting cancer. I’ve read many sentiments along the lines of, Getting cancer made me stop and realize how much I needed to appreciate life more, and while I know there is always more room for gratitude, I feel like I don’t really need that wake-up call. I’m sure I will grow more grateful in ways I don’t even know are possible, but for now, I am proud that I have lived thus far with such a deep reverence for life.
I hope I come out the other side a survivor. I hope I still am a sexy little Miss Thang, not just for my husband, but for my own self-esteem. While I may not seem like a make-up and heels kind of girl, I take pride in my image, like any woman. I’ve always believed you can be naturally beautiful, even as a tomboy, which I was often called all my childhood. I may not dress up in fancy outfits and full make-up very often, but I still appreciate being beautiful and sexy, even if it’s in a t-shirt and jeans, or riding my bike.
I hope I am still a badass mountain biker. I hope Ron and I can still spend our Winters snowboarding together. I hope I can simply go for a walk with my husband.
Mostly, I just want to live – not just survive, but live to get old. While I care immensely about the five-year and ten-year survival rates of breast cancer, I care most about the forty and fifty-year survival rates. I want to live to see one hundred, or at least eighty. I fear it will come back and kill me later in life.
I fear so much, but none of it is helpful.
This is a true lesson in patience. I must wait for more information, more clarity. Then, I think things will start happening quickly. I will enter the Tunnel. And life willing, I will emerge out the other side healthy.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
It feels different already, Ron said, tears in his eyes. It feels different between us already. It wasn’t a complaint, a judgment, or a plea, just an authentic observation.
I feel guilty. I feel like I’m going to be such a burden. I honestly think this might be harder on you than me, because you’re going to basically watch your wife die – or maybe, actually die. Then hopefully I’ll come back to life again, but I’ll never be just like I was now, I offered.
I sometimes think it is harder for him to grieve the loss of his old wife, all the while uncertain about how much of the old wife is going to come out the other side, if at all, after all of this.
We were in the thick of a sad, reality bites conversation, sitting on the kitchen floor in front of the heater.
I can sense you withdrawing. I understand you need to process things yourself, but Baby, I’m on your team. We’re in this together; don’t shut me out, okay? I know you want to just curl up and retreat, but I want you to fight that. I need you to let me fight this with you, my loving husband said earnestly.
I felt genuinely guilty that there were times over the next several months or so that I wouldn’t be there for him – emotionally, physically. I felt sorry for him.
He noted how I was cowering like an embarrassed child, and told me not to feel guilty, not to hang my head low. Look me in the eye, Baby. I love you.
A few minutes later, he showed me something he’d found online about the difference between guilt and shame. He read me some of it, and it resonated like a bell. I was feeling guilty, yes, but mostly, I was feeling shame. I am pretty in touch with my emotions, and usually can express them clearly and timely. As soon as he said the word shame, though, it clicked. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly how I’d been feeling since I found out about my diagnosis, but shame was underlying all of it.
Once the emotion was identified, I felt relieved. Ron added that although I’m entitled to feel whatever I need to feel, there is nothing for me to be ashamed of throughout this whole process; to not shut him out and withdraw.
I was blown away by how much of a revelation it was. It was an example of how teamwork and love change your life; how I wouldn’t have come to that realization, at least not as soon, without my husband’s love. I felt so grateful for him. It was such a powerful moment between us: I needed to let him in, worst self and all, and trust him to love me through it. There was nothing to be ashamed of. I was not a failure.
Emotions are like rocks, at least to a Science teacher who loves geology. I’ve been allowing myself to feel whatever I feel, visualizing each emotion as a rock.
Some are light pebbles, soft and polished from years of wisdom, and nearly bounce off me like wedding rice being thrown on a bride. Some are jagged stones, rough and fractured. Some are heavy like boulders, needing heavy lifting to maneuver.
I’ve been letting myself sit with each rock, each emotion, taking it in for what it’s worth, before gently setting it down. I am trying not to carry any of them around, although there is a constant circulation of samples inside me.
This emotion – shame – was a boulder I could not move out from under on my own. I needed the help of a loved one to set it down. I needed my amazing husband to show me what I could not see for myself.
First, I needed to feel all of that shame – that I am thirty-nine years old and got cancer; that I am losing my younger self.
What did I do so wrong to get this?
I’m ashamed that it wasn’t caught earlier, if that were even possible. I’ve been a mild hypochondriac all of my life. I used to look up illnesses in the PDR all the time when I was a child. I have always been super on top of my doctor appointments, screenings, and know my body well.
Over the last couple of years, there have been a couple of changes I noticed: increased fatigue, which I attributed to sleep apnea and aging, and I started getting a day-long flu every couple of months or so. Some would say it was kind of like an exercise-induced migraine headache. I experienced two mountain bike races in this state of nausea, tension like a mammoth vice grip on the back of the neck, and total exhaustion. I suffered through teaching, and some days, I couldn’t make it through sixth period, having to go home early. The best solution was to go to sleep, and not just for a short nap, but at least a few hours, if not longer.
I wrote off entire days from these experiences. I investigated all sorts of causes, from dirty water bottle mold, lack of proper nutrition while overexerting myself, to my sleep apnea; I thought of so many different things. I went to the doctor and got bloodwork; I was healthy on paper, and in the flesh, seemingly. I still don’t know exactly what the culprit was for this onset of sickness at somewhat often intervals, but now I think it was related to my cancer.
I’m ashamed at the thought of looking like a dying skeleton while I’m going through treatment. I don’t want my kids to see me in such a bad state. I don’t want to scare the hell out of them, and I also don’t want to feel completely embarrassed – ashamed – by my haggard presence.
I’m ashamed that my body is failing me at such a young age. I’ve always considered myself to be in prime physical shape, an athlete. I’ve been pescatarian for twelve years, and haven’t drunk alcohol in seven. I try to avoid pesticides, and the multitude of chemicals that we’re exposed to in this day and age. I’ve long thought about living to be 100, but now, I know my odds are decreased. No matter the outcome, this shadow will follow me around for the rest of my life.
I am mostly ashamed that I am failing my husband as his wife. We met when I was twenty-four years old, waiting tables together at Shogun sushi restaurant in Santa Cruz, before getting together when I was twenty-five. He’s only known me as a young, pretty thing, and that’s how I want him to always think of me. I felt like that version of myself was about to die.
He reminded me of a time I had foot surgery at twenty-three years old. Though we didn’t know each other then, he knew I was off my feet for eight weeks, and that it was a full year before I felt fully strong again. It was a big challenge for someone so used to being active, and the first time in my life my mobility was legitimately limited. He analogized cancer to that recovery time: yes, the gravity of the situation was much worse, but there was nothing wrong with me as a person. I was just injured and would need to heal with a lot of downtime, but there was nothing to be ashamed of.
I wasn’t failing him as a wife by having breast cancer. Yes, things were going to be different between us on many levels, but we would face those obstacles as they come. It was going to be terribly difficult, full of peaks and valleys, crests and troughs, but we needed to fight.
That began with fighting the shame; fighting the feeling that I had failed as a person.
Next, we would be in for the fight of our lives – or the fight of my life, specifically. That’s what we needed to focus on.
Monday, February 10, 2020
Anger. Just anger. I am so freaking pissed off at everything. I went to work today, and realized how much I need to not be there. I need to focus on my health, not my job.
After work, Ron and I were going for a bikeride, and he forgot his helmet at home; I just about lost it.
The world is conspiring against me! Nothing is working out! I cried.
We had time to go back home, get the helmet, and go for a much needed, stress-reducing ride together, fortunately. MTB Therapy. But I am so mad today at everything today. Screw cancer.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
I feel fragile. The gravity of the situation is getting quite heavy. Work was really hard. I feel sober in the truest sense of the word. I have started letting some close friends and relatives know.
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
I took today off work for my genetic testing appointment. Ron and I were able to go for a fun bikeride together which temporarily lifted my spirits. More MTB Therapy. Realizing my rides are numbered as I approach treatment, I feel somber.
I finally got my right breast biopsy results today; some positive news, finally. The biopsy was negative for cancer; all samples were benign. I celebrate this sliver of good news and celebrate the rest of the day.
Thursday, February 13, 2020
It’s been five years to the day that Ron proposed to me at Indicator’s break in Santa Cruz, tandem surfing together. I cannot believe it’s been that long.
I had my last day at work today before my medical leave of absence starts next week. I couldn’t bear to tell the kids since I felt like I’d just start balling in front of them; I didn’t want to scare them or make them sad. I’m going to miss them, though; their levity, humor, and energy keep me going! It felt too real once the bell rang for my last class. I was done. I didn’t need to come back until August for the new schoolyear, but this wasn’t a happy leave. I fought tears until my car, crying all the way home. I emailed all of the parents that evening to let them know I was taking a medical leave of absence to fight breast cancer, and how much I’d enjoyed teaching their students this year.
Friday, February 14, 2020
Ron and I have never been big Valentine’s Day people. We slept in, and went for a beautiful bikeride together. I am cherishing each and every ride. I don’t know how long it will be until I can ride again like normal, whatever that will become, but I do know how therapeutic it is for me. It is a true anti-depressant.
Later, my amazing sister Mary came up from San Diego to visit. We talked and talked and talked, and laughed over a ridiculously expensive shopping trip to the local health-food store.
Saturday, February 15, 2020
It’s been almost two weeks since I was diagnosed, but it might as well have been two months. I am already in a different place with the news, and I realize my emotions will keep evolving. Ron has been an absolute hero for me – listening, talking, comforting me every moment I need him.
My family has rallied around me and surrounded me with love, with phone calls, emails, and visits. Today, my mom came down and took Mary and me out to lunch at Rocky’s Cafe down the road. I always feel good being with my family. We got one-hour foot massages afterward, which was a lovely respite from everything. We had a wonderful time together, and although there were somber moments, I was grateful for all of the laughs we were able to share. That’s one thing our family has going for us: we’re all pretty positive people. Even if we’re realists, we tend to keep a good attitude.
That evening, my dad came down for dinner with Mary, Ron, and me, at one of our favorite restaurants in Felton, Cowboy Grill. We had a rich, satisfying dinner, followed by a special treat after dinner: looking through old photo albums from my father’s family. I always love looking at old family pictures. He even brought down a priceless family Bible, signed over the generations with people born into the family. It was a sentimental end to a pleasant evening.
My oldest sister Bonnie has gone above-and-beyond to reach out to me from across the pond in London, and I can feel her warm presence although we’re thousands of miles apart. Skype calls, emails, phone calls, all lovingly and thoughtfully sent; questions to consider, cool blog posts she found, words of encouragement, and sweet friends of hers to connect with who’d survived breast cancer themselves. She’s already planning trips out here to come visit, too. The biggest gift of all has been feeling her empathy, but she gave me another huge gift: Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. I am nearly through reading it, and it has informed me beyond my expectations about cancer, my treatment, and what I can expect should I beat it. Knowledge quells fear, and reading this tome has really quieted some nerves for me. For example, I was surprised to read that fibroadenomas don’t typically turn cancerous. Whatever this new tumor was, I could find some comfort knowing it was a different beast.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
I am really feeling the love from Ron and my family right now, and am extremely grateful for them. I look forward to building more fun, light-hearted memories with them in the future; to traveling; to sharing inspiring moments out in nature.
Soon, into the tunnel I must go. May I emerge into the light as a healthy woman. It is nearing go-time. Time to face reality and start treatment, with surgery first. This is getting real. I’m terrified, but remind myself it could be worse.
Whatever happens in these next several months, I know one thing for sure: I won’t ever be quite the same again. Though my spirit is strong, my life has already changed.
My youth fading into the background, that chapter is done.
Here’s to writing the next one.