Just say the year, and everyone has a story to tell. Life amid a global pandemic has stretched us all in new and, to use one of the most popular words of the year, unprecedented ways.
As the year comes to a close, I look back and see a fork in the road, etched deeply into my body and soul. This was the year my reality forever changed, from the initial shock of breast cancer diagnosis in February, through chemotherapy and radiation, and now, recovering from months of treatment while adjusting to life on Tamoxifen.
2020 was the year that my life as I knew it was pulled out like a rug from under me, flinging everything I knew and cherished into jeopardy. This was the year I learned, with all-encompassing certainty, that I am going to die – someday, but that day could be a lot sooner than I’d always thought.
Conversely, 2020 was the year I was reminded how much I loved my life, and how grateful I was for it. My patience and strength were tested incessantly, but my appreciation for life deepened, including its fleeting nature. We never know how much time we have, but when cancer comes along, it feels as though a clock is set on a countdown inside of you. Time is eternally precious, each day an opportunity you don’t want to waste. Opportunities abound in this world, regardless of covid or cancer. This year has delivered many chances for growth, reflection, and recalibrating gratitude, and as the year comes to a close, I’m focusing on all of the good that has persisted despite very real and trying challenges.
Astronomically speaking, it’s been a banner year. From the pink supermoon back in February, timed perfectly with my diagnosis; to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower; to the awesome comet Neowise; to the streaking fireballs of the Perseids; to the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn lighting up the sky recently. There’s been no shortage of wonder and marvel to help put things in perspective. I’ve probably been out stargazing this year more than any other, and it’s been a powerful antidote to self-pity.
It’s also been a fantastic year for beaches and sunsets. I’ve spent more time at the beach this year than any other, even when I used to live a half-mile from the beach. The arcing horizon of the ocean has been an escape, comfort, and source of peace for me. I can spend hours at the beach carefully exploring tidepools, and watching the light play off the water.
Aside from a few weeks off my bike after my mastectomy and lingering fatigue, it’s been a stellar year for mountain biking. It’s been my main outlet, strengthening my body and mind. The freedom of flowing on two wheels, gracefully through the forest, is definitively therapeutic; hands-down the best anti-depressant I know of.
Most importantly, it’s been a remarkable year for gratitude. I love my little life with grit and passion, and I feel exceptionally protective of it after going through treatment. Sure I’d still like to make more money and have a bigger house, but I feel so lucky to have what I do. All I want is more time doing what I love, living my life with the people I love. More time on my bike, more crossword puzzles, more birdwatching; more going to the beach, playing guitar, snowboarding, dancing around my living room. More time with loved ones; more fun.
My husband Ron and cat Beau are beacons of joy and love; my family and friends a sea of warmth and connection. I am so grateful for the kindness, compassion, and generosity extended to me this year by so many. Some people really reached out, and it meant the world to me. My family, my sisters – calling me often to check up on me, and truly listening to me when I spoke, filling me up with comfort and love; my father’s regular socially distanced visits during lulls in the pandemic, always emotionally close to home; my mother and stepfather visiting on the front porch just to see me for a short visit while we could. My in-laws, whose love and care were steadfast. Some friends, and people I’ve not even met in person yet, only online, stepped up to show support, which moved me. I appreciate anyone who genuinely wished me well and took the time to extend that concern this year. Thank you to everyone who showed me love and empathy!
I wish the love of family and friends could cure cancer, but ultimately, I have to remain vigilant about my health going forward. I worry about recurrence everyday. My lymphedema, which had recently all but disappeared from my left upper arm, has come back a little, this time mostly in my truncal region, swelling around my ribcage. I continue to do my daily exercises and stretches, hoping to keep it at bay.
As I wrote about in my last post, I am having a hard time with Tamoxifen. I’m feeling better since, knowing that Tamoxifen is at least partly to blame for my blues, and have an appointment with my oncologist next week to discuss my side effects. I joke that Tamoxifen makes me a TamoxiMonster, but the sad reality is that it has made me feel depressed, fatigued, cranky, and my joints and leg muscles sometimes ache. My temperature regulation is shot; I’m either cold, or raging hot, tearing off clothes as I’m climbing uphill on my bike, sweating like crazy. I’m thirsty all the time, peeing all the time, gaining weight, irritable, and just overall not feeling like my old self. My old self: something I’ll never have back. Though I’m still the same person, a line in the sand has been dug so deep, there’s no going back to the innocence of youth, of life pre-cancer. Turning forty this October just sealed the deal.
As 2021 nears, I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer: accepting the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This couldn’t be a more apt message for my experience with cancer this year. There has been so much out of my control, that I cannot change, that I had to accept as my new reality; so much adversity and loss. I could change the way I felt about it, however. Emotions, as instinctive as they may be, are also choices; we have some power to channel and release them, to change our perspective. That’s why I choose to do something everyday that uplifts and inspires me, that reminds me I am more than just a breast cancer patient, that reminds me how much bigger the world is than myself. Throughout treatment, the more time I spent outside, the better I felt. Whether going to the beach, mountain biking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or hiking through the forest, every breath outdoors fills me with inspiration and strength, especially through the darkest moments.
We have a choice everyday as to how we spend our day, and how we feel about our circumstances. As I begin my new year of 2021, I choose to bring with me all the good that 2020 brought. People keep emphasizing how bad 2020 was, and yes, there was no shortage of legitimate crises. I certainly experienced a few trying ordeals this year! But as I like to tell my students with distance learning, Find another excuse. I’ve heard it all: My internet’s glitchy; My camera won’t work; My homework didn’t get sent from my outbox. 2020 has brought nothing but excuses; all I care about is what you’re going to do about it.
Pandemic or not, cancer or not, everyday brings the chance to appreciate life, to witness the magic of the world in the simplest of things; adventure beckons us daily. Life is begging to be appreciated, to be recognized, to be revered. It’s up to us to choose to heed its call, to open our eyes to its beauty. That’s one of the main lessons I got out of this year. Look up to the sky, look down at the tidepools at the beach, at the spores of fungi rising from the forest floor. Life persists, and life is eternally awesome; take notice! There is a rhythm to life that beats fiercely, a synergy of flow and grace. That’s what I’m choosing to stay focused on – in 2020, 2021, whatever year I’m lucky enough to be alive in.
Happy New Year!