Spring 2021: Reflections on the Past Year

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

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

Your HAY-ER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of My Favorite Places in the World!
California Chutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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