Two Years Post Breast Cancer Diagnosis

It’s been two years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 3, 2020. It’s the call you will never be prepared for, no matter how strong you think you are.

Here I stand, two years on the other side of that day. 

I am happy and healthy for the most part, but I still feel like part of me died during breast cancer treatment. The side effects of mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and Tamoxifen took a toll so colossal it could only be felt in the aftermath. Over one year post treatment since finishing in October 2020, and I’m still adjusting to my new life. I still think about my mortality; I’m not sure when that stops. 

On the flipside, there is immense gratitude, a carpe-diem attitude that won’t quit, and I see my life in a different, more appreciative way. I have lived a blessed life, and a second chance to live longer is the ultimate gift. Gratitude grows with hindsight, as we see the miracle of our life in all its glory in the rearview mirror. 

It’s part of the “zombie paradox”, where I feel like the old me “died” in cancer treatment, leaving me feeling like a walking corpse of my former self in some ways (“zombie”), albeit extremely grateful to be alive and well (the “paradox”). Analogizing a breast cancer survivor to a zombie may sound dramatic and morbid, but it’s fitting for life post cancer-treatment. No matter how much you focus on the joy of being alive at all, you miss the old you. There are innumerable side effects. Your body has changed; your gait adjusts. Endurance wanes. Fatigue becomes redefined, as you feel you can never catch up on sleep. Exercise, which once came effortlessly, sometimes involves dragging your ass out the door kicking and screaming because you’re dog tired, but you know it’ll be good for you so you go.

It’s not just fatigue, but almost daily I battle with lymphedema. It began first in my thumb and forefinger, about four months after my mastectomy. I had axillary lymph node removal; 33 total nodes removed from my left armpit, 3 of which were cancerous. My fingers would swell from doing the dishes, playing guitar, cleaning – anything that required fine motor skills and dexterity of my fingers. I met with a lymphedema specialist who showed me some exercises and massage to do. 

After dealing with finger swelling for a couple of months, my forearm started swelling. Then, my upper arm. It was as if it was traveling from my fingers to my ribs, where it has more or less ended now. My lymphedema is truncal, swelling around my left lower ribs. My arm doesn’t swell for the most part now, but if it gets bad, my upper arm will flare up. 

I have several stretches and exercises I do throughout the day, lest I swell up and feel the painful pins and needles; lymphatic massage also helps, too. I love playing guitar, but I have to limit myself sometimes or risk having a painfully swollen forefinger and thumb. When I’m climbing uphill on my bike, I do my stretches – pumping my left hand open and closed as I stretch my arm up and down, for example. Anytime I sit too long – like a long car trip – it flares up; too much sun, heat, and overexertion will do it, too. Circulation is vital to fighting lymphedema, so going for a walk or doing some yoga always helps. There are so many ways in which cancer changes your life, and having to do less of what you love because of it is never fun, so I keep at my stretching and massage to fight my lymphedema. 

I am pretty used to my side effects now, but I had the strangest health scare in the Fall of 2021. It started off with a tight left lower rib that was sore to the touch. It felt like I’d bruised it or overstretched it somehow, but I couldn’t think of anything that might have done it. It felt better after a week or so, but soon flared up again. 

I could hardly stretch my left arm up over my head without feeling like it was caught on something. My lower left ribs felt like they were being tugged upon from the inside out. They were still sore to the touch. 

I made a doctor’s appointment, and had an x-ray, which showed no fractures. They inferred that it was probably an interstitial muscle strain that had been reaggravated after the first time. 

Another week or so passed, and it wasn’t getting better. I’d been stretching it, and it still felt like it was caught on something. I became concerned when I came across pancreatic cancer symptoms and the left rib pain it can cause. My doctor ordered a pancreatic cancer screening blood test, along with a spate of other tests, including. I was pretty anxious at this point, expecting the worst. I thought I might have pancreatic cancer, and I was bracing myself. Here I was, back to pondering my mortality, not that I’d ever really stopped. 

Everything came back normal. I was enormously relieved, but still mystified. What was going on? My doctors were going to look into what tests might need to come next to dig deeper. 

Soon after in early December 2021, I was lying on my back in bed going to sleep, puzzled by what was going on with my rib. I was feeling around my ribcage, for the umpteenth time, trying to feel for any abnormality, any sign that might explain what was happening.

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, I felt a band of hard tissue below my rib. It felt like a hard rubber band, or an uncooked spaghetti noodle. Startled, I continued following the contour of this unknown mass, noticing there were three noodle-like bands of hard tissue, running parallel to each other on the left side of my abdomen, about 6cm down to my hip. I’d assessed this region before, and hadn’t noticed anything.

I ran upstairs to show Ron, who was still awake. 

It almost feels like a tapeworm! I exclaimed. I was in a mild panic, asking him to feel what I was feeling. I laid down on my yoga mat on my living room floor, assessing these newfound masses. Could it be cancer? I wondered. What the heck are these things?!

It was the strangest sensation. It felt like someone had pulled guitar strings taut and placed a few on my left side. Could this be causing my rib pain? I considered.

While I was assessing myself and trying not to think the worst, Ron was googling my symptoms: bands of tissue stomach, feels like rubber band in stomach. Within minutes, he came across something that caught his eye.

You had liposuction when they did your exchange surgery this Summer, right? Ron asked.

Yes, I replied, clinging to a sliver of hope from his tone of voice. I could tell that he had found something. 

There’s something called Mondor’s Cords. They can happen after liposuction in the stomach; they’re bands of tissue that develop after surgery sometimes. 

I leapt up from the living room floor, hoping we had found the cause of the problem. Reading onward and looking at pictures, I was soon convinced I had them. 

During exchange surgery, the old, temporary implants are removed; these are called expanders. Their job is to keep the skin expanded until you can have a semi-permanent implant. Radiation therapy can cause poor results on recent implants, so many breast cancer patients must wait for their real implants until after radiotherapy. When they do the exchange surgery, plastic surgeons often transfer fat from your abdomen by liposuction to supplement the implant and give it a more natural look and feel. Sometimes, the procedure causes inflammation in the veins, and the buildup of band-like cords. 

They tend to go away on their own, but I made an appointment with my plastic surgeon just in case. I was able to take pictures of them and send them to him and my general practitioner, who said it was likely Mondor’s Cords. By the time the appointment came in early January 2022, they had gone away on their own. It happened over a series of days, almost as quickly as they had appeared. Knowing it was a fairly common side effect of plastic surgery made me feel better. 

But another issue was building up, literally. For a few months, I’ve been experiencing stomach distention, early satiety, and painful bloating after eating small amounts of food. It started out subtly. At first I thought it was just the Tamoxifen I’m taking, which is known specifically to cause weight gain in the lower abdomen (“Tamoxifen Belly”). Tamoxifen has a slew of side effects – joint pain, hot flashes, fatigue, weight gain, irritability, to name a few. Irritability and lack of thermoregulation are the ones I notice most. I get both hot and cold easily, and when I exercise, I overheat quickly, sweating like a raincloud. It also saps your energy: I’m already struggling to rebound from chemo and radiation, but the Tamoxifen finishes you off. 

I had gotten more or less used to life on Tamoxifen, but then, around October 2021, I had some odd pains in my pelvis. Suspecting a problem with my uterus, I saw my gynecologist for an exam and cervical cancer screening, which came back normal, but she was concerned about my symptoms. 

She referred me for a pelvic ultrasound to assess the health of my uterus, since I’d been on Tamoxifen for a year. Tamoxifen is known to wreak havoc on the uterus, causing everything from polyps, cysts, fibroids, to uterine enlargement and thickening. Worst of all, it more than doubles your risk of uterine cancers; it is fairly effective at lowering breast cancer recurrence, however, so is considered the gold standard for hormone-receptor positive breast cancer adjuvant treatment. 

I went for my ultrasound in November, and they found several fibroids, polyps, an ovarian cyst, along with an abnormal endometrial stipe, 18mm in size; this is one of the main indications of uterine cancer. An endometrial biopsy was ordered next. In the meantime, my oncologist said I could take a break from Tamoxifen, in case it was contributing to any abnormal cell growth. 

I was pretty spooked. The silver lining, though temporary, was getting a break from Tamoxifen. Within a week, I felt more like myself again. My energy was up, my skin was glowing like it used to, and I felt happier overall. My voice was different. I was actually sleeping less soundly than I did before; on Tamoxifen, my head would hit the pillow and I’d be out, but now, it took me a few minutes to wind down, and I’d wake up easier in the night. My body felt like itself again, however, which felt amazing. I felt how I used to feel pre-cancer. It’s remarkable what estrogen can do – both good, as in feeling like my usual self, and bad, as how it can fuel cancer growth. 

Taking that break really opened my eyes to how accustomed I’d become to the side effects.

When my biopsy day came, I was really nervous; I didn’t know how it would feel, though it had been described to me. I was bracing for intense pain. Of all the procedures and tests I have had on my journey, this was one of the most painful. It was as awful as it sounded: a scratching of the cervix to remove tissue. Ten seconds of complete agony, one of the most gut wrenching pains I’ve ever experienced. I lay still until it was over. Luckily, it was a quick process, but I immediately got hot and flushed from the pain, and felt lightheaded. They give you nothing for the pain, by the way.

Wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible, I changed clothes, used the restroom, and made my way to the third floor stairwell. I felt like I might actually pass out, so held the railing tightly as I moved downstairs. A kind woman sensed my distress and asked if I was alright; I barely eked out a Yes, thank you, as I continued my way slowly down the stairs. At least I’m in the right place if I do pass out, I reasoned.

I exited the building on the ground floor, walked a few paces from the entrance, and sat down on an inviting wooden bench with conviction. My uterus was in pain, like strong cramps, and I still felt hot and light-headed. I stripped down to a tanktop and jeans, amid the frigid December air, which didn’t even register on my maxed out internal thermometer. The fresh air brought instant relief, blowing relief all over my body. I took some deep breaths, and the tears followed soon after. 

I was terrified. I’d made it this far on my breast cancer journey only to be possibly sidelined with uterine abnormalities, and my biggest fear, cancer recurrence. It was intense, and a familiar feeling of doom set in. 

Not wanting to cause a hullabaloo by sitting on the bench and dramatically sighing like a child, after cooling off for a couple of minutes, I meandered to my car in the large parking lot. I reclined my driver’s seat and lay down for a few minutes to just rest in silence. I’d made it; the biopsy was over. Yes, it was as excruciating as I was warned, but at least I’d gotten it over with. 

Then began the waiting period. This is always the hardest part; you’ve done the test, but what did it show? Is it going to be a life-altering diagnosis, a terminal Stage 4 diagnosis, or simply a fibroid problem? Your mind can’t help but run down all of the possible roads, considering how you might even start to adapt to a crushing diagnosis of terminal illness.

Just two days later, my results were in. The biopsy was normal; no cancer was detected. I was ecstatic to hear that news! It’s an indescribable relief. After a three and a half week break, I was told to resume Tamoxifen.

I was relieved, but my distended abdomen was getting worse. I was getting full after eating the smallest amounts of food: a handful of macadamia nuts, an apple, a slice of cheese. Whenever I did eat a decent meal, my stomach would get so bloated I look disfigured, and I would feel sick to my stomach like I might throw up. I thought it was my enlarged uterus and fibroids compressing my stomach, as many women have reported the same issue, but my gynecologist didn’t think they were accounting for the amount of bloating I was experiencing. She suggested having my gastrointestinal tract and organs examined. Something was clearly off. 

My doctors ran a bunch of bloodwork, including a CA-125 test which screens for ovarian cancer, which came back normal, and then my oncologist ordered a CT Scan with contrast dye of my abdomen to get a clearer picture of what was happening. They ran an IV with contrast dye during the scan, which was done in less than ten minutes. The iodine contrast is a vasodilator, so it makes you feel warm, and tastes metallic. 

It was also an interesting date: 2/2/22, a palindromic date of 2’s. It was also Groundhog Day, my maternal grandfather’s birthday (may he rest in peace), and it was the last day my life was normal. I was diagnosed on February 3, 2020; 2/2/20 was my last normal day (also palindromic if you drop the 0). Most of all, it had been almost 2 years to the day since my diagnosis. 

Interesting numbers aside, I braced myself for impact: they might discover cancer during this scan, and if they do, it’s likely terminal. “Scanxiety” is a real thing; these scans bring so much worry. I went home and went for a nice bike ride with Ron. 

Later that evening, the saddest thing happened. Around ten o’clock at night, Ron and I heard wailing from our neighbor’s house across the street. It was clear something terrible had happened. We ran across the street to check on them. Their two goats had been attacked and killed. One had a broken neck, and the other was having CPR done on it to try to save it. This is every pet owner’s worst nightmare; my heart broke for them. Seeing those goats was intense, and so sad; I felt so bad for their family as they had to experience such a tragic loss. Pets are family, livestock included. 

I didn’t really know what to do to help, and perhaps I was a little raw from my own health scares going on. Someone yelled to call the fire department, so I took that on. I could help with that. I ran back to our house and called 911, who put me in touch with a woman from the Department of Fish & Wildlife. The fire department didn’t come, understandably; I’m sure no one was really sure what they could do to help at that point. But it was something to try, and try you must in an emergency. 

Mountain lions are common where we live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and it was assumed that one had jumped the fence, killed both goats, but then couldn’t carry them back over the fence. I felt so sad for my neighbors; what an awful thing to go through. It also reminded me, again, that our cat Beau is vulnerable as well when he goes outside, especially at night.

We didn’t sleep very well that night, but I can’t imagine how terribly our poor neighbors slept. 

The very next day, two years to the date of my breast cancer diagnosis, I got the good news that my CT Scan was clear! This was huge – a major weight off my shoulders. I methodically looked through the list of organs – pancreas, liver, kidneys – and delighted at the “Clear” note next to each one. I cried as I let weeks of anticipation go. I felt physically lighter. The relief is indescribably palpable.

The one organ a CT Scan isn’t so good for, however, is the uterus. The CT is good for assessing the internal organs, and was a good test to rule problems with them out, but an MRI shows the clearest picture of uterine issues. As the tech noted on his report, Uterine imaging not well defined with CT.

I haven’t yet talked to my doctors, but I would imagine an MRI may come next to get a clearer picture of my uterus and the extent of my cysts and fibroids. 

In the meantime, I can say with anecdotal confidence that the bloating I’m experiencing is related to Tamoxifen. It can’t be a coincidence that I went on it for a year, and looked pregnant at the end of it. When you have fibroids and an enlarged uterus, it can make you look five months pregnant, and after a meal, I can certainly look it!

It’s not so much the “looking pregnant” part that’s bothering me, though not fitting into all your jeans presents a problem, and darn it, I did always have a nice, flat stomach! The worst part is feeling sick, and not being able to eat very much. Everyday, my stomach hurts – a gnawing, wrenching pain. I have found myself at times in the middle of a trail, miles from my car, so hungry I feel like I could keel over, tempted to ask a complete stranger for food as I’d forgotten to bring any. As an athlete, this makes going for a run or mountain bike ride challenging. My energy crashes, as I don’t have much fuel to burn. 

Now I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing a snack with me whenever I exercise, which helps, even if it’s just a few bites. I constantly feel like I need more food, though, despite not being able to physically stomach much. I am stuck in this yo-yo of being hungry and overly full, while never really getting enough to eat during the day. I am eating nutritious food when I do eat – nuts, fruit, yogurt, eggs, fish, vegetables – as I know I’m not eating enough. I love food and am usually a good eater!

Hopefully I’ll get to the bottom of this sooner than later. I know it’s not tenable to continue in such a pattern. 

Two years post-diagnosis, I am not quite the same person as I was before, but many pearls of wisdom have amalgamated with that change. All the old cliches are still true: live everyday as if it were your last; seize the day! Have an attitude of gratitude.

Most of all, we are nothing without health.

I’ve grown more accepting of myself. I’ve always had a perfectionist streak, but I’m settling for good enough more often now. You may find a few errors in my writing – gasp! – but it’s more important to me that someone is reading this and relating to it. 

What matters is to enjoy life, and cultivate love and kindness as much as possible. Who cares if I run slower, or need to take more breaks when I ride my bike uphill? 

At least I am still flying downhill. I don’t take it for granted, whether snowboarding, mountain biking, running, or walking. No matter how many times I ride the same trails, they never get old, though I may. 

Ride on. 

Exchange Surgery & Summer 2021

Sir! Excuse me, Sir!

I ambled to the next window to check in for the downhill mountain bike race at Snow Summit in Big Bear, California. It was a hot, sunny day, with a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. I’d been told by a kind employee to go to a particular window, and that I did not have to wait in that line. 

Again, I heard a shout:

Sir! Excuse me, Sir! Did you just cut this whole line?

I didn’t know who she was shouting at, but it sure as hell wasn’t me…or so I thought.

A few seconds later, she approached me.

Sir! With just one look in my eyes, she realized the mistake she was making. 

Yep, I was being called Sir. 

I’m sorry, Miss, but did you just cut this whole line? She interrogated. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’d been told specifically to go to this window, and now I was being called a guy. Awesome start to my day. 

I was told by that employee over there, I began, pointing to the nice lady, to go to this window to check in for the downhill race. 

She immediately said I was right, and was in the correct spot. Yelling back at the long line of people waiting to buy tickets, who had taken interest in seeing me get schooled for “cutting the line”, she said: 

It’s okay everybody; she’s a racer! The sarcasm in the way she said the word racer was a taunt to the people in line, a few of whom laughed and mocked, Ooh, a racer!

The lady walked back to manage the line, and I continued with my check-in. My mood changed from excited to sour pretty quickly, especially being called a dude in front of all those people, and being accused of line-cutting. I’m a rule follower and I don’t believe I’m more important than other people; I will wait my turn, no problem. But if you’re doing a race, and they tell you to go to a certain line, that’s what you do. 

I was angry, and dejected. I know how awful my hair looks right now, short and in the mullet stage. This is the hair of someone who’s lived through eight double-dose chemo infusions for breast cancer last year. I know my hair looks crazy, but my body does not look like a man’s!

I decided to let her know how I felt. I walked back up to her and said:

That was a pretty bad way to start my day here at Snow Summit – being called a guy in front of all of those people, and then being accused of line cutting. You were kind of aggressive about it too, as if I’d done something wrong. It might help you to know that my hair is so short and crazy because I went through treatment for breast cancer last year. I know how bad my hair looks. So you calling me out in front of everyone was a really crappy way to start my day. 

She apologized, genuinely from what I could surmise, and I felt better saying something to her, in front of all those people in line who’d laughed at me. As for those guys, I just scowled at them. The hell you looking at? I sneered under my breath.

It was a bad start to my day, and after getting on the chairlift, I admit I cried. Sometimes I just want to escape from the world, and situations like this. Of course I know how bad I look right now; I am reminded everyday when I look in the mirror of the woman I am no longer. I have felt uglier than I ever have over the past year. It takes a toll on your self esteem. I am already feeling so down about how I look, to be called a dude reminded me that even if I finished cancer treatment, I am still dealing with its ramifications in so many ways. Having someone else call it out stung. It was similar to seeing that old colleague in the market by my house who had gasped Your Hay-ER?! 

It wasn’t that the employee was an evil person for mistaking me, but that I was already so sensitive about my short hair. The usual, more confident me would have shaken out my long hair in a model-like fashion, saying, Excuse me, M’aam? I don’t see a Sir anywhere around here, batting my eyelashes for flair. 

But the current Katrin? I already feel lower than normal, anything coming at me feels like a tsunami. I wasn’t so angry at her for calling me a guy, but I was angry about the situation in general: angry that I got breast cancer; that I ultimately lost my hair, albeit lucky not to lose it all at once because of the cold-cap. I am still dealing with a lot of anger about the entire thing – all of my breast cancer experience, not catching it sooner, etcetera…

I let myself have a quick cry, alone on the chairlift, thinking to myself, Watch me beat half those dudes down Miracle Mile

I had a great first run down Miracle Mile, one of my favorite trails at Snow Summit. It had been a couple of years since I’d ridden there, but I knew the trail well. I was a little distracted by what had just happened with the security guard. 

All was going well until the very last jump; I hucked it fast, forgetting it has an off-camber landing that you can’t see from the approach. I saw that I was going to land on the slopeside, not the flatter side, and came down in a somewhat controlled slide out from my jump. I abraded the hell out of my right arm, and of course, wasn’t wearing elbow pads that day. I was otherwise okay and had managed to slide out of it alright, but my arm was quickly bleeding. 

I knew I’d hit hard. I went to the bathroom, and, trying not to gross everyone out, rinsed out my arm. I had scrapes and abrasions from my forearm up to my shoulder, and I could see a couple of deep gashes that had split the skin open. Worried I might have broken it, I decided to see the Medics on site. 

They dutifully cleaned out my abrasion, and said it was up to me about stitches; it wasn’t so long of a gash, but it would be a slow heal without them. They dressed my wounds and advised me to see a doctor the next day if pain increased. They did some stress tests on my arm, which didn’t show any immediate signs of fracture. I felt like I was basically okay, save for weeks of healing from my abrasions to come. 

I thanked them for their time, and took a minute to sit outside on a park bench in the shade. Here I was at Snow Summit, just an hour ago so excited to ride, and now I was hurt – physically, and emotionally. I felt defeated. 

I knew right then and there that the best remedy was to get another lap in. I got back on the chairlift, rode up to the top, and did a second lap down Miracle Mile. This time, I angled the last jump better so I could land in the flatter spot, not hillside. I was jazzed. I felt renewed. Forget being called a dude, and forget my throbbing arm! More importantly, I was happy. I wasn’t going to give up after that crash. 

I did a couple of more laps, finishing the day feeling good and confident. The race was the next day, and I felt ready. I had a great dinner with my awesome Dad, who came to join me in Big Bear for the race, and went to bed early. 

On raceday, my arm was certainly hurting worse, as I would have expected. Just the slightest vibration from holding onto my bars made me wince. I started questioning whether I’d be able to finish the race it hurt so badly. Feeling unsure of my situation, I lined up toward the back of the starting line, as I didn’t want to slow anyone down should I need to pull off the course, or possibly crash. 

This turned out to be a mistake. I ended up having to pass two riders, which is always sketchy during a race. There wasn’t a good spot for them to pull over right away, so I lost some time waiting for the space to pass. This picture sequence captures it perfectly. 

I ended up with second place for this race, Open Women 40+, 23 seconds off of first place. I wondered over and over whether I would have made up that time if I didn’t have to pass, and it was a reminder to me that no matter the injury, you’re always going to give it all you’ve got. I should’ve lined up toward the middle, at least. I was happy with the race, though, and I certainly like the format of a Downhill race better than an Enduro race, which I would tackle the following weekend. 

First, I would head back home, only to leave for a couple of days in Big Sur the next day to celebrate my fifteen year anniversary with Ron on the Summer Solstice, June 21. I love that our anniversary is the longest day of the year; quite apt for us! It was one of those perfect trips – calm, warm weather, no fog, just pure bliss. We love meandering down Highway 1 and exploring this gorgeous coast. I feel so lucky to live so close. I love Santa Cruz, but Big Sur is exceptional.

A few days later, I took off for China Peak, where I’d race the California Enduro Series Enduro race. I was going to do the Expert category, which would require climbing twice, but knowing how I’ve been struggling with endurance and shortness of breath lately, I changed categories to Sport, which only had one climb (which was still a killer!). 

On practice day, it was super hot, and the lines were equally long – about an hour just to get on the chairlift. As I’ve become somewhat of a vampire since radiation, only able to tolerate periods of direct sun for so long before I start melting, despite still loving every ray, I only got one practice lap on Stage 4, my favorite run. I just couldn’t stand in that long line, in the beating sun. I’d raced here in 2017 and 2018, so I knew I could ride the course, but obviously it would have been better to preride the entire course.

I went for a beautiful hike among alongside a riparian zone through burnscar near Huntington Lake, from the Creek Fire in 2020.

On raceday, I had my usual nerves and stomach ache; this is one thing I hate about racing, and haven’t learned to quell, yet. We started off with the climb, getting it out of the way in the morning, before it got really hot. I stopped to take many breaks on the way up, feeling the altitude with every foot gained. 

My confidence waned as I grew more tired; starting off the race with this long climb took most of my energy. I felt fatigued, which is the worst way to feel when you’re about to race. I didn’t push too hard, and just focused on completing the race. I crashed once on each stage; not badly, just slid out in the loose, deep corners. My handlebars got knocked crooked twice after falling, which made for an amusing finish to those stages. 

It was a stacked category of 16 women in my Sport category, and alas, I was eleventh – ouch. Just like the last Enduro race I’d done at Exchequer, I’d landed toward the bottom. This was my first California Enduro Series race I’d done that I hadn’t made the podium. I miss the days of being fast and placing well, but my body is doing the best it can post-cancer treatment. It was a beautiful trip, though, and I enjoyed hanging out with everyone on the mountain. 

With my exchange surgery looming on the horizon for July 9, I knew I only had a week or so to seize the Summer before I’d be on a mellow schedule for a few weeks as I healed from surgery. Thus, a couple of days after I got back from China Peak, I headed back up the hill to Downieville for a couple nights of Yuba River heaven, and mountain biking.

I also did something I’ve always wanted to do: hiked up to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. This is about 2.5 miles from the parking lot at Butcher Ranch, gaining about 1,500’ of elevation in that length. It’s a good hike up, about an hour, and it went fast coming down.

The fire lookout is like being on top of the world. After hiking up to the peak, you ascend multiple stairs up to the lookout, which is a small room fit for one or two people to play sentinel. The views are panoramic and expansive, with Mt. Lassen visible to the North, and multiple geologic features popping up in all directions. The dominant rock type is quartz porphyry. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I watched as the Beckwourth Fire Complex simultaneously grew to the East, giving this location its apt name. 

It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time: mountain biking in the morning, Yuba River swim in the afternoon, with a sunset hike to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout in the evening. I slept like the happiest baby there ever was that night. I just love to play hard outside during the day! I rode Northstar the next day, which is always a rip roaring good time. 

The next week, I went back up the hill for a couple more days of mountain biking at Northstar, spending the night on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. I had so much fun I didn’t want to come back down the hill, but I literally had surgery the next day! Here I was sitting at Northstar, all my gear on, on the phone for my pre-op appointment, then minutes later flying down Livewire. It was an awesome way to spend the day before surgery.

When surgery came on Friday, July 9, I was ready. While my expanders were somewhat okay, they always had a temporary feel to them, and certainly didn’t look the way I wanted them to. I was reminded every time I looked at them of breast cancer. I didn’t feel so confident. 

Surgery went well; about two hours later, I was waking up in the post-op room. There were no drains this time, as there were in my initial mastectomy and lymph node removal. The pain was almost non-existent. I went home that day, and stayed up until evening, puttering around the house as usual, minus any heavy lifting. I was really blown away by how easy the surgery felt! He had done some liposuction from my stomach to contour my new silicone implants, and my stomach was quite bruised and sore for a week or so, but aside from that, I felt fine. One of the hardest parts was not being able to sleep on my side for the first few weeks, and of course, not being able to go for a mountain bike ride, or run, or surf. Basically, the first few weeks you’ve got to take it easy. I always miss my runner’s high when I don’t exercise.

As I did after my first mastectomy, I walked a lot. I went to the beach almost everyday, and went for long hikes. It is a saving grace when you’re healing, and eternally proves itself as such. I read, did crossword puzzles, watched Netflix, and let my body rest.

Ron and I went down to Big Sur for a couple of days, staying the night in San Simeon. We are really enjoying ourselves in this stunning landscape! I’ve always visited this part of the coast, but lately, it’s emerging as a revered Eden for me. I feel drunk on its beauty, albeit I haven’t been drunk in over eight years. It is intoxicating, aesthetic perfection.

 

Entrance & Exit

I even made it through a claustrophobic wooden tunnel to get to Partington Cove. It wasn’t overly scary, but I did jog through it to get it over with quickly! It was a bit spooky for me, but after everything I’ve been through with cancer, doesn’t pare in comparison.

The best part about this trip? I saw California Condors for my first time! There were three flying among a group of vultures. I quickly got my binoculars from the car to confirm their identity, but their giant size set them apart instantly. I am an avid birder, and have long wanted to see one of these giant, endangered birds, of which there are only some 440 left in the world, with less than 300 in the wild. I was so happy I cried! It was momentous.

Two weeks after surgery, Ron and I headed up to Lake Tahoe, where my mother’s friend has a cabin that she rented out for five nights. We spent five blissful days in Meeks Bay with my family, soaking up every second. Lake Tahoe is a magical place! We swam everyday, hiked, hung out with each other, and just dove into it. It was one of the best vacations I’ve had in a long time! I’m so grateful we were all able to spend that time together. It was priceless. 

Total Bliss

Now, I’m in my last week of Summer vacation. I am happily back on my bike, three weeks out from surgery; it feels heavenly!

We’ll start school on Wednesday, August 11, and finish on May 26. I’m excited to start this new school year. After last year, with distance learning until March 29, 2021, I think the kids are, too. With the Delta variant rising, I hope we are able to carry out our plans for full-time, in-person learning without any interruptions or returns to distance learning. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, however, it’s that we never know what the future holds. 

As my Summer comes to somewhat of a close, I am immensely aware of the difference between this year and last year. Last year, I was going through chemo. This Summer, I got to focus on play. Having my exchange surgery was one of the final puzzle pieces to completing my breast cancer journey, though I know it may not be the last; life will always keep you on your toes! For now, I celebrate this milestone. I feel more like myself again. I am really happy with the results. It’s fun to put on a dress and feel good about myself. I am so grateful to live in a time when this kind of treatment is available – from my initial mastectomy, to chemo, to radiation, to the Tamoxifen I take daily, to this exchange surgery, which proved to be more than just a physical process, but an exchange of diffidence for confidence. 

I’m Okay, But No Need To Ask

Are you OKAY?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You okay there?

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

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

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

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

Do I look like I need help?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started explaining myself:

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

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

His friend stood there, agape, as he replied,

No; I ask everyone if they’re okay. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps curious to better understand, the rider asked me, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. Because I am so okay

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

Spring 2021: Reflections on the Past Year

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

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

Your HAY-ER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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