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. 

2020 Closure

2020.

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! 

Post-Cancer Treatment Blues

My life feels a little bit like a post-apocalyptic movie these days. A torched Earth smolders as survivors scan the horizon for signs of life, all but unrecognizable under a silvery ash. While grateful to be alive, they can’t help but feel a bit shell shocked. Stunned, people emerge from the shadows, wondering out loud: 

What happened?! 

It’s been over two months since I finished radiation treatment for breast cancer, and I feel like I am living in such a land, wandering around my new reality of life post-cancer treatment. I feel like I’m walking in the burnscar of the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire that happened in the Santa Cruz Mountains in August 2020. The landscape is familiar, but the devastation is pervasive, even with signs of regrowth. The analogy to cancer is stark.

I am exceptionally grateful to be alive at all, but the uncertainty of recurrence, coupled with a gnawing anger about why I didn’t catch it sooner, haunts me on a daily basis. I’d read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among cancer patients, particularly after treatment ends; it helped to know that some irritability, worry, and depression were to be expected. As I wrote about in my last post, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jekyll and Hyde, vacillating between feeling extraordinarily grateful for life, and feeling totally down about cancer. 

Adapting to my new life post-treatment presents a slew of challenges I couldn’t quite appreciate until I was actually done with the bulk of treatment, chemotherapy and radiation. I am still in treatment, technically; about eight weeks ago, I started taking Tamoxifen, a daily anti-estrogen pill, in hopes of reducing my risk of recurrence. I may be on it for the next ten years. My current sadness and worry could be compounded by Tamoxifen, which is linked to depression and changes in mood, and I don’t doubt its influence. 

As I’m learning, there are really no guarantees of reducing your risk of recurrence, despite all the measures you take. Accepting this reality has been the hardest thing to adapt to in my new life. When I finished radiotherapy on September 23, 2020, I felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. It was soon overshadowed, however, with a nagging, dubious worry: did treatment work? Were there still any cancer cells in my body, and if so, how many, and where? To what degree – if any – could I influence whether these cells would go on to proliferate? How much was within my control, and how much was just random chance? And what was I supposed to do with all this newfound fear I was feeling? I’ve been wrestling with these questions daily. 

It is totally unsettling to know that there’s no promising anything worked, and that it could still come back. Only time will tell. Coming to terms with the mystery of what caused my cancer in the first place, and the ambivalence about my treatment’s efficacy, is tough. There’s a lot of grey area that I have to learn to live with, and as I’m starting to see, being mad about it doesn’t really help in the long run. I haven’t yet reconciled my anger, clearly.  

I’m a pretty tenacious, strong person; a realist-optimist. I will sit on a ridgetop in sixty mile per hour winds in a blizzard, and relish in the potential that awaits in the descent on my snowboard. I’ll pedal up a punishing mountain pitch, day after day, because I know how fun it is to ride down it. I enjoy making myself uncomfortable – pushing out of my down-filled comfort zone, stretching my seams. I am a self-proclaimed master of delayed gratification, understanding the give and take of earning your turns. I love a good challenge, and I’m not afraid to work hard for a reward. I’ve been skydiving, rock climbing hundreds of feet off the ground, and I fly through the forest on my bike like a bat – agile, responsive, completely aware of its surroundings, guided by echolocation through the trees. I am human, of course, and I do crash into things from time to time; I’ve had some pretty scary – and painful – falls.

But breast cancer? This has been a bit much. This is by far the scariest thing I’ve ever dealt with, hands down. I don’t feel like such a badass in the face of cancer. I am learning to navigate this new world of uncertainty, and it calls for more humility than I’ve ever known.

I take pride in being an athlete, and an intellectual. It has been relentlessly difficult to accept that my strength and fitness didn’t prevent me from getting sick. Equally, it’s hard for me to accept that I’m having slight symptoms of chemo brain; over the last couple of months, I’ve noticed moments of it, as much as I hate to admit it. Sometimes, when I’m watching Jeopardy!, the answers don’t come quite as quickly, or at all; I can see the first letter of the answer in my mind, but the rest doesn’t come. Then again, I’m able to recall many answers with rapidity. There’s other signs, though. When I’m writing, occasionally I have trouble thinking of a word; it may take longer to identify it. There are moments when I can’t remember a fact or detail about a topic right away that I would typically know. Occasionally, I find myself repeating things, thematic as this time in my life may be. 

It’s not constant, but I know myself well enough to notice a difference sometimes. I feel my brain working a little bit harder than usual. I do crossword puzzles and word jumbles everyday; I read; I practice my Spanish. I’ll do all I can to fight it, even if it is a normal side effect of treatment. A lot of it could be compounded by fatigue, but I hope it resolves soon.

The shame that goes with cancer is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. No holds barred, just writing about chemo brain makes me feel a little inadequate. Sometimes I feel like damaged goods, like I’m eternally flawed. There’s a feeling of failure so complete that it can blind you of your prevailing assets; like there’s something wrong with me – something terribly, irretrievably wrong. It’s torturous. I’ve gone over every detail of my life with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing everything from my past to the soup of pollutants I’ve been exposed to since my birth in 1980. The mystery of cancer is maddening. It is incessantly frustrating to have no clear answer for why I got it, or what I’m doing now that may invite it back. It makes me feel powerless. 

In a way, I feel like I’ve been marked for death. Dramatic as that may sound, when you have a roughly fifty percent fifteen-year recurrence rate according to some studies, you might feel the same. Based on my young age at diagnosis (39), large primary tumor size at resection (44 mm), metastasis to 3 lymph nodes, and Nottingham grade of 9, I don’t have the best long-term prognosis. Of the dozens of articles I’ve read on NCBI, my favorite website of late, most of them outline elevated risks of recurrence for someone in my shoes. I was Stage IIB, with ER/PR+, HER2-, BRCA-, invasive ductal carcinoma. My odds aren’t as good compared to someone who was diagnosed at Stage 1 with a small tumor confined to one breast. I didn’t catch it early, and I’ll forever regret it. Granted, my odds maybe aren’t quite as bad as someone diagnosed Stage IV. Likewise, someone who caught it early may have a recurrence, while someone who caught it late may live to die old. There are shades of grey in the world of breast cancer, and none of us know if our cancer will come back until it does or doesn’t. The research is growing, and studies can provide estimates and averages, but cancer remains enigmatic.

I’ve been reading lots of breast cancer blogs and forums about life post-treatment, trying to hear some echoes in the cybersphere. I can hear them loud and clear; it comforts me when I read about someone else feeling how I do, worrying about recurrence, or having post-treatment fatigue. PTSD is mentioned often, and I feel like I may be experiencing some level of it lately.

I’ve been feeling extremely irritable, getting riled up at things that I may usually let slide. Someone’s nose sticking out of their half-on mask? I almost see red. 

Cover your beak! I fume inside. 

Someone stares at me stone-faced and doesn’t say Hi back on the trail? 

Why does everyone always have to act too cool?! I lament internally. I really do wish people would say hello more often out on the trails, even during, or rather, especially during, a pandemic. Enough with the stoic aloofness already. 

Admittedly, I am regularly annoyed. I’m not handling any sort of stress very well; I get an immediate pit in my stomach. I’m sensitive, and find myself more defensive than usual. I’m like an injured dog who just wants to be left alone to heal. I’ve got a real case of the cancer blues. 

I felt some of it earlier during treatment, but now it’s worse than it’s ever been. Every time I don’t feel well, I wonder if it’s back. A headache, stomach ache, or even neck tension can put me on alert. My body, usually a source of pride and joy, feels tarnished by an insidious, lurking agent of death. I feel like a timebomb has been implanted within me, and I have no idea how much time is on it; it could be months, or years. 

The uncertainty I live with now is all encompassing. It feels like I’m constantly waiting for the bottom to drop out. I used to be excited about the future, like the blank slate before me was inviting instead of menacing. Now, I feel worried about the future, untrusting. It’s like getting bitten by a dog; you’re always on guard for it to snap at you again.

Pelicans Over the Pacific

Exacerbating matters is the loss of my beautiful, long hair. Though the Paxman cold cap saved my hair for the most part, it got really thin at the end and is pretty awful looking at the moment. I’ve cut it to about chin length, with my new growth spiking up a few inches long, coming in thick all over my head to my excitement. Overall, I lost probably over 75% of my hair. When I pull it back into a ponytail, it looks somewhat decent, but I don’t feel like my old self; I see yet another thing cancer has taken from me. Ultimately, I’m glad I did the cold cap treatment, as it was a blessing to keep my hair during treatment. 

When I could see my tumor, right before my mastectomy, I was so terrified by how it had started to protrude out of the skin, as if staring me in the face. I am taunted everyday by the fact that I didn’t catch it earlier, that it hid so well under a well-known and large, examined fibroadenoma. I can’t help but wonder where else in my body it may have taken up residence. Like a zombie fire, lurking beneath the forest floor after a wildfire, cancer can smolder insidiously before roaring back to life, swallowing everything whole. Recurrence often means death within a few years. 

I may flippantly joke that at least I don’t have to suffer getting old if I die young, but it doesn’t come close to easing my truest fears about dying from cancer. I think about how I’ll die, specifically; will it be pneumonia? Will I stop being able to swallow, and then die a couple of days later? Will I suffer a stroke or heart attack amid the stress of disease? Will it be sudden, prolonged, painful, or peaceful? Controlled, or random?

Or will I die from a distracted, texting driver on the road who hits me on my bike?

I’ve always had a pretty good handle on how short life is, and that we could die at any time, but I think about death far more often than I ever have these days. When I look back on everything I’ve been through this year – from diagnosis on February 3, to double mastectomy on February 26, to eight rounds of dose-dense chemo, to five weeks of radiation, to now being on Tamoxifen…it makes my head spin. I do feel like I’m walking through a post-apocalyptic world, where the scorched Earth is my poor body. 

I am alive and kicking, however, and I have an insatiable lust for life. 

I keep riding my bike, almost everyday, because it’s one of the few things I can do to instantly improve my mood, lighten my load, and put a big smile on my face. It’s been my refuge, my solace, my therapy, my motivation, and I am thankful for each and every ride. I don’t think about cancer when I’m riding downhill; I simply feel like a badass mountain biking bee-atch. I feel inspired, confident, grateful, and happy when I’m flowing on two wheels. 

There is a curious, fighting spirit in me; a positive streak, refocusing my energy to gratitude, to all the things that are going well in the world, and all the people that do say hi back on the trail; to all of the incredible living beings that inhabit this amazing planet. 

This is the flipside of the dichotomy of healing: the amazingly appreciative attitude that emerges after fighting for your life. On the other side of fear and anger is love and acceptance, a reverence for the miracle of life. I have had many days where I feel like I’m living in a dream, where I feel blessed beyond measure. I can spend hours marveling at tidepools, rock formations, birds in the forest. We had a heavenly trip to Yosemite and Mono Lake this Autumn, which felt like walking through a watercolor painting.

El Capitan
Halfdome

The recent King Tides have brought a wonderful world of exploration along the California coast. 

I feel calm, content, and free when I’m out in nature, and I prioritize time outside. There’s a childlike wonder for the universe that thrives inside me, perhaps saving me throughout this challenging experience, keeping my perspective in check. Immersing myself in the beautiful, infinitely intriguing world – its plants, animals, geology, and complex history – has provided a stable escape all my life. I feel comforted when I’m learning something new, and it always reminds me how much bigger life is than me and my “problems”, real as a problem as cancer may be. Losing yourself in a good book, or good online article for that matter, is one of life’s simplest yet most powerful pleasures; it can be therapeutic, really. I am grateful to live in a day and age where so much information is at my fingertips. Learning serves as somewhat of an antidote to self-pity; you have to focus on something beside yourself, gleaning valuable information, which then makes you happy. 

California Sunset

I am learning emotionally, too – to accept that feeling down is normal, and human, after everything I’ve been through this year. Forgiveness is paramount to my healing. I must forgive myself for not catching it sooner; for getting cancer at all. I must forgive my feelings of anger, fear, and sadness. I must forgive the collateral damage of side effects I’m experiencing post-treatment. 

I’m also realizing how grateful I ought to be for the forty years I’ve lived so far. It’s been a pretty incredible four decades so far, and the more I reflect upon my life, the more beautiful a picture emerges. Maybe it’s rose colored lenses, but I’m lucky to have lived this long, in such good health and spirit, experiencing a multitude of adventures along the way. Looking back, I feel proud of the life I’ve lived. 

Mountain biking and knowledge are pretty spectacular antidepressants, but there is nothing like love. My husband and cat – my boys – fill my heart, and our four walls, to the brim. My family are my rocks, whose encouragement and compassion mean the world to me. I’m a bit of a loner, but I am undyingly appreciative of my friends, whose camaraderie and connection makes me feel like I belong. I’m also grateful for the words of people whom I’ve never met, whose eloquence in describing their own struggles online help me put a name to mine. I am grateful that while I may feel alone sometimes, I am not actually alone. It also helped me understand that the side effects of Tamoxifen are real, and I’m sure it’s affecting me. Bless the gift of kindred spirits in this world.

The most effective cure to sadness is gratitude. Just thinking about mountain biking, learning, and the love of family raises my gratitude meter, and those are just a few of my favorite things. Music, dancing, gardening, birdwatching, running, yoga, hiking, cooking…there’s always something to do. Long walks on the beach? They’re loved by so many because they are one of the simplest yet most satisfying things in the world. I love – and need – my long walks on the beach as much as I need to ride my bike downhill. 

Are gratitude, hobbies, and passions enough to take away my cancer blues? I believe so, and the more time I spend pouring myself into them, the better I feel. They serve in the very least as a positive distraction from cancer, and I’ll keep busy with them everyday. My love for life is unwavering, and if I can stay focused on that, I think I’ll ride out this wave just fine. There’s no shortage of inspiration in the world; sometimes you just have to focus harder to see it. 

Here’s to having 2020 vision – in a year that demands it.