My Two Cents: Some Advice For Supporting A Loved One Through Breast Cancer Treatment

Corpse Flower, UCSC Arboretum

I just want to talk to someone who will really listen. 

During breast cancer treatment, that’s all I really wanted in terms of support from others. I wanted to be able to share my feelings and musings on life freely as I faced my mortality and tested my mettle in ways I’m still processing.

I just wanted to be heard; for someone to say, I hear what you’re saying, and that sounds tough. Tell me more. And then actually listen. 

I really needed good listeners in my life, and fortunately, I had a few golden ones who got me through the thick of it, my husband Ron being number one, and family members. Now that it has been almost two years since finishing treatment, I’ve had some time to reflect upon the support and love I received. I am so grateful for everyone’s support, no matter the degree. 

I also learned that there were some things I wish people didn’t say to me – not to attack anyone personally in my life, but to highlight some of the common themes that emerged in people’s comments. Inspired by other women’s posts about what not to say to someone going through breast cancer treatment, I am ready to write my own. I realize I may be repeating what has already been written by other cancer survivors, and it’s no surprise there are common feelings among all of us. I don’t want to come across as ungrateful, or judgmental, but this is how I felt. I’ve hesitated to share my thoughts as I don’t want to deliberately make anyone feel bad, but life is too short to hold back – something reaffirmed to me during breast cancer treatment.

Agree with me or not, if you’re ever so lucky to have cancer someday, then you can write your own list. This is just my two cents for supporting a loved one through breast cancer treatment. 

Let’s start with what not to say or do. 

1) Don’t play doctor.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you spend most of your free time diving deep into research about your disease. You look at forums online, scholarly science articles, books, you name it. But you listen to your doctors’ advice, because they ultimately know more than you do (unless you yourself are a medical doctor with expertise on your cancer). 

I was surprised by how much advice I got from people, whether it was a lifestyle change, an exercise regimen, energy work, dietary recommendations, supplements, or even my cancer treatment plan. Multivitamins, keto diet, intermittent fasting – you name it, it was probably suggested to me by someone. It’s funny how everyone becomes a nutritional expert through Google; I suffer the same pitfall sometimes, too. We get a little bit of information, read someone’s testimony to a diet or supplement, and we’re sold. 

Diet is already a highly individualized thing. There is no one-size-fits-all, only what works for you. Though I appreciated that people were suggesting things out of love, it was kind of annoying. Did people think I wasn’t already eating healthfully? Did they assume I hadn’t already asked my doctor about anything special I should be doing? Everytime someone made a suggestion, it felt reductive, as if they were reducing my entire cancer – which is colossally intimidating – down to something so simple as a dietary change; if I just changed one thing in my diet, ate this one food, took this one supplement, that would be the game changer to kill my cancer and keep it from coming back. It was over simplistic, and frustrating. 

I never make suggestions to people about what they should or shouldn’t eat. When I’m offered alcohol or meat, I simply say, No thank you, instead of charging into a rant about how I don’t drink, or why you shouldn’t eat meat. I appreciate when people do the same for me. 

And please don’t tell me what my survival odds are, or what my risk of recurrence is. If you know about breast cancer, you know it’s not a one-size-fits-all prognosis. There are multiple variables to consider. When people tell me, “You have a 90% chance of survival at 5-years”, I want to pull up all of the bookmarked articles I have from NCBI to prove them wrong. No, I don’t have a 90% survival rate. My recurrence risk is about 50% over the next 15 years, and if it comes back, it will likely kill me, and it’s most likely to recur around the 5-year mark. A young age at diagnosis, large tumor size, high Nottingham grade score, and lymph node involvement all put me at a high risk for recurrence.

That’s why my doctors advised me to be as aggressive as possible in my treatment: bilateral mastectomy with axillary lymph node removal (I had three cancerous nodes in my left axilla, or armpit), chemotherapy, radiation, followed by 10 years of Tamoxifen, since my cancer was hormone-receptor positive. It wasn’t a “choice” for me to complete all my treatment, as people like to say sometimes; it was what the doctors advised me to do, and I heeded their recommendations.

2) Please don’t tell me that you understand, unless you’ve had cancer yourself.

Sorry, but unless you’ve lived through cancer yourself personally, you do not understand because you cannot understand. I know people are just trying to be compassionate, but it was the most disingenuous thing I think I heard from people. All I felt like saying when I heard that was, NO YOU DON’T! And the fact that you think you understand only shows me how little you understand what I’m going through.

I know I sound bitter; again, unless you’ve lived through cancer yourself, you can’t understand. I don’t blame you; it’s not your fault you’ve never been so blessed to fight for your life with a cancer battle. But please, don’t tell me you understand. It doesn’t matter that your friend, mother, second cousin, or neighbor down the street had cancer; that you sat by a loved one’s side as they sadly passed from their battle. You may understand parts of the experience, but you can’t understand exactly how someone with cancer feels. Nothing can prepare you for it, and it’s something you can’t know until you experience it. Even if you’ve had cancer yourself, it’s still a different journey than mine. Respect the process and uniqueness of everyone’s stories.

3) Please don’t placate with platitudes like, You’re going to be just fine! It’s God’s plan!

There is no way to know the future, nor determine whether my cancer treatments worked; only time will tell, and until I die, I’ll never know for sure. Though platitudes like this are common during a difficult time, it made me uneasy anytime someone said this to me. I’ll never forget an encounter at the radiation clinic; I met a woman in the changing room, and we made small talk while waiting for our appointments. She was getting radiation for her jaw; I was having my left chest wall and clavicle treated. 

When she left for her appointment, she turned to me and said, You’re going to be just fine. I can feel it.

I smiled politely and thanked her, but I didn’t particularly like hearing that. How do you know I’m going to be okay? You just met me; you know nothing about me. You can’t predict the future, I thought. 

Everytime someone told me I was going to kick cancer’s ass, or was going to be just fine, I cringed a little inside. Again, I’m not trying to attack people for sending me well wishes, but I need to be honest about how it felt to be on the receiving end. Cancer humbles you, and teaches you that you really aren’t in charge of your body after all. We think we are – with our dietary choices, exercise, and lifestyle – but ultimately, cancer can fester silently inside you for years before emerging as a volcano on your life, covering everything with scarring lava, filling the skies with the choking ash of death. You learn a necessary fear and strange respect for it, knowing it is now the boss over you. 

You don’t talk sassily to it; you don’t pull the tiger’s tail. You never beat it, especially since it can always come back. I don’t call myself a cancer survivor, because I don’t know that I will survive it. I only know that today I am alive, and feel mostly well. But as I learned before, it could all change in the blink of an eye. Therefore, I never assume that I’m going to be just fine.

4) Don’t ask: How do you know your treatment worked?

This is one of the most difficult questions I get asked. It’s a fair question, really, but a difficult one to answer. The nurse at my port-removal surgery asked me this question; I was shocked he didn’t have the wherewithal to realize what a stupid question it was to ask someone who’d just lived through a double mastectomy, four months of chemo, and five weeks of radiation. 

What the hell do you think I’ve been thinking about this entire time, everyday? What do you think my life is like now that I get to live with this dark shadow on my shoulder following me around, everyday, eternally threatening to kill me?! I mused in my mind.

Did it work?! 

This is the essence of my newfound anxiety about recurrence that I have to fight from dominating my mindset everyday. I wish there were a guarantee that it worked for the long run, but only time will tell. 

I will never know the answer until I die – from cancer, or something else. I’ve been asked the same question by other people, and I know it’s only an innocent, warranted question. I would love to say, Yes, but then if it comes back, it clearly didn’t work. This is the limbo you are stuck in as someone who has lived through cancer. 

This is why I call myself a breast cancer zombie, not a survivor. I feel like a zombie of my former self, walking around in the shell of my old body, my old identity, echoes of songs sung years ago reverberating in my nostalgic heart. Glory Days is an apt soundtrack for me right now, I begrudge. Ask me how I’m doing today, that’s fine, but please don’t ask me how I know my cancer treatments worked. It only reminds me that I’ll never know for sure, and how unsettling that is.

5) Don’t make it about you.

This is the one time in life where you should not wait for your turn to speak; where you should not think of that one time you had a health scare that turned out to be fine, ready to share it as if you know exactly what we’re talking about (see #2). I appreciate a good back-and-forth dialogue, but please don’t appropriate our suffering by acting like you know it first-hand.

Sometimes when I opened up with people, it was as if they hadn’t heard a single word I said and were just waiting to tell their own sob story, as if trying to one-up me. It’s not a competition. I felt dismissed every time I tried to share my experience only to have the conversation flipped back away from me, and refocused on someone else. Sorry, but I don’t want to hear about your friend I’ve never met who had cancer, or how Angelina Jolie had a prophylactic mastectomy, and how that must be like what I’m going through (not in the slightest).

People on the outside looking in think all of us cancer patients have basically the same experience, and though there are universal themes (feeling alone, terror, immense gratitude for the simplest of things), everyone’s story is uniquely their own. When people tried to say they understood because they knew someone with cancer, it only made me feel like they weren’t actually listening to my story. 

I just wanted someone to talk to. Don’t judge how we’re coping with cancer, or for being who we are. Don’t judge us for being selfish for once in our lives. Everyone deals with adversity in different ways, and what works well for one person doesn’t translate to everyone else. There is no one right way to deal with a cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment. Some people questioned how I was dealing with it, thinking only of how they would approach the situation if they were in my shoes (again, making it about themselves). Shouldn’t I be meditating everyday, or seeing a therapist, or taking that one special supplement that will fix everything? Am I “thinking good thoughts”, and visualizing my healing? 

When I was first diagnosed and told a few teachers at my school, one of them told me they’d talked about how they could support me during treatment. Expecting your usual meal-train idea or something similar, I was taken aback when she said, “Someone said they didn’t know how to help you or what you’d want because you’re so quiet all the time”.

All I heard was that being an introvert automatically excluded me from receiving support from my colleagues, and a subtle dig telling me it was my fault if I didn’t get any support from others. And then, I thought, Have you ever tried asking me a question? I have a lot to say – if you actually listen. Maybe it wasn’t that I was so quiet, but that I didn’t want to waste my breath if someone wasn’t listening. My colleagues were supportive of me during treatment, coming together with generous donations and cards. For whomever had thought I was too “quiet”, there were several who were truly there as friends, checking in on me often, which meant the world to me. I could have done without hearing that comment, however.

During treatment someone else asked how I was doing so well amidst everything, that I was making it look easy; was I really doing as well as I seemed to be? You can’t win with everyone. You’d think people would want you to be happy and deal with it as best as you could, but sometimes it felt like people were disappointed I didn’t crumple to the ground in total surrender to the gravity of my experience. 

Staying busy during treatment with regular time outside in beautiful places was my therapy; that precious, invaluable time kept me focused on the big picture – that life is so much more than my little life, scared as I was for it. Leaning into the beauty of the world, and learning about it, kept me inspired and helped abate some of my hardest days, but it didn’t diminish the difficulty of every step of treatment. When someone says it looks like I had an easy time with cancer, I want to remind them of all the times I cried, felt alone, or felt terrified that my death was imminent. Just because I remained committed to outdoor exercise during treatment doesn’t mean I didn’t suffer. Before cancer, time outside – paired with the endorphins of a good workout on my bike, two feet, or otherwise – had always been my best medicine. I’ve known the secret of movement through nature all of my life, and it definitely helped me through my treatment. It’s part of my identity. 

But it’s only what worked for me. That doesn’t mean my way is the right way, the best way, or the way everyone going through cancer ought to approach their treatment. I would never push my lifestyle onto someone else, as I wouldn’t expect anyone to force their lifestyle upon me. Thus, when going through a hard time, let people deal with it how they know best. Don’t judge, don’t question, and don’t give unsolicited advice about how we ought to be dealing with it. Just let us deal with it how we know best, even if it’s not what you’d do.

#6) This last year was SO hard…

I know this one may make me seem cold. I realize these last couple of years were really hard for people, in many different ways – some obvious, some subtle. But unless you had cancer yourself, had COVID-19, lost a loved one, or had your life imminently threatened – beyond the risk of catching COVID – I would beg you to reconsider your blessings. All I heard people talk about is how hard 2020 was, or 2021 or 2022 for that matter. When I heard people complain, it made me wonder if they knew their audience; if they’d actually seen what I’d been through? It made me want to ask:

Would you rather have had drains hanging from your chest wall for nearly three weeks after you had a bilateral mastectomy with 33 lymph nodes from your armpit removed? Would you rather have sat in a chemo chair for five hours at a time, cold-cap freezing your head only to barely save some of your hair, over a four month period?

Would you rather have endured five weeks of daily radiation to your chest, knowing every treatment increased your risk of heart disease, and permanent fibrosis of your lung tissue?

Would you rather have pondered your death on a daily basis, genuinely wondering if this year might be your last on this planet?

Would you rather have evacuated your house for 11 days while a wildfire threatened to burn it all down? Would you rather have had to teach remotely for distance learning, having to rework all of your lesson plans to be delivered over Zoom, without much thanks from parents or students? Then again, would I have rather had a loved one die from COVID? Gotten COVID myself? Fought for my life on a ventilator? Lost my business? Had to bury a loved one in a mass grave?

Everyone has a story to tell from the pandemic, but I realize many had it way harder. I try not to complain about how “hard” treatment was, despite it actually being quite challenging. The lesson all along has been to take what you’ve been dealt, be grateful for what you have, and try to make the most of it. 

Now, the #1 thing I would recommend to support someone going through breast cancer: 

I’m sorry. That sucks. I wish you nothing but love and courage to fight this. Then, put your phone down and ask, How are you?

And really listen, compassionately. That’s all. No need to compare battle stories, or try to fix it. 

Give yourself fully to the moment. Don’t wait for your turn to speak, or to share your own experience with your Aunt So-and-So who had a scare on her latest mammogram, or your friend who died from Stage 4 breast cancer after having celebrated being “cancer-free” for five years. 

Listen with an open heart. Ask questions. Care. Put yourself in our shoes, and imagine how you might feel going through it. Don’t shy away from us when we’re going through our darkest, hardest moments. Be a good listener.

If you can’t handle the depth of such subject matter, then thank you for supporting me in ways you know how, like sending a card, flowers, or delivering a home-cooked meal. Some people don’t want to talk deeply about mortality, and that’s okay, but I really appreciated those who went there with me. 

Adversity will reveal who truly has your back in life. At this point in my life, I don’t want to waste time with people who don’t care to ask how I’m really doing, who dismiss me. Some people I’d see after months since treatment wouldn’t even ask how I was doing, or about what my experience might have been like. Again, some people don’t want to talk deeply about mortality, but it was flabbergasting to be greeted as if everything was the same.

Conversely, I had some of the best conversations of my life while going through breast cancer treatment, catalyzed by the indisputable realization that my life as I knew it was over, and that my death may be more imminent than I had imagined. There’s a lot of deep issues you face when pondering your mortality, and talking with your loved ones about them helps. 

My husband Ron was my de facto therapist, best friend, husband, house cleaner, personal masseur, personal shopper, and chauffeur, but the thing I appreciated most during treatment was his good ear. Having someone to talk to about the roller coaster of emotions I was experiencing made me feel far less alone, even if he couldn’t exactly understand what I was going through. That was the beauty of his gift of listening: he didn’t pretend like he understood, or knew the perfect thing to say, or try to fix it. He just nodded and listened with emoting eyes, an open heart, and genuine love for me. That is a quality about him I’ve always cherished, but was the biggest present; not to be outdone was my Dad, who visited regularly during treatment, and leaned into every conversation with an open heart, as he did all my life before passing away from cancer himself in March 2022. 

I had some amazing conversations with other family and friends, too, my sisters and mom. Sometimes it was in-person, sometimes over the phone, sometimes through email or social media. However it happened, every connection I had with someone helped me feel better. I could not put a price on the value of those who were good listeners. To be seen and heard is really all I needed from my loved ones at a time like this. I realize I may sound bitter, but if you’re ever so lucky as to get cancer, then you, too, can write your own list of things you wish people wouldn’t say to you. 

May you never have that chance. 

Lastly, send a card. It’s cancer, not the flu. 

That’s just my two cents, though.

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. 

Spring 2021: Reflections on the Past Year

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

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

Your HAY-ER!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of My Favorite Places in the World!
California Chutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radiation, Breast Cancer, & The End of A Decade

I feel like a walking paradox at the moment. I’m more tired than ever, yet I’ve never felt more alive; I’m a little worse for the wear, but grateful beyond measure. I am so happy I want to shout it from the mountaintops, yet so humbled I want to sit in silence. It’s been three weeks since I finished radiation for breast cancer treatment, and two months since I finished chemotherapy. As if I don’t already feel a decade older, on October 10, 2020, I turned forty years old, officially leaving my Thirties behind. 

It’s been a long road since I was first diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2B, on February 3, 2020. I’ve written often about the importance of keeping a positive attitude, gleaning gratitude wherever you can find it, and cultivating flow and grace during this time. I’ve found these themes to be my guiding light throughout this tunnel-like process, but after months of treatment, and finally reaching the “end” of the road, I am also feeling the collateral damage my body has endured. I am simply exhausted.

Radiation was a long haul. Starting on Wednesday, August 19, I went in daily, Monday through Friday, to the Kaiser Santa Clara Cancer Treatment Center for a five-week regimen. The appointments were anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes long, getting shorter as the weeks went on. I scheduled my appointments for the afternoon, after work, and would drive the roughly forty minutes over the hill. 

I was evacuated from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire for the first eleven days of treatment, which I wrote about in my previous post, and had just returned to work after a six month medical leave-of-absence. After eight rounds of chemotherapy that I finished in early August, I was pretty beat from the start. The threat of losing our home compounded the stress of treatment and going back to work, and I definitely felt overwhelmed. I’m a tough cookie, but the shots just kept coming. 

Radiation fatigue can set in quickly for some people, or build over time, but it is some serious business. About ten days in, my fatigue really intensified. Although I’d adapted to a regular feeling of tiredness, I felt exceptionally beat, like I could fall asleep sitting up. Granted, I hadn’t been sleeping much while evacuated, as our cat would cry incessantly every night. 

The hardest part of radiotherapy was positioning my shoulder for the linear accelerator machine. I would lie supine on my back, with my arms outstretched above my head. It was important to lie still and hold position once settled, but it sometimes took several tries to confirm. The nurses were very nice, and would gently move my left arm as needed to get me in the right position. However, I’ve separated this shoulder a few times, and it would freeze up being in these awkward positions, blood draining from my arm and falling asleep as the minutes passed. It was truly painful sometimes, especially with the plastic backboard pushing into my trapezius muscle as my contorted shoulder was placed into all kinds of uncomfortable positions. When I’d finally lower my arms at the end, I’d have to physically pull my left arm back down because my shoulder was so tight. This was the most challenging part about the appointments. 

The scariest part was actually receiving the radiation. My whole left chest wall, from my lower ribs to my armpit and up to my clavicle, was treated; since the heart is on the left side, the risk of heart disease increases. Thus, breath holding is used to try to minimize exposure to the heart. The nurses spoke to me through an intercom from the other room, instructing me to Breathe In, Hold, and Breathe Normally. Knowing that my heart’s health depended upon me holding my breath just so, pushing out my chest cavity to protect it as much as possible, was a heavy load to carry. No pressure! It was much harder than holding my breath if I were standing up straight; try lying on your back and holding your breath for thirty seconds, and you’ll see what I mean. I focused intensely on keeping my breath in, and knowing how much it mattered made it all the more imperative to keep every molecule of air in. 

There was a startling moment during treatment when I had been holding my breath for over thirty seconds, and I could still hear the machine; it makes a unique buzzing sound while delivering radiation. The nurses had instructed me to exhale and breathe normally, but I could still hear the machine sounding. Reluctant to exhale, I thought it was stuck on, and kept holding my breath. 

Breathe normally, they messaged again through the intercom. Scared to let go, finally the noise stopped. I exhaled with relief, and then asked them if the machine had gotten stuck. They came in to explain that the machine can make noise when it’s not delivering radiation, kind of like warming up, and that it hadn’t been stuck on. I felt better understanding that, but it was a bit shocking at first. 

Each day got a little more efficient. The actual treatments themselves took only several minutes; most of the time was spent aligning me in the exact spot, laser beams measuring every contour with precise angles. I received several freckle-sized tattoos to help map the treatment area, too. Every couple of weeks, I met with my radiation oncologist for a check-up of my skin, which started reddening about two weeks in, subtly like a mild sunburn. Skin changes are the most common side effect from radiation, and it wasn’t too bad at first. 

By four weeks in, I was definitely getting redder, and my exhaustion was growing by the day. They’d warned me that fatigue worsens as you go, and they were right. I was tired of driving over the hill everyday, and one day in particular, I got a dead battery in the parking lot after treatment. It was one of those long days where I just felt beat, and then my car wouldn’t start after my appointment. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I cried with surrender, feeling the build up of so many emotions. Just keep ‘em coming! I bemoaned.

I called my insurance for a jump start, and within the hour I was driving back home. The obvious symbolism was glaring, though: my battery was dead, my battery was drained. I needed a jumpstart; I was running on empty. For all the looking on the bright side that I typically do, I couldn’t deny that I was standing in the shadows. Despite my positive disposition, this whole experience was difficult, depressing, and draining. 

My usual medicine of exercise when I’m feeling down about something wasn’t fully available, with my bike awaiting repair. My carbon rim had cracked, and I was awaiting a warranty replacement from Santa Cruz Bicycles; I also sent my suspension in to Fox for servicing during this time. The skies were so smokey from wildfires that I couldn’t go for a run safely, especially since I was in radiation. There is a risk of fibrosis in the lungs if you smoke or are exposed to smoke during radiation, so I really didn’t want to breathe hard when particulate levels were at dangerous, and sometimes hazardous, levels. Without my daily endorphin rush from exercise, I felt cranky, defeated, and unfocused. I knew I needed to get outside of my situation, to escape to the hills for some blood-pumping thrills. 

What better time to demo a downhill bike?

I went to Northstar and rented a downhill bike one Sunday when the air quality was better up in Tahoe than it was here in Ben Lomond. I had never ridden one before, and after a few weeks off my bike, I was seething for some flow. I had an awesome time hitting the trails on a 27.5” Scott Gambler, my first time on that wheel size as well. I needed to hit the dirt, and it charged my batteries to be back on two wheels. It was a month before my bike would be back together in working order, the longest stretch of time off my bike in years. 

The upside of being off my bike so long? My lymphedema all but went away. I had noticed some swelling in my thumb, fore, and middle fingers at the end of July, with shooting pains down the back of my arm by early August, signs of lymphedema. I continued doing my daily regimen of stretches and exercises, but it wasn’t until I stopped mountain biking everyday that I noticed an improvement in my symptoms. It was a blessing to see such a clear correlation between mountain biking and lymphedema, to figure out what was exacerbating it; it was the only thing I was doing differently that month. 

I’ve been back on my bike for weeks now, and am being cognizant for any signs of lymphedema. I have noticed some hints of it returning after a couple of long rides, but mostly, I am symptom free. My physical therapist advised me to take frequent breaks during my rides, and to actually do the stretches while riding, when possible, like flat sections where I don’t really need both hands on the bars. So far, so good, but this is something I’ll have to keep a close eye on as time goes on. Hopefully, it will remain all but gone. 

I finished radiation on Wednesday, September 23. By the end, I was extremely tired, and my skin was really red. The nurses were so sweet, cheering me on during my last treatment. When it came time to take my final breath in and hold, they emphasized for the last time. When treatment was over, I thanked them for their care and expertise, especially during a pandemic. 

I physically felt lighter leaving the clinic after that appointment. No longer would I be driving over the hill and back everyday, and from now on I could look forward to healing. I slept in that weekend until noon, I needed it so badly, but the following weekend, I was ready to celebrate the culmination of months of treatment. 

I got my port removed on September 25, two days after I finished radiation, and exactly six months after I had it implanted. I was so ready to get that thing out! The surgery was quick, but painful. They gave me a giant lidocaine shot, which hurt like heck, and it wasn’t nearly enough. I felt everything – the incision into my chest, a few minutes of tugging pressure, and then it being pulled out of my chest. She sewed me up with eight stitches; I felt every loop of that needle through my skin. I didn’t want to ask for another shot, as that would just delay everything, so I just lay there and toughed it out. It was pretty gnarly, but I was so excited to get it out I almost didn’t care. It was just another hoop to jump through in this obstacle course.

Ron and I had an incredible weekend away to Downieville and Northstar for closing day of the season at the start of October. We stayed at the Downieville River Inn on the Yuba River, and had an awesome mountain bike ride from Packer Saddle down the Downieville Downhill. Hauling down Butcher Ranch Trail, I saw a bear standing right in the trail! I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop as quickly as I could without crashing, and about thirty or forty feet away, it stoically held its ground. A few seconds passed before Ron rode up behind me, and I shouted Bear! 

Startled, it sauntered uphill off the trail, and we stood to watch it for a quick minute before continuing on. Though black bears aren’t prone to attack humans, we didn’t want to linger too long. It was the second time we’ve seen a bear this Summer in Downieville; I think of all the other times we just didn’t notice them. It was really cool to see; I love animals so much! The next day, we rode Northstar, basking in the Autumn sun and bliss of riding well-maintained jumps and berms for the last day of their season. 

It was a wonderful way to cap off treatment, but the collateral damage was becoming more evident. My skin had darkened to an extreme red, and was quite itchy. I was using all kinds of creams and oils – Calendula cream, coconut oil, vitamin E oil, shea butter, aloe vera – trying to moisturize my parched skin. My skin was physically hot to the touch, and my left chest wall was swollen. The seams of my clothing were irritating, and I could only take so much hot water in the shower. I was pretty uncomfortable. They had warned me that radiation has a cumulative effect, worsening seven to ten days after your last treatment, and they were spot on. Like clockwork, I’d gone from having a mild burn to a frighteningly dark burn. As the days went on, my skin began to peel. The fatigue stuck around, despite getting exercise everyday, and felt more intense than chemotherapy on some days.

Now, I’ve turned forty, on 10/10/2020. The numbers were certainly neat: 10 + 10 = 20, and 20 + 20 = 40. I had a fantastic weekend of mountain biking, disc golf, going to the beach, and I got to see my mom, dad, and stepdad to boot. Although I’ve finished the biggest parts of treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation – now I’ve starting the next phase of treatment with Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen pill given as chemotherapy, for the next ten years. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I don’t feel totally done with treatment. 

My youth feels a little bit like a growing reflection in the mirror. I’ve spent so much of my life with my identity tied to my youth, whether it was my athleticism, vibrant energy, or appearance, and with its light fading, I can’t help but resent its growing absence. I am happy to still be alive, but I can’t deny the significance of this moment, of shifting phases in my life. Turning forty seals the deal. I feel more lucky than resentful of aging, though, and each day brings an opportunity to experience more and grow wiser.

It’s been a lonely experience, at times, especially in the time of COVID-19, to no fault of those who love and support me. I have been so blessed with such amazing, loving people in my life! Many days I was actually alone, merely because no one could come to appointments with me or visit during shelter-in-place orders. There are so many aspects of going through treatment – mentally, emotionally, and physically – that are impossible for me to fully describe, try as I may.  I feel like I can’t quite get all the words out when it comes to conveying my experience with cancer, yet I continue to write, as it’s always been part of my process, helping me make sense of life’s major forks in the road.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone in treatment, I face the uncertainty of recurrence. It’s mildly unsettling to know there’s no guarantee anything worked, and that ultimately, I could die. I’ll see my oncologist every three months for the next two years, and will be on watch for any illness or issues; after that, I’ll go in every six months for three years, and then annually after that. I won’t be having a PET scan right now. 

It’s scary how much my future depends upon me letting my doctors know if I’m not feeling well, because I didn’t feel so well at times over the last two years, and I went to my doctor twice because I was so concerned. As I’ve written about before, nothing came of it. My bloodwork was fine, there was no family history of breast cancer, and my large fibroadenoma in my left breast had been checked regularly for years; it was also likely obscuring my cancerous tumor, so I didn’t feel it until after it had grown measurably. The assumption was that my sleep apnea was causing my fatigue, and my occasional tension headaches and bouts with nausea were from pushing myself too hard exercising with too little sleep and nourishment.

After years of being on top of all my appointments and physical exams, and feeling so in touch with my body, I still can’t believe I didn’t feel any new lump until December 2019, even though I knew something was off. It makes my blood boil sometimes, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.

Although there were several songs that exemplified my cancer journey, my Cancer Playlist helped keep my spirits up; these were some of the songs that spoke the strongest to me. Music is healing, and whether it was dancing around my living room to it playing at full volume, singing along in the car ride to an appointment, or playing along with my guitar, music helped me feel less alone.

How Do You Sleep? by Sam Smith is a song I first heard when I was floating in a hotel hot tub in Calgary Canada, at the end of January 2020, right before I was diagnosed. We had an incredible snowboarding trip with family, and I felt charged. Soaking up the heat of the hot tub, this song played loudly in the pool room, which I had all to myself that day, and I instantly fell in love with it. Though the song is about infidelity, for me it represents the last moment of tranquility I felt before my life changed.

Anyone? by Demi Lovato perfectly captured how I felt after being diagnosed – alone and somewhat desperate for compassion, for an escape. I am in awe of her beautiful, powerful voice. Fade to Black by Metallica was my anthem for a bit; that song is so beautifully structured, with words that spoke to me right through my shaking heart. I learned how to play quite a bit of the song on my guitar, and relished in trying to play along to the song in my living room. Somedays, I felt like I was fading to black myself. 

No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne was the song I blared on the way to my first chemotherapy appointment. I’d done enough crying by then, and was ready to put my game face on and get it done. There is a victorious air to this song, of pushing through a challenge and persevering. I love the second bridge of this song, with echoes of animals filling the transition. This song just rocks!

Formation by Beyonce reminded me to keep my sense of sassiness and confidence…I Slay, I Slay echoing in my head. Anything by Beyonce will put you in a body moving mood! Blinding Lights by The Weeknd was an inspirational, energetic homage to what I was going through. I loved dancing to this song! It sounded like my battle with cancer. I equally loved dancing to Drake and Rick Ross’ Money In the Grave, a fast paced song balanced with a serious undertone. For years I thought the girl in the song said Latenight music, but Ron corrected me recently: it’s Maybach Music. Funny how we can mishear lyrics for such a long time before noticing it!

Roar by Katy Perry speaks for itself. I’m sure thousands of other women danced around their living rooms to this song, too! This is the perfect anti-cancer anthem. Savage by Megan Thee Stallion dropped in Summer, and the first time I heard it, I was blown away; such a badass song of female empowerment and celebration!

Sometimes, I felt like a savage myself – mountain biking through chemo, and keeping a good head on my shoulders. When everyone would complain about how bad 2020 was, I wanted to offer them a different perspective. Even after all I’ve been through this year, I still don’t think this was the worst year ever! Many people had it way worse than me, and others had it better than me, but life is always about making the best of what you’re given, not comparing the hand you’ve been dealt. The opportunities I had to gain wisdom, patience, gratitude, and strength were not lost on me. 

I Still Believe by Tim Cappello is a soul thumping, hopeful message of strength and tenacity, exactly what I needed to get through cancer treatments. I always think of the movie The Lost Boys, when they perform this song on the Beach Boardwalk. It makes me want to sing out loud.

Shelter From the Storm by Bob Dylan was what I felt I needed this year. I longed for refuge, for a safe harbor from violent seas. Listening to this song, and singing along with my guitar, made me feel peaceful and calm. 

Patience by Guns ‘N Roses was the embodiment of what I would need to help me through this entire process. This was all a huge test of patience, and I’ve definitely extended my patience span. When there’s nothing you can do but wait, you’ve got to adapt. It’s amazing what you can grow inured to when you have no other choice.

I am eternally altered by this experience, by these long months of fighting for my life. I’ve reached the end of a decade, my youth firmly behind me, and I have no guarantee of how much of this next decade I’ll get. Though it may not be in the forefront right now, the shadow of cancer will always be in my peripheral, in both hindsight and foresight, and carry the potential to return front and center at any given moment. I’m grateful to be alive today, but now that I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me, I’ll always be on alert for it to happen again. I never had a guarantee of another day before cancer, however; we never know when we’ll die. The only difference now is I have something specific to look out for.

I want to make the most of each new day and appreciate it for the gift that it is. My gratitude is high – for my health, for having a home that didn’t burn down, for my loved ones, for my fun lifestyle; for my eyebrows, lashes, and hair growing back in, which is awesome to see. Everyday since we got to come back home after the fire evacuation feels like a bonus day, like an extra gift. Like cancer, wildfire threatened to take all I love. I made it through this round, but the prospect of it happening again is palpable. I won’t live in fear, but I’ll always remember how it felt to almost lose it all – my life included. 

I feel empowered by finding flow and grace in my life, doing the things I love. Coming close to losing everything has redoubled my passion for my humble little life, and whatever I have left of it. Reflecting back on the last year takes my breath away sometimes – did I really go through all that? Equally, I think about how I got through all that – with gratitude for all of the graces I’d been granted, a web of loved ones to support me along the way, and lots of exercise outdoors. The healing power of movement through nature is remarkable, permeating through the mind and body. It’s also pure fun, exactly the relief I needed while carrying such a heavy load.

There were plenty of inspiring moments throughout it all; stargazing in the mountains, conversations that probably wouldn’t have been had without my cancer diagnosis; short escapes out of town that relit my fire. Ultimately, it reminded me how strong I am. Humility is in my core, but I feel pretty darn fierce right now.

Though it may be the end of a decade for me, it’s also the start of a new one.

Collateral Damage, Cancer, and Lightning Fires

The wind tore in through our bedroom window like a vortex, whipping the helpless curtain against my face like the beat of an eagle’s wing. I awoke with the urgency of an alarm clock, sat up in bed to look out the window, and hurriedly roused my husband from his sleep. It sounded like a tornado was raging through our yard.

Baby, wake up! Look how windy it is! I exclaimed.

The pitter patter of blowing debris, redwood cones and needles, desiccated as desert sand, were flying into our house as loud as pebbles. Then, the sky lit up. An illumination rarely seen in the Santa Cruz Mountains, lightning was putting on a show. The bellowing crackle of thunder soon followed, short-lived and indicating its proximity. We were both glued to our windows watching Earth’s awesome power manifest, slightly afraid of a tree or limb falling on our house, rapt by the spectacle before our eyes. A brief downpour ensued, followed by more gale-force winds, lightning, and thunder.

It was the morning of August 16, 2020, and it served as somewhat of a metaphor for the last six months of my life. On February 3, 2020, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer; invasive ductal carcinoma,  ER/PR+, BRCA-, HER2- to be exact. This whole experience has been like a thunderstorm in many ways – sparking fires as collateral damage, roaring fearsomely like a lion, leaving me humbly cowering at times, its lightning striking away at my health and safety. Now, a series of unprecedented wildfires rage in the mountains West of our home, brought on by that lightning; the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has already destroyed over 100 structures, with thousands of residents displaced.

We were evacuated from our home in Ben Lomond early Thursday morning on August 20. The day before, August 19, had been like peeling off a band-aid; I’d had my first day back to work as a teacher after a six month leave of absence to deal with my cancer treatment – a professional development day without students – and was quickly overwhelmed. We were due to start teaching on Monday, August 24, under a full distance learning model. Though I consider myself to be relatively tech-savvy, the plethora of online tools – Zoom, Peardeck, Screencastify, to name a few – sent me into a tailspin. We had a staff meeting on Zoom where we couldn’t even agree on the most efficient way to take attendance, despite all having a good rapport with each other. Clearly, it was going to be a very different kind of year.

I also had my first radiation appointment that afternoon, which had been a long forty-five minutes of lying with my arms stretched out above my head, and my neck turned to the side. It was as if I’d been pulled like a rubber band, and my neck was aching like crazy. They’ll get faster as the appointments go on, but that first one is always the longest, they assured me.

We went to sleep on Wednesday night under an evacuation warning, skies filled with smoke and ash. The fire was still relatively far from us, but we were told to prepare for imminent evacuation. The pink glow of fire loomed on the horizon North of us, and the sounds of propane tanks exploding, presumably, boomed like bombs in the far distance. We had both of our cars packed up with our valuables – bikes, snowboards, old letters, pictures, and memorabilia; clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other odds and ends. We had the grace of packing up with time to spare, unlike other folks who had to rush from their homes with minutes to spare. It is a heart wrenching process to choose which items you want to take with you, and which you must leave behind, during such an ordeal.

Around 3 a.m. that night, early Thursday morning of August 20, we were awakened by a repetitive uptone siren blaring from a sheriff’s car, followed by the eerie echo of his voice through our quiet canyon in the San Lorenzo Valley:

“There is a mandatory evacuation order for this area. Please evacuate immediately.”

He repeated the order, driving methodically throughout our neighborhood to the few remaining residents with cars in the driveway. Most of our neighbors had preemptively evacuated on Wednesday. A reverse 911 call had gone out earlier in the night, but we didn’t get it. The patrol car pulled right up to our house, lights flashing, and repeated the evacuation order via megaphone.

We immediately put Beau in his crate, and got into our cars. We knew there were shelters already set up in Santa Cruz, but were worried about how our cat would react in the chaos of other evacuees and their stressed pets barking and meowing. Unsure of where to go, I went to the closest shelter I knew of: my classroom.

It’s a strange feeling being on campus in the middle of the night; the security lights aglow through a blanket of ash and smoke, illuminating pockets of haze. We settled into my classroom, set up Beau’s food, water, and litter box with a large cardboard box normally used to hold some of my rock collection. We laid our sleeping bags onto the floor, and tried to comfort Beau as he cried in anxiety and confusion. Of all times, now was one I wish I could communicate with him and tell him what was going on. We didn’t sleep really at all that night, but by first light, Beau was curled up in my sleeping bag against my stomach, as if trying to crawl into me for comfort and security. Soon after, we heard the custodians arrive, and figured it was time to go.

Although our town was still under evacuation order, we made the decision to return home and grab a few more things; there were many people out and about still, cars packed to the brim. We’d checked the fire map and saw we were at least a few miles from the fire, and by the afternoon, Highway 9 was closed at Glen Arbor Road, the turn off for our neighborhood. I had to show my driver’s license to get back in. I had the worst tension headache from the radiation visit the day before, returning to work, and of course, the stress of evacuating. Though not the wisest choice, I took a nap in my bed, catching up on lost sleep, before getting up in the afternoon to drive over the hill to Santa Clara for my second radiation appointment at the Kaiser Cancer Treatment Center. I was astounded by the hoards of cars, RVs, and trailers filling parking lots; cars full of surfboards, bikes, kayaks, filled with as many valuables as could fit. The urgency was palpable as I drove North over Highway 17.

By the time I returned home, ash and smoke were ominously filling the valley. A compassionate, generous, and gracious friend of mine in Santa Cruz reached out to me, offering us a place to stay. She was taking her family out of the area to escape the suffocating and unhealthy air quality, and said we could stay as long as we needed.

I was so moved by her grace; we drove down that afternoon to her nice home in Santa Cruz, where we are safe and sound now, Beau included. Anxious about the status of our home, currently about a mile from the CZU Lightning Complex fire burning west of Highway 9 as of today – Sunday, August 23, 2020 – all we can do is wait. Officials have repeatedly noted it may be weeks before we can return to our homes. With the start of the school year delayed for at least a week, who knows when I will start teaching again. We are making arrangements to likely head up to mother and stepfather’s house in Walnut Creek next.

As we wait for next steps, I reflect back on the last six months of cancer treatment amid a global pandemic. Like the ferocious winds of our recent thunderstorm, cancer uprooted my sense of stability and invincibility, threw everything up in the air, and reminded me I am not completely in charge of my life. I’ve worked hard to find flow and grace throughout this adventure, but I haven’t come out unscathed. The collateral damage of cancer treatment is revealing its insidious side effects, much like the wildfires sparked by lightning that continue to burn in the Santa Cruz Mountains and throughout California.

As our governor Gavin Newsom eloquently surmised, “If you don’t believe in climate change, come to California”. No one deserves these fires, but they signal the collateral damage of years of pollution and abuse to our planet. Scientists have been warning us for years that fires like these would become more widespread and destructive. How severe, how long, and how recoverable they will be, like my own side effects, remain to be seen. 

I finished my eighth round of chemotherapy on August 5. It was slightly anticlimactic; I wasn’t expecting to feel a huge sense of relief or accomplishment, but I was excited to reach the milestone. It was also my longest appointment yet; they’d forgotten to turn on the cold cap machine, and there was a delay in getting my chemo ready, so I was there for seven hours from start to finish. Then, the nurses sang the Graduation Song to me, but called me Karen instead of Katrin, something I’m used to after having my name butchered for years. It wasn’t a big deal, and bless them for working during a pandemic! I am just extra sensitive these days.

I left feeling like I’d reached a checkpoint of my treatment, but humbled enough by the experience to know I might be back someday. I won’t say I’m done with chemo, for I heard enough women talk about being back for chemo years later in the infusion clinic. I’m not superstitious, but I believe humility is important here. I didn’t like the certificate of completion they presented me with; it seemed like tickling the tiger’s tail. Though I finished my currently prescribed chemo regimen, I won’t gloat that it’s my last, or talk about how I’m beating cancer. Only time will tell. 

I started a five-week radiation therapy regimen on Wednesday, August 19, where I’ll go in for daily, short appointments, Monday through Friday. This week, I also returned to work after a six month leave of absence, including summer vacation. Aside from being a toddler, this was the longest continuous stretch of time off in my life, where I wasn’t working, in school, or both. It hasn’t been a vacation, but there’s been many moments I’ve enjoyed.

This will be my fifteenth year of teaching. I’ll dive into the world of distance learning as a Seventh Grade Math and Science Teacher, delivering lessons via Zoom, at some point. This is the new reality for most students and teachers in the United States, but a return to in-person instruction is surely the ultimate goal on the horizon. When that is safe to do so remains a contentious topic of debate and careful weighing of risks, restricted by the parameters of an inadequately funded public school system that needs more resources to protect everyone on-campus from COVID-19; and, of course, how this fire behaves. 

The last day I was in my classroom with students was February 13, 2020, and I don’t know when I’ll meet my new students in-person. I do know it’ll be an adjustment for me going back to work, back to the routine, but I look forward to focusing my energy on something other than taking good care of myself. I yearn for that sense of normalcy, of living my life free from the tunnel of cancer treatment. We are all yearning for a sense of normalcy after living in some form of shelter-in-place during this pandemic, and now having gone through the stress of evacuating our homes. The coupling of these challenges has tested me in ways I’m still uncovering. 

It hasn’t been a tunnel all the way, however. I’ve had some profound, enlightening realizations during this time – about life, myself, and how I want to continue living, should I have that chance. I think every cancer patient goes through something like this. Your biggest fear is death, but once you reconcile with that, it heightens your gratitude, enriches the love in your relationships, and deepens your patience. It’s also difficult, depressing, and defeating, at times. Balancing these emotions calls for finding flow and grace wherever you can; sometimes you have to look a little harder to find them, but they’re always there in some shape or form. As usual, mountain biking continues to be a huge source of flow and grace for me.

Reflecting back on my treatment so far, I am extremely grateful for the good graces I’ve been blessed with. Between having a place to stay right now, the delay of the start of the school year, and the support and love of family and friends, I have been quite lucky. My sister went above and beyond and started a GoFundMe account for me and Ron to help us with whatever unforeseen costs may be associated with this fire and our evacuation, and to help with costs already accrued from cancer treatments. It moves me to tears how kind and giving people have been; I almost don’t feel worthy. Gratitude doesn’t express how much it means to me.

Having a place to stay right now is another huge blessing. I am so grateful for having four walls and a roof over our head, especially with Beau. Although he has been crying every night, keeping us from getting a thorough night’s sleep, I am so relieved he is with us and out of the fire zone. It’s been a stressful time, and we worry about our house, checking the fire maps and news often. It is completely out of our control, but we still spend a great deal of time everyday looking at our phones or computers, gathering all the information we can. We are filled with appreciation for the hundreds of firefighters working to defend our communities on the front lines.

I feel sad for everyone who’s already lost their homes, and equally so for the wildlife. It breaks my heart thinking about the damage at iconic state parks like Big Basin, reported to be badly damaged. Statewide, thousands of people are in the same boat as us, wondering whether they’ll have a home to go back to. It’s a dynamic and changing situation, with many ramifications yet to unfold, and we will all be inexorably linked after this shared experience.

It’s crazy to think just a week ago we were still enjoying the Summer. I was lucky to get outside a lot this Summer and recreate in beautiful places. From mountain biking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to beach days in Santa Cruz, to out-of-town adventures in Shasta, the Tule River, Lake Tahoe, and Downieville, I’m happy for what we’ve been able to do in spite of everything.

Celestially, it’s been a banner year. From the pink supermoon back in February, to the Eta Aquarids meteor shower in May, to the cameo of the comet Neowise, to the streaking fireballs of the Perseid meteor shower in August, there’s been no shortage of excitement in the sky. I love knowing how infinite the universe is, and how tiny we are in comparison.

We were lucky to see the beautiful comet Neowise several times before it faded out of view, gone for another 6,800 years. My phone camera certainly doesn’t capture its brilliance; when viewed through binoculars, it was exceptionally phenomenal! Seeing it from the Santa Cruz Mountains was good, but from the total darkness of a new moon in Mt. Shasta was breathtaking. Its tail was so long; its nucleus so bright. I found it remarkably rewarding to see, and made a point to visit with it several evenings.

We went to Mt. Shasta for a California Enduro Series mountain bike race, a place I’d never ridden before. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to complete the race with all of the fatigue I’d been having with chemo. Fellow mountain bike racers know how hard these races can be, but at least this race had a few lift-assisted race runs being at Shasta Bike Park, and only two climbs. I raced in the Expert Women’s category, and pre-rode all but one of the race stages the day before with Ron. We had a super fun time together, and it was awesome to see Neowise again at night. 

Mt. Shasta

On raceday, I lagged through my first stage, the only one I hadn’t preridden the day before, of course. The next four stages were better, although I didn’t want to crash and possibly rupture my port, so I metered myself carefully, balancing between charging fast, and staying in control while dirt-surfing new terrain. The volcanic dirt was slippery, deep, and unavoidable. That’s one of the things I love about mountain biking – how well it connects to geology. The geology of a region determines how you can ride it. The terrain from location to location varies in both subtle and overt ways, but Mt. Shasta was surely the antithesis of the loamy, redwood forest dirt of Santa Cruz. It was a fun, challenging race, and I did really well on my final stage, the Downhill, which felt great. I was happy with fourth place at the end of the day; I hadn’t expected to make the podium. Although I could’ve ridden faster, I was proud of how I did considering the circumstances.