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. 

Ron and I set out the next week for a camping trip with my sister and her family, my mom, and stepdad, on the Tule River in Sequoia National Park. It was hot, beautiful, and perfect; the Tule River glistened with refreshing beads of water, flowing freely and steadily. I love water, but I especially love rivers. Playing all day in the sun, jumping in the river, lizarding on warm rocks, only to repeat the cycle again, was exactly what I needed. I think the cold water even helped with my bone pain, a side effect from the dose-dense Taxol infusion I had two days before going camping. Cold therapy helped save most of my hair, and I believe it also helped my musculoskeletal pain. It was an amazing camping trip. Ron and I even did a short bike ride up the Wishon Trail. 

Tule River Heaven

We had so much fun camping, we headed out a few days later for Downieville, Lake Tahoe, and Northstar. We had an incredible ride down the Downieville Downhill, getting dropped off at about 7,000’ at Packer Saddle, descending some sixteen miles down to the tiny town of Downieville at 2,900’. I’ve done this ride dozens of times, and it never gets old; it only gets more fun! The more you know a trail, the better, and faster, you can ride it. We camped off a dirt road off Highway 49, and rode Northstar Bike Park the next day, a total blast. The perfect end to a sweaty, dusty day on the slopes? A dip in Lake Tahoe! Absolute heaven. These are the moments I live for.

I was due for my next chemo treatment after our trip, but my white blood cells and neutrophils were low, again. My doctor prescribed a stronger dose of Zarxio (480 Mcg) for me to take for a couple of days to get my numbers up, which worked; my WBC jumped from 1.8 to 57! Normal range is about 3.7 – 11 K/uL, so seeing this spike was a bit alarming; my oncologist assured me this was okay. She wasn’t sure why my WBC kept dropping so low, so prescribed me to continue with the stronger dose for my week of Zarxio shots post-chemo. Bone pain is a side effect of Zarxio, and this cycle I really felt it; it was as if I’d run a marathon as a ninety-year old woman everyday for about a week. My knees, hips, and legs felt as heavy as lead. It was my worst cycle yet, and was compounded by continued hair loss. Every time I took a shower or combed my hair, I parted ways with locks of hair.

I had a thick head of hair before I started chemo, and using the Paxman Cold Cap, I am lucky I didn’t lose it all. It is extremely thin, however, and I’d estimate I’ve lost at least 75% of my hair. In the early cycles of chemo, it wasn’t super obvious, but it is really noticeable now. I’m grateful for what hair I do have, but I can’t deny I don’t look or feel like myself when I look in the mirror. I’ve cut it to about shoulder-length, where it sometimes looks like I have a mullet because it’s so thin! I have a thin spot on the back of my head where my part begins, which can be covered with some of my hair like a comb-over, but is pretty clear to see at times. Putting my hair up in an old-lady bun, as I jokingly call it, gives me the fullest coverage. My sideburns are starting to grow back in, though, along with the thin spots on my scalp. I am encouraged by every hair that emerges. Had I not used the cold cap, I would have been completely bald after the first or second treatment. My eyelashes and eyebrows have almost all but fallen out, with only light, wispy hairs sticking it out. I look in the mirror and see the eyes of a cancer patient, but I see myself alive, which is most important. 

Ron and I got out of town a few days after my final scheduled chemo treatment, spending two glorious nights at the Downieville River Inn. We did a long bikeride the first day on the Gold Valley Rim Trail to Pauley Creek Trail, connecting with Butcher Ranch and Third Divide back to town. Ron got a flat tire, which he promptly fixed; Downieville is famous for flats, so we come prepared, especially after Ron’s first ride in 2016! We both ride tubeless, but that doesn’t grant you flat immunity.

Gold Valley Lookout

We even startled a bear off the trail! The noise of it blazing through manzanita brush got my attention, as I watched it run away with purpose. I love seeing wildlife! That’s one of my favorite parts about outdoor adventures.

Yuba & Downie Rivers Confluence

The next day, we rode the Downieville Classic Downhill route, our usual, where we had one of our fastest rides until the very end of the trail, where I flatted. Ron fixed my tire with ease, and we cruised back to town for a rejuvenating dip in the Downie and Yuba rivers’ confluence. We spent a second night of stellar stargazing, watching the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. It was the most dramatic show we’d ever seen – huge fireballs racing across the sky every couple of minutes. The darkness of the Sierras provided the ideal viewing opportunity. It was simply magical.

The next day, we swam in the Yuba River, taking out our airbed on it, and drove to the Truckee Bike Park in Truckee for some laps on their pump tracks. We spoiled ourselves that night with a luxury suite at the Peppermill in Reno, with our own hot tub. It was worth every penny, and every risk of coronavirus; we didn’t even leave the room until checkout the next morning. It was a much-needed relief, and I felt myself let go of the tension of the previous months. We rode Northstar Bike Park, flying down first runs on Livewire, and had an awesome day! This was a real vacation for us, and much deserved after all we’ve been through. My husband has, after all, been right by my side every step of the way, bless him dearly. 

The icing on the cake was swimming with bioluminescent plankton in Santa Cruz! We went two nights in a row to play in the waves, rejoicing as the water lit up while we moved our limbs, tiny dinoflagellates bioluminescing in reaction. The waves were glowing purplish-blue, rushing around us as we splashed around. It was absolutely ethereal, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! These phone pictures don’t do it justice, but it kind of shows the idea. It is so much brighter when you are in the water interacting with it.

Swimming With Plankton

Aside from our adventures outside, I am super grateful for my entire family coming to visit me this Summer; the first such gathering ever in the 22 years I’ve lived in Santa Cruz. It speaks volumes of my family to come together during a pandemic to make it happen. My oldest sister flew out from London, quarantined with her two young children for two weeks just so she could see us all; she would then have to quarantine another two weeks upon returning back home. My other sister drove up from San Diego with her family, and my parents came down from the Bay Area. It meant the world to me!

Having us all together in one place was such a blessing, something I deem a triumph. The fact that we could all make it happen – with our masks, outdoor gathering, and socially distanced behavior, of course – was nothing short of victorious. I will forever look back on this Summer as the Summer my whole family came to visit me. Though my cancer may have been the catalyst for our meeting, we had fun and celebrated our time together, a synergy of positivity. We had so much fun together, and I am filled with gratitude for all of them coming to visit me. Now that I am going through the risk of a wildfire ravaging my home, their love and support means even more to me.

I feel like it’s been a lifetime since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That old Katrin is still there, but I am undoubtedly different today, indelibly marked with battle scars and collateral damage. I remember reading about collateral damage, how your body suffers in the long run from the multitude of surgeries, chemotherapy, hormonal, and radiation treatments involved with breast cancer. Neuropathy, lymphedema, secondary sarcomas, heart disease, and cataracts are just a few examples of the detrimental side effects of breast cancer treatment. 

While I fared relatively well through my eight rounds of chemo, save for some fatigue and musculoskeletal pain from a few of my Taxol infusions, I am already seeing my own collateral damage. The worst part? Lymphedema. I developed it about a month ago; my left thumb, fore, and middle fingers began to swell on a daily basis, after only the slightest activity. I’d unscrew the hose nozzle, or floss my teeth, or do the dishes, and I’d have a ridiculously fat thumb, decreasing its range of motion as it swelled. My forearm also felt tight, like a rubber band was contracting it. I had continued to do the anti-lymphedema exercises I learned in the pre-surgery clinic I attended, do yoga, and watched some YouTube videos for other stretching methods, but somehow it flared up. 

About a month ago, I started getting shooting, electric pains down the back of my upper arm, or triceps, and swelling in that area. My forearm and fingers continued to be tight. Lymphedema is a drainage disorder of the lymphatic system, in my case caused by the removal of my left lymph nodes. They caution you to monitor for the HAFNTS – Heaviness, Achiness, Fatigue, Numbness, Tingling, Swelling – and the second you feel one of those symptoms, you’re supposed to stop what you’re doing and stretch, elevate, or rest. I was feeling the AFS part, for sure. 

I don’t know if it was all the mountain biking I did, the Summer heat, a scratch on my left arm from a twig I’d grazed, or an itchy mosquito bite that may have triggered its onset, as there are many causes. When you have your axillary lymph nodes removed during a mastectomy, as I did, you already have a 20-30% risk of developing lymphedema; this number increases with the number of nodes removed, and if you have radiation treatment, which I am. I had 33 lymph nodes removed, three of which were cancerous; my surgeon remarked she’d never seen so many lymph nodes. I had another surgeon perform an anti-lymphedema drainage procedure during my mastectomy to possibly reduce my odds of developing lymphedema. I was told it may help, but there was no guarantee. Perhaps it helped me not to suffer a more severe case, but now that I’m fighting it, I know it can worsen over time. I’ll be seeing a physical therapist soon for more exercises, and my surgeon ordered an ultrasound of my arm to check for a blood clot, just in case; fortunately, no clot was discovered. 

I am spending at least an hour per day stretching, stopping often during activities. Typing is straining enough that I have to take breaks. I am sleeping with a pillow under my left arm again, even though it’s not very comfortable; I wonder if I hadn’t stopped that a few months ago if I’d be here now, but lymphedema is complex. It’s likely a combination of factors that got me here. Yoga is really helping, as is always the case with any malady. Lymphatic drainage massage is something I’m working on, too. When I have my implant exchange surgery, hopefully about six months after radiation therapy ends, my plastic surgeon said he would inject some fat into my armpit, which may reduce my symptoms. I am determined to get it under control somehow, but radiation is only supposed to worsen it. 

I had a bit of a scare with some swelling in my rib area, near where my tumor was. They didn’t know if it was costochondritis, or something else, so they ordered a CT scan of my entire chest, which revealed no signs of cancer. I was relieved the swelling wasn’t indicative of a recurrence. They attributed the swelling to leaks in my expanders, although it wasn’t the definitive cause. I was relieved that the scan was clear.

I haven’t noticed any chemo brain, or other side effects yet, but I am only just now starting radiation, which brings its own slew of side effects; most notably, fatigue, and radiation burns to the chest wall (I’ll never have breasts again; it is now simply the chest wall). I am already seeing some reddening of my skin. It also increases my risk of lung cancer, and pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic cough with varying degrees of severity and persistence over time. It may increase my chances of survival by 10%, however, and it may reduce my risk of recurrence by even more. I am due to start Tamoxifen two weeks after radiation therapy is done, which I’ll take daily as an estrogen-blocker for ten years, as suggested by my oncologist. Statistics are tricky with breast cancer, but I’m following my doctors’ treatment plan in hopes of good odds.

2020 has been much like the thunderstorm that plowed through California, starting multiple lightning fires whose damages are yet to be revealed. As the world adapts to the new normal of life in a pandemic; as students wait to return not to the classroom, but to their computer screens from home; as thousands of people sit in worry, displaced from their homes; as I continue to do all I can to fight my cancer, we are all forever changed by this year. We all will feel some sort of collateral damage from the storm this year has been. We have the opportunity to find grace where we can, and to find perseverance, whatever the challenge we’re going through. I know I’m not the only one going through a hard time, and that gives me some grace. It’s all relative, and I know there are people out there suffering worse challenges, which makes me count my own blessings.

I’ve had a decent time going through treatment so far, as good as can be hoped for in some ways. If someone had told me before chemo that I’d be mountain bike racing, camping, and able to do all of the activities I love to do most days, I wouldn’t have believed them. Now that I’ve lived it, I am immensely appreciative of the graces I’ve been granted. I am grateful for the drugs that may enable me to live a longer life; for living in the day and age of modern medicine. My love for my husband, family, and friends has grown exponentially. In some ways, I feel like cancer has only strengthened my resolve to live an adventurous, passionate life; to cultivate flow and grace in all aspects of my life. It makes me want to do the things I love even more, my way of saying I can still do it in spite of all that cancer has taken from me. I’m fighting for what I love with a stroke of vengeance.

Beau Guarding Our House

Ultimately, my biggest fear is that I will die from cancer, so I might as well live with as much vigor and attack as I can. Surely, I don’t want my house to burn down right now, either, but mostly, I just want my health. At the end of my life, I want to look back and know I gave it everything, that I dove in like a boulder to the pond of life, my splash as high as my zest for it. As much as dying from cancer scares me, shying away from living the life I love so dearly scares me even more. Even if I were to die this year, at least I know I’ve lived fully, despite having breast cancer during a pandemic, and a historic wildfire threatening our home.

Day by day is the only way to move forward, one step at a time. Signs of life persist – Monarch caterpillars and butterflies in our friend’s garden; hummingbirds gathering nectar from Salvia blooms; dogs out for walks with their human counterparts, taking advantage of brief moments of fresh air as the winds shift direction. Life is but a series of cycles, death included, yet we can rely on its willful force to push on.

Monarchs Mating

While many people joke about how bad 2020 has been, and I concur that it hasn’t been the best year, I realize how much mercy I’ve been granted. There is still more good than bad, and I have a lot to be grateful for yet. Just as the ashes of lightning fires regenerate land, the tapestry of my life experiences enriches me, hurdles included. May I be blessed enough to keep adding to it, and may I continue to find grace in the face of adversity, even if I lose my home; for property is replaceable, but life is not.

Hoping for the Grace of Good Odds

Risk is as abundant as air in our daily lives: we live under a cloak of uncertainty, with regular threats to our well-being and survival. We are adapted to such a reality, to the point that we don’t even notice these risks. We drive our cars, zipping along at high speed head-on into others doing the same thing; what we have no control over is whether that person is texting, toying with their car’s navigation screen, or fixing their hair in the mirror. We hear stories of gruesome automobile accidents, see the statistics on traffic fatalities year after year, and then we brush them off, continuing to drive, just hoping for good odds. We hope that this one trip won’t be the time we become a statistic. 

Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg. From microscopic viruses like Covid-19, to the pervasive reach of forever chemicals like PFA’s in our raingear, we live in a world full of peril. There are punctuated catastrophes, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that can alter our landscapes, if not end our lives, should we be unlucky enough to lie in their paths. Over the long-term, the bioaccumulation of those chemicals we’ve become so permeated with living in the age of Better living through chemistry combine with the odds of poor genetics, or lifestyle choices, to predispose us to the ticking time-bombs of cancers, illness, and disease. 

Then, there are all of the people we interact with, from those we share the road with, to those we share a place in line with at the grocery store, everyone of whom we have no control over; everyone of whom could potentially cause an accident, or worse, intentionally do something, to hurt or even kill us. And don’t forget the freaky, unpredictable nature of life, where strange things happen all the time; where bad things happen to people without any rhyme or reason, any sense of justice.
Need any more reminders of the risky world we live in? Probably not, as it only makes you think of every other danger I haven’t yet mentioned. 

I don’t live in this state of mind very often, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, it brought me back to an old adage that keeps proving itself: Life isn’t fair. I don’t mean this in the entitled, complaining manner someone might bemoan after not getting their way; I mean it in the most serious, life-changing way. It’s been said by millions of people – Life isn’t fair! – usually when we are at the receiving end of some seemingly impossible bad luck, wondering why our good merit hadn’t spared us the pain of tragedy. We compare our hands in life to others, from strangers to our closest family, keeping score of who’s got it worse, who’s got it better, who we think has it so easy. We are naught to compare ourselves to each other, to wonder why a good thing happened to a bad person, or why a bad thing happened to a good person. For life isn’t fair to everyone – we all die someday, and you know the other old saying, everyone’s crap stinks. No one is inherently better than anyone else. 

It’s simply a matter of how unfair life will be to us, and whether it will demand the ultimate price from us: our lives. We live everyday just hoping for the grace of good odds; hoping that today isn’t the day we get the phone call of a cancer diagnosis, or the phone call of a death of a loved one, or the phone call of losing a job we depend upon. 

Pain and suffering imbue a wide spectrum of grief. Another’s hardship may seem worse than ours, and our own challenges can always seem worse than someone else’s. There are unequivocally worse troubles that no one would deny are harder than something less severe; there are shades on the grief scale that, no matter our perspective or life experience, clearly reflect an unsullied color that cannot be muted or distorted. There are stories so harrowing that we cannot deny the breadth of their impact, the scars to be left by such an ordeal. It is this shared experience of grief, however intense and life-changing, that unites us on a basic human level. We all know suffering on some level, at some point in our lives. We can empathize, at least on some level, with others even if we haven’t experienced their unique suffering. 

Take the history of slavery in the United States, for example. Its indelible mark persists today through the many branches of systemic racism, from our schools, to our police departments, to our criminal justice system, to name just a few. No matter your race in this country, it should be self-evident how much injustice and persecution Black and indigenous people have endured throughout our history. Though I know not the weight of such discrimination as a white woman, am certainly no expert on the history of racism, and will never know how it feels to live as a Black person, I can imagine the pent-up frustration one might feel, living to see a man like George Floyd, or a young woman like Breonna Taylor, murdered by law enforcement, and I can empathize with the pain and outrage that follow such loss. You simply need to be human to empathize with such atrocities. 

The Black Lives Matter protests around the nation over the last few weeks only seem due given the continuing discrimination and injustices being perpetrated against Black people. This seems like an example of when life isn’t fair, but not because of the randomness of it all; on the contrary, it’s because of the deliberate acts of people who have created a hostile environment of racism for people of color living in our country, from slave-owners, to those who gunned down Ahmaud Arbery, or the scores of other Black men and women killed simply because they were, essentially, just living while Black. 

It is a non-negotiable that black people have disproportionately struggled, and died, at the hands of racism in this country. This is an injustice in which every citizen in our country is tasked to take ownership of to ameliorate; this is an instance of life not being fair, but we can do something about it to change it. We can’t undo the past, but we can do better moving forward into the future. Life didn’t need to be unfair, and doesn’t have to continue to be, to any minority group. When we witness such wrongs, we ought to take action to fix them; it is not the time to claim, Life isn’t fair. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and take ownership of our role in the problem, to educate ourselves further, and to try to make the situation better, no matter the color of our skin.

Environmental problems demand our attention and accountability with a similar urgency. We’ve been manipulating, polluting, and destroying our natural resources for so long that we accept it as part of our reality; we have not been fair or just with the ecosystems we live among. The cognitive dissonance most of us have – being educated on the seriousness of climate change, while driving our cars and eating meat from a factory farm – is astounding. We go about our lives, making sacrifices here and there, but most of us, myself included, continue to use resources unsustainably, whether it’s the food we eat, or the electricity we use in our homes, or the remarkable amount of waste we generate. 

PiddockHeart

We all have a big impact on the environment. It’s not fair that we destroy habitat for the animals we share the planet with, basically choosing which species will go extinct forever, and which might have a fighting chance. It’s not fair that we pen in thousands of animals into close quarters, pump them full of chemicals, and then slaughter them for us to eat, complaining when The chicken is too dry, or This T-bone isn’t tender enough. Everyone must follow their own compass when it comes to diet; there is no one-size-fits-all way to eat. However, when you have nearly eight billion people on the planet all competing for resources, perhaps we ought to consider other ways to nourish ourselves that don’t involve increasing greenhouse gases and strain our natural resources, from cow burps of methane, a legitimately big sources of the gas, to the amount of water needed to grow feed to support such livestock. The food web is a complex system, and it’s understandable that people may want to eat meat. What’s different now, however, is that we’ve become so overpopulated; there’s too darn many of us on this planet. Our old ways may not serve us so well anymore; we may consider a more thoughtful approach to how we eat, and the natural resources we consume. 

When I hear stories about there only being some fifty-seven Amur Leopards left on the planet, I know in my gut that isn’t fair, and it’s a direct result of human actions. It confounds me that we allow the take of entire species in the name of economic development. There are so many environmental injustices worsening on a daily basis, and these are the fights that need fighting. It’s yet another example of when we shouldn’t just throw our hands in the air and declare, Life isn’t fair. There are so many problems that don’t have to be that way; that someone, or ourselves, has the power to change. There are a multitude of issues around the world that deserve our care and fight. I could go on.

It’s usually pretty obvious when an issue isn’t fair because of a group of people’s actions. It takes more wisdom, however, to know when life just isn’t fair – and despite all of our hoping for good odds, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. 

It’s hard for us to accept that something random and bad has happened to us or a loved one. We are sidelined by something we didn’t expect, and something we definitely didn’t think we deserved. We cry out in protest, Life isn’t fair!, and it makes no difference to the situation at all.

These are the times when we needn’t point fingers at others, especially ourselves, for befalling such poor luck. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, I definitely felt that way. I went over my life with a fine-toothed comb looking for any clue of where I’d possibly set myself up for such disease. I am still learning to let go of this rumination, to let go of what’s done, and accept the mystery of cancer, that I’ll likely never know what caused it. 

One thing that keeps proving itself? Life isn’t fair. At some point, life will be unfair to us; we just hope we don’t have to die for it, although that’s often the case. There’s no point in comparing our plight to others. Life catches up with all of us when we die. During the blessed time we’re granted to live, though, we will all experience some level of life not being fair to us. Some may have it worse, some may seem to have it better; the only thing we have control over is how we respond. Though we may look upon others with envy, thinking they may have life so easy eating with a silver spoon, or seeming to have it all, we never really know what lies beneath the surface, what goes on behind closed doors. None of us are perfect. 

We need to be compassionate to each other during hard times; we all go through hard times that test our faith and patience. Though I’m going through a challenging time right now with chemotherapy for breast cancer, there are people suffering worse than me: people dying from Covid-19, or losing loved ones from it; people who are working through their own cancer treatments because they must put food on the table; people who live without a dependable source of freshwater and sanitation infrastructure. The spectrum of grief is wide, and I can see my privilege on that scale even as I fight cancer, albeit someone else may look at me and wonder why I have it so hard, and how much it must suck to be going through this during a pandemic. It’s all relative, and that’s why I try not to compare myself too much; why I try not to pity myself, nor gloat my good graces, for someone always has it worse. 

Recently, a tragedy rattled our small mountain town of Ben Lomond, driving home just how unfair life can be. On Saturday, June 6, 2020, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller was murdered responding to a call of a van full of explosives and weapons, only to be ambushed by the deranged shooter. Two neighbors’ heroic actions, and that of his dog, detained the active Air Force member turned shooter until police could arrest him. There is a lot more to this story, as more details are yet to be revealed in this active case. The immense loss – of a husband, father, family member, friend, sergeant – erupted within the San Lorenzo Valley community like a volcano, its violent lava flows taking an innocent man’s life, and its toxic gases and ash permeating the lives of so many who knew and loved him, leaving some breathlessly choking for air, and others downwind with the singe of sadness, knowing such tragedy took place here in SLV. It was a huge reminder that life isn’t fair. 

I cannot imagine the stress, terror, and adrenaline all responding law enforcement officers had that day; some forty agencies responded, from all over the greater Bay Area and Central Coast. With that response came an incessant barrage of sirens, starting around 2 p.m. I live in Ben Lomond, less than two miles South of where the incident took place. Highway 9, the main artery running North to South through SLV, is about a quarter-mile West of our house, so we always hear if there’s a siren, or particularly loud motorcycle, for that matter. 

As my husband Ron and I were puttering around the house doing chores, we noticed there wasn’t just the usual one or two sirens; several more wailed at full volume, and we could hear their engines roaring up the road with urgency. We both sensed something serious was going on immediately. Then, more sirens. Even more sirens. It became a steady scream of tension, and we could hear ever more units coming in the distance. The valley echoes sound really well, and all we could hear were sirens. 

Gripped by the onslaught of arriving law enforcement, wondering what was going on, we were rapt with awe, staring out our windows, knowing all well we couldn’t see anything relevant, but we were at least looking in their direction. We went online to check the local news sites; nothing was up yet. I tried to pick up a book, but it was pointless trying to read. I knew after about twenty minutes of constant sirens that something really bad had happened; I felt it in my gut, and started tearing up. Someone’s died, I sensed. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to infer this, but I felt so saddened; who had died? Had they suffered? Was there a killer on the run? I imagined whomever had died, and thought about their loved ones; did they have family? A spouse? Children? I imagined those people getting the worst phone call of their lives. I am an empathetic person, but this time I just let myself cry for whatever had happened, details of which I still didn’t know. 

I’d never heard so many sirens in my life. Then, the helicopters showed up. Highland Park is about a half-mile North of our house, and it’s where all the Medivacs land if there’s a bad car accident or injury up in the Valley. We’re used to hearing them on occasion, but combined with the sirens, we knew it was a serious injury, or death, this time. After one landed and took off, another one came in. There seemed to be another yet circling low, as if in search of a suspect. In their rotations, they would pass directly over our house, rattling the windows, their sound quite amplified. The cacophony of high-pitched, stress inducing wails quickly became both gripping, and distracting. I could not bring myself to do anything else but stand outside and listen, growing more anxious. 

It had been about an hour by now, and Ron was busy looking online for information, when he found early details of an officer involved shooting with a possible fatality. It was an active shooter situation with possible suspects on the loose, and the town of Ben Lomond was advised to shelter-in-place until further notice. They had closed off the Highway and main road around our house. We definitely weren’t going anywhere. 

More sirens came. It seemed endless; I couldn’t imagine how many cars were speeding up to the scene of the crime. More helicopters. I realize how pitiful I must sound talking about the sirens, the noise, and the stress of hearing all of this, when real officers lived this in real life, and one had paid the ultimate price. But this was one of the most tension-filled afternoons I’ve had in a really long time. I could not distract myself with anything. I stood, paced, looked online for information, and then paced some more. 

At some point during the afternoon, we learned that a deputy, only 38 years old, had been shot and killed, and that a man with explosives and guns had shot him, but few other details were clear. Knowing an officer had been murdered broke my heart. I cried for the thought that this man had shown up for work that day, just doing his job with integrity, and now he was never coming home again. I didn’t know much about him, yet, but I imagined how his family was feeling. Surely there were some who had gotten the news amid the roar of sirens and helicopter blades piercing the air like swords; someone was having the worst day of their life, compounded by the audible symbol of the unfolding tragedy that had just taken their loved one. I thought about the dirty clothes in the laundry that he had worn, waiting to be washed; the breakfast plate that may have been left in the sink; the last Goodbye that he may have shared with his loved ones. I just lost it crying for this person I hadn’t the honor of meeting; in our small town, I think many others cried, too.

Life isn’t fair, I lamented angrily. Why do bad things happen to good people?! 

It wasn’t until around 7 p.m., about five hours after the approximate start, that the sirens started tapering off. Suddenly, there was a quiet gap of thirty seconds or so with no new sirens, only to be replaced by several more trickling in. By around 8 p.m., things were all but quieted down, but the tension for so many was most certainly not. I barely ate dinner, and couldn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. that night; I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about life in general, about my cancer, about everything. The next morning, I had a terrible tension headache, neckache, and threw up. I’ve reacted from stressful situations in this way before, so wasn’t too concerned and went back to sleep until 6 p.m. the next night. 

As I read more details about what had occurred, I felt so sad for his wife, who is pregnant, and their two-year old. It was not fair that they were left behind. I imagined how crestfallen the Sheriff’s department must have felt; how robbed his family and friends were of future memories. It just wasn’t fair. For whatever reason, he suffered terrible odds that day. He never deserved to die like that. Though the shooter is in custody and currently facing nineteen felony charges, including murder, no amount of criminal justice will ever make this tragedy right, nor bring back Sergeant Gutzwiller, may he rest in peace.

Life simply isn’t fair, and we live day-to-day just hoping for good odds. We hope that life isn’t too unfair to us, that statistics are on our side. All it takes is one event, one moment, to change everything. We live our lives accepting this risk everyday, making peace with the chances we take. We hope for the grace of good odds, that we make it through another day unscathed. 

We must fight for what isn’t fair that must be changed; to right the wrongs of our past, and the wrongs of our present. Whatever your passion or cause, if it’s for the betterment of people or the environment at large, or everything in between, stand up for that; give it a voice. You don’t need to be the loudest person in the room to make a difference, but genuinely caring and being informed are a good place to start. There’s no need for things to be unfair that can be rectified. This includes standing up for yourself when someone isn’t treating you well, or you’re the victim of discrimination, or you’re witnessing the mistreatment of another person, or animal. With the support of others, we’re capable of affecting catalytic change. 

For all the things we can’t control, for the poor odds that might strike us with tragedy, there is no comfort that can fix it, or magically make things right again. What we do have is compassion, love, and the shared experience of our friends and family. We still have the good memories we’ve lived, and all of the ways that life was more than fair to us in the past. Tragedy doesn’t negate what’s already been lived, but some things will never feel fair, or justified. We can only control how we respond to them, should we be blessed enough to live through them. May we live with the grace of such good odds. 

 

 

Recalibrating Gratitude

The art of gratitude is something we’re never done with; there’s always room for deepening our appreciation. There are marked times in your life that most certainly demand your full attention – to what is going well in your life, to what is good, helpful, and sustaining. We all want to live in daily reverence for life’s simple blessings, but we’re also human, and days can blur into weeks, into years, before a major hurdle comes our way, beckoning us to find the silver linings as we stand under the inevitable passing of life’s occasional rain clouds. 

There are some events that, despite our aversion to their occurrence, end up teaching us more than we could ever have anticipated; that shift our thinking in directions only possible under such duress. One example of such adversity is cancer. 

I’m in the early stages of a 16-week chemotherapy regimen for Stage 2 breast cancer. It’s been two months since my mastectomy, and I’m two infusions in. No visitors are allowed right now, so I’m bringing books to keep busy during the appointments. I am coping fairly well with the side-effects so far, save for a few bouts of nausea the first round, and some fatigue. I get pretty tired sometimes and need to rest or take a nap. 

Then, there are the shots in the stomach for seven days, which I’ve gotten the hang of; technique matters, of course! Squeezing the skin, injecting quickly at a 45° angle, followed by a slower injection seems to work well so far. There’s also a slight numbness and tingling in my left armpit and upper arm that feels like it’s half-asleep. My port is on my right side and not giving me any problems, except that I have a roughly one-inch scar from it, and it hurts if my port is hit directly. I was changing the pillowcases the other day, and when I pulled off the case, I hit my port with the back of my hand; it hurt so bad I winced and grimaced, and it throbbed for hours afterward. It’s not something I want to hit any harder!

There are so many layers in the effects of cancer – some easily seen, others invisible if not pointed out. There’s so much mental energy; my day is occupied at least at some point by researching something online, or reading something to learn more about it. As a Science teacher, I am fascinated by the molecular processes occurring within my body, and want to learn about that as best as I can understand. I’m only at the beginning stages of my chemotherapy, so I’ll see how the rest of treatment goes. 

Worse than my cancer story, the world is suffering amid the Covid-19 pandemic (in case you’ve been living under a rock). It’s heartbreaking how many people are dying. It’s tragic, and gives me perspective – even though I’m going through cancer, other people are dying from this virus; the gravity of the situation is far worse than my individual situation. I feel so sad for all those affected, and it reminds me to count my blessings. 

Cancer threatens to take away all that I love and hold dear, and it makes me exceptionally appreciative for all that I have. While allowing myself to feel down or sad about having cancer is normal and healthy, the fighter in me is fiercely roaring, forcing my attention toward all that is on the up-and-up in the world, all that is positive. It’s got me thinking about all of the blessings I am so lucky to have in my life. I love my little life. Everything from my nightly Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune habit to the bike rides in the mountains I love so dearly; from the amazing people in my life, to the career I love. I feel like I have a new lease on life.

My gratitude is being recalibrated, sharpened in a new way – for my husband Ron, my cat Beau; my sweet family; my small but close circle of friends and acquaintances; my house in the beautiful mountains, living in a place I love. 

Yes! These are all good things, and cancer doesn’t take them away. Even if cancer kills me, it doesn’t negate the good years I’ve lived and the memories I’ve made. 

Ron asked me recently how I was really doing, fighting breast cancer amid the coronavirus pandemic. Without so much of a thought, I  replied, “Honestly, okay. I have my you and Beau by my side, a beautiful home in the mountains, and food to eat. As a plus, we haven’t run out of toilet paper yet”. Simple truth in these times of shelter-in-place. 

It’s true, though; I feel pretty amazing. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for how happy I am, for how active I am able to be; for not suffering worse, for not having a harder time. It’s silly and futile of me to do so, and I remind myself quickly that it’s in my nature to make the best of the situation. We all have the ability within ourselves to adapt and make the most of a challenge, and right now, that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t really feel guilty, of course, but I realize how much harder of a time I would be having if I were in this all alone. 

People fight cancer without the help of loved ones everyday. I have the good grace of my husband living within the home. I am so blessed to have Ron helping me through this. He is my torch, my light, my breath of fresh air. His generosity, love, and acts of compassion have moved me. He has always been a gem of a human being, but now he is even more so my hero. 

I’m finding so much grace lately, in places where I was once angry or discouraged, followed by a tunnel-vision focus on the foundation of such grace: gratitude.

Gratitude – a word that’s become trite, cliched, hackneyed to the nines, for good reason. Poetry, songs, self-help books, Instagram posts, and self-possessed gurus have gratitude permeating through their cores. It is one of the basic tenets for happiness, regardless, if not in spite of, possession or circumstance. 

It’s something I thought I had a pretty strong handle on before being diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve always felt like I’m making up for lost time, trying to squeeze as much into the day before the book is closed on me. 

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I cried, of course, coming to terms with my total lack of control over the situation; I certainly did not feel gratitude. When I imagined my funeral – my ashes being scattered among loved ones in my favorite natural environs – like Kirkwood, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean – I rued the thought of dying young, that is, before age eighty, because eighty is about the age I consider old. Moreover, lifespans are growing longer by the decade. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll all get there, though. I was quite angry about the prospect of cutting my life short, of losing the time I was owed to get older. 

Owed? That’s where I was wrong. I’m not owed anything in life – not time, not love, not opportunity. Life is but a combination of attitude and circumstance, with gratitude at its fulcrum. Only we can find that balance, and we owe it to ourselves to achieve it, lest we live our lives stuck in a cat-and-mouse game between happiness and strife.

Though I’d thought I’d been living for years with a passionate appreciation for life and my blessings, I’m surprised by my calibration of gratitude. It’s growing daily. In the morning, the robins singing in the forest spark my curiosity for the day ahead. Though I’m not usually a morning-person, I find myself being pulled out of bed earlier than normal to stand witness to the glory unfolding outside my bedroom window, air thick with the dew of moisture blown in off the Pacific Ocean several miles away. Everyday I want to do as much as I can. I dance in my living room, play guitar to my favorite songs, and get moving outside.  

Though I’m a pretty positive person by nature, I’m also a realist, and I don’t shy away from challenges, including tough feelings. I love learning all I can about everything, and using that knowledge to quell any such fears or misgivings. I’m not afraid to go there emotionally; to let myself experience the full gamut of feelings, from sadness to euphoria. I love giving myself to an experience fully and whole-heartedly. There is nothing inside my mind that scares me. I’ve felt so many different emotions during this experience, many of them uncomfortable and overwhelming, but I sat with them, and they passed along. That’s what emotions do; they don’t stay forever. We have the power to move them along at will, but there’s value in looking them in the eye, in sitting face-to-face with your fears and troubles. Better yet, it makes you feel relieved once you realize the bottom isn’t going to drop out on you just because you let yourself feel sad, or angry, or terrified. The human will to move forward ultimately prevails, and we focus again on positive, more helpful emotions, like gratitude.

A cancer diagnosis prompts you to look inward, and walk the winding paths of hypotheticals in your mind with aplomb and detachment; to consider each thought or what if for what it is, and then let it go. There is one feeling, though, that I find myself myopically focused on these days: gratitude. Its shade of grey may change from day to day, but it’s only grown stronger in the last couple of months.

I find blessings where I may have once dismissed them, too caught up in discomfort and unfamiliarity to notice their quiet heroism. I’m not one of those I’m so blessed! people who will bury their heads in the sand ignoring the hurricane above, but I am giving myself that mercy lately to feel that way, and to own it. Yes, I am blessed! It’s okay to acknowledge it, to state it out loud, to write it down, to shout it from the mountaintops, almighty. 

It’s not just having a roof over my head and food to eat; it is having a roof over my head and food to eat. Those very basics are true blessings. Amid the struggling time we’re all living in right now, I feel exceptionally happy for these fundamentals.
Climbing  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am thankful for a community of loving people, from near and far, who’ve rallied to support me during this time. There is nothing like the warmth of loved ones coming together to make your life easier. I have such admiration and respect for those who go it alone through the battle of cancer.

I am blessed I got my surgery when I did, on February 26, 2020, right before elective surgeries started being canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions in hospitals. I am blessed I had enough sick-leave accrued over my years of teaching to take a paid leave-of-absence, a testament to good planning and discipline on my part, and the stability of a government job. I am blessed with my job itself; I am blessed with the students I teach, the staff I work with, the community I live in. 

Now I’m starting to sound like one of those I’m so blessed! people I bemoaned earlier, but cliche as it sounds, that’s how I’m starting to feel. That’s how a lot of people who are diagnosed with cancer say they end up feeling, too. When everything is at risk, you’re forced to reevaluate.  

April20x
Monterey Mariposa LIly

Perspective will give you a lot in life, or take a lot from you. It all depends upon how you see things. Knowing the world is suffering from coronavirus helps put my cancer in perspective; someone is fighting a harder battle, a worse prognosis, a more dire health issue. There is always someone or something that will be the comparative or superlative; whether better or best, healthier or healthiest, worse or worst, we all live on a spectrum of relativity. It’s up to us to calibrate ourselves on that scale; to find the data points we most align with, to dismiss outliers for what they are; to not demean our experiences through comparison, but make sense of them. We are never done with this work; there’s always room to grow. At the bottom of it all is a pure desire for human connection, and the digital age we live in fosters this community. 

There’s plenty of awesomeness to go around in the world. We ought to encourage each other to be our best, to express our idiosyncratic beauty as fully as we can. We don’t know how much time we have to do so. I know now for sure that I don’t want to get to my deathbed and wish I’d lived more fully, that I’d expressed myself more. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid, any passion not explored. 

Which leads me to the biggest blessing cancer has given me so far: the freedom to let go of having biological children. Chemotherapy drugs will all but destroy whatever potential I have. That choice has been finalized for me, and it feels like a big relief, actually. I have a strong maternal instinct, and there’s been times in my life that I wanted to have kids; however, I never really wanted it when it came down to brass tacks. And I made myself so wrong for that. 

Like most childless women approaching forty, I’ve been peppered with questions and comments about whether or not I should have children; I’ve learned to not be too bothered by those. What’s tougher is my own insecurity – that I somehow believe so steadfastly in the construct that a woman’s purpose and ultimate value comes from her motherhood – and in the absence of fulfilling that action, I feel like I’m not good enough. 

Though I’m confident with my life, I realize the areas where I don’t feel so. The fact that I’m not a mother, that I’ve never experienced childbirth, or watching my own child take its first steps, makes me feel inadequate on a certain level. It’s not something I dwell on daily, but I feel its pangs when I’m in the company of happy mothers, whose joy I’ll never know. There are other ways to experience motherhood, and I have a fierce maternal instinct, but having a biological child is something I won’t experience; it’s a club I’ll likely never be a part of. And I chose that, years ago, by my mid-twenties I knew. 

I shelved that conviction for the odds of an accident, or a sudden change of heart, knowing as each year passed on, the chance declined like a biplane stalling in an airshow. I thought I should want children of our own; I thought I’d get the urge, baby fever. I’ve lived Summer to Summer for years, as a teacher, and a student, and with every one, I’d think, Maybe next Summer. I loved spending time with my nieces and nephews; we played, had fun, and explored. I loved teaching my seventh-grade students, with all of their energy and curiosity. 

I’ve always loved kids. Babies? I love them, too, but I wasn’t always inclined to them. I admit I’ve probably changed less than ten diapers in my entire life. I used to babysit when I was a kid, but babies weren’t my forte. The first time I ever held a baby was in the climbing gym in Santa Cruz when I was twenty-one years old – yes, that old! A friend of mine had just had a baby, and a mutual friend of ours couldn’t believe I’d never held a baby before; he immediately made me hold that cutie-pie. I took right to holding him, but they laughed at how awkward I was. I’ve spent a lot more time with babies and children since then, but the need to have my own didn’t compel me to act upon it. 

I love kids and babies because they’re people, after all, and I love people.  For someone who loves people, I sure can be a bit of a loner. I can entertain myself endlessly, and I need time alone everyday to be happy. It’s not about excluding or avoiding others; rather, it’s about doing the things I love. Living under a shelter-in-place order has been pretty easy for me, though I miss my loved ones. We all live on a spectrum of introversion and extroversion. Sometimes that includes spending time with others, but much of the time, I’m riding solo – literally, on my bike. I’ve fought with the judgment of being selfish or self-centered for years; that someone who spends so much time doing what they want to do must be all about themselves.

I’ve struggled with feeling like people must think I’m so selfish, or self-absorbed, though I’d like to think I don’t care about their opinion. I try to justify myself to others, explaining that it’s not about spending time alone with myself, so much as it is spending time immersed in the activity I’m doing, and totally getting outside of myself; it’s really the opposite of being selfish or self-centered. I am completely present, rapt in the moment at hand, only focused on living that hobby, or sport, or meditative moment of solitude. 

For someone who doesn’t have kids, and spends so much time alone, I feel like I have to defend myself; that people are judging me for being selfish. This is the concern that breast cancer is helping to kick. It really doesn’t matter if someone approves of my life choices or not; it only matters that I get to live another day to make my life’s choices. It doesn’t matter if I reproduce or not; it matters that I live a healthy life. You can’t live every life option in your life; you really can’t do it all, though we all like to try. I know I can’t have the life of the outdoorsy adventure girl and the stay-at-home mother married to her high-school sweetheart. I’ve spent so much time over the years feeling unsettled about the prospect of having kids, so much care about whether other people thought I was good enough, successful enough, woman enough to be a mother. It’s not something I was aware of all the time, but now that I’m at the end of the road for having kids, I feel the compounded effect of inadequacy. On the flipside, I feel an overwhelming sense of affirmation for my life, and the choices I’ve made.

Which is why I say:

Thank You, Breast Cancer. Thank you for affirming my life’s choice to not have kids. Thank you for affirming that I can spend my free time how I choose, enjoy time with my husband and cat, and start everyday with a blank slate I get to fill. Thank you, Breast Cancer, for affirming that I’m on the right path, that I will continue on for as long as Life will let me; that I can appreciate my simple days, living out my passions. Thank you for affirming I am happy with my life, and that I want more time to live it.

For all I am really trying for is more time to spend with my loved ones, more time to do the things I love. Chemo is part of this fight for more time, and I’m grateful these drugs exist to help people like me. It’s a good time to have breast cancer if there ever were one, though there remains so much room for advancement. 

Nothing is perfect in life, and the same goes for my cancer. Although I can fall into the coulda-should-woulda trap, going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, trying desperately to glean some sort of explanation for why I would get breast cancer as a healthy thirty-nine year old, all that matters now is the present, so I try to keep my energy centered there. 

I always felt like I was a person who lived with gratitude, with reverence for the beautiful landscapes we are so privileged to experience on this Earth – whether in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, or Fort William in Scotland, or Whistler, Canada (the latter two are on my bucket list). 

When I first got diagnosed, my patience had to adapt. Now, I feel my gratitude has adapted. I have grown protective of my life, even; it is so important to me that I will do everything I can to prolong it. I must be my own Mama-Bear, and give it all I’ve got. The next few months will challenge me further, but if I can keep my gratitude calibrated, I’ll keep my eye on the light at the end of the tunnel – no, not that light, but the light of the mercy of healing, the light of a new day … or maybe just the light of an awesome ride!

 

Coronavirus, Cancer, & My First Chemotherapy Infusion

2020 just keeps on getting crazier. 

It’s nearly mid-April, and we are in the midst of a national shelter-in-place order as the most virulent coronavirus we’ve seen in years, COVID-19, is ravaging the world over, its unpredictable nature adding to the palpable fear of contracting it. People of all walks of life, of all ages and health, are succumbing by the thousands to the pervasive wrath of the virus, fighting for life on ventilators. Progress is quelled by setbacks, as those who seem to be improving are admitted into intensive care units mere days, or hours, later. 

We are living through a global pandemic on a scale no one alive today has yet had to endure. We are being tested in ways that are obvious, and in subtler, more nuanced ways yet to be realized. As millions of people live in a varying state of lockdown around the world, we are only united in spirit, and the cybersphere, as social distancing mandates keep us mostly walled apart within our four walls. Parents are homeschooling children, adapting to distance learning on computers, missing the camaraderie of their peers. Gone are the moments of spontaneity and tangential inspiration that unfold so readily within the physical classroom, fostered by the shared purpose of students and teachers driven to keep learning, keep asking questions, and keep improving.

We all have a lot more time on our hands now that we are all but confined to our homes aside from essential activities, and exercise. Santa Cruz County has been on a shelter-in-place order since March 14, and the state of California issued a statewide order soon after. The economy is wobbling on a tight-rope, balanced in the tension of a trillion-dollar government aid deal soon to bring some financial relief to Americans and businesses, to the pitfalls of a marketplace with no customers to serve, no clients to meet. Far and wide, businesses deemed non-essential have been ordered to shutter, leaving them with the daunting challenge of keeping afloat when income streams have dried up, but bills are still due. 

The effects on our economy will be felt for years to come, regardless of how the Dow Jones behaves on a daily basis. Volatility is the understatement of the time. We are insecure about everything from our retirement funds, to whether we’ll have food to eat. People are legitimately scared, and are forced apart at a time when most of us would want the comfort of friends and family. Though videochats and social media help bridge this void, nothing can replace the physical presence of flesh and blood, of a laugh heartily shared, a hug warmly shared. 

We find ourselves reexamining our lives – our careers, our relationships, our goals, and our mortality. This pandemic makes everyone think about death, and our health. We wonder how we would respond if we got it; would we end up on a ventilator in the ICU, or be one of those asymptomatic types that barely ekes out a sneeze? What if someone we loved got it, and ended up in the hospital? What if they were to die? No matter how calm, cool, and collected you are, this crisis makes you think about these questions, if only for a moment, but hopefully not all day, everyday.

It’s a lot like being diagnosed with cancer. I’ve heard various interviews on talkshows lately where people talk about how they’re coping with the shelter-in-place orders, and they all might as well have been talking about being diagnosed with cancer. There are a multitude of parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and cancer. 

First and perhaps most obvious, they both make you think about death and your health. Eating habits, exercise, sleep, stress, and other lifestyle factors are meticulously combed through for deficiencies. Your life is put under a giant microscope. All that glistens, and all that cowers in the darkness, is brought to light. You think about your loved ones dying; how you would live without them. You think about all the things you should have done differently in your past, choices that may have led to your fate. You imagine yourself dying; how would it actually feel to take your last breath? Would you even know it when you did? Though I always knew I would die someday, being diagnosed with cancer made me reconsider death in a profoundly deeper, more intimate way. It was no longer something out there on the horizon; it was presenting itself to me in my thirty-ninth year of life, probably having grown slowly for years undetected. 

They also both preoccupy your mind in a way you must learn to control. You are a slave to learning more about them; you just want to understand them, so you can fear them less. I spend hours reading through breast cancer articles, trying to better understand my situation, the NCBI website is one of my most-visited sites; I read blogs, I watch YouTube videos. There’s a lot of mental energy that goes into just trying to figure it all out, and as someone who is passionate about Science as it is, it makes the thirst for knowledge insatiable.

Then, there are all of the COVID-19 stories happening worldwide. They demand your attention, and everyone I know is following the news constantly. It is important to be informed. I read the newspaper daily, and watch the news in short bursts. If one watches the news endlessly right now, fed by a relentless torrent of heartbreaking stories, day after day, it isn’t necessarily good for our mental health. 

It’s the same with cancer: while I invest hours upon hours researching my cancer, I have to know when to take a break. If I spend too long consumed in the tunnel of statistics, prognoses, and web of possible culprits for my cancer, it wipes me out; I’ll feel exhausted, anxious, and discouraged. It took me some time to learn how to regulate that need for learning, to realize that the knowledge wasn’t going away, that I could still find it the next day on the Internet or book I was reading; I’m still working on it. Stepping away and doing something completely different – a distraction – was exactly what was needed, and that’s what I hear a lot of people talking about today. Just trying to stay busy, stay distracted, is what I said often after my mastectomy. Now, I hear people saying the same thing with the shelter-in-place order; they are just trying to stay busy, to keep their mind off the gravity of the situation. Cancer or coronavirus, we all need a break from the constant onslaught of news updates, alerts on our phones, and the state of alert we are all living in. 

Yet another way cancer and coronavirus are similar is how they command you to deepen your gratitude. When I first was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 3, 2020, a roller-coaster of emotions began, but I remember distinctly thinking: I’ve been living my life healthily; I’ve been appreciating everyday, living like it could be the last. Darn it, I haven’t taken my life for granted! I don’t need this lesson!

I knew as soon as I thought it how inane it actually was. Of course I had room to grow more grateful, to appreciate more deeply. Of course I wasn’t done in that regard; there will always be more room to show more grace for my blessings. Now, just barely over two months later, I feel I’ve already stretched my seams in the gratitude realm. I look forward to time with my husband and cat, moseying around the garden; I delight in the sight of birds bathing in the birdbaths. I relish my time in nature, and the amazing creatures I find, from lizards to bobcats to coyotes. I feel incredibly grateful for my loved ones. It helps that I’ve had so much time off work to dive deeper into celebrating the little things in life, being on-leave since February 14, which leads me to another similarity between coronavirus and cancer: the shelter-in-place order. 

We all have more time to ponder our lives, to reflect in ways perhaps not regularly done so. No two people will handle a cancer diagnosis precisely the same, and no two people will handle a COVID-19 diagnosis quite the same way, though there are undoubtedly more similarities than differences. One of the main things we all will do is reflect upon our lives – our happiness, our chosen careers, our life choices. It gives one pause, and suddenly everything is open to scrutiny.

The world on an all but lockdown amid a pandemic? That will make everyone take notice – to not just their own lives, but the state of the planet. I hope everyone will give credence to the drop in pollution levels during this time. The grounding of airplanes, cars not commuting to work, factories shuttered – there is a marked drop in global pollution as a direct result of this pandemic. Stephen Kessler said it best in his editorial, that perhaps this would be the catalyst to really bring change to remedy the climate crisis. It is imperative that we as a society adopt cleaner technologies, and work to restore natural ecosystems; to protect endangered species; to stop using forever chemicals; to realize that overpopulation is a key factor in our problems. We are making some progress on environmental initiatives, but nowhere near as far as we should be by now. It makes me so angry that I learned about the greenhouse effect as an eleven-year old; we learned about the ozone hole, and CFC’s. The message was clear then, as it had been for years before: pollute the Earth, and we will hurt. Now, as a seventh grade-Science teacher, I am teaching my students a similar story, with much worse stakes, much worse outcomes. It is confounding how the profits of corporations and private interests can supersede the health of our planet for so many years. 

While the coronavirus stay-at-home orders will spark self-reflection about that which we are unsettled or unhappy about, it will also be the catalyst for creative self-expression. We reassess our lives, and we also reacquaint ourselves with lost hobbies, passions, and artistic outlets. When you have lots of time on your hands, your truest instincts and desires will surface loud and clear; even if you thought you’ve heard them already, they will roar stoically, echoing across the canyon walls of your psyche. This is a wonderful time for music making, writing, reading, cooking, cleaning, organizing, gardening, and taking good care of yourself. It is an opportunity to dive into our hobbies, even if only in between catching up on the news.

It is also a good time to connect with our most authentic emotions. One of the things I struggled with in my cancer diagnosis was anger. Though I felt sadness, fear, and tinges of hope here and there, I was sidelined by anger for anything I was upset about in my life – the state of the environment, my neighbor’s white smoke spewing toxic pollution, the fact that I had Stage 2 breast cancer. 

I was really angry about that one, especially that I hadn’t found it sooner. I’d done mammograms and ultrasounds for years, checked myself regularly for new lumps, ate well, exercised a lot – you already know the spiel. When I was told at my last appointment, at the end of 2016, that I only had fibroadenomas, and didn’t need to worry; that with no breast cancer history in my family, I could come back at age forty for my next mammogram, unless I felt any changes in the meantime, I let go of the rope. I stopped worrying about the lumps in my breasts. They didn’t change, and for whatever reason, I never felt my cancerous tumor until it was quite sizeable. I remember feeling it, mid-December 2019, and it felt like a peach pit, a few centimeters at most, maybe. By the time it was excised during my mastectomy late February 2020, it was 4.4 cm. It matched the statistics I’d read about doubling size, that tumors could double from every 50 to 200 days, a wide range, but an estimate. It had likely been growing for years, and for whatever reason, I didn’t feel it, or it didn’t show up as an abnormality on my previous scans. 

I wished I’d gone in for an ultrasound over the last three years, instead of trusting that I didn’t need to worry. I wish I’d felt something sooner. I can’t explain how angry it has made me, for how on top of my health I’ve always been; I’ve always taken really good care of myself, and it baffled me that I could let this slip. I had struggled with occasional bouts of fatigue, headache, and nausea over the last couple of years, and seen my doctor about it. I even wrote about it in my journal. Bloodwork was normal, and they thought my sleep apnea was contributing to it. I had already tried a CPAP machine to no avail, and ended up trying a mouthguard, or mandibular advancement device. I couldn’t get used to that either, as it aggravated my jaw painfully. I knew something was off, but I thought it was just not eating well enough and overexerting myself, compounded by a poor night’s sleep from my apnea. 

I go over all of the things I could have done differently; I could have asked for an ultrasound just in case. It makes me so angry. All that energy is wasted, though, since I can do nothing to change it now; moreover, blaming myself isn’t helpful. That’s the mystery of cancer; most people don’t get a clear culprit for their diagnosis. 

I also felt angry that I didn’t feel more self-actualized in my life – that, after all I’d done with my life thus far, after all the happiness and passion, the times I’d felt like I was really stoked on how life was going, I still didn’t feel like I’d made it; that I didn’t feel fully seen or heard, or entirely successful. Part of it was financial. Sure, I’d like to be making more money, but mostly, it was existential; it brought into focus how much more I still wanted to do with my life, how much sharper I wanted to hone my mastery. Now, as millions of people find themselves with the boon, or burden, of too much time on their hands, we all share a unique opportunity for self-reflection, granted, of course, that we are lucky enough not to fall ill with COVID-19.

Another glaring similarity is the loss of control, and the anxiety that accompanies the uncertainty of the time we live in. A cancer diagnosis reminds you that despite your best efforts – healthy diet, exercise, and low-stress – we can’t control life; we can’t protect ourselves from every threat, no matter how hard we try. We are living in anxious times, worrying about our health and that of our loved ones, but we are also worried sick about the future. How many business owners will still have a viable business to return to? How many dreams of investing in a new business will be shelved indefinitely, victims of the slow build-up of the working man’s acquisition of savings, every penny one can spare after feeding and housing oneself? How many will be forced to work in another field altogether, trading a sense of purpose for a sense of sustenance? How many lives will be forever altered? Ultimately, how many lives will be forever changed by the loss of a loved one? How many lives will be lost, last breaths taken in crowded hospital wards, beds soon replaced with the next victim? It is staggering to think about the loss of life. It is also unsettling and worry inducing. 

We are reminded, again, that there are catastrophes whose scopes of damage know no boundaries. We are reminded of our vulnerability. Our economies, our infrastructure, all the structures we depend upon for our lives are on shaky ground. We must adapt to live, at least temporarily, without them. We are pushed to the edge of our comfort zones, no Vanilla Lattes to ease the sour aftertaste of a world gone awry. 

We must learn to be okay, on a certain level, with this loss of control, with this humbling recalibration of humankind. As cancer patients, this loss of control is compounded by changes in our treatment schedules, delays, and the risk of falling ill with a weakened immune system. We are at the mercy of a triage health-care approach, where things are changing on a minute-by-minute basis. Delays and hiccups are the nature of the game at this point, coronavirus, cancer, or both. We walk along with our dream legs, hoping to near a rewarding horizon of relief. The horizon sometimes moves, though, and we have no control over it. We must learn to focus on what we can control – ourselves – instead. It isn’t easy to do, especially when your life depends on it. Our patience is tested in a myriad of ways. 

Spring2020-34

I knew I would have dream legs moving along with my chemotherapy treatment, that my patience would need to adapt. On Monday, March 30, I went in for my first infusion at Kaiser San Jose. My sweet husband Ron drove me, and when I showed up my Dad was waiting in the parking lot! It was such a pleasant surprise to see him, and made me cry happy tears immediately. Though we couldn’t give each other a hug, it meant the world to me to share a few quick words before I continued on for my appointment. The love and sweetness continued when Ron dropped me off at the infusion clinic; he unzipped his sweater to reveal one of my favorite shirts: I Love My Smokin’ Hot Wife. He wears this shirt on occasion, but this time was just perfect. We embraced in a warm hug and off I went.

That’s another similarity between cancer and coronavirus: it brings people together, even if we are physically alone. The amount of love I’ve received from the virtual realm – emails, social media comments and messages, videochats – all help me feel supported and connected. People have sent gifts, money, and cards, all of which made a huge difference for me. The staff and teachers at my school collected a generous sum of money for me, which moved my heart. Though I often talk about what an introvert I am, we are all a blend of extroversion and introversion; few of us are solely one or the other. We are a shade of grey. I love time alone, but I love the people in my life, too! I am so grateful for the love and support I’ve received, it’s almost overwhelming. We all need each other right now; we are all feeling vulnerable amid the coronachaos. It warms my heart how much people are stepping up for each other. Nightly cheers for healthcare workers have been incredible to see, from singing Italians, to pots and pans banging New Yorkers, to our own local Eight O’Clock Howl in the San Lorenzo Valley. We even made the newspaper! It’s been a real treat each night to go out and howl with so many others, our valley echoing our calls in symphonic unison. You can feel the heart in everyone’s voices. 

Walking into my first scheduled chemo infusion, I definitely was feeling the love all around. I was ready. Seeing my dad and Ron before really helped calm me. As I entered the building, there were two COVID-19 screeners at the door. I’d had a hint of a cough over the last couple of days, nothing strong, so I promptly let them know. Though I didn’t feel sick, I wanted to be honest. I could be one of those mildly symptomatic people, after all. 

I donned a mask, and waited for a nurse to come take my temperature, only 98.5, for someone who usually runs about 97.9. After some time, she said they were delaying my infusion in case I was sick. At first, I was selfishly disappointed; I’d been so nervous about the appointment, it had taken a lot out of me. I just wanted to get it over with, and that wasn’t possible anymore. I left the building and started crying as I walked toward the parking lot to meet up with my father. I called my sisters Mary and Bonnie, and vented my frustrations; they kindly comforted me. I was fortunate to spend a half hour talking with my father in the parking lot, from six feet apart, until Ron came to pick me up. Of course it was normal to feel some disappointment, but I understood the severity of the situation, that all precautions must be taken. There was no point in risking nurses’ lives, or other chemo patients’ lives, if I was sick. They sent me back home, and told me to come back in a week on Monday, April 6. 

I quickly got over the let-down of the delay, and took it as a Bonus Week! I had a gift of another week to live my life chemo-free, and more importantly, to recover from my port implant surgery. I’d had the port implanted on Wednesday, March 25, under twilight anesthesia. They implanted a PowerPort into my right chest, connecting a catheter tube to my jugular vein in my neck. It didn’t hurt while it was being put in, but that night, I felt like I might’ve been shot (this coming from someone who has no idea what it feels like to be shot). My entire right chest, neck, and shoulder were just frozen and throbbing at the implant site. I couldn’t even lift my right hand to read a book, or make a cup with my hands under the sink while brushing my teeth. It was worse than the post-mastectomy pain, although I’d had some pain medication to help with that. This time, I didn’t want to take any pain pills; after my withdrawal from the gabapentin, I didn’t want to feel that way again. And, the anesthesia had already damaged my liver and body enough, so I didn’t want to add anything into the mix. It was really tough, though; for a good three days after surgery, it constantly hurt. My mobility was limited, and I could barely turn my head to look right or left. The mastectomy had been a huge hurdle, but I’d gotten over it and was feeling stronger by the day. Then this port comes along and takes me two-steps back, and sucker-punches me with pain worse than the mastectomy. 

I was so grateful to have an extra week to heal up from the port implant, and more importantly, have some fun! We are lucky to live in a beautiful mountain near the beach community, where there are plenty of trails and beaches to spread out upon. We were able to go mountain biking a few times, go to the beach, and only saw a few people quickly in passing. The weather was nice and sunny; I laid out in the backyard, soaking up the relaxing rays of the sun. 

I felt myself truly let go for the first time in weeks. I needed this extra time to heal up; to just get stronger, and feel like myself again. I wasn’t sore from my port implant anymore, and it felt wonderful to get outside and move! My husband and I had a fantastic week together – a Bonus Week – and it really buoyed my spirits. 

Spring2020-22
Happy Rider

The rain came in on Saturday the 4th. An oncology nurse telephoned to ask how I was doing, and whether I still had a cough. I reported that the cough had persisted throughout the week, but never worsened to the point of being productive or constrictive. I had no other symptoms – no runny nose, no signs of fever, no body aches – and added that I felt better as the week went on, just had a mild cough. She said they’d call me Monday morning to let me know if they wanted me to be tested. On Monday, April 6, they called and said I’d have a phone appointment with my doctor later that day. After the phone appointment, I was sent to the Scotts Valley Kaiser drive-up testing site. 

I felt so badly, and so grateful, for the two nurses manning the testing station, wearing face-shields, masks, gloves, aprons, and other PPE I may not have noticed. They were not taking any chances. I waited for them to tell me to roll down my car window, and the nurse said she’d do a throat swab followed by a nasal swab. I pulled down my mask, taking a deep scratch to the back of the throat. The nasal swab that ensued was quite uncomfortable – it felt like a swab had been pushed up into my brain. My eyes immediately started watering, and I felt as if I had water up my nose. I rolled up the window, and pulled away, feeling a bit shocked by how painful the test had been. It was not a pleasant experience! My nose felt like it was being tickled the rest of the day. I was told I’d get my results within a day, and went back home. 

My oncologist had told me they like to start chemo no later than six weeks after surgery; for me, that six-week mark was Wednesday, April 8. I’d hoped to start on March 30, but all precautions must be taken, and I understand the delay. That’s exactly what I’d written about in my last post, so I wasn’t too surprised. I’ve heard stories of other cancer patient’s treatments being delayed, too, and knew it could be worse. 

I got my test result back on Tuesday, April 7, and it was negative – phew! Part of me wished I’d never said anything when they asked if I had a cough, because after all, it wasn’t anything serious, and ended up delaying my treatment, but honesty is always the best policy. 

They suggested Monday, April 13, as my first infusion, but I asked for something sooner. They had Friday, April 10, at 10 a.m.; Good Friday. I took it. Until that needle was in my port, though, I wouldn’t believe it. Too much hype and delay. I enjoyed a beautiful Pink Supermoon on April 8, an apt moon for me. 

The day came, finally. I felt ready; I was calm, even. Ron dropped me off, and off I went. I started with thirty-minutes of wearing my Paxman Cold Cap, which gives me about a 50/50 chance of saving, to some degree, my hair. If it’ll work, I’ll try it! It felt cold, but not uncomfortable. I was in a side-room off of the main infusion room, where there were about fifteen other patients receiving infusions. The chair was comfy, and it was nice to have my own space. 

The nurse gave me three pre-medications: Zofran, steroid pills, and Zyprexa. A pharmacist was there to consult with me about the purpose and side-effects of each; Zofran and Zyprexa were antiemetics, or antinausea, medicines; drowsiness was the main side-effect. I was surprised to learn that Zofran was an antipsychotic, but is prescribed for nausea in chemotherapy patients as well. I’ll take Zofran twice a day for three days following chemo, and Zyprexa once a day, at night. Zyprexa is a serotonin-5-HT3 receptor antagonist, meaning it works to block serotonin from activating my gastrointestinal nerve, which is triggered by the chemotherapy drugs, Adriamycin and Procytox.  I’d also have to give myself a shot in my stomach, Zarxio, once a day, for seven days, starting on Day 3 of chemo (Sunday, for me). It will stimulate white-blood cell production in my bone marrow, bringing a side-effect of bone pain; for whatever reason, Claritin, your basic, over-the-counter antihistamine, is known to help with this. For how much I don’t like to take pills, it’s a lot for me to submit to all of these medications, but if they’ll help me to live a longer, healthier life, I don’t see it so much as a choice, but a necessary step toward healing. May they work effectively!

My oncologist also came in to meet with me, which was comforting. She explained that she had a new idea for my Taxol administration; initially, it was to be a 12-week cycle, given once a week, that was to be given after the first four rounds of Adriamycin and Procytox, given a two-week intervals. She explained that they would try doubling the dose of Taxol, and give it to me at two-week intervals, instead of weekly. This would allow me to finish chemo four weeks sooner, which was good news to me; that’s finishing on Friday, August 1, instead of Friday, August 28, the first Friday of my first week back at school, presuming I’m ready to go back then. It would also mean I’d have to continue doing the shots in my stomach, but I was okay with that as long as my body will tolerate it. We’ll have to wait and see, but hopefully I can finish on this shorter regimen – 16 weeks instead of a 20-week cycle. 

The infusions began next; the fluid was bright red, hence the nickname The Red Devil. It is also called that because red sores are common on the palms and feet, as well as hand-foot syndrome. It is red from the bacteria Streptomyces peucetius, from which the drug is derived. As frightening as some of these drugs are, I can’t fight my curiosity about them; it is interesting to learn about them, to the extent that someone who’s not a doctor can. Science is endlessly fascinating and intriguing. 

Both administrations took about twenty-five minutes, given slowly by the nurse into my chest port. It didn’t hurt having the port accessed, probably thanks to the lidocaine cream I put on an hour before. After the nurse had administered both drugs, I sat about twenty more minutes with a saline injection circulating through my port. I sucked and chewed ice the whole time, in an effort to reduce mouth sores. I didn’t have a strange taste in my mouth, though I’ve heard of it happening. I didn’t feel nauseous either, which was a relief. The nurse removed my port, and congratulated me on finishing my first round. 

First Chemo
First Chemo Infusion – Mask On!

Then, it was ninety more minutes of the cold-cap. I sat there reading my book, The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish. It was a great, fun way to pass the time of my first infusion. She is one of the funniest women!

I was finally done, and took off my cold-cap. Ron picked me up outside, and we went back home. I ate some lunch, and then took a nap for about three hours; I was exhausted. I felt okay, and went to bed around midnight. 

When I woke up the next morning, I was super thirsty and drank a bunch of water; I also took my Zofran pill. I immediately threw everything up. I went back to bed for a few more hours, and awoke around noon. I felt not only better, but energized. It must’ve been the steroids from the day before, because I was charged. I spent the day pruning and gardening, doing laundry, cleaning, and getting a lot done. I’d heard Day 3 was hardest for most people, and for me, that’s tomorrow, Sunday, April 12, Easter Sunday. We’ll see how I feel then, but here on Day 2, things are going okay.

It’s scary starting chemo at a time when you need your immune system at its strongest, when the coronavirus looms as a risk, but I am looking forward to making progress. I feel quite relieved now that chemo has begun, especially that it’ll be a 16-week cycle instead of 20-weeks. 

It’s coming at an apropos time, when we are forced into social distancing; right now, surfing is banned along the entire Santa Cruz County coastline! You’d think it were an April Fool’s joke, but no, it’s true. Beaches are closed, all parks and trails are closed, even the West Cliff Drive footpath is closed. It’s a one-week closure, aimed at deterring tourists from visiting over the usually popular Easter weekend. Though I’m bummed I can’t legally go for a mountain bike ride right now, at least I can go for a run from my house. I live in a beautiful neighborhood, and luckily the streets are still open. 

Like everyone these days, I’m looking forward to life returning to some semblance of normal. I’m looking forward to simple days built on simple things, with a healthy body. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and friends again, to sharing time together in a way that Skype or Facetime could never replace. I’m looking forward to living my life, free of cancer, free of coronavirus, free of the shelter-in-place order that holds us in this limbo of self-reflection and self-expression. 

I wrote about wanting to feel seen and heard when I was first diagnosed, but now, I just want to see my own reflection, to hear my own echo; that’s enough for me. I want to see myself on the other side of breast cancer, healthy and strong, my voice empowered, not defeated, by the vicissitude of cancer. If I can survive this in good health and see myself through, that’s all I need now. I don’t need any accolades, recognition, or compliments of others anymore than I need my appendix; with or without them, life goes on. I only need my good health, and the rest will follow. May I be blessed with such grace in the years ahead, as survival rates are only protracted over the long-term. Much of what I’ve been reading lately has only confirmed that my survival rate is lower than average, and my recurrence rate is higher. There are a multitude of factors that go into determining the virility of a woman’s breast cancer: age at diagnosis, size of tumor, histologic grade of tumor (Nottingham score), whether the tumor is hormone sensitive to estrogen and progesterone, genetic factors such as the BRCA-1 and 2 genes, family history, and whether the cancer has metastasized to other body parts such as the lymph nodes. Young age is typically associated with more aggressive cancers and worse prognosis. The more lymph nodes the cancer has spread to, the worse the long-term outlook. The higher the Nottingham grade score, the worse the prognosis; my tumor was 9/9, with three positive nodes. It’s a complex web of factors, but in my case, everything I keep reading doesn’t give me a lot of hope. 

I feel like I am fighting for more time. Everything I’m doing for treatment now is for the chance to have more time on this Earth. The chemo, the radiation I will undergo, despite my fears of its collateral damage, is part of my attack plan. The goal is to throw everything I can at it now, in the hopes that it’ll quash my cancer, to make whatever leftover cells not excised from my mastectomy and lymphadenectomy dormant. 

Like any other cancer survivor, should I respond well to treatment, I will have to live the rest of my life looking out for collateral damage from my treatment now – the risks of lymphedema, lung-cancer, heart damage, leukemia, and a recurrence of breast cancer that would be a death sentence. Though women are living years with metastatic breast cancer, there remains no cure for it. It is a balance of palliative care and extending life. I fear I will be one of those women whose cancer comes back, who dies at a relatively young age as a result, but none of that worry is helpful right now, so I try to let it go.

Which leads me to yet another similarity between the coronavirus and cancer: it has changed everyone’s lives forever. Nothing will ever be exactly the same after this. We will all look back at this time with heavy reverence. There will be a time when we can look back and remember what it was like when we were at home, or when we had it but persevered; we’ll remember a loved one who fell ill, and either got better, or died. Bless the thousands of lives lost from this virus. I will always live with the risk of a recurrence of cancer, but the world too will live with a risk of recurrence, of a similar pandemic crippling our societies. We will all live with the consequences of this time for years to come. We will live with its shadow for years. We will carry on ahead, lessons learned from the past, but no sense of what the future may hold. Such is the dynamic, changing nature of life. 

It’s extra crazy to have cancer during this coronavirus pandemic, but the magnitude of the pandemic overshadows my individual struggle. The world is suffering, and that pain is greater than my own. It gives me perspective, and makes my challenge not seem so ominous. It reminds me that life is unpredictable – cancer or coronavirus – and nothing is guaranteed.

What’s really helped me cope with everything has been pretty simple: hiking and riding my bike in Nature, reading, enjoying my hobbies, yoga, playing and listening to music, and, most of all, the good grace of a loving husband whom I am eternally grateful for. I really don’t think I’d be doing as well without him; if I were all alone, I think it’d be harder. I know women do it, and do it with strength, but I can’t imagine doing this without my husband, especially now that people can’t come visit me anyway.

I think everyone is appreciating their loved ones, their cherished hobbies, their time to do what they love. There are tons of podcasts, TV shows, and movies to escape into as well. I’ve been playing my guitar a lot, rocking out to Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, one of my anthem songs for breast cancer. I’ve been dancing around the living room to my favorite hip-hop songs. We all need an outlet, especially in challenging times. Distraction is the word of the moment, but it’s more than distraction; it’s adaptation, it’s survival. We must adapt to the reality we are in, and find ways to nurture ourselves through this time. We must keep ourselves as happy as we can be. 

May we all come out stronger on the other side; smarter, sharper, clearer in our convictions. May we all come out alive and healthy. May we all come out to see each other’s smiling faces on the other side. 

In the meantime, may we all make the most of the situation; may we show gratitude and reverence for life’s daily gifts. The world remains beautiful, stoically persisting despite the darkest hours of our lives. May we all find serenity in the simple things, from coffee in the morning, to a shared laugh with a loved one; with the shared bond of sheltering in place amid a global pandemic. Though miles apart, we are united in spirit, and we have so much more in common than our differences.

May we all count our blessings, and stay well.