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.