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Coming to terms with your post-cancer body

7 Mar
Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Once you’re flagged as somebody who might have cancer, you’re basically strapped onto the world’s worst carnival ride.

The ride starts off slowly at first with biopsies and consultations but then once you’re diagnosed, it picks up speed. Then there are scans, MRIs, surgery appointments, oncology consults and shopping excursions to buy things you’ve never heard of like surgical camisoles. Suddenly, the Merry-Go-Round or Tilt-a-Whirl or whatever it is starts going at breakneck speed. You go through surgery, you go through chemo, you go through radiation, you do it all. You get used to this new reality, this tumultuous spinning wheel of blood draws, port infusions, belly shots of Neulasta, daily blasts of radiation. You go around and around, back and forth, up and down, over and over. You’re strong and on top of things one day; you’re addle-brained and couch-bound the next. You spend all of your time in pajamas and patient gowns. You forget how to talk to people. You forget who you are. You’re bald, boobless, beaten down and burned to a crisp. And then suddenly, you’re pushed off the Tilt-a-Whirl or Octopus or whatever it is and told to go back to your normal life. The ride is over.

The only problem is, you’re still spinning.

Ever see somebody get off a high-speed carnival ride that’s suddenly stopped short? They stagger. They lurch. They might even walk into a pole. Or do a face plant onto the sidewalk.

That’s what life after cancer treatment was like for me: a great big WTF. I couldn’t trust the ground under my feet. I couldn’t trust my own body. I couldn’t even trust the reflection staring back at me in the mirror.

I tried to capture what it was like coming back from that and coming to terms with my new body and my “new normal” in this latest essay for FredHutch.org.

Writing about post-cancer body changes – and body image — has, by far, been the hardest thing to put into words and share with others. To be honest, it feels a lot like showing up at work in your underwear. But as vulnerable as it makes me feel to put this out into the world, I think it’s important to let people know about the collateral damage of treatment. And let other cancer peeps know they are most certainly not alone.

As always, thanks for the read, people.

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Climbing back into the mouth of the beast

24 May

attack of the crab monstersFor those of you who haven’t noticed (as far as I can tell, there are about three who have),  I am the world’s worst blogger.  Or maybe I should say, the world’s most sporadic blogger.

When I was going through treatment, I blogged about the breast cancer beast a lot. Probably because treatment is pretty frigging surreal and you have to write about it and talk to other people who’ve gone through it, otherwise, you start to feel like maybe you’ve gone slightly insane. Nurses purposefully injecting you with poison? Technicians tying you up and easing you into a machine, then fleeing the room while they blast you with radiation? WTF? Who would do such a thing?

But that’s cancer and what the docs like to call cancer “treatment.” You come out of that crap and your hair starts to grow back and your strength returns and you just want to keep walking — or in my case, running — as fast and far away from Cancerworld as humanly possible. You want to forget it all and just live your life, worrying about the trivial crap you used to worry about BC (before cancer). I can’t meet any decent single men. Hrmph. I’ve got fun plans this weekend and now it’s going to rain. Waaaaaah!

You don’t want to think back to how hideous it was dealing with those drains after the double mastectomy or how your bones felt like they were being ground into powder by a giant during chemo or how horrifically ugly and dehumanized you felt every time you looked in the mirror when the doctors were finally through with you. Bald, board flat, chest burned to a crisp, I looked like a stand-in for Gollum from Lord of the Rings. Not something you want to keep on speed dial when it comes to calling up memories. I wanted to forget.  And part of forgetting for me, has been ignoring the fact that I’m supposed to be writing a breast cancer blog.

If you’ve been there, I’m sure you get it.

Also, if you’ve been there, I’m sure you understand how difficult it is to suck it up and climb back into the mouth of the beast yet again.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not experiencing a recurrence or anything like that (knock wood). Instead, I’m currently going through the joys of breast reconstruction which for me has been every bit as difficult and painful and worrisome as the original surgery and treatment. And I’m just getting started.

I’ve had one surgery so far and am still very much in recovery from that. At this point, things are a little iffy and I’m hoping to write more about my recon and what’s happening with that in days to come. And that just might happen since my doctor has advised me to forget exercise and activities and basically just lie around my apartment like a three-toed sloth doing this incredibly boring thing called healing.

What the hell, might as well fire up the blog again, right?

For the moment, I can tell you that I went with a new type of recon known as Brava / fat transfer. Here’s a link to a story I wrote about it for TODAY.com last year. This type of recon is supposed to be less invasive than traditional recon, particularly those flaps, where the plastic surgeon cuts a slab of tissue, muscle and blood vessels from your stomach or your back or your inner thigh, sews it to your chest and magically turns it into a boob. 

I knew reconstruction was serious business going in, which is why I put it off for a year and a half after treatment. I wanted to make sure my body – and particularly my left radiated breast – had healed. I boxed three times a week to stay fit – and to keep those pectoral muscles full of healthy blood flow. I ran to keep my weight down (more accurately, to keep those tamoxifen pounds from glomming on) and to keep my heart rate good and strong.

I exercised to keep the beast from catching up with me again. And to get into shape for recon surgery. But it still kicked my ass.

I had my first fat transfer procedure two weeks and two days ago (May 8) and if this is the less invasive kind of reconstruction, I don’t even want to think about what my BC sisters who’ve had flaps and tissue expanders and implants have gone through. Seriously, the next time some moron refers to breast reconstruction as a “boob job,” I’m just going to coldcock ‘em – literally, metaphorically, whatever. As soon as I get my left hook and my right cross back, that is.

Anyway, I know this post is somewhat scattered. A little weak in some places, a little angry in others. A bit purple here and quite dark there. In fact, worrisomely dark there. But it’s also a pretty accurate reflection of what’s going on with my body right now. At present, I’m on antibiotics and don’t appear to have an infection. Yet. But things are starting to go sideways which, as anyone who’s dealt with cancer can tell you, is par for the course.

I’m trying to hang in there; I’m trying to be patient. And though it’s difficult, I’m trying to remember back to what I went through two years ago – the surgery that took my girls, the chemo that took my hair and my strength, the radiation that turned me into a crispy critter – taking comfort in the fact that I made it through all of that. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the strength – or maybe just the sheer orneriness – to get through this, too.

Hope you’re all doing well. Thanks, as always, for the read. And for those who might be interested in what I’ve been working on lately, here are a couple of links to recent stories I did for nbcnews/TODAY.com on breast cancer-related topics.

Mom’s virtual cancer family helps daughter cope with loss
Like an idiot, I wrote this story one day after surgery. I do not recommend this.

Breast cancer bras a no-go for Victoria’s Secret
The latest on the push (no pun intended) for a Victoria’s Secret “survivor bra.”

Boxing, blogging and trying to ignore the breast cancer beast

30 Oct

Photo courtesy of Jim Seida / NBCNews.com

Yes, I know it’s been a while since I posted anything. I’ve had a busy summer — hiking, baking, boxing and most of all doing this thing I like to call “pretending I never had cancer.”

But summer’s over and fall is here and with it, October, the month when it’s pretty much impossible to forget your breast cancer because everywhere you look people are dressed like gigantic pink ribbons and/or talking about their battle with the beast. And I suppose I’m no different.

I wrote a series of essays last October about my BC diagnosis, my double mastectomy and what it was like to go “out there” and date while going through breast cancer treatment, to try to find love in the time of chemotherapy.

My latest essay, published today on nbcnews.com/TODAY.com, takes up where those other essays left off, delving into some of the ripples you experience after diagnosis and treatment, as you try to navigate that weird territory known as survivorship.  Here’s a snippet:

There’s nothing like having cancer to make you appreciate the little things in life — like buying shampoo, running a few miles or being able to forget the address of the hospital where you were treated.

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2011, I felt like I lived at that hospital. Today — a year out from treatment — it’s in the rear view mirror, along with the double mastectomy and debilitating chemo and radiation I wrote about last October on TODAY.com.

Not that there aren’t still plenty of daily reminders regarding my year of living cancerously: chemo brain, adhesion pain, hot flashes (courtesy of my new BFF tamoxifen) and, oh yes, my board-flat Olive Oyl chest.

But there have been good, uh, developments, too.

The biggest one — for me — is that I now have hair. For those of you who think baseball is slow and tedious, all I can say is try watching hair grow sometime.

I disguised my bald head with a wig from mid-June until New Year’s Eve then gratefully ditched it, along with the tape, the itchiness, and the constant fear that I’d accidentally spin the thing around backwards while swing dancing like some character on Gilligan’s Island.

Come January, I let my freak flag fly and began rocking a dark gray micro pixie.

“With the wig, I was trying to pass as a healthy, normal woman,” I joked to my friends about my super short ‘do. “Now, I’m trying to pass as French.”

You can read the full essay — and check out more pics of me boxing! — here.  As always, thanks for stopping by. And please feel free to share your story — or favorite survival tip. We’re in this together, people.

Jodi Jaecks: breast stroke of genius

23 Jun

Jodi Jaecks, superstar survivor. Photo by Kelly O./ The Stranger

It’s been a big week for me with regard to breast cancer news. Not my own personal breast cancer news — nothing much has changed there — but stories I’ve reported on. First, my editors at msnbc/TODAY.com asked me to write about Jodi Jaecks, the Seattle breast cancer survivor who went up against the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department over her right to swim in their pools — sans bathing suit top.

Jodi, who I met up at Cancertown a few months back, had a double mastectomy in March of last year, followed by additional lymph node surgery and a few rounds of chemo. Like many of us, she’s now trying to reclaim her life — and her athleticism — while dealing with the nasty side effects of her treatment: namely lymphedema and chest wall neuropathy. 

Thanks to the lymphedema, a lot of activities are off the list. But swimming, a suggestion that came up during a post BC treatment support group we both attended, seemed like something that might be both active — and therapeutic. I’m not a swimmer (hate getting wet) but the thought of water splashing against my aching chest sounds incredibly soothing.

Jodi, who doesn’t wear prostheses and isn’t going in for reconstruction, checked out Medgar Evans Pool in Seattle’s Central District then — out of courtesy — told the pool people she would be swimming there without a top. When you don’t have boobs or nipples and you don’t feel the need to fake it, why bother, right?

Well, the Parks people decided they needed to think about that. Which they did for a couple of months, leaving Jodi twisting in the wind. Finally, a few weeks ago, they told her swimming topless (despite the fact she has no “top”) was unacceptable and that she had to wear “gender-appropriate swimwear.” I suggested she show up in some early 1900s Victorian swimsuit– complete with parasol — but she wisely decided to go to the Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger, instead. They broke the story this last Wednesday. By Thursday, her story had gone viral — hitting both local and national audiences (including my readers at msnbc/TODAY.com). By Thursday, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department had also decided to change their tune. Now, not only Jodi can swim there topless, but other breast cancer survivors will most likely be able to do the same in days to come.

I know I’m supposed to be the ever-objective journalist but I’m also somebody who has to look at a surgery-ravaged body every day and tell myself that I’m okay, that I have nothing to be ashamed of, that I’m still beautiful and normal and acceptable. It’s not easy to do this, especially in a society where breast worship is practically an organized religion. Policies that make cancer survivors — or anyone who’s a little different — feel ashamed of their bodies and their determination to heal need to be identified and overhauled. And if necessary, just plain jettisoned. Jodi’s willingness to come forward and tell her story helped do just that.

“It started as a personal fitness issue but once they said no to me, it became a far greater overarching political issue,” she told me when I interviewed her. “Ultimately, I just want to remove the stigma that women with breast cancer have to endure.”

Cheers to that, my friend. Cheers to that. It’s hard enough facing the mirror — and the fear — without some bureaucracy making you feel like a freak. Breast cancer awareness isn’t about pink power tools and fun runs, people. It’s about knowing what a double mastectomy looks like. It’s about learning about the side effects of what is still an incredibly barbaric surgery. It’s about letting survivors do whatever they need to do to heal. Not off in some dark corner full of well-worn ribbons. But out in the light — where it counts.

One more note: I think it’s appropriate to send a shout-out to Christopher Williams, the superintendent of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department (and a cancer survivor) who only found out about Jodi’s treatment this week but quickly took steps to right an egregious wrong.

Have you been discriminated against because of your breast cancer — or any cancer? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Also, stay tuned for part two of my exciting breast cancer news-filled week, where I talk about my story regarding the new fat grafting method of breast reconstruction.

Kicking cancer’s sorry ass

10 Jun

I “celebrated” my one year chemoversary this week. Last year, on June 6, I was sitting in a blue Barcalounger up at Cancertown for the very first time, waiting for the nurses to flood my body with a deluge of drugs: some poisonous, some designed to help me withstand the poison.

Celebrate, of course, isn’t quite the right word. Who celebrates the onset of excrutiating bone pain, nausea, fatigue and hair loss? 

I am thrilled, of course, to be a year away from all of the pain and the powerlessness of last year’s chemotherapy. Although to be honest, I’m sort of going through it again now (sans the hair stuff) thanks to my latest obsession: boxing.

I’m not sure where my fascination with boxing came from. I used to work out at a gym where they had a speed bag tucked away in a far corner and I would play with it in between lifting weights and doing cardio, finally figuring out how to pummel the thing without having it pummel me back. It was therapeutic to pound away at all the stressors in my life — a cranky boss, a misogynistic coworker, a bad boyfriend.

After I quit the gym, I missed pounding away at the bag. So much so, that two decades later (at the age of 51 and a weight of about 190 pounds), I took a couple of boxing fitness classes at a Seattle institution known as Cappy’s. The class nearly killed me — I practically had to use the wheelchair lift to get on and off the bus afterwards — but I loved it. Unfortunately, my Achilles tendons didn’t. The jumprope warm-up exacerbated an old injury so I had to put my gloves on the shelf.

I didn’t shelve the exercise, though. I started walking and then running and then tap dancing and swing dancing. I also began watching what I put in my mouth and, to be honest, put a lot less in my mouth (I even managed to kick a lifelong friend — starchy carbs — to the curb). Within six months, I’d dropped 50 pounds and was feeling a lot better about myself and my body. At least, I was until I found a weird little tuck on one of my breasts.

Cancer had dealt me a firm left hook. And a right hook, as well, as it turned out. I had tumors in both my girls. But I made it through the surgery, the chemo, the radiation, and the recovery and now I’m hitting my one-year cancerversaries fast and furious.

You might even say, I’m knocking them out one at a time, thanks to the punches and combinations I’m learning in my new boxing class at Belltown’s Axtion Club.

That’s where I celebrated my chemoversary on Wednesday. And yesterday, I went back for my sixth session, an amazing feat considering that — just as before — the very first class nearly did me in. Each hour starts with an intense warm-up that begins with jumprope (my Achilles tendons have healed, apparently) and then folds in a slew of other exercises. There are footwork routines, medicine ball drills, punches and my personal favorite — one-handed push-ups. (The first time the trainer — a gorgeous South American demigod of a man — demonstrated these puppies, I nearly did a spit-take. Who does that?)

Thanks to the double mastectomy, the chemo, the radiation, and the fact I haven’t done a lick of upper body work for more than a year, I’m not even close to doing a one-handed push-up or these other ones that involve twisting one leg into some ungodly froglike position. I’m barely able to do two-handed push-ups. Girly style. But I give them my all. Ditto for the rest of the warm-up and the sparring that comes later. And so far, I haven’t embarrassed myself too much. Or at least I haven’t thrown up in class (according to the trainer, it’s happened).

But it ain’t easy. Nor pretty. Not knowing what I was in for, I wore makeup to my first class and by the end of the hour, my eyes were burning from a steady, sweaty stream of foundation and mascara and eyebrow powder (chemo took my brows so if I want ’em, I have to paint ’em on). These days, I go to class with only a hint of lipstick and not much else (yes, people, I am clothed). I even wear a headband, Olivia Newton-John style, because I’m such a Sweaty Betty, either due to the incredible workout my out-of-shape body is getting or the tamoxifen I take every day (it doesn’t give me hot flashes, but I’m definitely feeling the occasional hot flush). 

At the end of the hour, my head and body are sopping wet, my face is flushed and puffy and I look like a small, sweaty version of Billy Crystal, thanks to the out-of-control chemo curls. But I don’t care. Despite my long standing position as a girly girl, despite my overwhelming urge to “pass” (and trust me, the missing eyebrows are a dead giveaway), I’ve decided I’m not there to look pretty. Or normal. Or nice. I’m there to learn how to box. I’m there to get strong. I’m there to do whatever I can do to kick cancer’s sorry ass.

Am I crazy for pursuing a sport that makes me feel as nauseous, as fatigued, as overwhelmed by pain as the chemo I went through last summer? Maybe. It does feel strikingly similar to the infusion aftermath we all know so well, particularly a chemo session capped by one of those nice juicy Neulasta shots. You know, the ones that give you instant arthritis in your hands and feet.

The day after each boxing class, my hands ache from the punches I’ve given (and received). My arms can barely lift the blow dryer to dry my hair (ah, but what a miracle it is to have hair). It even hurts to pull my pants up after I pee. I’m beaten down, I’m bruised, I’m once again grabbing the furniture to hobble around my house. But then I take a few Ibuprofen and drape my body in ice packs and soak in a hot, hot bath filled with Epsom salt.

And then I get back up and do it again a couple of days later. Just as I did with the chemo. Just as we all do. Except this time, I’m going through the pain by choice. And this time, it’s not making me weaker, it’s making me stronger. This time, I’m transforming my body on my terms — through strength and endurance and sheer will as opposed to a surgeon’s scalpel. And this time, I can stop whenever I want. It’s just that I don’t want to stop — not yet anyway.

Not until I can get my scarred and poisoned and radiation-ravaged body to squeak out at least one of those wacky one-handed push-ups. Not until I can pound out a bit more of my grief and frustration and fear and, yes, pure unadulterated rage at being sucker punched by cancer.