Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How I Stay Afloat

I've been struggling a lot since my last post, what with procedure and diagnosis anniversaries all up in my face. I've had to resort to pulling all my coping mechanisms on board as literal life preservers just to stay afloat (yay, metaphors).  Last week I had a mini-meltdown and ended up on the couch in an Ativan induced sleep coma instead of at BodyPump, which probably would have made me feel better, but I couldn't handle the possibility of losing it in front of a crowd.

Since then, I've had some time to really think and look around me for the things I use to keep me from losing it.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.  Sometimes I just need one thing, sometimes I need all of them in the same hour.

Over the last year a lot of people have told me how strong I am, how they could never go through this the way I have, but I don't believe that. When you're knee deep in a pile of shit, you deal with it the best way you can. You get through it. You might make progress one day and be flat on your face the next, but you still move forward. The only way out is through.

So I've compiled a list of my coping mechanisms that help me get through my day, week, or just moment by moment because my brain is a terrible place sometimes.

  1. Anxiety meds.  I've tried stepping back from the daily meds, but I've finally just admitted that I need them right now and that's ok.
  2. Emergency anxiety meds. Sometimes I need these too.  See meltdown above.
  3. Hugs.  Hugging is the best. Just feeling a connection to someone else can often get me out of my head enough to break the cycle.
  4. Shopping.  Sad but true.
  5. Breathing.  Deep breaths help me calm down and focus.
  6. Guided meditation.  For when I really can't get out of my head.  Having someone to lead my thoughts to a pretty place kinda rocks.
  7. Affirmation meditations.  My self-esteem took a real thrashing.  I really had to hit bottom before I could build myself back up and I had to see the ugly side of a lot of people before I realized that it wasn't about me.  This has helped a lot.
  8. Espresso Chip ice cream.  It is delicious.
  9. Yoga.  Occasionally, but not as often as I'd like.
  10. Running.  When it doesn't hurt, it's awesome.
  11. Therapy. Part of the meltdown involved knowing that I needed help, reaching out, and getting frustrated by lack of help I received in return. I finally got in touch with someone who guided me to a good therapist that's weird like me, close to work, and takes my insurance. Win.
  12. Reading.  I recommend tinybuddha and The Happiness Trap for help in changing your perspective and dealing with difficult feelings. Yay, feelings.
  13. Beautiful days.
  14. Talking to friends. Even if it's just a quick 'hey, I miss your face' or sharing some silliness.
  15. Being crafty.  Even if it's frustrating, just being in the moment while creating something is enough to engage me so that I forget about whatever's going on in my head.
  16. Focusing on what I'm experiencing right now, in this moment.  Whether it's examining a rain drop on my windshield or just making an effort to feel 5 things touching me right now.
  17. Focusing only on myself. Some days I just don't have the energy to invest in other people, not even online. It doesn't mean I don't care anymore, but I only have enough brain power for me and whatever I'm dealing with at the moment.
  18. Letting go.  Not taking things too seriously.  Looking for the good instead of focusing on the bad.
  19. Doing things outside my comfort zone by myself (which is also outside my comfort zone).  Like checking out a brand new coffee shop and just hanging out there alone, or going to an event filled with people I've never met. It freaks me out for a few minutes, but I know it's good for me.
  20. Embracing the things I enjoy.  They make me me and no else can be me. I kinda like that.

That seems to cover it for now. Wow, that's a lot of things. I hope they're helpful if anyone else needs a little pick-me-up.

(also. fuck you, cancer. 1 year from diagnosis and i'm still better than you, bitch.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

That Tenuous Thread

It might be time to touch on a topic most people don't want to discuss:  suicide.  If this topic is going to bother you, best exit post haste.

When you're diagnosed with cancer or any other potentially terminal illness, your whole world does a 180 and everything you thought you knew about yourself and your life is challenged from every possible angle.  It is extremely stressful and heartbreaking, even on the 'good' days.  Even when you're laughing and making jokes at your own expense.  There's a lot of anguish and pain underneath.

It's been a little more than a year since I found my lump and almost a year to my diagnosis and I still struggle with the horror of it all on a daily basis, even though my life was never really in (that much) danger.  I still cry on a regular basis. I'm still going through the grieving process in various ways and struggling to feel somewhat like myself again.  I'm still struggling to accept what I've been through and that I'll never be the same again. I'm probably clinically depressed and suffering from PTSD.  That's all just part of it.

I think suicidal thoughts are also pretty common, even if you're going to live.  I went through about a month-long period during chemo when that was all I thought about all day.  I just wanted it all to end because it was pretty damn painful both physically and emotionally and all I could think to do to end it was, well, to end it.  It's especially hard if you're an atheist.  You don't have anyone to point the finger at and nothing to look forward to afterwards.  No one to 'forgive' you when you're an asshole and no one to 'forgive' for this thing happening to you.  You can't find a reason for it all, because there isn't one, and suddenly everything feels very, very meaningless and pointless.  Even the things and the people you enjoy.  It's a daily struggle just to be alive.

While that's a tragedy in its own right, the bigger tragedy to me is that we all don't realize what a difference we make in each others' lives every day until we're faced with our own mortality.  If I wasn't made aware on a pretty regular basis that there are people in the world who love me and whose lives I matter in, I think one day the voices that tell me otherwise would win out. Yes, even after all I've been through and even after I've 'made it'.

So if you're reading this, thank you.  You've had a hand in keeping one person (somewhat) sane and alive today.  Tell the people you love that you love them and that they matter to you right now.  They need to hear it more than you know.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Don't Call it a Comeback

I started exercising again a few weeks ago in an effort to get my health back and to lose the 15-20 extra pounds chemo added.  That's the ultimate insult in the end.  You think you'll lose 20 on chemo, but no. Unless it makes you unable to eat, but that's not really common for young women.  Instead, it nukes your reproductive system and hormones, which throws you into early menopause (some call it chemopause), and this plus any stress/comfort eating and no energy for exercise means your favorite jeans don't fit anymore.

Well mine do again.  Take that, chemo bitch.

I'm doing Body Pump once a week (hopefully twice a week soon), and running twice a week in preparation for a 5k in October (p.s. happy birthday to me, and go fuck yourself cancer).  My initial thought was that I just wanted to be able to run/walk the whole way and finish, all the while telling cancer to stick it up its ass.  Now though, I want to go faster and faster.  I'm not sure it will be a 'fun run' if I leave my team behind, so we'll have to see what that day looks like.  Right now I want to run like cancer's right on my ass.  I'm crossing that finish line first, mofo.  After the 5k, I intend to keep going and working up to longer distances.

There's been a fundamental shift in my approach to exercise in the last few months.  Before cancer, I would set a goal for myself and stop as soon as I reached it.  Or if I didn't reach it for some reason, I'd give up entirely because "omg I can't reach that goal, so fuck it, where's my ice cream?".  Without a goal, I was nothing, even though I really enjoy exercise. Now the goal is more holistic in that I simply have to get my health back.  I'd give anything to take running up a flight of stairs for granted again.  Or running more than 30 seconds at a time - thank the unicorns for walk intervals!

So those are my new goals.  Being comfortable in my body again.  Being healthy enough for stairs and jogging. All other goals are fluid and arbitrary.  If I don't get what I want from the 5k?  I'll just run another one.  It's all just a matter of telling my brain to shut up when it wants to hit snooze again, get up, and get out there.  I'm always happier after I exercise and that's what I focus on.

Reading The Happiness Trap has certainly helped a lot with the mental process.  I've come to understand that my brain is ALWAYS going to say 'but the bed is so warm, go back to sleep' and it will likely never say 'LET'S GO RUN' at 5:30 a.m.  But I have to do it anyway, no matter what my head tells me.

I'm taking my life back.  Staying comfortable is not going to get me where I want to be.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Comfort in the Discomfort

Another thing I'm learning is to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I don't mean that in the "you should be ok with someone being creepy" kind of way, I mean that you have to be ok with uncomfortable feelings and situations in order to process and get past them.  Being afraid and acting anyway is where growth lies.  Accepting discomfort is the first step toward making real and lasting change.  If you run from or deny those feelings, they just keep chasing you until you deal with them or push them so far away that you don't deal at all.  Dealing is much faster and easier on you in the long run.  Making peace with discomfort and accepting that those feelings, situations, and events are part of life is the way forward.  Struggling with these things just gets you deeper into the quicksand.  Instead accept that you're uncomfortable in some way, acknowledge the presence of discomfort and know that it's ok.  Discomfort is normal. Like all things good and bad, this too shall pass. Staying in your comfort zone is the quick way to a boring and disappointed life.

If you wait around for the perfect circumstances to move forward in life or to deal with discomfort, you'll be waiting forever.  There's no "perfect", whether it's doing the right thing, or something you've always wanted to do, or for someone or something to change.  If you need the perfect circumstances for things to be "right", it's already not "right" out of the gate.

Accept where you are and base your decisions on that reality.  Then get off your ass and go get what you want.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Save yourself, princess.

This is not an exhaustive list of things I've learned during this experience, but just a few things I needed to get out there for now so they'd stop driving me nuts.
  1.  You have to actively create your own happiness.  No one else can do it for you, nor should you want them to.  Love yourself wholly and completely.  No one else can do that for you either.
  2. Life is too short for bullshit and pettiness.  I no longer tolerate petty people in my life, though I didn't have much room for them to begin with.
  3. It's entirely too easy to take our bodies for granted until they don't work for you anymore.  Eat good food.  Get some exercise.  Your body will make you pay one way or the other if you don't.
  4. That said, there isn't much you can actually do to prevent cancer, aside from not smoking.
  5. Take responsibility for your own thoughts and behaviors.  It's easy to blame yourself for what other people do and the ways they do or don't treat you, but those things are a reflection of them, not you.
  6. You can't control what other people think, feel, say or do.  But you can decide who you want to be in any given situation and act accordingly.
  7. You only have to answer to yourself at the end of the day.  No one else's judgment, perception, assumptions or demands matter unless you decide they do.
  8. Don't do anything you don't really want to do out of fear, obligation, or guilt.
  9. Whatever you believe about yourself you'll make true, so you may as well believe some awesome shit. You don't have to feel confident first in order to act in confidence.
  10. And the most important thing:  No one can save you once cancer happens to you (or from anything else, really). No one can do it for you. No one can take it away. No one is coming to rescue you.  Save yourself, princess.

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Normal

It’s amazing how much things change: your body, your opinion of yourself (for better and worse), your relationships with other people (again, for better and worse), your goals and purpose in life, your wants and needs, hell even your brain chemistry.  I often wake up and wonder “how the hell did I get here from there?”.

I was thinking last night about the day I got my diagnosis and how horrible and awful that whole day was, yet that was my last day as 'normal'.  I remember crying on the phone with the pathologist.  I remember crying when I told my boss and how he hugged and told me it was all going to be ok.  I remember making Nate come pick me up and how I couldn’t even get the words out to tell him why.  He knew anyway.  I remember calling my mom to tell her and thinking that I couldn’t possibly text “I have cancer” to her because that would just be a horrible way to tell anyone about it.  I remember how unreal it all felt and how much I cried and couldn’t believe this was happening. I remember thinking that I knew the severity of my diagnosis, when the reality was that it would take several months and many doctor trips before I really knew.

I often wonder when things will get back to “normal”.  When will I be normal again?  When will I think about myself as normal? When will I settle in to the reality that I face now?

The truth is that THIS is the new normal. That yes, the cancer could come back. That yes, I’ll have to take a chemo drug every day for the next five years.  That yes, I have scars and I dislike a part of myself that I used to really love.  That yes, the last 7 months have taken 10 years off my life. That yes, my odds of survival for another 20 years is only 50/50.  But isn’t anyone’s odds only 50/50 every day?  Anything could happen and we can’t know the future.  We have to get comfortable with the present and be ok with the unknown, because nothing is certain. You could get cancer tomorrow. You could step off a curb and be hit by a car. Or, you could have the most amazing day of your life.

This is how you can be terrified and care-free all at once.  I’m scared of the things that could happen, but I’m not going to let it stop me from living an awesome life as often as possible.  I won’t let it stop me from enjoying the sunshine on a beautiful day or picking a gardenia for a sweet friend. That’s who I am.  Cancer can’t take that away from me.  It’s taken so much and changed me in so many ways, but it can’t have who I am.  So I’m getting comfortable with accepting what is now the new normal.  New boundaries are erected and a new list of things I will not accept are in place.  But there’s also a new openness to things I would have never thought possible before.  

I’m grateful for every bit of it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"We consider you cured"

Those are the words from my oncologist today.

What a fucking journey, man.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Emotional Toll

One of the things about cancer that people don't talk about enough is just how much it messes with your head.  It challenges you on so many levels - how you see yourself, how others might see you now, how you process the grief cycle, how you reevaluate everything you thought you knew about your life - never mind the physical challenges, which just serve to make everything worse.

For example, thanks to chemo killing fast growing brain cells and the cancer train in general (you know, the one that knocks you down at the word "cancer" and continues to drag you for months), my brain processes are just shot.  I sometimes have to hear the same things over and over until it really sinks in with me.  I forget things (sticky notes and lists are my new bffs).  I space out.  I find it hard to concentrate.  I take things too personally.  I get easily frustrated with myself because of these things and I'm even more impatient now than I was before.  I'm smart, damn it, so why can't I process stuff sometimes?  This all makes me very hard on myself in ways I never have been before.

I also have more self esteem issues than I did pre-cancer.  Some days it's hard to be bald, to be so very different from every one else.  Most of the time it's hard to look in the mirror and see the boobs I have now and compare them to what they used to be.  To wonder if anyone could ever really want to deal with that.  It's easy for someone to say 'yes, I want you anyway', but it can be hard to believe, which is completely unfair, but it's the evil things my brain says.  If anything, the things my brain tells me now are ten times worse than they used to be.  "No one could ever really want you." "You'll never be good enough again."  "You look like shit."  The list goes on and on.  It's hard to make those voices stop.  It's easy to think that because some people don't know how to deal with what you're going through that you've somehow done something wrong or are unwanted in some way.  Those feelings suck and they certainly don't do me any good.  Breaking out of that brain space can be difficult and I tend to over analyze almost every social encounter now.

I also re-experience the grief cycle over and over again. Some days I wake up having completely forgotten that all this has happened until it hits me and I have a moment of freak out.  There have been many moments of "holy shit, that stuff happened! surgery, chemo, more surgery. whoa."  Those days suck.  Some days I'm angry, sad, and hurt.  Some days I feel amazing.  It takes time to process all this crap and that's totally normal.  It's just not any fun.

I'm sure I make it look easy in some ways, but accepting who I am now is an almost daily struggle.  I know it will get easier thanks to therapy, but damn.  Some days are just fucking hard.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Chemo Rundown

So, here we are, one week out from the last chemo and I have to say that it's not as bad as I expected.  There has been some cumulative fatigue (expected) and some other small side effects that feel really small on their own but miserable when they all slam on top of you at once.  Luckily that didn't happen to me until I had to get Neulasta shots, thanks to the esophagus issues.  I must have an ulcer, because that's been the worst part of it all. The last round damn near had me white knuckling through the bone/muscle pain thanks to Neulasta, but I didn't really suffer until I took some Lortab to deal with the pain and that made me throw up. Twice. Whee. The cancer center's on-call doctor got a run down of the situation and had me double up on heartburn/reflux meds for several days and that seemed to help a lot.  I'm not looking forward to round 4 thanks to those issues, but really, on the whole, this hasn't been so bad. The nice bit is that it will all be over after March 8th.  I can do this one more time. I could probably do it 12 more times if I had to, but I'm really thankful that I don't.

I've been thinking a lot about what I would say to others who are about to go through chemo.  It's certainly not a fun ride, but it IS manageable. I've been back at work since the week after my first treatment. I know it's not like that for everyone and that I'm extremely lucky.  My side effects have been pretty minimal and frankly the Neulasta is the worst of it.  Nothing makes you feel like a cancer patient more than having a bald head and being barely able to haul yourself from the bed to the couch. Never mind going to the bathroom. That's a fucking nightmare. The bone and muscle pain just makes everything else harder to manage, but it does go away after a few days.

The first chemo treatment is fairly anticlimactic. You get it all built up in your head about how awful it's going to be, but it's so routine at any cancer center that you just plop down in a chair, get comfy and they insert the IV. You go through a few bags of drugs, read a bit, watch tv or fall asleep, and after a couple of hours you go home and think 'wow, that was it?'.  It's not until a few days later that the side effects start and if you're lucky like me, you get one at a time and they're gone in a few days.  The nice thing about side effects is that they're manageable.  If you have one, you call your cancer center and they prescribe you something to fix it. Done. Just like that. Even better if they have on-call doctors (and they should!) who can get you something any time.

The rest of the chemo treatments are pretty similar, albeit with cumulative fatigue.  Sometimes the side effects start sooner as well, because your body is already compromised.  But you get to talk to people while you're being treated. You get to know the staff and make jokes with them. You meet other patients and hear their stories and sometimes thank the universe that what's happening to them isn't happening to you. They all handle it with such grace and strength though, that it's hard to be sad in that moment when you just want to love and support them as much as you can while you spend a few hours together. Then you love on them more when they're not handling it so well.  That's how you bond and get through it together, even if you never see that person again.

So I guess I would say don't go into chemo with fear.  Yes, the unknown is scary.  Embracing that everyone feels that way can help you be ok with that.  Chemo beats the shit out of you, but it's an incredible gift that will kill the cancer cells and that's something to be very thankful for indeed. You also get an amazing opportunity to share with others and support them while they do the same for you.  And if they can't do the same for you?  Make them laugh.  Then you've done it for both of you.

What's next for me?  Implant surgery on March 26th (fuck yeah, new tits!).  I can hardly wait to get these tin cans out of my chest and have some more boob-like stuff inserted!  Eventually there will be tattoos to go with them!

Then it's on to making all the choices that will make my life the one I want it to be.  No more 'I can't'. No more 'I'm scared'. Just balls out furiously happy shit. Life's too short for anything else.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

whiny post is whiny

I can't eat. I want to eat. I'm starving. But everything hurts and burns and I feel like I'm going to die just swallowing some water. Solid foods hurt. Liquids hurt. Thinking about eating hurts. No wonder cancer patients lose weight; this is insane. 

I apparently have some sort of irritation deep in my esophagus (right between my fake tits, if we're being specific) (insert your deep throat jokes here; i dare you.) and everything that goes past it burns like a motherfucking ring of fire.  I called the oncologist and she recommended Prilosec, Zantac, and Maalox, then Tums if I need them.  I'm using all those things and still not really able to eat much.  Today I managed one pancake, a tiny bowl of carrot soup, a large sweet tea, and a cup of cold coffee. Anything else I tried stopped after one bite or sip.  Tonight I got some of the "magic mouthwash" that I think is supposed to numb your mouth and throat.  We'll see if that helps at all.

Other symptoms/issues I had this week were a burning sensation in my mouth for a day or two (I woke up with a taste like I'd smoked a cigar the night before. I haven't done that since my 21st birthday...for that very disgusting reason!) I also had an upset stomach for several days - sometimes of the 'omg run so you don't shit the street' variety.  Good times. All these things are pretty common side effects, but the throat thing is the worst of it to me.

Then yesterday I fell down the stairs in my house.  God, that was painful.  I slipped right off the stair, just like I did in London, only this time without the luxury of falling on my thigh. I'm probably lucky I didn't break a vertebrae. My chiropractor was not. pleased. with me when I got adjusted today - she said it was like my back had been in a car wreck. I could have done without that physical trauma.

And so that I'm not being a complete Bitchy McWhinyPants, there's good news too. I went back to work today!  I learned new things and got some stuff done! I have a new office mate and she's so awesome. She appreciates the view of the fraternity lawn and wants to put lewd pictures on the back of our office door. I'm 100% in support of this and I have some things to contribute. There may be a certain NSFW calendar back there soon.  Just sayin.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chemo Round 1

I got news that I'll only have to do four rounds of TC (chemo lite, in my mind) over three months!  I started on Thursday, January 5th and here's a breakdown of how the next few days went:

Day 1: IV day.  They gave me 4 bags of various pre-meds (Benadryl, anti-nausea meds, etc) then two bags of chemo drugs.  I felt kinda sleepy, but I imagine the Benadryl was responsible for that.  The first day took about 5 hours because they were behind on insurance stuff and had a lot of patients.  The actual IV part only took about 3.5 hours.  Not so bad, and next time should be even faster.  I started feeling a little loopy and weak later in the evening, but still no real symptoms other than a loss of taste and some metallic-esque tastes in my mouth.

Day 2: I'm a bit sleepy today, but I didn't sleep well last night due to the steroids they gave me for the 3 days post chemo.

Day 3: I slept pretty good last night and did a lot more than I thought I could today, including a visit to the chiropractor, brunch with some LSG friends, chilling at the yarn store, and going for a short walk.  I feel a bit like I do before I get a cold, so kind of run down, but otherwise I seem to be ok.

Day 4:  I did ok today too, for the most part. There's some mild tummy discomfort and a bit of chest and facial flushing sometimes, but both are side effects of the steroid and it will be interesting to see how I feel tomorrow when those are gone - luckily I only have to deal with those for three days each round! The steroid also keeps me awake, so I may be more tired than I realize.

Day 5:  I got plenty of sleep last night and today I feel just fine!  I know some of the fatigue will be cumulative, but if this is the worst of it, I'm completely ok with the whole process.  I think the pre-meds and steroid are really helpful in preventing the major side effects and I hope they continue to go that route with me.