Jun 11, 2010

Someone to hold my hand... during times like this

I often think about being married versus being single. Partially because it seems to be the hottest media topic around now (why black women are not getting married)… and partially because of the cancer. To tell the truth, marriage frightens me. I take the responsibility of marriage very seriously and it can be an overwhelming thought sometimes. I believe that marriage can be fun and an adventure, with the right partner. I think that if you select the right mate you can grow in ways you couldn’t imagine as a single person and your life (ultimately) could be made all the sweeter because you decided to join together with someone and create a new family unit. Those are the good things that I think about marriage. There are some downsides too. But I won’t go into that today.

 

I think about marriage lately because I think about my desire to have kids. I have a difficult time reconciling my desire to be a mother with choosing to undergo fertility treatments alone. I love kids but I don’t love the notion of raising them alone.

 

I really think about marriage on days like today. Yesterday one of my favorite cousins passed away. Charlene was a sparkling ray of sunshine all of her life. She was bubbly and upbeat and smart. So much fun to be around. She was a little older than me, so I remember looking up to her and her sister and brother to learn the latest dance moves or the hottest new music. They kept a nerdy little girl pretty hip and connected. Charlene never was the one to ask me why I had never married or had kids. If she wondered about it, she didn’t share that curiosity with me. She had her son at a later age so I’m guessing that she understood that being a single girl in DC was a lot of fun. And there was no reason to change that fun until I was ready to.

 

Charlene was light. You couldn’t help but enjoy yourself with her. She wouldn’t really allow anything else. (laughs) That was my cousin. Just a beautiful, beautiful woman. And now she’s gone.

 

On the same day that Charlene passed, one of my father’s aunts passed too. I have a few vague memories of Aunt Clara but I know her daughter well. Another nice cousin of mine.

 

On a day like today… when my heart is starting to really feel heavy with grief… the thought of marriage sounds nice. The thought of someone there to hold my hand sounds heavenly. My chest is still bandaged up from the surgery last week. Though I feel fine enough to come to work, I am acutely aware that my body is healing and needs to rest as much as I allow it. I’m split-brained right now… worrying a little about my healing progress from my surgery and beginning to grieve my cousin’s passing.

 

I think of selecting the right man to marry in thoughts of moments like this. On the list of the wonderful traits you’d like your future husband to have do you also have… will be there to hold my hand through times of trouble? It’s always near the top of my list.

 

Sigh. I’m not married. I don’t have a boyfriend either. But I do have good friends who would probably hold my hand this weekend. I’m going to need that sort of connectedness to someone I am sure thinks of me in a loving and wholesome way.

Jun 8, 2010

Tying a knot and holding on...

I had a moment today at work where I looked at myself (from outside of myself) and said... "is this ALL you've got?"  I heard myself answer... "I really don't know anymore".

Surgery does something to my spirit. And its not a good thing. I'm anxious before it happens. I spend a week or two worrying and fretting... hoping that I've made the right choice. The day of the surgery, I am a ball of nerves -- high blood pressure, nervous laughter/jokes, and light nausea -- but I eventually calm down and accept that everything will be okay. Once the anesthesiologist (is that what they're called) comes in with the needle... I give it up to God and I get ready for some good sleep.

So far, every time I've gone under I've awakened okay and pretty much in one piece. Okay... so a couple of times I went to sleep and woke up with less than I came into the hospital with -- but that was the plan so, it still wasn't so horrible.

This last procedure went pretty much like all the rest. I was nervous for a week or so before hand. I was scared that I had made a bad choice. I questioned my motives and my strength.

I mean... why couldn't I just live with one new breast that didn't match the other one? In fact, why did I even get a new breast at all? Was that a good move? My stomach is still tight and its been months since my reconstruction. Did I make the right choice? Maybe I should have just stopped at the mastectomy. And then... speaking of mastectomies... why didn't I just remove my other breast at the same time, skip the reconstruction and just be one of those bad azz survivors who lived with their bald chests and scars zig-zagging across their bodies? That could be me, right? Bald head... bald chest... scars hanging out. Who needs curves and breasts? Especially when there is no sensation in them.

Sigh. I know. Its tiresome isn't it? If you think its tiresome to read it, imagine how it feels to bounce these same raggedy questions around in your brain... every day... all the time... every time you have to make a decision. Every time someone at your job looks at you cross-eyed when you say... "I have to go to a doctor's appointment today"... and you read the fatigue on THEIR face. (laughs) Like they could possibly be more tired than you of seeing the inside of hospitals, medical centers, waiting rooms...

I think that's the part that is starting to get to me. Looking at people outside of my circumstances and seeing their fatigue from my issue. I am prone to beating myself up mentally. I've been doing it all my life. My therapist laughs at the way that I always manage to make a situation about how I can make the least amount of impact on someone else. She laughs but then she helps me through it. (she's good like that)  The truth is that I believe that I am the laziest person on earth. No matter how hard I work, I always think I could have pushed harder. No matter how tired I am, I always think I should stay up a little longer and do a little more. When I miss a goal or a deadline, I fret. Sometimes I cry. But no matter what, I'm going to spend a little time feeling extra bad about it.

And that brings me to today. Long story short, I found myself doing a task that was requested of me and it was annoying. Annoying because it was taking so long. I couldn't make it go any faster -- the equipment will only do what it will do. After two hours, I was frustrated. Three hours, I was getting angry. Four hours, I was pissed. By the fifth hour, I was sad and mad and wondering where was the kernel of joy in this moment. I simply couldn't find it.

I've spent two years trying to get back to normal. And now that I am technically normal (or almost normal anyway)... My life seems so shallow and stupid and just wrong. I am always in awe of people who live selfless lives. People who could spend their time working to make lots of money but who choose instead to do other things that help people but don't earn them a lot of money. I never thought I could be that person. I love helping people. I love the feeling I get when I feel that I've been of good use to someone who will appreciate my efforts and who will likely pass along my good work to someone else. I've always felt that life was really lived in those small hand to hand moments of life. BUT... Nicole likes nice things. Always has. And I was taught that in order to have nice things, you have to earn money to pay for them. So I work. And I pay my own way. I buy what I want and what I can afford. If I can't afford it then I work on not wanting it. (laughs) But I still envy those people who live a life beyond the confines of making enough money... (there's never enough money, no matter what you have).

I don't know how to do that. And now that I am a cancer survivor, my ability to just pick up and roll out when the urge hits is stunted. I have to be responsible. I have to remember that a recurrence is possible and if I am caught without health insurance or an ability to pay for my treatment... I will face bankruptcy trying to save my life again... or sure death because I can't. The thought that my life has now become this balancing act of maintaining the status quo so that I don't end up destitute and dying on the street... makes me want to cry.

You see, I'm not built that way. I am just spoiled and silly enough to think that life should have lots of moments of joy and laughter and satisfaction in it. I believe that I should be able to help people in their lives in some way... and still be able to take myself out to eat a few times a week.

I'm rambling and I know it -- blame it on the pills, I had a bunch to take tonight -- but all of this is really to say... I'm not happy with my life. The places where I find joy and smiles... seem to be losing their luster. I have to fix that before I snap. I have to be strategic about my life now... something that isn't my strong suit. But I'm slipping... and I know it. So I've just tied a knot in the rope... and I'm holding on. Praying for some answers to this feeling.

Jun 7, 2010

Hmm... am I being superwoman right now?

I have a confession. I hate-loathe-detest the stereotype of black women (or any woman really) as a “superwoman”. It irks me to no living end. Seriously. It has to be the most ridiculous and rude vision of a person that you can have. Superwoman has to be able to do it all, with a smile and wink… all while keeping it sexy and funny. Providing giggles and jokes for her friends and her husband (because of course she HAS a man, right). Going above and beyond every day for the “man” – unless she’s uber-superwoman, then she runs her own multi-million dollar business. She handles kids with ease, she always looks flawless and well… there isn’t anything that she can’t save, fix or prepare.

 

She’s superwoman. Well, let me tell you. Her name ain’t Nicole. I am NOT superwoman. For anybody. Not even myself.

 

I had a conversation the other day with a friend and he mentioned something that sort of pricked me. I tried to shake it off but it unnerved me for a few days. So, I did what I tend to do… I thought about it. And I thought about it for a long time. And then I put it away.

 

Friday, I had a breast reduction procedure and some minor tweaking on my other breast. The procedure was out-patient and although my surgeon thought that I would be down for about 2-3 weeks, I felt so fine this weekend that I decided to come to work today. Yes. Close your mouth. Superwoman is at work today.

 

Grr. I don’t know why I came. Well, actually I do know why I came – but I’m annoyed that I’m here. Primarily because I feel useless. While I feel fine considering that I was in surgery for 3 hours on Friday, I am stiff. I’m not trying to pop any stitches or anything like that. I’m just trying to do what I said I would do. I’ve gotten a little tired of people expecting me to do this or that and when I can’t, they are disappointed. Really tired of that feeling. So, I’m here. With my fake cape and a fake-r smile… I’m here.

 

One of my colleagues gave me a stern talking to about pushing too fast, trying to do too much. And I heard her but now I’m wondering whether I’m doing just what I loathe watching other women do… putting everyone else before themselves.

 

The comment that my friend made the other day that left me feeling a little strange was really innocuous. He told me that I wasn’t smiling and joking as much as I used to. He had his theories about why I was different and of course they were totally different from what was really going on in my head. But I found myself annoyed that I didn’t have the room to have more than one mood. I know he had no clue that his little sentence sent me into my head so deeply… but it did. I tossed it around my brain for days and finally just put it aside last night.

 

It is frustrating sometimes feeling like you have to keep up appearances for other people so that their worlds make sense. All I can say is that I’m trying. Some days I’m better than others. Today, I’m feeling fine and I’m at work. Tomorrow, I plan to be here too. I don’t imagine that I’ll be doing too much hanging out with my buddies over the weekend or anything. But I can manage to sit upright for a few hours and smile and pretend that this 8 hours of my life is the most important thing that is going on in my head. Until I get a chance to lay down and think about all the other things that worry me about my life.

 

If you bump into superwoman… do me a favor… shank her with some kryptonite. I need a new hero.

 

 

Jun 6, 2010

National Cancer Survivor's day


Did you know that today was National Cancer Survivor's Day? Hmph. Me neither. (laughs) But it is. The first Sunday in June is the day to celebrate and bring awareness to life AFTER cancer. According to their website, this movement is to acknowledge that life after cancer can be productive and meaningful.

Wow. I am surprised that I didn't know about this before today. I think that next year I should really plan a whole weekend of events for the first weekend in June. So many things go on this weekend in DC -- the race for the cure, the capital jazz fest and now.. national cancer survivor's day -- I think that a planned weekend excursion would be a great way to celebrate life and the joy of living.

Thinking off the top of my head... get a room block at a nice hotel. Invite friends and relatives from all over the country to the city. We participate in the race for the cure early Saturday morning... then drive out to Columbia, Maryland for the day long jazz festival. Head back to the hotel, get changed, grab some food. Repeat on Sunday with the jazz festival... and maybe have a cake and ice cream celebration of another year with no cancer.

Yeah... that's a vision I can work on. :)

Happy National Cancer Survivor's Day!!
National Cancer Survivor's Day link

Jun 5, 2010

The day after surgery... feeling okay


Well, its been a day since my reduction surgery and I have to say that I'm feeling much better than I expected to. I don't even really need my percocet. Tylenol is working fine -- better actually because the percocet is giving me a headache and making me nauseous. (shrug)

I took off my bandages this morning (well, this afternoon actually) and took a look at my new breasts. I'll be honest. So far, I'm not really a fan.

I guess they look alright but they look mighty small to me. I think that I may be lucky to have a C/D cup now. That is a drastic difference from the H cup I had before. I wasn't prepared for this at all. So, again, I'm having a paradigm shift about my body. You would think I would be pretty accustomed to this roller coaster ride of change... but I am not.

I have realized something though. Pain is relative. The pain I'm feeling right now is nothing compared to the pain of the mastectomy. And that pain was really nothing compared to the pain of the reconstruction surgery. Its a little more painful that the implant/removal of my mediport. But generally speaking, I'm good. I'll be up and around in no time.

One thing I am struggling with is my mouth and throat. They gave me a breathing tube during surgery and my throat is killing me now. Along with the roof of my mouth. Can't quite understand why but eh... whatever.

All of this is small stuff. In the grand scheme of things. Two years ago, had I not done that self-exam and felt a lump, I would have been on a collision course with an early death. But that one act changed the trajectory of my life and now things are different.

As long as I keep reminding myself of that fact, all the other changes make sense.

Jun 2, 2010

New day... new worries... new hopes

I’ve been a little somber these past couple of days. Not exactly sad but quiet. I realized a moment ago that I am grieving a little bit. Friday I go into the hospital for one more surgical procedure on my breasts and when I come out, I will be different. Different isn’t necessarily bad it’s just… well, different.

 

I wish I could say that I was excited at the prospect of have two totally new and perky breasts. But I’m not exactly thrilled. I am always a little nervous and afraid about going into the hospital and having to be sedated and cut on. It’s really not my favorite thing. But, I am sure that I will be singing a different song afterwards when I can wear shirts without a bra (laugh) and lay down on my back without worrying that I’m going to suffocate myself.

 

And I am definitely looking forward to buying lots of pretty lingerie for my new girls. Those are the upsides to this procedure. I am happy that the procedure won’t require an overnight visit at the hospital. And I’ve already got my pain pills ready to go (laughs – Percocet, hmmmm). Its just a matter now of getting to the hospital on time and going to sleep. When I wake up, I’ll be (literally) as good as new.

 

So from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2010… I have put my body through a lot. Lots of medicine, lots of testing, lots of needles, lots of x-rays… and quite a few surgeries on top. But in the end, (and I guess that this is the end)… I’m a new woman, a whole person and cancer-free. And I get to walk away with two perky new boobies and a flat(ter) tummy.

 

Not a bad exchange.

 

 

 

May 26, 2010

Remembering Robin - Race for the Cure

A year ago, I was recuperating from seven and a half weeks of radiation therapy. I was a one-boobie wonder – scared, scabbed, lopsided and swollen. I had the peach fuzz of a newborn on my head and my skin was a rainbow of varying shades of brown, black and purple. In other words, I was finishing up my treatment for breast cancer.

 

During the time I was fighting to get through all those treatments and keep a somewhat sunny disposition (I sort of failed at that part actually) a former colleague of mine was losing her fight with the same monster. Robin and I worked together over 10 years ago. We didn’t work directly together however, I always found her to be helpful and kind whenever I had a problem. She was one of those folks that you always just had a good feeling about. You know?

 

Learning that she was dying as I was finishing my treatment was startling and scary. And it made me more angry at this disease that seemed to just randomly choose people to take down. Robin was a good sister. She was a good friend to just about everyone at our company and I’m sure that she left an indelible mark on her personal friends and family as well. I often reflect that I didn’t have the energy to go and see her before she was gone. And for weeks after her death, I worried and chastised myself because I didn’t force myself to go and see her. I should have. I really should have. But since I can’t turn the clock back and make that right, I will push forward and do what I can do.

 

I want you to look at her face and realize that she represents millions of women (including myself) who struggle with this disease. Some of us make it – like myself – others of us are called home. If you are participating in the Race for the Cure, all I can say is THANK YOU. If you are not participating, but have made (or plan to make) a donation, THANK YOU. If you’re still on the fence… I can only ask you to consider doing anything that you can to help ensure that not too many more Robins have to be lost to us before a cure is found.

 

http://globalrace.info-komen.org/goto/nic_mclean

 

http://globalrace.info-komen.org/goto/PinkIsTheNewSexy

May 25, 2010

Therapy is a beautiful tool

Well... after my post yesterday I still had a full on anxiety/panic attack anyway. For about an hour, I was heaving and writhing on the floor... crying, shaking and twitching. Looking and feeling a mess. Wondering where the "off" switch was on my life. It was a lot going on. It was scary and difficult to control. It was hard to convince myself that I wasn't going to die in that moment and that no matter what I was dealing with or going through, that I was going to be okay.

Have you ever had a really ugly cry? I mean, snot everywhere, tears that just jump off your face... its like that but ranked up like 10x. I am emotional, and I cry easily so tears don't scare me much. But when my mind continues to unravel and I feel like there is no bottom, no way out of the madness... and my body reacts harshly to those those thoughts... that's when I become afraid. That's when I'm in full on panic mode.

After I was under control a bit, I called my therapist and asked to be squeezed in to her calendar. I knew that if I didn't see her as soon as possible, the likelihood of another panic attack was high. And there was no telling where it may happen -- the subway, the office, on the street, who knew? I then got dressed and left to go to my dr. appointment that I already had scheduled for the day. I'll discuss that in a separate post.

I like my therapist. I really do. And its because I truly value her service to my life. I know that a lot of people don't believe in therapy, or think that it isn't a necessity to their life but I know that I've been helped by my therapist so I always encourage others to give it a try when their life warrants it. I haven't seen my therapist since before I started my chemotherapy in 2008. We sat down and caught up and then tried to figure out what was bothering me... so much that I was having nightmares and panic attacks. She found it really amazing that I had not had a panic attack at all during my treatment period. For all that I have been through, a moment where the world crashes around your head doesn't seem too far fetched. But honestly, I never imagined that I would have another panic attack in my life.

After discussing all the details of the past two years, my fears and my concerns... we stumbled on what was giving me grief. Turns out, it wasn't me that I was panicking over. It was my dad. This Friday marks the second anniversary of the day he almost died from a brain aneurysm. I had not realized just how scared I was by the idea of his death. And those emotions were lost in the shuffle of my own stuff because of breast cancer.

The interesting thing about therapy for me is that its like having a good conversation with an old friend. It never feels like what I see on television -- some strange person grilling me about my life, my childhood, etc. It always feels like a talk with someone who knows me really well and wants to help me see what I'm missing. Generally speaking, I am in tune with myself emotionally. That doesn't mean that I always understand what I'm doing or what I'm feeling but I do acknowledge those feelings and allow them to come. As long as I do that, I will stay balanced and okay.

I have a lot of things on my mind -- like everyone else -- and I have to make some decisions and changes soon. But at least now I know that the likelihood of me having another panic attack is low. That is a good thing.

May 24, 2010

Anxiety/panic attacks and breast cancer

There is a train of thought among breast cancer survivors that stress could be a principle reason why someone gets breast cancer. I don't believe that there are any studies that can connect stress directly to breast cancer -- but that doesn't stop the conversation from going on among survivors. We all know that stress can cause havoc in our lives and that it is detrimental to our health. But, the nature of the world that we live in leavese many of us  feeling like you simply have to deal with it. Stress is a part of life -- for all of us.

Similar to stress is anxiety. The worry about something that may happen in the future or that has happened in the past. However, anxiety is usually based upon our imagined fears moreso than something that has actually happened. It is the eternal... "what if" question(s) that pushes us into a bad mental and physical space.

I mentioned recently that I was sick all last week. And after having a low-key but fun weekend, I thought I was ready to return to work and get back into the swing of things. But... instead, this morning as I was preparing for work... I started falling down the rabbit hole directly into an anxiety attack. I haven't had one of these in years. Until just now. (which is why I'm writing at the moment... writing calms me and brings me peace and I needed to bring myself down... before I got too far out of control)

During an anxiety attack, or a panic attack, the person literally feels as though some impending danger is rising against them -- possibly to the point of death. The escalating tension can push you so far that you start to hyper-ventilate, shake, cry... and so forth. Your body will react to the anxiety if you don't find a way to calm yourself down.

It is embarrassing to write these words. Knowing that thousands of people will read about one of my deepest shames doesn't make me happy this morning. However, in order to deal with anxiety, you have to know how to recognize when you've been triggered and you have to be able to find a way to calm yourself. Otherwise, you can end up in a really bad space. Considering how fragile I am in general, I would guess that my anxiety could easily land me back in the hospital. I'm in no hurry to sit in the emergency room, or have an ambulance come and take me away this morning. So I'm writing. I'm purging. I'm telling you what I'm going through... so hopefully I will push past this and be able to get back to a good place.

Over the weekend, I had an outrageous nightmare. It woke me out of my sleep -- which was really surprising because I was very comfortable not thinking about much when I went to bed. My nightmare was ridiculous but it scared me deeply. Caused me to get out of bed, move to another room and pull out a book to read. I couldn't close my eyes again. That nightmare stuck with me and I realized last night that my fear of it recurring kept me from falling asleep.

Those are classic signs of a problem. I haven't talked to my therapist yet. I actually haven't seen her since shortly after my diagnosis in 2008. Without talking to her (or anyone) I'm going to guess that I am probably dealing with issues of post-traumatic stress and anxiety. Writing will help me in moments like this -- when I need to do something quickly to move me from that scary place to a calm space. But it won't fully fix the problem. So, I'm going to have to do something and fast.

My breathing rate has calmed down, and my heart has stopped racing. So I will resume getting ready. I hope that none of you will think that I'm losing it because I shared this. But if I have to bear the strange looks and hushed giggles of people who think I'm losing it after all that I've been through, rather than continue to have moments of anxiety that feel so real that I think my life may be ending... I'll take the ridicule.

And give myself a chance to push beyond this next step of healing.

~Nic

PS. Have I said lately how much I truly HATE cancer? Well, I do. (sigh)

May 23, 2010

Getting past the week from hell

This has been a hard week for me. I overdid my fun last weekend and set myself up for a bacterial infection that kept me out of work all week. Five days of fighting a stomach flu is NOT FUN. A week of eating like a bird is not fun. But, I feel like I contributed to my own dilemma by not keeping in mind that I cannot do now what I may have been able to do 20 years ago. I just can't hang like I used to.

Its okay. I'm older now. I will make adjustments.

The second part of my week from hell is... I am an emotional BABY. There is a guy in my life that I like. (just going to put it out there plainly) But I am having a difficult time finding my equilibrium with this. Without going into details... as much as I would like to believe that I want to be in a relationship; that I would like to be married one day.... I really don't know whether that is possible at all. I am distrustful. I am scared. I am hesitant. I am unsure of what I believe from moment to moment. Its like I can't trust myself to acknowledge what I see and accept it for what it is.

Sigh. (Shrug)  But, with all that said and acknowledged... I can even be cool with that. Hey, the truth is that I know I'm a work in progress when it comes to relationships, affection, love, etc. I've known that about myself for a long time. My heart and my head simply don't speak the same language. Makes it difficult to trust my own choices. If I stay and move forward... have I chosen a good person? Will he be in it for the long haul? Can I make him happy and bring something good to his life? Can he do the same for me? On the other hand... If I leave and cut my losses... did I miss out on a great person? Is this fear talking or am I being logical? Did I miss the context clues that showed me that he was not the one? One part of me says one thing, another part says something totally different. Its confusing and yet makes sense.

The cherry on top of the sundae is the third part... every time I have to go through another procedure, appointment, etc. relating to this stupid breast cancer, I end up farther and farther behind the economic eight-ball. I make a pretty average salary. In the area where I live, its better than some but far from what many of my friends and peers earn. And honestly, that's cool most of the time. I try to live within my own means and not act as flossy as I may feel. I know that I don't make six or seven figures and I act accordingly.

It is one thing if you over spend because you like expensive handbags or watches or shoes. Its one thing if you spend twice your paycheck buying jewelry or video games or whatever your vice is. That is one thing. That is something that you can change by exercising some restraint and some willpower. But when the bills come because you're doing what you need to do to get your life back after breast cancer... it feels very unfair and it seems overwhelmingly difficult to get a handle on.

How do you bargain shop when you need a surgical procedure? Or physical therapy? Or medications? I know that a lot of people end up in bankruptcy court because of medical costs. I am trying not to be one of those people. But it gets more and more difficult every month because the costs continually add up. The bills continue to keep coming. I am growing more and more tired and frustrated about it. Every choice about my healthcare becomes this crazy mathmatical equation where I try to figure out the cost/worth of my time, my health, my job, my finances and ultimately my happiness and my joy.

I want to enjoy what life I have left. I don't like to whine about my life because I know that to many people, even with the breast cancer experience, being single, never married and childless seems like a fantasy dream. Time to think whenever I want. Time to do whatever I choose. Money to spend however I see fit. No one screaming my name, needing me to take them here or there or just generally expecting me to show up in their life and make it all better. (shrug) I know that many people envy my freedom. And for the most part, I understand.

For all the mothers that I envy, all the marriages that I am wistful about... I know that each person's life story presents its own challenges and difficulties. I look at those friends and family members who are in love (either with their spouse or their children or both) and I sigh. I envision myself as wife and mother... and in my version of the movie, its wonderful all the time.

Today, I am another $4000 in debt. Which means that something I wanted to do will have to be pushed to the back burner for some other time. (shrug) My oncologist saved my life but I'm wondering whether this new life will ever be mine again.

May 19, 2010

Where are the black people with cancer?

Where are the black people with cancer? 


I was just looking at a developing story on the New York Times blog about life after cancer. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/picture-your-life-after-cancer/  And I was thinking about submitting my picture and a brief story to the mix. But as I looked more closely, I was amazed that there wasn't at least one other brown face. Not one. How could this be possible in the NYTimes? I mean, this is a global paper. Don't black folks read the NYTimes?

I know that cancer is pervasive in our country. I know that millions of people are living and surviving this horrible disease right now. The numbers for breast cancer survivors rattle around in my brain every day. But whenever there is a story or a book or a movie about cancer... I can't help but look for faces like mine. And I rarely see them. It is so amazing and yet maddening that we are not often depicted in pictures or mainstream stories. I don't quite get it.

Don't get me wrong. I do identify with the stories of my sisters of other races who battle breast cancer. I really do. But I am a black woman and I like to see stories and pictures of people fighting this battle who look like me, think like me, showcase cultural references that are similar to mine and so forth. I am constantly surprised that our stories just aren't out there too much.

I suppose that means I should do something to help change that.

May 18, 2010

They say that sex is different after breast cancer treatment

Breast cancer is a trip. The tricks that it plays on your mind are vicious and severe. Even after your body has healed from the treatment and the medications and the surgeries... you still may feel unlike yourself. Part of getting back to normal includes dealing with intimacy issues -- including sex but not just sex. It can be very difficult just to be close and intimate with someone. So many fearful thoughts are always just under the surface ready to throw a sister completely off in a moment.

Fighting against the mental images of your body as mutilated and unappealing is really hard.... And adding to the misery are physical symptoms that may really throw you for a loop. You may have to deal with issues of vaginal dryness, loss of sensation (due to damage to nerve endings), early menopause, and other symptoms. And there is also all of the emotional baggage that goes along with breast cancer that can come between a woman and her lusty side finding satisfaction between the sheets.

As we age, our sex life does change and become different. Hopefully the changes are good ones -- mainly because after doing it for awhile, you now know what you're doing and the pleasurable parts are easier to get to. (wink)  But what if you are a sister who is trying to figure out how to get back to being active and lusty after feeling like a pin cushion for breast cancer for a year or two? Or what if you're a married woman who finds that her husband is having a really difficult time being intimate with you now that its time to get down? How do you manage these issues?

You know how? You make a plan. You treat yourself nicely and you take time to learn and relearn your body.

One thing I'm finding really wild is that contrary to what I've been expecting, my sexual libido seems to be getting higher and not lower. Now, there was a long stretch of time when it was non-existent. But those days are gone. Long gone. Long, long LONG gone. (laughs) That's good and its bad. Its good because that means that when I do have sex it isn't painful -- as it is for some women. And if I can manage to relax my mind, it is absolutely enjoyable. I am grateful and thankful for those things. However, I don't think that what I'm experiencing is all that normal. Its great for me but I know a lot of women who don't have this same experience. Many of my pink ribbon sisters struggle with finding their equalibrium sexually and they don't know how to navigate that area of their life anymore.

I will be honest, it requires a level of trust that reminds me of my early days of sexual exploration. The fear that I have sometimes when it comes to a moment of intimacy is palpable. But, I can usually get over it when I remind myself that I've chosen to share myself with someone who cares for me and sees me as beautiful. You would be amazed at how much a compliment from the right guy can turn your whole world around.

In reading different breast cancer message boards and blogs, some of the stories about sex -- rather the lack of sex after breast cancer -- are absolutely heartbreaking. There are women in the world who really feel lost, alone and unlovable after going through the hardest thing they probably have ever experienced. It is really sad and unfair. But I want to offer a little advice and a little hope that your sex life can be resurrected after breast cancer. Because it really can.

First things first... you might want to buy some toys if you don't have any. If you do, then great! Pull 'em out and get reacquainted with yourself. If you don't have any, make it a lusty date and take your man with you to the store so he can help you pick out some stuff. (If that is just too much for you, you can order things from the privacy of your home on-line and have it delivered to your door in non-descript packaging.)

My second suggestions will be to add some sexy clothes/lingerie to your shopping list. Oh, and be sure to get some good lubricants too -- try something new, something flavored perhaps.

Third suggestion... plan a romantic date with yourself. Yes, with yourself. Get some champagne and maybe some chocolate-covered strawberries (okay, that's my personal favorite thing) maybe some pineapple... whatever you like. Put on something that makes you feel sexy -- something soft to the touch preferably -- and then just spend some time remembering what you like and how you feel in your own skin.

A big part of the difficulty with finding your mojo after breast cancer is that after going through months (or years) of treatment, your body simply does not feel the same. You spend doctor visit after doctor visit, flashing your body to strangers. It becomes numbing after awhile. So you have to make an effort to get back to thinking of yourself as a sexy individual and not just a medical case. You're a woman, a beautiful sexy woman who has exhibited more strength than most people can imagine tolerating. You are a hot girl -- you just have to remind yourself of that.

After some time with yourself, make a date with someone you find attractive. (I do mean your spouse if you're married) Don't get too far down the road with it, just see if you have any chemistry. Do you feel anything when you're with him? That sort of thing. Butterflies can show up when you're not expecting them to. You just have to go with the flow.

I'm not going to dictate to you how you should go about having sexual intimacy but I will say that talking will help. Tell your partner if you're feeling scared or vulnerable. It will help ease the tension if he knows that you're not thinking that he's doing poorly (laughs) but instead may be worried about something else. Do as much as you want to do... and nothing that you feel uncomfortable doing.

The reality is that for us single girls, there may be men who don't find you attractive or who don't want to deal with your breast cancer baggage. You know what I'm going to say to that, right? Eff 'em. You don't need THAT guy. The guy you're looking for will look at you and see beauty and tell you that. The guy who really wants to be the one who helps you find your mojo... that's the one you're looking for. Because part of the way that we see beauty in ourselves is to see it in someone else's eyes when they look at us.

Now, let me be honest. The possibilities that sex can be difficult and/or painful does exist. But like every other muscle in your body, you've got to use this one in order for it to stay in top working condition. (laughs) Depending on the type of treatment you've received, you can experience serious dryness issues and even atrophy problems. (yes, that does mean what you think it does) Whatever you're experiencing -- fears, pains, confusion -- you absolutely can and should discuss them with your oncologist or your gynecologist at your next appointment. Getting back into the groove sexually after cancer is difficult. And it does require that you be good to yourself. But it is totally possible.

Totally. (wink)

May 17, 2010

navigating the new normal

I just read a blog entry by another breast cancer survivor. We are almost the same age and she was diagnosed a short time after I was. We were introduced by a mutual friend and have become good internet friends from the first conversation. In her most recent blog post, she discussed that she finished her breast cancer treatment about a month ago -- and just the day before her 40th birthday -- and she was having difficulty navigating the "new normal".

I felt a wistful longing when I read her post because I have the same feelings of crazy guilt, unsteadiness and fear of the unknown. Its been a year since I finished my radiation treatment. Its been over 6 months since I had my last herceptin treatment. Its been a year and a half since my final chemotherapy infusion. And, as horrible as all of those stages of this fight were -- I miss it.

I'm not totally crazy. And I'm not saying that I miss being sick. But I miss the cocoon of warmth and love... and safety... that grew to be my "normal" during my treatment. I miss the comfort I felt knowing that someone was working diligently to make me better. That someone was taking control of whatever went wrong in my system and caused me to have cancer in the first place and they were fixing it; fixing me. So, when Alaina remarked in her blog that she was secretly feeling guilty about longing for more doctor appointments, more life-saving treatments, etc. I totally understood that feeling. I've been living this feeling for awhile... too afraid to really look at it head on though.

I can't be saying or feeling that I want to go back to having cancer. But in way, that's what it feels like. I feel stained. Even though, right now I'm living in NED-land (NED= no evidence of disease), I feel tainted and stained. I feel like the cancer left a mark on me -- more than just my scars -- but a mark on my heart and in my soul that I cannot shake.

It never goes away. No matter how much I try to avoid the feeling, I still FEEL like the cancer-girl. I still identify with those feelings, those fears. I still look in the mirror and see a totally different woman than the one who existed the day before I got the call confirming my cancer diagnosis. I am so different now. I'm not as good, not as sharp, not as together... as I'd like to believe I used to be. I'm scared (still) a lot of the time about everything. And even when I don't think I'm thinking about it -- my actions tell me that I am still worried, still living like a scared person.

These days... I am over-compensating for the time I feel that I missed. I am guilty of doing dumb things with little forethought because I need to feel differently about my life. I want to show the world this really brave face. I want to be this super-pulled together sexy, confidant woman and she... lives on the edge a little bit, she's the life of the party, she's unafraid to date and dance and drink and laugh. Because she's practically a super-hero right now.

Breast cancer survivor girl!! Leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Has her entire life changed in a moment but... she bounces back better than ever and ready to take on the world!

Oh, but I rarely feel like that girl. Now, there are days when I do feel empowered and bold. But, many days I still feel small and weak and fragile. And its incongruent to feel that way when I am supposed to be healed and back to normal. Good as new.

I don't know. I'm not sure whether other survivors feel as conflicted as I do many days. I imagine that they do. Alaina said that she's taking it one day at a time, and simply putting one foot in front of the other. I think that is a great way to take this on. Because, at the end of the day, all you have is right now; this moment. Nothing more.

I've been mistreating myself trying to recapture something I lost when I was diagnosed with cancer. Mistreating myself by not eating properly, not getting enough rest... mistreating myself by partying too hard, not accepting that I may really need to slow down -- not speed up. I keep thinking... "I missed 2 years of my life fighting breast cancer". But is that what happened? Really? Because looking at this blog... I was doing a lot of living even while I was fighting for my life. I wasn't partying a lot but I was alive.

Can I be even more honest and more frank? (Is that even possible?)  I don't like my life too much right now. I mean, overall, I'm happy I think. I'm cool. But I'm not estatic about my life. I'm searching for something but I'm not exactly sure what I'm looking for. I just know that the new normal isn't as much fun as I thought it would be.

I don't really know what I'm feeling... but I know that the fear of recurrence still strangles me in my sleep. I know that the face in the mirror looks older and harder than it did 2 years ago. I know that the scars that zig zag across my body recount a story that I don't always want to remember.

Some days, its just really very hard. But then... I guess that is what normal is too sometimes, right??

May 12, 2010

Physical therapy is great

After my last debacle on the airplane trying to lift my baggage over my head to store it... I accepted that I needed some real help with this arm. (reason-number-6541835-why-i-hate-breast cancer)

I don't have a really good reason/excuse why I had not tried physical therapy before now -- other than I simply did not want to put one more thing on my already over-crowded schedule. But between the lyphedema (swelling) and the very limited range of motion with my left arm, I simply could not avoid the issue any longer. Not if I was trying to actually function well in this world. Since I do so many things alone -- purely a preference -- it was time for me to accept that I wasn't in the best of shape to be jetting around the country with one arm that was practically useless.

So... I dug around in that pit I call a bedroom... and found the sheet of recommended hospitals/lyphedema specialists that I was given at my breast care center and I made a choice. In actuality, my choice was pretty much random and not based on any research at all. I just trusted my gut and went on a limb. I chose Georgetown Hospital to be evaluated and treated for my lyphedema. (Honestly, I chose Georgetown because it was the closest to my job.) But, now that I've been there twice, I am very pleased with my choice.

First of all... my therapist is super nice. I don't know why this surprises me but it does. Her name is Jennifer and she's very knowledgeable about lyphedema and its treatment. A lot of her patients are breast cancer survivors.  That bit of knowledge alone put me at ease.  In the two visits that we've had, I've learned that my issue isn't severe (thank God) and that exercise and massage really do help.

One the one hand, I feel very silly walking my fingers up and down the wall -- that's one of my exercises -- but seeing how much it has actually helped keeps me from feeling like I'm wasting my time. The massage that she does to help move the lymphatic fluid back into my muscles as well as the work she does trying to relax my muscles that have tightened/shortened since my surgery is great. Its amazing what a little assistance can do to make your life better.

Once again, I am thoroughly grateful for great health insurance.

Jennifer mentioned to me that some of the muscles in my shoulder area are so tight, they feel like stone. How crazy is that? I've been walking around for a year, hitched up on one side -- trying to make things better/easier on myself and actually making things worse I think. But, like the saying goes... when you know better, you do better.

I still haven't totally gotten the hang of all my exercises yet. And truthfully, while they look so very simple and easy... my arm and shoulder do hurt a bit afterwards. But they work.

I'm travelling again. And this time, I lifted my computer bag into the overhead storage all by myself. It was still a little bit of a struggle but I definitely felt much better about my effort. So... I don't know how much Georgetown and Jennifer are charging my health insurance company for this work but I can honestly say its worth every penny.

Physical therapy is a beautiful thing.