The “Do What You Love” Problem

One of my favorite blogs, non-cancer-related, is Ask a Manager, all about job searching, hiring, and the workplace. She has written in the past about her disagreement with “do what you love” advice – when people say that you should follow your passion in life and do what makes you happy. She believes it is classist, in that only people with privilege can do what they truly want to do without having to make money to eat or have shelter. 

I read another article about this today in the NYTimes, here

Every time I read these things, I think to myself, “This is not true if you’ve had cancer.” You could interchange any life-threatening experience with “cancer” in that sentence, I suppose.

Cancer makes you think differently about life and its meaning… at least it has for me. I am curious to know what others think:

Has having cancer/another life-threatening experience made you more focused on doing what you love as your life’s work? 


Another Year: Reflecting on 2013 and moving forward to 2014

Just like that another year has passed. My cancer experience was confined to 2011, and since then I kind of defined my time based on that – 2013 was 2 AC (after cancer). 2012 was a rebuilding year; I literally rebuilt my body and figuratively rebuilt a “normal” life after cancer. When 2013 started, I saw it as a year of bursting forward in spectacular new ways. I quit a job that I was starting to resent, I traveled on my own to a foreign country for a month, I applied and got into graduate school and I moved from DC back to Philadelphia, where I grew up, to attend said grad school. This past year, in a lot of ways, brought me closer to the path to happiness and fulfillment that I so desperately seek and that feels so much more urgent now that I’ve had cancer. 

Sometime in 2013 however, probably in the summer, I stopped thinking of time in terms of cancer. My hair was long enough to put into a ponytail, and I was making new friends who, absent of any context clues, had no idea that just a year and a half ago I sat in a cushy chair while adriamycin and other such pernicious drugs coursed through my veins. Now I struggle with whether or not to tell my grad school friends, and my bf and I say things to each other like, “Hey, remember when I had cancer? That was crazy.” 

In 2013 I was easily moved to tears many times. Fortunately, I think it is not because I watched many romantic comedies but instead because I let beautiful moments into myself so deeply. I was moved to tears by great pieces of music, well-written books, and natural wonders like a night sky full of stars or sunset over the Teton mountains. Considering I made a resolution in 2012 to stop and fully experience small moments, 2013 was a smashing success. 

But there is still a lot that I have to work on, so here are my “resolutions”, of sorts: 

  • One: I have to settle on a whether or not and how to tell new friends that I had cancer. It was a whole year of my life and left me with stories to tell, but it is often strange to start a sentence with “I had cancer and…” while at a bar surrounded by beer bottles or at a friend’s house enjoying a home-cooked meal. 
  • Two: I have to continue learning not to beat myself up over feelings like jealousy. As was written in the book I just read, A Map of the World, “…feelings are never wrong. Emotions in varying degrees exist, of course, and have to be acknowledged, but they in and of themselves… do not have moral weight and should never be judged.”
  • Three: I have to stop being timid when it comes to going for the things I want in life. I always seem to apply to jobs that are below my skill level because they are easier targets. I take unpaid internships because it’s easier than trying to find paying part-time work. For many years, I’ve said that I can’t make a living from singing because auditions are too hard. All of that needs to stop. I know it can’t all happen at once, but I want to acknowledge that I have this problem and work on it.

And that’s about it. Not sure how any of this relates to cancer, except that cancer lit a fire under my ass to get my life in order and realize what’s really important. 

Anyone else have resolutions they want to share? 

Are Cancer Survivors Selfish?

The other day a friend posted an angry rant on Facebook about racist names of sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins and Chicago Blackhawks. In my endless quest to find happiness post-cancer, my reaction was, naturally: “Calm the f&*k down. Life is way too short to get worked up about those things.” But then I thought about how it was truly unfair that we treat native Americans so poorly, and, for a moment, I felt bad about my reaction. 

Which brings me to my next point: Are cancer survivors selfish? I often find myself having a similar reaction as the one above to people who gripe about the world’s injustices. I also see lots of stories on survivor message boards about people who were in good relationships pre-cancer, but then after cancer their significant others break things off because they feel the cancer survivor is only thinking of him or herself.

My uneducated explanation is that a brush with fatality makes us turn inward and realize that life is short and all we really want to do with our time here on earth is be happy. That might sometimes mean that other people’s drama or other people’s causes get pushed to the side in favor of our own passions and pursuits. 

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I’d love to hear what others think – cancer survivors and non-cancer survivors! 

The Desire to NOT Die

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2011, I thought a lot about dying. Now that I’m 2 years out, dying is moving further and further off my radar. The other night, though, I had a really intense dream about it.

I lived in some kind of futuristic society with a controlling government (think The Hunger Games), and I was going with a group of people to a big gathering. The group I was with (myself included) had previously decided that, because we didn’t like the government, we were going to wear bombs to the event and blow ourselves up in protest (think Al Qaeda).

Yes, it’s morbid. Don’t ask me how my subconscious comes up with these things because I have no idea. Anyway, on the way to this event, I realized what it actually meant to blow ourselves up and I started uncontrollably crying and begging the rest of the group to let me back out. I remember being so upset about the thought of dying that my insides felt like they were made of stone and I would be able to make myself so unwieldy that no one could push me forward and make me do the dark deed.

Gate to the wild (salvaje), Vilcabamba, Ecuador.
Gate to the wild (salvaje), Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Then I woke up.

In conjunction with this dream, I’ve also been watching The Big C, the Showtime series about a woman who is diagnosed with terminal skin cancer. Besides the first season, during which I found the main character, Cathy, to be insufferable because she wouldn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis, I have really enjoyed the show and felt many of its moments to be relatable to my experience. Cathy searches for meaning in her life, tries to focus on what’s really going to make her happy, and, finally, tries to come to terms with her inevitable demise. I laugh, I cry, I sob, I cry some more. I marvel at the fact that this character is hurtling toward her death and doing it so gracefully. That’s Hollywood for you.

I’m not sure what the point of all this death talk is, except to say that, even though I don’t think much about death these days, I still really, really don’t want to die. I just don’t know how anyone can find peace with dying, though I know many people do, and one day I’ll have to, also. Hopefully, that will be in 80 or so years, after I’ve run a marathon, played Eponine in a production of Les Mis, and visited every continent.



The Emperor

I’ll admit I don’t understand this article. Also, I didn’t read all of it. Coincidentally, I also stopped in the middle of reading the author’s (Siddhartha Mukherjee) book, The Emperor of all Maladies

I stopped for two reasons: 1) I was bored and 2) it scared the crap out of me, because most of the examples in his story were people who were treated and then had recurrences that killed them. Originally, I thought it would be interesting to read a history of cancer. The first couple chapters were really interesting (did you know that one of the first recorded cases of breast cancer came from an ancient Egyptian papyrus, or that mustard gas played a large role in the development of chemotherapy as we know it?), but then it got really scientific and I was less able to follow. It also really brought me down to read story after story of failed courses of treatment. Not what I needed after finishing my own, seemingly “successful” treatment.

Needless to say, I am now reading mindless fiction (Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). I just thought it was important to mention Mukherjee’s article and book, because for doctors, scientists, or others who really want to read about why cancer treatment is where it is today, it’s probably a worthwhile read.

Dear Diary

One of the joys of spending time at home is exploring my childhood bedroom and finding old diaries and j0urnals I kept through middle and high school.

My diary wasn't nearly this sparkly, but it was still full of the teeny-bopper spirit. (photo credit)

The other night I was reading one from my last year of middle school and pretty much every entry was about a crush on a new boy who didn’t crush me back. OMG! The pain in my heart was palpable through my written words – and I felt a familiar twinge of the unrequited love syndrome that was all-too-familiar back in my teenage days.

Why do I write about this now? Well, after I put down the journal and laid down for bed, I thought a lot about how priorities change throughout life, especially when facing a mega-crazy situation like cancer. Back then, I

probably felt like I was going to die if Lenny* (*names have been changed to protect my innocent crushes) didn’t like me back. Today, there are times when I feel like I’m going to die because of cancer. It just puts things in perspective.

Also makes me long for the days when things were simple – though I’m sure my 13-year-old self wouldn’t have seen it that way.

Chemo Brain

I’ve heard a lot recently about this so-called SE of chemo: “Chemo brain”. People aren’t really sure what causes it, though in my opinion it’s simply related to all of the changes that happen in your life when you are going through chemo – the anxiety of a diagnosis and treatment, the stress of being on so many drugs, etc.

Still, I thought you might enjoy if I document some of my own chemo brain moments, because I have already experienced some!

Last Friday I left my glasses on my desk at work, meaning I was without them all weekend. No problem – I’ll just use my contacts. Yeah. Left my contact solution at my parent’s house over the last weekend so no luck there. I had to throw away a perfectly good pair of fresh lenses because I had no solution to clean them with. I guess I could have gone to the store to buy some new solution but… I HAVE CHEMO BRAIN!

Then yesterday I dropped my iPhone down 2 flights of stairs. Now dad, before you read this and say, “Dammit, Cara, don’t document that you dropped your iPhone because you have to present a solid, drop-free story to the Genius Bar people so that the resulting damages fall under warranty!” remember: I have chemo brain. I can’t help that I’m typing this right now! We did joke that I should wait until I lose my hair and then go to the Apple store with a sob story about my broken phone. They can’t resist feeling bad for a young, bald woman with breast cancer, muahahaha.

Again, cancer has presented me with a brilliant excuse for my own shortcomings. Late for acapella rehearsal? Blame the cancer. Didn’t get that newsletter out in time at work? Cancer. Forgot to flush the toilet? Cancer.

Ok, that last one really was the cancer. I swear.

Lazy Sunday

I promised a blow-by-blow of my core biopsies, but I don’t want this post to be a bajillion paragraphs long, so I’m going to post a good video I found on YouTube that describes the process of an MRI-guided core biopsy. Of course, it’s all very clean-looking and calm and bright, making it seem like getting a core-biopsy in an MRI machine is akin to getting ice cream with your family. It’s not. But the process is explained well so you know what to expect.

A recommendation for those of you preparing for this procedure: do NOT pore over internet message boards trying to figure out if it will hurt. It is not terribly painful, and I think the women who complain that it is painful must have had really insensitive radiologists. Which brings me to another recommendation – talk to your radiologist beforehand about your pain tolerance and tell him or her that you want them to test the anesthetic to make sure you don’t feel anything.

My radiologist was WONDERFUL and did this for me. Basically, before they put the needle in, they inject your boob with local anesthesia to numb you. My radiologist injected it, and then spend some time inserting the needle slowly and asking me to tell her if I felt pain. The second I did, she stopped and gave me more and deeper anesthesia. It went on like this until I couldn’t feel anything, and from there the procedure was totally painless. Pressure, yes; sharp pain, no. If you feel sharp pain, the anesthesia is not working or deep enough. Speak up. I have to say that I hardly felt the anesthesia needle at all. Really.

On the same day, I had an ultrasound-guided core biopsy and it was very similar except that I was on my back and not in an MRI machine. The worst part really was the anxiety and the moments when the radiologist tested the anesthesia and it wasn’t quite working. But it was a very brief sharp pain at that point, and immediately when I indicated I felt it, she stopped.

All in all, not as bad as I expected.

And now, I’m waiting for my results, which I’ll hopefully get tomorrow.

Last night, I felt deeply depressed thinking about getting my results. I almost want to convince myself that I have cancer just to lessen the blow if it is actually true. My mind conjures up images of sitting in the doctor’s office, hearing “We found cancerous tissue from your biopsy” and me just breaking down into tears. How can that statement NOT change your life completely? My boyfriend was trying to talk to me last night about some plans we have next weekend, and in my head I was thinking “Plans next weekend? Don’t you realize that if I found out I have cancer on Monday, all future plans are going to be put on pause?” I might have freaking CANCER. This isn’t like finding out if I have a urinary tract infection. This is CANCER. This is serious.

The best I can do at this point is wait. But I am absolutely terrified for tomorrow and as I go through this, I wonder why I don’t just have surgery right now to minimize my risk and my need to ever go through this in the future.

Cool Cancer Genome project at Vanderbilt

This is a really cool website that, although it’s very new and doesn’t yet mention breast cancer, I think is worth checking out. It’s designed for clinicians to help them get a full picture of cancer genetics.

My Cancer Genome

Given the amount of doctors that don’t seem to know anything about the breast cancer genes (!), I think this is a great tool and I hope more hospitals and cancer centers start to offer it so our doctors can be better informed.