Dancing into a Double Mastectomy

I know I should feel joy watching this video. So many others found it inspiring and great to watch. For some reason, though, I feel kind of bitter. I was in NO mood for dancing before my double mastectomy, though yes I do remember times during my treatment and surgeries when I made jokes or did things to lighten the mood and be positive in the face of overwhelming negativity.

I wonder how other survivors feel. I’m probably just bitter because I don’t have thousands of YouTube views. Or maybe it’s because things like this perpetuate the view that breast cancer and cancer surgeries in general aren’t all that serious. (More likely, though, it’s the YouTube views thing).

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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! 

Weekly Happy: Bursts of Sunlight

Potomac

There are many positives to living in Washington, DC, and the excellent metro system is one. Today I was taking the Yellow Line from where I live in Columbia Heights to King Street in Alexandria, Virginia. I rarely ride the Yellow line out of the District, so I was pleasantly reminded about the above-ground bridge over the Potomac River. For a brief minute, you are out of the dark underground tunnel and able to see the beautiful sights of the DC waterfront. Today, this bridge crossing was particularly smile-inducing, because of the sun, blue sky, and crowds of people out and about enjoying the last of the cherry blossoms and the trails hugging the river. Of course, just as you’ve become hypnotized by the Washington and Jefferson monuments and warmed by the sun, you drift back underground, but it makes that brief moment all-the-more magical.

Someone was asking in the Young Survival Coalition Facebook group if anyone had advice to get her through treatment, and one thing I might offer would be to enjoy the small moments when you feel happy. They might be few and far between, but they do happen and it is worth your time to bask in them before they disappear. One such moment, for me, was the week after my first chemotherapy infusion. I had just left my follow-up doctor appointment and was walking through a warm, May day in DC, amazed at how good I felt despite all that was going on. In that moment, I felt strong enough to get through the whole ordeal, and I still remember that happy feeling to this day.

Oh, I guess I should also mention that, since my last post, I hit my two-years-cancer-free mark. It was April 5, 2011, when the tumor was cut out of my right breast. Yay!?!

Estoy Aquí

Contemplating Cuenca
Contemplating Cuenca

I am home from Ecuador a bit early. I had planned to be traveling for seven weeks, but alas I only traveled for four. It was a great run – so many empowering moments for me and a lot of self-reflection, which was the whole point. But I got tired of the backpacking style – living out of one bag that I had to pack and repack each time I was leaving a place, hauling my pack on long and dreary bus rides, staying in some dimly lit lodgings, etc. Mostly, though, I was lonely. I met some great people, of course, but the nature of my trip was such that I was in each place for a couple days and then I moved on, and people were rarely moving on in the same direction I was, so each couple of days I had to say goodbye and head off to meet new people who I would say goodbye to in a couple of days.

Late one night, as I was stewing in my own anxiety about an upcoming 8-hour bus ride across the border from Ecuador into Peru, I realized I just wanted to go home. What fun is traveling if you have no one to share it with, or if you’re going to work yourself up into a debilitating anxiety each time you have to do something difficult? It really didn’t seem worth it anymore.

I was surprised at how at-peace I was with my decision, though. Much of my self-realization on the trip was focused on how much I beat myself up over things that I don’t do or don’t do “right”. I expected to feel really disappointed in myself for what others might view as “giving up”. I met so many others who were backpacking alone for months at a time. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t do the same? Was I not flexible enough, or adventurous enough, or outgoing enough? Why didn’t I eat guinea pig or jump off a bridge or completely change up my plans or all manner of other things that backpackers did?

My “aha” moment was this: who cares that I didn’t do those things? I am myself, not other person, and I need to be okay with that. It’s so much easier to beat ourselves down about the things we aren’t doing than it is to build ourselves up about what we are doing, especially when we constantly see things on Facebook or Pinterest or YouTube that would suggest that other people are living lives much more epic than our own.

But for most people, life is about 5% epic and 95% normal (at least by other people’s standards) and so making sure that you’re happy with your non-epic moments seems a lot more important than striving to make everything epic, right?

This is not to say that I don’t want to have dreams. I still want to travel to India and sing on a Broadway stage, and I think having cancer made me feel like there was no time to accomplish my dreams so I had to do everything RIGHT NOW, and that caused me a lot of anxiety because, realistically, you can’t accomplish all of your dreams at once and sometimes you can’t even accomplish them at all. So I would like, instead, to focus on being satisfied with what each day brings because life’s too short to be anxious and disappointed.

And this is why I’m starting a new project on my blog, which is to check in each week with something that I did that made me happy. I’ll call it my “weekly happy”, and along with my own posts I’d love to hear from my dear readers with their weekly happy, too.

First Descents Trip

There’s so much I can say about my trip – I don’t even know where to start. It was amazing, inspiring, invigorating, life-affirming, and a ton of other really overused adjectives that don’t mean much if you weren’t there. Sorry for this terrible start to my post, but I honestly just can’t write anything to adequately describe my week in Colorado.

I’ll begin by introducing First Descents. It’s a nonprofit that takes young adult cancer patients and survivors on outdoor adventure trips all over the US. I heard about them when a support group I am part of posted a link to Facebook. At the time, I was just beginning my “there’s got to be more to life after cancer” existential crisis (it’s full-blown now, by the way, but that’s a later post), and I thought this was a great way to do something outside my comfort zone. So I signed up for rock climbing – it seemed the biggest stretch (read: most dangerous) out of the activities they offered, which include kayaking and surfing. I chose to go to Estes Park, Colorado, because I had never been to that region of the country before.

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Me, Roadrash, and Brad Ludden, founder of FD.

Before I knew it, September rolled around and I was getting on a plane to Denver armed with a ton of synthetic clothing, excitement, and nerves.

When I got to the house, just past the foothills of the majestic Rockies, I felt like I had stepped into MTV’s Real World. All twelve of us chose bedrooms to sleep in, introduced ourselves, discovered a sweet hot tub on the porch, and commented how amazing our accommodations were. Then we delved into a healthy, delicious meal of burritos cooked by our very own house chefs, Chamomile and Antelope Jamboree.

Okay, at this point I should probably mention that we all went by nicknames for the week. I became “Beaner” (because my name is Cara, and a carabiner is a tool used in climbing… get it?). Apparently it’s also a racist slur for Latinos.

The next day we got up bright and early to go climbing. Everyone really just jumped in. We had guides from the Colorado Mountain School helping us out – they showed us what to do, set up ropes, and for several hours we just climbed. Some of us belayed (acted as the on-the-ground anchor for the climbers) while others climbed, and vice versa. They also taught us to rappel.

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Here I am, on belay.

This was the bulk of the trip – climbing with each other. We had one day “off” to explore the Rockies, but the highlight of the trip, at least for me, was really the climbing. I just can’t describe how exhilarating it is to make it to the top of a route, knowing that you used your body to conquer a rock that wasn’t designed for you to climb it, and looking out over the gorgeous scenery in the fresh mountain air, marveling at what you just accomplished. It was really magnificent.

I’ll admit for a while on the trip I was a negative Nancy, and the fact that I was PMSing may have contributed. For a day or so I felt a bit isolated. I was only one of two people who had had breast cancer, and other people’s treatments didn’t compare. Plus, we were all at different points in our experience so I felt a little beyond or behind some of the people there.

But in the end I realized we are all doing the same thing: navigating our lives through young adult cancer. And the shared climbing experience helped because it served as a metaphor for the cancer experience. Cancer is something you are forced to conquer, and you lament every step of the way your loss of control and dignity. These rocks were a challenge I chose on my own, and every step of the way, no matter how terrified or ready to give up I was, I had a blast and felt mired in positivity – both from my inner being and from the amazing people on the trip with me who radiated understanding and encouragement.

Coming back to real life and work has been extremely hard. I wish I could still wake up each day and hit the rock with my friends, but life goes on. I definitely feel more motivated, however, to take the reigns of my own life experience. I’ve been in a very strange place, recently, questioning why I’m here on this Earth and wanting to find what truly makes me happy so I don’t waste any more time on things that make me unhappy. This trip definitely jump-started my desire to seek adventure and do things that are outside-the-box and not waste life at a desk, if that’s not what I really want to be doing. There will always be rocks to conquer, after all.

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One rock down, infinitely more to conquer!

Here’s to health and hair

Who has two thumbs, lots of thick hair, and a sunny disposition because she found out this morning that she is back to her pre-chemo weight?

MEEEEE!

I’m enjoying a healthy snack of raw bell pepper after my workout (in case you were wondering what the weird orange thing sticking out of my mouth is). Getting back in shape feels damn good. Today, I did a 2.6 mile run/walk in the glorious 70-degree “winter” weather. Now, a shower.

Team Cara

Mush alert: This post is going to be about how awesome my boyfriend is. Not only has he stuck with me through this whole terrible year, offered his encouragement and support, let me cry on his shoulder, and never once complained or acted like it was all too much, he also organized his running friends from college to run the Philadelphia Marathon in my honor and raise money for Young Survival Coalition. If that doesn’t make him the best boyfriend in the world, I don’t know what does.

I’ve finally gotten around to downloading a couple pics from the race, so enjoy.

My amazing friend Liz (left), who ran the half marathon and has also been a great source of support throughout this year.
Will, my bf, rocking all the way to the finish line in his Team Cara shirt.
And finally, the back of the t-shirt, which says "Bisexual Turtles Against Breast Cancer."*

If you’ve never stood at the finish line of a marathon, I suggest you try it. Race finish lines have this awe-inspiring energy to them. There’s usually loud, inspirational music pumping, lots of people cheering for their loved ones and even runners they don’t know, and a sense in the air that something amazing is happening – people are accomplishing amazing feats of strength and endurance that most humans can’t even imagine. To everyone who ran that day, I am so proud and inspired by you! So much so that I may even run a race of my own… some day.

 

*I realize this warrants some explaining. When Will was in college, he and some running teammates found a stuffed, green-and-purple turtle in the trash. They adopted it and named it Change-up, the Bisexual Turtle. Change is the running team’s mascot, and of course he like to kick the crap out of breast cancer.

New-ropathy

I guess I thought I’d be the woman who doesn’t get all the common chemo side effects. Everyone told me I would “do so well” with chemo – I’m young, in good shape, have a positive attitude, and so on and so forth. Well I’ve learned that being young, in good shape, and so on and so forth does not preclude you from feeling common chemo side effects, no matter what anybody tells you.

My current battle is with peripheral neuropathy, which has manifested in me as a strange, pins-and-needles-like sensation in my fingertips and, less prominently, the soles of my feet. It’s not painful, just annoying because I feel it everytime I type, hold a pen, or do anything else that normal people do several times a day with their fingers. Everything I read says it’s reversible, but I also worry sometimes that it won’t ever go away. It’s been pretty constant since my second Taxol.

And while we’re counting treatments, I want to proclaim that I have JUST ONE LEFT! September 1st marks my last infusion and I am so, so, so ready to be there. I’ve heard from a lot of women that reaching the end of treatment is sometimes hard, and I can understand why that would be – you’ve spent several months being monitored closely by a medical team, you’ve endured countless side effects and emotions, you’ve received well-wishes and extra love and care from family and friends and then… bam! You’re not really a cancer patient anymore. You’re a survivor… supposedly… until you get a recurrence… but that’s a whole other story.

While I see the sadness that can come along with ending treatment, I also think I’ll be ecstatic. First and foremost, my hair will start growing back! I’ll have normal work hours, be around most weekends to hang out with friends, avoid being pricked and prodded every week, and I’ll be able to schedule my final reconstruction surgeries and emerge in 2012 with new boobies and a new outlook on life. So close…