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!
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The Tuesday Night Blues

Tonight is just one of those nights when I am frustrated by everything. Work has been stressful and and unfulfilling. There was a massive leak in our bedroom ceiling and they’ve cut a gaping hole in it and we’ve been sleeping on the mattress on the floor in the tiny second bedroom. Our apartment is messy. None of our pictures are hung up. I’ve been suffering from recurring and nasty UTI’s for the past month and a half and I don’t know why. My right breast, same area where the tumor was, has been aching on and off and it’s probably just my muscles getting used to the implants but it scares the s&%^ out of me. One of our male neighbors… can’t tell if it’s up or down… is singing Katy Perry at a volume and tone that’s inappropriate even for Katy Perry in the shower.

And then to top it all off I got a “FINAL NOTICE” bill from GWU for a charge that I don’t understand from my MRI back in FEBRUARY 2011 (which, mind you, my parents already dished out more than $1,000 for). Not only that, but I’m in the midst of writing an appeal to insurance for another $1,000 charge for the surgery I had at the end of April, which they won’t cover because, as the Explanation of Benefits explained, “a response to our request for information from the provider has not been received.” All fine and good – except why am I being penalized for the billing office’s incompetence?

I went to a “Living Well with Cancer” retreat this weekend at Smith Center here in DC and they were all about stress reduction because stress allegedly feeds cancer.

I think that’s a bit counter-intuitive because:

Cancer is stressful. Life after cancer is stressful. Dealing with insurance companies and medical billing departments is stressful. Heck, life even without cancer in the picture is stressful. 

I’m going to go attempt to do some yoga and breathe.

Breathe. And imagine you live in a serene bubble on Kapalua Bay Beach in Maui.

 

Growth

Finally got a cord to upload pictures from my camera (thanks, dad, and your freakishly large box of random wires) so here’s a little chart of my hair growth since ending chemotherapy. September 1, 2011 was my last infusion.

October 4, 2011
October 9, 2011
October 17, 2011
October 25, 2011
November 11, 2011
Novermber 19, 2011
December 9, 2011
January 5, 2012 (in Hawaii!)
January 11, 2012 (a couple days before this post)

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.

Publicity

Go to the New York Times online. Click on “Health”. Guess who that is on the right rocking the bald head? I totally stumbled on this by accident today at work, looking for some articles for my organization’s monthly news brief. What a shock to see a picture of my on the homepage of the NYTimes health section. I’ve always wanted to be in the Times, just didn’t think it would be because of having breast cancer. Still, I’m honored that they thought the photo worthy to represent the whole feature, which you should check out.

It must be said that the photo was taken by the wonderful Rina, another survivor who I met through George Washington University and a photographer.

And in case the page has changed since I wrote this post, here’s a screen shot:

I think maybe all of this publicity is getting to my head (so much so that it’s sprouting hair)!

HAIR!

At more than two months post-chemo, it’s time to share some hair pictures! In these, you may also notice that my eyebrows (and lashes) are nearly completely grown in. Exciting!

Bam! Buzz cut! You may even notice some bed-head back there.
So soft and luxurious.

Me in the New York Times!

Now that I’m done chemo, I don’t feel as inclined to blog. Maybe it’s because I have less to complain about. It could also be that I’m getting back to life and I’m busy with friends and work (which is REALLY busy right now). Either way, I am happy to report that I feel fantastic and am looking forward to my upcoming surgeries in October and December, which will hopefully result in my having a beautiful rack.

Today I have two things to share. One, I’m in the New York Times feature “Picture Your Life After Cancer“! Sure… I submitted myself… but it’s still exciting. Second, the article Breast cancer: patients with mutation diagnosed earlier than previous generation. When I first saw the title of the article, I thought it would be about women getting diagnosed earlier because they start screening earlier in mutation carriers. But the article comes to a different conclusion: that women with the mutation get cancer earlier than the older generations in their family. I think my explanation is better (though who would take my word over the people at MD Anderson). It just makes sense that if women start screening earlier, they’re going to find breast cancer earlier. My mom could have been screened at my age, and perhaps they would have caught her cancer before it was so far gone that there was nothing they could do about it.

Oh hey, pretty pictures.

After my diagnosis GWU hooked me up with a “cancer buddy”, a woman who had a similar diagnosis and treatment at the cancer center and was willing to share her experience with me. My buddy, Rina, is wonderful and she is also a great photographer, so I asked her to take some glamour shots of me with no hair. I figured it would make me feel better about being bald, and it would be important to document my experience so I can look back in the future. Rina thought so, too, and may even turn it into a project where she profiles women’s cancer experiences through photographs.

Here are a few of the shots that I particularly love – photo credit goes to Rina. In some of them I’m wearing wigs; we had a lot of fun playing with looks. And PS: I made these files pretty small so they’d upload quickly. Don’t blame Rina for the graininess – the originals are crisp and lifelike!