Cancer Turned Me Into a Hippie.

Yes, I know, any story about cancer is a total downer, except when it’s not. I’ve found that my life has profoundly changed after my cancer diagnosis for the better. It was a honor to have this piece originally published by Scary Mommy.

I’m also happy to report that I have become a contributor for The Mighty !

###

Cancer changes you. It’s sometimes a cheesy cliché, but I can attest to you that the statement is every bit true. I’ve changed in several ways, physically and emotionally but I was most surprised to find that of all things, cancer helped me calm the fuck down.

It was during a physical exam with my gynecologist when I heard her say, “I feel something.” I had switched doctors and finally felt like I was in the right hands. Clearly I was, because up until this point, not a single OBGyn had ever touched me above the shoulders. Rarely, if ever had any of them touched me anywhere except the obvious pink parts. This exam was different. She started behind my ears doing a very thorough check of my lymph nodes, then headed down both sides of my neck. I felt her palpate the right side of neck, move to another spot, and return to the right side. She returned to that one spot three times before she made the announcement that she felt something.

A week later I had an ultra sound, two weeks after that I had a biopsy, two more weeks later received the news that I had Thyroid Cancer. Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma to be exact. I had surgery to remove the entire thyroid followed by in-patient radiation treatment. Now I am different.

Physically, I am different. I no longer own the organ that produces a necessary hormone that regulates my metabolism, heart function, body temperature, and more. I no longer can tolerate heat, my hair has changed, I have indigestion, my period is wildly irregular. I take a synthetic version of thyroid hormone, and while so far, so-so good, I’d be lying if I wasn’t waiting for the rest of my organs to figure it out and stage a full-scale rebellion. (Fingers crossed.)

Mentally, I am different. I used to be sharp. I’d say I was pretty damn sharp. I could remember anything and everything down to the exact detail of an interaction including where we were and more likely than not I could recall what everyone involved was wearing. Professionally I could site sources, references, and recall all of the necessary information to support my opinion. I remembered dates, places, and times. I always had an answer. I was always quick to answer. I rarely needed to think about thinking. I was always thinking.

If I saw you coming, I remembered our last encounter and quickly followed up. “How’s the whatever going?” “Hey, what happened to the situation?” “Did you ever find out about thus-and-such?” I remembered everything. I had a hyper sense of with-it-ness that didn’t diminish even after 13 years of marriage and two children. I felt a keen sense of awareness that, unbeknownst to me at the time, was a total drag.

Now, I admit that I am knocking on the door of 43 years old, which could have something to do with the changes I have experienced. I’ve also had way more general anesthesia in the last year and a half that a human probably should. I would argue, though, that the physical changes I’ve gone through have had a direct impact on my brain because it no longer works the way it used to.

When I first noticed the changes, I panicked. I was out in the world, doing normal world things when I suddenly felt like I had to think about what I was actually doing; almost as though my auto pilot was malfunctioning. I noticed that I didn’t immediately have an answer to one of my student’s questions. I wasn’t totally sure of what I wasn’t sure of. I didn’t immediately remember the last conversation I had with a friend at morning drop-off. Once we started talking, it all came rushing back, but it wasn’t right there in my mind ready for the follow-up about it.

I felt anxious. Nervous. Cautious in all of my interactions. I would tread lightly in hopes of not getting caught not knowing. Suddenly I felt a constant need to be “on guard” in an effort to keep myself prepped and ready for anything I might encounter. I was forcing my brain to work twice as hard in an effort to keep the world from seeing that I didn’t have it all together. I was keeping a frantic pace that wasn’t helping me in any way. All the work I was doing trying to make my outward appearance seem unfazed by what I had been through was wreaking havoc on my soul. It was exhausting.

Then summer happened.

For a host of reasons, this was the best summer on record for my family. I was forced to let go of things – like really, really let go – and it was a total game changer. I let go and the world did not stop. I let go and no one died in some tragic fashion. I let go and my life still carried on just with a lost less stress. I let go and let life happen. I let my new life happen and to my surprise, it was everything I needed.

I remember less. It’s a fact of my current life. Thankfully I haven’t forgotten anything major like a child or report for work, but generally I remember less. I don’t usually recall where we were the last time we talked, or exactly what topics we covered but if you are willing to catch me up, I’m totally on board. The surprise benefit to this is that my conversations are now more authentic and genuinely seeded in the moment; less a production tied to what happened before. I say what’s on my mind and how I feel at the moment; not necessarily what I think I should say.

I feel less pressure to have the answers; which is a blessing because the truth is, I never had the answers to begin with. I have good hunches, firm beliefs and opinions, but not answers.  I feel less pressure to always know what to say. I feel more willing to give myself time to find what’s possibly a better response.

I have more compassion for my kids who always seem to need more time. I’m less hurried. I feel free to take up whatever space and time that I need and that feeling is fabulous. I confidently show the world the parts of me that are incomplete, uncertain, and sometimes need help. Whether it’s an emotional change resulting from the fear of all that cancer is or if my brain is physically different, either way I am no longer the same person.  As a result of the surgery and treatment, I now have the neck of an 85-year-old chicken, which is pretty humbling, too. But, it took cancer to turn me into the 1960’s flower child that I never realized how much I actually needed to be, so I’ll take it.

Bread is My Mortal Enemy.

“If you are going to have cancer, this is the one you want to have.”

If I could, I’d roll my eyeballs right out of my skull. Yes, of course I know the statement is true, because more likely than not this will not kill me, but it doesn’t mean it won’t suck a million times over. I wish, in general people would stop saying this because it’s not quite the neat little package that it’s made out to be. While initially, the diagnosis, surgery and treatment were acute – lots of big, scary things happening all at once and in a small period of time; now, it’s chronic. My salivary glands no longer work. Yes, you heard me correctly. I won’t die, but now I can’t spit. Bread is my mortal enemy.

The past few weeks have been a roller coaster trying to figure out what the hell is going on. When lumps appear in your neck after a cancer diagnosis the alarm sounds quickly and loudly. I cried hysterically to my ENT reliving the very rare, very fast death of Al Copeland who died of salivary gland cancer. “He lasted a minute! I can not go down like this!”

I am beyond grateful for supportive and non-judgemental doctors.

I don’t have salivary gland cancer but I likely do have radiation damage. So there’s been lots of blood work, several physical exams, an upcoming CT scan, and an upcoming appointment with my very first rheumatologist. (I actually know her, and she’s one of my favorite people so I’m pretty confident that if I fall apart in her office it will be totally cool.)

Having junk for salivary glands is totally cramping my style. Forget chips, crackers, dry cereal, granola, dried fruit, or anything that doesn’t require a liquid in order to consume it. Earlier this week I almost choked to death on the second bite of my turkey sandwich. All is not lost, however, because right after I dumped the deli meat dish of death, I replaced it with a large strawberry shake from Sonic.

Look, I am fully aware that I have very little, if nothing at all to complain about but I still find myself asking ‘why?’ What the hell is the universe trying to tell me? It’s confusing because it’s as though the universe came in and decided to fuck with me just enough to turn things on its head. Not enough to kill me, just enough to get me thinking.

Someone, anyone, please help me figure out, WHAT IS MY LESSON?

Is it my children? Yes, I agree that I sometimes make them wait and don’t treat them like they are the center of my universe. Well guess what, I am a complete human with a life, a career, a hot husband, interests, and friends. Sometimes they need to wait. I readily admit that there are times when I don’t look up to see exactly how they have twisted their fingers into a cool knot, drew an astronaut space lizard or can roll their tongue. (So can I. It’s really not that big if a deal, junior.) Sometimes Mommy has to respond to an email. Sometimes Mommy has to answer her girlfriends in a group text after a field trip to Farm Day about cow clothes and the lingering smell of death because That. Shit. Is. Funny. Making them wait, I believe, will also teach them the ever important life lesson that this big, beautiful world does not, in fact, revolve around them.

Is it vanity? Sorry, I’m not budging. I will not stop putting on actual clothes on a daily basis nor will I stop putting on make-up every day. I now face the world with the scarred neck of an 85 year-old chicken. So, I’m putting on the damn mascara. Besides, I am the female prototype for both of my children which, to me, is a pretty important responsibility. Taking care of myself, and actually caring for myself is a pretty powerful message to send to them. Not to mention, when out in public, a little lip gloss goes a long way when pushing a shopping cart full of giggles and fart noises.

Is it balance? I have made the very conscious decision to make 2017 my bitch. I think I’ve done a terrific job so far. I’ve exceeded my initial goal of one publication on a ‘big site.’ Right at this very moment, I’ve lost exact count, but I’m ever humbled and grateful for each and every one of them. If something doesn’t bring me joy, I don’t do it. I say ‘no’ when I need to. I cry when I need to and ask for help when we need that, too. I feel more at peace and more balanced today then I have in years.

So what the ever-loving hell?

In the meantime, while I’m trying to figure it all out, I’ll continue to focus on gratitude. In the midst of uncertainty, it’s really the only thing that grounds me. No matter what, I really do have so much to be thankful for. Sure, not being able to eat sucks, but at least the bread didn’t kill me. I refuse to let whole grains take me down. Death by food would only be acceptable if it was something good enough to drool over, and well, since I can’t do that anyway…

xoxo

Sunny Side Up.

I originally sat down to write this post with the opening line, ‘2016 can suck it.’ My plan was to sit and bitch about the ups and downs we faced in 2016. I was going to find humor and delight in skewering the year that was a royal pain in the ass for all who were so fortunate to experience it. That was my plan.

I ran into an acquaintance at church this morning, someone I had not seen in quite some time. Her hair was shorter than mine but not for the same reasons. I hugged her and immediately saw her as a mother, a friend, a wife, a complete person facing uncertainty and I immediately felt a sense of gratitude for the year that was 2016.

As much as 2016 sucked, and by all means it did, the truth is, I had the year. It was mine to bitch about, which in so many ways is something to truly be grateful for. Every minute, every day, every year is truly a blessing. Both the good and bad.

Over the course of this year we have watched our children overcome struggles and blossom into strong, courageous people. I have watched them turn an obstacle into an opportunity. Together, Brian and I have faced the fears and did it anyway. We worried and stressed, hoped and prayed. We watched things work out really well and others, not so much. I was often drained emotionally and physically. We have been doused with the uncertainty and fear that tag along when you face cancer. We have watched our people gather around us and support us in ways we never thought possible. We have seen the greatest of humanity and sadly, the less-than-great as well. We have persisted and prevailed in the face of both. We have laughed. A lot.

So, 2016 can suck it, but I am eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to live, love, and laugh through it. I sit with great anticipation for 2017. Not necessarily for any grand gestures from the universe but maybe to be just a tad lighter on the crappy stuff.

So, 2016, in a few short days I will usher you out the door and happily close that chapter of our lives. I will look back fondly at the good times and memories, and stand in awe at all we overcame. I will welcome 2017 with anticipation and deepest gratitude, in hope that once again I am granted the precious gift of life for each and every day of it.

Happiest of New Year’s to all. xoxo

 

 

 

Three Gifts of the Father.

By the time I became coherent and realized that, in fact, I had just had surgery and wasn’t really playing with random children at the beach, I was in my hospital room with Brian by my side. Everyone had kissed me goodbye and returned home, I was in a ton of pain, thirsty and hungry. It must have been the drugs because I was suddenly concerned about a white bag sitting on the counter.

“What’s that?” I grumbled.

“Your dad bought you a few things while you were in surgery.”

I motioned for him to bring me the bag. I lifted my bed up, focused, and watched as Brian showed me what was inside. The bag contained three gifts: a square, a stone, and a scarf.

A Square.

It was a flat, squared-shaped magnet, colored white and aqua that read, “Cancer Sucks. That is All.” Nothing speaks a greater truth. No matter where in your body or what kind, cancer sucks. It shakes your foundation and unsettles your soul. It is a logistical pain in the ass. It is very expensive. It’s scary. While I have no control over what cancer is or does, I can control the way I react to it or the way I deal with it. Some days I say this to myself and it helps; I mean it and believe it. Other days I laugh and laugh at myself, saying instead, what-the-fuck-ever sista; this shit sucks. Either way, it’s ok.

A Stone.

It was a polished white oval with gold script lettering that read, “Celebrate Life.” I have found there is no better way to do this than to sing at the top of my lungs along with Toto. I found so much joy signing ‘Africa’ the other day, tears actually ran down my face. I don’t know if it’s because I love the song so much or that I am so incredibly thankful that I didn’t lose my voice after surgery. When faced with the possibility of loosing it, having a voice really is something to celebrate. I could have also been just really excited to finally be alone in my car. I’ve celebrated by saying ‘yes’ to almost everything lately. Yes to staying up late, yes to new shoes, yes to cookies for breakfast, and yes to TV binges both for me and the kids. All of which is okay. Life really is great and so much of it is worth celebrating. As much as cancer does totally suck, it could be so, so much worse.

A Scarf.

There were actually two scarves, one hot pink and one aqua. We had planned a beach vacation prior to my diagnosis and were leaving 10 days after surgery. My surgeon gave me the okay to go but only if I made sure the scar was completely covered, protected from sun and water. I cannot think of a better way to accessorize a bathing suit in the middle of the summer than with a scarf.

I was nervous about the trip for a multitude of reasons but despite my worries, I found that burying your feet in the sand really does have therapeutic properties. Walking along the surf is often exactly what the doctor ordered. Laughing with your family while teaching your children the game of spoons (a game that has a very long history in our family) is incredibly good for the soul. Watching your daughter win the spoons championship is the icing on the cake! Or in this case, the cream on the pie. I had a slice of key lime pie twice a day, every day of which I do believe had a positive effect on my overall healing. Our Lady of Emotional Eating, pray for us. 

I wore those scarves everyday. There is no doubt people thought I was totally nuts. Picture it: black and white mod one piece, large brim black hat, and a hot pink scarf. If that isn’t the image of a high maintenance weirdo, I don’t know what is. Truthfully, if I had even one shit to spare, I still would not have given it. I wore those scarves with pride and let my flag fly. Be weird. That’s okay, too.

I discovered that my days were very much like the beach waves – some good, some not so great, some perfect. The important thing wasn’t so much the quality of the day, but that the water was continually flowing. Some days I didn’t crack a smile until 10am and other days I woke up laughing. The best thing I could do was give myself space to feel however or whatever I was feeling that day. An exercise in peace and patience….even now at home. Either way, good days or bad, it’s okay.

These three gifts turned out to be a true reflection about life for me right now. We are all going to have times that suck. There may be days, weeks, or months that suck, and it may be really awful, but no matter what, hold on to the promise that it will get better.  It will. Remember that there is always something to celebrate. Even the tiniest, smallest thing can be celebrated. Sing in the car. Laugh with your kids. Buy yourself the shoes. Have a cookie for breakfast. Let your flag fly. Be you. Be the best you, you can be no matter what. All of it is so totally, and completely okay.

 

Just Ask.

So, I’m pretty sure you have figured out by now that I didn’t die. Thank the good Lord because that would have sucked so terribly bad. The days leading up to surgery were filled with stress and anxiety. To fix that, I decided to clean my house from top to bottom – steamed bathroom floors, cleaned windows inside and out, and washed basically everything in the house that was made of fabric. I can’t imagine how bad the cleaning tirade would have been had I not had the Xanax to keep my feet on the ground.

While stress and anxiety were completely expected, what was completely unexpected was my willingness to ask for help. How in the hell that happened, I have no idea. Look, I will be brutally honest, I make no effort to hide the fact that I’m a kick-ass working mother of two and wife who has all of her shit together. I mean, aren’t we all? The absolute last thing I need is help. No thank you, I’m fine. F-I-N-E. Right? F-I-N-E.

Well, maybe I don’t need help on a random Thursday around 10am but after a cancer diagnosis and pending surgery, more than likely, I do need help. In a big way, actually. Asking for it wasn’t something I normally did or necessarily liked to do. At all. But in this situation, there really wasn’t an option.

I first asked for help when I called that awesome receptionist at the Baton Rouge Clinic. I so wish I had asked for her name because she needed to be recognized. That woman was a true-to-form rock star. I’m still amazed that I did it but I actually accepted food from total strangers! Friends from church organized dinner for my family for over ten days. Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done without these gracious people feeding my family day after day.

I needed someone to watch my kids. All day. On a Wednesday. Throughout all of this my brother’s wife had said repeatedly to me that she’d help in any way. She offered to watch my kids numerous times so I took her up on her offer. I hated making the request – it felt like so much to ask! She immediately assured me that she would be there, just for me to tell her what time to show up.

The requests for help continued. I need ice chips. Please may I have something for the pain? Mom, can you stay at my house another night? Please can someone help me to the bathroom? What about something solid, like something that I can actually chew. Can someone please make that happen? None of this was within my comfort zone but I focused on my family – our children. If I didn’t ask for help now, I would not be able to help them later. It was for my own physical and spiritual good.

I can only blame it on the pain meds but I took this picture the morning after surgery:

IMG_5674

I call it my ‘proof of life’ photo. I survived the surgery and lived to tell about it. I never needed that emergency trach that sat ominously next to my bed, with a label “DO NOT REMOVE FROM ROOM!” I asked for help a million times and I didn’t implode. I showed the world that I couldn’t do this alone and not a single person pointed or laughed. It’s a good thing because I’m fairly certain that my requests for help will continue. I’m still not sure how to process what lies ahead.

Thyrogen…injections…levels…scans…levels…isolation…radioactive…ablation…

What I can process, though is the love that I see and feel around me. I can process how I much I love my kids. I can process how I feel about my husband who has been an absolute steadfast rock-of-life throughout all of this. (The next time any of you see Brian, please be sure to give him a high-five or a hug, or whatever you deem appropriate because the man has been AMAZING.) I can also process the fact that I’m ready and willing to do anything and everything to get well and be healthy, even if it means asking for help.

Truly, from the bottom of my heart, thanks for all of the help. xoxo

 

 

Love in Action.

We say it all of the time:

“I love you.”

“I love her.”

“I’m in love.”

Years ago before I was married my mother gave me some powerful advice about love. “Be Missouri. Make sure they show you.” She reminded me that the words are really easy to say, but it’s the actions that count. Love is a verb.

As mothers, it’s easy for us to love our babies and children. We cradle them, gently sing to them, rock them, prepare meals for them, engage them continually reinforcing our actions of love. We hug them, we listen, we pack lunch, we make them laugh. We show them each day how we love them.  I honestly haven’t thought that much about how this is expressed between adults. Romantic love, well that’s easy. What about ordinary, everyday love?

We see the true face of humanity; the wonderous good and dismally bad, within the space of two life changing experiences: 1) winning the powerball, and 2) a cancer diagnosis. I’ve only had the pleasure of experiencing one of these experiences and it is through this that I have witnessed love as an action and it’s beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Love is stopping me in the hall to ask how I’m doing and standing there long enough to listen to the entire, oddly crafted, winding answer. Love is sending a hand written note with words of support and encouragement. Love is praying with me. Love is sitting with me, crying alongside me while I worry out loud of the possibility of death. Love is laughing while hugging me and exclaiming, “But you’re not going to die!” Love is beautiful hand-made pajamas. Love is offering to watch my children and taking off work to actually do it. Love is calling daily and simply asking how I’m feeling. Love is reminding me that I am never alone. Love is hot food waiting at my door.

I don’t think I have ever witnessed a greater expression of compassion, love, and humanity as I have in the past few weeks. On the eve of my surgery, I don’t think I’ve ever seen love in such full and complete action. I feel it. Brian feels it. Our children feel it.

My deepest and most sincere gratitude to everyone who has reached out and truly loved our family.

Peace out! See you on the flip side…

xoxo

I Took a Xanax and Didn’t Die.

I’ve heard someone describe a cancer diagnosis as like being on a roller coaster. Some days you are up, some days you are down, and some days you are stuck hanging upside down dangling at the mercy of a carny and his willingness to hit the release button. There can be no more perfect metaphor; this is exactly what it is like.

After we met with my surgeon, I was up. Like really, really up. Brian and I both felt super confident with him and really liked his bedside manner. He covered every one of my questions and then some. He was willing to talk with me as long as I would have needed. He was very honest; told me that this type of cancer does like to come back. It’s possible that I will face it again down the road but the odds of me dying from it are seriously slim. “It’s likely not going to kill you. You may need more surgery or treatment, but the cancer won’t kill you.”

My mantra after that meeting was simply this: It’s going to totally suck, but it won’t kill me.

Just as I could feel myself climbing to the top of the roller coaster, thinking I was about to enjoy the view from my sky-high perch, I began the descent. The fall was swift and I could barely catch my breath. I call it anxiety because there really isn’t another word that accurately describes it. It’s really much more than that. It’s a total and complete breakdown of your normal physiological and mental capabilities. My fingertips would tingle and go numb. Sleep was elusive. My head felt like it was buzzing. I lost three pounds in as many weeks. When I did sleep it was hard; not hard like a good sound sleep, it was hard as if every muscle was clenched. When I would fall asleep, the pain in my shoulders would jolt me awake. I would wake up with sore muscles and aching joints. I recognized often that I probably had not taken a complete breath within the past hour. My chest burned.

I rode my bike. I weeded the garden. I helped Audrey sew a mermaid tail out of a deconstructed lab coat. Yes, we did this. Nothing helped.

The cancer I have may not kill me but the impending heat attack I’m about to have certainly will.

I called my surgeon and he was out. My primary care physician is out on maternity leave. My GYN is out of Fridays. I called the scheduling desk at Baton Rouge Clinic and all I can say is that those ladies are total rock stars. I tearfully told her what was happening and she kept me on the line while she called every internist in the building until a human answered. She’d been in the game long enough and knew better than to put me through to a voicemail.

I met with a doctor I’d never met before which only ratcheted up my anxiety. What if he tells me to suck it up and be strong? What if he thinks I’m crazy? What if he thinks I’m doctor shopping?

He didn’t think any of that. In fact, when I opened my mouth to talk with him and only tears came out, he assured me that I really didn’t have to tell him anything. He was there with me and for me.

The truth is, I’m not a pill person. I’m not really a medication person. I’d rather not take anything if I can help it. My progesterone cream is all natural and I buy it at Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nut, I use bleach to clean my toilets. I’m just not a big fan of medication. Honestly, it scares me a bit.

But this is different.

Basically all of my panties are big girl size so I did the right thing and popped that fucker before bed. I silently prayed that I wouldn’t die. I mean, how bad would that suck? I’m happy to report that, in fact, I did not die, instead….I slept. I slept comfortably and relaxed. I didn’t sweat all night. My joints didn’t ache. Praise. The. Lord.

It’s Saturday and we had to get out of the house. I desperately needed to get out of the house. I wanted to go to the zoo but I didn’t want to be a wreck the entire time. I (somewhat) confidently took a tiny dose and we all headed to the zoo. I didn’t die. I had fun. I smiled. I felt normal. Something I haven’t felt in a long time. Every time I checked I was actually breathing; full and complete breaths. Despite my fears, I didn’t fall into the Koi pond or end up inside the monkey enclosure, either. I was a normal mother, a normal wife, on a normal trip to the zoo.

I’m still not sure that I’m a pill person or love the idea of medication. But, for what this has done for my quality of life (and not dying from it), all I can say is praise sweet Jesus, Mother Mary, and any and all of the Saints that had a hand in creating this tiny, round, miracle tablet.

Peace out. (Like, literally, I’m at peace.)

xoxo