Why We Shouldn’t Judge: What is Strength or Bravery, Anyway?

Last year, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation and was very quiet about the whole thing. She put her head down and got through it without saying much of anything. At the time, it seemed like I was more upset about it than she was (I mean jeez Mother, I’d already informed you that you were not allowed to get it, and you were not following directions!).

Meanwhile, my diagnosis has upended my entire life. I’m off work. I’m telling everyone and their dog what this experience is like. Was she braver than I am for pushing through without saying a word? Should I be quiet or attempt to work through my treatment? Would that make me stronger? Or am I braver than my mom for sharing my experience? What is strength, anyway?

A lot of people get cancer. I’m sure everyone reading this has been touched by it in some way or another — if not personally, then by someone you know well. Five girlfriends of mine had/have it (four breast, one thyroid). My mom, two aunts, and two grandmothers had it (all breast). My cousin had lymphoma. And there are lots of acquaintances, too.

Yesterday, my earliest childhood friend came to visit. She had a different type of cancer at 29, and she handled it differently than my mom and I did. And last night, I talked with two friends who currently have breast cancer as well. Emotionally we’re all coping in different ways, and on top of that, we all marveled at how different our treatment regimens are. Three different women with three entirely different treatment plans, all tailored to our specific types of breast cancer. Thank God for modern science and how far we’ve come.

To me, one of the biggest lessons of this experience is we should never, ever judge another person or the way they handle a diagnosis like cancer. No two types of cancer are the same, no two people are the same, and no two people handle their diagnosis the same way. No one is stronger or braver than anyone else.

Some things make my experience worse, and some things make it better. The overall picture is that it is different, how I handle it is different and there is no “right” or “strong”  way to handle cancer, or anything else in life.

  • Getting cancer in your 20s or 30s is more serious than getting it later in life . . . AND I caught my cancer earlier than many people catch theirs and my survival outlook is far better than other people’s.
  • Losing my breasts and all my hair in the prime of my physical life is devastating . . . AND my hair will grow back and I am a candidate for reconstruction.
  • Having cancer when you have small children is different than if you’re single or have grown children  . . . AND I already have an amazing child, and I have not been robbed of the experience of motherhood.
  • Having cancer when you’re a single parent is scarier than when you’re married or have a partner you trust  . . . AND if something happened to me, my child does have a father and wouldn’t go into foster care, which would be way worse.
  • Having a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation is different than having just one or two . . . AND my chemo regimen is not as aggressive as it could be, so it won’t be as hideous as it could be.

This list could seriously go on and on, and I am making this list specifically to shine a light on the fact that if any of these things were different, my experience would be entirely different than what it is now.

Everyone’s cancer, and their experience of it, is different. It differs by the age you get it, what type it is, the stage it is, the treatment you have, your support system, your marital status, whether you’ve had or want children, and your experience with the healthcare system.

No person’s way of handling their pain – emotional or physical – is any better or worse than anyone else’s. No one is stronger or weaker. We are all different, and we all handle things differently.

In the hospital and at every visit since, doctors and nurses have asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1-10. In the hospital I had a really hard time with my medications. They couldn’t seem to get my pain under control; if a medication worked to control the pain, it caused unbearable nausea.

At one point a nurse came into the room and apologized that they’d had such a hard time finding the right drug combination for me. At Kaiser, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain control, and there is zero judgement. I believe their philosophy can apply to anything in life, and I think it’s really important. Here’s what the nurse said:

We don’t ever attempt to judge people’s pain. We ask them to tell us how they feel, and then we alleviate people’s pain according to how they judge their pain. Who are we to say that one person’s pain isn’t as bad as another’s?

Everything in life, cancer and pain tolerance included, is relative to your own life experience. We all have different experiences with cancer before we get it. Having a good friend die of my same cancer profoundly impacted the way I have coped with my own. Had I not known her, this experience would have been different. Having a family history changed the way I dealt with it. So very many things affect how we handle every problem we face in our lives, and no way of handling it is better or worse than another.

So here we are, back to my original question – is my mom braver than I am because of how she handled her cancer? We’ve come to the conclusion that no, she wasn’t any more or less brave than I am.

We are all doing what we can to get through our lives, cancer included, and we’re choosing to do it in the way that feels the least traumatizing to us. For me, cutting my hair short wasn’t an act of bravery; it’s less scary to me than shaving it all off in one fell swoop, or letting it fall out in clumps. Sharing my experience with all of you isn’t an act of bravery; writing is how I cope with any experience in my life, and this (unlike my divorce) is something I feel comfortable sharing publicly.

I am starting not to believe in strength or bravery. We all do what we can, to the best of our ability. What do you think?

The gorgeous flowers in the featured photo were sent along with a yummy candle by one of Bear’s coworkers, Maddi, who I fell madly in love with last summer (shh…not sure if she knows the depth of my feelings). They allegedly came with salted caramels too, but I will DENY EVER HAVING SEEN THEM because OMG they were delicious.

Cancer is Sorta Like SoulCycle

I’ve never been much of an athlete. After 35 years my dad still gets a chuckle out of his joke that I’m “allergic to exercise.” For the record, I’m convinced is totally genetic from his side (take that Dad!).

But a couple of years ago, I signed up for something called ClassPass. If you know what ClassPass is, you can skip to the next paragraph. If not, here’s how it works: you paid (at the time) $99 a month, and you had unlimited access to a whole bunch of different exercise classes. You could to Pilates, yoga, aqua aerobics, you name it. If you wanted to go 3 times a day, you could. It was unlimited. I started working out 4-5 times a week and started to love exercise. I liked most of classes, never got bored, and was open to trying other classes that weren’t part of the ClassPass program.

One of the things I tried with my friend Tuba was SoulCycle. SoulCycle is like riding a stationary bike, but to very loud music and with candles. It’s like extreme biking with a spiritual twist. And it’s hard.

Every time I went to a SoulCycle class, my self-talk went something like this:

  1. OMG I’m scared, this is gonna be so hard.
  2. Hey, this isn’t so bad, what was I worried about?
  3. Okay, this is getting a little harder.
  4. My butt hurts.
  5. OMG what if I have an asthma attack? What if I fall off this bike?
  6. I’m not going to make it!
  7. Turn up the resistance?! NO! I’m not going to make it!
  8. Wait, there’s only 10 minutes left. I can totally do this.
  9. It’s over. I DID IT!
  10. I rock!

I wish I could tell you that I stopped having this internal dialogue and remembered how this worked the previous 5 times I’d been to SoulCycle, but I didn’t.

Instead, SoulCycle taught me a very valuable lesson that I didn’t know before: intense physical exercise is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. In fact, it might even be more of a mental challenge than it is physical. Working through the “I cants” is really hard. It take practice – lots and lots of practice – to learn that your body can do more than you think it can. If I’d gotten off the bike, I never would have learned that.

I’ve now had two cancer- related surgeries. One giant one (double mastectomy with reconstruction) and one baby one (I had a chemo port installed). Both times, I had moments where I thought, “I can’t do cancer. It’s too hard. I just can’t.”

Unlike SoulCycle, though, you can’t get off the bike. You have no choice but to keep going. Truly, my only other options are jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or dying a slow and horrible death, and I don’t consider either of those options. And so I keep going.

I realized yesterday while two nurses were stabbing me eleven times trying to get a vein, that my biggest enemy is my own anxiety. My fear of the future and all it’s possibilities is the cause of the vast majority of my misery right now. I couldn’t calm down, was shaking like a leaf, and kept going waaaaaay too far in the future with the what if’s:

  • What if I have a bad reaction to the chemo?
  • What if the double mastectomy wasn’t the worst part, and the chemo is?
  • What if I have an emergency and end up in the hospital?
  • What if I have an emergency in the middle of the night and I’m alone with Charlie?
  • What if I go through all this and have a recurrence?
  • What if I have to go through this again?
  • What if I have to go through all this and die anyway?

I’m sure we can all agree, those are some pretty horrific “what ifs” compared to “what if I have an asthma attack or fall off this bike?” Needless to say, it’s really hard to stay in the moment and maintain positivity when you’re facing cancer instead of a 45 minute biking class.

But the lesson here is that I wasn’t even having chemo in that moment, and I wasn’t even going to get chemo for another week. In that moment, I was sitting in a hospital bed, surrounded by my parents, my boyfriend, and two nurses, and I was totally safe. All they were trying to do was put an IV in, which I’ve had done dozens of times. In that moment, my biggest problem was my own fear of the future.

I talked to a reiki healer today (because I’m a hippy in case you didn’t know it), and she suggested I look at things a bit differently. Instead of thinking of chemo as a negative poison that will cause me all sorts of problems, look at chemo as a detox.

I already slew the dragon (i.e., the cancer), and I am currently cancer free to the best of anyone’s knowledge. Now I’m flushing my body of any possibility of any remaining cancer cells. When they put the drugs in my port, thank them for doing their job. If I throw up, think about it as expelling the cancer. My job is to let the drugs do their job. Rest, drink vegan protein shakes, drink lots of water, and I will do very well.

I have a long, healthy life ahead of me, and this is a dark valley. I’m almost out of it.

I really liked her perspective.

By the way, I have a new mantra to replace the old one: I am cancer free, and always will be. There’s something stronger about this one.

The featured photo is me, after my minor surgery yesterday. The artistic additions are by Bear. And to answer your questions: the port is basically an IV. You can have your blood drawn and drugs given through your port, but you cannot be fed mashed potatoes (or kale).

I’m About to Lose My Favorite Physical Attribute, and Here’s How I’m Coping


Raising a daughter, I’ve always wanted to show Charlie that her personality and her soul are more important than her physical body. I want her to feel good about herself and see that she’s worth more than her gorgeous face & body. I will pray to whomever is listening that she gets through her teenage years without choosing an abusive boyfriend or shorts that show the bottom of her butt cheeks. (I MEAN REALLY GIRLS STOP IT.)

But real talk, I like mascara, bright lipstick, and cute hair. Getting dressed in the morning is like, totally a highlight of my day.

So this morning, when I realized that I likely washed my long hair for the last time in a very long time, I was feeling pretty damn sad.

I previously said that I wasn’t feeling too bad about losing my hair. In the comments of my last post, my new friend and fellow cancer survivor Grace said that losing her hair made her feel like her outside finally matched her inside. I think deep down, this is why I wasn’t super upset about the idea. Right now my cancer diagnosis is invisible, which I’m sure is a blessing in its own right. But most of the time, it makes me feel like something Huge and Life Altering has happened to me and no one can see it. Somehow it feels dishonest, which is an odd feeling considering I’m a total blabbermouth.

It takes about 2-4 weeks for your hair to fall out from chemo, so I made a plan that I thought (at the time) was super fabulous. I’ll get my hair cut into a cute pixie (or who knows? Maybe a wild mohawk!) before chemo starts, get used to shorter hair, and then I’ll shave it all off once it starts to fall out. I’ll do something wild, fun, and, most importantly, distracting. I’ll turn this whole hair loss thing into an exciting party on my head and make it through with as little trauma as possible.

I decided to do this the weekend before I start chemo. Bear’s mom is a talented stylist, and she’d agreed to fly up from Los Angeles to give me my fabulous new cut.

But I start chemo in 9 days. Single digits. The weekend before chemo is this coming weekend. So I did the only logical thing: I had a meltdown and called my mommy.

A few weeks ago, Bear’s mom colored my hair, so it’s been looking extra beautiful lately. (Here we are in my bathroom, me wearing a black trash bag & looking really glamorous. Thank you so much for doing this, Pam!)


Ever since, I look in the mirror and I am reminded how very much I love my hair. 

I love everything about my hair (except that it grows out of my head 40% gray, but that’s neither here nor there). Nature randomly gifted me with perfect loose curls, and chemistry gifted me with perfect color. It is one of my favorite parts of my physical self, and I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I thought I wouldn’t miss it.

What follows is an ode to my hair.

I have a long history with my hair. In elementary school, I was known for my exceedingly long hair — like, past my butt long. Check it out (this is me in 5th grade. Do you like my headband and my tucked-in, oversized tee?):


In late high school, I had a really short cut. See below (sorry to all the North Salem High folks I’m bringing down with me in this photo – it couldn’t be helped).


After that, I let it grow, and when I moved to San Francisco in 2014 something magical happened: my hair changed texture and turned into perfect loose curls. I was in heaven.

My hair was gorgeous. It was my crowning glory. I loved it. My ex-husband joked (at  least, I think it was a joke) that he’d leave me if I ever cut it. Check this out (and my beautiful friend Lisa):


Then a couple of years ago, I randomly decided that I identified too much with my long hair and decided to cut it short(-ish).

On Halloween 2015, I went to see a new and fabulous stylist named Sara who was dressed as a unicorn. I felt like I’d met my spirit animal, and she chopped my hair into something short and really fab. Here Charlie and I are, post-chop:


It was fun, kind of flirty, and something I emotionally needed to do (check out the warrior ring I’m wearing in that photo, btw). I was glad I did it, but I’ve been growing it out ever since.

Bottom line: I like myself with long, red, curly hair, and I think cutting it all off may not actually be fun. It might be traumatizing and include a lot of crying. At this point, my emotions change minute to minute, so I have no clue whether it’ll be The Shit or a Shit Show.

I ended up asking Bear’s mom to work her magic later, when my hair starts growing back all ugly after chemo, which will be a totally positive experience and OMG-the-horror-is-behind-me-and-I-have-nothing-but-happy-feelings.

For now, I have an appointment for next Saturday with Sara, my spirit animal. If I keep the appointment, this time next week I’ll have short hair. But the truth is, whether I keep the appointment or not, this time next month I won’t have any hair at all. You can’t stop the cancer train once you’re on it, unfortunately.

In any case, my intention is to rock my hair loss. I allow myself pity parties that last approximately 5-10 minutes, and then I figure out how to get over it. I’ve already got a VERY soft beanie, fabulous earrings, and a growing collection of awesome scarves.

Unlike the sensation in my breasts, my hair will come back. This is just another temporary style I’ll be rocking, much like my 80s crimped side-pony or my regrettable 90s spikes. I may not have chosen this, but it isn’t forever, and for that I am very grateful.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

When the Diagnosis is Worse Than You Expected

I’m starting to notice that in life, things don’t usually go as planned. For a Type A Planner like myself, this is really, really annoying.

When I got my original diagnosis of breast cancer, I told the radiologist that cancer wasn’t part of The Plan. “My boyfriend and I are working on blending our families, you see. That takes a lot of work and thought, and I do not have time for this cancer business.” He told me cancer is never part of anyone’s plan, but I totally didn’t believe him. Other people don’t plan like we do. We had The Plan AND THIS IS NOT PART OF IT.

The silver lining to my diagnosis was that it was most likely Baby Cancer. DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, is Stage 0 or Stage 1. It basically means that your cancer is contained to your milk duct. If it’s removed, the cancer is gone. You don’t have to have chemo or radiation, because it hasn’t spread at all. So in the beginning, The Plan was delayed but not totally screwed up.

If cancer is a scary movie, DCIS is basically Scooby Doo. You can get scared going into the Haunted Mansion, but at the end of the day, it all works out and you know what’s going to happen: everyone’s gonna be all right, Scooby will get his snacks, and everyone goes home happy and proud of themselves for surviving. There’s no better breast cancer diagnosis than DCIS. They warned me that they couldn’t diagnose DCIS “for sure” until they removed my breast, but it looked pretty good. “Baby Cancer,” I thought.

But it turned out that I don’t have DCIS. During my surgery, my breast surgeon found cancer in one of my lymph nodes, which meant that at age 34, I had invasive breast cancer. We had to wait for my pathology results to come back to find out what exactly that meant, but my initial reaction was two-fold.

First, I wasn’t surprised. I felt changes in my breast leading up to my surgery, and I had a feeling the cancer was moving. Secondly, I was pissed. This is not Scooby Doo. I was promised Scooby Doo and this is not effing Scooby Doo and I really don’t like scary movies, let alone horror movies, and if this turns into The freakin’ Exorcist, I’m going to lose my shit.

So here’s what I know, in list form, now that I’ve got the pathology results back and have had time to talk to a hundred doctors and my boss:

  • I’ve abandoned The Plan. We have no plan and are living day to day. This might be a Big Life Lesson about “living in the moment” or some crap (ugh, Big Life Lessons are always such a pain to learn).
  • I never felt a tumor, but I had one. It was 1.2 centimeters. I’d give it a name (because I name things), but I hate it and it’s dead and I’m not going to give it the dignity of a name.
  • Part of my surgery involved checking my lymph nodes for cancer cells. Turns out, that stupid tumor was already traveling, and they found cancer in one of my lymph nodes. They removed it and 14 other lymph nodes.
  • I am currently cancer free (this felt good to hear, but I don’t totally trust it), to the best of anyone’s knowledge. My treatment going forward is about preventing recurrence.
  • My positive lymph node means that I need to have chemotherapy. Chemotherapy will last 5-6 months. I will lose my hair. I start November 1, which is the day I was planning to return to work.
  • I will not be returning to work during chemo.
  • My cancer is Stage 2a. It is ER+ PR+ HER2- in case that means something to you. To quickly summarize, hormones helped it grow. The years I spent on birth control were not helpful, and I can never use hormone-based birth control again.
  • If I hadn’t caught it, it would have killed me. Hashtag blessed, hashtag grateful. Seriously.
  • I might need radiation, but they’re not sure yet (I’m guessing this is a yes for no reason other than I want to drop an atomic bomb on this problem).
  • My reconstruction will take longer than I expected, which I am not happy about because I hate the temporary tissue expanders I have in my chest.
  • Once chemo/radiation/reconstruction are over, my doctors will medically induce menopause, and for fifteen years I will have to take medication meant to block hormones. I will not have any more kids. Honestly, more kids were not in The Plan, but having that decision made for me still made me sad.

There are two possible timelines for my treatment. As we know now, plans don’t actually work out as planned (grrrr), so these are subject to change:

Timeline 1:

  1. Chemo, November 1 – April/May 2018
  2. Second Reconstruction Surgery, June/July 2018

Timeline 2:

  1. Chemo, November 1 – April/May 2018
  2. Radiation Therapy, June/July 2018
  3. Second Reconstruction Surgery, December 2018/January 2019



So how am I feeling about all this? Both pissed and scared, as you can probably tell. But also grateful for the lessons this is teaching me and the support I’m learning to accept.

I’m not thrilled about this being the next year of my life. The surgery and recovery have not been fun for me. I am not physically comfortable and don’t have clearance to do any of the activities I used to do, including drive, cook, or do dishes. The loss of independence — especially for a single mother who has been doing every single thing for the past six years — has been really hard to swallow. I’ve had to be vulnerable, let go of guilt, and rely on my partner, family, friends and strangers.

Oddly, I’m not too upset about losing my hair. For some reason I feel like I can “own” chemo and losing my hair and feel strong through it. I have a lot of cool scarves and a vision of what my “chemo style” will be. The double mastectomy on the other hand, is difficult to feel strong through. I’ve had to spend much of my time inactive on the couch, which is really hard for me. The recovery has been painful and emotionally scarring, and it’s invisible. Security guards are holding elevator doors for me and getting irritated that I don’t run for the door. I look perfectly healthy, and it’s been hard for me to figure out how to turn recovery (which apparently means a lot of “taking it slow”) into a source of strength.

One of the bigger issues I’ve had to work through is constantly identifying my cancer with the cancer of my friend who passed away in January. Before her metastasis, she was diagnosed as Stage 2b, with a positive node too. After she went through the same treatment I’m doing, she thought she’d been cured . . . and learned it had metastasized. And given she’s one of very few young women I actually know who had cancer, that positive node scared the shit out of me. In my mind, that node put me in her league, and she didn’t make it. To put it bluntly, I don’t want to be in her league (and I know she wouldn’t want me in it, either). As time has gone on, I’ve been able to absorb that women with later stages have gone on to live full and healthy lives. But this fear still lurks behind dark corners, even if it isn’t torturing me like it was before.

I think one of the biggest lessons I’m learning is that cancer is a constantly evolving experience. It is terrifying, and battling fear is something that we cancer patients & survivors have to handle on a daily or near-daily basis. There are a half-zillion “what-if’s” and absolutely none of them are helpful. As my wise friend Kate said last night, fear is the real battle. Battling against fear is what truly takes strength, and it’s a day-to-day and minute-to-minute fight sometimes.

So there you have it. My diagnosis was worse than I expected and the road ahead is longer than I expected. The Plan is dead, the tumor is dead, and now we’re taking things day by day.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

The featured image is basically where I’ve been spending my last five weeks – on my couch, under this gorgeous and cozy blanket from my friend Heather. Thanks Heather, it’s sooooo hygge.

What Being a Warrior Means to Me

This post originally appeared on Instagram and Facebook.


When I went through my divorce, I never took off this warrior ring. It was a reminder that I could get through any battle I faced (and there were many). Soon after I met Bear, though, the ring broke. I was devastated. It felt like I’d lost something that had been part of my body for four years. I decided to look at it as a sign that I didn’t need to battle through life anymore, and I set it aside.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I fixed it. That’s how you get through cancer, right? Like a warrior? But when I put it on, it didn’t feel right anymore. I couldn’t figure out why, and then suddenly I realized that there are two reasons this ring no longer works for me.

First off, I am choosing to look at my journey through cancer as healing, not fighting. I don’t need to be a warrior, I need to cuddle up in a soft blanket and let the drugs work & my body heal.

Secondly, the warrior on this ring is facing battle alone. Divorce can be a very isolating experience, and you’re alone a *lot* of the time, which you’re not used to. It is sad, and you need a reminder that you’re a warrior and you’ll get through it. But cancer has been different for me. I am privileged not to be alone at *all.* My friends and family and complete strangers have rallied around me to support me. I am not going into a battle, and I don’t need an army, because I have a tribe.

So with that, this ring is going back into retirement. It’s served its purpose, and I’m grateful for the support it gave me when I needed it. But I’m going to lean on my incredibly loving and generous friends and family now.

Thanks warrior, but I don’t need you anymore.

Our Bodies Mean Nothing, Our Bodies Mean Everything: Body Image Post-Mastectomy

The other night, I had a long & involved dream that ended with Robin Williams telling me I “used to be cuter.” The following night, I dreamt that I had a 5-inch-long black chin hair and nobody told me.

Clearly, I’m wrestling with some body image feelings.

Cancer involves a lot of appointments with a lot of different people. Breast surgeons, radiologists, plastic surgeons, mammography technicians, MRI technicians, CT technicians, nurses, breast oncologists, radiation oncologists…the list goes on and on. Every one of these people is highly, highly trained in their field and is excellent at their job. They talk to you about your cancer as if you are one of thousands — because you are. Your body is poked, prodded, manipulated, cut open, sewn shut, scanned, screened, dressed and undressed. All of this is done with the utmost care, but it still leaves you with the distinct feeling that your body is no longer your own.

Right after my surgery, I vaguely remember being wheeled into my hospital room from recovery and being lifted from the gurney to the hospital bed using a sheet. One specific nurse wasn’t being gentle enough with me, and I was angry. I felt like a hunk of meat, not a person. I was in excruciating pain, and to her I was just another broken body that needed to be moved.

But throughout all this, most everyone looks you in the eyes and sees you for what you really are. Your body might be broken (hopefully temporarily), but you’re a person, often a terrified person, with friends and family who love you and are terrified too.

When your body doesn’t work, you realize two things simultaneously:

1) Our bodies are not who we are. Whether they work or not, we’re still in there. I once asked my dad when he felt like a grown-up, and he responded, “sometimes I still look in the mirror and think, ‘who’s that old guy?!'” All the people in the hospital beds, in the wheelchairs, in the nursing homes . . . they are still in there, the same people they’ve always been. Our bodies mean nothing.

2) When our bodies don’t work, life really sucks. We might still be in there, but if you can’t walk, go to the bathroom on your own, lift a water bottle, take your child to school, or — worst-case-scenario — speak, life seriously sucks. So while our bodies mean nothing, they really mean everything. Without them, we can do very little in this world.

My good friend and work wife Amber came to visit me recently, and she recalled a story about me trying to quit sugar. It did not go well. I’ve always felt like I had about 10-15 extra pounds I’d like to get rid of, and that I should eat more greens, eat less animal products, quit processed foods, and exercise more. I also knew I was high risk for cancer, and that sugar feeds cancer. Plus, I suspected I had a dairy allergy that was causing me a lot of discomfort. I’ve always known these things, and I never did a damn thing about it.

Yet, when Charlie was a baby and I discovered she was allergic to dairy and wheat through my breast milk, I gave up both in a heartbeat. Despite suspecting my own dairy allergy, I was never willing to put my own health before a hunk of cheese. Cheese is delicious, so screw it, I thought. Plus, sugar is delicious, and I’m young, and cancer is a threat but not really a threat and I’m sure I’ll be fine.

But I am no longer fine. There is no mistaking it. I have lost both my breasts and I have a long road ahead of me, which I’ll get into later. My body may not be who I am, but I have resolved to take better care of it. I finally understand that it’s the only one I’ve got, and if it doesn’t work right, life is not fun.

My chest may look like a war zone to me, but I’m regaining strength in my arms. I can walk up the driveway (which is super steep) without pausing. I can buckle my own seatbelt.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

When I think about “kicking the shit” out of cancer, I immediately think of a warrior going into battle. But really, kicking the shit out of cancer is more about listening to your body and helping it heal. It means green smoothies, vegetables, taking naps, and enjoyable exercise. It means letting people help you. It means walks in nature and being grateful for the small things — like for example, this morning I washed my own hair without assistance.

I no longer care what my body looks like. This is not about 10-15 pounds, breast prostheses with scars all over them, or cellulite on my thighs. This is about a functional body — one that can climb stairs, run with my child, and live long enough to see my great grandchildren.

The featured image is an incredible handmade quilt my Aunt Maggie made for me to take to chemo.

An Ode to My Mother

This post is long overdue, in part because I’ve found it really difficult to write. How can I put into words what my incredible mother has done for me?

My middle school experience with bullying was one of the worst times of my life. My pregnancy and Charlie’s babyhood were both really difficult for me. My divorce was totally traumatic. And cancer: OMG cancer. She has held my hand through every awful thing I’ve ever faced in my entire life. She used her own personal experience to normalize my feelings, and it took becoming a mother myself to realize just how difficult her actions were (and are).

Cancer is the big kahuna.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to hold your adult daughter as she cries hysterically at losing her breasts, or to hear a surgeon come out of the OR to inform you that your daughter, who is a single mother, has invasive breast cancer.

She has cried with me, which has been incredibly comforting, but she’s also held it together during times that I never would have expected her to. Somehow, she always does the right thing at the right time, and I have no idea how she does it. I am in awe of her on a daily basis.

In my life, she has never overstayed her welcome or violated my boundaries. She is thoughtful, considerate, hilarious (an absolute necessity during these times), and one of the most easy-going people I have ever met.

It started with her immediately throwing things in a suitcase approximately 10 seconds after a totally unexpected cancer diagnosis during a totally unexpected biopsy on a random Friday afternoon. She was at my house, a full state away, with a fully stuffed SUV, the very next afternoon. She may have driven 90mph, but she’ll never admit it.

She has silently taken over the infuriatingly thankless job of packing lunches and snacks for my picky second grader, managed school pick-ups and drop-offs, pulled my pants on, washed my face and back, known what supplies I’ve needed and gotten them without my asking, gently encouraged me to lay the hell down, and found good TV shows to watch together. This doesn’t even begin to touch on what she’s done — and continues to do — every day. I couldn’t possibly list it all.

She is and always has been my best friend, and I recognize how totally rare and wonderful our relationship is. Thank you, Mom.

The thing about cancer (and other hard things) is surviving one moment at a time

I’ll be honest and confess that I’ve been struggling with how to share what recovery has been like for me.

I want desperately to be a beacon of positivity, and I’d say that for the most part, I’ve been successful in keeping a good attitude. But it has been very hard, too, and I don’t want to put on a facade and make it seem like things are okay 100% of the time. In reality, I’m learning to live minute to minute and ride whatever emotional wave I’m experiencing in that moment.

Sometimes you have to laugh at what’s going on – for example the other day I started craving Annie’s Homegrown gummy bunnies and ended up falling on the kitchen floor and not being able to get up. I started laughing so hard I cried, as Bear attempted to lift me up by my butt. I also got so scared by the air conditioning vent falling out of the window that I went into hysterics again and couldn’t stop laughing while my mom and Bear looked at me like I was bonkers. And, this morning I somehow ended up in the ridiculous situation of wearing a black plastic bag and sitting on a folding chair in the shower while Bear heroically washed my hair.

But the truth is, this is hard.

I’m afraid of chemo and radiation. I’m scared this isn’t the hardest part of this “journey.” I’m afraid of metastasis and I’m afraid of death. I find it easy to go down a rabbit hole of anxiety and not as easy to climb my way out of it.

And on top of the emotional stuff, I was not prepared physically for what a double mastectomy would actually be like. I’ve never had major surgery, and I kept hearing “you’re young, it won’t be that bad.”

Here are some things I expected:

  • I used to have major migraines, and when you take migraine medication, the pain goes away. I expected taking a bunch of opioids would make my pain go away.
  • I thought every day would get easier. I expected that as you heal, the pain is a bit less every day and before you know it, things are okay.
  • I expected to be able to do some things by myself. Like lift my own water bottle, or pull up my own pants.
  • I expected that after a week or so, I’d be regaining my strength by going on long walks with my friends.

Unfortunately, none of this was true.

The truth is, recovery is not as simple as “every day gets a little better.” Some days are a lot better than the day before, and because of that, I maybe do a little too much. And the next day I pay for it with muscle spasms, stabbing pains where my breasts used to be, and exhaustion.

This was very frustrating and deflating for me, until Bear sat down and explained recovery to me.

He explained that when you injure yourself, you have to work every day on small exercises to heal. And the next day, it hurts worse for awhile because you worked your injury the day before. And that while things do improve every day, they still start off hard. And if you overdo it, the next day you’ll feel it. Your body will be stiff, and you have to work your way through the pain all over again. This is all normal.

Learning that was such a relief.

He also suggested that the key to not getting overwhelmed is to set small, attainable goals every day. Some days my goals are things like, “respond to three emails.” Other days, they are, “watch two episodes of Game of Thrones and take a nap.” Today it was, “survive the first migraine I’ve had in seven years.”

In an attempt to avoid the rabbit hole of worrying about the future too much, I decided to make “keep the faith” my #1 goal every day.

Keeping faith in the face of something life threatening is extremely hard. Through my divorce, my faith was strong, because I know that I am strong. No matter what crap I had to deal with on a daily basis, I knew I’d get through it. But cancer is different, because it doesn’t give a crap how strong you are. It kills strong people every day. During my migraine this morning, I cried for my friend Brandi and my aunt Lois, two strong women who lost their lives to breast cancer far too young. Not identifying with them, especially when faced with a positive lymph node, is proving very difficult. When I finished crying for them, and for myself, I decided that I needed a positive mantra to focus on any time I start to spiral out of control. This is how I’m going to stay positive.

The mantra is:

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

Surviving the good or okay moments is a piece of cake. But during any hard time, whether it be recovery from addiction or illness or divorce, there are hard moments. And in those moments, it’s about surviving just that moment.

This is what I’ve decided to say to myself in the moments that aren’t good.

I’ll let you know if it works.

As It Turns Out, I Actually Do Have Cancer

Right before I left for the hospital for my double mastectomy on Thursday morning, I started to compose a post called, “I Don’t Feel Sick, So How Do I Have Cancer?”

The day before, I had a lot of ups and downs, ranging from “OMG this is the last full day my boobs will have on this planet!” to “OMG get these off” to “I can’t believe this is happening.”

One of the strangest things about cancer is that since my diagnosis, I’ve felt completely normal. I don’t feel like anything is wrong with me, so it’s easy to start wondering whether three types of imaging and two biopsies are actually, in fact, wrong.

But Thursday evening, however, things felt a lot different.

I woke up in the recovery unit breast-less and asked my mom what the breast surgeon had found when she biopsied my sentinel node. My mother looked at me sadly and said, “it’s invasive, Sari. It is in at least one of your lymph nodes.”

Oddly, I wasn’t surprised. For weeks, I’d been saying that I could feel it in there. I could feel it moving toward my armpit and inching toward my lymph nodes. I knew it was spreading, even though it wasn’t “supposed to.”

Yesterday as I was getting released from the hospital after 4 nights, the breast surgeon visited me on her rounds. That’s when I finally cried.

I cried because I am thankful I have such a capable breast surgeon. I cried because I met her before I knew I had cancer, and she was the one who quantified my risks, came up with a plan for early screenings, and warned me about how many false positives there can be. She was the one who called to say, “they think they found something funny on your very first MRI,” and there to say “I didn’t want or expect to see you with this diagnosis so soon.”

And in the hospital yesterday, she was there to confirm what I knew without a doubt all along: if I hadn’t caught this now, it would have killed me.

I had no lump. I had “DCIS” which we called “baby cancer.” Not real cancer because I found it really, really early. Nothing much to worry about – the cancer was contained, and once I removed it, it would be gone forever.

But as it turned out, I had a cancer that was ready to travel. I’m praying it never got the chance, that it reached that first node and stopped. I won’t know how bad the cancer is until we get the pathology results. But we do know that it’s bad – it’s not baby cancer.

So it turns out I have cancer. The kind of cancer that kills. The kind that likely requires both chemo and radiation. And in a dark moment during a particularly nauseating and painful episode post surgery, I thought, “I can’t do this. It’s too much pain. How can I go through this AND chemo and radiation? What if there’s no point? What if it’s too late, and it gets me like it got Brandi?” But like kids who think high school is the be-all-end-all, I didn’t have perspective. Now I’m seeing myself making progress every day and I know I will make it through this.

I am clinging to the survivors of “bad” cancer and remembering that yes, this cancer kills people. But also, sometimes it doesn’t. And in this case, I’m choosing to believe that it won’t.

The flowers in the featured image are from my high school friend Nick. Thanks for the cheer, Nick.

Grace Under Pressure Before a Double Mastectomy

The closer I get to this surgery (now T minus 6 days), the harder it is to handle my stress. I lay awake at 2:30 in the morning counting off the things that need to be done before I have limited use of my arms, and attempting to avoid thinking about how afraid I am of anesthesia.

When I wake up, my dread feels like it’s sitting on my chest, making it hard to breathe. I’m living minute to minute, trying not to break down in tears. It takes 16 minutes to drive my daughter to school, during which I’m trying to find the joy in her singing instead of letting the noise totally overwhelm me.

Because right now, I am easily overwhelmed – and it’s not just the noise. The cluttered state of my small house is hanging over me like a black cloud. I am obsessing over getting a storage space and moving the excess out as soon as possible. There’s too much stuff to do and not enough time to do it in, and I’m fighting the feeling that I honestly have no idea what I’m getting myself into, so I’m probably missing something necessary on my to do list.

Distractions help a ton, and my friends have been doing a great job (especially my friend Liz, for whom I am eternally grateful). But as soon as I’m alone — which has been inevitable, because I am still a single mom, technically — the anxiety comes rushing back immediately. I’m a relatively independent person, so my clinginess to other people is hard to get used to and is making me feel insecure. The good news is that my mom came last night, and Bear is here, so I won’t be alone again (even if it requires handcuffing one or both of them to the coffee table, which I’m not above doing).

People have been genuinely wonderful to me. Yesterday a co-worker sat me down, looked me in the eye, and asked me what he could do to help me. And he meant it.

So I did the only logical thing – I cried.

My reason for sharing this emotional roller coaster is not to garner sympathy or pity – in fact, I really really don’t want either of those. I just want to share what this experience has made me aware of, which is that we truly have no idea what other people are going through.

On the outside, I look totally normal – just another working mom dropping her 7 year-old off at school. To most of the other parents, I look the same  as I did last year. For those who know what’s going on, I look like I’m handling it all surprisingly well. Obviously that’s not entirely true.

I am choosing to share this experience, but a lot of people don’t tell anyone; they keep their struggles inside or only share with a small group of people. It’s a reminder to me, and hopefully to everyone, to be kind to everyone you meet.

Though full disclosure: if you make eye contact, I might start crying. Don’t be alarmed.

The bouquet of mini roses in the featured image is from my wonderful group of bees, who have totally lifted my spirits. Thanks guys.