The Post-Cancer Reality Check

When I was going through cancer, I took every opportunity that was presented to me to find the lesson in whatever terrible thing I was facing at the time.

When it was over, I promised myself that I’d never go back to the way things were, now that I’d seen firsthand how fleeting life is. I now knew what was important in life: time with my family, meditation, eating well, exercise, and simply having space to enjoy my life.

I am a year and a half post-treatment now, and I’m coming up against a wall that I didn’t expect to.

As a cancer survivor — heck, as a human — there are a lot of “shoulds.” You should avoid stress. You should eat mostly vegetables. You should exercise a minimum of thirty minutes a day. The list goes on and on. But after having cancer, these “shoulds” now have the added pressure of feeling like “musts.” What happens if you DON’T eat well and exercise and keep your stress level down? Well, the insinuation is that if you don’t, your cancer will come back.

The wall I’m running up against is called “reality.”

Reality is, I am more privileged than most people and I still cannot make this stuff happen. I am lucky to have a well-paying job that I really enjoy, a supportive family and partner I adore, excellent health insurance, and a great amount of community support.

However, a full-time job 30 minutes away and two kids in the house means that a lot of the things I felt like I needed to do are simply not possible. I don’t have enough time off to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom every week — or really at all. I don’t have enough energy or time during the day to exercise on a daily basis, or meditate, or have the spaciousness to not run from one thing to the next. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to lower my stress level — life keeps happening.

Earlier this week I called my parents because reality was really upsetting me. I’m not getting home until it’s dark, I’m falling asleep at 8:30 p.m. because I’m exhausted, and I keep getting stressed and exhausted by life. Something has to change! My dad listened quietly and then said, “you know, this is what I dealt with the vast majority of my working career. Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other and do what needs to be done.”

I was surprised by how much I hated what he said — it terrified me. And then I realized that I’d been telling myself a very scary story: If you don’t change your life, your cancer will metastasize and you will die. Life as it was, before cancer, is what gave me cancer.

When I really evaluate that statement, though, I don’t think I believe it.

The people I know who died from cancer — especially the young people — lived healthy lives and died anyway. Some people who live straight-up unhealthy lives either don’t get cancer at all or don’t have it come back despite drinking, smoking, and being overweight. To tell myself that I will die from cancer if I don’t exercise daily and eat 90% vegetables is unrealistic and is adding more stress. I can’t do all the “shoulds” and do what needs to be done to keep life going. And the truth is, I could do everything “right” and still have it come back.

When you’ve had cancer, there are all sorts of emotional things to deal with after its all “over.” As time has gone on, I think about cancer less and less. I haven’t convinced myself I have cancer in random body parts in quite awhile, for example. But every once in awhile, I realize that the trauma is still alive and well, hiding somewhere and affecting how I live my life.

Sometimes (maybe most of the time), life is hard and complicated. I truly believe that the source of most emotional suffering is wanting things to be different than they are. Some things are worth attempting to change — for example, a job you hate or people who don’t treat you well. But some things are just part of life, and acceptance of your circumstances is the difference between being thankful for what you have, and always feeling dissatisfied.

I’m trying to find the balance.


Identity After Cancer

Last weekend I took my daughter for a lunch date at a local cafe, and I found myself transfixed by a waitress’ breasts. I fully recognize this sounds weird, and I’m not even going to attempt to defend it — it is super weird.

This woman was relatively small with an enormous bust. I realized after a few minutes of side-eyeing her, that I was transfixed in part because I think I might have looked like her. You know, before cancer. It made me realize why people (mostly men) used to stare at me before.

Treatment seems to affect most of us the same way. We lose our hair, our muscle mass, and any preoccupation with the mundane. Our bodies inflate from the steroids and then the inactivity.

When I meet other “cancer friends,” they are post diagnosis. Some are post treatment. I know these women’s hearts. I know them. But I know the post-cancer them. When I see photos of them on Facebook from before cancer, they have long hair and are thinner, and are sometimes rock climbing or bungee jumping or doing something they sure as hell don’t do anymore. So do I really know them?

I moved to a new city after my treatment, so I’ve met a lot of people who only know the After Cancer me. These people know the person I have become. Emotionally I am stronger, wiser, and have a laser-focus on what matters to me.

But my body doesn’t feel like it’s my own. It is a stranger. It’s a soft-in-all-the-wrong-places, weak, and sometimes scary place to live. I don’t know what I’m able to do anymore, physically. I worry about my aches and pains, unsure of what their cause is. I’ve had my hip and my chest x-rayed, worried that prolonged pain meant a distant recurrence to my bones or lungs.

When I meet people now, I can choose to tell them that I had cancer or I can hide it. If I tell them, most won’t have a clue what I’ve been through or how it’s affected me. Some get super awkward, because I’ve just dropped an unexpected emotional bomb and they don’t quite know what to say. If I hide it, I hide a huge portion of what makes me, me. And it makes it seem like this body and this hairstyle are what I’ve chosen to define me. Like I’m the type of woman who gets a short haircut, when in reality I do not have the cajones to do that.

I had dinner with a group of girlfriends the other night. I met these wonderful women through Charlie’s preschool. They knew me before cancer, supported me through treatment, and know me now. I felt seen. These women don’t treat me any differently than they ever have – though I do get the sense that they are perhaps extra thankful that I’m sitting at that table with them – and for that I am grateful. They know my whole story, and honest-to-god, I feel they know me.

Identity after cancer is a weird, murky thing. It’s sort of like going through adolescence and having to figure out who you are all over again (but without the seventh grade bullies, whew). I’ve been feeling more like myself lately, which I attribute to two really superficial things and one really deep thing.

The two superficial things are this: 1) I got my eyebrows microbladed (permanent makeup). My eyebrows never came back after chemo, and I woke up every morning looking like a cancer patient. This is one of the best things I could have done for myself, because I finally recognize myself in the mirror again. And 2) I got a new office job that gives me a reason to wear my cute clothes and jewelry again, which is fun and creative and me.

The one deep thing is this: My new office job is not about cancer. My new office job is creative and fun and I am surrounded by passionate people who have nothing to do with cancer. It’s a job with deep meaning — feeding hungry people in five counties — and lots to be done. This means that on a daily basis, I am using my brain to do something fun instead of getting distracted by cancer. This new chapter made me remember myself again. And like my eyebrows, my new office job is one of the best things I could have done for myself.

The months after treatment are long and confusing. There’s nothing to focus on except what isn’t right: your brain is foggy, your chest is super weird looking, random body parts hurt, you’re exhausted, overweight, and have no idea which way is up. During treatment, you know exactly why you feel awful. After treatment, you wonder if you’re supposed to feel this awful, or something is wrong.

I am coming up on my two-year Cancerversary. I was diagnosed on July 14, 2017. I finished treatment April 27, 2018 — over a year ago. If someone had told me that it would take me a year to stop feeling flat-out awful, it would have depressed the hell out of me. I’m pretty sure the only thing worse would have been to say nothing and then send me back to work, which is exactly what they did.

Healing after cancer is a physical and emotional process, and it takes time. I’m still working on it, and I have down days — especially when I get morbid about my life expectancy — but I can see some light now. And for that, I am thankful.

Happy New Year from the Cancer Patient: Here’s What I Have to Say


You could fill stadiums and football fields with the stuff I don’t know. I am terrible at names, for example. I am one of those ignorant people we’re ashamed of who can’t name most of the people in power. Math (especially common core) is not my strong suit.

But what I do know is this:

There are good people in this world. So many of them. There are people who are truly selfless. They don’t do kind things because of the likes they’ll get on Facebook or because they get something out of it. They do it because they are generous, good people.

Since my cancer diagnosis, these people have come out of the most unexpected places. My babyhood best friend. Someone I didn’t know well from high school. A lovely woman I met on a press trip to Hawaii. The group of women I blogged with a decade ago. Moms at school I never even spoke to. There are countless community programs run by volunteers who really, honestly care about the people they serve.

Other people have shown up in ways I never would have expected. Friends who sneak food into your refrigerator and arrange get togethers so you don’t get depressed. Friends who leave a bag of unicorn-themed things on your doorstep, bring scarves for your head, an incredibly expensive wig, and lemon treats because they heard you’ll lose your tastebuds. Friends who say truly thoughtful and caring things to me, online and in person, to lift me up.

And there’s the people you hope will stand by you – your parents, your aunt, your partner – who go above and beyond every single day. Who support you as your hair falls out, you melt down, or you simply don’t know what to do next.

Cancer has shown me that I will never be able to properly thank all of the people who have done kind things for me. That the two survivors who work at Charlie’s school will never know how much their thoughtfulness means to me. That there’s no way to describe how much the weekly cards from my boyfriend’s parents brighten my day every single time. That my cousins, aunt, and two close friends will never know the gratitude I feel every time I put on one of the scarves they gave me.

This is not because I don’t thank them – of course I do – but because I truly can’t express just how much it means. To know that you are cared for, and thought of, by people who expect nothing in return.

Since this journey began, and I began sharing my experience, I’ve been told that I have inspired people. But all I’ve done is share my experience. What is truly inspiring to me is the absolute breadth of giving I have witnessed, with no ulterior motive. It truly has changed my life and inspired me to be a better, more generous person myself.

Before I had cancer, I didn’t know how many amazing people I’d surrounded myself with. I didn’t know how to let people help me. I didn’t know how to let other people carry me. I thought I was the helper, but all this time I’ve not known the first thing about what truly giving is.

These people have inspired me and have shown me a generosity that I will absolutely never forget as long as I live. Yes, cancer has changed me. But what has truly changed me is seeing the people in my life for who they are. Good, good people.

Thank you.

The Spiritual Awakening of a Nonbeliever

I am not a religious person. For the vast majority of my life, actually, I’ve not even considered myself spiritual – I always referred to myself as an atheist-leaning agnostic. But a few months ago, I had somewhat of a spiritual awakening.

I’m 30 now, and I know a few of my friends feel like there’s something missing in their spiritual life. That’s why I want to share what’s changed for me.

As I mentioned earlier, C has had a rough go of it, and she has a lot of fears. These fears often mean that she is terrified to go to sleep. During the worst times, I have to lay with her so that she can fall asleep – and she often sleeps so lightly that if I even move my arm, she grabs onto me, thinking I am leaving her alone.

After a particularly rough bedtime at the beginning of this year, I laid in her bed at 7:45pm with my 25-pound child literally on top of me, clinging to my neck. I was close to tears: It had been nearly a year, and things simply were not getting any easier.

As I lay there, I started to wish I believed in God. People who have faith have lightness about them; how freeing it must be to trust that everything will work out for the best, because it’s not in your hands. Just listen to God, and He will guide you.

The problem is, I just can’t believe in God. It’s not in me. And as I lay there, I felt a profound grief for not having faith. I really wanted to give up control. I needed to believe that everything would be okay. Saying to myself “she won’t be sleeping on top of me when she’s 25,” really didn’t help.

As I continued to think about it, though, I realized that I actually did believe that everything would be okay in the end, because I had my intuition – and it’s always right. I often ignore(d) it, but it’s still right. In that moment, I realized that, as long as I listen to my intuition, things would be okay. Life might be absolute shit at times, but I truly do believe that things will eventually be okay.

And you know what? There is value in the hard times. Every struggle is a gift that makes me stronger and teaches me more about myself. Sometimes I learn right away, and sometimes I need the same lesson over and over until I “get” it. Religious people say that you can’t pray for patience and just have it when you wake up the next morning. Instead, God gives you a problem that teaches you patience. If you don’t learn it the first time, you get more and more problems. I believe that too, minus the God part.

Since this realization, I’ve been trying to listen to my intuition – but it’s a lesson I need over and over again. In fact, looking back on my life, I’ve been getting this lesson for years. Like Oprah says, it’s starts out as a whisper, and if you ignore it, the Universe starts screaming at you.


Here’s my problem: I love control. Control has kept me afloat my entire life. It’s the only thing that’s helped me manage the hard times, and it’s helped me accomplish a lot. Unfortunately, Control is the enemy of Intuition. Control talks mad crap about Intuition. For example, take first impressions: Intuition doesn’t like that guy I met on the bus. Control, though, insists on being nice: What do you know about that guy, Intuition? You don’t know him at all, and you shouldn’t be rude. Don’t date him, but there’s no reason not to be friends with him. And when the guy turns out to be a total freak, Intuition wags her finger and says, “I told you so.” Yup, should have listened to Intuition. Another lesson.

I now practice meditation as a means of hearing the whisper of my Intuition. I suck at making sure I actually do it, but I’m getting better – anytime I feel off center, I sit down. Yoga is also helpful. (On a side note, I use an iPhone app called Samsara for meditation, and My Yoga Online for yoga, because my schedule doesn’t allow for classes. I highly recommend checking out Dina Amsterdam’s videos if you join My Yoga Online.)

Overall, this has brought a sense of peace to my life that I really needed, especially because the past year and a half has shaken me to my core. And the best part of it? Everything I need is inside me, which makes me feel stronger and more capable. And that’s a great lesson to teach C when she’s older.

I’ve talked to a few women who are going through a spiritual awakening right now – my divorce attorney said it’s the Saturn Return. I have no idea what it is, but I’d love to hear your experience if you’re dealing with anything similar!

Sense and Sensitivity: Why there’s no such thing as “too sensitive”

I am not "too sensitive" and neither are you: why sensitivity is an asset, not a handicap

When I graduated from college, I had a bumper sticker on my car that read, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” At the time, I struggled with being “too sensitive” and taking things “too personally.” Part of the reason I had that bumper sticker was to remind myself that, when I was feeling “inferior,” it wasn’t about the other person’s words. It was that I was too sensitive. Looking back, I’m pretty horrified by this: holy let’s-blame-the-victim, amiright?

At the time, my ultimate goal was to develop such a thick skin that I would never feel inferior, no matter what someone else said to me. I viewed sensitivity as a negative trait, and the bumper sticker reminded me to suck it up and get over it.

That attitude caused me to excuse a lot of very inexcusable behavior from others.

Sensitivity is often used as a weapon in the Blame Game. In my experience, I’ve been told I’m “too sensitive” by people who want to excuse their own bad behavior – and that’s not fair. But it goes both ways: some sensitive people expect others to tiptoe around their feelings, and that’s not fair either. Untangling the role that sensitivity plays in your relationships can be really difficult.

I obviously felt a lot of shame around my perceived “over sensitivity,” which is why I let people treat me like garbage. It’s taken a long time, but I now embrace sensitivity as a strength rather than a handicap.

In fact, if you use it correctly, sensitivity can be your greatest asset. Look at it this way: Having emotional intelligence can help you a lot in life, and it’s much easier to understand your own emotions (and those of others) when you’re sensitive.

Sensitivity also is a feedback system. It can tell you a great deal about yourself and your experience of life, and about the people around you. In my mind, sensitivity is a great blessing.

And that’s what I didn’t understand at 22. Sensitivity isn’t something to change – it’s a skill to develop. It’s not easy, though: Learning to honor and “handle” sensitivity is, at least for me, a battle. Turning “too sensitive” into a source of strength and pride requires a lot of personal work. But if we work hard enough, we sensitive folk can thrive in our relationships, because we can communicate on a very deep level. And if we take the added step of sharing our feelings…well, that’s real strength. Vulnerability is the ultimate Big Scary Thing.

Developing a thicker skin is a necessary life skill too, but I actually think it can be a byproduct of honoring sensitivity. I don’t feel shame over my sensitivity anymore, which has allowed me to respect my own feelings and opinion. I can now (usually) tell the difference between my own “stuff” and somebody else’s “stuff,” which means I don’t blame myself for other people’s issues as much.

It took me years to develop a thick skin, and when I look at my daughter, there’s no doubt she’s mine. She is exactly as I was as a child. It’s not a matter of being thin skinned – it’s a matter of having no skin at all. Other people’s emotions deeply affect her, whether their feelings are directed at her or not. As I child, I remember being wracked with guilt at the very thought of someone else’s hurt feelings. I constantly apologized for things that were not my fault.

One of my main worries as a parent is learning how to help C develop boundaries and a “thick skin,” but also simultaneously recognize that her sensitivity is a gift. Empathy is a beautiful, beautiful thing. It is what makes this world tolerable. People without empathy hurt others; people with empathy help the wounded.

Like me as a child, C is very perceptive, and is affected by what she knows other people want her to feel or do. Quite frankly, I think it’s pretty remarkable to see behavior like that in such a young child (there’s more of that innate temperament I was talking about, right?). As she grows up, it will be a challenge for her – as it was for me – to find her own honest and true voice, and to speak up despite other people’s opinions. I want her to feel safe and comfortable to be her own, genuine and beautiful self: no fake laughs or holding in her tears.

What about you? Have you been called “too sensitive”? Do you see it as a positive or negative thing?