Dwelling in Possibility

I’ve been pondering what to do with this blog much the same way I’ve been pondering what to do with my week, my year, my life. Everything is a swirl of dust these days. I don’t experience that as a negative. Living in swirls of dust is certainly challenging, but it is other things, too. There are particles of hope and love and inspiration spinning alongside the scary-side-of-the-unknown. There is doubt, uncertainty, sometimes even panic. (Where will I land? How will I land?) But there is also wide-open potential. There are whole new paths to carve, relationships to nurture, passions to explore. (Where will I land? How will I land?)

swirls star

My life is fraught with possibility.

Still, for the time being, I am swirling in dust, and how hard it is to take a step when everything around me is blurred.

But it is dawning on me, suddenly and miraculously, that perhaps my work is not to figure out where and how to land. Perhaps my work is to figure out how to float.

My life is not a life I’ve known before. I have one and one half feet out the door of a 15-year old-career, and rather than jam-packed days, I am hovering in hours of unstructured time. All three of these things are true at once:

  • I love my new life.
  • I feel terribly guilty about all this privilege.
  • I am (at best) slightly anxious at all times about how I use my time.

I like answers. I like clarity and direction and purpose. I like order. I like to have something to show for my day. I like lists and crossing things off of lists. I like movement: internal and external, physical and spiritual, tangible, emotional, interpersonal—you name it, I like movement.

But I also like the kind of quiet that only comes by slowing down. And I like the kind of possibility that only comes by dwelling in the unknown.

So many swirls of dust. So many crossroads.

I’ve written here before about trying to let the wind carry me (a beautiful way to float). But I realize I’ve been standing here, at point A, directing my gaze way out at the horizon, toward point B, saying, “Wind, please carry me there, to where all the answers are.” The “dawning” is that as long as I focus on the horizon, I’m missing the ground (or air) beneath my feet. “Be here now” has become a mainstream mantra as well as my own personal reminder, and tiny layer by tiny shift, I get a little closer to understanding how to be here now. This month, it’s with the realization that whether or not I’m in transition is beside the point. Even in transition, the point is not to get to the other side. The point is still—the point is always—to Be. Here. Now.

I am

Today is my birthday, and I keep thinking about what was happening one year ago. (I’ve actually been thinking about “one year ago today” for several weeks now. October started with, “One year ago today I found the lump,” and ended with, “One year ago today I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”) Now that it’s November 23rd, it is: “One year ago today, I was 5 days into my first chemo infusion.” One year ago today, I was so sick and so exhausted, that I spent most of my 40th birthday in bed, either sleeping or writhing or staring blankly at my wall. It was the very beginning days of, “I have never been so still.” It was also the very beginning days of a very long year of breast cancer treatment.

I am now in the beginning weeks of my first year post treatment. My last surgery was five weeks ago, and I am more or less physically recovered. (“More or less” because I have a long way to go before rebuilding the strength and stamina I lost to a year of aggressive chemo, radiation and surgery.)

I’ve written here before about how, for the majority of women, the first year post treatment is harder than the year of treatment itself. I know (and am comforted by the fact) that my current struggles are not unique, just as I know that in the months ahead, I will likely walk steep and treacherous road. In other words, I know I am not done with breast cancer. I know the hardest parts are likely yet to come. (Many of you know this because you know the same road. I hope the rest of you will realize it now, too: Your mother, sister, wife, daughter, friend who has just finished breast cancer treatment is not done with breast cancer. The hardest parts are likely yet to come.) All three of these things are true at once:

  • I am ready for the next leg of the journey.
  • I am terrified about the next leg of the journey.
  • I am brimming with eye-popping wonder about the next leg of the journey.

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For the last many days, as I start a new chapter of my life, I have wondered whether it is also time to start a new chapter with this blog. I know I will keep writing. I know that some (if not more than some) of that writing will continue to explore the impact of breast cancer in my life. I know that writers, like myself, want an audience and that I have been buoyed by this audience. I know that some of the blogs I most frequent are by women reflecting on life post breast cancer treatment, and that I could continue on here by doing the same. All of this is true, and yet, it feels like time to do something different.

I have no idea what that means, not yet, not amidst the swirls of dust. I think it is very likely that the “something different” will be a subtle shift: that I will continue to post here but with a new focus or a re-imagined site. I am not prepared to close the door. Instead, I am drawing a soft line in the sand; I am turning to a blank page and keeping the book open.

Until I return, I leave you with this picture of me cocooned by my wall of cards, which sprouted and bloomed over the last year. This picture, these cards, my wall — they are a tribute to my year, to so many of you, to what I have learned and survived and lost and loved. Thank you for walking here with me. I hope you will stick around and float with me for awhile, too.

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What to Expect Post Treatment

Oh, the things I’ve learned as a breast cancer patient.

I went to my first support group in February 2015, about five months after my diagnosis and four months into my six-month chemo regimen. It was the first time I heard women talking about how hard the end of treatment can be. Who would have thought that diagnosis and debilitating chemo and terrifying surgery would NOT be the hardest parts for so many women? Not me. Not until that first support group. And not until I experienced the struggle firsthand.

A few weeks ago, I picked up After Breast Cancer: A Common-Sense Guide to Life After Treatment by Hester Hill Schnipper. Though still technically in treatment (now with just one week of radiation to go!), I felt better physically, but my emotional life was twisting me in knots. It felt time to read the book that had been recommended to so many women before me in support group.

My first night with After Breast Cancer, my internal voice screamed, “I’m not crazy! HA! I’M NOT CRAZY!” (I’ve debated that often in the weeks that have followed, especially as Tamoxifen has turned me into a swinging pendulum of “I’m so anxious I’m going to explode” to “Hey, life is great!” to “RAAAAAAGE” to “I’ve never cried so much in my life and still, I can’t stop crying.” Good times—for all of us in my household.)

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Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from Schnipper—and from firsthand experience as a breast cancer patient:

  • The majority of women (that surprised me) have the hardest time after treatment.
  • As women with breast cancer slowly return to our “normal lives,” intense overwhelm is so common, it’s to be expected. (Can you hear my, “I’m not crazy!” voice?)
  • The rule of thumb is that it takes women at least the length of time to regain our physical well-being as was the duration of our treatment. Schnipper says to count the months between the day of diagnosis and the last day of chemo, post-surgery drugs, radiation—whatever the end of treatment might be—and expect at least that long to feel our old, physical selves. (I was diagnosed on October 22, 2014 (one day after my son turned 9) and finish treatment next Thursday, August 6 (one day before my 11th wedding anniversary), so by next May I might be “back to normal?”)
  • Schnipper says it takes even longer to recover emotionally.
  • She also says friends and family are following a different calendar, one that expects that, “Yay, you’re all better now!” Support tends to fade. Expectations tend to return more quickly than we’re ready to meet them. This, of course, can intensify feelings of overwhelm, isolation and, well, crazy.
  • Some studies show that patients who have undergone chemotherapy score significantly lower on cognitive functions even ten years post treatment. (Sweet. So my frequent inability to retrieve words and form a coherent sentence just might stick around for a-long-while longer.)
  • “What sexuality?” (Enough said?)

In an earlier post, I wrote about the fact that experience brings knowledge. I never expected to amass so much knowledge about breast cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, mastectomies, breast-reconstruction.

I never expected to feel my mortality so acutely at such a young age.

But neither did I ever expect to feel as loved as I’ve felt over the past year. I never expected to test the power of gratitude as I have and to learn firsthand that it does in fact dampen fear and loss. I never expected to feel such a deep, unending strength, a strength that, no matter what happens, will get me through to the other side (of life, of this post-treatment struggle, of whatever “other sides” I might face), feeling whole.