(16-02-25) Easing Back

The second day back – less of a high but still overwhelmingly positive.


  • more support flowing in -Today was much like the day before.  I kept my signs and decorations up, and I embraced the steady stream of coworkers stopping by to, again, welcome me back.  I was not on as much of a high as i was the day before, but i still basked in the warmth provided by over a dozen employees, who took the time out of their hectic days to connect with me and let me know they are here to help me out if i happen to need anything.
  • Youth Visitation Day – Occasionally, our facility actually does some things that are genuine, beneficial, and selfless.  Today i got to experience one of those rare moments. A group of employees – possibly belonging to one of the MANY committees at our place – compiled a list of youth who (1) had been consistently demonstrating positive behaviors the past month, and (2) never get visits from friends and family members on visitation day.   The employees then organized a special visitation day , where officers and teachers were invited to participate in two hours of eating, socializing, and game playing with those youth.  It was amazing.  The youth were given accolades, free food, and a rare opportunity to stop being treated as a locked-up delinquent and instead be treated as a regular teenage kid.  The whole event was rather wonderful, but the truly pivotal moment came when one of my former students looked me straight in the face and said, “I got my high school diploma, and I did it for you.”  He what?  Got his diploma … and for ME?  The teacher who flunked him in Debate class three times because he, a Native kid, so stubbornly resisted his White teacher’s attempts to lure him in, to the point where that teacher eventually stepped back and stopped trying to get him to come around?  This kid???  The kid who earned his way past the barbed wire, only to P.V. multiple times and return one of those times with a tattoo on his cheek?  The kid who reluctantly warmed up to me once he discovered our mutual love for the pattern argyle, but still sat in my Race & Culture class trying to avoid participating as much as he could?  Yup.  That kid.  He sat before me and talked about how he earned his diploma and now has a goal to become a massage therapist when he gets out of ADJC.  He already researched how much schooling he needs, and he’s excited that he might get to meet famous people one day – if he’s good enough at his job.  I told him he will be.


  • There really is just one.  Today i found out IN A STAFF MEETING that i will be teaching next block.  This had not yet been discussed between me and the superintendent.  I would have liked the opportunity to actually talk *with* him about this.  There are plenty of things i could do in education that would not directly involve teaching, and one thing is clear: I am not going to be able to successfully teach next block.  I still have two rounds of chemotherapy left.  There will be absences: the two days of chemo, the days after when i am too weak to get out of bed, the days before when i have blood work and infection checks with the PCP.  On those days when I am absent, i won’t be able to deal with having to prepare substitute lesson plans like i’ve done so diligently and consistently in the past.  The bulk of absences isn’t the only problem.  On the days i *am* there, I won’t be able to stand and teach.  I will be talking through a face mask.  I will avoid going close to kids to issue them pencils, collect their papers, and provide them with 1:1 help when they don’t understand something – all because the whole time i will be so worried about the germs, the bacteria, the illnesses festering inside them that my body won’t be strong enough to fight.  I won’t have the energy to grade and lesson plan, so – for the first time EVER in my 13 years of teaching, my students will be doing book work out of a textbook, and they will have no idea what their grades are for weeks on end.  On top of it all, my lack of strength, balance, and energy will put every single person in that room at risk, in the event that a fight or assault breaks out.  All of these concerns COULD have been directly expressed … except the superintendent never bothered to take the time to sit down with me and have an actual discussion.  Instead, he just made the decision by himself and chose to communicate that decision in the form of an announcement at our staff meeting.

(16-02-24) First Day of School

The first day of school.  We all go through it.  I’ve had 34 of them: preschool, two kindergartens, twelve years of grade school, four from undergraduate, two from graduate, and thirteen for every year I’ve been a teacher myself.  They *never* stop being nerve-wracking.  Even for someone with a relatively healthy dose of self-esteem, one can’t help but get caught up – even if for just a moment – in the doubting thoughts: “Do i look all right?”  “What will people think of me here?”  “Did i remember to check and make sure that my skirt isn’t tucked inside my pantyhose?” 

Today felt like one of those first-day-back-to-school days.  I couldn’t sleep the night before.  I double dosed on my sleeping medication because my brain kept racing, and even then i woke up at 3am, unable to rest.  Were they going to make me sub?  Would students make obnoxious, tactless comments about my bald head; would they snicker at the word when i disclose i have BREAST cancer?  How was i going to respond to so many people staring at me?  Was it obvious that I’ve lost a bunch of weight?  Could i handle all the hugging, all the sympathetic looks, and all the “My ________ had cancer” stories without having a breakdown?  What happens if i can’t even stay awake the whole day?  If Dona has the audacity to approach me, will i lose my job when i absolutely refuse to duplicate her fake engaging? 

I took a Zofran as soon as i got in the car to drive to work.  I wasn’t even feeling nauseous yet, but i knew it was coming.  I needed to be prepared.  I needed to be on time.  I needed to NOT throw up on my back-to-school outfit.

Forty minutes later, i drove onto the facility grounds and was given a definite wake-up call: I was going to make it through this.  I knew it as soon as i saw them.  A group of 8-10 people were standing in the parking lot — some purposely color-coordinated with my outfit, some holding portions of a flower bouquet, and ALL waiting to shower me with hugs and smiles.  With each smile and hug, i felt it.  I felt so much support and compassion and love and strength that it’s making tears stream down my face right this moment as i type this sentence onto the screen.  I think those few minutes could have sustained me for the rest of the day, but they didn’t stop there.  That group walked me through it.  Together, we walked past the gates of Sally Port.  Together, we walked to the Esperanza building, where a florescent green poster happily shouted, “Welcome back, Instructor!”  Together, we walked to my classroom door, which had a picture of Wonder Womyn and a collection of words taped to the door: To the world, you may be just a teacher … but to your students, you are a hero.  Inside, there were streamers and decorations, a Starbucks latte and a gift card, a pair of St. Patrick’s Day socks, and a couple of encouraging notes on my desk.

Instructor's Welcome Back Door

When everyone finally trailed off to go teach or assist with movement or get ready for the 8:30 admin meeting (or just give me some space to catch my breath), i looked around at my classroom.  Nothing had changed.  The desks were still organized in cooperative learning groups of four.  The “Top Tier” students from the week I had left still had their K#’s and grades proudly displayed.  The word wall still showed vocabulary from my Debate and Race & Culture classes, and the motivational quotes were still scattered all over the walls.  Nothing had changed.  Outside the gate, everything for me has changed.  Inside my classroom, though, nothing had.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur.  It took hours to sift through the 931 emails I had accumulated in my inbox over the past three months … and it took longer because I kept getting distracted by the rotating door of coworkers who stopped by to welcome me back.  I accepted the hugs with grace and a simple request that i must have made 40+ times in 8 hours: “”Left side, please.”  I endured the dozen or more stories that started with, “I had a _______ who had ________ cancer….”  I said thank you to the baffling remarks about my nicely shaped head, and I pretended to appreciate the compliments about how my weight loss looked good on me.  I made it through the day.  I never even felt a moment of exhaustion.  That *could* have been attributed to the butterscotch latte my boss brought me in the morning (butterscotch is the BOMB, by the way) … or the soy white chocolate mocha a coworker brought me in the afternoon (my former go-to drink back when Starbucks had not yet busted out with the butterscotch option) …  I haven’t been drinking coffee much these days, so my body was a little taken aback by the old-but-vaguely-familiar jolt from a caffeine rush.  But honestly, i don’t think it was the coffee that sustained my energy.  I think i was on a high all day, brought on and maintained by what my coworkers were sharing with me.  So many of them each passed along a sliver of their own personal light, and that cumulative light guided me through the eight hours of my 35th “First Day Back to School” day.

(16-02-20) Going Back To Work

Dona sent me a letter at 5:36pm yesterday evening. I am authorized to return to work WITHOUT RESTRICTIONS as of Wednesday, February 24.

She and Adam never intended to allow me to return to work on light duty. My cancer is so advanced  that it is one step away from metastasizing throughout my body, but the ADJC Assistant Director and Superintendent don’t give a fuck about anything other than standard, uniform procedure. “Case by case basis,” my ass. Those people were never intending to work with me.

So. I’m returning to work on Wednesday, knowing fully well that I am not going to be able to teach…but even if I end up being the worst teacher that Adobe has ever seen (and yes, that’s the plan), at least I will still have my health insurance and will not face interruptions in my treatment, doctors, or medications. Any interruption in treatment lowers my chance of success, and that’s what I need to stay focused on. That is the ONLY thing that matters right now.


(16-02-19) Chemo Session #4

The Good News

  • My neutrophils (the “first responders” of my white blood cells) are the highest they’ve been since my treatment started.  Before session #2, they were dangerously low (1.2) – to the point where if they got much lower (<1.0), I would have to temporarily stop treatment until I boosted the number back up.  Between sessions 2 and 3, I started taking a combination of immunity-boosting supplements: astragalus, echinacea, and zinc; right before session 3, my neutrophils raised to 1.8.  Between sessions 3 and 4, I started eating more.  I didn’t necessarily eat *better* every single day, but eating *more* allowed my digestive system to handle more doses of the supplements, multiple times each day.  This brings me up to yesterday, when my oncologist proudly showed me that my neutrophils were at a whopping 3.3.  This would even be considered normal for a person who *doesn’t* have cancer!
  • Dr. Curley was pleased with the rest of the results from my blood work, too; there were no sudden spikes or dips in any of the other numbers.  He did mention that my red blood cell count continues to go down, but he said that’s normal when my white blood cell count is fighting so much.  He said my RBC will probably continue to go down until my chemo sessions are over, and then they’ll slowly climb back up to normal.

The Bad News

  • Even with significantly more eating this time around, I still dropped two pounds in the last three weeks.  Since the end of November, I have lost a total of 13-15 pounds.  I officially have a white girl booty, and I fear that the days of tight dresses and jeans are gone for good.
  • On a more serious note (except my booty *is* actually an important, somber topic), I broke my fast.  I went 24 hours from Wednesday to Thursday … but, for the first time, I drove myself to chemo this time around, and I just was not feeling well when I left.  To be fair, I wasn’t feeling so hot when I woke up Thursday morning, and I could feel symptoms (headache, pain around my port area, and dizziness) creeping up throughout the six hours of chemo.  By the time I left, I felt so weak and light-headed that I stopped for food before driving the hour back home.  I got healthy vegan Asian food from Fresh Mint … and then followed it up with not-so-healthy dessert from Rainbow Donuts (I ate two.  I licked my fingers afterwards and then left the box open so that I could inhale the donut smell for the remainder of the car ride.).  Remember when I wrote in previous blogs that fasting truly makes a difference in the onset and severity of my symptoms?  STILL TRUE.  I’m back to fasting today, and the symptoms I had last night are now gone.

(16-02-17) Letter to Lab Corp Personnel

Dear Kelly at Lab Corp,

I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job.  As someone who has to look the other way any time her blood gets drawn, I absolutely appreciate you for the occupational skills you have.  If my health and life depended on me having to put the needle into my own skin and draw some blood, I’m pretty sure I’d be dead.

With that said, when you look at the standing order in your hands and read that you’re doing a CBC for a cancer patient, perhaps you might want to avoid telling that patient all about your own mom who died from ovarian cancer.  Perhaps statements like, “But she put up a good fight” and “She battled that for eight years, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that things got really bad” aren’t necessarily what a current cancer patient wants or needs to hear.  It’s probably the case that this patient doesn’t give a flying fuck about ANYONE you know who had cancer … but if you’re going to force a complete stranger to listen to stories about the people in your life, you could at least provide a more uplifting anecdote – you know, one based on surviving against incredible odds instead of one based on fighting for almost a decade and then losing.


the girl who waited an hour to see you this morning at 8:30am

(16-02-15) Maintaining Perspective

It’s a strange feeling, to experience something from two inverse perspectives.  It happens all the time: the teacher suddenly becomes the student; the child is now learning to be the parent; the bullied turns into the bully.  These are pivotal moments in our lives because they require us to step outside of our own shoes so that we may learn some life lesson that we’re supposed to.  They tend to be agonizingly painful … but if we push ourselves to embrace what is happening, then we experience true bouts of self-evolution.  If we don’t push ourselves enough, we get to experience the agony all over again when the lesson finds some other way to pop back up into our lives.

I’m finding myself in a period where the therapist becomes the client.  It’s a weird juxtaposition because no one else is involved; it’s just me-with-my-psych-degrees stepping back and observing me-the-cancer-patient.  Psych Degree Tarah recognizes that Cancer Patient Tarah has started to get depressed.  All the signs are there.  She’s lying around in bed all day – alternating between reading, watching mindless TV, and staring off into space.  She stopped working out.  She’s exhausted every time she has to socialize with anyone and avoids it as much as possible without arousing suspicion.  She alternates between not eating at all and binge eating foods she knows she’s not supposed to have during treatment.  She’s doubling up on her sleep meds just to fall asleep at night.  She’s crying every day.  She procrastinates in completing her tasks and responsibilities, then does them in a half-assed way.  She’s less consistent in taking her immunity-boosting meds.  She stopped researching different ways to improve her chemotherapy treatment, and she started thinking about not finishing chemotherapy at all.  She knows she’s about to lose her job, yet she does nothing to find a new one.  She’s irritable (more than usual) and not making much effort to look at the positive side of things.

Psych Degree Tarah has spent the last twenty-five years of her life counseling friends, mediating between her mother and father, validating lovers, pushing her students to do and be better, outlining steps her SMI patients can take to improve their quality of life, and listening to coworkers vent.  Sometimes she got paid to do these things; usually she did it for free because she was good at it.  But now, she’s facing the most obstinate, most difficult patient she’s ever had in her life: herself.

(16-02-11) BOOBS

(Note: If you’re my dad or my uncle or one of my more conservative coworkers, you might not want to read this entry.  Consider this fair warning.)



Victoria’s Secret model.

Child psychologist.


Sex therapist.

These were all things I wanted to be “when I grew up.”  And now, by a twist of fate, it appears that I stumbled one step closer to one of those career goals.

On Tuesday, I had to take a trip to the mall to pick up a dress for an upcoming wedding.  I was NOT looking forward to this journey.  I’m a buy-it-online-so-that-i-can-avoid-the-crowds-and-the-salespeople-and-the-dressing-rooms kind of shopper.  I’m also all skinny and pale right now, so the idea of standing under bright white lights while commissioned employees pretend that something looks good on me literally had me lying in bed with the comforter pulled over my head for an extra two hours that morning.  Eventually, I kicked myself into semi-high gear and headed to Arrowhead Mall.

After finding a dress, I headed to Victoria’s Secret.  I needed new bras.  I should have done this six weeks ago.  The expanders I currently have in are way bigger than my breasts used to be, so when I try wearing my old bras, they literally sit right underneath my nipples – like I’m showcasing them for a porn magazine or something.  And technically, my breasts don’t even REQUIRE a bra anymore.  In the strictest sense, the purpose of a bra is to support those babies so that they don’t hang down and form a three-way friendship with your belly button later on in life … but in the world of expanders and implants, those puppies are PERKY – POR VIDA.  If I never wore another bra again for the rest of my life, my melons will *still* never know the product of time and gravity.  There’s just one thing.  When a breast cancer patient gets a nipple-sparing mastectomy, her nipples post-surgery become permanently semi-hard.  This might be great when it’s time to get your freak on, but when you’re going about your everyday life – doing things like teaching teenage boys, for instance, or spending some quality time with your father – the last thing you want is for those high beams to be peaking out from underneath your shirt.  So … bras are still a required part of my daily wardrobe.

Since 8th grade, I have been obsessed with bras.  I had my first black bra before any of my friends, and by high school I would not even leave the house if my bra didn’t match my underwear.  I used to tell my friends that I was going to be the first petite Victoria’s Secret model.  It didn’t matter that I was a good six inches shorter than Frederique van der Wal, my favorite Victoria’s Secret model at the time (of *course* I knew all the models’ names!  We were, after all, going to be coworkers some day).  It didn’t matter that my size “A” cup would have been more appropriate for the Delia’s catalog than for a lingerie advertisement.  It didn’t matter that I was Irish-girl-white and had curves in my calves and thighs that would have required an extra half hour alone to Photoshop into the beanpoles that are featured on those VS magazines.  I had a goal.  I was going to make it happen.

Needless to say, I fell short of reaching that goal … and it’s been about twenty years since I have even thought of those career plans – until this week. After getting that dress for the wedding, I pouted my way over to Victoria’s Secret to get myself fitted.  I didn’t want to go.  My energy is down, my cancer patient body does *not* look cute under the fluorescent lighting of those mall stores, and my expanders are currently uneven in both size and height (the surgeon reassured me that this will be fixed when I have them replaced with silicone implants).  Regardless of my resistance, however, I needed to do this.  I had no idea what size I was, at this point, and Victoria’s Secret has employees who are eager to pull out that measuring tape to figure out your starting point for buying overpriced (but so wonderfully colorful!) undergarments.  I walked into the store, noticed the one employee who was wearing a flannel shirt tied around her hips and clearly calling the shots into her headset, and I headed her way to explain my situation and request a fitting.  She took one look at me and said, “Looks like a 34 D.”

I laughed.  “Um… I doubt it.  I was originally a 36B, and I told my reconstructive surgeon I wanted to go up a cup size.  I’m pretty sure I’m a 36C – maybe a 38C?”

She took her measuring tape and wound it around my rib cage, then moved it up a little to measure a 2nd time.  Actually, you’re a double D.  34 double D.”

I just gaped at her.  “A double D???  That can’t be right.”

She guided me to a room, then handed me a plain cotton black bra.  “These are the bras we use for fitting purposes.  Put this on, and then push the button right here to let me know when you have it on.”  I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t give me multiple bras in different sizes – just the one in the size she had stated.  I tut-tutted in my head about how it was going to take extra time out of my day to have to ask her in a minute to give me a bra in a different size, then did as she said – well, except the part about remembering to push the button because once I had that bra on, I just stared at myself in the mirror for I don’t know how many minutes.  It. Fit. Perfectly.  She was right.  I was a double D.

So, yeah. When I was going in for those tri-weekly expansion appointments with Dr. Walsh, I had no clue that I was getting myself ready for some tig old bitties, but apparently that’s what I ended up with.  Perhaps it’s not too late to submit a resume to Victoria’s Secret and achieve one of my adolescent dreams, after all.

(16-02-08) Staying Positive

When people tell me to stay positive, I want to punch them in the face.  No.  Seriously.  The second that statement moves from their lips to my ears, I envision myself as Lisbeth Salander, taking out her face piercings just before gliding through the air with the grace of a flying squirrel and landing a Mike Tyson’s TKO punch squarely upside that person’s optimistic head.

  1.  I already *know* that staying positive is the way to go.  You are not smarter than I.  Well, you might be, but you lose points for passing along bromides and then expecting me to validate you.
  2. My life is not a chapter from The Secret; we are not going to will ourselves into an existence of positivity simply with our verbalizations.
  3. The universe cannot exist in a solely positive state.  It is all about balance.  There cannot be love without hate.  There cannot be good without evil.  Positivity only exists because negativity does.  We like to demonize certain halves of dichotomous states (anger, evil, insecurity), but the truth is that we need ALL of it in order to exist.  There is a time for anger.  There is a time for fear.  There is a time for negativity.  (If you’re resisting me on this, think about it: Have you ever *met* a person who is positive 100% of the time?  Those people are not only excruciatingly annoying, but they seem quite a bit out of touch with reality.  Almost delusional.  Delusional – ALSO not something you want to be around.)

WITH THAT SAID, I have been accumulating a list in my head of all the positive things that have come from having cancer.  No, I’m not talking about spiritual experiences blah blah and learning to open myself up to love more blah blah.  That’s not what this blog is about.  I’m referring to the little things that pop up from day to day.  Having cancer has definitely brought about some positive changes in my day-to-day world:

  • I am saving a LOT of money on grooming, mostly in the hair department.
    – Hair cut and colored  – $150 every 6 weeks
    – Eyebrows and upper lip waxed – $25 every 3-4 weeks
    – Laser hair removal sessions on various sections of the body – $50 every 2 months
    – Tanning sessions – $15 every 1-2 weeks
  • I am saving a lot of TIME on grooming.  It used to take me an hour and a half to get ready in the morning.  Now, as long as my teeth are brushed and I remembered to change out of my robe and slippers, I’m good to go.
  • I get to be white-girl skinny, and no one can say shit.  I’m a fan of the jutting hip bones and the thigh gap.  I shouldn’t be admitting this out loud; my feminist friends are going to tear me apart.  But it’s true.  Junk in the trunk works if you’re Beyonce or J Lo or Serena Williams … but it doesn’t typically look the same on an Irish/English/Welsh/Polish mutt.  In the past, when I’ve dropped weight, it’s led to a series of almost intervention-like conversations from my girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, and dark-skinned associates … oh yeah, and my grandma.  Now, it’s just part of the deal.
  • I no longer feel guilty about NOT going to the gym.  I hate working out.  This tends to elicit surprise from many people, since I used to exercise 3-5 times a week.  It’s not because I like it.  It’s not because it’s good for me.  It’s because I’m VAIN.
  • I get to stay up all night.  Remember when you were a teenager, and your guardians got on your case about going to bed at a “decent hour?”  Remember how you would stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning, and then you’d have to hear a lecture the next day from your adult caregivers about how you’re “wasting the day away” by sleeping in until noon?  Newsflash, old fogies: teenagers have a shift in their circadian rhythms while their hormones are changing, so they’re *supposed* to have a different sleep cycle than children and adults.  And some of us never grow out of that.  My lifelong insomnia aside, I’ve always been one who likes to stay up late and sleep in the next morning.  Now I can.
  • Downtime.  I have buttloads of it.  You probably don’t.
  • Medical marijuana, without legal repercussions.  ‘Nuff said.
  • I have not had a menstrual cycle since chemotherapy started.  I have no idea if this is normal or not.  I probably should ask my oncologist about that.  Still – it’s been pretty convenient not having to deal with that once every twenty days.
  • Better mail in the mailbox – Do you know what I used to get in my mailbox before I had cancer?  Circulars, advertisements, and BILLS.   Those still come, but they’re interspersed with cards, care packages, and letters.  LETTERS – people still write those, apparently!  Okay, I’ve only received letters from one person and the promise of letters from another … but still.  They’re bringin’ it back old school, and I appreciate them for that.
  • Sex is no longer a distraction.  I think we can all agree that sometimes we make TERRIBLE LIFE CHOICES because our minds/bodies/body parts are only focused on getting one thing.  Luckily, that is not currently a concern of mine, since chemotherapy – in its quest to poison every single thing inside my body – has also managed to poison any interest I have in getting laid.
  • Better seating at public venues – Having advanced cancer allowed me to get front-row seats at a recent Black Violin concert.  That was, hands down, the best classical music performance I’ve ever been to.  I need to figure out how to milk this perk further down the road….
  • Kitty cuddle time, every day, all day if I want it
  • My roommate cooks for me.  Okay, she did that before, but I get it even MORE now.  And sometimes, I’m not even expected to clean my dishes afterwards.
  • Hitting the “reset” button on work burnout – Let’s face it: work sucks the life out of too many of us.  But when you DON’T work, you actually WANT to go to work.
  • Ongoing chauffeur services – It’s nice to be driven around all the time.  Granted, this doesn’t always work out to my benefit.  Some of my friends (ahem, roommates) seriously can’t drive.  Still, it’s nice to take a break from driving for a while.  I’ve had hybrid cars since 2005, so I’ve spent the last decade carting everyone else around because my car gets the best mileage.
  • Decreased expectations – Forget that decade-plus of teaching experience I’ve had, whereby I was trained to believe in the importance of *never* lowering my expectations of my students.  Lowered expectations are kind of nice.  You’re less likely to disappoint people when they stop expecting as much from you.


Let me know if I missed anything.  I might make this an ongoing list.


(16-02-06) Educational Workshops

I walked into the room, fourteen minutes late, just as a volunteer was bringing in additional chairs.  I had been in this exact room once before, but that day it seemed more spacious – spacious enough for five of us to flail around the place feeling good about our White People Zumba moments.  Today, the room carried an entirely different vibe.  Rows of folding chairs had infiltrated the dance floor; the hippie-like Zumba instructor had been replaced by a more somber, more professional, more rigid man; the portable CD player was absent, but in its place was a projector showing a Power Point Presentation filled with color-coded charts; and instead of five energized people in the room, there were more like fifty-five – all quietly focused on one man’s professional lecture.

At first, I did not sit down.  I stood in the back of the room, clutching my possessions and trying not to disrupt anyone with my tardiness.  The man up front, Dr. Michael Robb, was pointing to a list on his Power Point and asking the audience a question; a few of them bobbed their heads up and down in confirmation.  Immediately, I felt a lump form in my throat, and tears welled up in my eyes.  Wait – what?  Why was I crying???

My mind raced back to my first energy session at Desert Lotus Healing Center.  I remember telling Annette up front that I wasn’t really scared to die, nor was I scared about the cancer in general.  She went to work for two hours that day on my body, and when we debriefed afterwards, she disagreed with me about my initial claims.  “You are scared,” I remember her saying.  “Your spirit is scared.”

I’m not sure if fear brought on that immediate urge to cry this morning in that workshop.  I know I am super emotional right now, prone to teenage-like hormonal outbursts at things I would have previously handled without the slightest inclination of feeling six months ago.  Maybe it’s a side effect from one of the chemotherapy drugs.  Maybe I am spending so much energy trying to hold myself together for all these house guests and 1:1 social outings/updates that the emotions have to find other opportunities to seep out and release themselves.  Maybe I am more scared than my consciousness cares to admit.  I don’t know.  I do know that I stood at the back of that room this morning, keeping rigidly still and leaving my sunglasses on, until I could push past that urge to start bawling right in the middle of a neuroscientist’s lecture about chemobrain, ototoxicity, and otoprotection.

I’m worried that I never gave myself much time to fall apart after receiving this diagnosis, and my late-bloomer tendencies are reminding me that my time always comes.

(16-02-05) Season 3, Episode 11

There are always steps and stages when it comes to processing a traumatic event.  My mind instantly goes to the Kubler-Ross “Stages of Grief” Model, which was originally five stages but later modified to seven.

stages of grief

stages of grief - 7

Of course, to think that everyone experiences grief in the same way is as ludicrous as expecting every rape survivor to react the same way when sharing her/his story with the cops, or expecting siblings to be just like each other simply because they share the same parents and upbringing.  We all handle grief differently.  Take me, for instance.  The day that Nikita randomly and, without provocation, asked me that game-changing question

“Are you planning on getting that lump on your breast checked out?”

as we flew from PA to our respective home cities, I jumped right from “ignorant” (not a stage on the model, for the record) to “acceptance.”  I got to my house later that day, stripped off my upper clothes, stared hard in the mirror, and knew immediately that I had cancer.  I wasn’t in shock.  I didn’t deny it.  I didn’t ask a higher power, “Why me?” nor did I find myself angry with the universe for turning on me.  I didn’t sink into a paralyzed state of depression; in fact, I went to work and acted the same way Instructor Ausburn always acted – day after day, with only two incidents of exception (and I kind of blame my boss for at least one of those two times [love you, Carissa!]).  As I stood in front of that mirror, scrutinizing and taking breast selfies for the first time EVER IN MY LIFE, my gut had already told me that lump would turn into cancer; I accepted that reality long before the specialists and the pathology reports even confirmed it was true.

… But the stages – well, they sneak up on you sooner or later.  Maybe you won’t experience them all.  Maybe you’ll experience them in your own order.  Maybe you’ll add some stages of your own – bring something new to the psychology table.  But you’ll experience them.  Like falling in love, a stage will probably sneak up on you when you least expect it – say, for instance, when you’re home alone for the first time in weeks, and you’re just standing next to your bed, folding towels while watching one of the recent episodes of The Fosters that you happened to miss because it aired when you had out-of-town guests.  You might just be standing there, half-listening to the show’s dialogue, when a line from the script might jump right from the actress’ mouth straight into your gut … that same gut that initially accepted the news so rationally but is now doubled over in pain from being sucker punched.  You might just hear a fake doctor on a sort-of-cheesy-sort-of-inspirational TV show tell one of the main characters, “The biopsy we did on your breast shows that you have ductal carcinoma in situ,” and before that doctor even has time to explain what DCIS is, you find yourself leaning over your bed, your hands balled up into tight little fists on top of those towels, and pushing out noisy sobs as your face is immediately bedraggled with tears and snot from a runny nose.  And in that moment, you realize that you didn’t bypass those initial stages of grief at all; instead, you were just waiting for the right moment to go through each of them.

(16-02-01) Shout Outs

It has become increasingly obvious to me that there is so much love emanating from the people who surround me.  This was initially difficult for me to adjust to – not because I have self-esteem issues and think I don’t deserve it, but because I have had to start learning to play a role different from the one I am used to.  I am the one who takes care of people, helps people, fixes people, manages people; now I am the one who needs to be routinely taken care of, helped, fixed, and managed.  The role reversal has been painful, and I can’t say I am completely comfortable with the shift yet … but it is clearly one of the lessons I am supposed to be learning in all of this.  This is a lesson that has crept up at various points in my adult life, and I really didn’t learn it then.  So, I get to learn it now.

At no point in this was I surprised by the lengths people have gone to give me support.  Okay, that’s a lie.  I wasn’t surprised with *certain* people: Kyana, both of my roommates, Nikita, Tyler, and family members in general.  Even Garrett buying a last-minute plane ticket days after I told him was not really much of a surprise.  I have been so selective over the years when it comes to cultivating and maintaining solid friendships, and I know without a speck of doubt that I have genuinely amazing people in my life.  But I *was* surprised by the overwhelming support I have received from other people.

Take my coworkers, for instance.  I would have bet an entire paycheck that the majority of them didn’t even LIKE me … and yet here I am, 2.5 months into treatment, and they have banded together to give me weekly cards, both homemade and Hallmark-made; annual leave donations so that I can continue to receive paychecks and health insurance; social outings; encouraging emails, picture messages, and blog comments; cool presents like Wonder Womyn Converse; and get-well foods, like soup and homemade soft pretzels.  Jenna comes home at least twice a week with specific comments and suggestions from various coworkers, letting me know that I continue to be in so many of their thoughts.  A group of them have even coordinated to attend a cancer fundraiser in April, spending hundreds of dollars on a table and making preparations to show up in themed costumes!

Then, there has been the support from family members.  I expected it to a certain extent from my parents and my grandmother, but I have been blown away by the care packages I continue to receive from aunts and uncles – care packages filled with books, a journal, sleepwear, coconut oil, TastyKakes, homemade baked goods, a Keurig coffee maker, and childhood pictures that bring back memories I haven’t thought of in decades. Both of my parents have made commitments to come out and stay with me during a particular time in my treatment, and my dad has made it clear that if my job doesn’t work with me and allow me to come back, he will see to it that my mortgage is taken care of so that I don’t lose my house, too.

The love extends past coworkers and relatives.  Care packages have come from non-family members, too, consisting of equally wonderful things: a puzzle book, a Wonder Womyn hoodie, chapstick and lotion for my chemotherapy-parched skin, gift cards, and more novels to read.  In-town friends who fell out of my life have resurfaced; one in particular loaned me hats and scarves to help me while I transitioned to being bald, and another offered to let me pilfer her closet to find an outfit for an upcoming wedding (since both my weight loss and recent surgeries have drastically altered the shape of my body, and I have neither the energy nor the confidence to go shopping right now).  Maya has taken so much time out of her days to chauffeur me to appointments, sit with me during chemo, get on my case when I am not making smart decisions regarding my diet, and supply me with naturopathic supplements to boost my immunity.  Tyler comes over to help Renee clean the house when I am too weak.  Melinda has gone wig shopping with me, tried twice to fit the wigs to my scalp in an effort to make them look more natural, given me oils to treat my scalp and aloe to treat my skin, and worked on a home improvement project with me.

Geez.  Is this overwhelming enough?  ‘Cuz I am not done!

I’ve covered family, friends, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, and coworkers so far, but there is one category left, a group of people who caused the most shock of all: strangers.  People who DON’T EVEN KNOW ME have gone out of their way to provide me with not just verbal encouragement and validation, but physical resources as well.  The featured image accompanying this blog entry was a letter I wrote to a womyn in Laveen, a womyn I met for the first time on January 27.  She volunteers at the Cancer Support Community AZ, and she sat in on the orientation meeting I attended in order to participate in their program (free of charge for me and my loved ones, I might add).  Upon introductions, I immediately judged her as being a little cuckoo; she had an overly chipper edge to her high-pitched voice, and she supplemented every statement or question with an eager smile.  We East Coasters have a propensity for being a bit on the judgmental side, so my two-psychology-degrees mind was already thinking of potential diagnoses for this lady before we even sat down in the back room to start the orientation.  However, *this lady* turned out to be not mentally ill, but genuinely high on life.  It became apparent that she came face to face with death, lived to tell the tale, and decided to dedicate her survival-of-eighteen-years-and-counting to helping others win the same battle.  *This lady* was not only kind and encouraging and helpful when I discussed my current issues, but she went out of her way to follow up with me later.  She asked for my address.  I initially worried that *this lady* was going to be the kind of person who showed up on my doorstep just to chat, and I would end up spending hours listening to yet another person inundating me with personally biased ideas about what I need to do in order to fight this thing.  I’m so jaded.  She did no such thing.  Instead, I came home the following day to find SIX bags of fruit on my doorstep, along with a card that contained a thoughtful note, tickets to the Desert Botanical Garden, and a coupon for some popsicles she thought I might like.  Who does these kinds of things for a complete stranger they just met a day ago?

Good people, that’s who.

I can’t wait for the day when I get to pay that one forward.