It hit me during Bif Naked’s un-freakin-believably honest, poignant and entertaining address at the conference last weekend.
And it hit me hard (thanks to you).
With a dramatic roll of her eyes, Bif described how breast cancer had saddled her with the pieces-picking-upping of her inconsolable family and friends. And the survivor crowd gave a massive been-there roar.
With all the whining that I did about inappropriate reactions, complete collapse (well, even the slightest tearing up) was a possible reaction that had never crossed my mind.
I blasted the world with my news as soon as I got it. By email, SMS, twitter, blogs, newsletter, gchat and in person, I shot my message out with faith that the returning vibes would get me through it.
Not a single adult cried. Not even Mark.
And, no matter how scary things got, my close friends and family always shrugged my worries off. And I guess I followed suit.
I realize now, it was not because they didn’t care. It was because they did.
So thank you, my beautiful friends and family, for shielding me from concern.
And please accept my sincere apology for not appreciating it sooner.
I’m just back from Body, Mind, Spirit: The Canadian Breast Cancer Network’s National Conference for Young Women Living with Breast Cancer — almost 48 hours solid of education and encouragement with 340 breast cancer survivors from every province and territory across Canada.
What a gift.
I left the conference with 14 pages of handwritten notes, a stack of books and brochures, and my brain abuzz.
The speakers and workshops were first class, the food was free, the facilities fitting.
And above all of this were the women.
340 women on journeys just like mine.
The lump-finding. The bad news. The pokes, prods and zaps.
The baldness. The isolation. The decisions.
The uncertainty. The losses, the triumphs and lingering impacts.
The crazy mood swings. The shockingly thoughtless comments.
Young families side swiped. With meals to be made and dishes to be done.
I’m back home. But I’m not alone.
Here’s a tiny sampling of my learnings:
- Newfoundlanders rock. Thanks to Yvonne Jones for reminding me.
- Cancer cultivates compassion. Thanks to Joy Smith.
- I need to start each day with lemon water, add ginger to my daily matcha, and remember to eat 2 brazil nuts, 2-4 tablespoons of flax meal, some rosemary and 1 teaspoon of tumeric each day. Thanks to Dr. Natasha Zajmalowski.
- Love heals. Death and recurrence do not equate to failure. Thanks to Dr. Rob Rutledge.
- I won’t rule survivor advocacy out of my distant future. Thanks to Ryan Clarke.
- It’s about time I explored Venus Envy. Thanks to Dr. Sally Kydd.
- I can do my own lymphatic massage. Thanks to Anna Kennedy and Pamela Hammond.
- Even a sexy, hilarious, intelligent, compassionate, super down-to-earth rock star feels stupid and isolated when she gets hit by breast cancer. Thanks to Bif Naked.
- Sleep’s much more important than supplements and therapies. Thanks to Christine Maria Gross.
- Your honesty reflects your intelligence. Thanks to Carol Anne Cole.
Massive thank yous to 340 strong young women from coast to coast to coast and to the inspiring survivors who put the conference together and shared their wisdom. And thank you to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation for the scholarship that made this enriching experience mine.
I can’t wait for next year!
Don’t take my word for it….Conference talk around the web:
During my twenties, I had the coolest boss. Handsome, hard-headed, capable and curious, he was a windsurfer, a motorcycle-driver and an incurable devil’s advocate.
For our seven years as colleagues, I was a star resource, but Steve often bemoaned two of my big failings: my need for confidence; and my need to chill.
This week, on this blog, Steve may have helped with the latter.
When I’m dithered by diet decisions or fretting over family fiascoes impending or past, I’m going to repeat my new Steve-supplied mantra, “Andrea needs to care less”.
Its third-person perspective seems to squeeze issues down to a less scary size.
Maybe I’ll be chill yet.
Being back in the real world has been a treat: the freedom, the friends, the whiffs of pre-c simplicity.
Balancing freedom and caution — that’s been the rub. Deciding which food habits to resume, and to what extent. Which conditions merit exceptions, and how often.
Dairy, coffee, meat, caffeine, alcohol, refined carbs, even grains and beans.
It’s shocking how consuming these decisions can be, how frequently I tackle them and how convincingly I can make myself see both sides of each issue.
But it’s only been two weeks. I’m sure I’ll figure it out.
Five days ’til radiation.
But I’m having second thoughts.
Living the aftermath of chemo — the swollen eyes, the mounting fatigue, the weakness, the aching, the blurriness, frustration and fog — I’m questioning the wisdom of this four-fold onslaught.
Mark’s concerned that turning down radiation and hormone therapy would make me low priority for any relapse treatment.
It’s a tough call.
I’ve had a recurring dream throughout this journey.
I’m biking on a remote, rural highway, alone. It’s almost dark. I’m without lights, panier, or even a lock. And I can’t believe I’d set out for some destination more than 200km away without any preparation.
In last night’s version, I was on foot. Still alone, on a darkening, remote, rural highway with no supplies and miles from anywhere.
But this time, I made the scary decision to leave the road for a wooded path.
The path morphed into a university library and the librarian held up a line of complaining clients while drawing me a little map.
He told me the path was frustrating but it should only take me 30-45 minutes.
I’m not making this up.
In December, 18 weeks seemed like an eternity. Now it’s April and we increasingly talk about stages — particularly the most scary stages — of our journey in the past tense.
Cancer treatment comes with a lot of stresses, uncertainties and decisions which make any period in the future a scary place to be heading. When I think about my concerns waiting for Andrea’s MRI and then for the results, I’m instantly transported to where my mind was and the feelings I was experiencing at that time. The same is true of her surgery and awaiting the pathology results which we repeated for a second surgery. There was also the cardiac scan and bone scan.
Chemo has always been the beast that scared me the most. Today, chemo will deliver its last strike and in a few weeks we’ll be able to speak about this stage in the past tense.
I think I’ll celebrate with a big ice cream.
We’re having a glorious taste of spring this week. The sun is shining, Snow Drops are blooming and once empty sidewalks are full of smiling, sauntering humans.
Where in winter’s grip I could roam the neighbourhood with my chemo-cocoon in tact, outings this week have been much more social.
And chance meetings with acquaintances have introduced the challenge of responding to pitying looks and casual/earnest inquiries of “Oh, Andrea! How are you doing?”
What can I say?
I’m actually doing fabulously, all things considered. I’ve made it through the initial horror, the decisions, the surgeries, the injections, scans, x-rays, potions and two-thirds of the chemo. I’ve faced the loss of my occupation and income, insurance theft, my own mortality and a huge wallop of uncertainty — and I’ve stayed pretty sane.
But standing on a street corner in the sunshine, no response does this journey justice.
I’m thinking I’ll stick with, “Fine thank you, how are you?”
Aside from the obvious feats for the squeamish (injections, surgeries, claustrophobic scans and implanted heart vein stuff), the past 3 months have provided me with opportunities to perform the following impressive stunts (please hum “The Final Countdown” while reading this list):
- lasting 3 weeks — and counting — without entering a store, coffee shop or restaurant
- grinning and bearing various brutally insensitive so-you’ve-got-cancer remarks
- surviving Christmas Day without coffee or chocolate
- juicing and guzzling a potent veggie combo every single morning for 10 weeks, and counting
- popping more pills and supplements than in my entire pre-c life combined
- wearing the same 8 or so tights, T & hoodie day in and day out for weeks
- enduring outrageous family flare ups without losing my mind
- peeing red (Epirubicin portion of FEC chemo)
- peeing blue (radioactive dye)
- sharing my home, against my will, with … wait for it … RATS (yup! the vermin moved in 4 weeks into this challenge and have yet to vamoose)
Ta da! (AD)
Being decisive is hard, especially when new information causes you to constantly revisit, rethink and even reverse your decisions. That’s par for the course when you’re dealing with something like cancer-related surgery.
We’ve had our audio recorders running during a good chunk of our journey. This includes conversations and telephone calls as we considered which of either a lumpectomy or bilateral mastectomy was the best course of action.
It was interesting distilling three hours of recorded conversations to this 10 minute story, and particularly surprising to think this process dates back three months already (this audio was recorded leading up to Andrea’s first surgery, October 26, 2009).
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Don’t Panic. Those are the insightful words that grace the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fictitious guide in the earthly book by Douglas Adams. I’ve tried to live by those words for most of my adult life. When our home was broken into in September 2006; don’t panic. When United Airlines lost our luggage last Christmas; don’t panic. When I discovered I didn’t have my wallet with me when I was at the grocery checkout a couple of months ago; don’t panic.
As the loved one and primary support of someone diagnosed with cancer, don’t panic is a golden rule. Throughout the process you will hear a variety of cancer experiences from people all too willing to share whether you want them to or not, whether they understand the impacts of their stories or not. Surgeons, oncologists, nurses and anaesthetists will use words you’ve never hear before and will talk about side effects and will likely allude to long term impacts from treatments.
You may even have an experience like we had a week after Andrea’s breast cancer diagnosis. Andrea’s dentist found a cyst in her mouth and suggested it be biopsied. Thankfully it turned out to be nothing (Andrea must have bitten the inside of her cheek). However, for four stressful hours, we dealt with the possibility that the cancer wasn’t confined to Andrea’s breast.
Being the primary support means you need to be rational and calm. New language, information and ideas need to considered as part of the whole and you need to remain coherent when throwing in the towel seems the logical thing to do. It’s completely okay to be emotional so long as you don’t let your emotions interfere with being an advocate for your partner, communicating with your medical team and making sound decisions.
I’ll talk more about emotions as I share more of my supporter experience.