2016 Takes Shape

Here we are another year older. And another year wiser. Or not. But I like to think so.

My New Year’s resolution is to try to give less of a shit, generally, which is bound to fail. But I’m really going to give it the college try. Well, selectively. How about this: I will give less of a shit about shit that I deem is less worthy than other shit.

This has been a strange six months for me. I alluded to some of it in Reentry: Part One (no that is NOT a porn) which, sadly, is the last post I wrote and is dated October of last year. I could now go on and on about how I never write anymore, enumerate the various mundane pressures in my life that I feel have kept me from being able to write and have left me feeling inadequate and be all apologetic but as part of my New Year’s resolution, I have decided not to give a shit, right? Besides, I am now writing and that’s what matters.

I remind you that this started as a blog about, among other things, dealing with breast cancer. Incidentally it turned into a blog about whatever, generally, was on my mind and I felt like writing about at the time. It has evolved into a series of posts that are maybe more about the latter and less about dealing with cancer. However, once in a while I feel it is necessary to stir that shit up again. Just in case you thought (hoped?) I had forgotten all about it.

January, they say, is characteristically a difficult month to endure. The pine-scented jingle jangle of the holidays is over, evidenced by discarded carcasses with browning needles here and there. The days are colder and shorter and the bills are higher. It is a time to reflect on what we accomplished and failed to accomplish and we are all suddenly supposed to be better, eat healthier, drink less, exercise more, be more like Tom and Gisele.

For me, it has the added fun-filled benefit of being the anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. January 3, I believe, is the day I received a call (and an e-mail, actually) that “yes there is a cancer… but totally ‘routine’ and ‘treatable.'”

There is “a” cancer. Is this supposed to be better than telling someone, “you have cancer?” It sounds like some politician’s passive announcement after having just ordered fighter jets to drop bombs on the enemy. “[Insert middle eastern location] has been bombed in an airstrike. Civilian casualties were sustained.”

This year marked the fourth anniversary of my diagnosis. You might be thinking: “well, that’s cause for celebration! Another year and you will reach that magical five-year mark.” First of all, I think the five year mark is properly acknowledged on the anniversary of the termination of treatment. And let’s face that it is somewhat arbitrary. Second, forgive me if I am not all excited about the reminder that at age 39, I discovered one night in the shower a lump in my breast, underwent a number of stress-inducing and physically uncomfortable tests, and found out that in fact, yes, against all odds I had a life-threatening illness that would affect the quality of my life for the next who-knows-how-long. Do I sound bitter? Sorry. I’m not. Just keeping it real. It was a sucky, terrifying experience.

One of the hardest things about it, which I endured in waves rather than as a constant, was the feeling that I was damaged goods. The feeling when standing on the street and observing passersby that I was being left behind while everyone went on with their marvelous daily lives, clinking glasses, traveling to exotic locales, being carefree, running up hills in Primrose Hill Park. Of course a lot of that is bullshit since everyone has something they have to deal with — some a lot more serious and unpleasant than my lot. If life were as pretty as everyone pretends it is on Facebook and Instagram the world would be a different place. But if all it takes is a few minutes of looking at social media (come on you know you felt like pretty girl’s fat ugly friend after you looked at your skinny rich friend’s latest [photoshopped?] vacation pics) to make you feel bad about yourself, is it any wonder that, standing outside, pale and bald (albeit clad in a headscarf and slathered with makeup to disguise such things), I felt a little bit like a loser?

There was something about being in that group that made me feel decidedly uncool, like a misfit, a reject, someone with an issue “normal” people politely inquire about but don’t really understand. What’s more, they generally don’t want to be bothered with it because it is uncomfortable, undesirable, “unfun” and just “un.”

As I said, I didn’t always feel that way. And I don’t feel that way any longer. Maybe other people in that situation never felt that way at all. I think it is my nature to want to be included, to join in the party. So that likely predisposed me to experiencing what I did. That and being teased a lot as a kid in grammar school. Fuck you, all of you zeroes who gave me a hard time back in the day. I forgive you. And in any event I don’t give a shit — my NYR, remember?

But anyhow, I will continue with the point of this whole thing, which is really about feeling better about myself.

As my plastic surgeon friend Beth told me years ago on the eve of my treatment, once you are done with all the draconian life-saving nonsense, you are left with your cosmetic appearance. And thanks to the radiation that I was never supposed to need on my right side following my bilateral mastectomy/reconstruction and chemo, my right boob (remember Marjorie?) ended up healing a little less than ideally. I must interject that implants and radiation do NOT mix well and there is about a 50% failure rate (meaning complete failure) so all in all my result was pretty damn good. I don’t want nobody misunderstanding and failing to be impressed by my rockstar surgeon in London. Because he is a badass, though understated because he is so polite and English and wears nice grey flannel suits and shit.

Anyhow, my right “boob” a/k/a Marjorie kind of looked like Rocky Balboa after a few too many rounds, the main offender being a scar that was tethered and caused a significant dent in the middle. For years now I have been covering that bitch up with good, lightly padded Chantelle bras and those stupid lulu lemon oval pads that come in their wouldn’t-fit-anyone-with-normal-tits-that-I could-never-wear-before-anyway exercise tops. Think ultra-thin chicken fillet sitting on top of that dent to smooth it out.

Without the chick fillet, the dent was clearly visible, particularly from a three-quarter angle. Not ideal.

After I moved back to the US I decided to pursue a more permanent remedy and went to see a couple of plastic surgeons. They decided that what I needed was a scar revision, in which they would open the original incision, remove scar tissue, release any tethering to the muscle beneath and sew Marjorie back up with thicker, better skin a couple milimeters on either side of the original scar.

So that is how I decided to start 2016. And on January 5, I went for it.

This morning I just had my follow-up post-op appointment. Marjorie is looking pretty good. Much better, in fact. She is not allowed to carry more than 5 lbs for another two weeks, and she can’t spin or do boot camp class with the other suburban mommies. But if all goes to plan and Marjorie behaves, it will be so worth it.

I told a couple of ladies at my younger daughter’s new school about the procedure and one said, aptly, “that’s good — it won’t be a constant reminder of what happened.” I thought about it and said, “well, I don’t really give a shit about that — there will always be a reminder… I just want to be hot.”

If all goes well, terrific. If it doesn’t, well, then, I will dust off the chicken fillets and try not to give too much of a shit about that either.

Whatever happens, 2016 is taking shape, people. Happy New Year.

Photo on 13-01-2016 at 13.30 #2

18 Hours

I am sitting at the kitchen counter. It is 3:20pm and I am waiting for my seven-year-old daughter to arrive on the “late” bus. She always takes the late bus on Wednesdays, which is early release day followed by a piano lesson. Any moment now she will ring the doorbell and possibly also flip up the metal flap of the mail slot, bend down so that her mouth is level with the slot and call out to announce herself.

I take a deep, satisfied breath and allow myself to slump a little in the bar stool. I have just devoured a leftover meatloaf sandwich (the meatloaf was leftover, not the whole sandwich) on toasted wholemeal bread with a generous smear of mayonnaise and some watercress, with cornichons (which the Breeteesh spellcheck changed to coronations — really?) and cherry tomatoes on the side. If there were Breeteesh speech correct I imagine it would be all offended now, and correct my pronunciation of toe-may-toes to toe-mah-toes with slightly softer “t’s.”

Up — there she is. Excuse me. Fast forward 20 minutes. Now she is seated across the counter from me, having brought in her lunch pack and washed her hands, which is the after-school routine. She is reading a book called “Crunch” which her friend Timothy lent her over the summer. She wants to know what “duh-rell-er” means. What? I say. Point to it. Oh, “derailleur.” You don’t come across that one every day. Anyhow…

I’m thinking about the last 18 hours. And wondering how things can change so quickly. How in that period of time, which does not seem very long at all, one can experience a fury of circumstances and emotions.

Last night after dinner I washed Charlotte’s hair. Actually, a more accurate recount of the evening might include the fact that she had refused to bathe two nights running, had succumbed to a quick bath which she gave herself (but no shampoo) two nights ago and was protesting again last night despite clear signs that she could not go one single day longer without a shampoo. She then had a tantrum and pretended to go on a hunger strike, refusing to come down for dinner “because I don’t like fish curry anyway” until we tried to convince her she might starve to death. “I don’t care if I starve.” She said. And I wasn’t concerned that she would or in fact that she was in any danger whatsoever.

Of course once she had sauntered down she cleaned her plate and said it was the best fish curry she’d ever had. And to think I bought that monkfish from some dude who was going door to door ringing bells and asking if anyone would “loik fresh fish” several months ago! He caught me at an opportune moment seeing as I had just returned from vacation and had neither help nor dinner plan. So I said yes in fact I would “loik” to buy fresh fish and then came the kicker — I had to buy 10 lbs of fish (not all monkfish tho cuz that woulda been weird). So I did and we are all still here today. You know, sometimes you just have to say “what the fuck…” Anyhow, I digress.

She got into her pyjamas and then I aimed the blow dryer at her while she slouched over the latest issue of “Match of the Day,” a magazine about soccer. She became soccer obsessed at some point — exactly when eludes me — in the past year. So she pours over these publications and the accompanying “Match Attax” trading cards ad infinitum. She even categorises the cards in clear plastic sleeves in a notebook, periodically pulling them out and reordering them according to her master — whatever that is — plan of the moment. So you get the gist. She was absorbed. She’s a woman who knows what she wants. And knows who she is. In fact, when asked to describe herself in one word by her second grade teachers, she reflected briefly and responded “Chartastic.”

Once her hair was reasonably dry and she had brushed her teeth and either actually flossed or claimed to have flossed, we settled down in her bed to read a chapter of “The Secret Garden” which we have been reading for a few weeks now. We are at the part where Colin, the little boy who has been told all his life he is disabled and going to die young, stands up from his push chair in the secret garden to prove to old Ben Weatherstaff that he is no invalid.

The bedtime routine is all very calm and cosy and warm, and at the close of the chapter I bookmark our place, lay the book on her desk, tuck her in, kiss her on the forehead and turn off the light. “I love you.” I say. And leave the room.

I trot downstairs — can one trot on stairs? Well I am using that verb. I seem to manage to trot while ascending and descending. And I begin to put away the leftover rice and monkfish curry when I hear what sounds like faint crying.

I trot back upstairs, calling to Charlotte, since I know that the other child, the 10-year-old, is in the living room practicing the clarinet. I reach Char’s door and open it. “What happened?” I ask. “I hit my head!” She cries. So I flip on the light and honestly I can tell you that I was not prepared because she wasn’t crying that loud. I had one of those text-book “don’t react this way in front of your child” reactions, mouth agape, exclamation taking the Lord’s name in vain, what have you. Because she is sitting in the bed and her right hand, sleeve and the entire right side of her forehead are smeared in blood.

Simultaneously, Isabel, who has followed me up the stairs (clarinet still in hand), appears at the door and has a similar reaction. Which of course escalates Charlotte’s crying. At this point Char starts yelling “I’m going to die,” which was actually, in retrospect, kind of funny because after we settled her down and cleaned her up it was clear that the bleeding was under control and that the gash was small, about 1.5 centimetres.

Having rediscovered my rational self, I assured her that she would not die and would be just fine but that we might have to go to the hospital to get the wound closed because it was rather “gashy” (that’s a medical term — did you know?).

I spent about ten minutes trying to decide whether we should haul ass to the Royal Free Hospital’s A&E department (this is the local NHS hospital for those not familiar), knowing that we would probably wait an eternity. But, once I ascertained that Bill was en route home from work, and after calling the GP, texting my plastic surgeon friend and having a good think about it, I decided to get things going and we prepared to leave. I told Bill, who was in a cab, to have the driver leave the meter running and we would jump in and go to the hospital when he got home. That didn’t leave much time, which is why Char was wearing a white, pink and purple bunny pyjama top smeared with blood, no underwear, red sweatpants with blue polka dots, my pink Mickey Mouse socks from H&M, Isabel’s old Uggs that are at least a size too small for her and a shabby green fleece. Oh and she was armed with Froggie, a favorite green stuffed animal that somewhat resembles the shabby green fleece though it is a different shade of green (which isn’t easy, I hear).

I was wearing a peach-coloured cotton sweater with large sequin lips on it (what?) and brown Lulu Lemon sweatpants. And I think I had on underwear, but can’t remember for sure.

We got in the cab and the driver said “Royal Free?” and when I responded in the affirmative Char hollered “I don’t want to go there — I’ll get Ebola!” “You won’t get Ebola,” I said. The driver backed me up on this. So it was kind of funny that the first thing we saw when we arrived was a huge sign that said EBOLA with signs and symptoms and pictures and information and shit. I have to hand it to Char though, because I know damn well she saw it and thought “what the hell” but she didn’t say anything. She doesn’t miss much, even with a minor head injury, so she must have decided to believe me or that her fate was sealed and resistance was futile.

They checked us in (I could use the term nonchalant but a more accurate descriptor might be “could not have given two shits” to describe the young man and woman behind the counter). I had not bandaged Char’s head after cleaning the wound because the bleeding had pretty well stopped so at this point I asked if a nurse could come put a bandage on hoping that would get things moving (hello, head injury!!!) but they just gestured for me to go into a waiting room and said that a nurse would be “right out” to triage us. I would say we waited at least half an hour to 45 minutes for anyone to come out, and this after I complained several times because the wound had started to bleed again and I wanted them to put something on it rather than just let her bleed from the head in the waiting room (duh).

I looked at the signs on the walls. One boasted a 95% cleaning rating. I didn’t get close enough to see 95% of what, exactly. But a downward look revealed what I might call DIRT on the floor along with a discarded plastic bag and stuff like that.

Once the nurse attended to us, which encounter consisted of the usual wound cleansing and the application of some steristrips and a bandage, it took another two hours or so to be seen by a doctor who, after he confirmed that Char didn’t have a concussion (which I could have told him since she was her typical, sarcastic, Chartastic self), cleaned the wound again, pressed the edges of the gash together and glued the sucker. I noticed that during this Charlotte didn’t flinch or complain a bit and indeed I was proud of her stoicism.

When we got outside into the bracing cold she even suggested that we walk home. Um, no, I think we will take a cab honey, I said. It was half past midnight. But again I admired her determination and sense of adventure. Heck, she was probably thinking, it isn’t that often I stay out this late so let’s make the most of the situation and scare up some action!

I put her to bed for the second time that night. Froggie made a detour into the laundry room just in case he had come across any ebola. Char told me to wake her at the regular time for school and that she would see how she felt and reevaluate. And then I turned in myself. But a terrible wind kept stirring up this plastic sheeting covering the scaffolding on a building across the street and it took me a while to succumb. Or maybe it was the excitement of the evening or that I had other things on my mind…

The next morning I woke her and she voted for sleeping in so Isabel and I had an uncharacteristic breakfast together sans little sister and Izzy went off. Char woke up at about 8:30 and after another breakfast we set out for school.

I had to go out anyway because I had had a virus (otherwise known as the common cold) which culminated in serious laryngitis. The inflammation of my vocal cords combined with my loquaciousness, a trip to New Orleans and three weeks of house guests and my penchant for yelling from the ground floor of our house to the top floor didn’t help so after three weeks it was still hoarse. When I informed my mother that I had been hoarse for that long she gave me that look. And told me I needed to get it checked. Do you know what I mean by that look? Yeah, that’s the one. The one that says. Oh shit you had cancer so it could be cancer. And then I told my husband that I hoped I didn’t have nodes on my vocal cords (which is short for nodules — a benign callous like thing that people can get), then he gave me that look. So I said to myself, oh for fuck’s sake I’ll go to the otolaryngologist and determine that I do not have laryngeal cancer. That’ll shut everyone up. And I made an appointment to see a guy on Harley Street.

So I drop Charlotte off at school and make my way to Harley Street. I’m called into this nice dude’s office and we have a chat about my history of breast cancer and thyroid disease (at which point I sort of always feel like a loser because I am only 42 for crying out loud) and I explain the reason for my visit. He talks about the various sinister things it could be, such as, yes, cancer, caused by the HPV virus (ew, right?) etc. and then he sprays some anaesthetic on the back of my throat which he says will prevent me from having a gag reflex when he sticks this long metal thing down there to look at my vocal cords. Tempted though I was, I resisted the urge to mutter some totally inappropriate joke about — you know what? I am not even gonna say it. I’m above that (not really, but the parents are prob reading this so ya know).

So he sticks the probe in there and tells me to intermittently breathe and make a high-pitched “eeeee” and then after about three minutes he yanks it out, tells me I’m perfectly fine and let’s me have a look on the screen at my pretty, healthy vocal cords.

So I leave, my step noticeably lighter. And decide to hightail it to that mecca of all places in which to celebrate LIFE, the Oxford Circus Top Shop. Sometimes when I am in a great mood (or am not but need to be in one) nothing else will do, especially if they have a live DJ. And it is always only a matter of time before I scarf down some fro yo or Lola’s cupcakes. I’m telling you, the weird fake fur stuff I bought there today will totally require a separate blog entry. But let’s just say I plan to take funky to new levels before my time in London is up. And no, one really cannot own too many pink fake furs.

While shopping it occurs to me that a matter of minutes beforehand I had wondered — not outright worried but wondered — if somehow I could possibly be unlucky enough to have cancer again somewhere else on my body. At the age of 42.

And how only hours before that I was putting my daughter to bed and had tucked her in all safe and sound but she managed to hurt herself in her own room. And the fleeting yet unforgettable moment of terror I experienced when I opened her door, flicked on her light, saw the blood and thought she might have a serious head injury.

To better contemplate the unexpected twists and turns in life, I order a frozen yogurt and slurp it down, while balancing a purse, a parka and an entire large shopper full of ridiculous fake fur items.

And several unoriginal thoughts occur to me at once:  (1) that life is full of the unexpected; (2) that you have to leave the house because you cannot control everything no matter what your (quite possibly false) perception of safety and security and how ritualistic or careful your routines are; and (3) that there is nothing worse than worrying about your child and the other ones you love, and that this is precisely why my mother and my husband gave me that look, and why it was the right thing to do to take it seriously and get myself checked out.

This was a long one and I commend you if you read through to the end. I didn’t call it 18 hours for nothing, eh? Well, to quote an oldie but goodie, good night, sleep tight and don’t let the corners of IKEA shelving units slam into your foreheads while you are reaching for a toy in the dark — or something like that.

Spotty fur











I haven’t written since January 4th. Since Dryanuary. I cannot believe how fast time has flown this year but it has been four whole months and I haven’t written a single post. It isn’t due to lack of wanting to write or even lack of having anything about which to write. So why?

That is a very good question. And now I will try to figure it out. I think I know the reasons. More or less. You see, I kind of feel like I’m in purgatory. I’m between worlds. As time has passed I must admit that although — in some shape or form — I think about “the cancer” every day, I don’t think about it the way I used to and I really don’t dwell. It’s more like I catch a glimpse of myself naked or something and think oh yeah, cancer happened and shit. And then I move on. The passage of time has caused me to think about it less, pure and simple.

Sometimes I worry that this failure on my part to obsess on what was such a life-altering event is arrogant. That for such I might be punished. I mean, who am I to say there isn’t some nasty little cell taking hold in my liver as I type. I sit here in bed trying to block out the idiot outdoors who is drunk and having an altogether too loud conversation with his comrades and what I really ought to be doing is freaking out that hey — this thing could still kill me.

But I won’t do that. I am a realist, not a masochist. And there really isn’t any point to doing that. For now, I’m done with cancer. I’m not ever going to be done thinking about it or indeed talking or writing about it, I don’t think (although never say never). But for the most part I have moved on. And I should not feel guilty about that. I can still write about it — now with some distance and perspective, I like to think.

I consider turning this blog into a book. Something I would very much like to do at some point. And I consider that I never bothered to input SEO into this puppy (search engine optimisation) so that people would actually find and read my GD blog. This I do regret. Although I can and will do it retroactively, at some point, once I figure it out (what? It’s on my list…).

So why is the title of this post “purgatory” (which incidentally I didn’t know how to spell since the first time I wrote it I used an “e” rather than a “u”)? Duh. Well see it is because I have now begun the third and final term of my interior design course. And when I get my certificate I would like to start a design blog. I want to write. Desperately. Just it’s going to be about — as Monty Python would put it — something completely different. But I don’t know what that means. Does that mean I cannot still write killingitblog? Does it mean I do both? What do I do? Quel conundrum.

At the end of the day, I think that my voice is my voice. Irrespective of whether I write a blog about cancer or about design. Because either way I will probably write about more than either of those things. Either way I will be writing about life. Either way it will be me (yes I am being agrammatical on purpose) and you get what you get. I will not pretend to be cute. I will just be myself and, as usual, will let it all hang out. Like it or not.

The hard part is to know how to make the transition and when. And whether it will be weird that if people Google my name this funky cancer blog pops up in addition to whatever design thing I eventually have going on. But then I think, “oh who cares.” Why shouldn’t they know. It’s amazing what you can tell people that might shock the hell out of them and what they will forget — or at least won’t focus on for long.

And speaking of letting it all hang out… Today I went to work out at my gym with Anna, my personal trainer. Anna has helped take me from a pathetically skinny figment of my former self (I was pretty much skin and bones after chemo, let’s face it, not to mention bald and pale so generally looking pretty hot) to my current fit self.

After my workout this weirdo who likes to strut around the gym wearing a Richard Simmons outfit (if you don’t know who that is Google him for crying out loud), generally all red or all blue, with shorts soooo short that at any minute you could have a loose ball situation, came up and told me that I work out too hard. “What?” I asked him, incredulous. “You don’t need to do all that with the trainer. You are already fit. She pushes you to the limit.” I blinked and for a moment thought I would just smile and get on with my stretching, but then I let him have it. “You have no idea where I’m coming from,” I said. I told him I had cancer two years ago and I was skin and bones. All this muscle we have put on since my treatment. It didn’t just happen by itself. And furthermore I am not being pushed “to the limit” because it isn’t like I am throwing up. He looked pretty surprised and was speechless for a moment. And feeling rather satisfied for having shocked him, I threw in “bet you didn’t know that, didja?” “No,” he said.

But before I could feel all self-righteous he started babbling about how I shouldn’t eat dairy because “it’s a killer” and how soy is okay and how he only drinks goat’s milk. Then he went on about some Japanese mushrooms that will keep cancer away for sure and some weird salt that I have to go to Croydon to get. “Cancer won’t touch you then,” he said. Well gee, great. If only he and his too-close-to-being-loose balls had been readily available when I moved here I could have dosed up on shrooms and designer salt and cancer would not have touched me. Alas. No such luck.

So of course I immediately regretted having spilled the beans, which I almost always do. Because people don’t know what the hell to say to you so they fill the void with nonsense or just irritating bullshit — wait is that redundant? Rather than just saying, wow, that’s something else. Right on, motherfucker, keep killing it at the gym. Serves me right. When I left I said goodbye to him and he looked thoughtful for a moment and then offered up another turd — ahem — kernel of wisdom: “you know, sometimes people’s stressful careers can cause it too.” “Yes,” I agreed. Wondering why on earth this person decided to take it upon himself to try and figure out why I got cancer, when the top doctors in London and Boston cannot answer this question. “I guess I was just lucky,” I said.

But really I do feel lucky. I feel like Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. And I feel particularly lucky that I haven’t been assaulted (yet) by a loose ball from my pal at the gym. But there’s always tomorrow. Anyhow, I got pretty off topic there, didn’t I? But that’s okay. Let me know your thoughts about creating a new blog and what to do with this one. I’m all ears. And meanwhile I will be hanging here in purgatory, just trying to figure out how to get to the place I need to be.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Just when you thought I was finally going to shut up about everything, here I go again.

The other night at a party I ran into a woman who within the last few months completed her treatment for breast cancer. Good Lord. I almost wrote “who went through what I went through” and then I stopped and nearly slapped myself at the ridiculousness of that thought. If I have learned anything it is that no two people go through the same thing even when they are both diagnosed with and treated for a disease bearing the same name. Anyhow, you get the gist. She had breast cancer. She endured chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. And now she is sporting a very becoming, if I may say so, and somewhat familiar cropped ‘do.

She confided in me that life after treatment has proven difficult and that it is hard to know how to deal with it and what to do with the cacophony of emotions with which one is assaulted once the new, cancer-free you is unleashed on the world. It is indeed a hard time. When the hand-holding stops and you are pushed off the boat you have to rely on yourself and those around you, and if you are religious, whatever god or entity you worship, to get through your day. And you often don’t feel quite as strong as you were for some period of time, which is frustrating, albeit for most of us, at least temporary.

I have observed that people — not all people, mind you, but most people — don’t really “get” this. When it isn’t your problem and it hasn’t happened to you, the instinct once treatment is over is to cross it off the list and move on (and hope to hell that the cancer survivor has moved or will soon move on as well so you don’t have to hear about it anymore). We cannot begrudge people for feeling this way or for wanting this. Closure. Over. Onward. I want that too. I’d love to wake up tomorrow and not think about any of it for one nanosecond. But I know that’s never going to happen because there are too many reminders, both emotional and physical. And not all of them are negative, which is something I won’t delve into now but suffice it to say that this has been a learning experience and a journey into heightened awareness of self and others. Jesus that sounds corny but sorry I couldn’t think of a decent synonym for “journey.”

In some ways this is annoying. There are things that I would rather not contemplate very much, such as the inevitable fleeting thought that at some point in the future, the little fuckers could come back. That I would have to undergo those draconian treatments all over again and maybe even undergo dying, which would really suck. I am not being flip. I have thought about these things a lot. It does NOT mean that I am negative or that I am being negative. I am being human. Recognise the difference.

Strangely, you might find, I am now able to consider my own mortality without freaking out and getting all weepy (well, the great majority of the time). I mean, something’s going to get all of us — I should really say each of us, since unless a really large meteor hits it won’t be at the same time for everyone. Allowing myself to think about this has been helpful. In the beginning, in the days leading to my diagnosis, particularly, the thought of it was terrifying and I felt completely out of control. I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel very positive about the future. But I am not delusional and I will not pretend things. My mind wouldn’t allow it, anyhow. I don’t let myself get away with anything.

Over the summer one of my close friends told me that she had stopped reading my blog. The topic came up and she looked away from me, paused and said quickly and firmly “I stopped reading it.” In saying this she was conveying her feeling that this chapter was officially over. I totally respect that decision. And I imagine many other people stopped reading at that point as well. But the thing is, for me it’s never really over. Lots of folks might be finished with it or they might find it annoying or upsetting or [insert another negative adjective] or they just might not need it or want it anymore. That is all fine and dandy. I, however, am not finished with it. I like to write. And it won’t even always be about cancer. I promise.

I imagine that what I write about will evolve. In fact, if you look at early posts versus what I write now, I think it already has evolved. The tone is not the same because I am no longer in honey badger mode. I’m chilling. I’ve entered a new phase. In a few years’ time, who knows, Killing It Blog may have morphed into an interior decorating blog about how to vamp up your kid’s bedroom. But no matter what I write about I will always be affected by what has happened and that experience may inform some of my writing even if I don’t write about it specifically or explicitly.

In other news I placed myself on the wait list for that course in interior decoration I was supposed to embark on over a year and a half ago right before my unwelcome news. Lo and behold, over the summer a spot opened up so I am going to be a student again. The really great news is that I have enough hair not to look like GI Jane on my student ID photo (the same cannot be said for my passport photo which I have to carry around for ten years — oh joy). Hot spit.

I’m going to dust off the drafting board, see if my markers have dried out and buy some new school supplies. I am excited and a little nervous about the workload (and — eek — the competition). But you know one of the most exciting things about it is that I am about to meet a whole new group of individuals who don’t know me from Adam (at least hardly any of them will, I imagine) and to them I will just be me. I will not be that lady who had breast cancer. People will not comment on my hair with a knowing look. They will not ask me “how are you?” in that way people ask. I will just be Emily, the American expat former lawyer mother of two who decided to do a career change before whatever is left of her right brain dries up forever.

Yes in that group it won’t exactly be over, but it won’t ever even have started. It’s a rather refreshing thought, really.

The New Normal

Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of my eighth and final chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Following that I did have five weeks of radiation, five days a week, so my end of treatment was technically July 27 (not including another surgery later on). Radiation, however, was a cake walk compared to everything else up to that point so June 7 just carries more significance for me.

When you embark on chemotherapy they warn you that the medicine — in addition to killing cancer cells, which is sort of the point, duh — will affect you, not only immediately, but also for some time in the future. No one can say exactly how and how long you will enjoy the effects of this venomous intravenous cocktail, because how you react and for how long, like so many things medical, are highly individual.

Of course, a number of “individuals” told me what I was in for, either from personal experience or from what they had heard or observed in others undergoing treatment. Solicited, this is helpful advice, provided you don’t take it as scripture since you don’t really know what you, yourself will experience. Unsolicited, it is, well, not. There are things that you know you will probably have to deal with, such as fatigue, loss of muscle, appetite issues, lowered immunity, hair loss, et cetera. And then there are other things that may or may not strike you, such as oral thrush, loss of finger nails or having a constantly runny nose or watery eyes… I could go on but how long have you got?

The thing is, you just don’t know. What you do know is that you will not feel “normal” for some significant period of time. I was prepared for that, as much as one can be. If I’m honest about it I have not really felt like a normal person ever since I suspected that I might have cancer at age 39, because that in and of itself is not normal and made me feel physically weird.

But what is normal? That’s the question I have been asking myself a great deal lately. Normal is somewhat tricky. It’s a little bit shifty. Elusive.

I am sitting here digesting the last year and a half and thinking about how I felt before, during and after treatment. And how I feel right now. At this very moment.

And I have to admit that I do not know if I feel completely normal, one year out from that final chemo. I am not trying to be cute or philosophical here, people. I don’t mean that mentally I will never be the same because I am “forever changed” by this experience. I am talking physically. I’m talking about how my body feels.

See, about two weeks ago I thought that I felt normal. And then something happened and suddenly I noticed that when I woke up in the morning I had so much more energy. And at the gym I had so much more strength and stamina. And I thought, “gee, I guess my body is still ‘recovering’. I guess the way I felt three weeks ago, although I thought it was pretty good, wasn’t as good as it’s going to get.”

And you know what? A few weeks before that (aside from an unfortunate stint with some unexplained infection which dragged on for weeks and seems to have started with a stomach virus) I thought I felt normal, too. But clearly, if I feel the way I do now, then by comparison, the way I felt then was, if I may borrow a line from Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, “pretty fucking far from okay.”

I remember chemo. I remember the first time, which I did before I had a port surgically implanted into my chest for treatments two through eight. The nurse pushed the juice into a vein in my left arm. I watched the liquid flow from the huge syringe gripped by her gloved hands through the line and into my arm. I began to feel the effects immediately. My nose tingled, a metallic taste enveloped my tongue, and when I went to the bathroom my piss was pink because the doxorubicin was red in colour. Let me tell you: this was somewhat less festive than rosé champagne and eminently less drinkable. By the time I went home I was rather grey in the face and very tired. And didn’t have much of an appetite. Which for me is not at all normal. I never refuse food unless I have an acute stomach virus. And even then I try to relish the white toast, flat Coke and sliced banana. Oh wait — I lie. There was one time recently when I refused food on a Bangkok Airways flight because the mystery meat was just a little too mysterious even for me. Ew.

I had a dose every two weeks, and by the end of the second week I was always feeling better, more — yup, you got it — normal. And then they would hit me again. Halfway through I was switched to another medicine (part of the original plan) which was easier to take but had other side effects. And then suddenly there I was in my pink wig and feather skirt (see Zero) for my last treatment. And that was it. Dunzo. So when that third week rolled around and they did not hit me again it was fucking magic. I mean I could not believe how much better I started to feel. It was like someone flicked a switch. In fact, you can actually see it on a graph that reflects the data from this exercise circuit I had been doing at the gym. You see a slow decline over the course of my chemo and then the day I worked out in that third week following my final treatment the graph jerks right up into a steep climb.

I remember how I felt that day at the gym. How much easier the exercise was. How much more normal I felt. I thought, “wow, I cannot believe how good I feel.” But now, looking back, I realise how good I didn’t feel. My reconstructive surgeon alluded to something along these lines last year. He said you think you are doing pretty well and only later do you realise you actually felt absolutely crap. I get it now, dude.

And it isn’t always linear. There are ups and downs and setbacks and gains and the whole thing is linked to mood so it’s really very difficult to measure what normal is.

One morning last summer during our visit to the US I waited in a small, sandy parking lot with my husband to meet our dear friends riding the Pan Mass Challenge (a hard core two-day bicycle ride to raise a hellofalotta money for cancer — see http://www.pmc.org). They would do a quick pit stop before making a hard right and continuing on. I remember standing there, chest all beet-red, enraged from radiation, barely any hair on my head, skinny and certainly a little weak. It was so great to see them. But I did not feel normal. I felt like they were riding for me. It was moving, unnerving.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago Saturday when my older daughter (who is eight) and I did a four-mile walk through Regent’s Park to support people fighting cancer at the school by raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. The walk was fun and easy and although our legs were mildly fatigued by the end it was great. And it hit me that throughout the walk and afterward I felt as though we were doing it to support others. Not for me. It wasn’t for me anymore. Because I am that much closer to normal. There is a whole universe between that day and the day I stood in the sun on Cape Cod waiting to spot my friends.

So what now? Well, after aspiring to normal for so long I’ve decided to scrap that, regroup and come up with a new plan. Normal, whatever that is, is no longer my end game. I want to feel amazing. I want to feel awesome. Sometimes, already, I do. But I want it consistently and I’m going to get it. By the way, I know many of my friends and family are chuckling and thinking that I have never been remotely “normal.” Very funny, people, but you know what I mean.



One-Trick Pony

So it’s sort of my anniversary. Or should I say cancerversary? Wait… I think I just threw up in my mouth a little in the face of such a cheesy, fabricated word. Anyhow, it has been a year since my diagnosis. To be completely accurate it has been a year, two weeks and one day. The date I got the call (“yes it does show a cancer … but you’ll have perky tits forever”) really isn’t what I think of as the anniversary, however, considering I was at least 66 2/3 % convinced that the results of the biopsy would not be good a week before the call came in.

I was not being pessimistic, people. I was being realistic. I had looked the radiologist in the eye, said “I am a big girl; what do you think” and she had levelled with me. She was “reasonably concerned” there was cancer present. So although lots of well-wishers told me not to worry and that everything would turn out fine I kind of knew that wasn’t how things were likely to go down. That was when I started dealing.

Which probably explains, at least in part, why this past December was such a tough month for me, as I mentioned in a previous post.

So how is this relevant now that December has come and — blissfully — gone? Well it got me thinking. That’s sort of a lie, actually. Because I am always thinking. In fact I wish I could turn off my brain sometimes. But it got me thinking, specifically, about what the hardest things have been about this experience to date. And I came up with something sort of interesting and to some people, maybe unexpected.

When I think back over the last fourteen months, from finding a lump in the shower, to the investigations, to confirmation that something sinister had taken up residence in my body, to surgery, chemo, radiation and all the delightful direct effects and side effects of such, to recovering after it all, the answer is as clear as a bell.

The hardest things have been (1) the waiting period between finding out that I might have cancer and formulating a plan of action (surgery + ?) after I found out I definitely had cancer, with a little bonus period after my surgery during which I had to wait yet again for more detailed pathology results leading to a further plan of action (chemo + radiation) and (2) most of the month of December, about a year from the beginning of all this crap. So there’s a pattern here, see it? It’s before and after. Those have been the hardest times. By far the most stressful. Not during. Hmm.

People who have been through this or something like it and those who have cared for them or who otherwise know warned me that the initial waiting period would be the worst. And that I might feel “down” after it was all over. The waiting was awful. It was terrifying and just plain old difficult to bear. I concur. But I did not feel down right after the treatment was over. Maybe a little adrift at times, but not really down. Until December when I got hit with a bad cold and a nasty clenching crimp in my back. That reminded me of being weak. Of having limitations. And things sort of deteriorated from there. Part of it was an obvious thing. I did not feel good physically, so it follows that I didn’t feel so hot mentally. The cold persisted and turned into a sinus infection and the back persisted such that I was uncomfortable for a good part of the day, every day. That doesn’t make for a great mood. I was downright cranky.

I know now that everyone and his dog seems to have had a nasty cold over December — some even got two colds. I am not special in that regard. It just especially affected me because it made me think about feeling unwell and the last time I had felt unwell was while I was undergoing chemotherapy. It was a lack of patience on my part. An “I’m well now and it’s over and there is no time or space for being sick because I refuse to be limited.” And the back thing was similar. It screwed up my workouts, deprived me of endorphins, made me lose a little muscle. Made me see a dip. I don’t like dips. I’m into crescendos.

I feel much better now. Much. It’s a new year and I have a feeling that despite the conventional wisdom, thirteen is going to be my lucky number. Or at least better than twelve, which, as a friend put it who also had a hell of a 2012, can totally kiss my ass.

In retrospect, although undergoing treatment was not pleasant, it really wasn’t that hard, relatively speaking. My mission was clear; beautiful in its simplicity. It was sort like I became this one-trick pony and the pony’s focus was this: kill it. I was an assassin. Single-minded, willing to do whatever it took to carry out the hit. The wire had already hit my numbered Swiss account and I would go and go until the hit was carried out.

What else made it bearable? It was temporary. I’ll shave my head today, but my hair will grow back tomorrow. I’ll feel shitty and have metal mouth and queasiness today but I will have my appetite back tomorrow. You get the gist. It was something to slog through, not a permanent state of affairs to which I had to adjust. And I started to write and then I learned a hell of a lot about myself.

I was also incredibly fortunate to handle the meds pretty well. Although I rested in bed on the afternoon following treatment and went to bed early every night, I wasn’t in bed all day and I still exercised and generally enjoyed a good appetite. None of my side effects landed me in the hospital, even though some were infuriating (such as the swollen thumb episode).

What’s my point? I don’t really have one. I’m just musing. People say I have been strong. That I sailed through treatment. I don’t really know if that is true. Maybe it was just easy for me to have a singular focus and to get through something I needed to get through. Put all life’s little stresses on hold. Sleep well at night because I knew what mattered and what didn’t. Wasn’t going to get worked up about the little bullshit over which I had spent plenty of time obsessing in the past. Big deal.

We’ll see how the next couple of months pan out. I have a date on the calendar for the acquisition of my new tits. That’s pretty exciting. Sort of. If you told me I would move to London and a year and a half later be going in for a set of silicone tits — ahem — after having had my original tits removed — I would not have believed you. I still find it hard to believe except that anything has to be better and more comfortable than these saline expanders with metal ports that feel about as hard as boulders sewn under my skin. I’m ready to move on. Ready to take the next step. We’ll hope for the best. See where it takes me. Plan on bikini shopping in the near future.

And then the world is gonna be my oyster again, bitch.


Life After Treatment

I don’t feel like I’ve been writing very much about cancer (per se) these days. Maybe it’s because I am done with treatments going on three months now. In fact, this Saturday will mark the three-month anniversary of my final treatment and it also happens to be my eleventh wedding anniversary. Hot spit.

Being done is super. I’ve been tooling around London a fair bit and when I step back and think about it, it feels oh so different to be going about my business as “a normal person” rather than as “a cancer patient.” Of course, when I was a cancer patient I still tooled around and did things, but somehow it always felt like I was squeezing the good stuff in between appointments.

For a period of about seven months, appointments formed the scaffolding of my existence. First, a myriad* of appointments with surgeons and oncologists and the requisite imaging and scans and preparations for surgery, then the surgery itself and the follow-up appointments. And shortly after that, chemotherapy every other Thursday for four months. Then, two-and-a-half weeks following chemo, five weeks of radiation, five days a week. Plus a ton of extra appointments for random crap like the shingles on my head, a 7mm-deep collection of blood under my right thumb which caused it to look like a sickly Goodyear Blimp and other tedious but not-too-serious medical travails.

When you look at it that’s a busy schedule. So, getting out and doing things not related to killing cancer or dealing with the spate* of problems that killing it spawned seemed extra. As in extracurricular. “Outside of.” It’s Latin you know.

*My dad will be so proud. I used myriad and spate in the same post.

Now that scaffolding is gone. It’s been disassembled and put back in the shed and I am building a new one all on my own. Unless you count the every three-month check-ups. But those aren’t often enough for me to consider them the same way structurally. Not even close.

There was an article in The Times last weekend by a breast cancer survivor (Gail Rolfe). She wrote about life after treatment and how she battled depression. Here is the link but you have to subscribe to The Times online in order to read the whole thing, I’m afraid, unless you get the times delivered and have last weekend’s still lying on the coffee table or awaiting recycling in your blue recycling bag (are they blue outside of Camden? I dunno).  http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/health/mental-health/article3572415.ece

I suppose I am entirely too subjective to judge whether the article resonates with people who haven’t been touched by the topic. It was easy for me to understand what she was talking about, even though I am, thank goodness, not personally struggling with depression. Because I do struggle with a lot of things post treatment.

She made a number of points that I have made in previous posts and have noodled about in some detail. The obvious first one is that it can actually be hard/weird/disquieting/scary (I could go on) when your treatments are over and you are on your own. This is true. That scaffolding has been removed. And you sort of feel like, okay, I made it through that unbelievable shit show, so now what the fuck am I supposed to do?

It’s like that solid, stable bridge you’ve been walking over has just become invisible but you have to move forward because you can’t turn back and you can’t stand still. It is, to say the least, unsettling. And not easy. Did I mention that the bridge has become a suspension bridge, that it shakes when you walk, that the drop below is fatal and that most of the people walking along beside you have fallen back? Now you’re getting the picture. You need a lot of core strength to walk over that bridge. If you are strong and centred it makes the movements easier and more natural. But it takes focus and will and strength. It doesn’t just happen by itself. Unless you are truly unthinking.

I’ve talked to so many people who said they were depressed or freaked out when their treatments ended and had that walking over the invisible bridge feeling. Whose friends didn’t get it because they thought it would just be party party party when the last drop of crap went into the vein or the last photon beam zapped the problem area.

It is so very personal. So very individual. What you feel at that moment.

The biggest deal for me was being done with chemo. Sure I had radiation ahead of me but that didn’t seem like that much of a thing, compared. Being done with chemo was the biggie. As you may have read, I had a number of visitors that last time. My husband and two fellow survivors came to hang out, not all at once. But by the time the treatment was winding down my guests had left and I was alone. And it was great. To have the last bit of that nasty liquid drip in and then get disconnected and bid the chemo suite adieu.

I didn’t feel anything negative in that moment. Of course it may have helped that I was wearing a pink, fringed bob wig, a feather skirt and rubberized leggings at the time. How can a person feel bad in that? Really. It’s like happiness armour.

The point is that for many people that isn’t such a triumphant moment. Or at least it is a moment of major ambivalence or even terror. Keep that in mind if you know someone going through this so that when they are finishing you say “how do you feel about being done” rather than “so you must be so excited to be done!” How the hell can you know how they are feeling? You can’t.

Back to the bridge.

Sometimes my mind wanders into troublesome places and I have to extract myself from that and force myself to take another step on that rickety-ass contraption. Force myself not to worry about the what-ifs and for the moment not to dwell, at least, on the topic. At times like that, being able to forge ahead and take that next step is sort of like having faith, but also just accepting the futility of obsessing over things over which we have very little control. Squeeze the core and advance. And don’t forget to breathe. That’s sort of what life is like even without cancer. Isn’t it? A leap of faith. Letting go. Moving forward.

In her article, Gail mentioned being a member of the club no one wants to join. I get that for sure. I wrote about that very thing. I am downright pissed off that even though I am done with treatment, I am still not really a normal person. I’m a little bit bitter about it. I think about it. It affects my actions daily. What I eat and drink. I get a little antsy if I feel that I am exceeding my self-imposed limit of alcohol (bad for cancer) or that my diet is too high in fat (bad for cancer) or sugar (bad for cancer). It irritates the hell out of me to have to think about things in this way.

You might retort: you don’t have to but rather you choose to. Fair point. But see even when I go “aw, screw it” and say, have those two chocolate Oreos and wash them down with a cup of hot chocolate despite the fact that I had a small bowl of vanilla ice cream two hours earlier, I think “oh crap that wasn’t so good.” But as my oncologist said, you have to live your life. I can’t live it on a seaweed and raw cabbage diet, people. And I can’t let myself go and not take care of myself either. I am not into extremes. So I take the middle road which goes something like this: eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, indulge from time to time and try not to beat myself up about it too much.

You will say that over time this will change and I will think less about these things. This may be true. In fact I hope it is true. But knowing myself, I will always be careful. Or at least more careful than I was when I felt a little less mortal.

I got a newsletter from the lady in charge of the organic farm that delivers produce to me every week explaining that she had found a lump in her breast and had a scare but that her biopsy had come back clean and she was exhilarated and felt “immortal.” Interesting. I think if I had had that result rather than the shit luck I had I still would have come out feeling a little more mortal, not the other way around. I mean, something’s gotta get you. Think I should call her up and suggest that she might have a heart attack tomorrow? I know, probably not.

So this other thing on my mind post treatment is, go figure, boobs. Why not since they seem to be on everyone else’s mind too.

To wit: a day after the article about depression after cancer treatment was a spread in The Sunday Times magazine (the cover of which featured a model with a t-shirt on that had a rather grotesque–I thought–photo of naked breasts on it) about the longstanding obsession with breasts and how prudish we have become about naked breasts. It touched on topics such as the topless pap pics of Kate Middleton, how uncomfortable English women feel about sunbathing topless, how bipolar America is about boobs (simultaneously prudish and obsessed) and it contained a timeline about the naked breast including “historical” events such as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. It even had a quote by Marilyn Monroe lamenting being defined by her tits (well, and ass).

I didn’t really get the whole point of it. But I guess I am jaded. The article promised that I would not think of breasts the same way after reading it. Um, whatever. Like I needed to read that to get some perspective. I mean, step into my office for a minute, honey…

Just a week ago I visited my plastic surgeon, thinking that at long last he would put back some of the saline that he was instructed to remove from my temporary implants prior to beginning radiation in June. If you didn’t read my posts about that, it had to do with exposing more of the left breast to radiation than was desirable given that my cancer had been only on the right side. (The temporary implants, called expanders, are really place-holders for my permanent implants which I should get sometime early next year. The process of inflation is to form a good “pocket” in which the permanent implants will lie). The long and short of it was that I was too, and I quote: “pumped up” for them to get the correct angle so they had to partially deflate me. It was not an awesome experience.

It has been a few months and frankly I’ve grown used to a flatter look. But for some reason, (maybe because the killing it part is over) lately, I had sort of gotten focused on getting some volume back in the rack. So I was rather nonplussed when my surgeon told me that in fact he thought we needed to wait a little longer before inflating me. The skin looked good, better than it had the last time he examined me, he assured me, but things were still a bit inflamed from the radiation and he wanted to see if they would settle down and soften up a bit. Which of course raised a number of questions. What if they don’t? What if this is as good as it gets? Will I have to settle for a smaller size? Will the surgery get screwed up regardless of size? What kind of implants should we use? Has the plan changed? Is there a plan?

I felt like yelling “but I want bigger tits and I want them NOW” à la Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Just to see what would happen.

It’s really quality not quantity that concerns me, at the end of the day. Oh shut up, male readers. I am being serious. If he can make them look decent I don’t care if they are petite. It would be nice to feel a little less like part of that club no one wants to join and a little more like just another chick with boobs, hanging out in the ladies locker room. Not that I am planning to parade around topless once I have my new set. At least not at the gym. But I might if they are really top quality. Just to see if anyone notices they’re plastic.

My surgeon once told me about a breast reconstruction patient he had once. She was an ageing rock star’s (don’t worry he didn’t tell me who) girlfriend, who the first time she came to his office, produced a tiny dress from her hand bag and said “do what you have to do but it has to look good in this.”

You know what, I can really respect that. Honey badger don’t give a shit as long as it looks good.

How I got from deep thoughts about life after treatment to this point I am not quite sure but it’s all part of that journey on the invisible bridge.

What Matters

We take so many things for granted. It is human nature. And there’s no escaping it. No matter what.

People are always asking me if I “see life differently now.” I suppose this is another way of asking if I don’t take certain things for granted as much as I did before. Or at least that has to be part of it. My response to this question is always “of course.” How can I not see things differently after the last nine months? I’d have to be an idiot. Or just really really set in my ways.

But it’s complicated. It isn’t black and white.

I do not have what you would call a quiet mind. Far from it. In fact, there have been many times when I wish my mind would shut the fuck up, but it has no intention of doing so. Ever. For instance, the whole time I do yoga, which I haven’t done in a long time but will take up again eventually, my mind is leaping around. And I can’t take a nap to save my life. Here’s how literal I am being — I have not taken a single nap in the last nine months, from cancer diagnosis until right now. Not one. Not even the day of my surgery or the day after. Not even after chemo. If I try to nap I will just lie in bed and my mind will race. Synapses firing. Problems being uncovered, to-do lists growing. A few minutes after they woke me up from my surgery I was ordering my husband around, telling him which emails to send. Totally mental, comme d’habitude.

I’d like to have a Kevin Costner method such as in For the Love of the Game when he is on the pitcher’s mound with all the noise (one person is even yelling at him that he sucks) and he just says to himself “clear the mechanism.” And it all goes away. That would be groovy. But alas. I am not Kevin Costner. That doesn’t mean I never quiet my mind. I do it sometimes. But I’d say that its natural state is pretty fired up. There’s a lot going on in there.

This has not changed. I do not believe it will change. It is the way I am.

But what I think about has changed. In so many ways that it is hard to sit here and even think about enumerating them.

Here’s a big one: I don’t think about death the same way. We all know rationally that we are mortal, but to really believe it, to really feel (I hate split infinitives but I’ll get over it) that way is something. I think that there are a lot of people who just bumble (or stumble, or both) through life assuming that everything will be all right and that nothing bad will ever happen and then of course even these people will eventually have something happen because no one has lived forever, yet.

Particularly after becoming a parent I had, naturally, allowed my mind to wander over to the dark side and consider what it would be like to die. Not to die of old age or at an old age, but to die before my time. To be robbed of a long life. To be robbed of precious time with loved ones, with children, with a husband, with parents and family and friends. But only occasionally did my mind go there and it got the hell outta there PDQ (that’s pretty darn quick — do we have that expression in the UK? Do tell, English contingent).

I let it go there more often now. It is not just some crazy thought that flashes by. No longer a pesky smear on my windshield that I can just spritz away. Shake my head and drive on. It’s more like a chip in the windshield now. It’s a crack. Repaired but present. The windshield is intact but it will never be the same.

Do I appreciate things more now? Like time with my children and my husband and my family and friends? Yes. I definitely do. Sometimes I try to sit back and breathe deeply and just inhale the moment. Just take it all in and bask in the present. It was always precious but it’s more precious now. Sometimes it feels more fragile.

Do I still sweat the small stuff? What about the big stuff? Well, I do still experience stress. But so far, not as much. In fact, I would venture to say not nearly as much. I do still tend to get ticked off when people waste my time. Time being precious and all. And I don’t like mediocrity and carelessness. Life is too short for those losers.

Here’s an example: We are renting a lovely Edwardian house in front of which is a hedge. Part of the hedge has been losing its battle with old age or whatever is afflicting it for some time now and has become an eye sore. For months I have asked that it be dealt with and finally, finally today, the gardener came and did something. “Something” is a generous word for what he did. What he managed to do was leave it looking far worse than it looked before. He uprooted about one half of the dying portion of the hedge and then in its place clumsily planted three new plants. So now there is healthy green hedge in bad need of a trim next to dying ugly yellow hedge next to much shorter and father set back green leafy plants. It’s bad. It looks as though he did it all blindfolded with a chain saw after a three-day bender. And the detritus that he left in front of the house was so astonishing that when I returned home today I nearly walked past the house because I saw all this crap out on the pavement and thought oh how awful what asshole left that mess in front of his house? And then I realised it was my house.

Why did I tell you that story? Because that kind of shit still bothers me. I am not going to lose sleep over it. But it pissed me off. Mostly because it involved carelessness, laziness and ugliness. Those have no place in my life. Too bad they’re around so much everywhere you look.

But maybe they are there to allow us to appreciate all the beauty. One of the most beautiful things has been friendship. Friends and friendship. I have such wonderful friends. I don’t know why I have been so lucky. I feel that I’ve received far more than I’ve given. Not really fair at all.

I have some humdingers of old ones but also a good number of new ones — people I have met just since moving here. People who rallied and supported us, cooked us dinners and took me out to distract and entertain me. Friends who went and picked up my wig and smelled it first to make sure it didn’t reek of armpit anymore (read Armpit Wig if you don’t know that story; it will make you laugh unless you are brain-dead). Friends who carried trays of roasted chicken with all the trimmings down the street that must have weighed 10 kilos. Friends who gave me Wimbledon tickets which we enjoyed even though it rained (who cares it was just some rain). Friends who don’t mind that I bought the same coat even though we are going to be seen all over town wearing it at the same time (well she did already buy the same shoes I had so…). Friends who came to chemo with me. Some more than once. Or across an ocean. People who had been through similar experiences and shared their own stories (and reconstructed boobs) with me. Mostly in random ladies’ bathrooms. People who had never been through anything like what I’ve been through but have listened to me go on and on about everything. Being patient. People who read this.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about whether I see life differently is that although the answer is yes, it isn’t always automatic. It is, for me, a learning process. Sometimes I have to step back and tell myself to stop [stressing out] [obsessing] [freaking out] [beating myself up] over something. Or to appreciate something more. To savour. To roll the taste of an experience around on my tongue and consider it as I chew.

I know more what matters now. But I’m also still learning.


I Smell a Rat

Like, literally.

So here’s how it all started. On the very last day of radiation treatment (#25 of 25), which was Friday, July 27, I was home puttering around in preparation for our trip to the States the next day and I popped outside (the British are always popping here and there to do things and this has thoroughly infected my speech patterns by this point so deal with it) to put the trash out.

After closing the lid of the rubbish bin (that’s trash barrel for you die-hard Americans) I caught something out of the corner of my left eye on my way back in the door. I directed my gaze down the precipitous steps leading to the basement.

And there it was, looking back at me. A rat. The size of the animal and the length of its tail betrayed immediately that it was no mouse.

I didn’t think much of it, though. I figured, it likes the trash. We live in the city. Until I went out and returned several hours later and saw it (or one of its pals) again in the same place. That did not seem like a good sign. And it had the nerve to peer up at me again before it slunk out of sight.

At the bottom of the aforementioned steps there is a water pipe/drain that leads into the house. It occurred to me that they might have found a way into the basement via that or other similar means. So I reentered the house and went into the basement from the inside on a recon mission. I saw right away that something (here’s a hint: it was a rat) had chewed up one of the tiles of the drop ceiling (you know those tiles in unfinished basements made of some sort of cardboard-like substance) and the debris from this gnaw fest was deposited below. Ew.

So on the eve of our departure I discovered that there were rats in the house, or at least in the basement, which still counts as “in the house” in my book.

Crap, I thought. Via my pal, Susan, I got in touch with the pest control dude, whom we had had out to the house to investigate whether we had mice in the basement only a few weeks prior. This was after my husband found a dead mouse down there (which I now suspect was not a dead mouse but a dead baby rat) and I had heard some scrabbling in the floor near the base of the main staircase. Nothing had been found.

In my absence, Susan and our nanny, Agnieszka, met the pest dude at the house a few days later. He placed some bait in the basement and checked for possible points of ingress, of which he identified two, one in each of the adjoining houses on either side of our house. “Don’t worry,” he reassured the ladies after placing the bait, “they won’t die in the house because they will go out looking for water.”

This statement was later revised by the dude to something like “they are very unlikely to die in the house.” Oh sure.

There are other points on which the pest dude was severely lacking. How about for starters that I questioned him long and hard when we returned from our trip about whether the rats could somehow gain entry through the water pipe or any holes near it where I had repeatedly seen the culprit(s). He said unequivocally no. But then the contractor who was working on the house next door and who knows this house like the back of his hand informed me this was total BS and of course the rats could get in that way and he even poked around and observed that there were holes around that drainage area. HELLO? I could go on… In fact I will, later. Read on.

Some days after the initial baiting, Agnieszka met the dude at the house. It hit them hard as soon as they opened the front door. The unmistakable stench of decomposition.

The dude descended into the basement but could not find the body. He told Agnieszka to light some scented candles and that everything would be fine and dandy. Just wait it out, he advised.

Horrified, Agnieszka scrubbed the floors and opened doors and windows trying to air the house and abate the stank. She purchased room freshener and a scented candle. All this while I was across an ocean, blissfully unaware for a couple more hours that our house had become a rat graveyard where a rat can’t get a proper burial.

Then I got the email from Susan. “Brace yourself,” it warned, “this is a stinker.” I read on. The pest dude sent a message about the fact that a rat had died in the house. The long and short of it was that this sometimes happens and that it isn’t nice but it is better than having rats running around down there.

I called him up and ruffled his feathers about his claim that the rat wouldn’t die in the house. He was somewhat unnerved by my American directness via pointed questions, though they did not rise to the level of accusations, my being a reasonable person and all.

From that morning I got the news I began to prepare myself. Tried to swallow that after all the shit we’d just been through, what would greet us upon our return to the Old Country was the reek of decomposing rodent in our home. For some reason, even though I was told that it would soon pass, this really bothered me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

An impending sense of horror insinuated its way into my consciousness. I would be distracted momentarily, but then something would jerk me back into thinking about the dead rat smell that awaited us. And the possibility of more rats in the house.

Our flight home was uneventful. When we opened the front door, we smelled it for sure. But it was not as bad as I had anticipated. It probably couldn’t have been considering how mental I had gotten about it. I thought to myself, “this is gross but I can deal with it.” We got settled, went out to dinner and came home and went to bed. We could not smell the rat from our bedrooms.

The next day, my husband went down to the basement to investigate, the real point of which being to determine whether any rodent activity had fouled his latest batch of home brew, which lay in waiting in the tiny finished room adjacent to the basement. He popped (there it is again) upstairs and informed me that he had heard a noise in the ceiling near the stairwell that sounded like an animal breathing or snoring. I thought he was kidding. But he persisted.

So I accompanied him back downstairs. We stopped. We listened. And by George, there it was. A sort of low, soft, exhale somewhere between a growl and a snore. We exchanged a look. I acknowledged that I could hear it. And at that moment we started to fear the worst. That there was not only a dead rat in the house but live rats as well.

As it turns out, we never did discover the source of that guttural sound. But it was enough to prompt a call to the pest dude to demand that he come out forthwith and deal with the problem in case any rats were still in the house. After some initial resistance, he agreed to come out. And it was during this meeting he informed me the rats couldn’t have come in at the base of the stairs where I had initially spotted them.

I began to lose confidence in him at that point and what made it worse was that he was, to put it mildly, rather verbose, or as a friend once aptly put it about his own loquaciousness, intoxicated by the exuberance of his own verbosity. My first clue should have been that when I offered him a parking permit and asked how long he thought he would be at the house that day, he rejected the half hour card in favour of an hour-long one.

The second inkling was that every time I asked him something that I believed to be relatively cut and dried (you know, straightforward questions), he looked pensive, hemmed and hawed, and said “let’s start at the beginning.”

Good Lord, I thought. We might end up needing an exterminator for our exterminator at this rate.

Shortly after his deficiencies became apparent to us, our estate agent hired another company and informed the pest dude of our transfer of affections to said company. He really had lost me when I suggested we plug an obvious rat-sized hole in the ceiling of the “beer room” and he said not to bother because for every hole you plug there are ten more where they can get in. And that hole led to the main part of the house! Why don’t I just roll out the red carpet, for fuck’s sake, and line it with biscuits and chocolate.

The next day I had an epiphany. Maybe the reason that the dead rat had perturbed me so — aside from the obvious “oh we have just been through so much and now we have to contend with a smelly dead rat woe is me nonsense” was the following:

You discover when you least expect it that a nasty, potentially harmful and most certainly unwelcome presence has invaded your home.

You do not know and may never know how it got there and whether it has friends and if so where the friends are and how many there are.

You set about finding out as much as possible about this unwanted visitor, and formulate a plan of attack based on the information available.

You poison the intruder.

Then you set about trying to prevent a similar intruder from returning.

You succeed in killing it.

The execution, however, is a highly unpleasant messy business with unforeseen consequences. The whole thing is rather an ordeal.

After the killing, there is a terrible stench. Everyone tells you that it will fade over time. You want to believe this but it is difficult to imagine because for so long you have smelled it, breathed it, lived it.

Sometimes you think that the smell is gone but then you catch a whiff and you know that the carcass will always be there, albeit out of reach. A reminder of your ordeal.

To tell you the truth I don’t care where the bloody skeleton is as long as it is dead as a fucking doornail. The smell is already a lot better. It will indeed go away eventually. But I will never forget it. I will always know that smell.

The really good news is that the beer was undisturbed. And is damn good.

It’s the little things in life.

Off Duty

Two weeks from today, provided there are no airplane delays, riots, floods or unwelcome and unforeseen side effects (such as a right thumb the size of a blimp) from treatment, I will be eating my breakfast in the United States of America (say that with a Southern drawl, please, emphasis on the “YOU”).

After those two short weeks I will have completed not only chemotherapy but also radiotherapy. Of course my treatment will technically continue for some time because I am now on Tamoxifen (endocrine therapy) and will remain on it for the next five years. I waited for two weeks after getting the prescription before popping the first white tablet because there are different schools of thought regarding whether to begin this drug subsequent to or concurrently with radiation. Some business about the theoretical possibility that cancer cells may be less active while on Tamoxifen and thus radiation somewhat less effective. But then there’s the whole get your body the protection of the Tamoxifen as soon as possible argument. I opted for “in the middle of” radiation, not wanting to carry the burden of an all or nothing decision and because it didn’t appear that anyone else was going to decide for me.

Taking that first pill was sort of weird. I kept staring at the box of tablets on my night table. I felt like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix in that moment before he considered whether to take the red or the blue pill and forever change his life. Go down the wormhole. This drug is powerful and it is excellent protection for those of us who had/have oestrogen-positive tumours, but many powerful good things come with a price, such as putting a woman through early and sometimes irreversible menopause. That may not seem like a big deal if you are already of a certain age or you are male and just don’t “get it” but to a forty-year-old who always thought she would have a third child it is not nothing. It’s unnatural and odd to think about such things before their due.

But I did it. And have been on it for a week now. I don’t think I have noticed anything (probably too early) apart from the occasional hot flash (hot flush if you are Breeteesh but to an American a hot flush might denote something else entirely, if you catch my drift) in my face, which could be totally unrelated. The chemo may have knocked me into temporary menopause in any event, so the effects of the Tamoxifen may go less noticed for me. Time will tell.

So this is how these two weeks will go: I will finish radiation, dutifully schlepping to the London Clinic for treatment every morning, and meanwhile I will begin to pack for our trip. Every day I will run my hands over my now slightly fuzzy each day slightly fuzzier scalp (it is irresistible) to monitor my salt ‘n’ pepper chia growth (see previous post). I will stare at my brow bones and lash lines in search of baby fine hairs. I will take my once daily Tamoxifen. And then that Friday will come and I will be done with radiation and about to fly across the ocean for, I think you will all agree, some well-deserved r&r. Off duty at last. Not even thinking about the further surgeries down the road some months away.

But it occurs to me that I will not really be off duty. Ever. I will relax and, not having to undergo any treatment other than that pill every morning, my stupid fucking breast cancer will fade from the forefront of my mind. But it will never really go away completely. Even after the Tamoxifen part is over. I figure every year it will get a little bit easier and occupy a little less thought depending on what else is going on in my life and in the lives of those around me. It’s just part of the deal now. I, like so many before me (and with me), some of you who are reading this right now, will have to lug it around even when it becomes almost imperceptible, virtually weightless.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this. How does it feel one year out? Two years out? Twenty years out? Do you have scars or tattoos that you see every day in the mirror and do they remind you every time? Or don’t you even “see” them anymore? Do you worry every time you have a check-up or a scan? Do you laugh at cancer jokes in movies without thinking that on some level they apply to you differently? I suppose these things are highly personality driven. I do not imagine that I will be seized by worry very often if all goes according to plan. But I know I’ll have my moments.

One of my problems is that I have never been one to let myself off the hook. So if I stop thinking about it for very long my mind will admonish, “Emily, stop focusing on how long it will take for your eyebrows to grow back or [insert other trivial beauty crap] and remember that you were diagnosed with cancer in January of 2012.” At which point I may have to tell my mind to shut the fuck up. Because once in a while I really would like to be… completely… off duty. Killing it passively.