A Little Dose of Holiday Perspective

It is difficult for me to maintain my zen when people tell me when I can and cannot begin celebrating the holiday season. I want to say, “I am not sure when or how you became the holiday police, but call me an outlaw because my stockings are already hung by the chimney with care and Mariah Carey Christmas music is generally playing in my household and it is before Thanksgiving. I guess you might as well read me my Miranda rights and lock me up, but this is me and I am celebrating right NOW.” I am such a little holiday-rebel.

Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 28, I started chemotherapy the week after Thanksgiving. I subsequently lost my hair the week before Christmas. My mom, sister and I scrambled frantically around town a few days before Christmas, while I legitimately looked like Bozo the Clown, desperately trying to find me a wig that worked so I wouldn’t have to open my Christmas gifts, and play with my niece and nephew around the Christmas tree, bald. To say that the holidays were different that year would be an understatement. I didn’t know how much time I had left, I was fighting for my life, and I didn’t know if I would make it to the following holiday season.

The holidays are a time of happiness and celebration, bringing family members together from near and far to enjoy each other’s company. The holidays also have the potential to be a very stressful time: planning, cooking, cleaning and preparing for visitors. I see the stress build in those around me. I see the holidays turn from something pleasant to something anxiety-laden. I can’t help but step back and sprinkle a dose of perspective here and there. I can’t help but be reminded where I was two years ago around this time, and how thankful I am this holiday season JUST TO BE HERE. How thankful we all should be JUST TO BE HERE.

Because of what I have been through, the holidays have become more special to me than ever before. Now, that is saying something because I have always been a Christmas-crazy person and I can admit that. I have always been madly in love with the holiday season and all that it entails. Now, after fighting the fight I was faced with, I realize even more just how incredibly precious these special holiday moments are—all of them. I had my year and a half scans last week and the results were wonderful—I remain cancer-free. When I got the news I was ecstatic because I knew that news allowed me to simply enjoy the holidays and participate in (at least) one more memorable Christmas season. What an unbelievable gift that is. Through the craziness of preparing for the holidays, people tend to forget that. They do not tend to stop what they are doing and realize how truly lucky they are to be picking out the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. They forget how blessed they are to get to cozy up with friends and family with a delicious treat and hot beverage and watch a Christmas movie. I am writing to urge you not to forget. I am here to urge you to take a second while you are in that aisle in Target picking out holiday-themed paper towels to think, “Wow I am blessed to be here, to be alive, and to experience the holidays another time.”

I have lost several friends over the last year. Most of them to cancer. Many to breast cancer. I remember them around this time of year more than ever. What they wouldn’t give to be stressed because they had to clean up the guest room for holiday visitors. What they wouldn’t give to have to find the time to bake a pie or two. What they wouldn’t give to pick out a Christmas tree with their family, to decorate it with loved ones, to throw it out when the holidays are over. What they would not give to be able to experience just one more holiday season surrounded by those they love.

Therefore, for those of you who refuse to indulge in listening to a Christmas song or watching a Christmas movie pre-Thanksgiving, more power to you. Seriously, I am not going to judge. If that is how you prefer to do things, go ahead with your bad self. I can absolutely appreciate a person with self-control. All I ask is that you allow those that may have gotten the holiday bug not in your preferred chronological order, to indulge themselves in a little pre-Thanksgiving Christmas spirit.

 Christmas

A Practical Approach to Breast Cancer Awareness Month

People often ask me what they can do to be a part of breast cancer awareness month. Rather than telling them to donate a thousand bucks to a research organization or a wonderful NPO (which would be great for sure) I always respond to them, “The best thing you can do for breast cancer awareness month is to equip yourself with the knowledge necessary to take control of your own health.” So, put down that pink cardigan and let’s begin with our health to solve the problem. Let’s start on a grass roots level here and see where it can go.

When I was first diagnosed I wondered if I had done something wrong to bring the horrible situation I found myself in upon myself. Did I eat the wrong thing? Did I breathe the wrong air? Did I use the wrong deodorant? Did I do something wrong?!!! The truth is we will never know.

I have had people tell me that cancer is 100% preventable. This makes me feel guilty and ashamed for getting cancer. It makes me angry sometimes when people mention prevention like if I had just taken better care of myself things would have turned out differently. I don’t buy into that, but I do know that there are some things that have been thoroughly researched enough that we should give some degree of legitimacy to the findings. When I was diagnosed with cancer I spent countless hours reading information on how I could take better care of myself so I could beat this and remain cancer free.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that at least one-third of all cancers are preventable. I have aligned my research with the findings of WHO, NIH, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). These are my top ten findings of things you can do to significantly increase your body’s ability to fight disease, specifically cancer. When people say that they don’t care much about prevention because anything and everything is found to be linked to cancer these days I want to hit them in the face. I want to show them my scars, I want to give them a dose of chemo (OK not really I am trying to make a point here), I want them to see what it is like to go through cancer and then maybe, just maybe, they would care a little more about prevention. Living in ignorance and ignoring all scientific research on cancer prevention would be silly. Take it or leave it, people, but here we go:

1. Try and maintain an Alkaline Diet: The number one overarching goal I have from a nutritional standpoint is to maintain my body’s pH levels. The alkaline diet and its ability to help one fight cancer is currently a hot debate in the cancer world, but I have done a significant amount of research on the alkaline diet and believe that it truly reduces one’s cancer risk. You see, the body’s insides, aka the body’s “ecosystem” runs on the pH scale ranging from very acidic to very alkaline. Cancer cells grow and thrive in an acidic (harsh) environment and have a hard time surviving in an alkaline (tranquil) one. My goal, therefore, is to always be on the alkaline side of the pH scale. I achieve this by eating a majority of alkaline foods (lots of green vegetables) and limiting my acidic intake. As a cancer survivor, it is advised that I should aim for an 80/20 balance of alkaline versus acidic foods. It is suggested for those who have not been diagnosed with cancer to aim for a 60/40 balance of alkaline versus acidic foods. How do I know if I am alkaline you ask? Well, I test my urine regularly with pH strips to make sure my body is alkaline. I know that might sound crazy to you, but crazy has and will always work for me.

2. Green Juice: A great way to stay alkaline is through juicing. I aim to juice every day, but I often miss a day. Life gets busy as you know. When I don’t juice, I just focus on making it up in my diet by eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables which are extremely alkaline and drinking my green tea which I drink (at least 3 cups) every day (green tea is also very alkaline).

3. Alkaline Foods generally: Here is a great website for alkaline foods http://www.alkalinesisters.com/alkaline-food-chart/. There are dozens more that can assist you in making wise alkaline-friendly choices. You will probably be surprised by some of the foods listed. Lemons are actually extremely alkaline which I thought was weird. They seem acidic to me. It turns out that once lemons are in your system they become alkaline! Consider lemons your new BFF. Go ahead and take a selfie with a lemon, just do it! Then Instagram it, #alkaline! So whenever I drink plain water I try and throw a lemon in there to increase my alkaline intake. I have found that if I juice (I will include my juice recipe at the end), eat healthy, drink my green tea and drink my alkaline water I am almost always alkaline. (Note: You can become TOO alkaline. You need to aim for a balance.)

4. Check the ingredients of your cleaning products: I mostly buy all natural cleaning products now. They are a little more expensive, but they last a long time and are worth it. It is incredible how many chemicals we have around our house that we are unaware of and breathing into our bodies on a regular basis. The usage of all natural cleaning products significantly decreases those levels.

5. Coffee, fried foods, soda and other super acidic foods: Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE coffee, but I drink it sparingly and only on special occasions now. Coffee is super acidic and can throw off your body’s pH quickly. It took me several months, but I forced my coffee-loving self to go to the other side and become a tea drinker and now I find myself craving green tea and not coffee. Also, alcohol has been linked to increasing cancer risk and risk of recurrence by up to 30%. I don’t think you have to eliminate alcohol from your diet completely, but I would advise significantly reducing your intake if you are a drinker.

6. Pay close attention to the plastic you use: There is a synthetic compound in plastic (BPA) that when mixed with extreme temperatures produces a carcinogenic reaction that is extremely toxic. NEVER microwave anything in plastic, EVER. NEVER use water bottles that are not BPA free, EVER. If they are BPA free, they will say it on the bottle. ALWAYS CHECK. Opt for glass containers over plastic containers when you can. I would advise to pay special attention to microwave meals. They are generally found frozen in plastic containers and then when you heat them up the reaction can be extremely carcinogenic. If you eat microwave dinners, aim to find ones that are not frozen in plastic or, if they are in plastic, the plastic is BPA free.

7. Reduce your stress: I cannot emphasize this one enough. I have no idea how stressed of a person you are, but I was a stress ball before cancer. I was always very anxious because of the pressure from school, life, relationships etc., and the research I have done shows that stress does real, physical harm to your body and can increase toxins that can be carcinogenic and either cause tumors or aid in a tumor’s growth. I had to make significant changes to my life in order decrease the stress. I had to make some very real, tough decisions regarding stress and relationships in my life that seemed to always cause that stress. Some of these decisions were extremely difficult for me, but you have to do what is best for yourself. You have to look at your life, identify the stressors and try and eliminate or reduce them. I can say now that I do live a 99% stress-free life. That is something I could not have even imagined before cancer.  I exercise daily to reduce my stress, I meditate, and when something stressful comes into my life that I can’t avoid, I face it head-on and deal with it. You cannot eliminate all stress from your life, but you can change how you deal. For me, I just remind myself how far I have come and what I have been through and most of life’s little stressors are chump change compared to the hell I have had to endure.   

8. Food-based versus Synthetic Vitamins: I believe that one should always aim to achieve nutrition from food not pills, but I do take a multi-vitamin and a calcium supplement. I take a multi-vitamin as sort of an insurance policy for my body. I take the calcium supplement because of what my bones have been through from the chemo. I would advise, if you take vitamins, to always buy food-based or whole-food vitamins instead of synthetic vitamins. Synthetic vitamins do not flush out of your system if they aren’t used but actually build up and that is no bueno. Food-based vitamins do what they are supposed to in your body and any extra that is not used simply flushes out of your system.

9. Processed foods: Aren’t processed foods tasty? Aren’t they just sooo delish!? Don’t you just love processed foods??! Here is a tip: processed foods hate you. They are not your friend but your worst enemy. Let’s reciprocate, shall we, and take them out of our lives. Aim to decrease the amount of processed foods in your world. Your body will reward you handsomely.

10. Know your genetic risk: The cancers that are not preventable are largely due to genetic mutations we can’t even control. You can thank your great grandparents for these genes they have so kindly passed down to your generation. Hundreds of thousands of individuals are walking around this world having a genetic risk that can make them up to 85% more likely to get a certain cancer than those who do not carry the gene and they do not even know it! Genetic counselors are becoming more and more accessible as more information on genetic risk and cancer appears. Bright Pink, a non-profit organization focused on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancers, has a useful resource that may be just right for you. It provides a free forum where you can present your genetic history and ask questions specific to your family history to a qualified genetic counselor. Just go to this link to learn more: http://www.brightpink.org/i-am-high-risk/ask-a-genetic-counselor/

OK, I realize I have written a novel here, but what I have written are things that I have spent a significant amount of time researching and believe they are quality points on health and nutrition. Let me be quite clear here that this is just my own personal discovery of useful information and is by no means a medical or scientific report. I feel pretty confident in the information I have presented, however. If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to reach out to me. My hope is to help others take control of their health and their lives and maybe we can prevent this cancer thing from messing with anyone else we love.

***

My Green Juice Recipe:
 
1 large cucumber
1 large handful kale
1 large handful spinach
1 large handful of broccoli (just the stem)
4-5 chopped up celery stalks
1 shot of wheatgrass (I buy this in powder form you can get it from the healthfood store)
2 medium size granny smith apples
1 lemon (peeled)

image.jpg

To Baltimore with Love

I am moving away. To an exotic and enchanting land known to most as “Ohio.” I got a job, friends! Like a real person’s job! A really good job that will allow me to utilize not just one, but BOTH of my graduate degrees. It a legitimate job with an office (with an actual door!) and benefits. And, get this, I went furniture shopping the other day and I was looking at things that don’t need to be assembled. They come ALREADY assembled, people! How grown up is that?!

***

I have tried to write this post multiple times—to try and sum up what this last year has meant to me. It is, however, extremely difficult to put into words. I think it is on the verge of impossible to adequately explain how much I truly cherish the people that have been a part of this experience. The most cherished thing I have been shown, over the last twelve months, is that people inexplicably appear in your life at just the right moment. This realization has presented itself in the form of multiple people I have become very close to here in Balty, and it has been truly remarkable to witness how those relationships have impacted and shaped the trajectory of my life.

I compare my life now and my life one year ago and the differences far outweigh the similarities. It is not just the physical differences. Yes, I wake up every morning and look in the mirror and still find it shocking to see someone resembling my old self staring back at me. There were times when I thought that day would never come. I will never forget the moment I first noticed the “old Abby” reappear in the mirror. My hair was a little longer and framed my face again, my eyelashes had fully grown back, and I just looked back at her in the mirror with tears streaming down my face and whispered to myself, I knew I would see you again! That is definitely something I value, but the changes go so much deeper than that.

I truly believe I have become who I was always destined to be and I discovered that girl this past year living here in Baltimore. I have to say goodbye to this city and the friends I have come to absolutely LOVE and ADORE. That is, and already has been, very difficult for me. I was packing up my house last night and had to stop and just take a second because the terrible feeling in my stomach was too much. (It was like that break-up feeling but not as intense because I can still call my Baltimore friends and invite them to my parties and stuff.) While I was bent over a box full of books, I had to remind myself that what is waiting for me in Ohio will simply be a new era of my life where I will start a career and hopefully obtain some equally awesome friends (it’s gonna be tough though). My life continues to be one adventure after the next, but if you know me you know my motto is “Embrace It!” so, that is just what I am doing. Wheels are rolling…I’m heading back to the Buckeye State (and just in time for us to win a National Championship. As always, Beat Michigan).

Last August, I arrived in Baltimore just a shell of the old me. I had literally just finished treatment a few weeks prior and I had not had the opportunity to adequately process what had just happened to me. Once you are diagnosed, things happen so quickly that you do not have time to remotely grasp what is happening. Yes, the severity of the situation comes in waves that literally knock the wind right out of you, but you have to constantly get back up, push those feelings aside, and FIGHT LIKE HELL TO SURVIVE. Then, treatment ends and you are sent back into the world you weren’t able to participate in the previous year. So, when I finished treatment and moved to Baltimore shortly after, I had not processed anything. I was scared to death, sad about so many things cancer had done to my life, and weak both physically and mentally. I was watching my 20s fade away feeling approximately 80 years old, but having to pick up the pieces of what my life had been before cancer struck.

During the next twelve months I felt as though I had the learning curve of a child, simply absorbing everything around me. It was all new to me because of the perspective I had gained during my fight. I am so incredibly blessed to be alive and that reality has changed the way I approach every last thing. So, I have learned a lot from this town. I have learned a lot from Baltimore:

I have learned, with the assistance of my wonderful survivor-friends, to live with fear—not just exist, but truly live with the fear of the unknown. With continual hard work over the last year, I have embraced the blessing of not knowing what lies ahead. I used to see that kind of uncertainty as something to fear, and now I consider it a gift. I don’t want to know what the future brings because that would take away all of its magic.

I have learned that you can choose to make any year (or day, we can start with just one day) the best year (day) of your life. For me, the last year of my life was easily the best year of my life following the absolute worst. My friends make fun of me because I literally exclaim at some point every single day, “This is the BEST DAY EVER!!” But, I say that because I truly feel as though it is. I get to experience something new. What an incredible gift. And, if you find yourself not thinking that today is the best day ever, perhaps you need to re-evaluate your approach to life. Every day should top the previous day because, quite simply, you made it to the next one. You are 24 hours wiser and you get to experience the world and all of its splendor one more time.

I have learned that there are always second chances, they just present themselves differently than you may have originally envisioned. You need to keep your heart and eyes open for when they do appear. If something or someone speaks to your heart in a new way, grab hold of that person or feeling and do not let go.

I have learned that the moment you feel completely lost and broken is the start of a new beginning—don’t run from it. Yes, it is scary and heartbreaking and brings you to your knees, but it is also when you become the most susceptible to change and are able to become the new, stronger, best version of yourself.

I have learned that sometimes there is a reason things aren’t working out just as you had hoped. I have learned not to push too hard, because perhaps there is a good reason things just won’t budge.

I have learned these things because of the experiences and the times I have shared with my wonderful and cherished friends I have made here in Baltimore. So, as I told my friend the other day, I arrived here a shell of my former self and Baltimore, in many ways, brought me back to life. It may sound cheesy, but it is just so incredibly true.

***

Reviewing the tapes of my life during that year of treatment starting with the moment my surgeon asked me if I was “OK” before my mastectomy and then clamped the mask over my face sending me off to sleep where he would remove my breasts, to me ripping fistfuls of my hair off my head during chemo, to spending days on the bathroom floor begging my mom to make it all stop, to accumulating burns and fatigue from the radiation—I was left completely shattered, empty, and I felt utterly alone. It is the people I met this past year while I was trying to pick up the remaining pieces that helped me breathe new air into my life and into my soul. I do not know what lies ahead, but I do know one thing: I will never forget what this city has done for me and I will never forget the people that make this city such a great one. So, it is my last night here, Baltimore, and I think we owe it to each other to make it the best night ever.

Love Baltimore

Nine Tips for Someone Newly Diagnosed with Cancer

My friend’s husband was diagnosed with cancer this week and she reached out to me for advice. My heart goes out to them both as they embark on a journey that will certainly be challenging. After I contacted her, I got to thinking, what would I have wanted to know when I was first diagnosed? As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, so this post is dedicated to her and her husband and to all those who just had to hear those life-changing words, “You have cancer.”

1. Put your hands up and step away from the Internet. There will be multiple occasions where you will want to ask Google, “Am I going to die from this, yes or no?” completely expecting whatever answer that pops up on your computer screen to be your fate. When you are first diagnosed you will cling to any and all information regarding your cancer/prognosis/etcetera from any source—credible or otherwise. For example, I remember one night when I could not sleep during chemo as I was so incredibly fearful of what might happen to me. So, I did what any normal person would do, I found a “life expectancy generator” on-line. No lie, people. I answered all 100 automatically generated questions and submitted my results, holding my breath when I clicked the button to see just when I was going to die. There are some resources, however, that are wonderful, helpful, reliable sources of information—it is your job to differentiate between the two. Google wisely and sparingly.

2. Find someone who had your same type, grade, and stage of cancer ASAP. You have no idea how comforting, positive, and necessary this part of your journey will be. When you are diagnosed you will certainly be surrounded by friends and family that want to do nothing more than to help you and be there for you—take it from me, that is NOT enough. You need to find someone who has fought the same battle that you have. The hope this will give you—seeing that someone else you are actually able to talk to did it—will empower you knowing that you can too. There are organizations out there that have these mentor programs and can connect you with someone. For breast cancer patients, Young Survival Coalition has a great peer mentoring program called “SurvivorLink” that I participated in (http://www.youngsurvival.org/programs/connect/survivorlink/). Also, Imerman Angels, based in Chicago, does great work for individuals around the country and around the world, connecting people with similar cancer diagnoses as well as connecting caregivers (http://www.imermanangels.org/).

3. Prepare your body for what is about to happen. I knew that chemo was going to be absolutely grueling and would test me physically and mentally more than anything else had in my life. Because of this, after my initial surgery and before chemo my number one goal was to put my body in the absolute best possible shape it could be in so it could handle the treatment. This means good nutrition, physical conditioning, and mental focus. I ate as many green vegetables as I could get my hands on. Seriously, the people at the local organic market became close friends of mine. I juiced religiously. And, I stayed away from processed foods. I could feel my body respond to the nutrients it was receiving which allowed me to exercise and build up my physical endurance as well.

4. You have got to figure out how to get yourself to a good place, mentally. When I was first diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at the age of 28, I cried non-stop for two weeks. That was two weeks of tears, often intense sob-fests. All I could think about was death and leaving my family behind. I was in a dark, dark place. There was a moment, however, that I opted to come out of my funk and rejoin the world. That moment was the night before my mastectomy. I realized that that kind of absolute sadness was just not sustainable. The realist in me also recognized that if I just have a few months or years to live then I better as heck get to living and stop all this crying nonsense. So, I snapped out of it because I had no real choice—I had to go through the treatment if I wanted to live, so why not show cancer who’s boss and have as many good times as possible during this mess? I believe this “come to Jesus” moment, when you are able to sort of deal with the magnitude of the situation, comes to every person with cancer at one point or another. I am just suggesting that you do what you have to do to come to it sooner rather than later because you are doing yourself a solid.

5. Place confidence in your doctors, find comfort in your treatment. There will be moments during your journey no matter how much Zen you have managed to achieve when you wake up in the middle of the night and go freaking bonkers because, well, you have cancer for goodness’ sake. This is when you pull out the big guns—SCIENCE. The advancements over the last decade in the field of medical oncology are enormous and people fight and beat cancer every day thanks to them. So, remember this when you start projectile crying and thrashing around your house like a science fiction character in a low budget movie. Find comfort in the treatment you have come to despise. Find comfort in it because it has cured countless people before you and it will do the same for you.

6. Don’t let that mind of yours wander too far off course. There is absolutely no point in considering the “what ifs” of your personal cancer scenario. Allowing your mind to wander there serves no purpose—it just stresses you out. A quote that I remind myself over and over again during my continuing journey is this: “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it [only] empties today of its strength.” Think about that for five seconds—how true it is that the result of your worry is nothing but unfounded stress. There is no point to it and that stress manifests itself in your body in surprising and harmful ways that you do not need, especially when you are fighting for your life.

7. This is the big leagues, so figure out your relationships and figure them out now. You need supportive people and supportive people only in your life right now. If there is someone in your life that is going to present a problem, and be less than 100% there for you, you need to get rid of them. I am sorry if this seems blunt, but, well, it should be. You do not have time, or the physical or emotional stamina, to nurture an unhealthy relationship while you are engaging in the fight for your life. So say goodbye in as nice a way as you can, and move on. It really is as simple as that.

8. Find something cathartic; I don’t care what it is. When I was first diagnosed all I did was shop. I bought a ton of clothes that I would never wear because for the next year I was sick as a dog and a majority of my interactions with others were in my head with the characters in my favorite TV shows. With my depleted bank account as inspiration, I looked for something else to express myself and get me through the more challenging times of treatment. For me that was writing, for you it may be astrophysics. It doesn’t matter what it is, all that matters is that it gets your mind off cancer for a few minutes and allows you to take yourself away to a place where things are achievable, creativity is possible, and hope exists.

9. Beautiful moments will appear during this whole mess, embrace them. I would have never in a million years believed this was true when I was first diagnosed, but it is. The journey is truly one of self-exploration and examination. You go in one person and you come out someone much different. You will be wiser, you will be stronger, and because of what you have learned you will be happier. You will be happier because you will have learned to see the beauty in every little thing because the preciousness of life and our luck to be here on this earth will be revealed to you in striking ways. Your relationships will flourish and your heart will be at peace knowing you can slay a beast bigger than you ever imagined. There will be heartache and tears and that is OK to feel those things and cry those tears, but in the midst of it all you will have these moments of inexplicable clarity where you see the world in a way you cannot explain to others. It will be like your own closely-held secret that you have with yourself. I believe cancer is evil and terrible and should die (obviously), but the perspective you gain from it is like no other. Allow yourself to be open to this kind of discovery because through all of this you earned that kind of insight into life.
Beauty

Dating After Breast Cancer

I am in a support group of young breast cancer survivors. For the most part, we are all in our 20s and 30s and have a significantly different view on cancer than our older, but equal, survivor sister counterparts that are 40 and above. A decent amount of these beautiful young women have husbands and families and they were their source of strength and courage during their battles. A number of us, however, are single and have to face the inevitable truth that we have to find our husbands (or, let’s get real, even a date) post-breast cancer and, for many of us, post-mastectomy. This post is specifically for them–to put a rather uncomfortable subject out there because so many of my survivor-friends face these same challenges, and I want them to know they are not alone.

When I was first diagnosed and during and after all of my treatment I was dating someone. I had met him in law school and we dated for three years before I was diagnosed and during and beyond my battle with breast cancer. Unfortunately, last fall, we realized that we were just not the perfect fit and we went our separate ways.

A good friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after I was and I was, therefore, the guinea pig in our relationship. I would go through a particular phase of treatment right before she would so I would tell her all the horror stories of what to prepare for and expect. I remember one night we were talking on the phone about hair loss and laxatives (you know, typical girl stuff) and she got really quiet. This is unlike either of us, so I asked her what was wrong. She responded in a quiet, shaky voice, “Abby, what guy is going to want to marry me after having a mastectomy?” I responded enthusiastically and unwaveringly, “Ummmm any guy who is WORTH IT!! If some guy doesn’t want to get to know you or marry wonderful YOU based on a few scars then he is not worth the time of day!” I meant this whole-heartedly. At the time I was still with the guy I had been with before breast cancer so I was not in the same place as she was. I figured I would never have to know how it felt to be single after a mastectomy, but still I meant what I told her with all of my heart.

Fast-forward ten months and there I was single and crying to my sister on the phone one day, “What guy is going to want to marry me with these scars?” And she responded with the same Beyonce-like tone I used with my friend, “Ummmm any guy who is WORTH IT!! If some guy doesn’t want to get to know you or marry wonderful YOU based on a few scars then he is not worth the time of day!” I found comfort in this, but continued to refuse to date or even really look in the direction of anyone belonging to the male category for the next nine months. Besides the whole I-have-scars-across-my-chest thing, after treatment for breast cancer you feel much less like a woman and much more like a hairless, prepubescent, eleven year old boy. Your hair is growing back in a weird, confusing way; you aren’t in good shape; you are mushy where you used to be toned;  you have been through a war and it shows.

So, for the next nine months, I was determined to return at least to a girl-like state. I wanted to resemble a female again. So, I hit the gym religiously. Seriously guys, maybe a tad too religiously. I had a really bad stress fracture in my foot and my doctor told me not to run on it for the next three to four weeks…I hit the treadmill the next day. After going through breast cancer, when someone tells you to slow down you just kind of laugh to yourself because you know you aren’t going to follow those instructions. You had to be at a standstill for a year of your life during treatment while people pumped your body with poison and cut off your breasts, so yeah you aren’t slowing down unless someone literally ties you down, but you would probably just bust free from that anyway like the Hulk when he gets irritated.

When I started to feel a little more like a female, I noticed that my hair was actually long enough for a real haircut and I got a bob. It was one of the most glorious days of my life. I walked, wait, no, I strutted out of the salon after getting my first haircut in one and a half years feeling like Jennifer-freaking-Aniston. It was like “Extreme Makeover” up in Baltimore. I went in there looking like someone who had lived under a rock for twelve years and came out looking like Giselle. Ok, maybe not that great, but I felt pretty confident. There was no limit to what I could do after this haircut. At long last, I am woman AGAIN, hear me roar.

The whole dating thing was still extremely low on my list of priorities, but lo and behold the day came…I was asked out on a real official date by a real official member of the male species. It had taken me over nine months to gain the emotional capacity to accept a date with a boy, but I did it and the date was set. I figured it would be fine. It is not like he would ask about my scars on the first date, right?! We would probably just talk about the weather and discuss our favorite type of candy—boy was I wrong.

He asked to meet up for frozen yogurt. That seemed harmless enough! If he was terrible or a woman disguised as a man, it would only take up less than an hour of my time. We had been emailing back and forth when the first red flag arose. He asked me about my incisions from my surgery. He actually asked me how bad they were. My heart absolutely sank. We had not even met up yet and he already wanted to know about my scars. I held back tears and responded to his inquiry acting like “Hey this is no big deal that you are belittling me to a scar after everything I have been through. Sure, this is totally normal and acceptable in society.” But, deep down inside, I knew that this would not end well, but yet I still met up with him. I am not sure if I just wanted to show off my incredible new haircut or what, but I stupidly proceeded. Within five minutes of meeting him he saw my port scar. I wear things all the time that show my port scar because, honestly, I have completely forgotten that it is even there. It is a part of me now. It isn’t a scar, it is a story, about how something wanted to kill me but I am just so much stronger than it that I KILLED IT. Boom. Power to the people.

I saw his eyes land on my port scar, we had not even gotten the frozen yogurt yet, and he said, “Oh! Is this the only scar you have!?” With this tone in his voice like “Oh please, dear God, let this be the only scar you have.” It took everything I had in my small frame to not vomit and cry all over him when he asked me that question. The very first guy I go out with after breast cancer and THIS is what he asks within the first five minutes of meeting me?!?! Is this some weird new reality show that Howie Mandel is hosting or something? And, if so, where is the nearest exit? In a defeated tone I told him, “No, this is not the only scar I have. This is from my port. Do you know what that is?” Of course he didn’t know what a port is because he had not been through what I had. He did not understand that I am more than a girl with scars, but I am someone he will never have the opportunity to get to know because he does not have the capacity to ever understand the advantages of dating someone who has been through what I have. (Email me and I will gladly list off all the reasons why dating a cancer survivor is optimal.)

Needless to say, I am back on boy hiatus. Dating after breast cancer is one of the most emotionally traumatizing things I have ever been through (and I have been through a lot!). Many of my young single survivor-sisters report that they feel the same way. And, yes, at the end of the day, the right guy won’t care. The right guy will be totally blown away by my ability to make any situation the best moment of his life because cancer has taught me how to appreciate life that much and how to show others how to do the same.

Abby Blog 7-8-13

Celebrate Everything

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on a train on my way from my now-hometown of Baltimore to New York City to defend my master’s thesis at New York University and I looked around at the individuals that surrounded me. My eyes first landed on the man across the aisle reading the Economist. I could tell, by his impervious gaze, that he actually understood every concept he was reading. I was envious, I was impressed, I nodded my head approvingly. He was obviously heading into the city to take advantage of the rest of us that still haven’t quite figured out how to make the best of these hard economic times, or just life in general. Next to him was a woman who was pregnant and, well, to put it simply, flawless. She made pregnancy look effortless. Pregnancy is never supposed to look this great, I thought, but she owned it. Much like Tom Brady wearing UGGs—it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it just works. Next to me was my dear mother by my side as always. She was snapping pictures of me and beaming with pride as I headed to New York to defend my thesis, earn yet another degree, and finish something I had started three years prior. We were just basking in the moment, and celebrating all the way down the tracks.

***

For those of you who may not have picked up on it, I moved to New York right after law school to get my master’s degree at NYU (and, yes, I like school, thanks for asking). While residing in the East Village of Manhattan, I had the experience I think every twenty-something should have: I lived in an apartment so small I believe it was originally designed for gnomes; I lived off of soup and whatever protein bars happened to be on special that week; I had a “pet” mouse named Charlie; and I encountered some of the most extraordinarily interesting and brilliant people I will probably ever meet, so it was all worth it. I studied at NYU and for a year the little life I had made for myself in the big city made sense. The following fall I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Pump the brakes, WHAT!?!?

So, I moved home. I left New York in an abrupt way and headed back to Ohio where I was born. I moved back into the house I was raised in. My doctor initially suggested that school would need to be put on hold for the time being. I was adamant about staying in school during treatment. I wanted to complete my degree. He told me it was up to me, but after going through my mastectomy and the recovery that involved knowing that was just the beginning, I knew that I had no choice in the matter—school would have to be put on pause much like the rest of my life. My life was treatment. Treatment became my life.

But, fast-forward to present day, and there I was. After being diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, after undergoing a mastectomy, after losing my hair, after accumulating the physical and emotional scars that cancer leaves behind, I was on this train back to New York City surrounded by all those “cancer-free” people I was so envious of while I was home last year, lying on the bathroom floor sick and tired of being so sick and tired.

During treatment I often thought of those lucky ones out there who were just going about their daily routine. The simple yet beautiful monotony of those repetitive days seemed so incredibly far beyond my reach. I wondered when commuting to work, or buying groceries, or planning things with my friends would ever become the norm again. Would I ever get to experience those things again? Those simple experiences that make up life seemed so inaccessible, but yet were all I wanted. The feeling I experienced in that moment, on that train surrounded by those people I longed to return to during treatment, realizing what I had conquered was completely overwhelming. I was finally back. I was FINALLY BACK on the other side. People didn’t see me as the cancer patient. People just saw me as some girl who voluntarily bobbed her hair who was scurrying around reading her thesis, developing and honing arguments. They could not see my scars; they did not know what I had been through. They did not know I took an extremely undesired break from life last year. For all they knew I had been on that train alongside them every day.

Being back in the city was like walking through a very loud and trendy time capsule of my life—it emphasized everything I had experienced right before I was diagnosed. New York City is the dividing line between Abby pre-cancer and Abby post-cancer. The first time I returned to New York after I was diagnosed I spent a majority of my time there crying as I was completely overwhelmed by what the city symbolized: the loss of my good health, my innocence, and that feeling of invincibility. This return to the city, however, was much different. This time I pulled it together and instead of immersing myself in the sadness of what my life used to be, I turned the other cheek and experienced the city for what it means to me now. The trip was a huge success. My thesis defense went superbly and I graduated. The city means, therefore, in a very palpable way, that I have made it, I am allowed to be happy, celebrate being free, and fully embrace the Abby I have become after all this, which I fully believe is the Abby I was always meant to be.

***

Today marks one year exactly since I finished treatment completely. Last year, on June 4, I went into the hospital for radiation for the very last time. The following day felt very strange, as I did not head to the hospital for my daily appointment with the laser beam. After treatment I felt lost. I did not know what my role was anymore. If I am not the cancer patient, or the “cancer cheerleader” as I was called, then who am I? Funny thing is, I am still not entirely positive. I have reached many milestones for sure, but I realize life is just this ever-evolving, fluid set of treasured moments. My role is not the “cancer cheerleader.” Rather, my role is to share these precious moments that make up my life with others, make someone’s own journey a little easier by utilizing what I have learned throughout this whole cancer mess, and, of course, loyally stand by the Dallas Cowboys as they botch yet another season.

My friends make fun of me because I literally celebrate everything. Last September, I had a party for my one-year cancerversary–the one-year anniversary after I was diagnosed. Last October, I celebrated the one-year anniversary after I had my mastectomy. Last December, I had another party for the anniversary of when I started chemo.  Then, in March, I had yet another gathering to commemorate the day I finished chemo. My 30th birthday party literally shut the entire city of Baltimore down. (OK it may have had something to do with the fact that it was opening day for the Orioles, but still, it was a big shindig.)

In addition, there have been many parties and dinners in-between to celebrate random things like, “Oh I think last year on this day I noticed my first post-chemo nose hair sprout we gotta DO something to celebrate!!!!” (Yes, you do lose your nose hair during chemo.) Or, “Oh we HAVE to go celebrate the fact that one year ago today I weaned myself off of [insert prescription drug of choice here].” But, what am I doing today, you ask? Today all I am doing is basking in the beauty that is another precious day of life and remembering how hard I fought to get here. And, OK, OK, if you know me at all, I will probably end up getting together with my friends and dancing and laughing the night away. It may become a party, because that is just how us cancer survivors roll. We recognize how necessary celebrations are because we have been through so many moments where things are going just so terribly wrong. So, here is to celebrating everything because, well, why not?

Blog Pic 6-4-13