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