Monday, March 4, 2013

Steady Ground

There's a great scene from that Ryan Gosling, I mean, Steve Carell movie, Crazy Stupid Love, that I got to thinking about this afternoon. Steve Carell's character (Cal) is in the middle of breaking up with his wife of many years and he's crushed. A co-worker stops by Cal's office to inquire as to why Cal has been crying in the bathroom. Cal tells him that he's getting a divorce and the co-worker bursts into hysterical laughter, enormously relieved at Cal's terrible news. "Thank God, man, we all thought it was cancer!" Cal replies sarcastically, something like, "Nope, just my relationship."

I remember watching this movie when I was in the hospital waiting for my body to form a functioning white blood cell. This scene totally cracked me up then and makes me chuckle again now, which is a welcome reminder that at least cancer hasn't totally stolen my sense of humor.

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This morning, I took Annabel to see her new pediatrician, Dr. Midura. Dr. Midura is amazing (as I've written about BEFORE). Perhaps her only flaw is that I can't help but feel like a total slob when I see her because she's inhumanly smart, pretty, kind, and personable. Anyways, I can easily forgive her for that because it's not really her fault and although I hope that she knows that she's all of those things, I appreciate that she doesn't act like she does.  

Last week, I made an appointment to bring Annabel to see Dr. Midura because at random times throughout the last month or two, Annabel has been saying that her leg "hoits." At first, I didn't think much of it. She loves to jump off things and she's always playing rough with Teddy so I figured that it was a typical small kid injury. Several days or even a week would pass between her complaints, so I never put things together until last week when she told me that she couldn't walk. She limped around for a bit, but then a short while later, it looked fine again. I was puzzled, and I didn't like it. 

I told Brian I was scared and wanted to take her to be seen. He said he was nervous too and when I asked him about what? he said that he was not nervous about cancer. Clearly he knew that I was. 

One of my therapy lady's best pieces of advice is to try to let myself worry about my cancer coming back only at a designated time of the day or night. I cannot seem to do this, probably because I've never decided on the right time to designate for those terrible thoughts. I know it makes no sense to let those thoughts ooze their ugliness all over the day, so I'm working on organizing them (if only the Container Store had a container for that!). Anyways, what I can do pretty well now is put a medical worry out of my head once I've made an appointment with a doctor to have it checked out. Then I figure, OK, I've done all I can do, now they need to do their job. I know it's not exactly a step to brag about, but at least it's something. 

Although I had been calm about this appointment for the past five days, on the ride over to Dr. Midura's office, my mind started to wonder to very bad places. I tried to tell myself that it was nothing and that Annabel was just fine. But then I remembered how naively I had driven alone to my mammogram, already planning how fast I would run out of there to catch the next train to Boston. Plus, I couldn't get the Dana-Farber genetics lady's voice out of my head, or her follow-up letter telling me to schedule an appointment with her at a later date to discuss further testing for me and my children. (I wrote about this in an earlier post HERE.)

I talked about the genetics lady with Dr. Midura at Annabel's two-year-old check up a month ago. I asked Dr. Midura one simple question -- If the genetics people do their tests and determine that one or both of my kids have some sort of gene that predisposes them to childhood cancers, is there anything that any of us would do differently to protect them? She said no. With that answer, I knew that any further genetic testing at this point would likely bring nothing but worry. Brian and I haven't talked about this since back in August, but I would guess that when we do, we'll opt to hold on the genetic tests. 

Dr. Midura looked at Annabel's legs and reassured me that we would figure everything out. She said she would like to take X-rays of her legs so we could rule out things like sarcoma. A few months ago, I wouldn't have known what sarcoma was and I wouldn't have asked. But just before Maggie began her new job with sarcoma patients, she explained to me what it is. Unfortunately, it's a brutal type of cancer. Since it's on the same floor as the breast cancer unit at Dana-Farber, I think about it often when I'm there. 

When we got down to radiology, I put Annabel on the table. All of the sudden, she looked as small and as innocent as I've ever seen her. The rad tech asked me if I was pregnant. I basically laughed out a No, remembering the repeated times that Dr. Bunnell told me that I should absolutely not get pregnant while on Tamoxifen. I do have cancer, though I blurted out, since my hair may juuuust be getting long enough that some people could assume I was trying to be fashionable (if, of course, they had somehow missed the rest of my home-on-Mondays outfit). I felt gross the moment those words snuck out of my mouth. Yuck. I wished I had said, I had cancer, but I guess it's just semantics. 

The nurse told me that since I had to stay in the room with Annabel, she would put some gear on me to protect me from exposure. She velcroed on a big heavy apron and a little neck guard and gave me a pair of huge solid gloves that looked like they belonged in an episode of Dexter. Annabel was not a fan of my new look and I sure as heck wasn't either. 

My mind started racing. Should I call Brian and have him come stand in this room with Annabel? No, I'm being insane. It's fine. But what if it isn't? Oh my goodness, I am being so selfish. I need to do this to make sure that Annabel is OK. If she's not, my cancer is the least of my worries. But... The first image was done before all of those thoughts had even processed through my brain. 

Three images and a bit of crying (by Annabel) later, we were done. Annabel selected far too many Cars stickers from the basket and we headed back upstairs to discuss the images with Dr. Midura. 

Annabel immediately began to play with the toys in the waiting room. She instructed me on where to sit and I sat there. I watched her, but only with a small part of my consciousness. The rest of it was on another planet. A very very scary dark planet; one on which I may be dealing with a sarcoma diagnosis in my little baby girl. 

Obviously Annabel is fine because if she wasn't, I would never be writing in this blog right now. I don't even know if I'd still be able to breathe. Because in that waiting room today, my world started to spin and I had a ten minute glimpse back to August when it felt like the ground had fallen out from underneath me. 

It was so hard waiting there for those X-ray results. So hard. I'm sure every parent has felt this fear, and I don't pretend to have a special insight on it because I've had cancer. But it did remind me of something else that my therapy lady said to me last week. 

Karen said that it's really hard for anyone to come to the realization that he or she is vulnerable. The moment she said that, a few of my mental Connect Four pieces clicked into place. (You can click HERE if that makes no sense to you.)

I've written before about how hard it was for Brian and I when one of his former players died in a tragic car accident (HERE). Now that I think about it, that was probably the first time in my life that I realized how truly vulnerable we all are no matter how careful or kind or strong we may be. Scott's death made me realize more than ever before how important Teddy (and later Annabel) was to me and to Brian. Me getting cancer made me realize how important I am to them. 

Before cancer, I'd have been nervous for those X-ray results of Annabel's legs. But I don't think I would have felt as terrified as I did today. I've thought about this, and why it is. And I've come to this. 

That scene from Crazy Stupid Love made me laugh because that awful co-worker reminded me of myself. In fact, I should call my sister up now and apologize because I distinctly remember talking to her on the phone several times (before my diagnosis) when she was upset about something and saying, "Hey, Rach, at least it isn't cancer." Gosh that must have been an annoying response. Sure, her problem wasn't cancer, but it was still bothering her and I should have been a tad more sympathetic. 

There's a huge irony in the fact that I planted my feet on the firm belief that nothing mattered as much as good health. Everything else could be fixed, I thought. So when my good health came into question, it felt like I lost my footing on this Earth. Gradually, however, I got my feet planted again, especially when I realized that this could be fixed, too.

The crazy stupid thing is, that I may have repeated the same mistake when, sometime early in my treatment, I planted my feet on the idea that as long as my kids didn't get cancer, as long as they didn't have to go through what I went through, that everything would be OK. I also planted them on the idea that everything would be fine as long as my cancer never came back. I explained this to Karen last week. I was a lot less talkative than usual and there was a pause long enough for her to ask a question. Do you sometimes think to yourself, "Did that just happen?" she asked me. 

I lit up, surprised that she had such insight into my mind. I explained that yes, sometimes I have moments when I think that this is all a dream from which I will wake up. Sometimes I can't even comprehend that I have / had / have had cancer. But there are other times when I think that all of this wasn't really that big of a deal. It's so crazy how one mind can have such different perspectives on the same thing. 

Last week, Karen helped me more than I could ever explain. She clarified something for me that I am embarrassed to say I had completely misunderstood. (Since this blog appears to be on a permanent tangent from a tangent, I may as well keep it up...)

Last week, Karen and I got to talking about the difference between the word malignant and the word metastasized. Please don't think I'm a total fool, but to be honest, I kind of thought they were the same thing. I had never really let my brain truly think through a definition of either, but I just had this fuzzy understanding that they both meant the same really bad thing -- and that my body was dealing with them. 

As I was explaining to Karen my fears that I wouldn't have much time to do anything if my cancer surfaced again, she dug a bit deeper. In the end, she explained to me that a malignant tumor does not mean that the cancer has metastasized. A malignant tumor means that it's cancer. Metastatic cancer means that it has spread. Then she busted a myth that I had built up in my head over the past several months. She told me that even if my cancer came back, I'd be able to fight it. I'd go through intense treatment, even more so than before, but I could fight it. People around here fight it every day, she explained. I hate that fact, but I love it, too.  

It's hard for me to not think about my cancer recurring. Every little pain I feel sends my mind into a roaring debate -- Should I get it checked out? What if I had ignored the original tumor? But it's probably nothing, and if I go in, they'll do an X-ray or some other test that poses some small risk of cancer. Then it will be nothing and I'll feel like an idiot. Wait, no. It's my responsibility to go in now that I know cancer has been in my body. What does my schedule look like tomorrow? AHHHHH! 

The best way I can describe this feeling of overwhelming responsibility is to compare it to how I felt when I was pregnant. I won't lie -- I didn't really enjoy being pregnant. I enjoyed feeling my baby kick inside of me -- enjoyed it so much that a few times I even cried happy tears (that could have been the hormones too). But I was swollen and uncomfortable and I felt way too much pressure to not get in a car accident. 

Worst of all, when I was pregnant, I had a similar constant debate in my head every time I felt something just a little bit off. Since I was making a baby, I felt such a huge responsibility for taking care of my body and I didn't really like that. Once the baby was out, my body could be mine again. Which is probably why I hated breastfeeding so much (breastfeeding sucks!) -- that and the fact that my left boob hurt so much I wanted to cry. Note to self for next time -- if breastfeeding hurts to the point of tears, it could be cancer. Oh wait, guess it's too late for that lesson. (And, anyways, I had gone to get that terrible left boob checked out while I was breastfeeding. Finally, I just quit.)

Anyways, I'm on such a tangent I don't even know where I started. Brian used to suggest warnings for the blogs I wrote on steroid days and I may need a similar warning for Mondays. 

My point in all of this (if I'm still pretending there is one) is that I know now that, unfortunately, almost everyone has their world fall out from underneath them at some time in their life. For some people, it may be a divorce like it was for Cal, and just because that isn't cancer, doesn't mean it's not incredibly devastating. For some people, it's what I think is the worst nightmare of all -- having a loved one be sick or, Heaven forbid, losing him or her. And for others it's something like what I've gone through -- a battle, won, and a really deep hope that the war is over. 

What I realized this morning, though, is exactly what Karen said -- I am vulnerable and so is my daughter. But here's what I've realized this afternoon thanks to taking the time to sit down and write about it. 

It takes courage to plant your feet on any firm ground -- to love someone or hope for something or believe that you can beat something that seems unbeatable. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't plant our feet. It just means we have to be strong enough to move them to other steady ground if we're ever forced to. The time it takes to move our feet to other steady ground is not an easy time. And maybe we're always a little scared of how it felt to lose our footing in the first place. 

But along the way, some incredible things happen; little things, that almost feel like miracles. Now that I've finally come to try to end this rambling, I've realized one. 

This morning, Brian dressed Annabel before he left for work. Of course, once it was almost time to leave for the doctor's, Annabel decided she needed to change and with our wonderful babysitter, Kendra, Annabel raided Teddy's drawers (she still insists on wearing one of his shirts every day). When she came down, I noticed she was wearing the same shirt I was -- a Life is Good shirt that says, Powered by Optimism. I had written about this shirt a while ago (HERE), but to be honest, when I put it on this morning, it was only because it was what I pulled out of the drawer first (and I immediately put a sweatshirt over it so Annabel hadn't even seen it). When I saw that she chose the same one (the first time she had ever done so), I remarked on that fact, but my mind was focused on getting her in the car so I never thought about what that shirt said. 

Now that I think about it, I realize that these little miracles are things I often missed before I had cancer, or better yet, before I began writing about it. Because my two-year-old certainly doesn't know what "Powered by Optimism" means, but today, maybe, just maybe, she knew that that was the message we both needed to live by. 


  1. I loved this post. Even more since there were some great therapist lines. I have neglected to get myself any therapy as I go through treatment, which is probably a mistake, so enjoyed those. I have also often thought better me than them (my kids) and hope that statistically speaking I am taking one for the team (my nuclear family)...

    1. Laura -- I love your characterization of taking one of the team -- I had that realization when I was diagnosed and have been comforted by it ever since. Hope you're doing well! If you send me your email address I am happy to email you the blabbering that I typed after my last therapy lady appointment. It wasn't a blog -- it was just a recitation of everything I could remember that she said so that I didn't forget it. I'd be happy to email it to you if you think it would help.

  2. Tara -- thank you for keeping your blog and allowing complete strangers like me the ability to read into your breast cancer journey. I'm 33 and was just diagnosed with IDC in January. I'm just starting out on this road and share so many fears that you indicated, particularly in this post. I love how strong you are and how you share your feelings and insecurities and not make it sound like this cancer is any easy road. I hope I handle this BC journey as well as you have. Cheers ~Q.

    1. Q -- I'm beyond thrilled that my writing helps you. I'd imagine you're in the toughest part now but I already know you're braver than me because you're reading a blog. I still barely have the courage to read what anyone else writes about cancer. So keep up the great work and freak out and throw stuff whenever necessary :)