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Before

Before I got cancer, I kept my hair quite long. I was the type that would freak out when my hairdresser cut it too short, which I considered anything above my shoulders.

I loved my hair. It was my shield – it protected and sheltered me. I connected it very closely with my sense of femininity and sensuality. When I was diagnosed and knew that I had to undergo chemo, losing my hair was one of the moments I feared most.

In an effort to gain control in a situation where I felt like I had close to none, I decided to shave my head the night before chemo. Leading up to that evening, I wrote a letter to my hair:

Hello my lovely hair,

Have I ever told you how much I love you? I think I have, but just in case I haven’t said it enough – I love you.

You are absolutely beautiful. I love how dark you are. I love how silky you look and feel. I love how you look down and in a ponytail. I love the way you slip out of place during yoga and blow all crazy in the wind.

Thank you for your patience while I went through my blonde phase. I don’t know what that was about. I know the constant hair colouring was irritating, especially since I was trying to change you when you were beautiful just the way you were. But I realized my error quickly enough!

I have loved traveling with you. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the world. It’s amazing to think of all that you have seen and felt – sand from various beaches, water from so many oceans and lakes and (most recently) earth all the way from South Africa. Didn’t the wind feel great? I knew you would love it when I let you down in the jeep to blow in the African wind. I think that might have been one of my happiest moments with you. Wild and free, just like the animals. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

We’re going to be saying goodbye to each other soon for a little while. It won’t be forever, but I wanted you to know that I will miss you like crazy. I won’t be the same without you. Not only are you beautiful, you’re my armour. I always felt confident with you there.

I hope you come back exactly as you are right now – dark brown (almost black), straight, silky, full (but not too full). I wouldn’t change a thing about you. I love you so much. I’ll miss you. Come back soon!

Cassandra xoxo

A close friend came over to shave my head and we expected tears and sadness. Instead, there were moments of laughter. Mom managed the playlist and poured the champagne when it was over. #champagnemakesthingsbetter When I look back on that night, I feel as though something in me both broke and was reborn. In that moment, a big part of my innocence was lost. That can be said for many of the experiences you must endure while battling cancer, but that one sticks out in my mind. To have the courage to shave your head… It’s a powerful thing. It’s a way of both losing and reclaiming your power. I’ve always known that we become stronger at the places where we break and I experienced it first hand that night. I’ll never be exactly like the girl I was before I shaved my head and that thought empowers me.

During

My hair didn’t fall out until after my second chemo. I don’t think many people realize that losing your hair is a very slow and painful process. It fell out in the shower in large clumps. I would stand there in tears and watch as my hair poured down the drain. I was terrified to step out and look in the mirror – I knew one day I would come out completely bald.

For weeks I couldn’t touch my scalp. It hurt to lay my head on my pillow and I would wake up each morning to more strands of hair covering my sheets. It seemed endless.

Eventually the pain subsided and the clumps stopped falling. I was not left with a completely bald head like I had anticipated. I had what I called an ostrich head – bald, but with random hairs scattered on my scalp. Lovely!

Style Side Note: I think it’s extremely important for women to find what works for them during treatment. I put a lot of thought and searching into my chemo look. I purchased wigs, but didn’t enjoy wearing them because they were itchy and made me overheat. I was lucky enough to find a shop on Etsy that I loved. The designer sold comfortable yet fashionable chemo hats in a variety of pretty colours and patterns.

In 2015, I came across the #NoHairSelfie campaign and was enraged. For those who don’t know, it encouraged people to use a filter on their selfies that would make them bald (like a chemo patient). As I perused the plethora of selfies, I saw a red. The people looked so happy. They were commenting on how they looked bald – whether they felt cute or ugly. I couldn’t believe that this campaign was created… And by a hospital no less. What stunned me more was that all the participants didn’t seem to see the insensitivity of their actions and comments. I assumed that they were ignorant to the fact that they were glamorizing chemotherapy, although to this day I don’t understand how it went unnoticed. I wrote a blog about the campaign (full post at this link).

After

My hair grew back quickly, and I thank my Italian roots for that. I purchased headbands and loved wearing them to bedazzle my growing peach fuzz. I had the same haircut I did when I was one-year-old and my buzzcut matched my father’s hairstyle.

Breast cancer caused me to reflect on sexuality and femininity in various aspects – hair being a major one. Society displays the ideal woman as having long, luscious, wavy tresses. Don’t get me wrong – that hairstyle is gorgeous. But not fitting the mold made me sad at times. Once again, I felt “other.” Instead of thinking of society, I thought of myself. How did I feel with short hair? What emotions did it bring out in me? Once I looked inward and stopped comparing, the answers came easily. I felt empowered, strong and beautiful. Transformed. I still do.

I’ll admit that I feel more exposed with short hair. In moments of shyness or uncertainty, I don’t have my hair to hide behind. That has turned out to be both a good and a bad thing.

I’m sure I’ll grow it out one day, but for now I’m truly enjoying the short style. I feel like it gives me confidence in a way that my long hair didn’t.

It might sound crazy, but sometimes I toss my head and go to brush my long hair away from my face. At first, this phantom motion hurt my heart – I was obviously still mourning what I had lost. Now? I smile and send a bit of love to the person I was before and thank my hair for coming back to me.

A little while after chemo, I went to pick up a package from the UPS store. The gentleman asked for ID to confirm who I was. I handed over my licence, which I forgot had a picture of me with long hair. At this point, I had super short hair but more than a shaved head. He looked at my licence and back up at me and said, “Oh my gosh! Your hair is so much shorter. It looks great. That must have been quite an adjustment!” I smiled from ear to ear, beaming because he didn’t realize why my hair was so short. I had slipped under the radar and could just be me. No cancer questions, tilted puppy dog sad faces or pitiful looks. I smirked at him and said, “You have no idea.”


Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com  

Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna. 

Name: Rebecca Hall

Age: 32

Occupation: Writer/Editor, Yoga Instructor, MBC Advocate

Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 25 with stage 3 breast cancer, 29 with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer

Breast cancer type: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma; triple positive at stage 3; triple positive when first metastasized (to bones and lymph nodes); HER2+, ER-, PR- when spread to brain

Breast cancer stage: 4

Treatment: ongoing: herceptin & perjeta IV infusions (because I am HER2+), zoladex shots (to put me in menopause), xgeva shots (for my bones), femara daily pills (to mop up any remaining estrogen), avastin IV infusions (for brain radiation necrosis)

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer:

When I was 16, I competed in the World Equestrian Games for Great Britain (I was born in England).

What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?

It’s a little cheesy, but when I need an extra bit of oomph I put on the Fight Song by Rachel Platten. It’s my nieces’ (ages 4 and 7) favorite song, and we love to put it on and dance around the living room together. Whenever I listen to it, I picture doing that, and it makes me happy.

How did you discover your breast cancer?

I was laying on the floor on my stomach stretching one morning after a run, doing the same stretch that I had done the day before – done for years, actually – and it felt like I was laying on a golf ball. I felt my right breast and there was a lump. The Student Health Center nurse told me not to worry since I had zero family history of breast cancer and was only 25 (“25 year olds don’t get breast cancer”), but she sent me for a mammogram anyway, just in case. The mammogram was abnormal, so they biopsied it right then and there.

What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?

It sounds odd, but all I could focus on in that moment when they said I had cancer, was school. I was in a competitive graduate school program at the time, and I had worked really hard to get there. All I could think when they said those words was “But can I stay in school? How long will I have to step away from my studies to recover from surgery?” It’s not that I cared more about school than about dying or my family, certainly not, but I wasn’t ready to face the severity of my diagnosis yet. I couldn’t process that I might die or what having cancer would mean for me and my family. So, I focused on school instead. In time, I let the bigger, darker fears creep in, bit by bit.

What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

Someone once told me that I caused my own cancer. She said that she had spent hours meditating on it, and she was now sure that I had given myself the disease. She thought it probably happened because I wasn’t happy enough (this was someone who barely knew me!).

Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?

When I was stage 3, my parents were by far my biggest source of support. When I realized that I could not, in fact, simultaneously go through a demanding graduate program and chemotherapy, I stepped out of school and moved back in with my parents. I didn’t know anyone in their town; all my friends and siblings lived far away. So for the majority of that year of chemo, surgeries, and radiation, it was just me and my parents. They drove me to appointments, cooked for me, cared for me, and put up with me when I was too scared, sad, or angry to be the gracious patient that I wanted to be. Now that I am stage 4, I am married to a wonderful, supportive, caring man, and he has become my main source of support.

What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?

For me, when I was stage 3, it was the social isolation. None of my friends had been through anything remotely close to what I was going through. They were still in a phase of life when they spent most of their free time going out and drinking. I couldn’t do those activities anymore, and even if I could, I was no longer interested. We couldn’t relate to each other anymore. Plus, because they were so young, they hadn’t yet developed the tools to cope with my diagnosis. They had no idea how to be there for me. Many of them just disappeared from my life because they felt so unprepared – which left me even more alone. A few were wonderful, but they were the minority. My family was great, but I also needed my friends. I needed people my own age to talk to about guys and dating and to joke around with. After going through my first diagnosis, I thankfully found a group of friends and a husband who do have the skills to cope with my situation, and they are the most supportive, loving, and empathetic people.

What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?

I learned that I love writing, and that I’m good at it. Pre-cancer, I was a veterinary school student, but it became clear pretty quickly that vet school was no longer doable, even when I went into remission after my stage 3 treatment. Then a former professor offered to hire me to write his next book. The only problem was… I was not a writer. He convinced me that I could do it, so I gave it a go, and it went really well. Since then I have started my own writing and editing freelance business, and I have written and edited countless articles, book chapters, books, and blogs. Eventually I gained the confidence to do my own creative writing. I started my own blog about my experiences with cancer (Cancer, you can suck it), have had a few memoir-style articles published, and even co-wrote a short film, bare, about my experience shaving my head before my first chemo. I never would have attempted any of this had cancer not forced me to leave veterinary school.

In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

Feel everything that you need to feel, and remember that you don’t have to stay positive all the time. I felt an intense pressure to look on the bright side and remain upbeat throughout treatment. Because I could not, I felt like I was failing, and that only added to the enormous emotional burden that cancer dumped on me. No one wanted to hear how scared I was of dying, how profoundly sad I was, how angry I was. But in order to move through, and past, those feelings, I had to be given the space to feel them. They had to be given voice. So to any young woman recently diagnosed – it is ok to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. It will do you no good to suppress your feelings just to make other people comfortable. YOU are the priority, and your feelings are valid – whatever they may be!

February 2 2010, 5:01 PM

Something strange is happening to me.  Me, the communicator, the social creature, the compiler and checker-offer of to-do lists… I suddenly have a back-log of unreplied-to e-mails in my in-box and have become one of those people who only checks her voicemail once or twice a week.  I cancel, reschedule, or otherwise bail out on social plans almost as quickly as I used to make them.  My to-do lists — usually a source of great satisfaction — are sources of torment, the growing number of glaringly un-checked, undone items reminding me of my lack of productivity.  I look at the calendar full of social commitments for the month, and I shudder at the thought of keeping them all.

In short, I’m overwhelmed.

This can partly be blamed on the weather.  February in Canada is no joke: it’s cold, it’s dark, and it sucks. Its only redeeming quality is that it’s usually just 28 days long.  Every year the cold weather encroaches like an enormous, sweating, mouth-breathing seat mate on a trans-Atlantic flight:  you are stuck with it, and even though it makes a relatively short time feel unendurable and shrinks your universe to a claustrophobic little space – it has to be tolerated until it eventually gets up and lumbers off into the sunset.

It’s only February 2nd so it will be a long time before I get to see the lumbering backside of this month.  And my anxiety about e-mails piling up and voicemails cramming my phones is already spiking.  I want to erase a good 50% of the scribbles on my calendar, I want to cross off a whole bunch of to-dos and just let them be not-dones.

So you know what?  That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to hibernate. I’m going to just hunker down, stop feeling guilty about not replying to messages, stockpile the comfort food and wait out this miserable month. 

Then I can re-emerge feeling fully recharged, perhaps a little plumper, and ready to actually enjoy all the stuff that keeps me busy. The stuff that usually makes me feel happy, not anxious; the stuff that used to feed my energy, not drain it.

I won’t cut myself off from the world completely (please, let’s be realistic — I’ve got dinner plans tonight!) but I’ll opt to be more socially spontaneous and less constantly committed.  I think the rest will do me good.  

So, if you’re trying to reach me and I don’t get back to you right away, don’t take it personally – it’s not you.  It’s February.

Support throughout the cancer process is critical and I was extremely blessed in this department.

Family and Friends

From the moment I was diagnosed and shared the news, I was surrounded by love and support to an extent I’ve never know (or needed). I continue to be humbled by the number of people who truly cared about how I was doing and still care, several years later. Before my hysterectomy I was worried and asked mom, “What if nobody has prayers left for me?” My anesthetist for that surgery was an incredibly handsome angel – apparently, they do!
Prayers = answered. I chronicled my interaction with him. If you feel like laughing and swooning in equal measure, read Love in the OR at this link.

I knew that having a friend or family member with me at appointments and chemo would be necessary if I was going to make it through. After my first chemo, I was shocked by the immediacy of the symptoms. It hurt… bad. I told mom, “This is gonna kill me. I can’t do this seven more times. I’m gonna die.” She was so calm and steady when she replied, “You’re not going anywhere. You will not die.” I don’t know if deep down she doubted her words, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to hear. I clung to her confidence and used it to battle my rising fear.

Even though chemo was brutal, I have many fond memories:

  • A friend sneaking a doughnut into my purse to celebrate finishing yet another blooddraw
  • Laughing during the many hours in the chemo chair (half of my chemo sessions were more than five hours… each!)
  • Watching the Flintstones with my grandmother while eating a cold cut sandwich, made just the same as when I was younger
  • Hearing stories of a little girl who prayed for me every single night and prayed to give my doctors strength, too
  • Getting Starbucks from my aunt at the best possible moments
  • Receiving tons of loving messages
  • All the hand holding (there was a lot)
  • Visits from fur friends, because who doesn’t love cuddling a Great Dane?
  Cuddling with Sadie, the Great Dane
Tim Hortons donuts

As with anything, balance is essential – it’s okay to say no if you don’t feel like seeing people on a particular day.

You aren’t obligated to receive guests and your loved ones wouldn’t want to impose either. For me, the weekends following chemo were “off” times and I would only allow family and close friends to visit. The pain was too much to handle and I decided to let go of the guilt. Being your authentic self is so important! And some days, your authentic self is exhausted, sore and needs space.

I think I summarized it best when a friend and I were cozy at my house after chemo. We were laughing about something as I braced myself for the nausea to set in and I turned to her and said, “You know – chemo and pain aside – this has been a really great day.”

The Medical Team

I know it sounds crazy, but I smile when I think about my medical team. Each one was a collaborative relationship that enhanced my knowledge of that step in the process. The warmth and support of both the staff and doctors was unexpected, but very welcome! To this day, I get hugs when I enter their offices for checkups.

The surgeon who performed my double mastectomy was also the doctor who told me I had cancer. Before my last appointment with him, I attempted to gather my thoughts so that I could express to him how much his expertise and positive demeanor meant to me. When the moment came I was overwhelmed. I teared up as he said he was proud of me and wished me “the best of everything good in this life.”  I shook his hand when I should have given him a hug. I’m thankful that it’s his kind face I see when I think back on the moment I was told the results of the biopsy that changed my life. I blogged about the visit, including a chance encounter with a woman waiting for her breast lump biopsy results. Read more at this link.

My plastic surgeon was also a perfect fit for me. We talked about such intimate things – breast size, texture, sex, femininity. We delved into the nitty gritty, but found humour in the most serious moments. I was in my surgical robes waiting to go in for my first mastectomy and reconstruction. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. (When I was on the operating table, I was shaking so hard that only my ankles, butt and shoulders touched the cold steel.) Before entering the operating room, she needed to do markups on my chest – where is the natural cleavage line? What kind of cleavage would I like? How high should the implant be? She said, “Okay let’s put an X on the left breast” (the one we were removing and replacing). I screamed out, “WAIT… unless X means ‘leave the breast alone.’” She froze and the small group of us stared wide eyed at each other. She replied, “Oh my god she could be right.” We all burst out laughing. Imagine mixing that up?! I can’t even.

The strongest connection I have is with my medical oncologist. I wasn’t exaggerating when I described chemo as brutal. Chemo, no matter the type, is poison. You poison your body over and over to shake up your cells and prevent cancer from forming in the future. In my case, I was young and thought that chemo wouldn’t be aggressive. It ended up the complete opposite – they went hard on me because I was young and they knew that I could take it. I couldn’t have made it through those seven treatments without my oncologist. He saw me at my lowest, most painful and horrible moments. There were appointments where I would try to negotiate ways around the pain (there weren’t any). There were days when I told him that my body couldn’t withstand many more rounds. I went to him with questions and topics for discussion and he always took the time to have an open dialogue. He never missed an opportunity to reassure or support me. I trusted him with my life – I still do – and that trust is what made all the difference. He made all the difference. The day I’m discharged from his care will be a very sad day indeed.

Support Yourself

Your health is just that – yours. Advocate for yourself! Ask questions and discuss the answers. Collaborating helps both doctors and patients alike. I detest pity – I refuse to give or receive it. Moments of doubt, fear, sadness, anger or regret? Sure. Pity? Never. To me, it’s a useless emotion.

Prior to beginning chemo, you must attend Chemotherapy Education.  If you think I tried getting out of it, you’re right.  I decided I wanted to attend on my own. Friends and family had been great about attending all my appointments, and I knew that I could handle this one solo. I walked in to the room and it was full of people – none of them near my age. As usual. I approached the woman with the clipboard and gave her my name. She replied by asking me who I was supporting. I gave her my name again and pointed to the chart. She asked me a second time who I was there to support. I said, myself, pointed to my name on the list and asked for my education package. I was irritated that she didn’t clue in sooner. Her face dropped and she handed over the file. I ended up sitting next to the only other person in the room who didn’t have anyone with them. She was a 50 something going through her second battle with cancer. We were a perfect, somewhat sarcastic, pair – she even took my question seriously when the topic of sex during chemo came up and I blurted out, “REALLY?!”

Having the support of friends, family and doctors is more helpful than words can describe. But perhaps even more important is showing up for yourself. Cancer patients or non-cancer patients – we all have moments in our lives where we’re forced to put up or shut up. Unfortunately, in the case of cancer patients, those moments are plentiful. I’ve felt my blood pour down my back and the intense sting of my skin being cauterized. I’ve tasted chemo and had a drain pulled from my body that was longer than my forearm. I’ve been on a surgical table alone and cold more times than I ever thought possible.

Was I in pain? Did I cry? Was I angry, resentful and terrified? Yes to all. But I showed up.

The point isn’t how deep you dig to find your strength, it’s that you dig at all that counts.

During chemo and the surgeries, supporting myself came mostly in the form of managing physical pain and making extremely difficult decisions. Now, self-care comes in the form of psychotherapy. After quite a bit of searching, I found a therapist who I click wonderfully with and my biweekly appointments with her have become a beautiful part of my self-love routine. She guides, reassures and teaches me even more ways to support myself.  #progress


Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com  

Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna. 

DECEMBER 18 2009, 5:59 PM

Yesterday was a long but totally bearable day at the hospital, thanks to my amazing oncology nurses, Marion and Roz (I’ve really missed them, even though we all agree we would love to not have to see each other at all, except perhaps socially!) And of course the time always passes more positively and peacefully when in good company, so I was happy to have my wündermummy there, and grateful for visits from familiar faces, especially a fellow mets-warrior, The Lovely Patricia.

So then.  Here we are: I’ve started the new chemo combo and although I felt completely wiped out last night and my bones began to ache, this morning I felt better.  The regimen of anti-nausea pills and steroids will help me through these first few days, and the steroids will no doubt result in my having the appetite and energy of a teenage boy, and possibly the temperament of a pro-wrestler (wait, is there any difference?)  Just for a few days, then hopefully I’ll completely lose interest in arm-wrestling and pizza pops.  Then I go back in again next Wednesday for another hit of gemcitabine, followed by a week off before the cycle begins again all over again in January.

It feels like a new start, although not one that I would have wished for. I’m still up and down emotionally about it; usually okay, except when I have to really think or talk about it.

The tears at this point are about on par with the laughter, and actually I think that’s a totally acceptable place to be — at all times, really, not just when you have a cancer crisis.*

Anyway, enough already about me (uh, says the person who blogs about herself all the time?)  I wanted to add a quick update on George & Deborah Warkus’ battle to get coverage for the drugs Deborah needs to fight HER-2 mets. I blogged about them recently, and below is an article in today’s globe about their continued struggle:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fighting-cancer-in-a-bureaucratic-catch-22/article1404843/

*Having said that, the comments that you’ve posted and the e-mails from friends and family are helping me like crazy, so pleeeeease keep ’em coming!

When I began writing this blog post, I thought I could encompass most of the things I wanted to say about dating and breast cancer. It became apparent very quickly that more than one post is necessary. This entry will focus on the early days of dating after cancer.

I’ll admit that I’ve always hated dating. Girlfriends would ask, don’t you love the free meals? And all I could think was, I’d rather pay for my own steak and be with someone I know and am comfortable with. Cancer didn’t make me hate dating… it made me hate it more.

No Time To Date (The Zone)

I was 28 and single when I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. I looked upon people who were going through treatment and had partners with such envy. I thought they were lucky to have someone who would love and support them throughout their cancer “journey.” I’ve come to realize that this isn’t always the case – sometimes love and support don’t grow in times when you think they will. But perhaps that’s a blog for another day…

A friend tried to set me up with someone during chemo. I remember her saying, you deserve someone great. I was a bit irritated – I knew/know what I deserve. On a good day, dating is unappealing. On that day, sitting there bald and in pain, it wasn’t even an option. I was in the cancer fighting zone. Dating had no place there.

Months go by… seven brutally aggressive rounds of chemo come to an end. (yay!)
I start to thaw… (take an oncologist-approved trip to Disney World!)
Results are in and I’m a BRCA1 carrier. (well, shit)
Exactly one year goes by… mastectomy and reconstruction #2. (ouch)
I’m too scared to thaw… (so much to process)
Less than one year goes by… hysterectomy. (so. done.)

 

Even writing the timeline in point form exhausts me and it just shows the big picture. What I didn’t list are the plethora of tests and appointments associated with each phase. Everything listed above happened in less than two years. It doesn’t seem possible. I remember coming out of my hysterectomy and feeling completely done – with the pain, making difficult decisions and finding the silver lining in every situation.

Realizing You Haven’t Dated in a Long Time (The Thaw) 

As I emerged from the haze of cancer, I realized many of my friends were in relationships or getting married and I had missed out on what most people consider prime dating years. Just another thing cancer had taken from me – the luxury of time spent as a “normal” (almost) 30 something. I resented cancer and how it made me feel nervous and scared at the thought of having to go through unchartered dating territory on my own.

At first, I focused on how cancer made me different. I questioned how I would tell would-be boyfriends about my past and wondered how they would react. When I looked at the entire picture, dating was daunting and overwhelming.

I wallowed in self-pity for a short time. To pull myself out of it, I focused on moving forward one step at a time. Ironically, that’s exactly how I dealt with cancer treatment. I reclaimed my power and I continue to remind myself that my history is exactly that… mine. I’m free to share what I want, when I want. I made a silent promise to myself to never feel pressured to reveal my breast cancer story. After all, it’s only one part of the big picture that makes me who I am.

Dating Post-Cancer (The Shit… I mean, The Profile) 

As time went by and my mind and body healed, I figured I should get back into the dating game. I was a #survivor. I could handle dating – nothing would stop me! (Except rejection. I hate rejection.)

I knew I wouldn’t write about cancer in my online dating profile, although the thought did cross my mind. The idea of weeding out men that couldn’t handle what I’ve been through was appealing.

Side note: I don’t mean to imply that people who can’t “handle” dating someone who’s had cancer are weak or mean. Everyone has deal breakers and an image of how they see their future partner. But a man who sees my past as a burden or anything less than pure strength has no place in my heart.

All the pictures I selected for my profile were post-cancer, which meant I had short hair.  I always received the same questions – has your hair always been this short? (For a few years.) What made you cut it? (I felt like a change.)

I’ve never revealed my cancer experience before three dates with someone – it became my unwritten rule. I use that time to see if I feel enough of a connection to make me want to open up about it. Any time I have mentioned it, it never goes as planned. I develop a perfect script in my mind beforehand and practice pace and tone, but what comes out is nowhere near as composed or eloquent. My “big reveal” becomes a mini rant and normally goes something like this – “I have to tell you something I actually had breast cancer a few years ago stage two and like things are fine I’m good but I just didn’t know how to tell you so yeah if you have any questions let me know I had a few surgeries but my last major one was a few years ago so that’s nice.” I can’t help but laugh!

There has only been one time where someone online really pushed my buttons. In my profile, I list that I don’t want children. It’s more complicated than that – I can’t have children. Upon learning that I’m a BRCA1 gene carrier, I decided to have a complete hysterectomy. Someone messaged me and quickly asked “what’s with” me not wanting children. I dodged the question because, after only a few messages, my BRCA1 status is none of his business. He was aggressive and commented that I must be selfish. He wondered ”what type of person” wouldn’t aspire to build a family. There were many things wrong with his messages, aside from do you/don’t you want children. It enraged me that he believes that someone who doesn’t want children is self-centred. I wasn’t interested in an online debate, but I was tempted to explain the complexity of my situation to put him in his place. Minutes before I blocked his profile, I explained that he had no idea who I was and that, actually, I couldn’t have children. I hope he had the sense to reflect on his comments, but I doubt it.

I continued (i.e. trudged) on, but it wasn’t without hesitation. Like I said, I hate dating. And having to decide when and how to reveal this part of myself is something that doesn’t come quite as easily as I had hoped. But each interaction, no matter how fleeting, showed me a new part of myself. And for that alone I am truly grateful.

Tips for women going through this:

  • Don’t feel pressured to reveal that you had cancer (to anyone, potential bfs included).
  • Go with your gut – if you want to talk about it, talk about it. If not, don’t.
  • When discussing what you’ve been through, speak from your heart or the words won’t come out right.
  • When in doubt, remember – if they don’t honour you for what you’ve been through, they aren’t the one.
  • You’ve come this far and made it through so much. Don’t settle now.

Introducing Cassandra Umbriaco, a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com  

Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna. 

DECEMBER 16 2009, 1:07 PM

Apologies about that mysterious reference to “developments in development” – I was waiting to speak to my doctor, and now that I know what is going on and have shared it with family, I can finally blog about it.  Basically, the nodules in my lungs have turned out to be metastasized breast cancer.

This means that somehow, in spite of the lymph nodes shrinking and stabilizing, the spots in my lungs managed to multiply and grow larger.  Those very same spots I saw on the CT scan in the solar system of my lungs – those tiny little flecks indistinguishable from all the other tiny little “normal” flecks – are in fact gigantically evil.

We were devastated and enraged when we heard the news, especially after having felt so buoyed by the stabilization and shrinkage of my lymph nodes.  I did a lot of crying, and a lot of raging this past weekend; a lot of fantasizing about smashing things (windows, pieces of furniture, cancer cells…) and a lot of asking the universe if it couldn’t have just cut me a little slack for once?  Really, how much hope-bashing is allowed?  How many bounce-backs do I have to make?

But, after having to gone to some very dark and scary places, I was surprised to find that I could come back from them again.  I resurfaced.  Once again, the will to live my life and beat this thing has prevailed over the fear that it will beat me and take my life. Or prevailed for now; it’s a bumpy ride, I’m bound to fall off the hope wagon from time to time.

What helped enormously was having a long talk with my oncologist yesterday.  Apparently it is unusual that some areas would respond to treatment while others do not (of course I have to be special.)  However, it is not at all unusual that the cancer would affect multiple organs.  It is also not unusual for people live years and years and years just firing at the moving target of metastasis.  Years and years and years.  So, looks like I should continue to look both ways when I cross the street and keep wearing my bike helmet.

My oncologist’s recommendation is that we change course of treatment immediately to something that might be more effective in hitting ALL areas of activity, because she is especially concerned that I don’t become too symptomatic in the lungs, since it’s not fun to be gasping for breath and this cough is already super-annoying.

So my new treatment is a combination of drugs called gemcitabine and cisplatin, administered through IV in the chemo clinic, starting tomorrow. Off the pills and back into the veins! Actually, I’m kind of ready to abandon my current side effects and try out some new ones.  I’ve been told to expect nausea and tingling hands, but with any luck my bad dream about losing my hair won’t come true — my oncologist says there could be “some mild hair thinning or loss.” Sounds a bit patchy to me, but we’ll see.

In the mean time, onward.

On Friday my friend Chris wrote me an e-mail and in it he said “The universe loves you.”  I really need to believe he’s right.  I just wish it wasn’t such tough love.

The Best Tips for Working from Home

Working from home is the dream for many office workers, but it isn’t always what it seems. Working from that home office brings a variety of new challenges with it. Overcoming these challenges is important to maintain the new at home status. Follow these tips from people successful at working from home to make sure you never see the inside of a permanent office again.

Continue the Commute

This seems silly, but consider what happened during that morning commute. You were able to think about your day and spend some time inside your own head. Taking away this part of the day might actually be harmful. Take some time before and after work to switch from home life to work. Go for a walk and think about your tasks for the day, then go back outside at the end of the day to unwind. This transition period is essential in separating work from home and vice versa.

Get That Office

The images of people working poolside from home just aren’t realistic. You need a dedicated office area for your work. This will tell your brain that it’s time to work and allow your psyche to switch to work mode. This is part of switching from home to work; stepping into that dedicated space is symbolic of stepping into work.

Maintain Your Relationships

If you start working for days without seeing another human being, make sure you change that. You need to maintain friendships and other relationships to balance yourself. No one survives on work alone. Make sure to get out at least once a week with some friends or other social group, such as a book club or local church. This also includes work-based relationships whether it’s networking, sub-contractors, or those who hire you. By keeping in touch and building these relationships, you will gain new and diverse work opportunities.

Manage Distractions

One of the biggest surprises for first-time stay at home workers is the number of distractions. Remember that you are still in your home, and you might think it’s only a minute spent changing the laundry or washing the dishes. Avoid this temptation. Reduce other distractions by sending the kids to a sitter, taking care of pets outside work hours, and ignoring the doorbell if it rings. This will help you maintain your productivity.

Maintain Strict Hours

The bane of working from home are the people who think you are now free to do whatever you want during the day. Make it clear that you still have work hours, and you are not free during these hours. Be strict. Do not answer personal calls during this time, and do not answer the door. This will help people learn that you will be devoted to work. If a person would not walk into an office downtown, then he or she must be expected to not walk into your home office.

…………………………………………………

Lucy Wyndham spent over a decade in finance as an advisor, but on starting a family, she decided to take a step back and pursue her love of writing and sharing ideas.

DECEMBER 15 2009, 1:20 PM

Sorry I have been a delinquent blogger, but there have been some developments, ah, developing, and since they’re not yet fully developed I thought it better to wait before I blogged about them.

How’s that for crypto-babble?

Anyway, in the mean time, allow me to exorcise this demon dream I had last night about losing my hair again.  I went through each step – the knowledge that it was going to fall out, the buzz cut, waking up to a pillow full of hair, and finally, rubbing out the last vestiges of it and turning to face the mirror, seeing myself bald again. It was so real and so devastating that I woke up choking back tears.

Sometimes people say “it’s only hair!” and that losing it is a small price to pay for saving your life.  I think they should perhaps shave their heads and their eyebrows and pluck out their eyelashes and acquire a life-threatening disease before they say that.

Because when you’re sick and fighting it, looking in the mirror and seeing cancer staring back at you is a hard thing to face, day after day.

That vision of a you that isn’t really you — the hairlessness that is cancer, not choice — can be a devastating and powerful psychological force.  And yet somehow we face it, millions of us.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, I admit, but it’s a horror all the same.

February 8 2010, 5:34 PM

My daughter Georgia has lately morphed into a holy terror. I don’t just mean your ordinary, run-of-the-mill-tantrum-having holy terror (she mastered that shtick long ago) I mean Holy Terror.  Caps and italics.

Because I am her mother and will therefore always, always, give her the benefit of the doubt (“Well, Officer, there are any number of ways that smoking gun could have gotten into her hands…”) I attribute this recent transformation to her feeling out of sorts due to a nasty cold she picked up at daycare, and not to the emergence of a sociopathic personality.

Daycare is just another word for petri dish.  It’s inevitable that she will pick something up every once in a while and bring it on home to mama, which is not exactly ideal when I’ve got low white blood cell counts, but what can you do?  She’s not well, she feels miserable, and she needs to stay home till she stops oozing her little germs all over the place.

Luckily, I’m not afraid of a few germs.  No, what scares me is the pint-sized screaming banshee of a shape-shifting Holy Terror in my house, all smiles and cuddles one minute, all Evil Personified the next.  We don’t even need to put the alarm on at night – if someone were foolish enough to break in, we could just unleash the vicious little wolf-child on them.  We could tell her they were after her dolls or something and I promise you the burglars would run screaming from this place, never ever to return.

But because I am made of more resilient stuff than the average burglar, I refuse to be terrorized. Or, if I am to be terrorized, I refuse to bend to her will or cow before her wrath.  Yes, we go through daily cycles of distraction, negotiation (she usually reneges), reconciliation and several varieties of Mexican Stand-Off.  The tantrums flare up continuously, with little warning, and no sooner has peace been restored than another geyser blows.  It’s totally exhausting. Still, there are bright moments in the day, none brighter that when it eventually ends and we can both retire, somehow still full of love for each other, to our separate no-fire zones.

I gripe on and on about this for a reason:

a serious layer of guilt was attached to watching my little girl transform into a murderous beast over the past few days, and it stemmed from a fear that she might be manifesting insecurities caused by my illness.

I know that when kids feel sick they become miserable and/or crazy beings.  I know this, and I’ve lived through it 50 times over with Georgia… But I still wondered if her behavior was some kind of “acting out” related to my cancer. Could it be that she has been picking up on vibes of fear and anger and insecurity from us?  Is it possible that her behavior is a result of the stress put upon her by my illness?  In other words, I asked the question that mothers have been asking since the dawn of motherhood:

Is this my fault???

It doesn’t help that people around me (childless people, cancerless people) nod their heads sagely and say things like, “She’s probably picking up on what’s going on…” Meaning “She’s probably picking up that you have cancer and it’s totally messing her up.”

It also doesn’t help that for some reason with this cold, Georgia has flatly refused to take any medicine.  And when I say flatly refused I mean blood-curdling screams, gigantic tear-drops, and kicking like a shotgun.  (Two adults working in perfect tandem toward the same end purpose are still no match for a Holy Terror in a rage.)

So, I began to wonder about this new medicine-phobia too:

was she refusing to take medicine because of some kind of association with my treatment?

The thing is, she’s never seen me take medicine of any kind.  Well she has, obviously, but she always referred to my oral chemo tablets as my “bite-amins,” and we never corrected her. (She continues to happily take her own vitamins.  Apparently she only finds conventional medicines repellent.)  She has never accompanied me to an appointment in the hospital, never witnessed me hooked up to an IV or even a blood pressure cuff, and never seen me actually sick “because of” treatment.

“Oh, but kids just know…” some will say, nodding sagely. Really?  Because if she has no experience of medicine as it relates to my cancer treatment, how can she be internalizing it?

Other mothers and grandmothers, both those in treatment and those who are cancer-free, assure me that it’s pretty common for kids to go through stages of refusing medicine. Some kids are fine with taking medicine, and some freak out completely.  And of course most little kids morph into grumpy little miseries when they’re feeling sick. (Heck, most grown men do too.)

So this time I have decided I will unburden myself of the guilt. If, when this cold passes, the Holy Terror doesn’t morph back into normal run-of-the-mill-tantrum-having Georgia, I’ll try to figure out if there’s a link. If the refusal to take medicine continues to be a problem, I’ll get to the bottom of it. But for now, I’m going to write it all off to Georgia just being a three-and-a-half-year-old with a cold.

It’s still confusing for me, figuring out what’s normal and what’s related to the cancer, especially where Georgia is concerned. I have a hard time knowing where to draw the line between respecting that children have powerful instincts and intuition, and accepting the too-easy default of blaming things on cancer. I think that cancer just feels so big, so monumentally scary to most adults, that they just can’t imagine it wouldn’t be to blame.  But to me that somehow smacks of letting cancer win, giving it too much credit.  And if I assume cancer is to blame, when do I start taking responsibility for my problems?

Inevitably cancer is going to cause us some headaches quite outside of its menace to my health. And if (when) it turns out sometimes that things are amiss with Georgia as a result of me having cancer, I realize it doesn’t mean I have to feel guilty about it.  

But I probably will – isn’t that just what mothers do?