One Year Ago Today…

I heard those words – those horrible words, “you have cancer.”  I remember the moment so vividly.  That moment, that day and the couple days that followed will forever be seared in my heart and mind.  As my friend reminds me, “it is that moment that connects all cancer survivors.”  No matter what our path, prognosis, or treatment, we all can tell you exactly how that moment rocked our world – and how it forever changed our lives.

For me, it was the absolute disbelief that this could really be happening.  That this was even real.  For days, weeks, really, I was certain that there had been a grave mistake.  This diagnosis just didn’t fit with who I was, with my identity as a happy, healthy, strong person.  One year later, I have come to embrace my identity as a survivor.  To have traversed that path of unknowns, surgery, recovery, questions that don’t have answers, my changing body, and a new understanding of health – has only deepened and strengthened my identity as a happy, healthy, strong survivor.

I have always loved when people don’t fit neatly into boxes.  Ironic I know as a Mental Health Therapist…but what I love about people and working with people to heal – is their complexity, their contradictions, their endless iterations….the ways that they don’t fit in boxes.  When I was in college in Iowa, I remember meeting a fair amount of people who had never met a Jewish person (yes it is the least diverse state in the nation).  I routinely heard in surprised and shocked tones, “you are Jewish?”  There was a part in me that loved to break whatever unconscious stereotypes that conjured in their minds – and reveal to them that yes, I am Jewish.  And in some small way, make them grapple with the box they had understood to be what being Jewish meant.

I also love that moment when someone does that for me – a client who reveals a part of themselves that completely shocks me.  Somehow it is so refreshing.  Like we are all so much more than we will ever know.  But it is these moments of doubt, distress, and uncertainty that test us, that push us to examine who we are and what we want. In Hawaii, I learned about the concept of mana – which means power and intention.  The man who taught me about this said, “every day, we need to ask ourselves who am I, what do I want, where am I going?”  Every day.  If we all did this each day, we would consistently refine our versions of ourself.

So who am I this morning?  I guess I ended up being a Bad-ass survivor after taking a 30 mile bike ride with my hubby, sissy, and bro!  26 of these miles were literally straight up hill (3500 hundred feet elevation gain!)  We didn’t quite know what we were in store for as we had to alter the original route after finding a gravel road.  And then guess what?  We came to a gravel road anyway and rode 4 miles on it (finally some downhill) which we couldn’t quite enjoy as I was terrified of my skinny road tires almost skid out the entire time!  But alas my view of my pink ribbon on my bike (because yes my head was down much of the day as I pedaled my ass off), was a lovely reminder of what this day was about – a celebration that I get to do this ride.  Even in the moments when Mich and I said if we saw another uphill, we would really cry (and I’m not kidding), I still had a feeling of tremendous gratitude that I get to celebrate this day.  To all those still struggling…remember the many parts of you, and decide who and what you want to be each day as you fight your fight.

P.S.  I wrote this yesterday but am just posting today so Happy Mother’s Day to all! Today, I am a Bad-ass Mom! 🙂

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Choosing Wisely

Upon my return from Camp Koru – an Athletes 4 Cancer retreat for young cancer survivors, so many thoughts and feelings swirling in my head and heart.  Although I’ve been back home now a full week, I feel like I am still riding those Maui waves.  Such love and life was infused into me during this retreat that I can literally feel the pulse of energy still running strong in me.  I am forever grateful for Athletes 4 Cancer and their mission so resinates within me:

Athletes 4 Cancer is dedicated to enriching lives through the healing powers of the elements and the outdoors as a way to move forward after cancer.

Well, mission accomplished!  So many lessons learned from those waves that I will integrate into my life journey.  One lesson in particular stands out for me and that is to “choose wisely.”  Surfing on our last morning, I ventured out with a couple others to catch our own waves.  I caught a couple great ones and then I just seemed to get pummeled for a period.  Wave after wave kept crashing me over and I was getting exhausted!  Our surf teacher Inu cried out to me, “Bam (my camp power name), I hope you choose your men better than your waves!”  I nearly fell off my board in laughter and thought “well at least I got one of em right as I selected a fantastic husband!”  And then I took a moment on my board and began to do as Inu suggested, “choose wisely,” and sure enough, I began to conserve energy and catch more waves.

When I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer almost exactly one year ago, my life energy had one purpose – to heal and survive.  To let go of my work, my teaching, even my caregiving as a mother (for a short time), in order to conserve energy and focus on my health was a powerful (and yet quite foreign) thing.  It taught me to slow down and to be discerning – to decide if seeing this person would aid me in a particular moment or to take a walk would nourish me…most importantly I gave myself permission to do exactly what I needed and that was incredibly freeing.

Now as I’ve put everything back in my life and return to juggling and balancing the busyness of schedules, work, time with my family, time alone, etc…I welcome my Camp Koru lesson and will weave this back into my life – assessing moment to moment what will serve me in this moment.  Of course as a mom, therapist, and teacher, I think one of the best ways to model for my kids, clients, and students is to take good care of me so that I may bring my best self out onto the world and encourage others to do the same. Not in a selfish way but in a powerful way of choosing wisely so that I may have the grace to allow myself and others to do the very same.  May we all choose our waves wisely!

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choosing wisely 🙂
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Our wise surf instructors – Inu on the right 
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choosing when it was time for a party wave after getting pummeled for a while 🙂

Own It!

Stepping into 2016, this is my Mantra.  The seed of it was born about 6 weeks after the silver lining moment when my plastic surgeon informed me that my insurance would cover brand new bras at Nordstrom’s after my reconstruction surgery.  Free shopping trip to Nordy’s – game on!!  🙂   I knew immediately that there was one friend who was made for the job of supporting me in this next step so I called my friend Mersi and we were off to a shopping adventure!  They have actually trained some of the sales clerks at Nordstoms to understand the special needs of post mastectomy patients and our clerk Tia was our right hand lady for that afternoon.

I brought this green dress that I had actually bought about 2 weeks prior to my diagnosis last May.  I had tried on this dress on several occasions between mastectomy and reconstruction, but much to my chagrin, it never seemed to work.  So now with my new breasts (and my new bras), I thought this gorgeous green dress might finally work.  I tried on the green dress and almost immediately, my heart sank.  My friend Meredith looked me in the eyes and said “Erika, fuck the green dress.”  And we both burst into a tearful laughter.  Then I looked into the mirror again and said, “or fucken own it.  I mean I like the damn dress so I’ll just wear the damn dress.  This is now my body and I need to just own it.”  I knew in that moment that while I was not quite there, I would work toward this final stage of my healing journey – to embody and integrate my experience. After all, this is what I preach as a healer myself, that we must integrate the darkest parts of ourselves and our experiences in order to be whole.

I have sat with this statement for the last 6 weeks.  Obviously it’s about more than the green dress – although the dress is damn cute! 🙂  The green dress was a doorway into claiming this whole journey as a part of who I am and who I am becoming.  I know that it will be my guiding light for 2016.  Just as my Mantra for 2015 “Let it emerge” had such important lessons to shed that I never dreamed of, I am eager to watch how “own it” unfolds for me in 2016.  One of the most fitting parts of this mantra is that a big part of my cancer story was that it has felt utterly surreal and shocking. But it is real, it is a part of me, and now I must own it.

As I wrote in my last post, understanding my decisions and my medical prognosis better has all been a part of me moving towards “own it”. Reconnecting with my body through movement and exercise is also a part of owning it.  Stepping into teaching Nia again in the New Year is a part of owning it.  I recall Eve Ensler’s words about cancer being an opportunity to become more of who she is meant to be.  To me, it seems that owning it is a way for me to continue to step into more of who I am meant to be. And how about you dear friends?  What part of your story/experience do you need to own or claim?  Join me in 2016 and let’s step into our fullest selves!

 

 

Pressing the Reset Button

It’s a good thing to do in the new year but it’s especially a good thing to do when you are heading into 2016 FREE FROM BREAST CANCER!!!  And boy did I need a reset.  From the time I was diagnosed on May 7 to the time of my mastectomy on July 7, all I saw was forward and how everything seemed to be falling into place.  There was this amazing alignment and synchronicity that allowed me to walk with such certainty.  In reflection, I can see now that this was part of my survival mode.  That was really all I could see.  I needed that so I found it.

Then this fall there seemed to be an onslaught  of media attention regarding the questioning the treatment of DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ – my diagnosis).  Well, that sent me into a bit of a tailspin.  Suddenly, doubt came rearing its ugly head and the ground beneath me felt shaky.

My last appointment with my phenomenal oncologist Dr. Nathalie Johnson occurred about 1 week post mastectomy.  She shared with me the wonderful news that because my margins were clear and all my pathology testing indicated that I was cancer free, I would have no more follow up.  Fantastic!  But really?  No follow up?  Nothing?  That’s it?  It’s over?  Did it all really even happen?  Boom.  Doubt.  Again.

Last Friday my husband and I scheduled a follow up appointment with Dr. Johnson so that when BC survivors say to me, “really no follow up?”  Instead of having that pang of doubt, I can say, “yes.  It may sound strange but this is why…”  Or when a well-meaning relative sends me an article about the over-treatment of DCIS, I can say “here is what I know and understand”.

Dr. Johnson did all that for me and more.  She shared that the study that needs to be done is of women with DCIS who have decided not to treat.  While that study has not yet been done, she shared with me antidotally that

in every single case of DCIS that she has ever treated where the woman has decided to not treat, they have returned with invasive Breast Cancer – and some of them have died.

Every single case.  I burst into tears.  The doubt slipped away.  I felt my feet under me.  She didn’t just hug me…she held me.  I am forever grateful that I have an Oncologist who can hold me in so many ways.

Dr. Johnson reminded me that my mass was 7 cm large.  I reminded myself that my Grandma Beatrice died at age 35.  Dr. Johnson stated that she has no doubt that had I waited several years, maybe months for that Mammogram, I would be looking at a very different treatment protocol – and be treating invasive cancer and be having very different follow up.  I looked at my husband with tears in his eyes, and in that look, I knew that we had made the right decision.

“DCIS is the hardest diagnosis emotionally”, Dr. Johnson shared.  She  said that we hear how “lucky” we are but that we still have to go through everything someone with invasive cancer goes through – the doubt, fear, unknown, and the treatment.  Again, so validating for me to hear this.  In my best moments, I hold those together – I do feel lucky – amazingly so.  And this journey has been difficult.  They can exist together.

As AJ and I walked out of Dr. Johnson’s office, I literally felt lighter.  I am sure doubt will emerge again as it is a close cousin of fear and fear is related to the unknown and so much of this journey reeks of all of the above…as does life of course.  But for me, when I stand in certainty and align myself with the choices I’ve made, I feel a sense of momentum rather than stuckness.  I feel reset and ready to walk into 2016 truly free from Breast Cancer.

Grieving…

A week ago if you asked me how I was feeling about my upcoming surgery, I would have said ” I am ready to be done.  I am ready to move forward”.  In fact the very first thing I did upon waking up from the anesthesia was to grab my breasts, exclaim at their exquisite softness, and let the tears stream down my face. “What is it dear?” said the nurse and I responded, “it’s all over”. This wave of relief just washed over me.  Even in that state, I could feel a lightening, a lifting of this weight that I’ve been carrying with me for the past 6 moths.

That first night home and all through the next day, I couldn’t believe how good I felt.  My energy was almost strangely high and the dominant feeling I had was relief.  Thank you anesthesia.  And then Thursday morning I awoke sore, exhausted, with a killer headache, and I felt this heaviness in my body. Once again, I am adjusting to a new body.  Just as I had gotten used to my old breasts and body, now yet again, things look and feel differently.  And then it downs on me – the finality of it all.  This is it.  This is my new body.  This is my new home.  I had 41 years to live in in my other body…and now I’ve had 4 days to be in this body and man, does it feel strange.

I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with grief.  I was not expecting this.  And yet it makes perfect sense that grief would come now…at the end of it all. I felt some grief after the mastectomy, but mostly I felt relief that the cancer was gone.  I was so overcome with joy at this news, and the focus on my physical recovery that I didn’t honestly feel much grief.  I remember preparing for my mastectomy and thinking of what I would miss about my breasts.  But it’s hard to grieve something before it is actually gone.  And it’s not just my breasts I am grieving.  It is my breasts connected to my body.  And it is grieving this whole damn thing. My friend Marykay sent me this quote from Brene Brown that so embodies what I am feeling:

Grief seems to create losses within us that reach beyond our awareness – we feel as if we’re missing something that was invisible and unknown to us while we had it but is now painfully gone.

Once again, I am happy that I know enough to know that this is just part of the process.  These feelings are temporary and I do not judge myself for having them.  Instead, I am allowing the continuous unfolding of this journey and all the learning, growth, and struggle that comes with it.

Finding Clarity…or lack thereof

My therapist said to me that you don’t go through something like Breast Cancer without finding some clarity in the process.  I almost laughed out loud on my way home from the appointment, as I thought to myself, “not only have I not found clarity but I am all over the map.”  And that is really where I’ve been hanging out…one minute I think we need to get a puppy, the next it’s “let’s get an addition on the house”, next I’m researching family trips to Zimbabwe, and then I’m looking into aerial dance classes.  See, pretty all over the map, right?

But then as I’ve been sitting in this place that often feels scattered and confused, I realized this is very much what Brene Brown refers to in her book “Rising Strong” as “Act 2”.  She refers to Act 2 as being the part of the story where we look “for every comfortable way to solve the problem” and then realize what it will take to really solve the problem–including our “lowest of the low.”  She says that we cannot skip Act 2 and calls this process the reckoning, describing how we need to engage with our feelings and get “curious about the story behind the feelings.”

Well I’ve been getting really curious about my Act 2.  And although on the surface it does seem to be scattered, there is also a clear theme.  The theme is about my desires and my yearning to do it now.  I know that may sound cliche but that’s what I got. What’s the point of waiting?  We just really don’t know what the hell is going to happen tomorrow.  And for God sake, if I can get Breast Cancer, than anything can happen.  So why not make that anything, going to Zimbabwe?

In Nia there is a principle called “RAW” which stands for “Relaxed, Alert, and Waiting”.  It is a meditative-like state in which we are relaxed in our body, alert in our mind, and waiting in our spirit.  From this place, we are open and we can receive.  Much of moving through cancer for me has been about “allowing” and letting things emerge.  It is very much the practice of RAW. Every time I dance I connect to a new sensation or feeling and then in the next class it changes.  In fact, for me, the decision not to teach Nia this fall was very much about me being in both practices of RAW and in Act 2 – taking the time to be in my reckoning.

Even in my blogging about my cancer journey, I realize I often write after I have sorted things out in my head.  And then the writing helps me refine where I am at or what I am internalizing.  So here it is – I haven’t figured it out.  I am in it.  I can feel it in my bones that I am way closer to finding my clarity than when my therapist first said this statement to me this summer.  But I am also learning a lot about trusting myself and the process – that as I engage in patience and discomfort, I know what will emerge is going to be better than if I had just jumped right back into everything just the way it was.  Even if eventually, I do step back into things just the way they were, they will all look and feel different, because I have been through my Act 2.

For the record, I have made two decisions which feel quite clear at the moment:

1.  I am growing my hair long.

2.  I have my breast size all picked out for my reconstruction surgery on Tuesday! 🙂

The Conjunction of Dialectics

I saw a dance performance last Friday night called “Momix”.  The production was called “Alchemia” and it was all about the polarities of things that are normally in opposition.  Calling themselves “Dance illusionists”, these performers explored the space and tension in between elements like water and fire or male and female, etc. which they refer to as “conjunction”.  As I watched totally mesmerized by the creative expression of these concepts, I literally felt expansive in my body and mind.

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MOMIX-Alchemy

In therapy, we refer to this as a dialectic – and I often offer this frame for clients – things don’t have to be mutually exclusive and when we hold space for them to exist at the same time, we often have more room from which to move, make decisions, feel, be, etc.  So I remember the day when I realized that holding the dialectic of breast cancer was so helpful for me. It allowed me to feel spacious and less constricted.  This is my dialectic of breast cancer:

My breast cancer is a really big deal and at the very same time, it is not a big deal at all.

Holding this statement reminds me that it is ok to have days where I think and feel “I am so done with this shit and ready to move on” and days where I think and feel, “I am so very grateful that this is treatable and that I didn’t need further treatment”. Both are true statements and when I hold them together, I create space for all of it to exist at the same time.  It is so freeing when we give ourselves permission to be where we are.