I’ve been dreading this whole week for months now. May 12th, the anniversary of The Call. The day I found out I had breast cancer. Ironically, it is also my daughter’s half-birthday. The anniversary of my crappy luck forever tied to a celebration.
My daughter’s birthday wasn’t the only celebration around my cancer-versary. Last year I spent the weekend before learning I had cancer at my friends’ annual Kentucky Derby party and celebrating Mother’s Day.
I’d love to glorify that weekend and say that everything was perfect before cancer, but it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, my friends are some of the most wonderful hosts I know, and their Derby Party is one of the highlights each year on my party calendar. I dress up and sport a big hat, while my husband wears a wonderfully obnoxious madras jacket and bow tie. My friend Josh auctions off the horses, and then we all drink Mint Juleps as we realize we threw our money away yet again on a losing horse.
While I enjoyed the party last year, I also found myself complaining to friends about one of my kids being especially difficult. Looking back, it was one of those phases where a kid tests his/her boundaries (testing Mom’s patience in the process). What I didn’t talk about was how I had found two lumps, and had a mammogram scheduled in two days.
The next day, Mother’s Day, wasn’t much better. I was on edge and silently worrying about my appointment the next day. My kids, not aware of the tension and anxiety in my mind, were uncooperative and whiny about my brunch selection. We ended up changing our plans, but that still didn’t prevent my youngest from throwing a fit in the restaurant. We bowed out early, and I’m pretty sure at one point in the day I told them that they had “ruined Mother’s Day.”
Mom of the Year, right? That quote only served to haunt me in the days, weeks, and months to come as I feared that it might be my last Mother’s Day.
I was not looking forward to revisiting these annual celebrations. Mother’s Day and the Derby reminded me of my last two “normal” days, and how my world turned upside down after that. In the days that followed were a mammogram, biopsy, and The Call two days later that I indeed had cancer. I then plunged headfirst into surgery, a diagnosis worse than originally expected, chemo, hair loss, recurrence, radiation, exhaustion, and all the other crap that comes with cancer.
The anniversary of all those days made me sad, but also sad that I was sad. It’s what Sheryl Sandberg calls “doubling down”: if I was depressed, then I was also depressed that I was depressed. I was upset that my life would never go back to normal, but instead, as my friends with cancer and I all say, “The New Normal.”
When I picked up Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” I had no idea how much it would help me out of my funk. Sheryl wrote the book with psychologist Adam Grant following the sudden death of her husband, Dave. A few weeks after he died there was a father-child activity at school. When Sheryl told a friend that she wanted Dave, the friend replied, “Option A is not available. It’s time to kick the s*** out of Option B.” It has become my new favorite quote. As the title suggests, the book is all about powering through tough times and learning to find happiness going forward. In the book they talk about the “3 P’s” that prevent people from finding the resiliency with which to bounce back from tragedy: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence. I realized that I had tackled personalization (the cancer was not my fault). Pervasiveness is feeling like the tragedy will affect everything you do. Then there’s the idea of permanence, or the feeling that, “this is never going to get better.”
All of the upcoming anniversaries made me realize how much progress I’ve made in the past year, but I still fall short of feeling at peace with my situation. My cancer, and the idea of it coming back, still seems to consume a majority of my thoughts every day. My doctors tell me that’s normal and that those feeling will ease with time. Like many cancer survivors I vacillate between PTS and PTG – Post-Traumatic Stress (fear of recurrence, survivor’s guilt) and Post-Traumatic Growth. Post-Traumatic Growth refers to the positive psychological changes that occur after an event, like cancer. In fact, studies have shown that it’s very common for breast cancer survivors to experience Post-Traumatic Growth.
As I went back to look at the picture I took last year on my daughter’s half birthday, I revisited so many of the great things that happened since my diagnosis.
My friends walking for me at the Komen Race. They also Face Timed me as the survivors processional was taking place, screaming over the din of the crowd, “THIS IS GOING TO BE YOU NEXT YEAR!!!!!!”
My son’s baseball team all wearing pink ribbon wristbands and using a pink bat (like they do in the MAJOR LEAGUES, MOM!!!) just a few nights before my surgery.
My friends and family being my emotional support as my hair started falling out in clumps and I decided to shave it all off (some of the men and boys in the neighborhood even decided to shave their heads in solidarity).
The hundreds(!) of people who came out on the sweatiest night in the history of baseball (I’m pretty sure that’s a fact) for “Jen’s Tribe” Night at the Ballpark. They took a million pictures and cheered from behind home plate as my son threw out the first pitch.
My friends who held my hands at Paul McCartney after my cancer had come back and the lyrics to “Let It Be” were just too much.
And again when we went to see Hamilton in Chicago.
They were there for the bell ringing.
And another bell ringing.
And they were there to raise a margarita a few days later when the call came in that I had a clear CT scan. And a few days after that, Christmas (for future reference, don’t even try, there will be no topping that gift).
And new year, and a birthday with ALL the candles.
And another surgery, followed by a trip to Disneyland because…why the hell are we putting things off anymore?
There were so many wonderful memories and amazing emotion highs over the past twelve months that ONLY came about BECAUSE I had cancer. It was Dickensian in that it was truly the most wonderful and awful year all at the same time.
To be honest, that’s why I was upset for being upset. I had gained so much, hadn’t I? Yet, the act of getting ready for the Derby party this year only reminded me of what I had lost. The closer I got to the one year anniversary of my diagnosis, the more of a struggle it was to look for the positive. Physically, my hair was short and my clothes didn’t fit the way they did a year ago. On the plus side, short hair saves a lot of money on beauty products, and having a double mastectomy means you can wear a dress with spaghetti straps with no bra, right? (I know, don’t be jealous.) When I became annoyed that my derby hat would mess up my short, curly, newly-gray hair, I found happiness in complaining about something so minor. Having a bad hair (hat?) day was surely a sign that my life was returning to “normal,” when six months ago I would’ve just been happy to have hair. Progress. Maybe revisiting this party wouldn’t be so bad after all.
When we arrived, I was excited to see people that I hadn’t seen for a long time (in some cases, since the same party last year). Cancer can make you a party pooper, so I was happy to finally be out seeing everyone. At the party, I skipped over the Mint Juleps and instead opted for sparkling water. I am the go-to designated driver now, and surprisingly I don’t really miss alcohol. I thought I would be more sad to skip a glass of my favorite wine, but when I found out that alcohol can increase the risk for recurrence, the choice was pretty easy. No cancer , no hangovers, and no finding money for the Uber driver? Another check in the “plus” column.
I had to keep reaching for my husband’s phone to take pictures of all the fun. In the last year I found myself spending less and less time on social media—to the point where I deleted Facebook off my phone for Lent—and my phone is no longer an extension of my arm. I am worse at texting people than I was before (if that’s possible), as I can lose track of my phone for hours at a time. I’m working on being better at keeping in touch, but I still haven’t put Facebook back on my phone. I also don’t see myself on my death bed saying, “I wish I would’ve checked social media more.” 😉
Before the Run for the Roses, my friends and I decided to pool our money and bet on a few horses. A 54-1 long shot took the early lead, but one of our horses—Always Dreaming—started picking up speed. Our boisterous group truly felt that the louder we screamed, the more the horse could hear us a few states away. I was breathless from jumping up and down in excitement as Always Dreaming broke away from the pack and ended up winning the race. Then we realized another one of our horses finished second. We couldn’t believe our luck!
It was a thrilling moment of pure joy and excitement, and it was also a few minutes where I had completely forgotten about the anniversary of my last “normal” weekend the year before. Was it a coincidence that was the first time we had a winning horse in all the years that we had been coming to the party? Probably, but I also think someone was trying to tell me something. I realized at that moment that I need to stop longing for the past–I can’t ever bring it back–and I also need to stop worrying about the future–what will be will be. I need to focus more on living in the present moment.
Being confronted with the possibility of losing my life, my family, and my friends has changed me for the better. This year, I loved every minute of the party that I spent with people I love so much, and felt silly for dreading it, even for a second. It is silly for me to dread any of the anniversaries (even the unpleasant ones), because every Derby party, every anniversary of The Call, every Mother’s Day, and every half-birthday means I’m still here. Sometime I’m too worried about the future to remember that. I’m still here.
On the anniversary of my mammogram I had yet another doctor’s appointment. We talked about how the worry will ease with time, and it’s normal to feel anxious before each doctor’s appointment. She told me again that they are very optimistic after my last surgery in February showed no evidence of disease. I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to hear it to believe it (maybe a few more, at least). For now, I live my life in 3-month increments, just waiting for the next good set of scans/blood work.
This Sunday will be a low-key Mother’s Day. There is no worry about anyone “ruining” Mother’s Day. The day has already been made by the sheer fact that I’m here to celebrate it.
Today we will celebrate my daughter’s half birthday again. I can’t believe it’s been a year since we put her cake in the oven, and I received The Call mere minutes later. We made her half-birthday cake last night, and I made the mistake of making it twice as big as last year. A two-layer cake last year…how about a four-layer cake?! We need to celebrate!!! As the cake was about to topple over I had my kids take a picture with it. I had to take apart the layers until we can eat it tonight, and the picture was far from Instagram-perfect, but isn’t that cake a perfect symbol of what life is all about? It’s messy, sometimes it falls apart, but it’s delicious all the same when you’re sharing it with the people you care about the most. That’s the new normal for me.
And don’t forget the sprinkles.