Dear Pat,

You asked me what I’ve learned from The Cancer, and it didn’t bother me in the least because after all we hadn’t seen each other in over 10 years, and if you hadn’t brought it up, The Cancer might have sat there in the booth casting its elephant shaped shadow over our conversation. It’s an interesting question, for which you may have expected a clichéd answer, but might have suspected that’s not really what you’d get from me. Sometimes people say that having The Cancer has made them appreciate life more. Well, I don’t think I had a lack of appreciation for life before, but I told you what I didn’t appreciate enough: nose hairs and eyelashes. It’s astounding how much stuff gets in your eyes without lashes to protect them, and it’s crazy how many random nasal drips you have when there are no nose hairs to keep them corralled.

I told you about being follicularly challenged, but our conversation moved on to other things, and later I didn’t really feel like I’d given you a good answer. Thinking about your question, I remembered that when I was in the middle of that summer of chemo, I was waiting at the orthodontist one day and decided to write down on tiny Post-its some things I had learned. I only found two of those, but the central theme was the same for all of them as I recall: Your life is now. Sounds strangely like a Mellencamp lyric, perhaps because it is.

At any rate, if there is one thing that I’ve learned—not from The Cancer, but from God, who allowed me to go through this process—it’s that we don’t get to pick our situation, only what we do with the moment. And there is value in every moment. I don’t mean that in a sappy “life is precious because The Cancer tried to kill me” sort of way, but in a “we need to make it count” sort of way. What I wrote on that first Post-it was this: Say the kind things you think, but don’t always communicate. Don’t waste an opportunity to show love to people.

We don’t have to do what the world considers to be something big with our lives. Sometimes the small things are really the big things. But we need to do those now, because we have no guarantee that we’ll have the opportunity or ability to do them at any other time. So, that’s the big lesson, according to me. I hope I’ve answered your question a little better this time. Thanks for making me think—I’m so glad you’re my friend.

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Good Attitude

Y’all are not gonna believe this. I have to have *another* lumpectomy. We went to see Dr Schmidt today and he ended up sending me for a mammogram. The mammogram showed some calcifications. Calcifications, for those of you who don’t know, can be a sign of breast cancer. In the general population it’s about a 10% chance. Of course, I’m not the general population—I’m cancer girl—so, Dr Schmidt wants to do a surgical biopsy.

Now, you’re probably thinking (but you’d never have the nerve to actually say it—which is a good thing, because you might get hurt), “Why don’t you just lop the thing off and get it over with?” Well, to tell you the truth, that was my line of thinking, too. I thought, “I do not want to do another lumpectomy. This is getting ridiculous. As much as I’ve fought tooth & nail to save the boob thus far, I’m ready to move on and start planning reconstruction.” But, Dr Schmidt says we need to figure out what we’re dealing with first. So, I’ll be having another surgery in two weeks.

Of course, in the process of all of this, I had to meet with the radiologist to go over the mammogram. He came into the room to break the news to me that he was recommending a biopsy. Like Stuart Smalley, he was doing his best to be a caring nurturer, expecting me to be all emotional or something. (The whole time I’m thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…can I go talk to Dr Schmidt now?” and “Man, I’m hungry—I knew we should have stopped at Panera!”) “I’m sorry,” he said, “Do you have any questions?” He seemed a little shocked when I was like, “Look, I’ve done this before. I knew the purpose for coming up here for the mammo was to help determine whether of not I get to keep the breast. It’s really not a big deal.” He commented that I had a really good attitude. I thought, “Buddy, I don’t even have my good attitude with me at this point—it’s out in the waiting room with my coffee. This is my annoyed, let’s-get-on-with-it attitude you’re looking at.”

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Wouldn’t it be great if everyone thought that way? Like, if anything that wasn’t sobbing or freaking out was considered a good attitude. Man! My life would be so much easier if when someone was sapping my will to live with some boring cancer story, I could just be really short with them and they’d still say what a good attitude I had. “You know Eunice, I thought that story about how my friend died from breast cancer would upset her, but instead she just had this really great attitude when she told me, ‘Cancer isn’t killing me, but your story is, please excuse me while I run away as fast as I can.’ She’s just such an inspiration to us all.”

Foobitude

It began after my last post. First, it was just a whisper on the crisp, December air. “What’s that sound?” I wondered aloud. Slowly, the sound began to grow until there was no mistaking its message: “WE WANT THE FOOB! WE WANT THE FOOB!” Of course The Foob, who had been highly perturbed that I didn’t write about him in the last entry, was feeling mighty full of himself. In his snotty French accent (the one he’s recently adopted that sounds suspiciously like the French peas in Veggie Tales) he said, “Zee! I told you zay do not care about your zilly radiazohn or zee zilly roller zkates. Zay want Zee Foob! Now, go make me a zinnamon latte.”

You’ve created a monster. I hope you’re all happy.

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Provided that the ol’ pit heals up, I’ll be finishing my radiation next week. Woo hoo! Right now I’m doing what they call a boost. This targets the scar line, giving the armpit a break and a chance to grow some new skin. After this week, I’ll have 3 more treatments. I’m so ready to not have to drive into town every day.

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Lately, it seems the question everyone asks me is, “Did they get it all?” They are, of course, referring to the cancer. I guess everybody wants a happy ending. Either that or they’re getting tired of this whole thing. “Dang! I wish she’d hurry up and get cured already! Sheesh! This is taking for-ev-er!” Trust me, nobody would rather have this all be ancient history than I would. The problem is that there are no guarantees. You can’t mess around with this stuff, so we always assume that they did not get all of it. Otherwise, why would I be doing radiation? For the tan?

So, the answer to the question is “We hope so, but probably not.” Even if I get the all clear in the next few months, I will still have to be tested regularly for any signs of cancer. The possibility of recurrence will always haunt me. There’s no ending, happy or otherwise, in sight right now.

But don’t let that bum you out. Life is not on hold because of a little cancer. Good grief, how far behind would I be by now if that were the case? Besides, that would be SO boring. Imagine if I turned down every non-cancer related opportunity. “Sorry, we won’t be able to go skating. I’ve got the cancer, you know. And I’d love to shop for an Angel Tree child, but I can’t because I’m just totally wrapped up in thinking about my cancer this year.” Or if every conversation revolved around me and my cancer, how obnoxious would that be? “Hey, Susie, what’s going on? I just thought I’d call and tell you about my cancer—again. It is all about me, you know. By the way, do you know anyone else with cancer? I just love cancer stories, especially the ones where people end up dying. I feel so refreshed in my cancer-ness every time I get to really focus on cancer…”

Spiritual Quicksand

This blog has been great therapy for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and the mental exercise has been good for overcoming chemo brain. However, sometimes I’m struggling, and I don’t have anything witty to say. In fact, anything I do have to say would probably be decidedly not witty and uninspiring. That’s precisely the reason why you haven’t heard from me in over a week and a half. It’s like Cowboy Bob used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I was in meltdown mode on Sunday. It’s amazing how you can be in a church full of people, or at home with your family, and feel all alone. But that’s exactly how I felt. It was as if I was holding myself together with a fraying thread, and it was just a matter of time before it would completely unravel.

Yesterday, I talked to someone who loves me, and she gave me what amounted to a spiritual kick in the butt. You see, I was trying to do it myself. But I don’t have the strength for this—which is why I’ve been a basket case. The bible says that God will give us strength, and not only that, if we let Him, He will fight our battles for us. However, I often decide to wrestle with these things myself. I’m a control freak that way. The problem is that this time I bit off more than I could chew. Satan has a hayday with this type of scenario. When I’m feeling alone, he whispers, “That’s right, you are alone…nobody understands…nobody wants to hear about it if you’re not happy inspirational cancer girl…” When I think about my surgery, he says, “Gee, it’s too bad you’re going to be maimed in a few days…you know that reconstruction won’t look natural, whenever you finally have it…I wonder if you husband will be able to stand the sight of it…”

I can’t fight that kind of thing myself. Before I know it, I’ve been dragged down into it like it’s spiritual quicksand. I kick and thrash, but it only makes matters worse. Only when I recognize that that my self-focused methods aren’t productive, and that I need to instead focus on God, do I calm down enough to stop sinking. This time, it took someone standing on the edge of the pit holding out God’s Word like a life-saving tree limb to pull me out.

I hesitated to post all this, because I know everyone is expecting something funny. Especially if you’re new here, you may be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…you tricked me! I thought this was supposed to be funny.” Folks, I’m not super human. Most of the time, I am fairly positive, and I do find humor in a lot of the things I’ve gone through. But to pretend to always be happy-snappy would be dishonest. As I said before, my blog is therapeutic for me. I do get a kick out of entertaining and informing people, but I also want to be real. I certainly don’t want someone else who is going through the same sort of thing to be discouraged because they’re not handling it as well as they think I must be.

And hear this: When I am weak, it’s not because God can’t or won’t strengthen me. It’s because I’m trying to rely on my own strength. When I finally admit that I’m at the end of myself, and I say, “Lord, I cannot handle this. I am giving it to you” that is when I become what many of you call strong.

Say What?

Some cancer survivors use the phrase “cancer sucks”. I don’t. I just don’t care for the phrase: [insert random thing I hate here] sucks. First of all, I just find it kind of crass. It begs the question: Sucks what? Uh-huh. We all know what. Second, it’s just not a terribly clever thing to say. It reminds me of some sullen teenage boy complaining about having homework, or being grounded, or finding out his favorite band is breaking up: That sucks! “Gee, Biff, that was mighty profound, and craftily worded—did you have to use a thesaurus to come up with such an eloquent turn of phrase?” Thirdly, it just sounds so daggone bitter. While I realize that some people like to wallow in their bitterness, I try really hard not to be bitter. Not only is bitter not healthy, most importantly, bitter’s not FUNNY. Have you ever met a bitter person and come away thinking, “I really had a good time hanging out with Mrs Bitterbuns—her bitterness is both refreshing and uplifting.” No. You’re more likely to have thought, “Man! I thought I’d NEVER get away from Old Bitterbuns—she totally saps my will to live!”

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I’m 36, but the skin on my face has never progressed past the age of 15. When I was 15, I thought that one day my face would no longer break out—maybe when I was 20. And to that my skin has said, “Ha!” But, the one good thing about chemo is that it has cleared up my skin. That’s a blessing because, good grief, like I need to be bald AND have a bad complexion! When you have no hair, all your facial features become more prominent—whether they be the permanent kind, like your eyes, or the kind that erupt over night. Unfortunately, here I am about 2-1/2 weeks out of chemo and my face is apparently feeling like its old self because it’s breaking out left and right. I’m thinking, “Hey! This isn’t cool, I’m still bald!” While I’m not having a Brady Bunchesque pimple-before-the-prom type crisis, neither am I terribly happy about it. Why does that have to be the first thing that gets back to normal? Why couldn’t it be my body’s ability to regulate its temperature, or my taste bud function? Why can’t my face put its energy into rebuilding my eyebrows & eyelashes faster so I don’t have to keep trying to Jedi Mind-Trick everyone into thinking I still have a full set?

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If I hear the question “do you feel up to it?’ one more time, I’m going to poke myself in the eye with a spork. The answer is “Yes, I feel up to anything—except being asked for the millionth time if I feel up to it.” I appreciate the concern, but can we please from now on just ask regular old questions without prefacing them with “do you feel up to…”? Other than needing extra sleep, I’m feeling great. You won’t offend me by asking me to do something normal. In fact, I’m a big fan of normal these days. And if for some reason I don’t “feel up to” doing whatever it is, I’ll tell you so.

I say this not to make anyone feel badly, but because I know that folks don’t always know what to say and do. Sometimes I think it’s more important to know what *not* to say than it is to know what to say. For example, it’s in poor taste when upon meeting someone with cancer you spout, “Oh! My Aunt DIED of cancer.” (Yes, that really was said to me—fortunately I have thick skin and think myself immortal.) You don’t need to say anything special—just be normal. If there’s one thing we cancer patients crave because we lack, it’s normalcy. Sometimes we also crave nacho cheese.