If you’re scrolling through our social media posts or blog, you may see a noticeable absence of yours truly. Never fear, though. I am still here. I just don’t look like me. There’s no easy way to say it, so I’ll just rip the bandaid off:
I have cancer.
I am bald.
I have no eyelashes or brows.
I have lopsided boobs.
I am 10 pounds thinner than before.
I have a medi-port poking out of my chest.
I had struggled with whether or not to share this news here. It’s icky and ugly and certainly not fashionable. In fact, I tried to keep the whole thing under wraps, save for my close circle of family and friends. I didn’t want this to define me; to be my new battle cry. Respect to those for whom it is – the ones who boast their baldness proudly, who fly the pink ribbon, or choose to go flat. My hat (and hair) is off to you. I admire your embracement of this mantle. I don’t have that in me.
This is not a club I wanted to be a part of or every in my wildest imagination thought was even possible. I have little to no history of any cancer whatsoever in my entire family on both sides for multiple generations. I have no lifestyle risk factors. I’m 46 years old and the healthiest and most fit I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve long since given up all the things that cause cancer. But when I told my doctor these things, she smiled and said, “Yes, I understand that. But you understand that one in eight women get breast cancer.” Period. Hard stop. I drew the short straw.
So the more I thought of it and worked my way through the first third of what was to become my new “normal,” the more I remembered that this blog is not aspirational. Sure we put on great clothes and pose in beautiful places and have professional photos made of ourselves. But we are also real about our everyday life, joys, heartaches, successes, failures, struggles, fears, celebrations, and all. Because at the end of the day, A Fashionating Life is a place where we encourage women in the 40s and beyond to feel empowered in their everyday lives. Many of you have fought this battle, and unfortunately one in eight of you will fight it at some point. And what more critical time to feel empowered than when faced with the fight for your life.
Here’s my story:
I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer on November 10, the day before my 46th birthday. I found a lump in my right breast one night while getting out of the shower. It was pea-sized. Saw my doctor who confirmed it and ordered a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, which showed a solid mass with irregular margins. They ordered a biopsy, which came back clear; but my brilliant intuitive FEMALE doctor had a gut feeling I needed to get it checked out and referred me to a breast specialist. She (yes, another female doctor) examined me and the biopsy report and said, “Hey it’s probably nothing but let’s get it out, send it to pathology and clear the air.” So we scheduled a lumpectomy and the rest is history. I was then sent to a medical oncologist and she (yes, another female doctor – are you seeing a trend?) told us it is “Triple Negative” which basically means rare and aggressive – of course. But the good news is I found it early and it is contained – it has not spread to my lymph nodes. Chemo started December 7 and goes through May, after which I will likely undergo a double mastectomy with reconstruction. Oh, and my plastic surgeon is also a woman. I am grateful for this power-house of brilliant female doctor superheroes carrying me through this, and I am approaching this new challenge like I have every other one I’ve had in life – face on and optimistically.
The hardest part going into this battle – other than the anxiety of anticipation – was the knowledge that I would, without question, lose my hair. My crowning glory and my signature. My archnemesis growing up (because it was different) came to be my favorite feature about myself (because it was different). Going…going…gone… It was shocking how fast it went once it started. A process I thought would take weeks was over in a matter of days. It started coming out the day before Christmas Eve and we shaved my head on New Year’s Day.
Cancer really gets your spirit. That’s the sucky part. It’s a head game. You can’t see it or feel it or pinpoint it. It just overtakes you silently and slowly. I’m just a sprinter and this bitch is a marathon. A marathon in flip-flops. In the mud. Cheap ass flip-flops. Not even a nice pair of Tory Burch ones or cute Valentinos with the little rock studs on the straps.
I’m about at the half-way point in that flip-flop marathon and I’m tired. Tired of not feeling like myself. Tired of not looking like myself. Tired of extra scheduling and workarounds and shuffling through. Tired of not exercising. Tired of not being on my regular routine. Tired of worrying that I’m not attractive to my partner. Tired of the chemical menopause and the hideous symptoms it brings with it. Tired of waiting for the litany of possible side effects to come. Tired of being the center of so many of my people’s worries. Tired of being tired.
I put on makeup and heels for my first few chemo infusions. Ever the character “Joy,” in the movie “Inside Out” I operate under the assumption that everything is great and everyone is happy and fake it til you make it and jazz hands everybody! I refused offers of help, donned my sassy new wigs, and treated my treatment as a series of meetings for a work project. I refused to be treated like a cancer patient and by golly you better not feel sorry for me. And for a while, it worked. And then I looked in the mirror – and saw a shell of a human, bald, weak, lashless eyes, a medi-port appendage sticking out of my bony chest, a flat and floppy left boob and a scarred and diseased right one, toneless muscles in my stomach and legs that were so strong and sinewy just months ago, crepey dry skin covering it all because there’s not enough coconut oil in the world to keep me moisturized apparently. A cancer patient finally staring back in the mirror at me.
And I hit the wall.
An acupuncture therapist told me she read once that people who get breast cancer are those who have given and given and given of their heart until their heart chakra is empty, leaving space for this disease to take root. That hit me hard. She asked me if I’d figured out yet what the gift is that this moment is presenting me – I think I’m still figuring it out, but I know a lot of it is gratitude… maybe more of it is finally remembering/figuring out who I am instead of who I think I am supposed to be in order to make everyone else happy.
Rebirth, refresh, renew, recreate, refill, replenish, regrowth, renaissance… She nailed me saying my spirit animal is a hummingbird. I think I will work toward shifting that to a butterfly instead. After a long time of feeling displaced (in my home, my career, my marriage, my friendships) I felt like things were finally on the right path – moving forward again instead of stagnating. I was safe in my cocoon. And then boom – cancer – one more kick of humility in the teeth. She explained to me that it’s my body finally catching up with the mind.
All my life I’ve been the calm in the storm, who you want in a crisis. I take care of business and get shit done. And then once all is well, I fall apart. So this is me falling apart – or falling together as a friend has corrected me – after getting everything else squared away. Job, relationship, family, friends – check check check and check. So now the universe slows me down with cancer so my body can recover and rebuild. I never thought of it in these terms – I just resented it being one more stumbling block. It still is to a large extent, but I am trying to see it as something else and ride the wave.
I always tell people “change is good” and I truly do believe that. Change means growth and the opposite of growth is death. But this time, I’m struggling with all this change. When I look in the mirror at my f*cked up body – it is the physical manifestation of all the trauma I have trudged through in the past five years – divorce, job loss, friends, moving, circles of influence, social standing, career trajectory, kids’ diagnoses, mental health, addiction, finances, deaths, dreams of the future I had imagined. I think I counted up one day BC (before cancer) that I have experienced like five of the top 10 most stressful life events just IN THE LAST five years. Five years of loss, struggle, stress, fear, loneliness, searching, seeking. And just as I was coming out of it, the sun starting to shine on my face again, having built – block by tentative block – a new life that looked decidedly and happily different, having mourned and let go of the old life that was so bright and shiny and sparkly but not so real all the time. I get to lose my body, hair, and health. One final pile driver from fate like a cherry on top of that humility milkshake.
Stop – I know, I know… I’m fine – everything is fine. I know I am going to be fine. It’s the process that sucks and I’m smack dab in the middle of the process. Don’t tell me I’m strong and beautiful and capable. Don’t remind me of all the blessings I have to be grateful for. I know these things. As my son reminds me – “My brain hears what you are saying, Mom, but it doesn’t change the way I feel.” Smart kid. Empathetic. Definitely an F on the Myers-Briggs, to my very strong T. But these days I just have all the feels. I had buried all of that in the ground and cancer dug it back up for one final coroner’s report.
Physically, I’m doing great. I feel relatively fine, save some minor side effects. No complaints there. I can’t look in a mirror – it makes me sad. But I’m searching for that silver lining and keep finding it in the calls and texts from so many friends; in the opportunities to be in fellowship with other humans; in the absence of so many of the really awful nasty side effects I could be experiencing, and in the light at the end of this tunnel. Once I reach that, there’s one last enormous mountain to climb with the surgery – like I mean Everest big (shudders), but I hear the view is spectacular.
And so I will continue my marathon and summit that mountain, one chunk at a time, one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. Better day by day.
Photography by Breezy Ritter