Monday, February 22, 2016

Three years later

Last January sunset: pink (& 60 degrees).

As Matt noted in his own post, today marks three years since my breast cancer diagnosis. Today has a certain "weight." At the end of an otherwise good day, I am acutely feeling the exhaustion of its heaviness. It so happened to be a low-key Monday, and--with every intention of taking good care of myself--I was able to do pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. I ran, I spent a couple hours at a coffee shop trying to write this post, I got a pedicure, and I watched last night's Downton Abbey while I ate leftovers for lunch. I didn't quite get in the nap I'd planned, but the day ended on a very happy, adorable note at Lauren's first elementary school choral concert.

As I watched Lauren sing her heart out, I remembered her as a chubby twenty-month-old toddler, who was still nursing when I was diagnosed. She's now a confident, exuberant school girl, who informed me--seemingly out of the blue but I wonder if she sensed my heavy heart--as I kissed her good night, "Mom, you know, your heart is the boss of your brain. It sends out all the love and tells your brain what to do." Contemplating my own heart at this particular moment, I feel grateful and sad. It strikes me that I have the urge to write "sad but grateful"--implying that somehow my gratitude makes my sadness permissible. But I believe they're both present, and they're both valuable.

Yesterday at church, I wore a shirt with a neckline that showed my chemo port scar. I think you have to really look to see it, but what do I know? I look at it all the time. I’m not self-conscious about that scar. I think of it as a battle scar. It reminds me of what I suffered and what I survived: sixteen weeks of toxic chemicals that killed my cancer cells. But a few inches down and left of my port scar is a larger, hidden scar, quite appropriately over my heart. It is the diagonal scar over a concave, bony portion of my chest--where my left breast used to be. I hide that scar, under a weighted-foam prosthetic breast, under my bra, under my shirt. It is the scar that breaks my heart every time I undress. It reminds me of what I’ve lost: among other things, my breast . . . at the age of 36.

Back in April 2013, shortly after my second chemo treatment--which coincided with another significant loss, my hair--I went to my first support group meeting of young women who have also been diagnosed with breast cancer. I have learned so much from these women over the last three years. At one point, our group facilitator said something simple yet profound: “You don’t go through something like cancer without being dramatically changed.” This helped me start to be more accepting of the changes, particularly in my heart and mind, that I was experiencing. Another pivotal moment came when one friend responded to another's anxious feelings with something like, “Try to greet these feelings with acceptance and curiosity--not judgment.” More than anything, this group has taught me about accepting my feelings and trying to learn from them.

Getting back to my mastectomy scar, I’ve recently tried to cast it in a more positive light. I aspire to think of it, like my port scar, as a battle scar. Maybe I will get there one day, but I'm definitely not there yet. This past year, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking--with the help of BrenĂ© Brown, my support group and others--about what Brown terms "the power of vulnerability" and “reckoning” with my true feelings. Sometimes the feelings we have aren’t positive or happy. And that’s okay. My mastectomy scar makes me sad. But I should be sad, because I did lose a lot from cancer. Most significantly, I lost any sense of security about my health that I may have had. Accepting that loss is hard. Instead, I feel a pressure to use language of resistance: "I'm fighting cancer! I'm winning!" I've come to believe it's more authentic for me to say, "I'm outliving it."

And I’m outliving it very well at the present moment. Physically, I'm healthy and strong--mindful of what I eat and dedicated to running regularly. Emotionally, I feel stable and a measure of inner peace. Also, in the past few months, I’ve experienced more spiritual growth than I have in many years. I was looking back at my previous posts marking this anniversary, including my original diagnosis post. I wrote about feeling “shocked, sad and scared.” Reading that, I realized that while the fear has faded, the sadness remains. I’m curious about the sadness. I accept it. Some days it holds me back. On my better days, it teaches me. By that, I mean my sadness helps distill what is true and good about my life. Again, I think of my kids, particularly my youngest. This past fall, as I sent four-year-old Lauren off to all-day school with her big brothers, I said a prayer of gratitude that I was there to watch her skip into her classroom with a proud smile on her face. Yet I get sad when I wonder if I will be here to watch her graduate high school, or get married, or reach any other milestones that I still yearn to see. Accepting uncertainty has been my challenge these past three years.

These are the thoughts that linger. I’ve spent a lot of time wishing they would go away. They may in fact fade with the help of Time, the Great Healer. But if they don’t, I wonder if I can accept sadness as a traveling partner. If sadness teaches me, perhaps it is not an undesirable companion? I have also come to realize that I can be sad and grateful. The two are not mutually exclusive. Just this morning, I was listening to an On Being podcast on the practice of gratitude. Host Krista Tippett and her guest, Benedictine monk, teacher, and author David Steindl-Rast, discussed how gratitude is not a mere reaction to present circumstances, but instead is an intention that is held--a chosen response. This resonated as I thought our own twelvethirtyfour Project and how cultivating gratitude through a daily routine has changed me. I think of my practice of gratitude as akin to prayer, which reminds me of something Mother Teresa said: "I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things."

Today, mindful of what I have lost, I also choose to be grateful for the abundance that remains in my life. That abundance consists primarily and most dearly of Matt and our three kids. It swells to include our parents, siblings, other family and an incredible network of friends near and far. I can never think about or discuss my cancer--with all of its attendant sadness, anger, anxiety and fear--without acknowledging and accepting the love that has flowed into our lives along with it. And while I would never say that I am grateful for cancer, I am thankful for the lessons I have learned from it and for the opportunity for connection with each of you reading this.

I always come back to that: I am loved. Thank you for loving me.


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