Some days, I felt like there was just too overwhelmingly much to say about my mom's fight against triple negative breast cancer. Then, I felt like I had nothing to say. Or that I didn't have a right to say anything about it -- who the hell was I to write about cancer? I didn't have it; my mom had it.
People would text me or call me or email me to ask about Mom. I'd always respond. But, I just didn't choose to step out of myself to say anything beyond that.
Then, last week, a young, smart, twenty-something from Connecticut sent me a DM on Twitter, asking me how I coped with my mom's chemo. She read my first blog post about Mom back in September. Now, her dad was starting chemo. And she wanted to know how I coped.
I owed the journey's story and an answer to her question not only to her, but also to anyone who is currently or will be in the place where we were.
After Mom's lumpectomy in August, she went through an intense, Mammosite radiation process. She lived with an assortment of different-colored plastic tubes sticking out of a small, open slit in the side of her right breast in order for this experimental radiation to do what it needed to do. Then, there was 17 weeks of chemotherapy. I went to chemo with her a couple of times; I hovered over this very weird process of watching several different types of poisonous cocktails pulse through a tube into a port right above her heart. There were times I wanted to pinch the plastic tubes shut to stop the chemo from reaching her bloodstream. It's poison. Then, I remembered that as poisonous as it is, it works its way through her blood to save her life.
There were big moments. Moments like the morning I was at Mom and Dad's house, and Mom shuffled into the kitchen from the master bathroom in her red robe holding a clump of her light, brown hair that had just come out during a shower. There were tears streaming down her face. She had talked about shaving her head to avoid this moment -- and now it was here. She made the decision to shave her head before she lost more hair. So, my dad, who has known my mom since they were both in elementary school, helped her to shave her head in their master bathroom with me, my sister and the family dachshund sitting there with her, watching, the air sucked out of our lungs once again.
There were small moments. There were times when I felt like I lost my mom to cancer treatment; she was tired or didn't feel great or the chemo brain fog set in and took time to lift. I remember driving home from work sometimes and wanting to call her, and then thinking that I shouldn't bother her; she was probably sleeping. I had to make decisions on my own that I would normally consult with her on. That felt lonely. No cancer treatment brochure tells a daughter that.
Some people described this process as a roller coaster ride; highs and lows; unexpected curves and sick twists. It wasn't as much a roller coaster as an odd, Alice in Wonderland-like train ride. Sometimes you pass through places that you recognize from experience and you process responsibly like an adult. Other times it felt like this other world-like train ride I took from Paris to Barcelona; I woke up in the middle of the night in a small, cramped, pitch-black cabin convinced that this train car was going to run off the tracks at any minute and all would be lost. I panicked until I fell back asleep. And all was fine the next time I opened my eyes in the morning.
When this journey started for our family back in June, I struggled with the news and the possible outcomes; I froze up tense and scared; then, I subconsciously decided that I was going to fight all this physically. My mom was fighting this physically -- so I, too, would fight this physically. I went to hot yoga. I ran the Race for the Cure. I physically showed up to local breast cancer awareness fundraisers, events, lunches. I wore more pink that I normally do. And, on days where I felt frustrated, I had one more drink than I probably should have because I just needed to feel that numb, vibrant buzz and let go a little bit physically.
Nikki Boscia Durlester, author of Beyond the Pink Moon, told me that someone will fight cancer the way he or she has faced any challenge up until this point. She was right. And I think that also applies to caregivers and family members. I typically fight things one way for awhile -- the way I think I should or the way our culture tells me I should -- and then I slowly find my way. It takes me awhile, but I do figure it out. This was no different.
Back in October, I went to an outdoor Breast Cancer Awareness Month event at lunch. After meandering through breast cancer awareness tables and displays and games and bunches of pink balloons, I found myself crying in a food truck line. I was physically there -- but this was just, I don't know, just too much. None of this was helping.
As I waited to order food, a guy who sat on my floor at work came up to stand in line with me. I choked back tears and wiped my face to avoid crying with someone from work. He asked me if I knew anyone with breast cancer. I said yes, my mom had breast cancer and was going through treatment. I asked the question back. And there, in the middle of this crowded lawn, in this ridiculously-long crab cake sandwich line, he told me his mom died from breast cancer a couple years ago. And it's like all sound and music just fell away. He wasn't wearing pink; he wasn't preaching breast cancer awareness from the rooftops; he wasn't talking about how fast he was going to run the Race for the Cure; he was dealing with it in his own way. As often as I'd seen him at work, I never thought or considered or knew this was part of his story -- never knew that at one point, he probably struggled inside like I was struggling now. As we moved up in line, we talked about our moms and breast cancer and how tough it is and was to watch them go through treatment. And then, we got our sandwiches and walked back to the office.
He made me realize this: When you're the observer, the caregiver, the partner, the child, you're not fighting this physically -- you're fighting this mentally. You're fighting a different cancer -- the head game.
It's a total head game when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. You start to question absolutely everything -- what you do, what you say, who your friends are, who you date, who you are. You question doctors and treatments and hospitals and healthcare. Not because you probably really question them -- you're just really scared of losing someone. You think about dying. You think about living. You doubt, you fear, you breathe sighs of relief, you feel guilty when you have fun or need to go to work; you're angry, you're sad, you're grateful all at the same time. It plays with your head.
So, Alicia, my friend in Connecticut, to cope with all this, I shifted the fight -- I coped with all this by taking care of my head; by thinking; by starting to use and engage my brain; by working a lot of stuff out; by getting clear on the fuel my brain needed to get through this.
I couldn't see the head game; I needed coping strategies that I couldn't necessarily see.
I used every free resource that the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center offered to our family. I talked to one of their counselors regularly through this entire process. I went to their Monday night meditation classes. At age 31, I was the youngest one there every week and sometimes the only one there who didn't have or never had cancer. When you're talking about Christmas, and a cancer survivor says to you, "Every day I'm a survivor feels like Christmas," you can't help but pay attention. I needed that meditation more than I needed the physicality of hot yoga. I kept working out, but I switched from running workouts to core and Pilates workouts. My head didn't need to see a faster time on the race results. My head needed to feel my gut again. I had lost that. I had also lost almost all of my faith. So, my dear friend, Rachel, and I started talking more about prayer and faith and less about people we knew in college.
Mom's cancer and her treatment challenged everything I thought I knew -- about myself, my life, my future. When I started taking care of my head, I started to show up differently for her and my family. Everything got deeper; everything got more real. It reverberated beyond that, too -- it transformed the way I love and partner and work and think. I made some career choices that I've been pissing around with for years, and I just needed to do. I figured out who my friends are. I started to date a guy who fires up the deepest place of my brain, my heart, my gut -- places I never thought I was capable of accessing.
Mom completed chemo at the end of January, and her chemo port was removed two weeks ago. Her hair is growing back. She's running errands again. She's fussing over birthday presents. She's dropping the family dachshund off at day camp. She's cancer-free. She's coming back. We're all coming back. And in our own, respective ways, we're all different than we were before her cancer and her treatment.
If you're going through this process, as we did, I can't tell you how to think about it. I just ask you TO think about it. To use and take care of your head; to curb that head game; to be conscious, to be smart. Because, back in July, when my mom said we needed to be aggressive and available through this journey, I never anticipated that phrase would apply to the way I think -- and I never thought that would change my life forever.