Back Through the Fire

Smoke after a forest fire.
Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

[Content note: cancer, illness, suicide]

In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.

After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.

So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.

For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.

For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.

That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.

It was nothing like my own diagnosis, first of all. I never thought that “I’m thankful for the way I was diagnosed with cancer” would be a set of words my brain would assemble in that order. But I am. I got the call one day. I saw an oncologist the following day. Within a week, I had a clear diagnosis, a treatment plan, a second opinion confirming those things, and a team of medical professionals I trusted.

This was about as different from that as it could get. For starters, the initial “diagnosis”–the one my mom called me about on February 13–wasn’t even that. It was unfounded speculation from a rude, shaming primary care doctor. I let myself believe for a bit that it wasn’t true. But for the next six weeks, as my mom was bounced around between doctors, hospitals, and scan machines like a dented ping pong ball, the picture continually came into focus, then blurred again.

One day it was early-stage lymphoma. Another it was metastatic ovarian cancer. Some days, other diagnoses were thrown out like beanbags on a cornhole board–lung, stomach, liver, breast, uterine. Doctors would walk out of her exam room completely confident and optimistic, only to return subdued and humbled, their hypotheses disproven, without any others waiting in the wings to be tested.

Picture yourself surviving the worst thing you can imagine, and before your scars–literal ones, in my case–have even fully healed, that same thing happens to the person you love most. That was me.

My mom had always been the person I called when I was so desperately upset I couldn’t do anything else. Now I had lost even that. My parents, through no fault of their own, relied on me in completely unsustainable ways during that time. I found myself supporting both of them, trying to curb my spiraling panic whenever they talked about metastasis and preparing for the worst, comforting all three of my siblings (especially the two teenage ones), fielding calls from extended family and close family friends, driving an hour to question doctors at the hospital while sick with the flu, researching–always, always researching–calling and begging my oncologist to take on her case or make a referral, talking my mom down from panic attacks over the phone, using my own therapy appointments to try to figure out how to live if my mom dies.

I could’ve handled this for a week. Maybe two. The mind goes into crisis mode and you somehow push on.

But it lasted for six. By the third week, I was coming apart. I started to become paranoid almost to the point of delusion, refusing to believe anything any doctor said because so many of them had been wrong. When my mom finally had a vague diagnosis and some semblance of a treatment plan, my mind rebelled against it, refused to accept it, and I ranted like an unhinged person over the phone about how this was wrong, and they hadn’t done this or that test or ruled out this or that possibility, and they needed to find a “real” doctor and get another opinion.

To their credit, they did get more opinions. The opinions all converged on the fact that the particular way my mom’s cancer had played out was so statistically improbable that it had only been recorded 20 times in medical history.

By way of comparison, there have been 23.2 million cases of cancer recorded historically in the United States alone.

This broke my brain.

I walked through the world like a fading ghost. Everything was a reminder of the thing I couldn’t forget anyway. The lemon tree my parents gave me as an engagement gift right before my surgery had unceremoniously dropped its leaves over the winter–they do that–and I couldn’t shake the fear that I was killing the last tangible symbol of her love I would ever get. All of my clients suddenly turned out to have dead or dying mothers that they needed to talk about.

My work suffered–everybody noticed. My parents were often calling and texting me during the workday and I would grasp at whatever few minutes I had between appointments to talk to them, sob inconsolably on the floor of my office, or both. I no longer wanted to be alive whatsoever, but even stronger than that feeling was the belief that I absolutely could not die, accidentally or on purpose, without dooming my family for good. By then I was living only for other people–my family, my partners, my clients–and I was starting to fail every single one of them, noticeably and repeatedly. The more I failed, the more I hated myself, my life, and the world.

It was, in short, a complete fucking living nightmare.

You have to understand—I was never one of those people who wonder Why me? when they get sick. Totally reasonable reaction—just not mine. In some ways this is because I incorporate and adapt to new knowledge quickly, and I was immediately focused on survival.

But the other half of it has to do with the way in which having cancer stripped me bare. I discovered that all of that emotional baggage and maladaptation I thought I’d handled years ago were actually still there, dormant. As all of my learned coping skills and cognitive strategies were eroded away like layers of sediment, I found that there was no bedrock of self-love underneath, no protective sense of my own worth as a person.

And so I didn’t feel the need to wonder what I did to “deserve” getting cancer. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve a happy, healthy life, either. Honestly, getting cancer kind of made sense. On my worst days I really do hate myself enough to make renegade killer cells an apt (if heavy-handed) metaphor.

My mom’s illness was completely different. As the weeks leading up to the eventual beginning of her treatment wore on and on, I hated the world more and more, and wanted to live in it less and less. I wished an asteroid would hit and destroy it. I wanted nothing to do with a world in which something like that could happen to someone like her. I wanted nothing to do with a life without her in it.

As a patient, I had a dark source of comfort—this too shall pass. You either survive cancer or you die.

I survived. My illness taught me that I can overcome anything. My mom’s taught me that no matter what I overcome, the suffering it brings will never end.

And yet. With something approaching an actual working diagnosis, my mom started her treatment in late March. The treatment seemed to be effective. The tumors shrank. I found myself sometimes thinking about something other than her. Spring came, as it always does, and the seeds went into the ground, and my wondrous garden sprang up once again as if from nothing.

And, just like last year, the new life in my backyard brought life back into me, too.

I don’t know what will happen with her treatment, or the rest of her life. There are reasons for hope and there are reasons for despair. Which one will win out in my mind in any given moment is a coin flip. I still haven’t figured out why or how to live without her if she dies. When she dies, as that’s obviously going to happen eventually. That’s another one of those things I didn’t expect to be thinking about this much at my age.

I haven’t written about this for months, except for scribbled ranting in my journal, because I had nothing to say. I could find no meaning or narrative in it. With my own cancer I learned things, experienced things. I had things to say about fear and bodies and friendship and family and work and joy. It was awful but it was also in many ways profound.

This was nothing. I learned nothing, saw nothing. “What am I supposed to write about?” I remember asking my therapist. “There’s no ‘there’ there. I just don’t want my mom to die. I’m just miserable and terrified and grieving already about that. That’s literally it.”

“You should think about why this happened to you,” my mom’s first doctor said, after ordering CT scans. I have also thought about why this happened to me, to us, as has she. We got nothing.

When I lost the thread of my own story last year, even that became part of the story itself. It was a gap, but the gap spoke volumes. When my mom got sick, I wasn’t weaving the web anymore. I was a fly trapped in it.

So I made do with what I have, and made myself a little cocoon from the fibers.

Then, midway through her treatment, everything changed again. She finally got her genetic test results back. She has BRCA-1, the same genetic condition I have. Then I understood.

She was always going to get cancer. It has always been a near-certainty, since long before I was even born, since before she watched her own father survive cancer.

My dad called and told me, and asked me to be the one to tell her. I froze. Couldn’t do it. On the one hand, it was “good” news, of a sort–it was a medical explanation, and it increases her chances of survival because it makes certain additional treatments possible. On the other hand, I shuddered to think of anyone, let alone someone I love so much, going through the hell I went through. What do I say to someone about to go through what was my worst trauma?

I told my dad this. He said, “It won’t be anything like that. We have your experience to guide us.”

And that’s when everything clicked for me at last.

My mom, like me, was always going to end up in this situation. Statistically, it was much more likely that she would go through it first, and I would go second. But that’s not how it happened, thank god, because this way it was my body and sanity on the line, not hers. Because this way I was the one to be mistreated and traumatized like that, I was the one who learned what I learned, I was the one who had to figure out how to demand humane treatment and pain control, I was the one who realized that panic attacks interact uniquely with this particular kind of post-op pain, I was the one who lived to write about it, I was the one who made it my mission to learn how to talk so doctors will listen and to start to teach that to others.

Now none of that will happen to her, so help me god, because I will be for her what nobody was able to be for me.

And with that came the realization that if I had a choice—if I could’ve somehow chosen to be put through this first so that she may survive it with fewer psychological scars—I would’ve chosen this, because I would do absolutely anything to save her life and her happiness, even face down death myself.

Everyone hopes on some level to find some sort of ultimate meaning in the horrors they go through; my answer to that basically got handed to me. I went through it so she wouldn’t have to, so that I could one day walk right back through the fire I’d escaped, and lead her out with me.

Things became somehow easier after that. While there isn’t any sort of cosmic meaning or significance to all this, I don’t really need there to be. In the unanswerable question of her tragedy, I found an unquestionable answer I didn’t know I was looking for.

After that I did something I didn’t expect to do. It won’t seem like a big deal to anyone but me, but I know what it means.

What I did was I bought trees. Berry trees. Black currant, gooseberry, cornelian-cherry dogwood, lingonberry, hawthorn, fig, mulberry, and, of course, rosa rugosa, which produces those rosehips my mom so prizes.

For the first time I was willing to plant things that wouldn’t give fruit for at least a year if not more, and to trust that on the day they repay all of my digging, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and protecting for the first time, I will still be around, and I will still care. That one beautiful fall day, maybe one of the last, my mom will visit me, and she will steal rosehips from my bushes, telling me that I wouldn’t use them anyway, and her laughter will be strong enough to send the birds from the feeders and bushes, flocking up, up into the dying light.

So that’s where I was, last weekend, digging holes in the yard as the rising summer sun woke up and thawed me.

On the patio behind me, where I’d set it out after the last frost, my parents’ lemon tree was waking too, sending bursts of new smooth green leaves from its buds like offerings to the sun god it worships.

I finished my work, picked fresh herbs from the garden for my mom, threw my stuff in the car, and drove west to Dayton, where my family was waiting for me.


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Back Through the Fire
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Life Update!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing on here very much. There are a few reasons for that and they are mostly good ones!

  1. As I explored in my last post, my cancer treatment is over–I’m cancer-free as far as the doctors can tell, mostly recovered from my surgery, and (the really fun part) officially post-menopausal. I’ve been spending a lot of time on self-care and trying to slowly dip my toes back into life.
  2. That said, it’s been less “dipping my toes in” and more straight up diving into the deep end. For starters, I’m about to switch jobs after being where I’m at for three years, which is…a very long time in Miri-Years. Yikes. Yikes.
  3. Also, I started a podcast! It’s called 2 AM Talks. The idea is that each episode, I interview a friend about a topic–any topic–that they really care about. I think it’s going to be lots of fun. You can subscribe to it on Anchor, Pocket Casts, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and some other services I’ve honestly never heard of. Follow it on Twitter here. (I’ll probably write a longer post about this later because I have some Thoughts about creative endeavors and why they’re important.)
  4. On a slightly different note, I’m also writing a book. It’s a book of essays about my experience with cancer treatment, although I feel like describing it that way kind of undersells what it’s going to be. I am (for now) unusually optimistic about this compared to how I usually feel about my big writing projects, and I’m actually putting in the time and not giving up on it. I joined a writers’ group and everything! Anyway, I don’t have a title for it yet or any plans for what to do when it’s done, but y’all will be the first to know.
  5. As I also discussed in the last post, I’m gardening a lot and it’s quite labor-intensive at times but it’s AMAZING. Seriously, if you’ve ever thought that you might enjoy starting an edible garden, I suggest you go ahead and try it. It’s a very unique and indelible experience.

That’s all for now! I have some vacation coming up in about a month, which usually means more writing. I hope to have something for you soon.

Life Update!

And Suddenly, Life

My tomato seedlings.

And just like that, it’s over. The surgeon said there’s no evidence of cancer remaining in my body, my hair is growing back, my new boobs are growing steadily until I decide they’re big enough, and I’m trying to grasp that thread of my life that I left dangling over half a year ago and tie it to the one I’m holding now.

As anyone who’s had cancer knows, you’re never really “done” with it. Even after successful treatment, there’s always the possibility of recurrence, the long-term consequences of chemo or radiation, and, in my case, a slew of reconstruction-related procedures and an oophorectomy in 8 years.

That said, now—when I’ve returned to work after my surgery—seems an appropriate moment for a post-mortem on the whole thing. (Sorry, poor choice of wording.)

For a brief window of time after my diagnosis I thought it would be my unraveling. I quickly realized that, instead, it would be my becoming. If a year ago I was in my intermediate Pokémon evolution, I’m now in what feels like my final one. (Don’t forget, though, that even fully evolved Pokémon continue getting stronger and learning new moves, and that eventually someone might “discover” mega-evolutions and I might change form again. I’ll leave it to you to decide which Pokémon I might be, before this analogy completely runs away from me.)

Before this I was essentially comfortable with who I was, with how I lived my life and conducted my relationships, with the career I had chosen, with the way I spent my time, and with that most fragile of things, my body. The illness transformed the way I saw all of these things, not in the sense that it made my views totally different, but in the sense that it strengthened, catalyzed, leavened, solidified them.

Any lingering doubts I had in myself or in the people who form my inner circle disappeared. Before, there was a part of me that really believed that when the time came to sit for the exam, the people around me would fail me, and more importantly, that I would fail myself, and that I would be alone in my darkest hour. But nobody failed.

Well, perhaps a few people failed. But their grades had been slipping for a long time, and some of them had really been failing already.

I no longer doubt that my friends and family will carry me forward when I can’t carry myself. But I also no longer worry that I’ll ever become completely unable to carry myself. I don’t struggle with imposter syndrome anymore, and I don’t worry that I’m not enough of an “adult.” What does that even mean for someone who has made the decision to carve up their body to save their own life? What does that mean for anyone, really?

What I keep coming back to every time I write about this strange episode of my life is simply how banal most of it was. It was so banal that I’m not sure I could even claim that I cried more, or was sadder or more scared, on average during this time than during any other period of my life. In fact, I will still say that the clinical depression I experienced from ages 19 to 22 was much worse and left me with so much fewer resources to help myself and seek support from others.

I would not repeat so much as a month of that experience for any price. The cancer, eh, fine, especially if we can do the surgery with proper pain management this time.

The point of that isn’t to pit depression and cancer against each other generally or adjudicate whether mental illness really is worse than medical illness or vice versa; it’s just to say, I already had unimaginably more strength than I thought I did. It just hadn’t been tested and proven yet.


After my surgery, which to me represented the culmination of most of my worst fears, people wanted to know if it was really “as bad” as I thought it would be. Of course, they wanted to hear that it wasn’t. Unfortunately, it was even worse than I thought it would be. It was worse than I had expected even at my most panicky moments. So this isn’t the story of how I overcame those phobias. It’s the story of how I learned that I can survive weeks of unrelenting pain, panic attacks, and suicidality and come out the other side essentially myself.

I’m comfortable saying that I’ve been traumatized by that experience. In dreams I wake up after surgery only to be told that something went wrong and it has to be done again, over and over. Most evenings, when I’m home from the life I’ve finally returned to, alone and in silence, an inexplicable sadness comes over me—so inexplicable that I know exactly what causes it.

It’s not that I “miss my old body,” though sometimes I do. What I feel goes much deeper than that. There are memories, images, that fill me with something I can only call grief—looking back at my parents as I was wheeled away to the OR; watching them cut up my food for me when I couldn’t; walking around on the deck of their house, back hunched, trying to explain to my mom a meditation exercise I was trying in which you breathe the pain in and then breathe it out; when my friends visited me at home two days after and I sat, again hunched, mostly unable to speak or even look at them; the first time I sat on the deck in good weather, no hat, and felt the sun on my skin again; and more, and more, and more.

All of this lives in me now, not compartmentalized or repressed but very much there, just beneath the surface. It ebbs and flows and sometimes retreats deeper and other times comes closer to my skin, where I can all but feel it with my fingers when I press them onto all the parts of me that no longer feel.

It hurts all the time, but it’s also, in its own way, completely normal and healthy. I now contain a lot more things than I did six months ago, and not all of them hurt.

Rather than feeling diminished by the experience, I feel expanded. Which is fortunate because it gives me enough room to contain all of the contradictions inherent to this process. My friends were probably hopelessly confused. One day I’d be crying about what an ugly scarred half-person I am; the next day I’d be marveling at how it feels to dance, to sit in the sunshine, to run my fingers over my healing incisions. One day I would say that my life has been standing still; the next I’d be talking about all I’ve learned, everyone I’ve met, everything I’ve planned.

And then there were the times, most of which I never found the words to explain to anyone, when I felt like I was experiencing something transcendent. I had feelings that felt completely outside of my normal existence and that I couldn’t have had any other way. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t think of it that way. Instead I think of them as moments when I felt the pulse of life. I felt how precious it was, how sacred. I felt overwhelming gratitude, both towards people who helped me in even the smallest ways and towards the universe itself. I felt like I could survive anything.

And then I’d go back to feeling like a broken old piece of crap nobody wants anymore.

Well, it may be confusing, but it’s also part of the experience of being ill—and, to a slightly lesser extent, of being human. I invite you to enter the contradiction with me and make yourself comfortable.


Besides work and spending time with friends, nowadays I’m often working on my garden. Last fall I decided I wanted to try growing fruits and vegetables in the spring, and I had all these ideas about buying all kinds of plants and building a structure to house the containers and starting seeds early indoors, and for obvious reasons that didn’t happen. So I started last week. It was probably slightly late to plant seeds, but it is what it is and it’ll be what it’ll be.

I’ve always loved plants, and always felt disproportionate grief when they sickened or died. Now it’s no different, except that I’m even more aware of the precariousness of life, of the journey seeds must undertake to become plants, and how perilous all of that is. Soil, water, warmth, light. And out springs something that nourishes.

I used to feel beautiful. Now I don’t, and it’s hard to fully imagine what that even felt like. But I think I’m finding my way back to it, slowly. In the meantime, I look around at my pots full of fresh soil and think, maybe I can still make something beautiful.

I understand how plants “work,” mostly, but the more fundamental part of my brain is still stunned every time a seed germinates. I’ve now planted everything I’m going to plant, and some of the seeds have sprouted–pulling themselves up through the soil, hunched over like I was right after surgery, slowly stretching themselves out to stand tall just like I did, and finally unfurling their first two leaves, just like the first time I felt well enough to bring my arms up and stretch them out from my sides as hard as I could, feeling them become a part of my body again.

I can never fully expect them to do it. Every time I’ve ever planted a seed I’ve thought, no way, there’s no way you can just stick these tiny hard things into the ground and a week later they turn into actual plants.

And yet, inevitably, they do.


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And Suddenly, Life