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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Speaking Gently to My Body

I’ve always criticized what I’ve sometimes called the chocolate-and-bubble-baths model of self-care, where a series of supposedly “pampering” actions is supposed to somehow replenish you and make you ready to face the world again.

But I think I’ve found the usefulness of these types of activities, and the answer, as usual, lies in mindfulness and intentionality rather than escapism and consumerism.

I used to have a lot of body image issues, and then I found feminism and did a lot of personal work and (I thought) resolved them. Then cancer hit and a lot of that work completely undid itself. Suddenly I was standing in front of the mirror saying shit to myself that I hadn’t said for a decade. That was weird.

But by 2019 my body and I had arrived at a sort of uneasy truce, held together by 1) it not having cancer and 2) me practicing intuitive eating and engaging in regular movement that feels good to me.

And then I got a severe flu, went to urgent care, was not diagnosed with the severe bacterial infection I also coincidentally had, and ended up hospitalized for two days on a near-constant drip of IV antibiotics.

If getting hospitalized for two days due to medical mismanagement isn’t perhaps the most on-brand thing that can happen to me at this point, I don’t know what is. I mean, it’s not like I’m writing a book about that or anything.

That said, the other really on-brand thing that happened was that I rallied and got discharged from the hospital just in time to get a good night’s sleep, keep my travel plans, and hop on a plane to Austin, where I’m now typing this in a backyard wearing nothing but leggings and a tank top. (I deserve this.)

But before all that, I was home from the hospital in a shitty mood with barely enough energy to stand up without something to support me. I also needed a shower. I’ve now done it several times and if you haven’t experienced this, I can absolutely assure you, the post-hospital shower is the best shower you will ever take in your life. It beats post-camping showers. It beats “the landlord finally fixed the sputtering showerhead” showers.

In the shower, I shampooed my hair, used two different kinds of conditioner, and used both body wash and scrub to exfoliate my severely-neglected skin. When I got tired, I sat down on the floor of the shower and let it wash the conditioner out of my hair.

When I felt ready to be done, I grabbed a towel from the towel warmer (I should mention, this was at my parents’ house, by no means do I personally own a towel warmer) and slid the shower door shut again so I could dry off in the remaining warmth.

I noticed that I felt compelled to dry myself more gently than I usually do. Of course this was probably in part because of my recent infection, but that had only affected a small part of my body. I realized I wanted to pamper myself—not in the mindless sense of showering the body in fancy products or putting it through a particular set of actions (no shame if you enjoy mani-pedis, but to me they are painful and awful and I have no idea how that came to abstractly represent self-care for anybody who does not enjoy pain), but by treating it with the sort of gentleness I would treat a loved one returned from the hospital.

After I finished drying off, I found myself saying, “Now, my dear, you are good as new.” I continued: “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. You fought hard and you won.”

Then I started tearing up.

Then I left the shower and started asking myself why I never thought to speak to my body this way after (let alone during) cancer.

I mean, if what I said was true in this situation—and it certainly felt true—how the fuck isn’t it even more true for the process of going into remission from cancer, regrowing my hair, losing the bloat and swollenness of chemo and steroids, and healing my surgical scars?

The truth is, as miserable as it was to suffer through both a viral and a bacterial infection at the same time—and it was literally worse than chemo, by the way—I didn’t hold it against my body that it happened. It wasn’t something my body “put me through.” It was something we got put through together. I felt awful when I was sick and I felt awful for my poor body. My fever spiked to 105 at times. Almost my entire face turned red and swollen. My lymph nodes ballooned. My head hurt so much I could barely find a way to set it down on the pillow so I could sleep. After my dad made me drink TheraFlu one night, my body violently rejected it into the toilet. (Kids: do not have TheraFlu be the only thing you consume all day, unless you’d like to use it to expel an accidentally-injested poison.) It was just an awful six-day slog of fucking misery.

And I didn’t blame my body for it at all.

I could’ve—immune system failure and whatnot. But I didn’t.

Cancer and surgical trauma felt entirely different. Cancer seemed personal and internal two times over—once because it involved my flawed genes, once because it involved my own rogue cells. After surgery, my muscles seemed to attack me and nobody listened to me.

This time, nobody denied that I was sick and hurting. I felt able to complain, to lie in bed and moan, to seek emotional and medical help. (Half-assed as the latter was at times.) With surgery, my medical care was absolutely top-notch, but that and practical assistance were pretty much the only forms of support I had.

As it turns out, it’s much easier to not to blame your body when your non-physical needs are being heard. It’s easier to care for and even move toward loving your body when you feel fully cared for and loved by others.


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Speaking Gently to My Body

My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available!

Banner for "The Girl Survives Cancer in This One." Visit bit.ly/GirlSurvives

As you may know, I’ve been writing a book of essays about my experience as a breast cancer survivor. Last month, I decided to publish a zine that collects some of the essays I’ve written so far, to put my writing out there and build some interest in my book.

It ended up being a very fun project (my first zine!) and although I didn’t end up with the old-school photo-copied look I originally planned on, it’s very pretty and the writing is very much the focus.

A photo of the inside of my zine.

It’s now available on Etsy in digital format for $4, and as a paperback for $8. You can even get the paperback signed! Who knows, maybe it’ll be worth something one day.

If you want to get updates on my book as it progresses, you should subscribe to my newsletter here.

I hope many of y’all buy it and read it, and don’t forget to leave a review on Etsy!

A photo of the cover of my zine.

My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available!

Intuitive Eating Made Me Miss My Flight

(But, in the words of the great Rebecca Bunch, the situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.)

Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Last night I was supposed to be on a flight to DC. I arrived at the airport straight from work with some time to spare, checked my luggage, went through security, bought a snack, and arrived at the gate to find that the flight had been delayed by two hours. It was 7 PM. My usual dinner time. I ate some of my almonds but found my hunger worsening. With the delay I would not arrive in DC until about 11 PM, plus a half-hour ride from the airport, so it would be nearly midnight by the time I could finally have a hot, nutritionally complete meal—my first since lunch at noon. What to do?

Lately I’ve been working with a dietician[1] on intuitive eating, a radical (but not new) approach to food in which you learn to pay attention to your body’s hunger cues and eat things that feel good to you. No numbers are involved in this process at any point. It’s not a weight-loss program, or even a “health” program, really. It’s more of a “rebuild a healthy relationship with food and be more mindful” program.

Most people, even those who have a relatively healthy body image and few issues around food, have taught themselves to ignore bodily cues like hunger, satiety, and energy. That’s because bodies are inconvenient and our society demands that we run on its schedule, not on our bodies’ schedules. If lunch is at noon then you eat at noon. If you have a lot of work to do and don’t have time for eating, you keep working until you can stop. If we’re eating now then you eat now even if you’re not hungry. If dinner is meatloaf and broccoli then you clean your plate before you can leave the table because of [insert racist and classist cliche here]. If salads leave you feeling weak and tired but salads are clean and healthy and you need to eat clean and healthy, then you eat salads and feel weak and tired and tell yourself it’s because of something else. If the flight is at 7 PM and there’s no time for dinner beforehand, then you grab a snack and head to the gate, and if the flight is delayed and there’s no one with you to text you updates, then you stay at the gate in case the flight leaves suddenly and you worry about your worsening hunger later.

Recently finished chemo? Recently had a double mastectomy? Recently started hormone suppression meds that put you into early menopause, causing hot flashes, fatigue, weakness, and confusion, especially if you don’t eat properly? Don’t worry about it! Wait at the gate.

Needless to say, I didn’t do that. I went to a pizza place not far from the gate, ordered myself a small pizza with olive oil, bacon, onions, and mushrooms, listened for any flight announcements, did not hear any flight announcements, refreshed the flight info on Google, and missed the flight anyway.

“Should’ve stayed at the gate,” the gate agent said when I appeared half an hour before the flight’s rescheduled departure and inquired what the fuck.

But I was exactly where I needed to be—taking care of my body so that it takes care of ME on my trip.

Now it’s the morning after, and I’m on my rebooked flight to DC, somewhat frazzled but nevertheless feeling energized enough to enjoy my weekend. Because last night when I started to feel really hungry, I had a complete meal with carbs, fat, protein, and fiber, along with hot tea and later water.

Bodies are inconvenient. I’ve tried the thing where you replace your meals with “healthy snacks” because you can’t make time to eat meals. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried the thing where you grab greasy fast food and bring it on the plane with you because you don’t have time for anything else. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried ignoring the problem. It doesn’t work.

What works is paying attention to my body’s physical sensations and responding to them with a combination of carbs, fat, protein, fiber, water, rest, physical activity, and sleep.

In fact, that’s probably the only thing that ever would’ve worked. But until I got so sick that I HAD to stop and pay attention to it, I ignored it like almost everyone else does.

(No, ignoring my hunger did not cause my cancer, but having cancer caused me to stop ignoring my hunger.)

When you start noticing your body’s cues and responding to them appropriately, you may also start missing flights. Or turning down opportunities, or no longer eating some foods you thought you liked but turned out to actually make you feel bad, or being late to things because you realized you needed to eat first but you weren’t hungry early enough to eat early enough to not be late. You may decide that you can’t be vegan after all, or that you don’t need to eat meat after all. You may notice that you don’t get hungry at 7 AM, 12 PM, and 6 PM. You may get hungry at totally different times. You may need to adjust your work schedule to accommodate this.

You may find a way to avoid many of these potential problems by being strategic about bringing snacks with you or taking breaks from things. But sometimes you’ll forget, or it won’t be enough.

You may also find yourself feeling better, physically and mentally. You may stop sending yourself on guilt-trips over food. You may realize that stopping at Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone after work is actually a great way to boost your mood and make sure you don’t get hungry until you’ve had time to make dinner.

You may even find yourself noticing other types of bodily cues more, too—for instance, that the party is loud and you need a break from the noise, and if you take a break now, you won’t be overwhelmed and will be able to return and stay for the rest of the party and enjoy yourself. Or that these shoes are so uncomfortable that it actually impacts your mood and productivity, so wearing them just isn’t worth it anymore. Or that you always feel vaguely uncomfortable and on edge around this particular person and maybe it’s time to try to figure out why.

Yeah, it’s inconvenient. It makes me feel over-sensitive, fragile, high-maintenance, and a lot of other things we often label women with. It’s difficult that at a moment when I most need to get past my preoccupation with my body’s weakness and vulnerability, the self-care I need the most seems to just highlight those things more and more.

But every time I make the decision to honor my body’s cues rather than ignore them, I can feel that I’ve taken another small step towards well-being. Towards working as a team with my body rather than fighting it every step of the way. Towards feeling at home in myself again.

A missed flight starts to seem like a small price to pay.


[1] If you live in Ohio, you may be able to work with my dietician! Find her here: https://www.kristenmurrayrd.com/

More info about intuitive eating here: http://www.intuitiveeating.org/


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If you liked this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi!

Intuitive Eating Made Me Miss My Flight