Friends and readers, I hope you will consider visiting and following my new blog, Still Life, With Cancer. Because even (especially) after a cancer diagnosis, life—with all its joys, challenges, beauty and absurdities—still goes on.
We’re still newlyweds, and he still loves me. Love wins. ♥
Like so many newlywed brides (and husbands, too), I got married, and then I gained weight. “Happy fat,” I’ve often heard those extra pounds called. I prefer “change chub.” Not because I’m not happy; I am! But I think the weight gain is less a result of the sudden onset of matrimonial bliss than it is the multitude of changes in daily routines that come with combining two adults’ lives: new foods and meal times, different sleep and waking routines, shifts in exercise habits.
Whatever the cause, I gained somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds those first 8 months of marriage. Not enough to qualify as “obese,” maybe not even “heavy,” but I’ve disliked feeling stiff and sedentary, not like myself, certainly not like the self that a few years ago was working out and running 5Ks.
I’m embarrassed to admit to being even more bothered by the appearance of my expanding silhouette in the mirror and the fact my clothes don’t fit right. I got so self-conscious about my newly rounded belly, which pudged out no matter how much I sucked it in, I was almost relieved when a day with friends at the lake was cancelled. Maybe I’ll have time to get back in shape before I go public in a bathing suit! I thought. I signed up for yoga and a running program and hit the Y a few times, my motivation definitely less health, more vanity. With a beach trip fast approaching, I began to worry over other perceived faults, like my winter white legs: all the better to show off the emerging spider veins, my dear. I contemplated scheduling a spray tan and went online to buy a couple new tankini tops to disguise my belly roll.
Then, a few weeks before our scheduled vacation, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was a surprise; perhaps such things always are. I went in for an annual mammogram and was given a clean bill of health. I returned ten days later to have a couple fluid-filled cysts drained—routine for me, as I’ve had benign cysts since my thirties. Whenever they grow large enough to be annoying or painful, I have them aspirated. The doctor used, per usual, the ultrasound to locate the cysts. As he rolled the wand over my left breast, I noticed something odd on the monitor. There was a dark mass, but it was missing a key characteristic of the manifold cysts I’d seen on the screen over the years.
“That doesn’t have the defined outline that a cyst usually does,” I said.
The doctor kept rolling the wand back and forth, back and forth. “No, that doesn’t look like a cyst,” he said quietly. “I think we’re going to need to turn this into a biopsy.”
I would say the timing, as a newlywed, is awful, but when would it ever be good?
The cancer is treatable, survivable, thank god, though it’s going to be a long haul and an intense trip: 8 treatments over 16 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, then radiation.
Suddenly, it seemed pretty silly to worry over white legs and blue veins, or a few extra inches on my belly and hips.
My body is about to undergo a radical transformation. Chemotherapy will bring fatigue, and I will lose my hair. I may lose or gain weight, depending on how I respond to treatment. Surgery is a given, most likely a full mastectomy of one breast, possibly both. Mastectomy most always takes the nipple, and though reconstruction is a marvel these days, there will be scars. I have two small new ones already, from the biopsy and the port. And if my new breast or breasts are rebuilt from my own tissue, as my surgeon has recommended, harvesting it from my belly or back will make additional scars. (But, hey, maybe that “happy fat” will be useful!) Chemo can have permanent side effects as well, including early onset menopause. Pudgy belly and jiggly thighs notwithstanding, my current body may well be the closest it ever will be again to fitting the stringent beauty standards of smooth lines and seamless symmetry we too often impose on women.
As I pulled my slenderizing tankini top out of its package, I thought: WTF with these oppressive standards? Why have I—quite literally—bought into them?
A few extra fat cells, a few scars: they aren’t a threat to anything but vanity, a challenge to the ridiculously narrow and damaging ideas about beauty and the female body that women have had pounded into us for so many years. I would gladly accept living the rest of my life with a dimpled booty if I could trade it for my health, trade those fat cells for the cancerous ones growing in my breast that threaten my well-being, my very life.
But since I can’t do that, here’s what I’m going to do.
I am going to wear a bikini with pride. Now, and whenever I feel like it in the future.
I’m going to walk on the beach and search for shells. I’m going to go stand-up paddle-boarding. I’m going to read. Watch the sunrise. Hold my husband’s hand.
I’m going to embrace my body. It is strong, and it is vulnerable. It is normal, and it is exceptional. I will need to adapt, to gentle my body, in the coming months, because what my body, what every body, can do changes, contracts and expands over time. But whatever it can do is what matters. What it can think. What it can feel. It won’t always (ever?) be easy, practicing acceptance. But I am going to celebrate my body, for whatever it allows me to see or hear or feel or experience.
This is the only body I’ve got, and frankly, it’s on loan. Every body is. So right now, while I can, I’m going to watch the pelicans soar and dive. I’m going to frolic in the waves. I’m going to laugh as often as I can and cry when I need to. I’m going to fight, and I’m going to lean on my family and friends.
I’m a lucky woman: My body can still love. It can still know joy. It can delight, despair, heal. It, I, can still chase dreams.
It’s still life, just, for now, with cancer. And I will live it one glorious, difficult, deliberate day at a time.
In the coming weeks I will be debuting a new blog that is currently under construction: Still Life, With Cancer. Once it’s up and running, I will link it back to FsFTB. I may still post occasionally in this space, but I hope you’ll join me on the new site to follow my story there. Until then, thank you and be well.
Steve and I are now officially a Mr. and Mrs.! It was a beautiful day in every way (even the weather—it rained early on but cleared before the ceremony!), full of family, friends, and joy.
I took a week off from blogging (and the office) for the wedding festivities, and now I think I need another week to recover…. I’ll be back soon with some reflections on our big day (and how it flew by), a few behind-the-scenes stories (you’ll never guess who almost got arrested), and descriptions of the elements we kept a surprise (everybody loves a parade!).
In the meantime, kick back and enjoy one of our “Quite a Pair/Pear” signature cocktails (recipe follows below), and check out our wonderful “next day album” provided by photographer Noah Magnifico, who brought us hard book copies the morning after the wedding so we could enjoy and share immediately!
Steve and I have been preparing some slide shows for the wedding reception, so we’ve had the joy (and occasional agony) of going back through years of photos. Despite my general skepticism regarding things like pre-determined plans and fated soulmates, it’s been hard to resist the idea that, at the very least, Steve and I have been traveling parallel paths all these years—paths that, once they finally intersected, would naturally funnel into a single trail we’d keep walking together.
Happy baby days…
Smiling with our big brothers…
Posing for the requisite Olan Mills family portrait…
Liz, Steve, Fred, Judy, John
Sandee, Todd, Garry, Margaret
We each cherished holidays with the next generation…
With sons Dusty & Tucker
With niece Natasha
and loved our furry friends…
We spent time in the woods…
And on the water…
And we ran…
And we found our happy places…
And then, at last, we found each other:
I’m not one to believe in some automatic “happily ever after” either—talk about a gloss on the good (and the hard) stuff. But I believe in us, and our commitment to create a happy life together.
I’m so grateful our paths crossed, and I can’t wait to join hands and travel forward together. ♥
So fiancé Steve and I are still knee-deep in cardboard boxes and all the paper, packing tape, and perpetual angst that come with moving.
As I was packing my less-than-organized study, I discovered the two Dove wrappers pictured above. Some months ago, on a colder and quieter night, Steve and I sat across the table from one another as we each unwrapped our dark chocolate desserts and discovered these two strangely connected sentiments. At the time they called up our romantic on-the-beach engagement and other strolls we’ve taken hand-in-hand on the sand.
As I read them today, and consider them now in the context of the second photograph—the loads of blankets, quilts, and catbeds that had to be schlepped to the laundromat in order to corral them all for the move—I heard different echoes. Watching a sunset followed by a sunrise together may suggest a long and lingering night of romance. But it’s also what happens when you commit to marrying someone, to living with them, to going to bed together each night after the sun falls over the mountains, rising in the morning as the light streams through the window and you take turns in the bathroom and feed the dog and cats and decide whose turn it is to take out the trash or drop off the dry-cleaning.
Such day-to-day ordinary moments are both less romantic than the “ideal,” and infinitely more so. After all, most of us spend far more moments in the presence of our beloved doing laundry, walking the dog, and unloading the dishwasher than we do taking in sunrises or sunsets in dramatic and pre-determined “romantic” locales. I want to know that my love will survive, even thrive, not just in the beautiful spaces, but through stacks of boxes and backloads of laundry.
That’s reality, and on all those ordinary day-to-days, it’s more than enough for me.
My brother Todd and his wife Lisa, pictured here in 2014, just celebrated their twelfth anniversary a few days ago. I have long been inspired by the love they share and the ways they lift each other up in even the toughest times, so I asked them what advice or wisdom they might offer as I get ready to walk down the aisle.
They sent me the following. You might want to grab some tissues first.
Todd and Lisa
When Sandee asked us to write about our love in honor of our twelfth anniversary, we thought it would be easy. Turns out, not so much. Legal battles, cancer, money issues, struggles with our five children had sometimes overshadowed the spark that always held us together. We stared at each other, floundering for ideas.
Todd said, “What about our high school yearbooks? We could start there.”
The beginning is most always a good bet on where to start.
We wrote our initial commentaries separately, with plans to then head out to the Nevada desert, thinking a peaceful place might make the task of comparing and combining them into a finished essay easier to complete. Continue reading →