Why Thanks Cancer?

I was really tired.  Like wanting to go to bed at 7pm on a lovely June evening kind of tired. Almost every night.

My doctor told me I was working too much (true) and needed to exercise more – which I found ridiculous because I was getting in a few Bikram classes a week, in addition to having a physical job and riding around Boston on my bike.  I’d been on a plant based diet for 25 years and ate a lot of local food.  Yet I was bloated, not feeling great for months, vacillating between crackling anxiety and blackout sleep – feeling generally weird and having strange dreams. My doctor chalked it up to stress, which was plausible  – I was fighting a lot with my boyfriend at that point, launching a project I’d been working on over a decade and finally putting my life together after a divorce.  I agreed with his advice to start running again and the standard tests were taken.

My blood tests looked great, except for some low iron and I was prescribed pills.  A mammogram was never mentioned and I‘d never had one at 43, being considered low risk with only one relative (my paternal grandmother) having died of breast cancer.  He gave me a manual examination on that day and found nothing – which wasn’t surprising, as I’d never found anything in my own self examinations. Oops.

Two months later, my boyfriend pointed out a 5 centimeter tumor on my right breast, which was really hard to find.  I had to lean over, cup my breast and move my fingers from underneath to find it.  I’d been feeling twitchy pain in that area for a few months, but had thought it was my Bikram practice, possibly from too much shoveling that snowy winter or lifting things at work?  I immediately went to the doctor who was shocked to find the tumor, but assured me that something that grew so fast and created pain was unlikely to be cancer.  It was suggested that I get off the iron supplements just in case, since they can fuel tumor growth.

I went in for an ultrasound, which led to an MRI, which led to Dana Farber and a diagnosis of 4 tumors the right breast – there were 3 additional small ones only visible on imaging.  While a series of biopsies and other terrifying testing was determining the exact type of breast cancer growing inside me, I was in the midst of launching a new health and wellness programming series and had broken up with my boyfriend.  The idea of leaving work, and losing my job in addition to everything else, loomed large during these weeks.  There was quite a bit of trying to keep it together in various bathrooms and corners, while I worried over the results.  When the diagnosis of an agressive HER2 positive cancer was received and protocol of my treatment laid out before me – 18 months of chemotherapy and at least 4 major surgeries for the bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction – I knew the job would have to go too. 

Life went from being fully booked with a cast of personalities, to a singular focus on my treatment and maintaining health.  While my schedule emptied out, those who were important to me gathered around.  I had cancer in my cells and cancers in my life that needed purgation.  Projects and relationships I’d overdeveloped and spent way too much time thinking about, were blown away in the tumult of diagnosis and treatment.  A hardy cadre of people remained and the important things survived –  some requiring repairs after years of neglect and more appreciated than ever now.   

Much of my time in and out of the clinic, was spent researching a disease that had just taken away much of what I’d called mine just in a matter of weeks.  I read everything I could get my hands on regarding the latest treatments and discovered PubMed - who knew? But I also wanted to know about the more obscure stuff – the history of the chemotherapies I would be taking, what bras are best for reconstruction, nutrition and supplementation, how cancer is treated in other countries, if other people have strange dreams prior to diagnosis – there have been an infinite number of things to learn. 

This medically imposed time off and brush with death has been an inflection point full of light and darkness.  The chemotherapy and surgeries required a level of combative juicing, acupuncture, shamanism, physical therapy, crystals and fasting that I never wish to repeat.  But all of the medicine worked, the cancer melted away and there’s been an opportunity to rebuild a 2.0 version of myself with intention. Life gets emptied out during things like cancer treatment and, when we’re lucky, presents us with an opportunity to refill it thoughtfully. 

Last year, when treatment finally ended and the surgeries were complete, I met Leanna and we started talking about doing a podcast together.  I had fallen in love with listening to podcasts during treatment – when at times it’s just not possible to read and very important to be distracted.  We both agreed that it would be an excellent medium to share ideas and stories with other people who’ve dealt with cancer treatment or those who might be going through it now.

So that’s why Thanks Cancer! 

It’s been a blast creating the podcast and we look forward to including more voices in our next season, so please share your stories and cancer hacks with us via your social media platform of choice.