Saturday, December 21, 2013

Being Good for Goodness Sake.

Although the marketing gurus in charge of "Black Thanksgiving Sales" and "24-hour Malls" will probably cast a pox upon my entire family as I write this - I'm not a huge fan of consumerism for the sake of consumerism.

This is my all-time favorite Christmas picture from the Caro vault.
Note the distinct glimmer of disdain in Santa's eyes and the steely
resolve in Mrs. Clause's jawline.  Teague eventually made it off
the naughty list - but it took a few years.
I will admit my tone is probably tempered by the fact we have now reached the point in the season when shoppers on every isle have developed "crazy eyes" and the sweet sound of carols being sung by a choir - or more likely a pop star - have been piped into every boutique, car and office building since the day after Halloween.

I'm ready to threaten someone's chestnuts if I have to listen to another over-zealous variation of Baby, It's Cold Outside - and we still have four shopping days before the big day.

I mean, I get it.  I really do.  Christmas is the time of year for spreading joy for all to hear. (Note:  It is mandatory that the last sentence be read in a Buddy the Elf voice.)  And I'm certain that visions of sugarplums ipads are dancing in many a head right about now.  But I've found that our culture tends to place an obscene amount of pressure on being HAPPY!!! and JOYFUL!!! - so long as said displays of Christmas cheer also include slipping a flat screen television beneath the tree.  And I think it's important to remember that this season can by very difficult for a great many people.

Just one short year ago - I was one of them.

Now lest you think my heart is three sizes too small, I should mention that I am writing this post in the midst of a stuffed-to-the-gills Yukon slowly making its way across the state to spend a fun-filled weekend with my family where we no doubt will:

1.  Indulge in excessive gift giving.
Walking in a Winter Wonderland.
2.  Eat our collective weight in sugar cookies.
3.  Someone will laugh so hard that a liquid will come out of an orifice it shouldn't.

My message is not so much that we shouldn't do these things, but rather we shouldn't allow a well-placed Target commercial dictate how we show love and appreciation to the people in our lives.

I think I speak for a great many people when I tell you - All of the flatscreen televisions in Best Buy cannot compare with a single precious moment spent with loved ones. 

So cheers to placing more emphasis on making memories with friends and family this year - and less on keeping up with the Jones'.  Because just being together is enough - despite what any Old Navy mannequin may tell you.

Being together - and maybe another batch of Mom's sugar cookies, that is.

And in case you are in need of securing a place on Santa's nice list, you may want to consider donating to one of these amazing non-profits dedicated to helping chemo-kids thrive all year long.  I could never have survived treatment without their help - and I will be forever grateful for their tireless work.  Plus as little as $25 may help atone for what happened at the company Christmas party this year.  I have it on good authority (namely Mariah Carey, Justin Beiber and Bing Crosby) that Santa knows if you've been bad or good.

On second thought, you may want to give a little bit more - just in case.

First Descents

This Denver-based organization funds week-long outdoor adventures - think rock climbing in Moab or surfing in Southern California - for young cancer survivors ages 19-39.   These First Descents excursions teach survivors how to engage in the world and trust their bodies again - and are provided  free of charge.

Sy's Fund

This foundation's vivacious namesake died of lung cancer at the age of 29.  But instead of surrendering to grief after the death of her son, founder Lorraine devotes herself to easing the way
for other young people fighting cancer.  Sy's Fund pays for special gifts that make life better -but insurance does not cover - such as a special mattress for a bone cancer patient or a camera for a budding photographer.  They funded the laptop I am typing on now - a lifeline for me as I made my way through treatment and something I never could have afforded when I lost my job due to illness.

Stupid Cancer

Stupid Cancer is the premier organization for young people fighting cancer and serves as a comprehensive resource for age-specific challenges such as fertility, insurance and legal concerns.  Lead by founder and cancer survivor Matthew Zachary, they provide a voice and support for this demographic with a decidedly tongue in cheek twist.  Their motto is "Get Busy Living" which are good words to live by -  chemo-kid or not.

A Fresh Chapter

I recently learned about this organization and have quickly become a big fan. They provide international trips to India or Africa for young people who have gone through cancer.  But here is the twist - the trips are service related work excursions where survivors learn how to stop being a patient as they help others in need.  I could never have understood the importance of this program before I went through treatment - and I am only just now realizing the often unspoken challenges of life after diagnosis.   Her mission is groundbreaking in its simplicity and someday I hope to take part in one of these trips.  Please consider donating to A Fresh Chapter - or at the very least, check out her blog to learn more about this project.  I promise you it will not disappoint.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ripple Effect

My daughter is growing up.

For those close enough to witness her descent into "tweenager" this summer, this may as well be an announcement from Captain Obvious.

I hold the lead on height (but for perhaps only another week or so), she can no longer wedge her giant feet into my shoes, and we've taken several shopping trips centered on deodorant and *gasp* training bras.  And though, at eleven, she still counts American Girl Dolls as prized possessions, I fear the days are short when a typical bathroom hazard is walking in on naked Barbie bodies littered about - reminiscent of a CSI Playschool episode.

Madeline has entered The Middle.

This is an interesting conundrum on many levels as a parent - or for that matter, a child.  It's well documented in every Molly Ringwald movie ever made that the years ahead are sure to hold a share of drama and turmoil.  But in our family, this transition is steeped with additional meaning.

One of the most heart-breaking moments of the last year was an evening I found Madeline quietly sobbing in her bedroom.  I held her close and she finally divulged that she was terrified her budding new breasts were cancer.  And she didn't want to tell me because she was afraid it would add more stress to our family.

I did this to her.

It is insurmountably unfair that Maddie must learn to navigate her changing body, hormones and middle school -  with the added fear of something like cancer.  And there are days when the knowledge that I have added these fears to her world is nearly too much to bear.

At a time when Madeline needs to see that puberty is a normal part of becoming a woman - I am probably the least able to provide that reassurance. Cancer treatment caused me to go through chemopause, stripped me of my hair and breasts.  It's a bit like going through "reverse" puberty - and just as awkward and painful as I remember it the first time. But though the transitions are in opposite directions - this experience has allowed me to remember just how intense and scary the process can be.

Learning to be your own person is never an easy process - and I'm suspicious of anyone who says their teenage years were the best of their life.  But hopefully, if I do it right, I will arm Madeline with something much more powerful than the reassurance that our bathrooms will always be stocked with kotex.

I will teach her real women have curves - or they don't.  Real women have long hair, short fuzzy hair or no hair. I will teach her that being active is important - but for the joy of it and not an attempt to fit some perceived societal mould. I will teach my daughter that her greatest assets are her brain, her humor and her ability to overcome.

Most of all, I will teach her that finding yourself is a process - something that doesn't end once you "grow up".

And perhaps it is a great gift after all that we are able to learn (and re-learn) these lessons together.


"A bird sitting in a tree is not afraid of the branch breaking because her trust is not in the branch, but in her own wings." - anon 

These photos were taken just a few short months ago when Maddie's best friend visited during Spring Break.  The girls played on the shores of the lake near our home until the sun set and it was too cold to splash any longer.

Whatever you do - don't blink.

This precious time - filled with angst and uncertainty and awkward grace - will certainly not last.

But I am thankful for every moment we have left in The Middle.

Monday, July 22, 2013

On Beyond Angelina

When I look back over the longest year of my life, I can't say it's gone off without a hitch.  Each step of my treatment was fraught with complications and statements from doctors that began with some variation of "we only see this in 2% of our patients".

Which leads me to just one of the personal treatment options that didn't go according to plan - reconstruction.

As a recap:  Once upon a time, I possessed a very nice set of boobies.  They weren't large, but they fit the "handful" criteria and I liked them just fine. They tried to kill me - so they had to go.  Then the new Frankenstein boobs we made in their place tried to kill me - so they had to go too.

And eventually I made a surprisingly simple but rather monumental decision - to let this be okay.

In Progress
I decided (cue dramatic music) not to continue to pursue reconstruction.  Instead, I've started work on a mastectomy tattoo that will eventually lace across my chest and down my right arm.

It is a - colorful - line in the sand against the disease that tried to take my life.

No more surgery.

No implants.

No implant revision every ten years.

No MRI's every three years.

No endless worry that something will be missed if someday the cancer were to return.

And though this is not a common path in our society - and certainly not a decision I could have imagined myself making a year ago - it is such a relief to be done with all of it.

Because in nature, when a tree is damaged in some way - perhaps burned (or in my case ran over with a lawn mower) we don't attach fake branches to it and pretend like nothing happened.  We water it, shake a little fertilizer on it and leave it the hell alone.  To grow.  To develop character.  To become all the more beautiful because of the scars that shape it.

The tattoo in progress is a custom piece and incorporates an octopus (chosen for regenerative abilities, intelligence, ability to camouflage) and lotus flowers (grows from mud and thrives in difficult surroundings) is asymmetric and fluid.

The artist, Yakima based Jim Rosal is a ghost of journalism past - I wrote a story about him for Yakima magazine years ago and through that process gained a great deal of respect for his style and mastery of the craft - particularly his custom pieces.  (Here's a link to the story I wrote if you'd like to read more about the shop

Ultimately I chose Jim because I trust his work - but more than that, I trust him as a person.  Tattoos - and the artists that create them -  are always a personal decision, but there was a great deal riding on getting this one "right".   We've spent many hours bonding  - just me, Jim and a very noisy needle - and  I could not be happier with my decision.

This is Jim outside his tattoo shop in Yakima.  Photo by Jennifer Borst
This is one of the shelves filled with tattoo inks.  Jim and Jenni's shop is filled with layers of eclectic trinkets collected over the years.  I've spent many hours there and always seem to find something new to look at.  Photo by Jennifer Borst
The intent for this project was to physically transform something that was taken away from me into something beautiful again - but I couldn't have imagined the difference it would make psychologically.  I choose clothing to show off this new artwork rather than hide away from scars and I am no longer self conscious - even to myself.  Complete strangers stop me in the grocery store to ask about the work - and we dawdle in the cereal isle discussing breast cancer and youth and the failures of our medical system.

Ironically, in the aftermath of a rather disfiguring surgery - I've never felt so confident.

There's an old adage in the industry - people receive the tattoo they deserve.  If that's the case, although it's been hard won, I must have done something pretty amazing somewhere along the line.

Thanks Jim.  See you Saturday.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Blood is Thicker than Chemo

There are many cliche statements that tend to bubble up in conversations when you go through something like cancer.  "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"  or "You're only given what you can handle" come to mind.  I've come to despise these for a variety of reasons - though I know they are said with good intention.

But the longer I do this, the more I resent comparisons to those that do not make it through.  There are so many implied judgements in the term "survivor" that I cringe inside every time I hear it.  As though there is something inherently better about what I've done versus someone else - when so much comes down to luck and genetics.  And my own personal belief system does not align with gods who dole out "just the right amount" of suffering - and not an ounce more.

I don't buy it.

But that's just me.  I know it works for many, many people.

Along the way, I've snuggled up to my own cliches for making it through tough times - namely "It takes a village".   And I even coined one of my own:  "blood is thicker than chemo."

I could not have made it through this year without the love and support of my family.  My mom, an elementary teacher and maker of the world's best soup trekked the three-and-a-half hours to our house each chemo round to feed, comfort and (gently) nag me through.  There were days I was not strong enough to lift a cup of water to drink and weeks when I didn't make it out of my "nest" - the corner of the couch I staked a claim to throughout treatment.  I needed her to be there on even the most basic level - to help me survive.  But of course, mom being mom - she gave so much more than that.

Family is such a gift - whether you are lucky enough to be born into one as great as mine - or if you pluck them from along life's path.  Having people in your life that stand by you through thick and thin is what makes life worthwhile.  My family -  from both the born into and constructed categories - is my most prized possession and I am so grateful for them.  Thank you for being you - and for being part of my world.

These photos were taken by the wildly talented Jenny Borst who spent a practically perfect day with our family at my parents home in the Yakima Valley.  It was one of the first warm days in early Spring and we were all finally well enough to converge to play music, take walks in the sunshine and just enjoy each other.  This is something we had done on countless occasions - but perhaps never before with such conviction.

My brother and I 
Justin is possibly the only person who can make me laugh so hard food comes out of various orifices.  He's one of my best friends and an all around great guy.  

He's so great, it almost makes me regret the time I convinced him to stick a red hot up his nose as a child.
The lovely Madeline, soaking up the sun.

Is there anything better than this?  I can still hear her laughter.
I love our little family so much!
Ugh.  Seriously Mads?  May need to reconsider the fine art of "shotgun cleaning." 

Hunky Hubby
Holding up the sun.

Possibly my favorite photo from the day.
Nope.  I stand corrected.  This is my favorite.

We were going for "tough" in this photo.  As in "bad a$$ family who made it through a hell of a year."
Nailed it.
But in all honesty, this is how we really made it through:  With love and humor and perseverance.  
Almighty Family.   

I feel I must put in a shameless plug for my friend who does so much for us.  Find more of Jenny's work at or message me and I can put you in contact with her.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I blame my oncologist for my haircut

Delusions of Ponytails
Recently, while snuggling up on the couch, my husband leaned in close and murmured the words every chemo kid longs to hear. "You're going to need to wax your eyebrows soon."

"Really?" I replied, hopefully.

It's been months since my last dose of chemotherapy and after much coaxing, coercing and encouragement a dark, downy fuzz has finally descended upon my once shiny dome.  The long awaited arrival has brought about giddy laughter (from me) and eye rolling (from the spouse who enjoyed a reprieve from unclogging hair-filled shower drains).

I know there is probably a lesson to be learned through all of this.

I once complained about my bad hair day - until all my hair fell out.  And stayed that way for a long ass time.  ~ Confuscious (I may be misquoting here)

It goes without saying that I have not enjoyed the follicular challenges that accompany chemotherapy.

In early July, knowing that my particular chemo regime would cause my hair to fall out I decided to be proactive in the matter.  Accompanied by my best-ie and both kiddos I bravely trudged off to a local salon a few days before starting treatment to lop off the locks on my own terms.  Or at least that was the idea.  Here's what actually happened:  after finishing with her work, my hairdresser spun me around to give me my first glimpse of the new pixie-esque hairstyle.  But instead of giving myself a high-five in the mirror as I imagined - I instead burst into such hysterical sobbing I was soon ushered out the doors before concerned clients could rethink their choice of salon.  

Looking back, my reaction was probably not so much to the actual hair cut (it wasn't stellar but also not sob-inducing bad) but rather the fact that I really didn't WANT to go through with this.  I wasn't asserting feminine strength ala GI Jane or reveling in public displays of mental illness ala Britney Spears.  Instead, part of my identity was about to be stripped from me and I was merely attempting to beat the chemicals to the punch.

I admit, before this happened to me I didn't really understand what all the fuss was about.  It's just hair.  It grows back, right?  And little bald heads are cute.

But only when it's not your little bald head.

For the first month after my hair fell out in earnest (about two weeks after I started treatment) I refused to have my photo taken and avoided going out in public.  I dodged mirrors and would audibly gasp if I caught sight of my image by mistake.  (As a side note - it did FEEL better once it actually fell out. When my hair began to die I could feel every follicle acutely and it made my head feel as though I had been wearing a too-tight ponytail for days.)

This visceral reaction to something as superficial as hair was a surprise - especially considering I previously spent as little time as possible with flat iron in hand.  But as much as I didn't think I cared about hair - it was still part of how I saw myself.

Real life "cancer card"
I also began resenting strangers for being able to infer so much with a simple glance at my pale skin and scarf adorned head.  I knew the well-meaning look by heart - tight lipped smile, slight head tilt to the right.  The intrusive "poor dear"glance caused me to grit my teeth in many grocery lines - but it also made me stronger.  It reinforced my desire to never be seen as a victim despite whatever life circumstances I happened to be muddling through.   To never see myself as a victim.

And eventually, the loss of locks didn't bother me quite so much.  I learned how to tie a scarf in a zillion different ways, embraced hats and even rocked a blue wig when it was time to renew my drivers license.  I also bonded with my adorably bald dad and brother in a way I never had before as we commiserated over our shared hair style.  (I get it now, guys.  I get it.)  And though it took some time to get used to - I think the experience helped me become a much more confident person.

After all, it's only hair - right?  And - as I happily show to most anyone who crosses my path these days - it's finally growing back.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Move it.

I don't want to brag or anything but my body is pretty darn amazing.

And while we are on the subject - so is yours.

 In the past, I've never been a particularly athletic person.  This is for several reasons, namely my opposition to public sweating, a natural tendency to "flail" when attempting physical activity and an overactive inner voice which defaults to sarcasm.  I also seem to have been born without the competitive gene (this could be why I was attracted to my spouse who as many know is particularly well-endowed with the attribute).  Whatever the reason - I've never been one to take joy in sports, gyms or anything ESPN-esque (Oh it's a thing).  And though I've always led an active life, exercise was more of a happy coincidence rather than something I sought out.

Then cancer happened. 

Months of forced inactivity and devastating illness left my body weak, scarred and a nutritional wreck. At my worst, I was unable to climb even a few stairs without stopping to rest.  A cardiac stress test late in treatment revealed I was completely deconditioned and in terrible shape for my age.  Thank you Captain Obvious. 

So now what?  How do you dig out of a hole that deep?

One decision at a time.
Nothing inspires self-reflection like complete debilitation.  From my perch on the couch, I was able to see clearly that being sick and immobile is not where I want to be.  Ever. Again. And from the moment I was physically able, I began searching for ways to do something I had previously taken for granted:  move. 

I started spinning at Terra Sports (for the locals, Terra provides free trainer ride time on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings throughout the winter and cheap rentals if you don't have your own bike).   I was slow, awkward and probably amusing to the tri athletes who train there regularly.  But here's the important part: I kept going. 

My view from our early morning trainer rides.  Chris bribed me with coffee before the first session.
My riding companions - Chris and Alex. 
 Severe radiation burns eventually made cycling too painful to continue for a time.  But instead of resuming "couch position," I found myself searching for new ways to get out and move.  Because it felt good. Because it is an absolute gift to be able to move. 

This winter I've been snow shoeing and hiking, started back up with yoga, pilates and even participated in one really awkward Zumba class.  We were given a membership to the Kroc center and take the kids swimming several times a week.  Yesterday I ran two miles and nothing was even chasing me. 

Views from Mineral Ridge trail. 
Sweet Ellie and Huck - two of my snowshoeing buddies.
Primary view I had while snowshoeing to ensure I wouldn't trip over my own feet.
Eagle watching with the kiddos at Higgins Point
Chris and I on an eagle watching excursion
Evidence of my complete lack of Zumba coordination.  Most calories were burned by laughter.

And the best part is - I don't care that two miles isn't very far or that I probably look like I'm having an epileptic fit during Zumba or that I am the only mom wearing a scarf at the pool.  I am completely head-over-heels in love with  finding strength in the most unexpected place - my own body.  A body that has miraculously forgiven me for putting it through hell.

I've finally found the joy in simply being able to move.   

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cancer, we need to talk.

Dear Cancer,

It's probably best if I just come right out and say this. We both know it's been coming for some time.

Things just aren't working out between us.

From the beginning, our relationship was dysfunctional. No one approved of our union.  Friends, family - even complete strangers - knew it wasn't right for us to be together.  But I had no choice.  Fate united us.

As you well know, things between us progressed far too quickly.  Before I knew it, my entire world revolved around you. You took away my innocence.  You took away people that I loved. You forced me to watch helplessly as you dragged others into your caustic lifestyle.

You tried to suck the life right out of me.

Early on, I knew I wanted you out of my life.  It took everything I had to do it.  But I'm stronger now.  Stronger than you could ever be.

 And whatever we had - well - It's over now.

I'm breaking up with you, Cancer.   And in the immortal words of a certain pop diva - We are never, ever getting back together.  Ever. 

So stay away from me.  Stay away from my family and friends.   I will forgive what you've done to me - but I will never forget.

And just so we are perfectly clear:  It's not me - It's you.



Celebratory dinner at the Davenport Hotel. Cheers to health!
 Happy to be moving on with "real life" (whatever that may look like)!

Bilateral mastectomy June 4
Six rounds of Carboplatin, Taxotere, Trastuzamab and Herceptin completed October 25
29 radiation treatments completed December 28