A Naked Picture

I wanted to post a picture of me after I had lost my hair. I had not seen a picture of me with no hair since that time. I didn’t know how I would feel to see me then. I went through all my external hard drives looking for pictures and I couldn’t find any. I gave up; maybe there were no pictures chronicling my breast cancer journey. I had found a couple of me wearing a wig, which I have posted.

When I was bald.

I hid behind my wigs.

I hid behind my smile.

I hid from cancer. If I didn’t have to look at it, it wasn’t real.

I mentioned to my son I had been looking for pictures of that time. He said, “I have one of you and Uncle Cliff.” I was surprised. I am not sure how he ended up with one but it was a relief to know there was a surviving picture. It was not hard to look at the picture of me even with no makeup, no sleep, nauseated and bald. It was hard to look at the mask I knew I was wearing. I could see in my eyes the fear and the exhaustion of trying to be strong.

During the time I was going through treatments, I was never bald in public. That would have been too hard. I would have felt naked. People would occasionally ask me what I looked like bald and I would whip off my wig and show them. I acted as if I didn’t mind. I would laugh and announce, “Who knew I had a perfect shaped head under all that hair!” When I showed myself with no hair – I always waited for the reaction. I always wondered if I would scare people or they would see the pieces of me I had hidden behind my hair. People always said I was beautiful without my hair when I did this, I just never believed them. My hair was lovely and it drew attention away from my insecurities.

I often talk about how I lost my hair and how it felt to have the part of me that had always defined who I was, gone in an instant. I have talked about the four different style wigs and how each wig showed a different piece of my personality. The Rachel wig was the proper Cathleen, the Phoebe wig was the badass Cathleen. Zoe was the true Cathleen and Julia was the wild Cathleen. Wearing these wigs and recognizing the different personalities in each, helped me to find who I truly was – to find my authentic self. These wigs were my shield and protectors.

What I’ve never really talked about how it felt to be bald.

My head was always cold.

I had to wear soft knitted caps. Not everything would work on my head, many things hurt. Many things were too scratchy.

I saw a cancer patient when I saw my baldhead.

I felt naked.

I felt fear. I rushed through my days pretending I was fine but when the wig came off and the reality of my cancer looked back at me from the mirror … I wondered if I would die. I wondered if I would be cured. I wondered if I would die never knowing what it was like to be loved for who I was under the hair. I wondered what was my purpose for existing. Would I die and be forgotten, never having make a difference in the lives of others? I wondered if my kids would grow up without a mother. I wondered if they would forget how much I had loved them. I wondered if they would forget me. I wondered so many things that it makes me cry even today writing about it.

Being bald was the most vulnerable I had been in my life.

Being bald changed my life.

I found I was more than my hair.

BaldMe

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Sisterhood of Survivors

As I was getting ready to teach a beginner yoga class, a beautiful woman came in to take a class with her daughter and mother. Have you ever met someone and felt an immediate connection to him or her? I knew this woman was a breast cancer survivor because I had spoken to her mother, one of my students, about her previously. I knew immediately this woman understood what I had been through and I knew what she had been through.

We didn’t have to say a word.

 When you have something in common with another person you feel a connection. That can happen by going to the same school, growing up in the same town, finding out you both like animals or have the same hobbies. I’ve found it interesting that there is a whole sisterhood of breast cancer patients, survivors and the people in their lives that have been affected by breast cancer.

Cancer creates an immediate connection.

It is not the way I wanted to get to know others but there is a peculiar bond when meeting someone that has gone through what you have gone through. It is comforting to meet someone that understands what you can’t say out loud.

I found that out when I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer. People started coming out of the woodwork letting me know that they knew someone that had been through breast cancer.   Acquaintances shared with me that they were survivors.   It was surprising how many people were touched in some way by breast cancer. It made me a uncomfortable yet at the same time it was reassuring

When I moved to Tennessee there was a lady I worked with that was a breast cancer survivor. She had been cancer free for over 20 years. When she found out I had been through breast cancer she said we were sisters. She said we had both gone through something hard and survived. She said cancer sucked but cancer couldn’t beat us. It was oddly soothing to have her be so blunt with me. I have been told often about women who lost their battle with breast cancer. I am always scared for myself when I hear a story of a friend/mother/sister who died after a reoccurrence of breast cancer. People love to share these stories more often than survivor stories. I suppose they want to share the memory of someone they loved with me. I understand that.

I used to keep my breast cancer story to myself. I don’t now. I found that people want to connect with someone that is a survivor. Women that have gone through breast cancer can’t express to others how it feels. It is hard to convey to someone else how it feels to have a part of your femininity turn on you.

They have felt what you felt.

They know the fear; the pain; the anguish; the nausea of chemotherapy; the burning of radiation and how it feels to look your own mortality in the eye.

Breast cancer survivors don’t’ have to tell each other how it felt to go through that – they know.

The connection is in the unspoken.

Route 5

Today as I was editing, revising and creating pieces of my cancer story I looked back a few poems I wrote a couple of years ago. Often I write to just get my story out. When I write for me –  I write poetry.

Here are a couple of poems I wrote during my divorce that made me smile today.  Smiles, Cat

Route 5

She woke up

Got dressed

Walked out the door and no one noticed…

Well, that’s not really true.

Maybe I should have said:

She woke up

Went to the bathroom

Fixed a cup of coffee

Washed her face

Made up her bed

Put on makeup

Made another cup of coffee

Tried on clothes till she found something that fit

Fixed school lunch for her son

Prayed with her sister on the phone

Checked email

Checked Facebook

Tried to write

Let the dog out

Made another cup of coffee

Stopped

Went to the window

E   x      h       a     l      e      d

Exhaled all the stresses and worries

She didn’t want them back

so she didn’t inhale

for

a

long time

She had to >inhale<

eventually

When she did inhale

she inhaled questions

Why?

Why is this how her life is now?

Why isn’t anything easy?

Why can’t she just leave?

For a short time

not forever

leave

She has a book on her coffee table called, “The Most Scenic Drives in America”.

She picked up the book

Opened it to anywhere…

Washington State

Olympia, WA

Route 5

She gets in her car

She drives

To Walmart

Do you exist?

I woke up this morning and felt you thinking about me.

I felt your arms around me.

I felt you kiss my neck.

I woke up this morning and felt you with me.

Did you wake me up? Or did I wake you?

Who are you?

You are not here but I can feel you in my being.

Were you made for me, like I was made for you?

Do you exist or have I just imagined you.

Have I just wanted you to “be” so much that I have created you in my mind?

Are you a fairy tale?

I have searched for you all my life.

I have needed you even when I didn’t know I needed you.

I needed you when I was searching for who I was after my parents divorced.

You could have been the one I leaned on, as my known world was destroyed.

I needed you when I was surrounded by people… but felt alone.

You could have been the person that made me feel accepted.

I needed you when I had breast cancer.

You could have been my support, you could have given me hope, you could have given me love, and you could have told me I would be ok….

You could have dried my tears and held me close.

You could have been my strength when mine was all used up.

Do you exist?

Am I creating you in my heart?

I have wanted you for a long time.

I have wanted you to hear what I have to say.

I have wanted you to warm me when I am cold.

I have wanted you to know who I am, who I really am.

I have wanted you to share my dreams with.

I have wanted you to be mine.

Could you possibly exist?

Could you be searching for me too?

Could you be loving me and not know it?

Did you wake me up this morning?

Or did I wake you?

Different Like Me

I didn’t want to be different, different in that way. After a cancer diagnosis you are altered. I never wanted to be Cancer Cathleen. People change how they act around you when you have been diagnosed with cancer. They don’t mean to. They just don’t know how to act, do you say something or do you ignore it. They are awkward and that makes you feel self-conscious. I’ve always been unlike others but if I changed the way I acted now, I would die.

I set out on an unintentional mission to make sure I didn’t appear different to the others – those that were not different; different like me. I started with the cancer center. There were incredible people working at the Southwest Cancer Center in Lubbock, Texas. I could only imagine the amount of stress they went through each day. I wanted to give back to the people that were helping me. As a thank you, I began offering yoga classes to the staff of the cancer center. Looking back I believe I wanted to help them but I also wanted them to see me and know me. I didn’t want to be just another breast cancer patient. Maybe I was also trying to have some sort of control over a part of the cancer center.

When I was diagnosed with cancer I was:

  • Working as the Executive Coordinator to the CEO of a company 20 hours a week
  • Teaching 5-8 fitness classes a week
  • Preparing to test for my black belt in Tae Kwon Do
  • A fundraising Chairman for a volunteer organization
  • The mother of a 6th and 10th grader
  • Meeting my friends on Thursdays at 2:30 at Hastings for coffee

I was busy. I was too busy for cancer. Cancer was demanding that I slow down. I said, “hell no”! I pushed myself even harder. The groups I was involved with were my support. If I quit any part of my life I would lose my base. I tested and received my black belt in Tae Kwon Do two weeks after my first chemo treatment. I scheduled chemo and radiation treatments around aerobics and yoga classes. I worked even harder at my volunteering. I worked so hard to maintain the life I had before cancer. What I didn’t realize then but I see now is I will always be different because I had cancer. I couldn’t hide from it. I could continue to discount the reality of cancer but that doesn’t lessen the fear. I could tell everyone that I’m glad I had cancer and not something I would have to live with the rest of my life because I knew I was going to beat it. I made it my job to let everyone know cancer isn’t that bad. It didn’t matter how many times I said it, I never believed me.

I tried to hide under a wig. Wigs were uncomfortable and they itched but wigs gave me a place to hide. I wore a wig anytime I went out of the house. If I didn’t wear a wig people might look at me and feel pity. I wanted to blend in – not stick out. People would whisper – have you heard Cathleen Reid has cancer. It wasn’t meant to be mean, it was just news. I could not stomach anyone pitying me. I understood why they pitied me. Maybe it wasn’t pity but concern. I know it wasn’t pity from the people that knew me. They loved me and wanted me to be ok. There were many prayer groups praying for healing for me. Maybe it wasn’t pity but shock. I was healthy and young. Maybe some people wondered how I could have gotten cancer. If I did, did that increase their odds? Maybe they just didn’t know what to say.

There are numerous options when you walk up to someone that has cancer.

I heard them all.

  • “I am soooooo sorry. I heard you have cancer”
  • “How are you?” – said in a very sad and pitying tone
  • “Tell me all about it. What stage are you? Did they get it all? Do you have to have chemo”
  • “You know my grandmother/mother/aunt/neighbor had breast cancer. She sure was a fighter. She died about six months after diagnosis but I remember how strong she was”
  • “I am so sorry, how long do you have?”
  • “Well, I guess you’ll lose all that pretty hair of yours, then you’ll know how the rest of us feel”

They wanted to make me feel better. How it came out – rarely made me feel better.

When people talk about cancer survivors it used to annoy me. I felt they pitied me. What I didn’t realize was that they were recognizing how hard it was. Recognizing that we cancer survivors have gone through something difficult and survived. I still don’t like pity, I never will. It assumes I cannot survive. Most people felt concern for me, I just saw the concern as pity. From now on, I am going to see it as recognition.

Recognition that I am a warrior – a survivor

Radiation & Tattoo’s

Radiation: Day 20

I never thought I would get a tattoo.

If I were going to get a tattoo it would be something profound not two ugly black dots; one between my breasts and one under my arm

I didn’t know radiology technicians did tattoos.

I didn’t know, until that first appointment, I was getting a tattoo.

“You have to be here every day for radiation – for seven weeks. The tattoo helps us with placement”.

Radiation.

Go put a gown on.

Leave it open in the front.

Lay on the table.

The machine is above me.

Light goes on.

There is a grid on my chest.

They center the grid over the area to be radiated.

It didn’t take long — ten minutes? I don’t remember.

It wasn’t hard.

I had a false sense of relief that first day.

Each time I went to radiation they seemed to drain more of my energy and strength.

I went to radiation alone.

I didn’t need anyone to go with me.

The girls in the radiation clinic became by yoga friends.

Red.

Raw.

Sick.

Pain.

Tired.

Anxiety.

Every week I had an appointment with the radiation oncologist to see how I was doing.

He was so impressed with how well I was handling radiation,

            most people didn’t handle it.

I was strong.

It can’t beat me.

              Day 20 of 35

My chest hurts.

The area over my incision is broken open and raw.

I’m tired but I can’t sleep.

I am still teaching aerobics and working.

I can’t breathe.

Don’t make me go.

Mom, I hurt.

Mom, I need someone to hold me.

I need someone who will give me some of their strength – mine is all used up.

I’m empty.

Waiting for the doctor.

There is not enough air in the room.

Why am I crying?

The doctor walks in.

I’m crying.

I’m shaking.

I need air.

He looks worried.

I know he is wondering what I did with the incredibly strong woman he saw last week. The woman last week was tired but she was a fighter.

This woman

This woman who is sitting on the exam table

in that gown is crumbling before his eyes.

The doctor is pleasant but sterile. He isn’t as warm and fuzzy as my oncologist.

I am so embarrassed.

I am letting him down.

He was so proud of my strength.

            Maybe he was planning on giving me the Radiation Medal of Valor.

He doesn’t know what to do and I can’t help him.

I’m drowning.

I need help.

Make this pain stop.

I need sleep.

I have an open seeping wound

In pain

Tired

But I can’t close my eyes.

The room is getting smaller.

I need someone to lean on.

I need

            I need

                        I need

Peace.

He prescribes an anti-anxiety medication

            or maybe it is an anti-depressant or

            a sleeping pill.

He throws everything he can think of at me.

I was at the bottom on day 20.

When I paused…

When I slowed my mind down…

            I looked up.

            There was light.

            There was air.

Day 20

            A glimmer of the end was in sight.

Day 20

            I was more than ½ way through.

Day 20

            I hurt.

            I was so tired.

            I needed …

                        What? I don’t really know.

I needed something or someone to help me make it to-day 35.

I was starting to get a little fuzz on my head but I was still bald.

Bald

Raw

and

Tired.

Was I falling apart because it was day 20 or had I just used up all my strength.

My strength;

            They could have written a ballad to my strength.

            If they could have bottled my strength….

The radiation technician said they could fill in the tattoo with a flesh color after I was done.

I think I’ll keep it.

It is ugly like this time in my life.

It is a black blob or maybe it is a starting point.

 To remember.

To remember when I am at the bottom to look up.

Heartache

I just read a strong and terribly sad blog post written by a daughter about her mother’s cancer recurring. Recurrence is a fear all cancer patients live with forever. I am eight years cancer free and I still stress out each year when it is time for my visit to the oncologist. I usually go see my oncologist in November each year. In October I become aware again that I am a cancer survivor – how can a breast cancer survivor/patient miss it with all the pink ribbons adorning everything. I remember getting so many items covered with pink ribbons when I was diagnosed. I was even given pink yoga pants. Pink was my least favorite color and my life was quickly accented with pink. October is a hard month for me because of the reminders that are everywhere. November brings stress as I wait to get the results of my tumor markers. I am always glad I go in a week early to get my blood drawn so I can get the results from my oncologist. The week between the blood draw and my appointment is hard. I replay scenarios in my head. I worry. I stress. I pray. After I see my oncologist and get a clean bill of health I only get a short reprieve. My mammogram is usually in December.

I get the reminder in October. I feel the stress in November. The fear arrives in December. It is not normal fear like you feel when you see a scary movie or see a snake or fear rejection, failure or heights… it is a fear that hits you in the pit of your stomach. It is an indescribable fear that cancer patients know well.

When I read the blog post this morning, I could feel this daughters fear. She was mad but the anger was fueled by fear. As I read her post I felt the fear her mother must be feeling at the knowledge that she will probably die of cancer. I understood the anger and I felt the fear. I never like reading or hearing about recurrence. Recurrence shouldn’t happen. Recurrence is always in the back of cancer patient’s minds, even when they have had all the tests that tell them there is a low chance the cancer will return. The chemo, the radiation, the loss of hair, the loss of my belief that I will always be fine, the nausea, the fear for my children – recurrence brings all that back.

I am always surprised at how people seem to want to tell me that they have a loved one whose cancer returned. Hearing that always feels like a bucket of ice water has been poured over me. I don’t believe those that have not had cancer understand what that does to someone that has had cancer.

I cannot think of any words to say to ease the anger and fear this daughter felt for her mother this morning. I am at a loss and that does not happen to me often. I also feel as though I cannot read something so raw and not comment. There is nothing to say to make this daughter feel better. My heart aches for her and for her mother.

Savage Mask

“You are such a positive person. Everyone is drawn to your positive energy. You have already helped several patients that have wanted to talk to you. You would be a great help to others. You have handled the treatments and side effects so well.”

Dr. Cobos wants me to go to a cancer support group.

I should go. I have always tried to give back to others. Right now, I can’t be around negativity. I am barely holding on. I am using all the strength I have to keep this façade of strength in place. Dr. Cobos is amazed at my strength. I have never considered myself an actress but I am an award-winning actress.

Everyone is so proud and amazed at how I have remained positive and strong. Did I have another option? I don’t remember there being another option. Be strong or curl into the fetal position and cry. No choice in my mind. Negativity and self-pity kill. They eat all your reserves of hope for dinner.

I wore my strength like a badge of honor. This badge protected me. I was so strong that some people forgot I was going through chemo. It was easy for them to forget when I was running around with my Super Hero Wig pretending to have loads of energy. I was so strong that even some people in my family forgot.

I was so strong

so positive

…invincible.

Yeah, right.

I look back now at why I didn’t want to go to a cancer support group. They scared me. I asked if it was a place that people cried and felt sorry for themselves.

“Sometimes.”

I could have gone, just to see. See if there was a group that understood the fear I was hiding. I was afraid. Afraid they would see right through me. That would shatter this fragile mask I was wearing. This mask I had so savagely built. I threw up my wall and built my strength with anger. Why did I get cancer? It is not fair? I did everything right. Now I am a member of the Cancer Club – a club I never sought membership in. But I am a lifetime member.

Now they wanted me to go

…with my fear

…my anxiety

…my anger

to help someone else by giving them all the hope I had left.

I couldn’t.

I remember making that decision. I regret making that decision. I should have gone. Instead of taking my hope, I could have shared mine. If I had shared my hope, maybe more would have grown in my heart. I won’t ever know that now. I didn’t realize how much it hurt my soul when I didn’t try to help more people during that time of my life. The cancer patients that reached out to me were better prepared for what was to come because of my words – they told me that later.

If there is one person that reads my words and is affected positively, one person that I can help because of the experiences I have had. One person. Then it’s not too late.

That’s why I keep writing.