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Drugs, Hugs and Losing My Jugs: A Breast Cancer Journal - August 20, 2015 - Small Steps

This is the thirtieth entry in a 31-day Breast Cancer Awareness Month exclusive series featuring the real journal entries of breast cancer survivor, Jessica Sliwerski. Read the previous entry here.

I am sprouting hair!

There are tiny blonde hairs all over my head. Peach fuzz! These hairs are unlike the random hairs that would pop up on my head during treatment and then fall out just as suddenly as they appeared. This fuzzy fuzz is legit. It’s here to stay. It’s all over my head — on the sides, on the top, in the back — and it’s growing rapidly.

I see it on other parts of my body as well — my arms, my legs, my lady bits. When I tug at these hairs, they hold strong. Though my hairs are short and can only be seen up close or from a particular angle, they are there. I am slowly losing my baldness and I am rejoicing at this tangible proof of healing.

Getting ready for dinner one night when we were up at Lake George, I looked at myself in the mirror and told Kyle, “I want my hair back. I’m tired of looking like cancer.”

“It’s good to hear you say that,” he replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it means you’re ready to move on.”

“I guess.”

I’ve gotten used to being bald, but I’m tired of people looking at me and probably thinking I’m dying. Perhaps this is a fucked up assumption to make, but before I understood cancer (because I caught cancer), it’s what I would have thought if I were looking at me. I feel the need to wear a t-shirt that explains to the world what is going on with me.

For example, one that says “Breast Cancer” in big bold letters across my tits and in big bold letters across my back, so no matter where someone is standing, they can get a good picture of my situation. Lately I want a shirt that says, “I’m not dying, OK! I’m waiting for my body to get its shit together again.”

“They can go fuck themselves,” is Kyle’s standard response when I voice my insecurities and my desire to educate complete strangers. “Who gives a fuck what they think,” he says and then protectively kisses my head.

But I give a fuck. I’m tired of people staring and then pretending not to stare. I’m tired of worrying about their wonderings.

One night, while eating dinner at the resort at Lake George, we sat on a balcony overlooking the lake. As we were eating our dinner, it started to pour rain. We sat safely ensconced on the veranda, eating our dinner with Penelope while a curtain of rain poured all around us. When the rain cleared it left behind a spectacular rainbow touching the tips of the Adirondack Mountains.

I sat staring at the rainbow as I ate my salad and drank my first glorious glass of wine in months. Sitting with Kyle and Penelope in the middle of nature, staring at this beautiful rainbow, I thought about the storm of events we’d recently weathered. The magnitude of surviving finally hit me.

“What’s the matter?” Kyle asked, putting his fork down and looking at me.

I shook my head, not wanting to talk because I knew I would start crying and I’d already cried and caused a scene the night before at dinner. I didn’t want to cry at yet another dinner. We were on vacation for crying out loud! This was supposed to be a happy time!

“What? Tell me,” he demanded.

I shook my head again, but he wouldn’t let it go, so I finally relented. “I’m looking at the rainbow and thinking about how much we have been through. We made it through cancer. We have been through hell. It is so overwhelming to think about everything and to accept that we actually made it to the other side. We did it. We are done. We are going to be OK. It’s all been so awful and so difficult and so scary, but it is over. It’s over,” I said, tears streaming down my cheeks.

“There it is,” he said. “I was waiting for it to finally hit you. You are done. We are done.” He gently wiped my tears and kissed me.

And so I begin my journey from Cancerland back to Normalville. As if it’s that simple…

For the last week I’ve had neuropathy — god awful shooting pain throughout my body. It is the worst in my hands, wrists and forearms. My fingertips are numb and tingly, my knuckles and wrists ache and my muscles are so tight they throb from simple tasks like carrying my water bottle or pushing Penelope in her stroller. I have stabbing, burning, throbbing pain in my neck, my shoulders, my spine, my arms, my legs, my feet. I feel the ache deep in my muscles and bones, as though the bone pain from the bone marrow stimulant has returned to haunt me. And my bladder is doing something weird, like a mild case of incontinence or something. When I pee I can’t completely empty it and I have to concentrate, willing more urine to come out.

It reminds me of the day following my c-section when the catheter was removed and I sat on the toilet for nearly half an hour, trying to reteach my body to urinate. I thought neuropathy only affected the hands and the feet, but it can be systemic from the chemo.

I feel defeated with this new reminder of what a beating my body took from the chemotherapy. But I tell myself, in an attempt to be positive, the pain is proof the poison did its job. My body will eventually overcome this new hurdle.

Despite the neuropathy, I returned to the gym for the first time since my diagnosis, determined to resume yoga. I had zero expectations for my battered body. I wanted to bravely enter the gym with my bald head and be able to climb the four flights of stairs to the yoga studio.

I wanted to get through class without having an anxiety attack, without dissolving into a puddle of tears on my yoga mat.

I wanted to feel better, to stretch my tight, tired limbs.

I wanted to open my chest and my heart.

I told myself, if I could leave class feeling a little better than when I entered, then that would be enough. I didn’t need to do the hardest variation of each pose. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, even myself.

I had zero ego.

It was the hardest yoga class I have ever taken. Because I’m still healing from surgery, several poses were simply off limits. No planks, no pushups, nothing that would contract my chest muscles. No headstands, no wheels, nothing fancy. And the poses I was “allowed” to do my busted body struggled mightily through.

Never in my life have my hamstrings been so tight. I relied heavily upon my yoga block to support me in positions that used to be so simple. I had empathy for the men I used to laugh at, the ones who struggle to straighten their legs, dripping sweat all over their mats from the enormous effort it takes to attempt to stretch their hamstrings.

I resorted to child’s pose, what I once considered slacker’s pose, multiple times during the practice. But I didn’t care because it felt good, so damn good. As fas as I was concerned it was just me and my yoga mat and my breath and I didn’t give a shit about how hard I sucked at yoga right now.

At the end of class, after savasana and a final om, before everyone started to roll up their mats, the yoga teacher said, “Thank you for coming today. Before you go, I want to shout out my friend. Her name is Jessica and she is here in the front row. Some of you probably remember her because she used to come all the time and she was always in this spot up here with her pink yoga mat. She’s been gone for the past few months and you can tell by looking at her, she’s been through something difficult. She’s also a new mother. And now she is back with us, front and center, so brave and so beautiful.”

As she spoke I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. I felt them earlier, but now all these strangers had permission to stare. Overcome by her kindness and overcome by my own courage to return to yoga and and overcome by the realization that I have endured so damn much, I began to cry. All around me, everyone clapped. I got a standing ovation for my courageous performance.

“That was a beautiful practice,” she said, hugging me.

I laughed, thinking about how good I used to be at yoga and how much time I spent basically taking a nap during this class.

“You listened to your body. Do you know how hard it is for people to do that?”

“Yes,” I thought, thinking of myself. “Yes, I do.” Difficult as it was, I was there to heal, not to be the strongest person in the class or to strike every pose in its most perfect iteration.

I know I struggle with transitions.

I struggled with my diagnosis.

I struggled leading up to my mastectomy.

I struggled leading up to chemo.

I am struggling with impending menopause.

I am struggling with returning to work.

I am struggling to pick up the pieces.

I am struggling to cope with being cancer-free and everything that means.

I am struggling to be kind to myself.

“I am depressed,” I told the doctor today. “I want to be back in chemo. I was happy when I was doing chemo. It was fucking horrible, but I was happy. I am not happy right now. I am sad and scared and anxious and overwhelmed and I don’t know how to be happy right now. I am taking so much sedatives. I am really struggling. I am physically struggling with my body. I am struggling with Penelope. I was so tired and so frustrated the other night that I yelled at her. I was trying to put a diaper on her after her bath and she was wiggling all over the place and I yelled, ‘Stop it!’ I never yell at her. I am struggling with my marriage. Kyle keeps making comments about how sad I am and how it’s wearing on him and I feel like he doesn’t understand. I feel pressure to be happy and I just can’t do it. Everything feels difficult. I’m finished with chemo. I’m cancer-free. But I’m in this weird place. I don’t have cancer anymore, but I still look like I do because my hair is just starting to grow back, but I still look bald. I should be happy. I’m supposed to be happy, but I am so sad. I’m so fucking sad. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life now. I don’t want to do anything. I’m tired. All I want to do is sleep and be with Penelope. I don’t know why everything feels so difficult.”

The doctors quietly listened, finally saying, “Before it was one specific transition and now it’s many different transitions all at once. It was just the mastectomy or it was just chemo. Now it’s hormone therapy, work, normalcy, not having family around. That is a lot. You are going through a lot. And you are experiencing a loss of a sense of direction in life, which can cause anger and frustration. It can cause grief.”

I sat with that, letting myself grieve in the chair in the office with the doctor. I liberally used the tissues on the table. And then I remembered the yoga class I’d taken a few days ago. I recounted the experience to her.

“I’m thinking about that yoga class and the kindness I displayed towards my body and my soul while I was on the mat. I need to transfer that attitude to other facets of my life. I have to stop beating myself up. My body can’t take more than what little I am doing right now and I need to learn to be ok with that,” I thought out loud.

“Embrace that,” she said.

“I need to go with the flow,” I joked, still thinking about yoga.

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, you need to go with the flow.”

Jessica Sliwerski and Poppy hair growing
Penelope and me: My hair is slowly growing in. I try to take it one day at a time. I try to be grateful I have hair again. I try to focus on what little strength I gain each day and trust that eventually my body will work itself out.

“Just take one thing at a time,” Kyle told me tonight, as we stood in my bathroom. “Wake up in the morning and go to your doctor appointments. Then go to work and when it’s lunch, go for a walk. Then go to a class at the gym and do what you can. Just small steps, OK?” he said, kissing me and rubbing my head.

“Whoa. Your hair is really coming in! There’s so much now! Maybe instead of being upset about all of this you should be planning how you’re going to style your hair.”

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All photos courtesy of Jessica Sliwerski