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AUTHENTICALLY BOLD: REBECCA

BETTER, NOT BITTER

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Living Stronger

Recently, I became so frustrated with the amount of money flying out my front door that I decided change must occur in our household. With children in multiple activities that cost nearly an arm and a leg, we have to start making some other sacrifices because I do not want to live in a yurt when I am 65 (unless that is the choice I make, not the only option I have because of a non-existent retirement account).

The first place I looked was our “Triple Play” statement. Are you kidding me? Are you #*&$@ kidding me? Every month we pay for a home phone that we NEVER use (because we are NEVER home). Every month we pay for a cable package that does not include the premium channels, but has 652 other channels – yet, constant complaints about how nothing is on are daily mantras from the creatures that reside in our dwelling. Every month we pay for internet speed which drives nearly every form of technology; namely technology that household members are ON while complaining that there is nothing on the television.

Enough. I called our provider and said to nix the home phone (911 will be fine from our cell phones and THAT hefty bill we have been paying for the past three years while in this home). I asked our provider to nix the cable, with the exception of the basic news channels for a much more comfortable $10/month. I asked the provider to please leave the internet alone (and promptly signed up for Netflix for yet another comfortable $10/month). We are saving over $115/month! Yes, that went out the door for another new bill almost as soon as I told the provider to cancel those aforementioned services (damn kids)!

With that, we started watching the series, “Breaking Bad” as we had heard so much about it and I am a fan of Bryan Cranston since his “Malcolm in the Middle” days. Honestly, I had no idea or any expectations of the AMC drama – as I knew it involved Bryan’s character, Walt White, making and selling meth. I had no idea that Walt would be making and selling meth because he has lung cancer. Nor did I have any idea the flooding emotions that would overcome me with many of the passing episodes.

“Breaking Bad” is one of those shows that sucks you in with a magical force; a deep drawing breath pulling you closer and closer – not unlike that of a Dementor pulling the life out of Harry Potter. You cannot get enough and you are conflicted: making and selling drugs is bad, but Walter White wants to provide for his family before he succumbs to what appears to be a terminal case of lung cancer. You find yourself shaking your head in disgust because of the process and community involved with methamphetamine; but you find yourself rooting for the family as their dad sacrifices to ensure their future without him in it to provide.

In my own cancer battle, I recall wanting to make the best decisions for my family and not necessarily me. I knew I had to stay alive at any cost because I had two young children and another on the way. Every single sacrifice had to be made in order to ensure my children did not lose their mother prematurely; that was my driving factor and I did not feel there was any other choice. Perhaps when Walt was being pressured by his family to make that same decision that I had to (saving yourself regardless), my tears flowed heavily because now, six years post-treatment, I understand that a choice of treatment plan is precisely that – a choice, a decision that ultimately needs to be made by the person diagnosed with cancer themselves. Every situation is different; every family is unique and will do whatever they need to do in order to keep a loved one alive. However, at the end of the day, the decision on what poisons, or surgical procedures, or costs to incur is up to the body the cancer resides within. I learned this the hard way when a friend of mine battling stage four breast cancer met with me to tell me she was done. My own brain could not fathom the selection of words she was conveying to me; the side effects and quality of life were not worthy enough to warrant another year or so on this planet. But your kids! She quickly and firmly retorted with a resounding explanation of how she did not want her kids to remember her last weeks/months/years as a supremely sick being. That night, in our local restaurant, my friend gave me a priceless gift of a different perspective, an empathy if you will, but also an empowerment in realizing how important it is for each of us to have the choice in what we do for our bodies; particularly when given a cancer diagnosis.

breaking bad chemo

I cried for Walter White; a fictional character on a television series because his family was not giving him the right of a choice of what was best for him.

Every time Walt vomits, my eyes well up as my own vivid recollections of spasmodic, wrenching, chemotherapy induced projectile vomit rifled through in lighting speed to the front of my memory banks. My oldest is exceptionally compassionate to the scenes because she remembers her mom clinging onto the kitchen sink calling her father for help in between the heaving.

breaking bad walt vomit
Photo courtesy of AMC

As Walt gears up for surgery and acts loopy from the pre-surgery drugs, I laugh with him in recalling my own silly pre-surgery moments; such as when I was in for my wire localization lumpectomy. I laid nervously on the table in radiology waiting to be wheeled into surgery with a very thin, long wire standing up approximately five inches or so out of my left breast. Since it was early December, I joked about how I looked like a remote control car my young son would be getting for Christmas. Or the time the Chief of Radiology wrote a very large signatory initials on my left shoulder to document the proper side for my sentinel node surgery and I clumsily teased him if he autographed all of his art work (he did not find it funny, but I laughed from a drug induced stupor as if I were suddenly on the same caliber of comedy as Lily Tomlin).

I feel every ounce of Walt’s anxiety as he nervously awaits dreaded diagnostic test results, such as an MRI. Ask any cancer survivor and they will tell you, the waiting game is nearly enough to derail you and force you into the fetal position until THAT call comes in or you drag your feet into your oncologist’s office. Even my husband comments on the scenes waiting for the doctor to convey the news, with a repulsive feeling of the dread that accompanies the inevitable words outlining the good or the not so good.

My emotions bubbled up when Walt first held his newborn baby; because I knew, I knew what was going through his head.  After all, I lived it by birthing my own baby smack dab in the middle of my cancer treatment.  The first thought you have is, “Will I live to see this child grow up?”  Yes, I was relating to a fictional character who makes meth!

breaking bad new baby
Photo courtesy of AMC

Watching the show regularly (one plus of streaming your television is instant gratification and not waiting another WHOLE week before the next episode), I question why I suddenly have such strong cancer emotions six years after I finished my treatment. With each passing year of good health, one would assume that I am well on my way to putting the cancer behind me. If it were only that easy!

Not only did I focus so much on getting the cancer OUT OF ME, I neglected to let myself feel the emotions that come with the territory. I shoved those ugly feelings wayyyyy down deep within. Yes, I did. However, the real lesson here is that you may never assume anything in the cancer world. You cannot control what you feel and when you feel it. Six years later, I am still sorting through unexpected emotions just as my body still struggles with the “Collateral Damage”. More so, now being in a position to support my childhood best friend through her cancer battle allows me to process some of the emotions I buried. For what I did not feel for myself, I feel for her…..my eyes well up at the injustice of it all – the cancer world pounds the crap out of you and stays with you for the remainder of your life.

As we pore through Season Three, my heart breaks for Walter White and his “Breaking Bad” family because the pain they portray is very real. The writers and the actors have done a supreme job at conveying the realistic and compromising world of cancer, the unexpected and often times inappropriate reactions as well as the assumed responses from those affected.

In particular, the conflict of right versus wrong (is it okay to make/sell drugs to leave a legacy for your family because you think you are terminal) toys with the obscure reality of whether you may live or die when you are diagnosed with cancer. Would I do the same as Walt has chosen to do? Would you? Would I make different choices in my cancer battle now versus what I did back then? Would I choose to handle my emotions in an altered manner had I known then what I know now?

breaking bad bad good

There are no answers. I am now awake, however.  I choose to live in the now and experience, feel, cope with the emotions that may surface. I cry at the television when it strikes a chord with a relevant cancer scene. I get angry watching my friend going through six hundred and fifty three seemingly never-ending chemotherapy treatments. I am anxious when I plop my boobs on the cold tray as they are about to be squished and scanned for any sign of recurrent disease. I also feel the energy kick of the kale surging through my vein. I experience the strength of cut and weakened muscles as they pound through a WOD at Crossfit. I hug my friends who are struggling to get through their journeys. I laugh at the amount of money we are saving by reducing our spending; and know that even though my children have this new savings spent before I actually touch it that I do not need to sell any meth to buy more time with them. I have it, even if some of it is spent watching “Breaking Bad” together.

breaking bad I am awake

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collateral damage

Unintended damage, injuries, or deaths caused by an action, especially unintended civilian casualties caused by a military operation.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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Unintended damage caused by a war, perhaps a war against breast cancer in your very own body resulting in collateral damage. The impairments are very real and often reside behind the brave, smiling faces you encounter in a survivor. Despite asking a breast cancer warrior if she’s recovered and well after months of toxic treatments and debilitating surgeries, she is still suffering on a regular basis. How, you ask?

Often times you will not hear about the painful and balance compromising neuropathies in her feet. She hides the stumbling gait: the excruciating pain upon waking, trying to walk like a forty year old and not a ninety year old, from everyone except her husband. Yes, you did see her trip up those steps and hear her joke about her awful clumsiness; however, that smile hides the frustration in the numb feet that caught the lip of the granite and nearly caused a full on face plant, or worse, scraped hands that have braced many a fall.

Nor will she elaborate on the difficulties she faces in buttoning her young daughter’s sweater or fumbling and trying to tie the little shoelaces. The often- times illegible handwriting to the poor teachers in a school note, or the misspelled texts stem from stumpy finger tips that aim but do not always hit on target, are a regular routine event these days, one she just shakes off as a new “normal” post treatment.

Words do not come easy, surprisingly, even for the most motor-mouthed of them all. Regular words feel as if they are on the tip of her tongue, but are nowhere to be found in the circuitry of brainwaves. Disappointment and disgust enter as she tries, she blunders, and she finds a somewhat less-fitting replacement word to continue on in dialogue and unbroken conversation; followed with nervous laughter to disguise the aforementioned disappointment. New words are created as the synapses misfire between mouth and brain creating a weird, and often times hilarious, fusion of two similar words that spurt out simultaneously. Memory is far from what it was pre-treatment, while well-intentioned jokes about age from her spouse are smiled at, a sadness sometimes sneaks in as she *still* tries to get accustomed to the new normal, even five years out from completion of treatment.

Nagging joint pain continues to crash the neuropathy party in her body: a residual daily souvenir of the poison cocktails that surged through her blood vessels systemically; the sole mission of chemotherapy to seek and destroy those cancer cells that formed a mini-brigade against your immune system. The trudge against the very cells trying to mutate and possibly kill her, instead leaves her with a significant amount of collateral damage. While the surgeries may have been successful, the skilled surgeons’ knives left scar tissue and disrupted lymphatic flow – highways re-routed and blocked, further adding to swollen arms and hands as lymph fluid has nowhere else to now go. She does not complain about compression sleeves or pumping, after all she is alive and wakes each day grateful for another day of memories, even if they are foggy.

Phantom pains surface every so often, from breast tissue that is no longer there perhaps, causing her to grimace through the smile at the soccer field because she wants to grab her breast in pain, but knows it is inappropriate in a field full of tween boys. Radiated tissue is harder than non-radiated tissue, a reminder she experiences as she shifts from her right side in bed, to her left side instead and back again because it is too uncomfortable to lay upon that previously scorched side.

breast pain

Chemo weight is nearly impossible to remove, despite 4,552,854 burpees done each week or marathons run. Depression tries to overtake her brain with the weight frustrations, but she smiles again knowing she is alive and the continued efforts to perfect said burpees helps her health in other ways despite the flabalanche that surrounds her middle. Strength may be defined in her life, not only by the size of her deadlift, but instead by knowing she faces the ongoing collateral damage with every ounce of muster she may gather.

Bathing suits are anxiety provoking to most women, but add large surgical scars and uneven, lopsided breasts, and she has to summon the courage to find a flattering suit – one that covers the Frankestein-like marks upon her chest, the radiation tattoos, and helps to adjust the boobs from not being overly stared at for the discrepancy in size. She may want to wear a sign that warns the general public about the scars and misshapen body parts, but she quietly smiles and builds sandcastles anyway.

Despite her unconditionally loving spouse, she may still cover up and hide when he walks unannounced into the bathroom as she exits the shower. She cannot help but wonder what goes through his mind: will he notice the significant different texture in each breast? Will he be turned off by the drastic size difference? Wait, that won’t bother him as much as the anchor-scars that surround each breasts or the rippling or pulling skin from deeply buried scar tissue within? She will then escalate into additional worrisome thoughts: will he be freaked out by the hot flashes and the night sweats? Will he find her early morning hobbling eerily reminiscent of her parents’ old-age disabilities? The collateral damage finds its way into her personal relationships, as if to add insult to injury.

Everyone seems to consider cancer survivors are well after they have beaten their disease, or rather have remained in remission or have no evidence of disease. Many people are unaware of the residual side effects that remain in the weeks, months and years after treatment has long ended. Cancer survivors are told that many of the side-effects will lessen with time or go away all together; but for many, that is not the case and the collateral damage is with them for a lifetime.

Many of us may simply be so thrilled to be alive and to remain free of the disease, we feel this is the “price to pay” for life itself. There are some of us out there that do not cope as well, and wonder if the “price to pay” was worth the daily pain, the new-found disabilities, the slack performance in previously stellar areas of our lives like work and again; the regular amounts of agony left behind when the cancer was obliterated.

The war against cancer, especially breast cancer, leaves significant impairment on the life of the person affected. Many facilities are now only just focusing on survivorship; life after breast cancer and the well-being of the patient once treatment has completed. Recovery needs to be more than follow up appointments every three months to ensure the disease remains at bay. Breast cancer patients need to be sure to continue to advocate for their quality of life post-disease, being educated on residual side-effects that are very real, and knowing what pain is normal and what options for pain management are available.

In the meantime, she may be grinning and bearing it, so give your breast cancer friend a warm and gentle hug to soften the achy joints, offer her compassion as she stumbles in the grass unexpectedly and as she fumbles around for words to add to your conversation. She is learning to live within her post-war environment chock full of collateral damage, despite wearing her best outward smile.

In the meantime, breast cancer survivors are encouraged to participate in the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundations studies – more information may be found here: The Collateral Damage Project

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