My breast surgeon said it best: “You’re going to walk through hell and we’re going to go together.” Cancer is the hero’s journey like none other.
Yesterday, I was formally staged as having Stage 2A breast cancer. This might sound scary though is still considered early stage and my specific type is abundantly treatable with surgery and meds because it’s fed by estrogen. I’m so lucky I went for my screening when I did. It saved my life.
Today I’m going to have my first tissue expander expansion post-surgery. I have to honest—I’m a little scared because my pain hasn’t subsided, especially since my extra lymph node surgery last week set me back a few weeks. My friend, Edith Gonzalez, offered to go with me and I gladly accepted. This is one of the few types of appointments when someone can go with me.
Chemo starts on December 15th, and I’ll get the standard aggressive 8 treatments over the course of 16 weeks. The first 4 will be tougher than the second 4 because they are different medications. Between now and then, I have a multitude of appointments, procedures,and learning sessions to get me ready for chemo. Chemo will take me to late March.
Then I’ll get a month of healing and in late April I’ll have 5 weeks of radiation therapy every weekday. That will take me to late May. Then we start hormone therapy for 10 years, and my reconstruction which will wrap up by about this time next year.
Now, I love timelines, process flows, and plans but damn. Intense treatment for a year, even in waves and phases with all their own side effects that will physically and molecularly change my body and mind, is an absolute rollercoaster, especially in the middle of COVID. It’s exhausting. There’s no other word for it.
I have survived multiple bouts of trauma in my life, and now I know they prepared me for this. This is the work, and there’s no way or no one to minimize it. I must be healed. The world must be healed. But healing isn’t easy. Healing hurts. It’s difficult and it must be done and I will do it.
When someone calls themselves a survivor of a life-threatening illness, we’re a bit too cavalier. We toss around that title as if it’s nothing because so many people fall into that group now thanks to modern medicine. Let me tell you, it is a big something to be a survivor of a life-threatening illness that you didn’t cause by your own actions. I am one, will continue to be one, and am determined to help others climb this mountain, too.
Hello loves. It’s the middle of the night. It’s quiet. It’s dark. I’m awake because my head slumped a bit because I currently sleep on an incline to help my drains function properly. This causes my hands to go numb and my muscles to spasm. It’s temporary. I get up, I take meds, and it passes pretty quickly.
This is a common side effect that happens as part of the healing process but it’s a side effect with a huge upside! It means the swelling from my surgery is way down so now my muscles are aware that there is a lot of tubing in me that was not there a week ago.
Basically, I’ve got a network of tubes in me that’s similar in design to the NYC subway system in lower Manhattan around Fulton Street!藍藍藍 It’s all temporary and my great hope is that my plastic surgeon will take it out on Wednesday at my follow-up appointment.
Now, speaking of Wednesday…I know many of you (myself included!) have a lot of anxiety about this election. There is a lot on the line. More on the line than we’ve had in any other election in modern history. So I thought I’d tell you a little story that will maybe help ease your mind and heart.
No matter what happens on Tuesday, there is likely to be a period of time that will feel uncertain and frightening and unstable. We might feel hopeless or powerless or paralyzed.
When I went through my apartment building fire 11 years ago, I felt that way every moment of every day for over a year. But no one knew that except my wizard of a therapist. I was afraid all the time. But I had to go to work. I had to keep up the charade of strength because we were in the middle of a recession, I had $100K in student loans, and I had no one to help me financially. My life was a literal house of cards. And it was fucking terrifying.
At one therapy session, I broke down and I told my therapist how much I hated therapy because it felt like every session I was just tearing off a painful bandaid in the name of truth that was just giving me more pain.
In his wise and calm demeanor, he listened and simply said, “Well now we’re getting somewhere.” And as always, he was right. We were getting somewhere, even though it was somewhere I didn’t want go. It was a road I couldn’t avoid.
I was building emotional muscle. I was learning what hurts, being able to face it, name it, and not flinch. That practice took away my fear of pain and replaced it with curiosity, compassion, and gratitude. I learned that I could be scared and still take action to take care of myself one small step at a time.
For me, 2020 has been a version of my 2010 but this time I had tools and skills I didn’t have before. I know now that being soft and flexible and caring is a kind of strength that can withstand and grow under intense pressure, that it can absorb shock and make something meaningful and beautiful and joyful from it that helps me and helps others.
This is not an easy path but it’s one that’s given me confidence and courage to face anything and everything that I must face, even cancer, even death.
So if you find yourself today, or any day, struggling to breathe, struggling to even imagine how you will get from moment to moment, close your eyes and remember you are the light that illuminates your own path. The answers aren’t out there. They’re in you. They’ve always have been in you and they always will be. And know that as you close your eyes and breathe, I’m doing the same. I’m with you and you’re not alone. We fight together for each other as we heal.
My meds are kicking in now so I can get a few more hours of sleep before the dawn arrives. Whatever the day holds, I’m here.
Yesterday I hit a big goal! By Halloween, I wanted to be able to take a walk around my neighborhood. I took 2 walks with the help of my sister, Maria, and my dog, Phin—one for an hour in Central Park and another for 90 minutes in Riverside Park. These were my first walks outside since my breast cancer surgery. It felt glorious to fill my lungs with fresh air and to feel the sunshine on my face.
And then, this morning happened. I had a nightmare last night that I was surrounded by my friends but no one could see me or hear me. I was already on edge from that when I mistakenly dropped one of my chest drains, painfully pulled at my stitches, and caused some pins and needles in my hand. And to top it off, I got my period.
Together, those three things broke me right along with my concerns about the election results, the “what-if” scenarios that haunt me, and the spaghetti tangle of tubes under the skin in my armpits that remind me of the NYC subway system.
My sister rubbed by back and I just wailed out of pain, fear, frustration, and anger. It felt like a dam just broke in me and an ugly cry poured out of me. It passed pretty quickly, as many things do, and it was needed.
“You can be grateful and still be upset,” my sister said. “You have to let this out and it’s okay.” And she’s right. We hold so much in times of difficulty, emotions and concerns that are at constant odds with each other.
We’re all holding so much right now. We’re grappling with massive uncertainty and uncharted territory in which it often feels like we have little to no control.
I learned today it’s okay to feel all that and then some. To admit it to ourselves and others. To cry over it. To do whatever we need to do to get through it so we can keep going. It’s not easy and that’s why we have and need each other. The only way we’re getting from moment to moment and day to day is together. And I’m grateful to be with all of you.
This is where our story begins.
Fade in: exterior NYU Langone Health hospital on the east side of Manhattan. Day.
This is the setting where I physically walked in alone with cancer.
This morning, I watched the sun rise behind the thick cloud cover over the East River. I asked my queen of a nurse, Esther, if she would take me to their picture window she had showed me last night so I could see the coming of the dawn. I have fewer body parts now but my heart has grown exponentially. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude for every moment, every breath, every kindness.
I cried watching the coming of the dawn because the only words that kept coming to mind were, “I lived. I lived.”
In a few hours, I’ll walk out of the hospital on my own two feet without cancer. In about a month, Act 2 begins with a set of treatments to kill any microscopic cancers that are trying to hide from me. My stunning medical team at @nyulangone will turn over every cellular rock to crush this cancer. Science and I are in it to win it, and we will.
The operating room was incredibly cool. I felt like I was in NASA mission control! Before I went under, my surgeon held my hand, and said, “Sweetie, we are getting every single bit of this cancer today and you are going to heal.” That was the last thing I remember.
When my surgeon came to see this morning, I started to cry out of gratitude. She said to me, “Friend, I am so glad to be on your team. I know this has been difficult & painful to go through. It’s been hell. You have a whole team of people here rooting for you. Your surgery went exactly as planned. You are young. You are healthy. You are strong. We will get to the other side of this.” I cried thanking her for saving me.
I cried again saying goodbye to my nurse, Esther. My heart is so full. There’s so much compassion in this world & we can gift it to others. We’re all just walking each other home.
I spoke with my genetics counselor at NYU. The science of genetic testing and how it impacts health is fascinating. Happy to share that my genetics, at this time, show I have no definitive predisposition to any kind of cancer. There is one gene that has an ambiguous result that may or may not be an indicator in some people. More scientific research studies by geneticists are needed to make a determination one way or another on that gene and my test results will help that research.
Every day we learn more about genetics and there is much more we don’t know than we do know. Every year, I will have a follow up with my genetics counselor to see if they’ve learned anything new related to my genetics.
Now that I’ve been tested, I’ll be eligible to participate in scientific studies that will further the science of genetics and will be used to help others.
My results will also be helpful to my siblings and to my nieces so that they can be properly screened and tested to protect their health. One huge lesson I’ve learned in this cancer ride is that the two best things we can do is take care of our bodies and detect health issues early.
For more information on genetic testing, here is an informative link from the National Cancer Institute:
A week from today I’ll be in surgery. I’ll be home the next day to begin recovery prior to treatment. What will I be doing in that time? Sleeping, eating healthy food, snuggling with my dog, and watching Curiosity Stream thanks to my friend, Ken, who gifted it to me. Curiosity Stream is a collection of documentaries—my favorite genre of film—in all my favorite subjects: science, nature, history, and technology. I’m ready to activate my imagination, curiosity, and joy as part of my healing regimen.
With my cancer diagnosis, I was having some (understandable) trouble sleeping. One thing that’s helped me tremendously is Matthew McConaughey’s sleep story about the power of wonder. Dinosaurs & stargazing included. It’s now my nightly ritual.
T-minus 14 days to surgery. When I was on my way to my appointment where I would be formally diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, I walked through a near-empty Times Square subway station and saw this Wicked the Musical advertisement. Brains. Heart. Courage. This is how we survive.
Broadway shows and I are resting, healing, and protecting ourselves, and will be through the Spring and into the beginning of Summer. I timed out my possible treatment plans and it looks like Broadway and I will emerge around the same time renewed, restored, regenerated, and recharged. We’re building back better than ever.
When things are falling apart, something new is falling into place. A cancer diagnosis feels like this. It’s a long and winding road that you have to take one step, one day, at a time because the next step is all you can see. Uncertainty abounds.
You put your trust and faith in science. You pay attention to your body like never before. You lean on friends. You rally, you fall, you rally again.
It’s a rollercoaster mentally, physically, and emotionally. You learn what matters most. And in all the difficulties, you do find joy and gratitude and light. They aren’t always easy to see and sometimes you need a good cry to clear away the haze.
So you call a friend and you cry and then you get up again because that’s all you can do. The sun rises every morning and so do you.💛
Knowledge is power, my loves. This journey to kick early-stage breast cancer in the a$$ will require patience and fortitude. I’ve got my lions and we’re going to rooooooooar! We’re also going to vote because every person deserves the kind of care I’m getting at NYU Langone.
I went for an MRI and it wasn’t bad at all. Sort of sounds like a cacophonous modern classical composition. On a medical espionage mission, we are going to use the best science to find out what the hell this cancer is up to and show it no mercy.
My MRI results showed that there might be a second lymphnode involved in my breast cancer. I had it biopsied and it’s completely normal. I was so happy I could’ve done cartwheels down 5th Avenue.
As I looked around the hospital room at NYU, all I saw was a sea of people who have dedicated their lives to restore my health. There was such a swell of gratitude in my heart for all of them. In a world of cancer, there are many blessings on the road to wellness. My care team is a gift.💜
It feels odd to celebrate anything just after being diagnosed. Brian, my therapist, said celebrating every single win is crucial to healing. It’s a part of the journey. It’s medicine I’ll gladly take.
Now let’s go crush cancer.