Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July: 10 Things I Love Right Now

Celestial Gazing
Take a journey of self discovery through learning how to interpret and understand your own birth chart! Celestial Readings by Radhe can be tailored to two to three key areas of life or an overall reading of the birth chart. The 60 minute conference call is recorded for your convenience. Radhe is professionally trained in both Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology.

Green Goodness
Bolthouse Farms® Green Goodness® starts with wheat grass, spirulina, and spinach. We add apples, kiwis, mangos, bananas, pineapples, and dragon fruit to make it a good source of iron and Vitamin B6, naturally rich in Vitamins A, C, and B12, and packed with powerful phytonutrients found in nature's most nutritious greens.
  • Sold at: Target (near the yogurt)
Occoquan Kayaking
Kayaking on the Occoquan River is a leisurely pastime. You won't find any whitewater or rapids like you will a Great Falls Park about 20 miles north. However you will get a chance to watch the Osprey overhead and relax at the end of a long day.
  • Rentals: Kayak rental is available from Sept. 4 to Oct. 2 between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Rates: Hourly rates are $7.50 for Fairfax County residents and $8.50 for non residents; Daily rates are $33.00 for Fairfax County residents and $37.00 for non residents
CND Shellac
Shellac Nails are the hottest hit of 2010, 2011 and now 2012! The beauty world is raving about the Shellac TM Craze. This new revolutionary product is changing the way women get their nails done. Shellac Nails TM look as good if not better than acrylic nails.

Shellac Nails TM last up to 14 days without losing shine or shimmer. They are hard and do not scratch or smudge. When it comes time to take them off the nail, it is as easy as 1, 2, 3 and it does not damage the nail itself. Find a Salon that does Shellac Nails TM in your area.

It's strange that it is at the age of 30 that I actually find braiding hair interesting. I have spent more time than I'd like to admit over the last month or so watching teenagers on YouTube braid their hair and failing time and time again to braid my own hair.

Lauren Conrad, Selena Gomez, Blake Lively, Miley Cyrus and many other celebrities have embraced this trend and it's so gorgeous in the summer with sun-kissed highlights.

My favorite tutorials are from Sunnysideup11100:


Work Hard. Play Hard. Cleanse. Repeat.™

Juice, the whole juice, and nothing but the juice! Zoe and Erica from BluePrintCleanse live and promote a balanced, healthful, and sustainable lifestyle. Feeding your body with whole foods and natural produce is the best long-term strategy for maintaining good health.

Gala Darling
If you haven't heard of Gala Darling, you are in for a real treat. I watched her presentation at TEDxCMU and fell madly in love with her ideology of self love.

"I believe in searching for the magic in every day. Once you’ve trained your eye, you can’t help but delight in seeing the small & extraordinary things that surround us. Enthusiastic gratitude & appreciation for the present moment are part of my essential practices." - Gala Darling

Here is that presentation that moved me:

Wind Map
As if I need anything else to distract me from my day ... I happened upon this site that I seriously got sucked into for a good three to four hours. Lord, what is wrong with me? If you are a nutcase like me, I am sure you will be captivated by the wind patterns across the United States found in this wind map.

"An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future." - hint.fm 

Flow Yoga
At Flow Yoga, we invite you to throw overboard those things that are weighing you down. Be open to revising your maps. Take a deep breath, surrender to the current, and feel the peace and happiness that happens when you do.

We offer a flowing, challenging yoga practice in a heated studio that is, in essence, a moving meditation. This practice will allow you to let go of your mind and perhaps let a force other than your thoughts guide you. Come try a class to reconnect your mind, body and spirit and to experience the peace and happiness that comes with being in the flow! Go with it. - Daily Om

Tarara Summer Concert Series
Experience live music under the stars at Shadow Lake while sipping a cool glass of Chardonnay or savoring a bold Cabernet Franc. Whether it’s original rock, cover bands, jazz, country or blues Tarara has a complete line up to fulfill your musical desires. The experience is yours for $15/per person, children under 7 are free. You may purchase tickets in advance online or at the gate. Music is from 6-9:30 PM, gates open at 5 PM, and don't forget to bring your lawn chairs or a blanket.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Lifetime of Courage

Despite the drama with Susan G. Komen this year, our team raised over $9,250.61 and had over 21 people and two pups who participated by joining our team. There were countless individuals who donated, spread the word, sent prayers and cheered on our efforts. For that I am humbled and incredibly appreciative.

Thank you to everyone who continues to fight for a cure to end breast cancer, and all cancers, once and for all. Regardless of which organization you choose to support, just know how much it means to me that you are as passionate about this cause as I am.

My deepest thanks for all you do.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Waiting for the Shit Storm

This morning I had my six month follow-up with my oncologist Dr. David Heyer. I was more anxious than usual, my panic attacks set in on Wednesday knowing this appointment was quickly approaching. I asked Matt to go with me for support.

Just walking into the office my body began shaking, I could feel myself swallowing continuously to encourage myself to keep my breakfast down. Please don’t throw up. My hand shook as I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet and handed my insurance card to the receptionist. I sat in the waiting room trying to slow my heart rate. I transitioned all the nerves to my foot and shook it violently. To anyone else sitting in the waiting room, I looked calm and collected. My fear was successfully masked, except Matt could see through it.

He gently placed a hand on my knee to calm my foot and then held my hand. He pulled out his phone and started reading me the morning news headlines … my focus shifted and the anxiety subsided.

Once back in the examination room, here are the topics I discussed with Dr. Heyer:

Tamoxifen under a microscope
Tamoxifen: Most people don’t realize this, but I am still receiving treatment for cancer. Just because my hair has grown back and I look healthier, doesn’t mean I’m cured. I am on a five-year therapy of Tamoxifen which suppresses the estrogen in my body to prevent the cancer from returning. As of this year, I only have one more year on this drug. It will be October 2013 that I will be considered “cured.”

Although this sounds like wonderful news, for me, it is a huge source of anxiety. Dr. Heyer explained that I am not alone. Most people think of Tamoxifen as a safety blanket … it has kept the cancer away and now my body will be exposed to having a recurrence. The good news is the side effects I have been experiencing on the medicine will finally end.

My side effects started during the third year of Tamoxifen and include:
  • Night sweats 
  • Insomnia 
  • Inconsistent periods, which has now pretty much stopped 
  • Deterioration of my tendons (specifically my Achilles tendon) 
  • Weight gain 
  • Nausea 
  • Heighten anxiety 
  • Tired and low energy 
  • Low sex drive 
  • Mood swings 
  • Depression (some patients even experience suicidal thoughts) 
  • Numbness and bad circulation in my hands and feet, which is progressively getting worse 
  • And recently, piercing headaches

Hopefully my period will become constant again and Matt and I can try and have a baby. Dr. Heyer suggested I meet with my Women Physician Dr. Gloria Ivey-Crowe and find out from her the probability of my period returning and also how long I will need to wait once finishing the Tamoxifen (October 2013) before I can safely start trying to have a baby. (If I were to get pregnant while on the Tamoxifen, our baby would have severe birth defects.) Dr. Heyer seemed to think three months would be a safe window, but wants to speak with Dr. Ivey-Crowe as I get closer to that point. Dr. Heyer also suggested meeting with a fertility doctor when we are ready, so that we have all the resources we need to increase the chances of getting pregnant.

Fertility drugs and anything that alters my hormones will not be an option for us with my cancer being ER+. If it happens it happens and if it doesn’t, we are OK with that, too. Matt and I already have a name picked out for our sweet baby, regardless of whether I can physically have her or we adopt her. If we want a family, we will have one. There are so many babies that need a loving home and we will find her and love her unconditionally.

Post-Tamoxifen: The topic I was dreading talking about …

me:  “What is the plan once I finish the Tamoxifen therapy? Do we look at marks from my blood work? Or should we do imaging every six months to scan my body?”
Dr. Heyer:   “Blood marks don’t work well for breast cancer. If you were a 70-year-old woman I would not be averse to imaging, since you might not see the effects at the 15 year mark. But you were so young, Jennifer, when you had cancer. I would be afraid to image you that much and cause a recurrence much later in life. If you get cancer again, I will find it or, most likely, you will.”
me:  “How will I know? Will I just become a hypochondriac and call you every time I have a headache or ingrown hair!?”
Dr. Heyer:  “You can always call me. Something like a pimple on your nose or an ingrown toenail, we can easily identify as not being cancer. The most common secondary cancer after breast is lung, liver and bone. And because your cancer loves estrogen, add ovarian into that mix, too. Let’s say you move into your new home and do something to your back. The pain persists beyond three weeks … we would be conservative and go ahead and do a bone scan. Does that make sense?”
me:   “Yes, but I’m not quite sure where I find the balance between brushing off symptoms and thinking everything is cancer. That is something I will need to work on. I understand some of that is always normal after going through a trauma, but it is important for me to get a grasp on it.”

Dr. Heyer left the room and Matt could tell I was anxious.

Matt:  “Jen, I know this is hard to hear, but we’re all going to die. I could die tomorrow or in 50 years …”
I listened patiently wondering where this was going.
Matt:  “… It’s like pooping. You don’t walk around holding toilet paper all the time just in case you’re going to poop. When you have to go, you find some place and poop. No one walks around with a wad of toilet paper looking panicked in the streets thinking, ‘What if I have to poop?’ You can’t stop living and appreciating life because of something that you cannot control.”

And there it is … oh Lord, he has such weird analogies, but when it came down to it, he was absolutely right and made me giggle in the process. Little does he know, this is why I carry tissues in my purse. You can never be too prepared when poop strikes. Logically, I understand his point, but putting it into practice will be tricky. I know I have my work cut out for me.

BART:  Insurance will not cover me having the new genetic test, BRACAnalysis® Rearrangement Test™ (BART), because I need to meet two requirements: 1) young age when diagnosed with cancer (I meet this one) and 2) family history of cancer. Because I don’t meet the second requirement, insurance will not cover the cost of the test. My oncologist, Dr. Heyer said he isn’t worried about it because it would only be a one to two percent chance that I would test positive. Although the percentage of someone developing stage-III breast cancer at the age of 26 was less than those odds ... and I got it.

Having the test would help determine the probability of a secondary cancer, like ovarian. I could be proactive in my treatment if I tested positive and go ahead and shut my ovaries down. Also if I have the gene, I would be passing it to my child, which might determine whether or not Matt and I want to try to have a baby. I still want the test. I just need to figure out how to pay for it.

Removing My Ovaries:  In 2008 when I was diagnosed with stage-III breast cancer, Dr. Heyer said that by the age of 40 I needed to have my ovaries removed to prevent a secondary cancer. When I asked him about it again today he said he wanted to wait to have the discussion. He wants to see if my period returns after I am off the Tamoxifen and give Matt and I a chance to conceive.

Depending on all that, he may recommend removing my ovaries, giving me a shot that basically turns my ovaries off without having to have invasive surgery or something new that’s been created in the next ten years. There is a hormone therapy, much like Tamoxifen for women who are menopausal, which unlike Tamoxifen has NO bad side effects. Instead it has amazing properties that help the body. I will most likely go on that medication when I am menopausal.

I am still processing the appointment and feel like a crazy lady in the street panicked with my wad of toilet paper, waiting for the shit storm. I guess all I can do is trust my medical team and try to find some balance mentally and physically with it all. I desperately want a plan of action. I want it all mapped out and for someone to tell me I will be OK. However, these types of things don’t work that way. I have to look at the task at hand and put all my energy into staying well and managing the side effects while I finish my Tamoxifen treatment over the next year. I’ll see Dr. Heyer again in another six months.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May: 8 Things I Love Right Now

BIS Programs 
I recently learned about the Bachelor of Individualized Study (BIS) program and I think it is brilliant. My brother, Joey and I attended an information session and he has decided to re-enter his bachelor’s program to finish his remaining credits. I am so excited that he found a program that really advocates for adults who want to re-enter academia.

“Mason's Bachelor of Individualized Study (BIS) program is a degree completion program for adult learners. Students create their own interdisciplinary concentrations to meet their own educational needs: to advance professionally, to prepare for graduate or professional programs, or to plan a path toward a career change.” - bis.gmu.edu

I recently visited Sephora with my friend Kelli and liked the bottle of this fragrance so I decided to smell it. It is on my must-have list for the summer. Here’s the description:

“Confident notes of wild strawberry and black cherry sparkle with a hint of kir royal, inviting delicate shades of jasmine, lily, violet and rose. A flourish of luxurious orris, among the most precious in nature, blends with distinctive base notes of musk and sandalwood.” - bcbg.com

Dog Days at Breaux Vineyards
If you know me well, you know my Chihuahua Jasper is constantly top of mind and I take him everywhere I possibly can. That’s why I love Dog Days and Breaux Vineyards. Here’s the description:

“Join us at the vineyard this May 12th to enjoy our annual Dog Day celebration - don't forget to bring your 4-legged friend along with you! We will have live music on our patio by Steele & Oglevee from 12:30-4:30, wine tastings, food by The Cajun Experience, local dog rescue organizations, doggie-based vendors and crafters. We will also have treats and watering stations for the furry family members you bring along. No admission fee!” - breauxvineyards.com

Selfish for 27 Days
I have conversations with my friend Kelli about when “self” became a four letter word. Why do we feel guilty for being selfish? In order to keep your mind and body balanced and healthy you must take time out for you. Don’t we all deserve that? I think so. There is no harm in loving yourself and allowing yourself to make your own priority list. It’s time to celebrate YOU.

That is why I love the idea of Selfish for 27 Days. You don’t have to open your wallet and sign up for the program, but it’s worth trying to take 30 minutes each day over the next month to do something just for you. It doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult, but if you’re like me, you are constantly running in five different directions. It’s time to press pause to take better care of ourselves.

Chalking / Sock Buns
So I may not be seventeen anymore, but I can still appreciate some of the new hair trends for spring. One that has gotten a lot of attention recently is “chalking.” Say goodbye to the feathers and hello to tie-dye tipped hair. With artist chalk ($5), a spray bottle with water, a hot iron and an old towel, girls are transforming their ‘dos.

Another trend that I have yet to try but love the look of oh-so-much is the sock bun and the sock curls. Who knew a sock could completely transform the way your hair looks? Here are the steps to achieving a sock bun and the sock curls. Oh, to be young again.

Oreo’s 100th Birthday
It’s hard to believe that milk’s favorite cookie is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

Here are some fun facts written by Sarah Clark, fox4kc.com:
  • More than 362 billion Oreos have been sold in more than 100 countries across the globe
  • Oreos are the world’s top-selling cookie of the 21st Century
  • The Oreo takes 59 minutes to make
  • The Oreo is covered in a pattern of 12 flowers, 12 dots and 12 dashes with 90 ridges around the edge
  • In a research survey by Kraft, they found 84 percent of men eat the cookie whole, while 41 percent of women twist, turn and eat the cookie bit by bit
Honest Tea Pomegranate Red Tea With Goji
I decided to try this tea one day at Sweetgreen in Reston Town Center and ever since I try to have it once a week. It has a great mix of sweet with some Earthy tasting spice, so it doesn’t need anything added to it. It is perfection. Here’s the description:

“Red is the color of passion, and this red tea combines three of the strongest passions: great taste, good health and social impact. There’s the antioxidant power of pomegranates, sweet goji berries from China and caffeine-free red tea from a community-owned farmer’s co-op in South Africa. It isn’t just tasty tea with a long name, it’s passion with a purpose.” - honesttea.com

Rent the Runway: A designer closet for all life’s occasions
Confession: Most of my really nice dresses I don’t own … I have rented them for 10% the retail value from Rent the Runway. The problem with expensive taste is that it can do a number on your wallet, so I cut the cost, and keep the closet space. It’s a win/win situation.

I have rented dresses by designers like Herve Leger, Nicole Miller, Christian Siriano and Versace.

As far as getting the right size, I can read reviews by other women who are my height, weight and size and see if the dress runs small or large, plus I can order the dress in two different sizes at no extra charge. If that isn’t enough to entice you, there is a stylist always on hand to do a live chat and help you find the right style for your upcoming event. J’adore!!!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Raging River

Imagine that you're in the middle of a raging river. Your heart is racing, adrenaline is pumping and all you can focus on is surviving and getting to the bank on the other side.

Once you are safely across you look around in order to figure out where you are and how to get home.

Once you're safely home and away from the danger of the raging river, you might start processing the event and thinking about how scary that was and how on Earth you made it through that ordeal.

It may be months or years later. You are running the bath water. You watch the water lap against the edge of the tub and that fear and anxiety catches in your chest. You think, "I hate the raging river" and "There's no way I'm getting in that bathtub."

Phobias may begin to crop up, like the fear of going into deep water, or driving over a bridge. I refer to it as the "swirl" but I have friends who describe it as being stuck in the water spinning down a faucet. Interesting that we visualize the feeling the exact same way.

For me, the raging river is my cancer diagnosis diagnosis and surviving the treatment in 2008. I coped in order to get through the trauma. Later I began to process what had happened and then there was a trigger (one of my best friends, Jenn, was diagnosed with stage-IV breast cancer) and that allowed me to suddenly grieve the trauma/loss felt back in 2008-2010.

This is how my therapist describes post traumatic stress disorder to me and the only analogy that has actually made sense based on my experience.

I hope by sharing this here it can help someone else. Your experience doesn't have to be cancer, it can be any loss or trauma you have experienced. You're not alone and it does get better.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April: 8 Things I Love Right Now

It was during a visit with my family that my mom insisted that my brother play a video on his iPhone for me. It was a new artist that, at the time, we thought was the son of Sting. My mom still refers to him as “Baby Sting.” I watch a very emotional and passionate video with a Belgian-Australian singer, who to me, looked French. Genealogy aside, this man’s voice took me back to the 1980's and The Police and I was enthralled by the sound. It wasn’t even a week later and I heard him on the radio … he went mainstream in the U.S. and the tickets that were originally $30 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. jumped to $150. I love my French "Baby Sting."

Watch Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra)’

It’s that time of year … when peonies bloom. They are my favorite flowers and they only bloom between April and June, depending on where you live. I find them to be incredibly elegant. I love the roundness of the bloom and how full they get. (I know, I'm super girly.) They remind me of the vendors at sporting events that would carry a bouquet of cotton candy. If I were getting married in the spring, I would have a huge bouquet of peonies. After falling in love with the bloom I did some research on it. The peony is named after Paeon (also spelled Paean), a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. Asclepius became jealous of his pupil; Zeus saved Paeon from the wrath of Asclepius by turning him into the peony flower.

Wellness Warrior
I was introduced to Jess Ainscough’s blog several months ago. She is an Australian writer, blogger and certified holistic health coach. What intrigued me about her story is that four years ago (when I was diagnosed with cancer) she was diagnosed with an aggressive, rare form of cancer called Epithelioid Sarcoma, in her left hand and arm. After going through chemotherapy and going into remission, a year later the cancer came back. Instead of going through more chemotherapy, radiation and amputation of her arm, she began searching for natural, alternative cancer treatments. I find her journey to be inspiring and I have already used several of her recipes which are delicious.

Read Jess’ blog called Wellness Warrior.

Schwinn Voyageur 7
With my fiance, Matt, being passionate about bike riding, I thought it could be fun if I used some of my generous bonus and purchase a bike for myself. Matt has a fancy bike made for speed. It’s a TREK bike that I got him for Christmas two years ago. I didn’t want something where I had to lean over and pretend that I have a “need for speed.” Instead, I wanted something that I could ride leisurely around the neighborhood and even buy a little trailer for Jasper to tag along with me. I found the perfect bike and it will be shipping in the next two weeks. They didn't have an XS in stock, so I had to order it from their warehouse.

See the Schwinn Voyageur 7.

Spring Wardrobe
If you know me well, then you know I love fashion. After a significant closet purge, I decided it was time to start replacing some of my older clothing that has either seen better days, looks a little too young on me or no longer fits. My purge had to happen in two phases since I was pretty attached to some items initially.

I am really into vintage-inspired pieces that have a lot of movement, color and pattern. I love Anthropologie and South Moon Under, but over time these stores can become really expensive, so I have started finding unique pieces at shops like, ModCloth, Shop Ruche, Shabby Apple, Tulle, and Matilda Jane Clothing. With my cute new items, I’ll be ready to step into spring once it arrives.

Visit Anthropologie, South Moon Under, ModCloth, Shop Ruche, Shabby Apple, Tulle, and Matilda Jane Clothing.

ALICE (in wonderland)
Never before has The Washington Ballet combined such forces to create a new ballet. From the revolutionary vision of artistic director Septime Webre, designer Liz Vandal (Cirque du Soliel's OVO) and composer Matthew Pierce comes a spectacularly re-imagined take on Lewis Carroll's classic story. Enter the magical world of Alice's adventures April 11-15 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., splendidly costumed and gloriously danced… an unforgettable journey down the rabbit hole and the season's grandest production!

Read more about the production ALICE.

Say what you want about acupuncture, but it has made me feel significantly better. I have more energy, feel stronger and more balanced. I don’t attribute my new found health 100% to acupuncture. My acupuncturist suggested several vitamins, which I am taking regularly. They consist of vitamin C, D3, fish oil, multivitamins, and probiotics. I have also readjusted my eating patterns so that I am consuming less sugar and more protein. It wasn’t easy, but within three weeks my body had enough strength and energy that I felt like working out again. I am also getting a massage once a month to help with the circulation issues in my hands and feet from the Tamoxifen. I don’t know if my body will ever be back to where it was, but it is my responsibility, and mine alone, to do everything in my power to live a healthy life and give myself the best possible odds to not suffer with cancer again.

Welcome to Seasons in Our Life: Well Being, Healing, Self-Improvement

Okra and Parsnips and Cashews, Oh My
I have started practicing the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 and have moved into a more organic and fresh diet. You are what you eat, after all. Poor Matt watched as I purged all the bad food in the pantry and refrigerator back in December and since then I have vowed to prepare a healthy dinner Monday through Friday. For a guy who worked in a cheese steak shop in Philadelphia, cutting out the red meat has been challenging, but it’s a work in progress. In this process, I realized that I’m allergic to hazelnuts and soy and that Matt hates kale, eggplant, fish, mustard, mayo, beets and many other items. Again, it’s a process. I learned that I’m really good at cooking and there are new foods that I love eating. You have to remember, everything tasted metallic to me for about two years from the chemotherapy, so I am really starting to enjoy new flavors.

What simple pleasures are adding to your life at the moment?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Just a Dog

From time to time people tell me, “Lighten up, it’s just a dog,” or, “That’s a lot of money for just a dog.” They don’t understand the distance traveled, time spent, or costs involved for “Just a dog.” Some of my proudest moments have come about with “Just a dog.” Many hours have passed with my only company being “Just a dog,” and not once have I felt slighted. Some of my saddest moments were brought about by “Just a dog.” In those days of darkness, the gentle touch of “Just a dog” provided comfort and purpose to overcome the day.

If you, too, think it's “Just a dog,” you will probably understand phrases like “Just a friend,” “Just a sunrise,” or “Just a promise.” “Just a dog” brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust, and pure unbridled joy. “Just a dog” brings out the compassion and patience that makes me a better person. Because of “Just a dog” I will rise early, take long walks and look longingly to the future.

For me and folks like me, it’s not “Just a dog.” It’s an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future, the fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment. “Just a dog” brings out what’s good in me and diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.

I hope that someday people can understand it’s not “Just a dog.” It’s the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being “Just a man or woman.”

So the next time you hear “Just a dog,” smile, because they “Just don’t understand.”

~ Author unknown

Monday, March 19, 2012

Eat Pray Love

You’d think by now I wouldn’t get so surprised when things in my life parallel … but I am still astonished by life’s ability to make connections and my openness to seeing them.

This weekend Matt was in Pennsylvania visiting his family, so I took the opportunity to go to bed early, cuddle up with Jasper and watch a movie. When I turned on the TV it just happened to be the movie, ‘Eat Pray Love.’ A film I had missed seeing when it was in theaters. I got my box of tissues and prepped myself for a good cry. It may seem a bit weird, but I look forward to a good cry once in awhile and there are two women that make this task very easy for me, Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. So, I knew what I was in for.

I’m sure most of you know the story, so I will not bore you with reciting the plot; instead I want to share some moments in the movie that stuck with me.

Liz Gilbert:  “In the end, I've come to believe in something I call "The Physics of the Quest." A force in nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity. The rule of Quest Physics goes something like this: If you're brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting, which can be anything from your house to bitter, old resentments, and set out on a truth-seeking journey, either externally or internally, and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher and if you are prepared, most of all, to face and forgive some very difficult realities about yourself, then the truth will not be withheld from you.”

Wow. Beautiful writing. I believe so deeply in the power of this and feel as though this is what I am currently doing in my life. I refer to it as “self work” but “The Physics of the Quest” certainly sounds more intriguing. For me, I look at the idea of ego vs. meaning … stripping away the superficial and insignificant ideologies and truly finding understanding, meaning, enlightenment and forgiveness. The concept of “a clue” is what I refer to as “connections” – being spiritually aware in order to make connections and find parallels in your life. You don’t have to fully understand the meaning of it, just that puzzle pieces are presenting themselves – the analysis may not come until later.

The way in which love is depicted through the writing in this movie is brilliant. There is one scene that captures the essence of love. Javier Bardem sobs as he says goodbye to his nineteen-year-old son who was visiting from Australia. The interaction between father and son is moving, but Julia Robert’s character takes on a different emotion witnessing this embrace. She has empathy for the first time in the movie—true, honest empathy. She actually feels something for someone else’s feelings. The writing and acting connected well and I used my tissues accordingly.

On Sunday sixteen breast cancer survivors gathered for the first Pink Sister Brunch, hopefully the first of many. We are all at different stages of life, treatment, recovery and healing. This gathering was a long time coming and for some reason it felt right to do it now. It’s hard to put into words what it felt like for me to be a part of organizing the get together. My heart was beyond fulfilled and bursting with excitement that these women were organically making connections and I left feeling inspired from the stories of hope, perseverance and support.

The concept of Ego vs. Meaning was quite evident. When you go through something traumatic in your life, like breast cancer, ego goes out the door. You gain weight on the steroids, you lose your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, your skin grays, your nails bruise and fall off and, most likely, you lose your breasts. There is no vanity to hide behind. There is nothing gradual or kind about the process – you are stripped to the most raw, vulnerable and pure version of yourself and you grasp desperately for the meaning in it all. For some it takes a little while, but inevitably food starts to taste a lot richer, the grass and flowers smell more beautiful, you hug your friends and family a little longer – meaning surfaces when you are stripped to the most honest and, quite frankly, best version of yourself. It’s no longer about how you look in the photo, but that you were in it at all. Life changes for the caterpillar and the best version of her emerges from the cocoon. Empathy. Compassion. Resilience. Patience.

Being in a room with these sixteen women, I could honestly be the most honest version of myself. We didn’t chit chat about the weather and put fake smiles on our faces and give the most generic answer when asked, "How are you doing?" I have never experienced anything like it before. You might think from my description that it was a sad reunion, but it was as far from that as it could possibly be. We simply had honest and thoughtful conversations that involved topics of wellness, fertility, adoption, reconstruction, the Susan G. Komen controversy, nutrition, weddings, side effects, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, other Pink Sisters we have lost, scar tissue, fitness, our hair and so on. These were understanding conversations that lacked pity and judgment – they were pure and honest.

This group of women has been pushed into a truth-seeking quest without asking for it, yet almost every one of them will say that cancer is the best thing that’s happened to her. I’m honored to be in an elite group with these remarkable women and love them for the truest most exposed and beautiful versions of themselves that have hatched from their cocoons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Jigsaw Puzzle

I am continuing to work on this jigsaw puzzle I call my life. I have the whole set laid before me on the floor and I have begun work on identifying the pieces that frame the outside border. It’s a strange feeling to take a step back from the everyday hustle and bustle, evaluate the situations, traumas and emotions in your life, and attempt to piece them together in a way that makes sense. Although this work is exhausting, I think it might be the greatest thing I have ever done in my lifetime.

I have been a nervous Nelly for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think I have ever fully understood the intricacies of anxiety. It is not a one size fits all diagnosis. Instead it is a blanket term for a number of disorders that are classified into two groups: continuous symptoms and episodic symptoms. Anxiety disorder is divided into generalized anxiety disorder, phobic disorder and panic disorder; each has its own characteristics and symptoms.

My therapist Nancy Whiteley, LCP explained to me that anxiety is when the mind and body are completely in sync with one another. Your body creates a physical reaction for an emotion you are feeling, which can be both good and bad. Having a base diagnosis of anxiety and then experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on top of it, is where I am currently.

Here are the different forms of anxiety I am now experiencing with PTSD:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder which results in from a traumatic experience. Post-traumatic stress can result from an extreme situation, such as combat, natural disaster, rape, hostage situations, child abuse, bullying or even a serious accident. It can also result from long term (chronic) exposure to a severe stressor, for example soldiers who endure individual battles but cannot cope with continuous combat. Common symptoms include hypervigilance, flashbacks, avoidant behaviors, anxiety, anger and depression. There are a number of treatments which form the basis of the care plan for those suffering with PTSD. Such treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy and support from family and friends. These are all examples of treatments used to help people suffering from PTSD. —Wikipedia

I am now processing the emotions that I previously just coped through from my battle with stage-III breast cancer four years ago. Jenn has brought me the “gift of grief” and is allowing me to move through my emotions while supporting her in her battle against breast cancer.

Agoraphobia is the specific anxiety about being in a place or situation where escape is difficult or embarrassing or where help may be unavailable. Agoraphobia is strongly linked with panic disorder and is often precipitated by the fear of having a panic attack. A common manifestation involves needing to be in constant view of a door or other escape route. In addition to the fears themselves, the term agoraphobia is often used to refer to avoidance behaviors that sufferers often develop. For example, following a panic attack while driving, someone suffering from agoraphobia may develop anxiety over driving and will therefore avoid driving. These avoidance behaviors can often have serious consequences; in severe cases, one can be confined to one's home. —Wikipedia

It took two years before I would let Matt drive with me in the passenger seat. I always have to be the one driving. I often play the “what if” game and work myself into a frenzy. What if I get sick? What if we’re at the restaurant and I have a panic attack? My friends will get mad at me and blame me for ruining their evening. I often will come up with excuses to get out of going completely, or to drive separately. I have an errand to run beforehand, so I’ll meet you all there. And the worst part is, I then feel guilty about lying and nothing bad happens anyway. I don’t get sick and no one blames me for a bad time. It’s all just silly and I hate it. I always have to know where a bathroom is, too. Once I know where it is, I typically relax. Going to a new place I haven’t been before causes some anxiety until I scope it out and know all of my “plan b” options. I’m that thorough. CONFESSION: I have, at times, gone to a place prior to the actual day of the event just to scope it out and find where the exits and bathrooms are located.

Separation anxiety disorder (SepAD) is the feeling of excessive and inappropriate levels of anxiety over being separated from a person or place. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development in babies or children, and it is only when this feeling is excessive or inappropriate that it can be considered a disorder. Separation anxiety disorder affects roughly 7% of adults and 4% of children, but the childhood cases tend to be more severe; in some instances even a brief separation can produce panic.—Wikipedia

I get anxious when I think about going off of the Tamoxifen in two years. In my head I associate the Tamoxifen with keeping the cancer away. My therapist said that this is onset now because Jenn is receiving chemotherapy, which parallels my cancer treatment.

In panic disorder, a person suffers from brief attacks of intense terror and apprehension, often marked by trembling, shaking, confusion, dizziness, nausea, difficulty breathing. These panic attacks, defined by the APA as fear or discomfort that abruptly arises and peaks in less than ten minutes, can last for several hours and can be triggered by stress, fear, or even exercise; the specific cause is not always apparent.

In addition to recurrent unexpected panic attacks, a diagnosis of panic disorder requires that said attacks have chronic consequences: either worry over the attacks' potential implications, persistent fear of future attacks, or significant changes in behavior related to the attacks. Accordingly, those suffering from panic disorder experience symptoms even outside specific panic episodes. Often, normal changes in heartbeat are noticed by a panic sufferer, leading them to think something is wrong with their heart or they are about to have another panic attack. In some cases, a heightened awareness (hypervigilance) of body functioning occurs during panic attacks, wherein any perceived physiological change is interpreted as a possible life-threatening illness (i.e., extreme hypochondriasis). —Wikipedia

The agoraphobia typically leads to panic disorder. I have maybe had 50 in my lifetime. It always starts with my jaw tightening and then I began panicking knowing what is about to happen. I shake, tremble, get dizzy, my heart beats out of my chest, I go to the bathroom or vomit, I sweat profusely and my stomach will spasm and convulse. I cannot focus on anything—it completely consumes me. Once it passes I am literally exhausted and fall asleep.

Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder primarily characterized by repetitive obsessions (distressing, persistent, and intrusive thoughts or images) and compulsions (urges to perform specific acts or rituals). It affects roughly around 3% of the population worldwide. The OCD thought pattern may be likened to superstitions insofar as it involves a belief in a causative relationship where, in reality, one does not exist. Often the process is entirely illogical; for example, the compulsion of walking in a certain pattern may be employed to alleviate the obsession of impending harm. And in many cases, the compulsion is entirely inexplicable, simply an urge to complete a ritual triggered by nervousness.

In a slight minority of cases, sufferers of OCD may only experience obsessions, with no overt compulsions; a much smaller number of sufferers experience only compulsions. —Wikipedia

If I feel like other things in my life are out of control, or beyond my control, I will get transfixed and obsessive about my house being clean. I do this, according to my therapist, because it is something I can control. I kept a calendar for which days I clean what and even do things sequentially. Poor Matt just smiles and puts up with my crazy. My argument: at least I have a clean home.

There is another concept that I am not as familiar with called “self-trust.” For most of my life I have had a pretty good idea of how I feel about certain things. Typically you fall in the middle of the scale and can look at both sides and say “That doesn’t seem right” or “I agree with that,” but trauma in the form of life or death illness catches you off guard, like getting hit by a brick. It puts you in an indecisive and vulnerable state where you don’t necessarily trust your own opinion anymore, so you look to others to guide you. This also enhances all of your other anxieties, hence why I am struggling to put these jigsaw pieces together.

The good news, you ask? Most people with all of the above are off medication and complete therapy in seven months. I have to remember what my therapist told me at the beginning, “feel deeply and recover quickly.” That is what I intend to do. Am I always going to be a nervous Nelly? Yeah, probably, but I will have cognitive ways to manage my response to situations … and my home will remain clean.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You are What You Eat

Acupuncture this week was a little different than what I am used to. I told Dr. Carlos Durana that I had been up the night before with a very upset stomach. The day had been very busy and productive, but due to that I felt a little scattered mentally.

He started with 5-6 pins in my back while I sat on the table with my legs dangling off the side. He told me I could lie down, but I told him that I still had the pins in my back.

Dr. Durana: “I took them out as soon as I activated them.”
Me: “But I still can feel them.”
Dr. Durana: “You aren’t feeling the pins; you’re feeling the energy I activated.”
Me: “Can you just double check?”

Dr. Durana laughed, followed my paranoid instruction and assured me the pins were all gone.

I laid down and he moved around the table, as he always does, listening closely to my pulse on my neck, wrists and ankles.

Dr. Durana: “Your pulse on the left side of your body is very different than your right side. I don’t want you to be alarmed by this word, but it’s almost as if there’s a 'blockage' on the left side.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Dr. Durana: “Right here and here.”

Dr. Durana placed one finger on my left side next to my left breast on my ribcage and the other finger under my armpit toward the top. Both are where I have knots of scar tissue. He has never felt this area before, nor have I ever talked or complained about my scar tissue. I was frozen in shock.

He asked permission to place pins in each spot where I have scar tissue. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit apprehensive and scared, but I agreed. The first pin was painful initially and then it felt as though pressure was released from the area. The second needle into my armpit bent, which is common with scar tissue. The second attempt was successful and the pain and pressure release mimicked the first location. He placed pins on my right side in the same locations in order to balance the body. These spots are believed to connect and harmonize the body in several major organs ... the Yin and Yang. In Chinese Medicine, this path is suppose to open the portals for giving and receiving. He said I have done so much giving lately helping friends and being strong that he wanted to give this area a break and perhaps open it up to more receiving.

Next were my "happy pins." By this, I mean the pins he places in my legs and feet, arms and hands. I also had one between my eyes on my forehead and another in the center at the very top of my head. This pin made chill bumps run from my scalp to my toes. I visibly had goose bumps all over my body.

Me: “What do these pins do?”
Dr. Durana: “These are the locations for joy, happiness, calm and relaxing.”
Me: “Is that why I always see my grandmother, grandfather, Jasper, birds and children when you place these pins?”
Dr. Durana: “Yes, they are your happy places. I am trying to bring some of the positive energy to the surface to help you heal through the grief you are feeling.”

Next he wanted to focus on what I eat; after all, they say 'you are what you eat.' Part of healing the body and mind is about what you are giving your body to fuel it. Logically that makes sense to me. Everything is connected.

I told him what I typically eat Monday through Friday, which is pretty boring.

  • Breakfast: Medium vanilla latte, oatmeal with hot water, or a banana, or yogurt
  • Lunch: Soup with crackers, or cookies, or a granola bar with Vitamin Water Zero
  • Dinner: Something delicious I cook and typically diluted Gatorade

Since I usually don't have protein for breakfast or lunch, Dr. Durana believes that I am trying to "fix" the blood sugar drop and dizziness with the sugars in the Vitamin Water and Gatorade, instead of giving my body protein which will last much longer. Duly noted.

I already did a purge of my refrigerator and pantry over the holiday break and 90% of everything I have at home is low fat, 0 trans fats, organic, wheat and not processed. So, I started the process, but it appears it just needs some tweaking.

He said I need more:
  • fish
  • nuts (I can eat cashews, walnuts, almonds and pecans with no allergic reactions.)
  • berries
  • green tea with honey (to replace one sugary drink a day)
  • yogurt (with nothing fake or sugary added, then add fresh fruit, like berries)
  • apples (He was adamant about apples -- he said it's a cooling wonder fruit.)
  • lactose milk (He wants me to try it with my IBS to see how I feel. I have tried soy milk and had a horrible allergic reaction.)
  • oatmeal, but with milk instead of hot water

In addition to the prenatal/multivitamin I am on called Trimedisyn, he wants me to take the following:

If the lactose milk doesn't work with my stomach he suggested two powders I can use as a protein supplement:
  • Healthy Fit -- 100% egg protein (vanilla or chocolate)
  • BioChem -- whey protein that's lactose free

The first two parts I am going to try ... the powders I plan to hold off on until I try the lactose milk. He said in order for my body and mind to heal and get stronger from having been on chemotherapy, going through radiation, being on the Tamoxifen currently ... and everything else, I need to increase certain vitamins to replenish my body and protect it from infection since my immune system is still compromised. He told me about 80% of our body's immunity is in the stomach and intestines, so if we don't heal my stomach it will make me more susceptible to infection. He said in three weeks I will feel significantly better.

I am going to try it out and be as disciplined as I can be. I know it will certainly make my stomach feel better and I’m hoping the fatigue, anxiety and everything else will follow suit.

We finished the session with him placing two needles directly in my chest. It felt as though they went deep, through my rib cage and into my lungs. I know they didn't really go that deep. He explained that this location allows you to open your heart and receive love.


"I honor the place within you where the entire Universe resides; I honor the place within you of love, of light, of truth, of peace; I honor the place within you, where, when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Gift of Grief

“I believe you may be one of the most intelligent and high functioning patients I have ever encountered. I have never met someone as resilient and in touch with who they are. I find you fascinating.” — Nancy Whiteley (therapist)

“I have never met someone as receptive and in tune with their body. I stick these pins in you and your entire body literally vibrates with energy. Jennifer, you are empathetic and compassionate. Those are huge strengths and beautiful qualities. However, it is not your responsibility to take everyone’s issues and traumas as your own. You need to protect yourself and say internally ‘This is yours, not mine.’ in order to draw a distinction, otherwise you will be swallowed by the sorrow." — Carlos Durana (acupuncturist)

Over the last week both my therapist and acupuncturist have made similar comments about me. I am alone in my own head all day, so it really is fascinating to get an external perspective. However, it wasn’t until today that I really began to pinpoint the emotional swirl that has been occurring internally.

Nancy: “So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What made you make that brave phone call and walk into my office?”
Me: “Something happened deep inside of me when Jenn was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had been building up several months prior to her diagnosis, but that was what pushed me over the edge. I experienced a swirl of emotion that I could not explain, nor were my tactics for coping alleviating them. I mean, if three Xanax a day wasn’t helping, I knew I was in over my head. Matt was also concerned about me, not that I would hurt myself or anything, but that I didn’t seem like myself and he knew I was hurting.”
Nancy: “That swirl is what PTSD feels like. You are grieving. Do you realize Jenn has given you the gift of grief?”
Me: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Nancy: “Grief doesn’t just come from death. You have experienced significant and great sorrow in the last eight years. You are grieving on a primary level for your own suffering and loss battling breast cancer. And you are also grieving on a secondary level for Jenn.”
Me: “Why didn’t I grieve when I was going through treatment?”
Nancy: “How could you? You were so focused on getting through the day or even the hour at times. There is a huge difference between coping and processing. And both have their place and are valuable. You needed to cope while you were going through your treatment … and now it’s time to process, grieve and heal.”
Me: “Is there a right way to grieve? I mean, how do I even know if I am working through these emotions or just continuing to cope?
Nancy: “Think of yourself as a flag with holes in it. You feel the impact of the wind, but it is able to continue moving through you. That is what working through emotions feels like. Now, if you pull down the garage door and don’t allow yourself to feel the wind (the emotion), that’s coping.”
Me: “OK, I understand the distinction.”
Nancy: “There is an utter loneliness and desolation in grief. You have been dropped vertically into a profound emotional depth. If you can continue to stay in this place and feel deeply, you can heal and recover quickly, but it’s going to be intense and emotionally exhausting.”

I am ready to face this thing that my friend Kere refers to as the “cancer of emotion.” I feel like if I can face these feelings, I can find peace and perhaps even live happily ever after with my amazing husband-to-be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Swirling Hummingbirds

I lay on the table facing up and Carlos Durana, Ph.D., M.Ac., Dipl moved around the table feeling my pulse throughout my body. He felt my wrist, my ankles and my neck. He then felt the base of my skull, my jaw and my forehead. All the muscles were tight from worry, stress and anxiety. No surprise there – my jaw has started clicking recently because the anxiety has been so severe, which causes me to clinch my teeth.

He then moved his hands over my body, without touching me, in order to “see” my body. I kept one eye open to see what he was doing and realized that his eyes were closed. You know the feeling when you’re lying on the beach with your eyes closed and a cloud is blocking the sun? The breeze is cool on your skin. But then the cloud passes and you get the full heat of the sun. That’s what it felt like all the way through my body, wherever Dr. Durana’s hands hovered over me.

His hands stopped over my stomach, right under my sternum.
Dr. Durana: “When you have a panic attack does it make you feel like you could double over in pain?”
Me: “Yes, I usually curl up in the fetal position.”
Dr. Durana: “I sense a hunger, not a physical hunger, but an emotional one.”
His hands moved to my abdomen.
Dr. Durana: “Your abdomen is shaky. Do you have spasms?”
Me: “No one knows this except for Matt, but my stomach spasms or convulses violently when I have a panic attack.”
Dr. Durana: “Do you still have your ovary?”
Me: “Oh, I forgot to mention that I had an ovarian cyst removed in 1996. I still have my ovary though.”
Dr. Durana: “Do you want children?”
Me: “Yes, regardless of whether or not my body allows me to.”
Dr. Durana: “Good.”
Me: “I have had dreams about a little girl.”

He made notes in his notebook and then he moved to the pins. He started with my left leg. I had a pin in my shin, ankle and foot. I felt “energy” move up my left leg. When he put the pin in my right ankle I just about jumped off the table.

Dr. Durana: “What do you see? What do you feel?”
Me: “A hummingbird. Hummingbirds are swirling around my limbs and my whole body.”
Dr. Durana: “What does the hummingbird mean to you?”
Me: “It’s my grandmother. She always had a feeder outside her window where she would watch them.”
Dr. Durana: “What is your relationship like with her?”
Me: “We were very close. Actually, we were alike in many ways. In her later years she was ill with horrible bipolar symptoms, but growing up she was an incredible woman. She was loving, supportive and so proud of her children and grandchildren. I loved her dearly – I still do.”

The pins were placed up and down my arms and I was shocked I actually could feel them in my left arm despite having lost most of my feeling due to having lymph nodes removed. He placed a pin between my eyes which he said would pinch since it is a denser area. I felt it and then my whole body went limp. He said, “This will relax all your nerves.” I felt like I had just taken a shot of liquor … my whole body got warm and relaxed. I said out loud, “Oh boy.”

He left the pins in and moved back to my stomach to work on my breathing. I breathed in expanding my belly like a balloon and then slowly let the air out. He used his fingers and pressed different places on my stomach.

Dr. Durana: “Where are you at?”
Me: “The hummingbirds are swirling. I can feel their feathers touching my skin. The dream is coming back.”  
Dr. Durana: “What dream?”
Me: “I had a dream last night and it’s haunting me.”
Dr. Durana: “Tell me.”

I took Dr. Durana through my dream, which you can read here.

Dr. Durana: “You can’t fix Jenn. You feel a sense of helplessness. You are not responsible. You are doing all you can do, but you can’t control this. Where are you?”
Me: “I feel so sad.”
Dr. Durana: “Stay there and feel the emotion.”

The tears began running down my face.

Dr. Durana: “Good. Let it out. You’re safe. I won’t let you drown or be swallowed by the emotion.”

I focused on my sadness and continued my deep breathing. The film strip in my mind continued moving.

Dr. Durana: “You have shifted. Where are you now?”
Me: “I’m angry.”
Dr. Durana: “Tell me more.”
Me: “Abandonment. Anger.”
Dr. Durana: “Stay there, feel the emotion. You can speak out loud if you need to. You need closure.”

The tears continued to flow without any noise, just my steady breathing filled the air.

Me: “Nope, I’m gone.”
Dr. Durana: “Where did you go to?”
Me: “I heard someone yell STOP.”
Dr. Durana: “I didn’t yell stop.”
Me: “I’m done. I’m picking up seashells with my grandma on the beach.”

Once the two hour appointment ended, I asked what the emotional hunger was that he sensed in my stomach. He said it was too soon to tell but said it would surface over time. He said it may be that I am finally ready to heal.

Welcome to Crazy Town

OK, so I never can remember my dreams. I might remember one or two a year, and even so, it's all very foggy. This dream I had last night was as clear as day.

My therapist, Nancy Whiteley LPC told me to pay attention to my emotions and dreams throughout the week and bring them back to her on Monday to analyze together.

My dream ...

Jenn Campbell was laying in a hospital bed in the gown they normally give you with an ugly geometric pattern. There was another person there. I think it was either Jennifer Lewis or Amy Shroades. The three of us were conversing and laughing. The mood was light. Jenn was wearing her wig and was attempting to pencil in her eyebrows. She was doing a horrible job ... she was pressing so hard that her skin was turning pink. The line being drawn was dropping down toward her ear.

I moved to her side and sat on the edge of her bed. I started to rub the pencil from her temple, although it wasn’t coming off. She kept saying "It hurts." I asked, "Am I hurting you?" And she just kept repeating, "It hurts." This went on for awhile and I felt myself panicking because I couldn’t make sense of what was hurting her. Was it me?

Next, two male nurses, or medical professionals came into the room. (Even in my dreams I try to be very PC.) It was like they were "prepping" Jenn for surgery or a procedure. They swarmed around her like bees. I found myself straightening my back and paying close attention to every move they made. One of the men was Asian (not that it matters), and began cutting the back of her wig. Jenn was allowing him to continue and just stared at me helplessly. I told him to stop, but it was as though he couldn't hear or understand me. I began screaming at him to stop and to leave her alone. I was shaking. My heart was racing and I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. I finally got physical and shoved him to get him away from Jenn. I was so angry and was crying. I felt like I was responsible for protecting Jenn. No one else could possibly understand. She was mine to protect. It was such a strange and primal feeling.

Next thing I knew, Matt and I were attending Whitney Houston's memorial service, although it was taking place outdoors on a very green hill. I was wearing a black hood similar to the one Whitney wore in 'The Bodyguard.' They asked if anyone had visited Ireland last March when Whitney was there. (I have no idea if she was really there or not.) We raised our hands and they ushered us back into a private museum. I felt overwhelmed and sad. (And why had no one verified that we had actually been in Ireland in March 2011? They were just taking us at our word? Is this crazy town?). I was crying in the dream and so was Matt. He had his arm around me as we walked through the museum and I pressed into his side.

It wasn’t until I was in the shower this morning that I recalled the dream. I was washing my hair and as I normally do, I looked at the abandoned strands of my dark hair wrapped around my fingers like a web. My hands were shaking and I felt my breathing quicken as I worked quickly to remove the tangled hair from my fingers. My head became dizzy and just as quickly as panic set in I felt my subconscious rewind back to retell the dream I had just had. There was no panic attack in the shower this morning, but I was left with a perplexing feeling.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Work in Progress

Today was the first time I had been to a therapist in my adult life. I was so nervous. The last time I had spoken to a therapist was when I was in middle school. My Dad was ill and hospitalized on and off for several months (which I didn’t fully comprehend at the time) and I began experiencing anxiety and severe abdominal pain. It was believed at the time, by my physicians, that I was not handling the situation well with my father and was acting out with my pleads of abdominal pain.

It wasn’t until cheerleading tryouts my freshman year at Chantilly High School that I collapsed with a 3.5 pound ruptured ovarian cyst the size of a small grapefruit. I know that the retelling of this story will pain my family, especially my mother, since she feels a sense of guilt for what happened, but never in my life did I blame her. My family was doing the best they could with the information they were given, and time and time again, I was brushed aside by my physicians and told that it was all in my head. I became ashamed of feeling sick and I learned to bury my emotions.

Ovarian cyst or not, I know I had issues with my father becoming ill. (Actually, I always had anxiety issues or a kind of nervous/excitable characteristic. I remember the night before our annual beach trip I would be up all night with butterflies and an upset stomach because I was so excited.) Up until my father’s illness, things were easy. The normalcy and consistency of my foundation was cracked, but my family made it out alive and life went on.

Nancy Whiteley, LPC met me in the waiting room of her practice in Reston, Virginia. She ushered me up the stairs to her office filled with books on phobias, paranoia and all other mental illnesses you can imagine. The room was filled with sunlight and an array of plush couches and chairs. We jumped right in and I took her on a journey through my whirlwind of traumas: my dad’s illness, ovarian cyst rupture, a broken engagement, anxiety diagnosis, severe IBS, a stage-III breast cancer diagnosis and, most recently, the stage-IV breast cancer diagnosis of one of my best friends

Whiteley concluded from her first impression of me, that I am incredibly resilient, intelligent and have coped very well to this point. She reassured me that the traumas I have endured are more than any normal person should ever have to and that I'm not going to be "fixed" ... this is all normal to feel the sadness and grief I do.

She said she can't teach me any techniques or tactics because I am already doing them. I have an ability to bury my emotions and mask my feelings and anxiety in order to maintain normalcy, because I feel shameful. This technique has worked until now, but I'm running out of room to bury all these feelings.

Whiteley explained that I need to peel back the layers and expose myself to the emotions I buried. I did not allow myself to mourn certain traumas in my life and now as new traumas arise, I am reliving ALL of the traumas at the same time. I told her just the thought of working back through old scars scares me. Whiteley told me it wasn't going to be easy to work through the emotional pain, but that she would help me navigate those emotions.

There is no doubt that I am suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is common for cancer survivors. I was so focused on getting well and the baby steps of my process during my cancer treatment that I didn’t allow myself to sit long with any of the emotions. They are now surfacing with Jenn’s diagnosis of stage-IV triple negative breast cancer. Whiteley made a point to tell me that she will not pretend to know what breast cancer was like for me. This may sound strange, but I have been hesitant to talk to a therapist for the past four years because I didn’t believe anyone could ever fully grasp how I was feeling without being a cancer survivor also. So the fact that she came out and made this statement was incredibly reassuring to me. I needed to hear that.

She said, "You have been too strong for too long. Therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness." It was very hard for me to open up to someone like that. I didn't like it, but I know I needed to do it. Over time I think it will become easier.

“We are all works in progress, darlin’, most just don’t know it.” - my dear friend, Cynthia

Sunday, February 19, 2012

My Little G.I. Jane

Today was the day I had been grasping for the courage to make it through. Today was Jenn's brunch/shave party. She had made the decision to shave her head before cancer took it from her. She believed it would be much too emotional to watch it fall out. She didn't want to do the cutting in her home, so I opened my house to her and five of her closest girl friends. Jenn had agreed to let Matt photograph the brunch in order to document this moment in her journey, so he was also in attendance. The girls arrived at 11am (Jennifer Lewis, Lola Han, Susan Ernst, Chanda Keesecker, Joanna Harris) with food in hand and a brave smile on their faces. They knew in their hearts that today would be tough.

Jenn arrived with one of her closest friends Chanda who several years ago, attended my Pink Martini Night fundraiser in D.C. to support my journey. Jenn was anxious and her stomach had been acting up. We all sat, ate and got a mimosa in our systems. We talked about kids, music, Jasper in his cute little pink shirt for his Aunt Jenn and everything except the reason why we were there.

I was sitting on the floor with Jenn in front of me. My jaw tightened ... I knew what was coming next. OMG, I'm going to have a panic attack in front of everyone, right here in my living room. Just as it began building inside me, Jenn said, "OK, let's get going." I snapped out of the internal spiral and moved into action.

Jenn sat on the hassock while I tied her hair into ponytails all over her head. Her hair is so thick that we had 10 ponytails total. Susan and I then began braiding all the ponytails. Jenn had decided that if her hair was long enough, she wanted to donate it. This is how the organizations prefer you send the hair to them.

Once the braided ponytails were in place, we moved into the bathroom.

me: "OK, are you ready?"
Jenn: "Yes, just cut it."
me: "Do you want to cut the first one?"
Jenn: "No."
me: "OK, sugar. Take a deep breath."

I cut the first braid, kissed Jenn on the cheek, hugged her and told her that I loved her. I said, "You're being so brave. It's OK to cry."

Next was Chanda, she cut the second braid and Jenn began to cry. The process was overwhelming and surreal for Jenn, but despite the tears we kept moving. Each girl took a braid, cut it and then loved on Jenn. After they moved through the bathroom, they met each other in the living room and hugged while crying and comforting one another. I cried. I didn't cry because I was recalling my own experience when I shaved my head, but because I genuinely hurt for one of my best friends. And I knew EXACTLY how she was feeling. My heart ached hearing her whimpers, but I knew we had to push through it and once her hair was gone she would feel a sense of relief.

Once all the braids were gone, the tears had passed. I took out the little pink Wahl Pink Peanut clippers I purchased for Jenn and we trimmed her hair with the 1/2 inch cutting guide. She sat silently as I ran the clippers over her head. I was trying to do it as quickly as I could, but you have to move the clippers slowly, otherwise they don't have a chance to cut. Within 15 minutes, Jenn's hair was gone. I took the braids and stacked them on the sink. I saw Jenn look at them and at herself quickly in the mirror. It will take time before she will look in the mirror and recognize herself. I took the towel with all the hair collected and shook it on my balcony. That way she didn't have to deal with the anxiety of seeing it on the floor or in the sink. Hopefully the neighborhood birds and bunnies will be able to use the hair for their homes.

We had a group hug and then the girls wanted to play with Jenn's scarves and wig. Jenn was a new woman. She sat on the floor in the living room while the girls surrounded her and helped her learn how to tie her head scarves. She looked emotionally drained, but relieved that this was over. We ate cupcakes, had another round of mimosas and enjoyed the remainder of our time together.

Once everyone had left, I cleaned the bathroom. The ten braids sat on the bathroom sink. I measured them and seven were long enough (nine inches) to donate to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. I kissed each one and placed them gently in a Ziplock bag and then a padded envelope.

Matt and I looked through the photos from the day and once again I was moved to tears. I wasn't crying because I was sad, but because I was so proud of Jenn and moved by the love and support of Jenn's friends. I know she will get through this on the wings of her angels.

Read more about Jenn's journey on her blog:  http://notjennscupofteablog.blogspot.com/.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Time to Heal

October 18, 2011 I started physical therapy for a strained Achilles tendon. I remember the moment the exact moment I hurt myself. I was participating in the Ribbon Run 5k for breast cancer (April 9, 2011) with my friend Colleen and I remember my Achilles making a pop sensation and then becoming very tight. I stretched it using the curb and then finished the race. The discomfort persisted on and off for several months, but I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, so I ignored it.

This discomfort/tightness started at the arch of my foot where a knot had formed, ran along the outside of my Achilles tendon and up the outside of my calf. I didn’t really mention it to anyone because in the scope of everything else in my life this seemed inconsequential.

It wasn’t until my six month follow-up with my oncologist Dr. Heyer that it became a bigger concern. At the end of my appointment, Dr. Heyer asked if there were any other changes with my body.

Me: “No … well, I don’t know if this is relevant …”
Dr. Heyer interrupted, “Jennifer, it’s all relevant.”
Me: “Well, I’ve been in physical therapy for my Achilles tendon.”
Dr. Heyer: “Tell me everything.”

I explained how I injured my tendon and what types of therapy I was getting for my right leg. He then explained that Tamoxifen (the post-cancer therapy I am on for five years) has some nasty side effects, including deterioration of tendons and blood clots. Who knew!?!? He advised me NEVER to use a brace because that would create the perfect place for a blot clot. I explained that my physical therapist didn’t agree with braces because they limit the range of motion and don’t help strengthen the muscles around the tendon. He told me to continue with physical therapy and make this a high priority for the wellness of my body.

(Men, feel free to stop reading here, because I’m going to talk about “lady troubles” next.)

October was the last month I had “lady troubles.” This sent me into a complete panic since I was scared I might be perimenopausal again (from the chemo dosage I incurred back in 2008). I felt my hopes of every being able to get pregnant slip out from under me. I felt nauseous and my anxiety shot through the roof. I felt like I was spiraling chemically in my body. I kept telling Matt, “I just don’t feel right. I don’t know how else to describe it.” Women who have already been through menopause, I want you to know I feel your pain. This blows! The night sweats I have been having since 2008 became more intense and I would find myself wide awake between 1-3am in a full blown panic attack.

I called my nurse Brenda at Dr. Heyer’s office to ask her opinion about why my “lady troubles” had stopped abruptly.

Me: “What’s wrong with me?”
Brenda: “Nothing is wrong with you. Take a deep breath. This is a common side effect of Tamoxifen. Your [“lady troubles”] might come and go over the next two years of your therapy.”
Me: “But why would my [“lady troubles”] just stop at year three on this medicine? Is that normal?”
Brenda: “It is very normal since the therapy builds in your body and suppresses the estrogen being created since your cancer was estrogen positive. We have to keep it suppressed.”
Me: “What about my heightened anxiety?”
Brenda: “I would advise you make an appointment with your family medicine doctor to discuss changes in your anxiety.”
Me: “Ok.”
Brenda: “Jennifer? Two more years, kiddo. I know the side effects suck, but you only have two more years on the Tamoxifen and you have to push through it.”
Me: “I know. I just don’t feel right.”

The holidays came and went. Jasper got sick, then healthy, then sick, then healthy. Matt lost his Uncle Bob unexpectedly on Christmas Day. And my anxiety just kept building, while I kept using Xanax to maintain a normal balance in my everyday life.

It wasn’t until one of my best friends, Jennifer Campbell, was diagnosed with stage 4 triple negative breast cancer that my anxiety spiraled and reached a breaking point. It was back to the severity that I felt in 2005 and again in 2008. Traumas in my life create spikes in my anxiety. The nausea became severe and the weight loss began again. The lowest weight my anxiety has driven me to was 87 pounds back in 2005. I could feel myself starting to isolate from Matt and wanting to be left alone.

Matt: “Jennifer, I really think you need to go talk to someone. I love you with all my heart, but you know I’m a horrible listener. I don’t know that I can help you with this. You know I love Jenn, and you and I will do everything in our power to help her, but you can’t stop living your life. You have to keep eating. You have to spend time with your friends. I’m really worried about you.”
Me: “I love you. Thank you for being honest with me. I know I get completely consumed by these traumas in my life. It has taken me four years, but I think I am finally ready to talk to someone. I know that I have seeded emotions and even blacked out experiences from my cancer treatment that I need to work through.”
Matt: “I love you and I am here and support you in whatever you want to do. I am scared for you and I want you to be OK.”
Jenn: “I love you, too. I need you to reign me back in when I start to spiral because I don’t always know that I am. I promise I will talk to someone.”

Today I went to see my doctor Toni Nelson. She is one of the best women I know. I started my story from October and shared with her everything that had transpired that led me to her office. She hugged me and validated that my experiences over the past couple of years have been incredibly taxing. She said, “You just never get a break do you?”

(Toni diagnosed my anxiety back in 2005 when I ended up in her office 87 pounds and with horrible digestive issues—all stemming from stress, anxiety and trauma in my life.)

She told me that she loves Matt and is so happy that I have someone in my life to remind me that I need to continue living my life and that I deserve to be happy.

Toni: “Jennifer, I think it’s good that you are going to talk to someone and plan to try acupuncture. I think you are suffering some from Posttraumatic stress which is common after cancer, especially as you are reliving it with one of your best friends. Just because you are going to talk to someone doesn’t mean that you failed at resolving this on your own. I know how you think. You’re not a failure. It’s OK to need help sometimes and say that you don’t have the resources to handle this.”

I lowered my head and began crying. She knew me all to well and the internal struggle of not wanting help or to admit that I can’t fix this.

Me: “I’m just so tired. I try to be strong for everyone else and at the end of the day there is no fuel left for me—I’m drained. I feel like there’s something wrong with me.”
Toni: “Baby Doll, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ve had some serious traumas in your life and all we’ve given you to deal with it is 75mg of Effexor XR and .25mg of Xanax. With that low a dosage all you are getting is the serotonin value with no norepinephrine. Your resources are spent on the lowest dosage of medication possible. How you’ve coped to this point on barely any medicine is beyond me. We’ll bump up the dosage to give you some help and then reevaluate when you are done with the Tamoxifen and life calms down.”
Me: “Thank you so much for being so kind to me.”
Toni: “You can’t be everyone’s rock and white dove 100% of the time, Jennifer, and no one expects that of you. There is no shame in saying I don’t have it all figured out and I need some help. We’ll get you back to feeling like yourself.”

For some reason today, of all days, I remembered to bring with me a copy of 'The Shack' that the author William P. Young had sent me in the mail before the book actually came out. Toni and I had discussed the book a couple of years back when her mother had passed away and she was grieving. Young sent me a copy of the book while I was going through treatment and written me a personal message inside. I reread the quote he had written to Toni and my voice caught in my throat. Toni finished reading it for me:

"There is a wind that knocks you sideways, a rain that only leaves you cold ... but there is another storm of unrelenting grace in whose embrace you are now surely held."

OK, how on Earth did this man know that I love the rain and storms!? Almost every piece of artwork or photography I own has rain or people holding umbrellas. It is when I am most creative and I feel the most centered. Who would have guessed that a fire sign (Sagittarius) would be drawn to water. Might explain why I fell in love with Matt the Scorpio (water sign). What a perfect quote so well suited for my life.

I have been seeing a masseuse named Mimi monthly to help with the increased numbness in my fingers and toes. She has also been doing aromatherapy for anxiety which is amazing. I start therapy in a week and am planning on trying acupuncture. I guess there really is beauty in the breakdown.

Thank you to my family and friends for reaching out to me over the last few months, concerned about my health and wellness. Some of you in tears upset that I had lost myself. Your concern and kindness about my well being is touching beyond words. I am so blessed to be surrounded by such amazing individuals. I promise to take really good care of myself and keep you updated on my journey to healing myself.