mid-life young adult cancer crisis

Has my license to write about cancer expired?  I’ve been thinking about the countless numbers of young adults who have been diagnosed with cancer since I entered this universe over five years ago.  I’ve mused on the lives lost, the brave people I knew who this rotten disease managed to take down.  I’ve thought about the people I know who have devoted their lives so much more actively and purposefully to the “cause.”  At this point, what does my life have to do with cancer?  Does the crowded world of cancer bloggers require my highly irregular reporting about my “life with cancer,” when I’m perfectly healthy, and when my “life” is really about so many other things at this point?

These are not questions I ask in order to prompt support from people saying, “You have so much great stuff to say.  Always keep writing.”  I ask these questions because with each passing day that I am away from my chosen profession, home raising my son, I wonder what I am doing to be an active and meaningful voice in the world of young adult cancer.  Being the best mother I can to my son doesn’t feel like enough of a transformative gesture; I would have been doing that regardless of my diagnosis.  After all these years, I still feel compelled to be Doing Something, shining some kind of light.  The sense of isolation I felt during my period of diagnosis, treatment and even the early stages of my recovery is something I will never forget.  Once I regained some semblance of physical and emotional stability, I pledged that I would do whatever I could so that other young adults going through similar ordeals would not have to endure that same feeling.

Never mind that it feels somewhat disingenuous to even call my self a “young adult” at this point.  With my diagnosis at age 35, I was already on the outskirts of young adulthood.  Five years later, I have arguably entered mid-life.  Isn’t it time for the old folks to step aside and make way for the next generation of young adult cancer warriors?


once a climber…Moab, UT, April 2010

It is no accident that these questions have arisen in the wake of my decision to participate in a First Descents fundraising Climb-a-Thon next month.  Not so very long ago, First Descents felt like the beating heart of my cancer survivorship.  After all, without that remarkable organization, I might never have seen my way out of the post-treatment wilderness.  From August of 2009 to July of 2011, my life seemed in some way measured in intervals between camps.  During that time, it was impossible for me to imagine a time when FD wouldn’t be a constant force in my life, or a time when I would go more than a few months between camps, fundraising events, or athletic challenges taken on under the Team FD mantle.  After kayaking in Montana in 2011, when I decided that my camper days were likely over, I was committed to remaining actively involved with the organization and its spirit.

Parenthood, understandably, changed everything.  Time became a rare and precious commodity.  Priorities shifted, seismically.  Our family’s entire center of gravity changed, and my husband and I both instinctively adapted, making time with and responsibility to our son our chief priority.  The magic and mystery of becoming a parent almost seamlessly reordered our lives.

Last week, when word of a local First Descents fundraiser came through my email, this dormant fire in me began to flicker anew.  It’s been nearly three years since I was climbing in Utah; I shudder to think of the physical struggles I may face when I am on rope at GO VERTICAL in two weeks time.  But the pull was irresistible, so I cleared the time on our family’s weekend calendar and signed up.  I even started plugging the event on social media and scrounging for donations from friends and family who are probably suffering from a bit of charity fatigue.  It felt like I was being reunited with a long-lost friend.

My hope is that when I arrive to climb on March 2, I will encounter a whole new group of fierce young adults who are living with cancer or its aftermath.  Some of them may be half my age.  But rather than feeling like an ex-young adult cancer survivor, I hope to be able to show, just by being there, that life  – fully lived – does indeed go on “after” cancer.  When I sat in my hospital bed after my first surgery and listened to one of my doctors talk about what surveillance might look like YEARS down the road, I cried and shook my head in dismay.  It seemed like an impossibility that would never come.  At the height of my health crisis, the future was meaningless; it couldn’t exist for me.  The life-giving parts of my body had just been cut out of me.  So had cancer, but all I could feel in that moment was the absence of the life I would never be able to create.  At 35, what could the future possibly look like, and would I even live long enough to see it?

But at 40, here I am: Mom to the most beautiful boy in the world; climber, of sorts; fundraiser for the group to which I owe so much of my life after cancer.  Perhaps what’s meaningful is that I am still here to do any of this at all.

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moments of surrender

As it turns out, there is much more to fear in life than the onset of a life-threatening illness.  Fear of weakness, of facing limitations, of inadequacy, of conflict, of vulnerability – over the last five years, these manifestations of fear have all lurked around the psychic periphery since cancer tried and failed to fell me.  These manifestations are perhaps less dramatic, but no less hindering, than fear of a life cut short.

When I began my post-cancer yoga practice almost two years ago, I never expected that one of its primary lessons would be about recognizing the on-going power of fear.  After finishing treatment, once the long psychic hangover of chemo resolved, I joked that now that I’d faced cancer, there was really nothing left for me to fear.  It’s a truism about cancer survival that my experiences with First Descents drove home, powerfully and repeatedly.  As I rappelled off an enormous cliff in the Grand Tetons in the summer of 2009, the terror that gripped me was not of my ropes snapping and plummeting to a rocky death; it was reliving that which gripped me when I woke from surgery to the news of my cancer.  And reliving that fear, with awareness, helped me to conquer it anew.

But the conquering of fear ultimately may be a practice, like yoga, rather than a finite act.  Surviving my illness allowed me to pass through one kind of fear, leaving me in a place where its legacy is far more nebulous, but just as potent.

looks pretty, right?

Last Monday, after weeks of procrastination, I finally reached out to my yoga teacher about my problematic relationship with wheel pose.  It’s a pose that I’d easily attained in my life prior to cancer, when I practiced yoga sporadically and less seriously – when my body was much younger and leaner, before it was battered by surgeries and chemo.  In my current body, though, wheel has become a mocking enemy of sorts – something totally counter to the spirit of yoga.  With wheel, I’d erected an insurmountable barrier, and felt my inability to get there was symbolic of the fundamental damage that my cancer fight had done to me – and that for all of the rocks climbed and half marathons run, there was a way in which I would never be able to fully reclaim my body, or even all of myself, from this disease.

When I brought my frustrations to my teacher’s attention, and in the process shared the condensed version of my cancer story, she responded with characteristic openness and generosity, and sent me several long notes with ideas about how to approach the pose and where the issues might be in my body.  During the course of the week, as her emails and ideas rolled in, I’d set myself up on the floor, and study what was going on with my body – were my hands flat on the ground?  Where was I feeling constriction?  Was I lifting too much with my arms and not enough with my legs?  I’d assess, and then shoot off another note with my findings.  Suddenly, the monster became approachable, as we worked on solving this puzzle together.

I headed to class last Friday morning excited, curious to see what I could do with all of this new information.  Toward the end of class, after vigorous vinyasa work, my teacher, who customarily ends practice with a series of backbends culminating in wheel, shared with the entire class some of the tips and suggestions we’d been exchanging over email.  She demonstrated the pose using blocks under her hands, and in my mind’s eye, things began to seem possible.  She invited the entire class, filled with many people who have an established practice with wheel, to consider thinking about the pose in light of these suggestions.

I took my two blocks and pushed them against the wall.  I lay on my back, and flipped my palms onto the blocks.  Then, somehow, without the dread that had filled my mind and heart every other time I’d approached the pose, I extended my arms, and lifted my booty and my back off the ground, and found myself staring at the studio’s brick wall.  How was this happening?  My teacher approached.  “That’s gorgeous, “ she told me.  “You’re doing it.”  Then it became real; I was up, in wheel.  I felt myself begin to shake.  “Come down when you’re ready,” she said.

I lowered myself to the ground.  “You did it!” she said again.  “How do you feel?”

The swelling in my chest rose to my throat, then my eyes, and tears ran quietly down my cheeks.  “OK,” I said, gulping air, trying to contain a sob.  I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “That was amazing,” she said.

We moved into shavasana, and more tears came, as I suddenly felt myself back in the moment of my diagnosis.  Outside the studio walls was the dark and chill of late fall, the time of year when cancer visited its wrath upon me.  This momentous anniversary, five whole years, the fear I still hold in my heart, the worry that I won’t stay here for my son – all of it was loosed by this pose.  I swallowed hard, and realized what had been unhooked when I lifted my heart to the sky.  No wonder, then, that I had allowed wheel to feel so impossible for so long.  My body knew something my mind did not, and was trying to protect me from that persistent hurt.  So much of my survival has been about reclaiming and proving my strength, both physical and psychic.  But part of survival is a pain that never leaves, but rather lingers, waiting for release.

These moments of surrender need not be feared.





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In an ironic twist, the morning that Hurricane Sandy began pounding the East Coast, I was scheduled for my regular oncology check-up, my first exam and round of blood work since my recurrence scare over the summer.  Only three months have passed since a colposcopy yielded negative biopsy results and I was able to exhale fully after a nervous July; logically, I have no reason to worry.  Then again, the occasion of a check-up is always reason to worry.

But on Sunday evening, my anxiety about my PAP test and CA125 was quickly eclipsed by anxiety about the approaching storm, which threatened the entire Eastern seaboard, with a particular eye on my home state of New Jersey.  The Monday morning forecast remained murky, and I tried to convince myself I’d be able to make it to West Philly and back before the brunt of the storm hit.  But as news of schools and courts closing and public transit shutdowns spread, it became clear that there was no way I could safely travel even the ten-plus miles to Penn.  I’d have to hunker down at home with hubby, son and pets, and reschedule my check-up.

I left a message with my oncologist’s answering service late Sunday night; we woke in the morning to the first stirrings of whipping wind and pelting rain.  First thing, I made a failed attempt to reschedule my appointment, but by the time I got through to the schedulers, they were preparing to close the practice for the day in anticipation of the worsening conditions.  I’d need to wait until Wednesday, when I could talk directly to my doctor’s scheduler, who could try to squeeze me in sooner.

Beach Haven, NJ, September 15, 2012

For the first part of that surreal Monday, as the coastline 50 miles from my front door was ravaged and the streets of our beloved Long Beach Island flooded, I perseverated on the need to reschedule my appointment, to make sure that my three-month check-up (“the scare” had put me back on a three-month cycle, after what seemed an eternity of enjoying 6 month intervals between visits) occurred within this tight little window of time.  A day or a week too late, I felt, and some malignancy would have a chance to take root in some dark corner of my body, and that would be it.  For a long time, I wondered what my life would be like if my cancer had been caught earlier; what part of my nightmare would I have been spared?  And so I still take comfort in the rigor and regularity of my surveillance schedule, and tell myself that even in the event that something suspicious does emerge, my doctors and I will have the upper hand.  Disrupting my regimen, so entrenched over the last five years, felt like Russian roulette.

But as the news of the impact of Sandy’s wrath grew increasingly grim, my obsession changed – from my postponed checkup to the freakish destruction, occurring, it seemed, all around me.  Paranoid fantasies were quickly hatched – of the roof being torn off our house, water rising all the way to our first floor, the enormous tree in our back deck snapping in half and crushing us all.  One way or the other – be it cancer recurrence or hurricane – the end felt near.

My husband urged me to breathe deeply and enjoy the extra time we were having together with our son, whose obliviousness to the situation and delight in having both of his parents to play with was a welcome balm to my frayed nerves.  Eventually, I did just that.  We made cookies, and played and laughed together, and by early evening, realizing that we’d survived the entire day without losing power or being crushed by falling trees, I was in fact able to breathe more easily.

After dinner, with Earl peacefully asleep, I turned to social media outlets for updates on the storm’s progress.  Wind and rain continued to batter our house, but there was little water in the basement, and though the lights flickered intermittently, our power was in tact.   We were, strangely, fine, when so much of our state was being destroyed.  I started seeing pictures of Long Beach Island, where we were married in 2003, and my heart nearly stopped.  All the talk during the day had been of Atlantic City, where the storm made landfall.  But just to the north of Atlantic City, “our island,” sight of so many lazy summer weekends as well as our wedding (which was marked by its own storm) was all but obliterated.  After a day of shattered nerves, it was almost more than my heart could bear.

Beach Haven, NJ, October 29, 2012

As I obsessively checked Twitter for updates on LBI (and New York City, whose condition also horrified me, but whose resilience and resources assure me that she will be just fine), I came across this tweet, from New York Times writer David Carr: We are all powerless as a general rule, Sandy is just an acute reminder.”  Yes, I wanted to scream.  Yes, yes, yes.

The mind-blowing scale of Sandy and the devastation she has caused leave us all humbled.  But what terrifies us most, I think, is that she teaches us the same lesson that cancer taught me five years ago: something terrible is happening, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

But it can’t end there.  Because something terrible happens, and then you keep going.  You cry and rage, and your heart breaks, but you keep going.  You rebuild yourself, from the inside out.  You learn to walk and run again; you learn to laugh bigger and louder, more raucously.  You learn to be hopeful again.

Something terrible has happened.  But we must keep going.

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our island, at last

Summer’s final act has brought unexpected joy, and a chance to reflect.

One day last week, it dawned on me: summer is ending, and Earl hasn’t seen the ocean.  I realized further: we hadn’t visited Long Beach Island since before my cancer diagnosis almost five years ago.  The place was calling to me.  It was past time for a visit, no matter how brief.

We made our first trip to LBI completely by accident, probably in the late ‘90’s, a few years after we met.  We wanted a weekend at the beach; why not LBI?  We settled on Beach Haven as our destination, and it immediately became Our Spot.  On one of our first summer weekends there, we discovered that my father’s family had connections to the island, and that my great-great grandfather had owned a home there in the early 20th Century.  Strange coincidence, perhaps, but in hindsight, it made sense, given the way the place got its hooks into me.

In 2003, we were married on the island.  The wedding planning and the day itself were notable for numerous near-catastrophes and violent weather.  But when the storms on the night of our so-called rehearsal dinner had cleared, we were left, the evening of our wedding, with lightening skies, a gorgeous sunset, and memories for a lifetime.

strolling to the bay at our wedding reception

We went back to Beach Haven the next two summers after our wedding, but as a married couple, and with the hope of starting a family burning strong in us both, being there started to feel different.  Suddenly, it seemed, we were adults playing at carefree adolescence.  We were surrounded with people our own age, perhaps even younger, with children of their own.  We talked about what it would be like to come to the island one day with our kids; we didn’t for a minute realize how long it would take for that dream to come true.

But maybe I did.  Here in the midst of this month of ovarian cancer awareness, I am reflecting on my symptoms, all the things that were telling me that something was wrong, for all that time.  Looking back on the months and years leading up to my diagnosis, I wonder if maybe I did know how things were about the change, that life as I knew it was about to end.

A year or so after our last visit to Beach Haven, I was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer.  All dreams of summer weekends at the shore with our children were put on hold  – indefinitely, if not forever.

It’s hard to know why, in all the summers since I finished treatment, we hadn’t returned to LBI.  Perhaps it would trigger too many powerful feelings of loss.  In my bitterest moments after diagnosis, I would think back to our wedding day, the hope and joy that overflowed there, and then think about how cancer had ravaged our dreams, my body.  The heartbreak was more than I could bear.  It was easier, I suppose, to stay away from the place that symbolized everything our life was supposed to be.

Our first summer with our son would mark our return to the island.  With limited time and money, an extended visit was not in the cards.  But our new home on the Jersey side of the Delaware affords us the luxury of little more than an hour’s car ride to the ocean.  So I announced with solemn purpose one evening last week:  I want to take Earl to the ocean, to LBI.  It’s important.

My husband works extremely hard at his job; he treasures his lazy weekend days.  Extended car travel with our 8 month old can be a gamble; scream-fests are always a risk.  But he knows that I work extremely hard, too, and when I pressed my desire to spend a precious weekend day at Our Spot, he got it.

The day could not have been more perfect.  Cloudless blue sky, brilliant sun, cool breeze.  We lunched at one of our favorite spots on Bay Road.  We strolled along Centre Street, past the bed and breakfast where our parents and aunts and uncles stayed and where we had our rehearsal dinner in a driving rainstorm.  We took a quick spin past the restaurant where we had our reception, all the while narrating for Earl the meaning of each spot.

Our time on the beach was pure bliss – Earl’s reaction to the crashing waves and endless water was priceless.  We stopped and rested along a jetty, where Earl took his bottle while gazing out across the watery horizon.  He put his little toes in the sand and squirmed with delight.  Finally, it was happening. – this dream, made real.

tootsies in the atlantic ocean

We ended our day at Barnegat Lighthouse; we climbed 217 steps (me with Earl strapped to my chest) and took in the panoramic views of the bay and the ocean.  The wind blew hard in our faces, but at a hundred and seventy-two feet in the air, my soul soared.

It was a day of magic, one that called up so much of the journey that has brought us to this place of dreams finally realized.

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holding it all

Life can be extreme.  Our fears can consume us; joy can make us feel like our hearts will burst.  Holding it all, simultaneously, as I was made to do recently, can seem nothing short of defying emotional gravity.

There are these moments, surprisingly rare – but perhaps more often for those of us who have lived with cancer – when we are asked to absorb difficult and ambiguous realities, like an abnormal test result, while at the same time celebrating something amazing, like the adoption of a child.  The tumult of the past few weeks – muted by vigorous, daily running and yoga, and nightly cocktail hour – was not fully revealed until the storm of uncertainty had passed.  That Other Shoe never quite dropped; or if it did, it had turned into a nice soft bunny slipper and landed with a harmless “poof.”  In my ultimate relief, I realized how hard I had been working to maintain my psychic equilibrium, and just how scared I had been.

As I wrote previously, my abnormal Pap test results from June were nothing inherently alarming.  My doctor told me directly, “This is not an emergency.”  But when Life After Cancer has consisted of nothing but smooth sailing, even the slightest glitch can feel seismic.

Thanks to the timing of our son’s adoption finalization bash, and an extended visit from my family, I had plenty to distract me from perseverating over my impending colposcopy.  The party, ten days ago, was a huge success, and only served to solidify the reality of our new life as parents, and the wonder of our Early Bird.  We were truly left with our hearts bursting, knowing that Earl is surrounded by so much love.

With my Early Bird, at his Big Bash

But what does one do when the party is over, and a trip to the oncologist looms?  Each morning, I rose before dawn to hit the pavement or take refuge at the yoga studio.  Part of this was about keeping my composure during a long stretch with house-guests; likely an even bigger part of it was about reminding (or convincing) myself that I am strong and healthy, that disease is not brewing within me.   I even logged a quick morning run the day of my scope.  Along my route, I held my head high and pumped my arms, smiling at the other runners I encountered.  I was determined to take this feeling of strength with me, right into the stirrups.

Those who’ve been down this road, who’ve been faced with murky medical findings in cancer’s aftermath, know that there inevitably comes a point when the fight becomes too much.  You have to let go, and let in the fear.  For me, it happened  – not surprisingly – at the moment my doctor entered the exam room.  My doctor’s job is to keep me healthy physically, not to tend to my emotional needs, so I did my standard routine of nodding and “OK-ing” as she went through her spiel, including telling me that she’d referred me for a CT scan.  As I listened, dutifully, distractedly, the terror rose in my chest like a tidal wave.  I kept fighting to beat it back, but once my feet were up and the magnifying lenses were trained between my legs, all the ujjayi breath in the world wasn’t going to help me.

Now doesn't that look like fun?

The physical discomfort of the scope may have been the last straw; my breath caught, and the tears started coming.  The same nurse who has always hovered silently during my regular pelvic exams – while my doctor and I engage in idle chatter – reached over and grabbed my hand.  My doctor muttered instructions as she continued with the scope; I continued to cry as quietly as I could, hanging on to the nurse’s hand.  At one point, I did hear my doctor say, “Well, I don’t see anything…everything looks normal.”  But those words of comfort seemed too late, too little, and too remote.  I was miles away, deep in my fear.  And in the grip of that fear, cancer was back.

When the procedure was over, tears still streamed down my face.  I sat up at the end of the exam table, and the nurse handed me tissues.  My doctor’s eyes were level with my own.  She may have touched my shoulder.  She repeated that there were no visible signs of abnormalities during the colposcopy, and explained, matter-of-factly, that it would take about a week for the biopsy results to come back.  She also told me that she wanted me to return in three months, rather than the usual six, for a repeat Pap test.  That news, almost more than anything that had come before, made me feel I’d lost my fight.  Suddenly it seemed that the state of blissful but controlled denial in which I’d dwelt since entering remission four years ago had come to and end.  Once again, I was a cancer patient.

I don’t even remember my doctor leaving the room.  I was left with the nurse, who asked if I was off from work for the day.  I sputtered something about how I’d recently left my job to be with my son, and for some reason felt compelled to explain that we’d adopted a baby in January.  In that moment, nothing made sense.  How could I, with a black hole where my reproductive organs were supposed to be, have a child?  How could I, the ticking cancer time bomb, be a parent to my son?

As my mind reeled, the nurse handed me a maxi-pad (when was the last time I’d used one of those?) and told me to bring pictures of Earl the next time I came in.

In the familiar cold of the hospital bathroom – where so much psychic heavy lifting had occurred for me over the years – I fumbled with my contact lens that had washed out of my eye as I cried.  I stuffed the drape sheet into the trash and put on my skirt.   Thoughts of my husband and son gathered around the edges of my rattled mind.  I had to pull it together.  I took some deep breaths, and told myself, “It’s time to get back to your strength.”

Mercifully, I waited only 24 hours for my biopsy results.  As Earl and I drove home from our mom-baby yoga class yesterday, my phone rang.  The bright sunlight streaming through the windshield kept me from seeing the incoming number.  I picked it up, and heard the voice of an unfamiliar doctor from my primary care office.  He explained that he’d received the biopsy result from Dr. Chu’s exam, and everything was normal.  He’d thought I’d want to know.

I pulled over to finish the conversation.  The doctor reviewed the plan for the CT scan, and asked if there was anything else he could do for me.  I thanked him profusely for sharing the news, and hung up.  The world seemed instantly brighter.  My heart literally felt like it was lifting out of my chest, toward the sun.  “Earl,” I said, “let’s go celebrate.”

Breathing again, feeling hope and optimism return to their place of centrality, I was able to appreciate how truly terrified I had been.  Beneath all of the effort, the diligent fight to remain on an even-keel, there’d been a steady drumbeat of morbid thoughts, telling me that this illusion of health and wellness was just that – a mirage, and it was over.  I would never escape cancer.

There, perhaps, is the hardest lesson from this, my first post-treatment health scare.  Fate has dealt me wonky genes, and if I want to live a long life, and be around to raise my son, I must accept that my reality is one of persistent screenings, scopes and scans.  The poking, the prodding, the occasional ambiguous – or perhaps not-so-ambiguous test result – is inevitable.  Such is my lot.

It remains to be seen if I will become any more adapt at holding it all – the bliss of being a mother to my incredible son, along side the fear of cancer returning and devouring this beautiful family we have finally created.  But I am determined to keep trying,




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the other shoe

We survivors possess many unique skills.  Chief among them may be our ability to consciously deny our persistent, nagging fear of The Other Shoe Dropping.  It’s essential, if we want to keep on living in any meaningful, joyful way.

Most people, at some point, likely entertain thoughts like this:  “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.  Might as well live for the moment.”

As survivors, the bus has come and gone.  We’ve been flattened.  We’re peeling ourselves off the pavement, clawing and scraping our way forward, but we’re constantly looking over our shoulders, if only on the sly.  We know that we have to keep moving, but fear fights to pull us back.

The specter of The Other Shoe Dropping, for me, becomes most vivid and terrifying in moments of profound bliss, usually apropos of nothing in particular.  Recently, though, the fear took on a specificity I haven’t felt since the moment of my original diagnosis nearly five years ago.

My six-month check-ups with my oncologist have become yawningly routine at this point.  Hello!  How are you?  You look fabulous.  I’m sorry: my hands are really cold. Little bit of pressure…a lot of pressure.  OK, you can sit up.  We’ll have your test results within two weeks.  Don’t forget to stop at the lab for your blood work on your way out.  See you in six months.

No muss, no fuss.  Invariably, within a few days, I get a call telling me that my CA125 is normal.  In another few days, I get another call telling me my PAP test is negative.  No matter how many times I get these calls, my heart always skips a bit when I see the hospital number on my phone, and a huge smile creeps across my face when I get the good news.

After my most recent check-up, at the end of June, the CA125 call came the very next day.  Undetectable; normal.  Words I never tire of hearing, and news I always happily share with my friends and family.

A week later, the second call came.  As usual, it was my oncologist’s nurse.  “Oh, hi,” she began, the same sunny tone as always present in her voice.  “So, your PAP test showed some low-grade dysplasia, and Dr. Chu wants you to come in for a colposcopy, which I know you’ve had before…”

My mind racing, I immediately interrupted her.  “Um, actually, no, I haven’t.”  I flashed back to the hysterical conversations I had with this same nurse during treatment, as I begged and pleaded with her to please have my doctor prescribe me something for my plummeting mood.  Something, please, to stop me from crying all day, every day.

“Oh well,” she continued.  “It’s just an office procedure…take some Motrin…the doctor wants to take a closer look…maybe a biopsy if she sees anything of concern.”

I was holding my son in my arms; when the phone rang, I was about to put him down for a nap.  As the nurse’s words rang through my head, my heart pounded.  All I wanted to do was cling to Earl, shut my eyes and ears to all of this noise, and go back to the place of bliss where I was the moment before the call came.

Rationally, I should have been able to recognize the “ho-hum” tone in the nurse’s voice.  Rationally, I should have been able to process the fact that my own sister has been dealing with a similar diagnosis on and off for several years, and is very much alive and well, happily raising her own child.  Rationally, I should have recognized that the condition discovered in my PAP test is in no way part of the profile of the genetic mutation that I carry.

Instead, panic slowly seeped in.  I went from “low-grade dysplasia” to my husband raising Earl as a single parent, with me dead in the ground, in a matter of seconds.  I lay Earl down on our bed, and gazed at him, smiling as always, but feeling all of the peace and contentment I have finally come to know as a parent melting away, being replaced with the return of cancer, and the sound of The Other Shoe Dropping.

I’m a parent now.  I cannot afford to stay for even a moment in this kind of hotbed of panic.  Get it together, Emily, I told myself.  I helped myself to a capsule of kava, and after speaking briefly to my husband (who took the news perfectly and appropriately in stride), contacted my sister.  She did a wonderful job of honoring my concern while also assuring me that everything would be fine.  She told me about the procedure, and her understanding of the findings.  Wisely, she urged me to call my doctor and ask to speak to her directly, to allay any lingering concerns.  I did just that, and it made all the difference.

The colposcopy is scheduled for the end of the month; in the mean time, we are about to celebrate the finalization of Earl’s adoption.  I’m running and doing yoga with religious zeal.  I’m stronger than ever, and happier than ever.  I cannot even measure the magnitude of the joy that now burns so brightly from the very core of my being.  I’ve survived the shock of getting my first-ever abnormal test results since completing my cancer treatment four years ago.  Now, it’s back to the essential work of staying present in the magic of this moment.



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burning doubt – lessons from a yoga mala

At 5:30 this morning, I offered up all of my doubt to the forces of balance and harmony in the universe.  Then, along with about 10 other women, I performed 108 sun salutations – a yoga mala to mark the Summer Solstice.  At the precise moment I was beginning to feel nagging doubt about recent huge changes and choices in my life, the yoga mala brought me to a place of ecstatic surrender, where the only thing guiding me was trust in myself and my own instincts.  Lesson learned.

108 of these: surya namaskar a

The best way, it seems, to shake off doubt is to challenge oneself in new and perhaps peculiar ways.  When I returned home this morning, sweaty and blissed-out, my husband asked, appropriately, “So you just did the same pose 108 times?”   I alluded to the flow of postures in the sun salutation, and then thought, well, there’s the rub.  It’s in The Flow.

Two weeks ago, I resigned from a job I’ve had for nearly nine years.  At first, I was elated.  I felt strong and clear-headed about my decision.  I’d been frustrated and discontented with my work for years, and had been longing for a change but felt paralyzed at the thought of trying to make something different happen in my professional life.  I was stuck, which for me is one of the worst feelings imaginable.

Then Earl arrived.  There is no better way than welcoming a child to precipitate change.  Like it or not, everything changes.  Sleep schedules, free time, attention spans, priorities: all of it.

It didn’t take long to realize that what I wanted more than anything was to be with Earl all the time, to devote myself completely to loving and nurturing him.  I didn’t want to give up my career as an attorney forever: just for now, like a sabbatical (oh, how I envy my sister her career in academia at times!)  In this moment, in these precious, fleeting early months of Earl’s life, what I want is to give myself over to this monumental love, this task of caring for this beautiful new being.

The realization came almost immediately after we brought Earl home.  Still, I fought it for months, pushing ahead with finding a childcare provider, while simultaneously moving my return to work date back as far as it could conceivably go.  (At the beginning, six months at home seemed like an eternity.  How quickly things change.)  I see now that I was struggling with my competing impulses – of wanting to be home with Earl full-time, and of wanting to preserve my sense of identity as a professional.  I always assumed that I’d be a “working mom,” (what a ridiculous phrase), so when it struck me that my heart was telling me otherwise, I felt a kind of tearing at my sense of self.

Once the decision to resign was made, I was resolute.  I talked to countless people about it, and never waivered in my certitude that I was doing the right thing – for myself, for Earl, for our whole little family.  (I cannot over-state the importance and benefit of having a fully supportive spouse.)  The day I strode into my office, copies of my resignation letter in hand, I was triumphant.  Few things have ever felt more right.

But somehow, last week, after the rush of finally doing this thing that I’d dreamed about for so long, and which promised to give me the freedom to fully devote myself to my son, doubt began to creep in.  I suddenly saw an endless stretch of days ahead, Earl and I lying with books and toys on our bed, laughing and babbling and snuggling together, with no end in sight.  Would I get bored?  Would Earl?  By choosing to leave my job and stay home with him, was I denying him the chance to socialize and interact with other children?  Would I end up smothering him with too much love and attention?  Was I making a bad choice based on my years of anger and sorrow about not being able to have a child, rather than on what is best for the child I finally do have?  Would he get sick of me before he even started pre-school?  Would I go slowly nuts, transforming from attorney to desperate housewife?

In these new days as a stay-at-home mom, I have a lot of time with my thoughts.  I have Earl, and the dog, and NPR, but there are long, quiet moments, when I find myself drifting, missing the rush and bustle of Center City (well, not when it’s 100 degrees), feeling adrift in my new role.  Doubting what I am doing.

But yesterday, things began to shift.  I started the day by sleeping through my 5 AM alarm for my 6 AM yoga class, which left me feeling disgruntled and annoyed.  Then I quickly remembered the Yoga Mala, and rushed to pre-register.  I recognized the backed-up, uncomfortable feeling that had been plaguing me for days, and sensed that 108 sun salutations might be just the ticket to getting unstuck.

Then, I started imagining the moment in the future when I will be ready to go back to work, and thought about the kind of environment I want for Earl when he’s ready to start socializing and learning in an out-of-home setting.  I did some research on childcare centers in our area, and found a few that are highly regarded and that look promising.  Awhile later, I stumbled across the latest blog entry from a beloved young cancer sister, which left me feeling so humbled and grateful, and reminded me of how inter-connected my life is with the lives of so many others – even when I feel like I am drifting on a suburban, air-conditioned island, alone with my infant son.

And this morning, at 4:30 AM, I woke with purpose.  It was time to do something daring, something just for myself, that would take me back to my center.  I was waking before dawn on the hottest, longest day of the year, to remind myself that anything is possible, and that my instincts are powerful.

The mala was, as promised, transformative and vigorous.  Halfway through our 108 sun salutations, I was drenched with sweat, my eyes stinging, my newly cropped hair hanging in my face as my headband slid off.  Halfway through, I felt my belly start to churn with hunger.  Not once, though, did I lose my focus.  Not once did I feel like I couldn’t make it to the end.  As we created more and more energy, I grew lighter, and more assured, and my doubt burned away.

I came home to my son and husband feeling completely right.

Posted in Family, Life After Cancer, Philadelphia, Work, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

this is why we write

Recently, a lovely young woman who just completed treatment for her advanced ovarian cancer told me that reading my blog was “the first time she felt hope.”  She offered these words so honestly, with such straight-forwardness; I was quite taken aback.  For years, I have tried to understand why I write, have tried to justify the self-indulgence.  Finally, I heard a reason.

When we face this monster, we need each other so desperately.

It’s now four years since I finished treatment for Stage III ovarian cancer.  June 11 was always a Big Day in our family – my dear husband’s birthday.  In 2008, the date took on an added significance, one that I felt profoundly in the years immediately following, but which seems to be growing more muted with time.  Perhaps because now, with my son, I have something to truly allow me to focus on the future, rather than feeling constantly caught up in the past, tripping up on the memories of my cancer experience.

Even while in the midst of treatment, as I flailed about, trying to process the fact that my husband and I would never have a biological child, I told the world firmly, “we will adopt!”  I just kept saying it (people would often ask about our family plans even as I was going through chemo, perhaps not realizing what a hot-button issue it was), in the hopes that declaring our intention would somehow make it true.  I was devastated and terrified, but at the same time was determined to just keep imagining that somehow, one day, this would happen, that we would build our family, even if not in the way we had originally planned.

Between the chemo and the steroids and all the other havoc being wreaked upon my body, it was easy to live in a fantasyland, to hurl myself into an imaginary future of babies and a full head of hair.  But it was just as easy to picture the world collapsing in on itself, and see myself disappearing into nothingness.  Most of the time, it felt like I was already halfway there, being steadily erased from my own life, until one day, there would be just a faint smudge, reminding the world that I used to exist.

Recovery seemed to go on forever, in a kind of horrific slow motion.  Time stopped.  During treatment, there are at least markers and milestones to let you know you are moving toward something.  Once it ended, it often felt as if the limbo would never end.  Life in the immediate aftermath of cancer is suspended animation.

We eventually came unstuck.  I can readily trace the beginning of the rebirth to my inaugural week with First Descents in Wyoming, a year after completing treatment.   (More on this in a later post.)  Without that lift, that assurance, that embrace, my husband and I might still be spinning our wheels.  I might still be toiling in a job that left me defeated and uninspired, waiting endlessly, at age 40, for the chance to be a parent, and then waking up one day to realize that I had let cancer win after all.

It’s almost three years now since Jackson – since donuts and mountaintops and dance parties – and the serenity, the stillness, the joy at my center is something that I actively take stock of and give thanks for each and every day.  The woman who scratched and clawed her way to the imaginary, illusory cancer finish line on June 11, 2008, could never have seen this moment, could honestly never have believed it would be possible to feel this strong, this grateful, and this alive.

Facing a future of unknowns is all any of us have.  Walking away from a decade of work in child welfare feels momentous, a little scary, but completely right.  I don’t exactly know what it means to “follow your bliss,” but I do know that becoming a mother, and feeling my heart filled to bursting with love for this little boy, has been the most powerful transformation I have ever undergone – and I’ve been through a few.  During the long days of my illness, everything was reduced to its barest essence, to the simple fact of trying to remain alive.  Today, what propels me forward is this overwhelming drive to give my child all of the love, energy and hope that I can muster.  I have been blessed with this improbable opportunity to be his mother, after all this pain, all this waiting, after nearly careering over the edge.  I owe it to myself and to him to do this with all of my heart.  The weight of my responsibility to him is ever-represent, and so bound up with the fact that he quite nearly never happened.

Yesterday, my aunt called.  She’s a fighter like no other I have ever known.  She carries the same genetic mutation that I do, and has been through multiple cancer diagnoses and countless surgeries to correct complications from her various treatments.  She’s recently come through yet another round of surgery, and as always, has battled like hell to keep up her strength and spirit.  She’s doing beautifully now, and in typical fashion had just come off the tennis court.  I feel like we are members of this terrible, amazing, secret society, sharing an understanding of adversity and resilience that is otherwise almost impossible to express.

We talked at length about Earl, and at one point I said, “Not a day goes by when I take this for granted.  I am grateful every moment for the chance we have been given to be parents, to raise this beautiful boy.”

It is true.  Every angry cry, every lonely moment, that led us to this place has made being here, finally, that much sweeter.

In the end, then, there is hope.  The road is long, uncertain, treacherous.  Some of us make the hairpin turns and live to tell the tale, and even one day realize our dreams.  Many of us do not.  But those who are still on this journey, who are wondering how to face the fear that hovers so close, need to hear our stories.  We may not realize it, but in telling them, we don’t just remind ourselves of what we have endured, we give someone else the courage they need to believe.  Our stories are hope.  We are living proof.



Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, First Descents, Life After Cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

no time to waste

Four years ago, during a heatwave not unlike the one we are now experiencing, I lay confined in the partially air-conditioned recesses of our rented home in Northern Liberties, hanging on to the edges of the life with which four months of cancer treatment had left me.  Reality was warped.  Between the heat and the ravages of chemo, everything was askew, half-melted.  I was skeletal, irrational, terrified, bald.

There was no way, from the depths of that despair, I could have foreseen the reality I now inhabit.  My husband and I are finally homeowners, and though we had to leave our beloved city for the quiet of the South Jersey suburbs in order to realize our dream, we now have a level of financial security that had previously eluded us.  My physical and emotional stamina are greater than at any time in my life before cancer.  And, most remarkably, we are parents.

Four years ago, during those steaming days in the city, when every step along the sidewalk or climb to our third-floor bedroom felt a Herculean task, I clutched desperately to the ghost of the child I would never bear.  It was a wound, a trauma, from which I felt certain I would never recover.  It seemed hopeless that we would ever build the family we always dreamed we would have.

Yet here we are.  Our son has proved more beautiful, hilarious and mesmerizing than we ever could have imagined.  He has lit up our lives and our hearts with a love so enormous, it still seems unreal at times.  The happiness  – true, soul-tickling happiness – is palpable.

Life immediately preceding Earl’s arrival was joyful, but not like this.  Something profound and fundamental has changed.  I want to be able to differentiate the essence of my connections to my child from those of new parents – whether biological or adoptive – who have not had cancer.  Not because these feelings of mine are better or stronger, but because they are pushing and pulling me in ways I could never have predicted, and because they are urging me to take hold of my life in an entirely new way.

I spent many years and many thousands of dollars being trained as an attorney.  I sat for the Pennsylvania bar exam three times before passing.  This profession did not come easily to me, as it does to some.  Through school, and through much of my career in practice, I have wrestled with its strictures and tedium.  Even before my cancer diagnosis almost five years ago, I entertained thoughts of leaving my job, if not the law profession entirely.  These feelings of ambivalence are not new.

But now, I am a mother.  Now, I have been given the extraordinary and almost implausible opportunity to raise a child – one who even at less than five months of age has shown us qualities and gifts that truly astound us.  Now, the ordeal of my past illness – and the specter of a new diagnosis – bring the meaning of my choices about continuing to labor at a job that leaves me drained and largely unfilled, while paying someone else to help raise my son – into stark relief.

The light in my heart that ignited the moment we met Earl has been burning fiercely, powerfully, over these past months.  I feel an invincibility, a purpose, a conviction that far eclipses even my proudest moments in my work as an attorney.  For over ten years, I have toiled in child welfare, trying to plug the bursting dam of social and economic inequity.  It is a tide that will never be stemmed, and it has left me poured out, and often hopeless.

Every new parent understands and struggles with the insane speed at which her child grows and changes, and every new parent most likely longs to spend as much time as possible with his child.  I don’t profess to be saying anything new, as it pertains to the universal dilemma of working parents.

But four years on from my last round of chemo, cancer’s legacy continues to reverberate with an intensity, and insistence, that I simply cannot ignore.  I have already lost months, if not years, of my own life, to cancer.  I do not know when it will strike again.  I do not know if I will be given the chance to raise my child to adulthood.  What I do know is that being a mother, raising Earl, is the most deeply gratifying and meaningful work I have ever undertaken, and I want to give my child every ounce of energy, every single moment of my attention, that I possibly can.

We all grasp, on some level, life’s fragility.  We all tell ourselves, intellectually, that we know we could go in an instant, and that we ought therefore to savor every second we have.  But having dwelt so long in the darkest fears of my own end, having watched myself nearly wither to extinction and then somehow, miraculously, be reborn, I cannot for an instant deny this truth.

I am a mother now.  There can no longer be half-measures.  I sit with my son each night before he goes to sleep, and rock him gently while his bedtime playlist soothes him.  I take his tiny perfect fingers in mine, and my heart fairly bursts with the wonder of it all.  Sometimes, the tears just flow.  In each of these moments, cancer is present.  The heartbreak it brought me will never, in a million years, be forgotten, or even repaired.  The shadow that it casts over my future cannot be ignored.

Each moment is precious.  Each one.  There is no time to waste.





Posted in adoption, Family, Life After Cancer, Philadelphia, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

lucky me?

Many weeks ago, as I walked the neighborhood with my new baby snuggled in his Moby wrap, a woman coming out of her car stopped us with a smile.  She peered in at Earl’s tiny face.

“What a beautiful baby,” she said, all sincerity.  She kept smiling as she walked toward her front door.  “Lucky you.”

Those words have been reverberating inside my head ever since.  Luck seems an especially strange concept now, as I consider how life has transformed since becoming a mother, and how that transformation is tied to my status as a cancer survivor.

What is luck?  What is fated? How does one incredible blessing – welcoming a child as beautiful and magical as ours – balance against the curse of what preceded his arrival, and the fear that more cancer may be lurking around the corner?

When I was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer, people would say, “You’re lucky they caught it so early,” when in fact “they” had not.  Even as my treatment progressed and my prognosis improved, it was difficult to understand how my situation could be construed as in any way fortunate.  In those long, dark months, it seemed my entire life had been exploded – any conception of a future, of living fully, was obliterated.

The months unfolded after treatment finished; once the paralyzing depression was brought under control, once joy was rediscovered, and once I saw what was happening to my friends and acquaintances with cancer, the reality of my good fortune slowly asserted itself.  People my age were dying – lots of them.  My genes are wonky, and I’ll be getting colonoscopies like clockwork for the rest of my days (however many of them there are), but once I emerged from the post-treatment darkness, I understood with clarity that this was not my time.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the death of my friend Sarah Feather, after a prolonged fight with ovarian cancer.  She left two beautiful boys and a devoted husband – not to mention countless friends and relatives.  She was blessed with love beyond measure; for whatever cruel reasons, her good fortune did not extend to her cancer struggle.

Recently, I’ve come into come contact with several other young women battling advanced gynecologic cancers.  I’ve listened to their stories, and shared my own.  From this place, as an ecstatic mother of a beautiful boy, living fully and happily, it feels strange – but necessary – to harken back to the days four years ago when the darkness was all-consuming, when fear ruled the day.  I want to give these women hope, but their fortunes remain unknown.  There is nothing I can do to change that.  As the words tumble forth, as I try to offer consolation, I feel my hands are tied.

As we waited to adopt our son, blind faith was the order of the day.  Any sense of control was illusory.  We turned our trust over to our agency, and hoped that somehow our story, our wait, would connect with a mother looking for the right family for her child.

What has happened for us, becoming parents to Earl, is beyond miraculous.  Was it luck, or something larger?  Did the Fates award us extra credit for having endured cancer, and bless us with a magical baby?  Almost everyone who meets our child remarks on his extraordinary beauty, the intangible aura that surrounds him, the brightness in his eyes.  Cancer deprived us of the chance to make our own child.  Perhaps, then, we’ve been given the chance to love and raise this little boy, as some kind of cosmic balancing of the scales.

Instead of being angry about the toll that cancer has exacted on so many young people and their families (which I usually am), I prefer in this moment to be naïve, and hope that everyone who has confronted the nightmare of cancer will one day know such a reversal of fortune, and be given a second chance to live the life they have long dreamed.


Posted in adoption, fellow fighters, Life After Cancer | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments