Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Circus: Part Deux

I just spent the weekend with a group of the most amazing women I have ever met, in the most amazing surroundings. I was chosen, as a breast cancer survivor, to attend a leadership retreat in Tucson, Arizona, at the luxurious Miraval Resort and Spa. I could end my writings here, and you'd probably draw a pretty good mental picture: Lots of estrogen, lots of pampering, lots of crying, and lots of self-discovery. Well, that's about half of it. I don't think I'll ever be able to fully put into words what this weekend meant to me, and that's fine. I will tell you one story of the weekend, because it so beautifully mirrors another story I wrote at the beginning of my journey entitled, The Circus.

The opportunities that Miraval provides to its guests are the cornerstone of its mission: to provide guests with one of kind experiences, while also allowing them to fully relax and be pampered. At the various panels and seminars, we discussed how to be a "Healthy Survivor" and how to heal and grow beyond cancer. With anything, you can only talk about it so much before you just have to go out and DO it. Well little did I know, I was about to take a huge step forward, both literally and metaphorically.

I signed up for "Out on a Limb" because it looked fun, and I knew it would be a cool story to tell my future children. We met our lovely guide, Nancy, in the lobby, and headed into the desert. Nancy led us to two large wooden poles, about 35 feet high, with a single wooden beam resting in between. I sat with the five other ladies, all different shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds, as we waited for our guide to start her safety presentation. Instead of going right into the logistics, Nancy asked us to introduce ourselves and explain a little bit of our background, including our fear of heights. There was Mary, a lymphoma survivor in her sixties, Anne, or "Queen Anne", as she jokingly referred to herself, a two time breast cancer survivor, Kelly from Indiana, who was still receiving treatment for Metastatic breast cancer, Dawn, a lovely middle aged woman and a two time survivor of this activity, and Julie, a woman my Mom’s age, who had endured a mastectomy followed by radiation treatment early in the year. We were a motley crew, but having a common bond as strong as we did, we were ready to face the challenge together.

When I went to introduce myself, I told the group that I had become somewhat of an adrenaline junky. It makes me blush a little to think that I actually said that to them, but in my mind, that's the image I wanted to portray. I am NOT an adrenaline junky. What I meant to say was that I used to be scared of EVERYTHING and now I'm only scared of SOME things. Alas, that's what came out of my mouth in the moment. Sigh.

I swear, the people who designed climbing harnesses did so with no mind to women with curves, but I digress. Nancy decided that because Mary was the least likely to go first in any other situation, she would be the first to walk across the beam. Mary got up there and quickly realized that because of a bad knee, she would have to shuffle along sideways. Shaky and terrified, she made her way across with thunderous applause from her supporters below. I was up next. I headed up the ladder with ease and even did a little jump from the first pole onto the balance beam. I waved to my audience (I know, I know) below and slowly began to turn around to face the task at hand. "Holy Shit", I whispered to myself. It was so much higher and so much longer that I was expecting. As I began to lift my hand from the pole, I realized that it felt like someone had crazy glued it to the wooden beam. I tried to remove it again, and as I did so, the world around me started to spin and all I could do was stand there. What seemed like 15 minutes later (I think it was actually about 30 seconds), I removed my hand from the beam and took one tiny step forward. This is it, I thought to myself. I am going to turn around and go right back down that pole... are these people crazy? Instead, I held on tightly to my chest harness, closed my eyes and began to breathe, big, heavy, centered breaths. When my head stopped spinning and my stomach stopped doing somersaults, I took another step forward. I repeated this process until I got to the other end, where I was awarded with thunderous applause. After I took in the beautiful Arizona landscape, fully equipped with mountains and boulders and cacti, I stepped back off the beam and safely landed next to my peers. Some people cried, others just hugged me and took my picture. I felt so warm and safe on the ground, surrounded by people I had only just met, people with whom I had shared a sacred experience, and people who now knew me better than most.

The rest of the group successfully completed the challenge, and we headed back to the resort. We had walked our tight rope safely, with great success, just as I did by completing my cancer treatment. I now had the tools to physically do what I had emotionally done this past year. I thought about the people at home who had helped me across my emotional tight rope and was filled with love and gratitude. Luckily, they didn't have to be up there with me physically, but were always there with me, right by my side. Nancy played the role of Seth, the rock to which I was harnessed, the person who would never, ever let me fall. Anne played the role of my Mom, who cried the second I landed safely. The other women were all the other loves in my life, cheering me on, making me laugh, and hugging me at the end of it. At that moment, I knew that I'd never truly be off the beam, never truly land where I started, but I'm getting ok with that... because look at the view from the top!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My version of a Thanksgiving Prayer...

For some reason, through my diagnosis, treatment, and eventual recovery, Thanksgiving has been a big milestone for me. I've always known that once Thanksgiving arrived, I'd be done with all of the cancer nonsense and I'd be back into my normal groove. So I thought I'd take a minute and give thanks. Here goes...

I'm thankful for my husband, Seth. He is the man I always thought I'd marry, and the person I hoped to spend the rest of my life with. I'm thankful that he worked so hard every day so that we didn't have to worry about money when I was laid off. I'm thankful that he continued to tell me that I was beautiful, with or without hair.

I'm thankful for my family, especially my Mom, who never said no when I asked her to come and take care of me. I'm also thankful for her chocolate muffins and Avena. I'm thankful for my aunt who came to clean my house on more than one occasion. I'm thankful for my sister, who was brave enough to get a mammogram after my diagnosis.

I'm thankful for my friends. I'm thankful that most of you were brave enough to get past any preconceived notions of "cancer" and just be my friend. I'm thankful for the company during chemotherapy because it made the time fly by and reminded me that I'm still me, no matter what they were pumping into my veins. I'm thankful for Desmin, Marcella, Robyn, Courtney and Joe who were always ready to play cards or watch Birdie for us. I'm thankful for Josh and Jaime who brought us over dinner on many, many occasions.

I'm thankful for my puppy, Birdie, who made me get out of bed every day and knew exactly when it was ok to run around and when I needed her cuddle.

I'm thankful for my hair, my yoga practice, my black leggings, no doctor visits, fresh fruit and vegetables, mascara, pumpkin bread pudding, my taste buds, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Northwestern Hospital, accupuncture and so much more.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ms. Sunshine

Everything happens for a reason. Look at the sunny side of life. Every day is a new day. Carpe Diem, seize the day. The list of cliches that I am actually living on a day to day basis is endless. So much so that I've actually had to be talked down from tattooing myself on several occasions by my level headed husband. (So maybe I won't want a Chinese symbol on the back of my neck when I'm eighty...sue me!) What's not to be happy about? Everything does happen for a reason, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for this experience. I faced death and sickness without the death part, and I can tell you honestly, no bullshit, I am stronger for it. At least 20 times a day I stop and I take a look at what I'm doing and thank God that I'm doing it. For example, I am so grateful to get back into my yoga practice. Even though I feel like my arms are going to fall off 10 minutes into class, I'm so happy to be there, sweating it out with my fellow yogis. Another example...I love doing my hair! I think the term "doing my hair" is a bit of an exaggeration, but I happily go through the motions of applying pomade to come up with my ever so coiffed fauxhawk. Last night I spent the evening with some girlfriends playing Bunco (get off our backs, we're in a recession) and I was happy to recount any part of my experience, answering questions and reminding them to check their breasts regularly.

I pose the following question: What if I stop feeling like this? What if one day I wake up and I forget to be grateful for my fuzzy slippers or worse, my husband who is peacefully sleeping next to me? What if Chicago drivers get the best of me and I experience the all too familiar feeling of road rage? I have a feeling pessimism and negativity tend to snowball, so I'm so afraid I'll wake up one day and take things for granted. But here's the thing: NO ONE CAN BE THIS UPBEAT FOREVER. I know this is a true statement, especially for Erica Unger, who tends to have a bit of a temper and lacks a little patience from time to time. I don't want to meet her again. I had 29 years of her and I like the new and improved version, even though her jeans are just a little too tight (understatement) and her downward dog looks a little more like a wayward dog. How can I ensure that she stays where she belongs, in bed, safely nuzzled under the covers on that ill-fated day, January 22, 2009?

While sitting here trying to think of a clever way to answer this conundrum, I realize... I honestly don't know. I hope I figure it out... or maybe that's the point. There is no great formula for living life to the fullest... you just have to do it and not worry about the days when you don't. There's not a spreadsheet or a post-it note in the world that's going to prepare me for the future (sorry honey, our monthly budget doesn't count). I just have be here and live it. You are all welcome to join me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I just finished chemo and all I got was this lousy t-shirt

It's over... I'm finally done. I made it through 4 months of chemotherapy. I should be elated, ecstatic, and other words beginning with "e", but I'm more scared than ever. When your oncologist looks at you and says, "Ok, you're all done! See you in two months", that should be comforting, right? No more IV's and bruising, no more wearing frozen gloves and slippers for 4 plus hours, and most importantly, no more wicked side effects. Truth be told, the chemo made me feel safe. Not that I could do this forever, because I'm not sure I'd last one more treatment, but I love the fact that I had a team of the best and brightest monitoring my every move. Now, I'm on my own, left to my own devices, hoping that the chemo worked well enough to kill any random cancer cells. Oh, and to top it off, my Doc says to me, ever so nonchalantly, "You'll have to come back for a bone density and fully body scan after your done with radiation, just to make sure your all clear." (She also said that she has every confidence that I'm completely clear... I just wanted to be dramatic.) That's the line that kept me awake last night, tossing and turning until finally, at 4am, I got out the old i-pod and did something I haven't done in months... I meditated. I had relied meditation heavily during the months preceding my treatment, but abandoned it the second I started. I can't really explain why, but I did. Now I have to get in the habit of using my body and my mind to combat my fears and my doubts, instead of a bag full of red liquid and an IV. Come to think of it, I like the trade off.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chemo Brain

This is a term very commonly used among us receiving chemotherapy. Basically, all the chemicals being pumped into your body start to effect your brain. This tends to manifest itself with memory loss and brain farts. I thought I'd share an example of the ultimate chemo brain.

As most of you know, I won a karaoke contest back in May at Infamous Idol. To recap, I sang Alanis Morrisette's "You Ought to Know" sans hat or wig, and won a weekend getaway to Saugatuck, Michigan. It was just what Seth and I needed! The weekend was set for the end of June and we were stoked.

Since the house had two bedrooms, our good friends Robyn and Cliff had the weekend free and decided to join us. It was all set. I packed up the car and the dog, picked up Seth from work on Thursday night, and we were on our way to a weekend of warm summer breezes and relaxation.

We got into Saugatuck around 9pm. We got a little turned around looking for the house, but I had my iphone and some verbal directions from the owner. We finally pulled up to the third driveway, parked the car and unloaded our belongings. We used our keys and entered our weekend cottage. We were hungry and tired so we threw down our stuff and dove into our jalapeno pizza (this was a mistake on a few levels.) We started to explore the house, and it looked nice enough to the naked eye. Two bedrooms, one bathroom a deck and a screened in porch. The hosts even left us a few Rolling Rocks, which I promptly cracked open with my pizza. The weekend had begun.

Upon further review, the house looked like it hadn't been lived in for months, and smelled like an old woman. It was really dusty and dirty and there were some dead bugs, which please Birdie to no end. I even found a half dead grass hopper in her mouth. The groceries in the fridge were filled with maggots, which I ignored in fear that I might vomit. Combine those facts with the fact that there was no central air, so I couldn't sleep, and the fact that I am a huge wuss, and you get an unhappy girl. But, we persevered and decided to make the best of it. After all, it was free.

It rained on Friday so we spend most of the day inside, reading magazines on the screened in porch after we washed down all the furniture and put sheets over everything. Robyn and Cliff arrived on Friday, in a torrential downpour, and they headed up to their bedroom, which was really a glorified attic. They didn't tell us this until later, but their sheets were filled with sand and dirt, so they slept on top of the covers the first night and washed the sheets the next day. Ay, yi, yi... I'm glad I have such good friends.

We went to a great dinner on Friday night, had an awesome day shopping on Saturday, followed by another fantastic night. Needless to say, we were ready to get out of that house by Sunday morning, and proceeded to do so before 9am. It was a nice weekend, not really what we expected, but we were still extremely grateful to have such a great opportunity. To be honest, I left needing another vacation.

Monday morning rolls around and I get an email from the owner of the house. She was checking in to see if everything is ok because we didn't make it to Michigan this weekend.


I calmly called her back and told her that we were, indeed, in Michigan last weekend. Yep, you got it, we stayed at the wrong house. The key worked in the lock, or we thought it did, and we opened the door. Apparently we were squatting the entire weekend. At any minute during our stay, the owners could have come home and called the police. We would have countered by calling the cleaning police, but that wouldn't hold up in court. The house we were supposed to stay in was down the block, and let me tell you, it is gorgeous. The owner said she left some wine and other gifts in the house, and was alarmed when they went untouched. I wanted to say, "Yeah, we were alarmed that your house was such a pit!" but instead, we both had a good laugh, then started our quest to find out where in the hell we stayed, since I left her keys on the table per her request! Luckily, she has a broker friend who got to the bottom of it, and promptly told us that she wouldn't stay in that house if you paid her. Awesome.

It's a great story, one that we won't forgot, but I can't help but be a little creeped out. We stayed in some old lady's bed! I drank a beer! We used their mucinex! Sick! The host of the other house, the beautiful house, invited us back in the fall, and we can't wait to experience Saugatuck, this time, without the bugs and dirt! I blame it all on my chemo brain, not having the right mind set to realize that we were at the wrong house, even after it had given us so many clues. On the bright side, I can officially say that I've been camping!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ugly Duckling... more like Lucky Duck.

Ugly Duckling...more like Lucky Duck

Alright, first and foremost, I am not fishing for compliments. I am merely making an observation.

Having no hair, thinning eyebrows, black nails and 15 extra pounds around my middle is not exactly how I want to live the rest of my life, but it has it’s perks. First of all, by not washing my hair, I am saving hours of my life AND the earth's water supply, thus decreasing my carbon footprint. I can get ready (without choosing my outfit, don't get nuts) in 15 minutes. That includes showering and make-up application, and doesn't include shaving, which is a perk I don't need to mention in any greater detail… and these are the days I actually apply make-up! There is the problem of the head/scarf-wrapping, which I am mastering at a slower pace than I'd like, and also the fact that none of my clothes fit. I have some stock maxi-dresses and deliciously comfortable yoga pants that are getting some serious face time with the world, but I do miss my cute clothes. Seth thinks this is a perk because my beauty/prep time has been cut way down.

On a more existential level, I am able to see myself in a whole new light. If you think going to chemo was brave, or getting poked one million times in the tender breast area deserved a medal, try walking out of the house bald. Maybe I'm underestimating my friends and family, but for most of you, this would be quite a feat. Ok, maybe one day, or one trip to the grocery store, but every day for 4-6 months? Unless you can justify it with a sweet film deal with Steven Spielberg, it's not something we are all jumping at the chance to do. That's where I'm lucky. I don't have a choice and it's quite liberating. I'm forced, or trying to force myself, to forget about all the superficial stuff and worry about the tissues underneath my skin. I used to worry about what people thought of the way I looked or how I dressed, but I could care less now. Don't get me wrong, I am constantly asking Seth and my girl friends if they saw me on the street, would they think I was a cancer patient? But the fact that I am not asking if they think I look ugly or fat says a lot about this transformation. I'm forcing myself and others around me to see me for what's underneath, if "we" didn't before.
Also, I can walk down the streets with a new kind of confidence, a sort of I-don't-really-give-a-shit attitude that I was never privy to before. For example, Rogers Park is a neighborhood filled with the best cat-callers in Chicago, ask any woman who has walked down North Clark Street. Done and Done. I don't have to fret about that unless we have some Sinead O'Connor fetishists out there.

I was performing in a play about 6 years ago, long before I had met the love of my life. I had been cast as, well, the pretty stage fluff. Literally, I was a mentally handicapped girl-scout, a pregnant teenager, then something that resembled a a sequined, scantily clad American flag. When I wasn't shaking my rump, I was wearing tight black clothing, a black mask, and moving furniture. But boy, it was fun! One of the female leads, a strikingly beautiful, recently turned lesbian, was counseling me on an upcoming "serious" audition. The part was dark and haunting and I thought it would fulfill me at the time. She simply suggested that I wear no make-up to the audition. She might as well have told me to shave my head and wear a moo-moo. But now, I understand her advice with complete clarity. Show people who you are and what you can do, not what you look like. Now I am, and I'm damn happy (some of the time) to make myself do it.

Ok, I retract the whole "not fishing for compliments" statement. Who was I kidding?? ;)

Friday, May 29, 2009

My body is resilliant

You never know exactly what your body is capable of until you test it. Just like your mind, you body stays in this safe little bubble, until some lurking predator comes around to investigate. You are faced with physical tests all of your life. As a baby, every organism around you screams "warning, germs approaching coming to infiltrate the small, warm, human body!" It gets worse when you enter kindergarten... then you have actual humans children carrying Lord knows how many diseases, as they pick their nose and wipe it on every available object. Skip ahead a few years (some a few years less than others, no judgment there), and you've got the kissing virus, when we all feared the plague known as mononucleosis. I think I probably self-diagnosed myself with mono five to six times a semester just to get out of the presidential physical fitness test or later, Mr. Kowalski's history class. When I think back to high school, I think of the studying and the pushing myself harder and harder every day, and I was healthy as a horse. My body was bruised and twisted from hours and hours of dance practice, followed by hours and hours of homework, followed by little to no sleep, all to do it again the next day. Then college followed. Forget about it. Combine all of the aforementioned predators, and add alcohol to the mix. Still, my body persevered, dare I say thrived in this environment. Then I moved to Chicago to pursue acting and my oh-so-driven boy scout attitude peaked, with an eight hour work day, 4 hour rehearsal, followed by several hours of "networking" at the bar closest to the theatre. Somewhere between the time that I moved here seven years ago, and now, I slowed down, took up yoga and healthy eating, probably because somewhere deep down my body new this was coming and couldn't possible sustain itself with this behavior.

So now, here I am, half way through my treatment, and I have to say, I am impressed with me, or I should say, my body, my veins, my blood cells, my ability to heal. I have to pump myself with drugs to get from one week to the next, but I'm walking around, taking my dog outside, and planning a trip to target. Don't get me wrong, these first four rounds have been pretty awful. Some days, I feel like I'm trapped in the body of an eighty year old women with the mind of a healthy thirty year old, with now way free. Some days, my digestive track is screaming at me, "You know you shouldn't eat that," while my taste buds are screaming," if you don't eat that, I will give you a mouth full of metal, and I mean it!" Migraines are new. Weight gain is new. Bone pain is new. Fatigue, probably the worst culprit of all, is new. I've had slight bouts of nausea, but nothing to write home about. Nothing a little sleeping pill or ginger tablet won't kill. These are just the physical symptoms of all this nonsense, dare I say, bullshit. The emotional stuff shortly follows, and that's when I feel the most alone. Cuz no matter how many people are around me, helping me, pouring me water, doing my dishes or my laundry, watching my puppy, its still just me going through this, and that just sucks. The good news is that I my body bounces back. After a long 7 or 8 days following treatment, My body is 80% back to normal. I can eat what I want, go on long walks, practice some yoga. (You would think yoga would be a no-brainer, at any stage of this messed up game, but oh, sister, is isn't.) So I just have to look forward to those days for the next 2-3 months and know, this hell I am putting my body through, is for its own good, my own good, getting any stray cancer cell lurking in the shadows. I just have to have to keep reminding myself, your body has been through 29 years of mild trauma, with attempted round-offs and kissing and frat party binge drinking... it can handle a few more months of this... surely.