The Struggle Is Real: Letting Go Of The “F” Word

No, not that F word – as a Massachusetts native, that’s a major component of my vocabulary, and I could never give it up.

I’m talking about the other four-letter F word: Fear.

According to Psychology Today, fear is an “emotional response induced by a perceived threat, which causes a change in brain and organ function, as well as in behavior.”

Fear can be useful in the right setting – say, when a bear chases you or a rattlesnake slithers by. But when you constantly stress about imagined dangers, it’s a quick slope into insomnia, panic attacks, and in my case…whiskey pizza cravings.

Once upon a yester-decade, I feared all the usual stuff: spiders, clowns, and for some reason, a little wooden chair in my dollhouse that I thought had evil powers.

Over the years, my fears morphed into bigger things, like earthquakes, car crashes, and blowing up my kitchen. (But I still don’t understand the difference between “baking” and “broiling.”)

After my whole cancer debacle in 2017, fear took on a whole new meaning. Suddenly my old worries seemed silly. I no longer had the headspace to stress about black widow spiders lurking around my pillows – now I wondered whether I’d live to see my 40th birthday.

As I navigated the rocky path of chemotherapy and surgery, I began to comprehend the power of fear. I was terrified of shaving my head. I dreaded my first chemo session. The thought of a hysterectomy made me want to barf. But one by one, I made it through those milestones without a problem. I saw that the anticipation leading up to those events was always worse than the actual event itself.

Upon finishing chemo in September, I desperately needed to clear my head so I visited Sedona. (If you’ve never been, you GOTTA go – it’s absolutely magical.) I booked an excursion into one of Sedona’s legendary vortexes and got some wonderful clarity from my tour guide, Jared. We talked about everything I’d been through in the last 6 months, along with the long list of fears that consistently plague my psyche (pertaining to financial stability, career trajectory, airplane turbulence, North Korea, political tensions, my seeming lack of achievements, a cancer recurrence, and the size of my butt).

Jared said that rather than stress about each of those triggers, I should try and adjust my outlook to not view the world through fear-colored lenses. Doesn’t that sound so easy? A simple perspective shift. But that’s easier said than done.

A few months after my Sedona trip, I started getting pains in my abdomen – in the same spots where my tumors had lived earlier that year. Terror gripped my entire soul for a couple weeks. Was the cancer back? Did I eat too many gummy worms and let the sugar feed those demonic cancer cells? Was I dying?

As it turns out, no, those pains were just from my body adjusting to a new gym regimen. But the fear crept in and took control. That’s when I decided to push back and never let the F word win again. I’m still very much a work in progress but I’ve finally found ways to let it all go. Daily meditation. Taking CBD oil. And approaching life with an air of gratitude. That may not be the ultimate winning formula, but it’s definitely on the right track.

Now you’ll need to excuse me as I check my pillowcases for 8-legged predators….

Chemo Supremo: 10 Truths I Discovered During Chemotherapy

“We’re going to start chemo next Friday.”

Those words still haunt me. I was sick with fear, sitting in a little room at Cedars Sinai with my family and my rock star oncologist. I had just gotten the worst news of my life (more on that here), and now I was told that we’d begin chemo treatments in just 7 days. 7 days?! That wouldn’t be nearly enough time to digest this horrendous news! I wanted at least a few weeks to wallow in self-pity (and stress-eat a hundred boxes of Girl Scout cookies).

But one week from that day, I would begin pumping poison into my body to attack the nasty little tumors that had taken up residence throughout my belly. One week from that day, I’d have to watch my hair fall out, watch my teeth disintegrate, watch my nails fall off, and watch my body slowly deteriorate. Or so I thought.

Everything I knew about chemo I’d learned from movies, the Hallmark Channel, and Sex & The City. I figured that the chemo ward would consist of one big open room, where the patients sit next to each other, crying, vomiting, and meeting eyes with that, “Can you believe this sh**?” expression.

My perception was way off.

I was shaking and terrified going into my first chemo sesh. I had brought 2 sets of comfy clothes, books, an iPad, snacks, lunch, water, my laptop, and a pillow. The nurses were amused by how much I’d overpacked. A couple hours into that initial appointment, I began to relax and saw that chemo wouldn’t be as bad as I had anticipated.

18 sessions later, here’s what I discovered…

1) It’s more uneventful than you think.
You know those days when you stay home from work with the flu? The ones where you make a fresh dent in the couch from binge-watching Netflix? Chemo is kinda like that, except you’re in a soft chair (or bed) and hooked up to a loud beepy machine. It’s sorta relaxing, sorta boring, and very uneventful. My iPad got lots of use as I plowed through Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Silicon Valley, Ray Donovan, then Silicon Valley again.

2) It doesn’t hurt.
In fact, you don’t really feel anything. Except maybe sleepiness. At the beginning of each treatment, you’re given a small cocktail of drugs (usually a steroid, an anti-nausea medication, and something to help you mellow out – for me it was Benadryl or Ativan). But I never experienced any pain or discomfort.

3) Your nurses are heroes.
Not all heroes wear capes, but they do wear scrubs. I quickly became infatuated with the guys and gals that took care of me during those dreary days. We cracked jokes. We laughed. We talked about my cats. They showed me iPhone pics of their dogs. Without their constant cheeriness, my ordeal would have been a whole lot darker.

4) Costumes make it fun.
Well, maybe not fun, but certainly less scary. I mean, can you really be scared of something while you’re wearing a coconut bra? Or rocking a tiara? Or a vampire cape? Other patients would come to my bay and tell me they loved my outfits. Costumes made me smile, and they lightened the mood for everyone. 

5) It’s not nearly as depressing as it’s depicted on TV.
Before this whole adventure, I envisioned the chemo ward as a sad space filled with feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and bad snacks. Thankfully, it was the opposite of that. The snacks were good. And the ward was full of kindness, empathy, and positivity. Everyone there is doing everything in their power to help you heal. Oh, and did I mention therapy dogs!?

6) Everyone reacts differently to the side effects.
There are a lot of variables that determine how your body will handle chemo. Your age, your health, your cancer type, your chemo type, and so on. I’d been worried that my nails would fall off, my teeth would fall out, and I’d morph into a frail fragile little mess (note to self: stay away from the blogosphere). But thankfully, other than some nausea, hair loss, and strange pains, nothing too bizarre took place.

7) The worst thing to fear is fear itself.
When I got my diagnosis, I had 3 major fears: shaving my head, having surgery, and enduring my first chemo session. But when it was time to bid adieu to my hair, my stylist blasted some girl power tunes and we made it fun. When it was time for surgery, I rocked a rainbow wig and took some hilarious selfies. And when it was time for my initial chemo appointment, I befriended all the nurses and giggled my way through the day. I realized that all my fears were unfounded and there was really nothing to be afraid of.

8) It affects you mentally.
I was totally prepared for the physical side effects of chemo, but I wasn’t prepared for the mental ones. I woke up one morning and the world seemed bleak and gray and I wondered if I’d ever feel happiness or fulfillment again. All I could focus on was the dullness and negativity soaring through my mind. After many boxes of tissues and phone calls with my mom, the rain clouds disintegrated and my sunny demeanor peeked through once again. 

9) It’ll be over before you know it.
Back in April, I thought this would be the longest year of my life. That the days would tick by painfully slowly. And sometimes they did. But soon a week went by, then 2 weeks, then a month, then a few months. I tried to pack in as much fun as I could, like movies, a new pair of shoes, dinners with friends, and afternoon walks. And then BOOM – you’re in the home stretch.  

10) When you’re finally finished, it’s the best feeling in the world…and also one of the weirdest.
During treatment, you feel a sense of safety. You have doctors and nurses and hospital staff surrounding you all the time. Then once you complete your final chemo session, you start to wonder, “Now what? Do I just sit back and hope that cancer never comes back?” It’s a strange transition. You go from feeling sheltered to feeling exposed. Some days are riddled with anxiety and some are riddled with Thin Mints cookies. But all of them are days worth living.

What It’s Like Getting The Worst News Of Your Life

All my life I’ve wondered what it’s like to get “the news.” The bad news. The scary news. The news that changes your life forever. The news you hope you’ll never have to hear.

I’ve seen it on the Lifetime channel and in plenty of films. The moment where a terrified person sits across from a doctor and his fate is sealed with one sentence.

“You have cancer.”

And I always carefully watched the face of the poor sap who’s getting the news, thinking, “How would I react if that happened to me? What would it feel like?”

Well, now I know.

I’ve been keeping a diary to chronicle my cancer journey and I wanted to share the entries from the week surrounding my diagnosis. I find solace in sharing my experience and hope that it may help someone going through the same ordeal.

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Thursday April 6, 2017

PANICKING. Was getting into the shower this morning, and something is very very very wrong. I’ve lost a little weight recently because I gave up dairy and was mostly eating a plant-based diet, but I looked at myself as I got into the shower and noticed that my abdomen had swelled up. Like, HUGE. Like, I looked 8 months pregnant. If I’ve lost weight and my pants are looser, why is my stomach this size? I’m worried.

Friday April 7, 2017

So I showed Jon my stomach, and he agrees that it’s not normal. He made some chicken noodle soup for dinner since I’m repulsed by most foods. But the soup tasted like dirt to me. He swore that it tasted fine, which I think means something in my body is seriously messed up, since my taste buds are now malfunctioning. We agreed that we’ll go to the emergency room tomorrow. Mom and Dad think it’s my gallbladder, so I hope they’re right.

Saturday April 8, 2017

Went into Cedars around 11am this morning. Didn’t have to wait long before I was in a comfy bed and watching infomercials. Bunch of tests during the day – blood, ultrasound, CT scan. The doctor on duty said it seemed like I passed a gallbladder stone, but they needed to make sure. After several hours, a nurse came in and said they needed to admit me into the hospital and I needed to go upstairs and put on a gown. But why? We were still waiting for the results of my CT scan. I didn’t understand and started to get anxious.

After I was admitted as a patient, I settled into my new room and sent Jon home to feed the cats. They hooked me up to an IV, which screeched a horrible alarm every time my arm bent. Ugh. I tried to get some sleep, but every time I drifted off, the alarm screeched me awake. I didn’t get more than 20 minutes of sleep at a time. And I STILL didn’t know why they were keeping me overnight. This sucks and I just want to go home.

Sunday April 9. 2017

At 8 in the morning, a woman came into my room and woke me up.

She quietly said, “We have the results of your CT scan, and you have ovarian cancer.”

Sorry, what? Wasn’t this supposed to be a gallbladder problem? I saw spots. Everything went white, and I saw black spots. The air was thick and wet. I don’t have cancer.

She was still staring at me and continued, “I know this is a lot of tough news…” but I couldn’t pay attention. I only saw her mouth move. It didn’t make any sense. I had no idea what to say, and eventually she left, probably to go drop this bomb on someone else.

I called Jon in tears, and he started crying on the phone, and said he would be by my side in 15 minutes. I then called my parents, sobbing. Alone. Terrified. How the F*** did this happen? How could I get the best news of my life a couple weeks ago (landing my book agent) followed by the worst?

Would I have 6 months to live? Would I die before my 50th birthday? My 40th? Jesus Christ, I’d never even been to Hawaii, gone skydiving, or owned a rescue dog!

Mom and Dad said they would come out next weekend to be with me. Between crying and hiccuping and panicking, I said they didn’t have to, but they insisted. Jon showed up and we sat together, scared and weeping.

That afternoon was a haze, but then the clouds parted and a magical man walked in. His name was Dr. Li. He was an ovarian cancer specialist, and he was my new doctor. His bedside manner was calm and confident. His voice washed over us like a soothing balm that we SO desperately needed. He said that yes, my CT scan did indicate that I could have ovarian cancer, but he was suspicious because I’m young and healthy, and there’s no history of cancer in my family, so it didn’t make sense.

Thankfully, the tumors had not spread to my lymph nodes, nor were they inside my organs. But those nasty little growths were on my ovaries, uterus,  liver and spleen (that explains those nagging pains in my upper abdomen), and scattered throughout my belly wall.

Dr. Li said that I would need to stay another night so that we could do a biopsy tomorrow, then we’ll know for sure what we’re dealing with. And that no matter what it is, he will help me get through this. What a relief to hear. I knew at that moment that Dr. Li is a precious gem and I started thinking about what to get him for Christmas. A framed photo of my ovaries, perhaps?

Monday April 10, 2017

Slept like garbage again. Every couple hours nurses were coming in and out, and I kept setting off the screechy IV alarm. Plus, I felt sick with nerves. And the worst part is that I couldn’t eat or drink after midnight. And anyone who knows me knows that I drink liters upon liters of water every day. I’m always kinda thirsty and water is my jam. But not being able to have any water was a new form of torture. My biopsy was supposed to be around 11am. So I watched the morning hours slowly tick by. Then it became noon. Then 1pm. Then 2pm. Then I was told that my biopsy wouldn’t be until 5pm. Ugh. My mouth was like sandpaper and not having water for 17 hours was (almost) worse than finding out you have cancer.

The biopsy itself was easy and quick. They told me to come back on Friday to meet with Dr. Li for the results. After I got dressed, I could FINALLY go home after two and a half days. What a freakin’ disaster.

It felt amazing to be home and smother my cats with love, but my mind was racing. Do I seriously have cancer?!

Tuesday April 11, 2017

I keep vacillating between, “There’s NO way I have cancer” and “Oh my God, I can’t believe I have cancer.” Work today was surreal. There’s a small bandage on my stomach where they took the biopsy, but the weird part is telling everyone what’s going on. I missed work yesterday, so they knew something was up, but reliving the past few days kinda sucked. I couldn’t even bring myself to say “ovarian cancer.” All I could muster was, “I’m hoping it’s not the big, scary thing.” But being at my desk is sort of helping me cope. Everyone is warm and sympathetic and we even cracked a few jokes. But my knees won’t stop shaking and I can’t eat anything and a thick omnipresent rope of fear has wrapped itself around my neck.

These tumors better be benign.

One good thing is that Mom, Dad, Rob, and Brian are all coming out this week! Thank God for my family. I’m beyond lucky to have them. And I’m so touched that they are all dropping everything to come be with me.

Friday April 14th, 2017

Armed with Jon and my family, we went to see Dr. Li for the results of my biopsy. While we were waiting, I kept praying that I had some strange new disease that made me grow benign tumors which could be cured with a lifetime of chocolate and whiskey. But alas, no such luck. Dr. Li came in and introduced himself to my family. He sat down and said that unfortunately, I did have ovarian cancer. Stage 3. I immediately broke down into tears, as did everyone else. No, no, NO!

Dr. Li’s adorable face was arranged into an expression of true empathy. He assured me that I WOULD beat this. I have age on my side. I’m active and healthy. My cancer will respond amazingly to chemotherapy and I will be cancer-free after this is done.

OH CRAP. It hadn’t really hit me that I would need chemo. My hair will fall out. My teeth will turn yellow. I’ll have purple bags under my eyes and I’ll look frail and sad and bald and old and crackly like the people you see on those cheesy Lifetime movies. 

Dr. Li recommended an aggressive treatment plan, with 9 consecutive weeks of chemo, then surgery (farewell, ovaries and uterus and possibly spleen), then 9 more consecutive weeks of chemo. So….basically the rest of this year is gonna suck. I don’t want to be bald.

Hmmm…with no ovaries or uterus, it will be difficult to conceive a child. Well, impossible, actually. Huh. So having children is officially off the table. I guess this’ll just be yet another crappy piece of information to accept and eventually make peace with. I suppose I could adopt, but I heard that’s super expensive. Wonder if I can put a baby on my Visa Rewards card?

The nurse practitioner, Corinna, gave me about 10,000 pieces of paperwork on everything from the side effects of chemo (yikes) to info on their psychology services (maybe necessary) to a list of Los Angeles wig-makers (definitely necessary) to a marijuana prescription (YEAH BABY).

After the meeting, we zipped back to the hotel because Rob had arrived. We all had a cocktail at the hotel bar, then went to dinner. It felt great to have the whole family together now and we shared the news with Rob. My food smelled good but tasted like dust. I just couldn’t believe it. It was real now. I have cancer in my body.