Manifest Destiny

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HKDOX68QLV

I loved The-Manifest Station, long before I ever submitted anything to them for consideration. Imagine my excitement when this piece found its home among the many other beautiful works I’ve read there.
I used to worry I might be a one-note writer. Like illness was all I had to dissect and discuss. Lately, I’ve come to shift gears a bit on this. I’m less apologetic about my musings. For as much as I’ve seen and experienced, perhaps this is precisely the role I’m meant to play. I’ve come to embrace the fact that, for me, cancer is not simply a calling card — it’s a calling.

Sailing the Waves of Cancer: Living With a Disease That Won’t Let Go

Breast Cancer’s Longest-Lasting Side Effect

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When I was asked to contribute a piece for Huffington Post’s series in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought about the myriad ways I could address the topic. I have tried to find the levity in the situation and have a running list of “Top Ten” this and thats regarding what it’s like to have had the disease and to have been treated for it.

I feel like it is important to highlight parts of the breast cancer life that others might not get to see or appreciate without someone else revealing it. I struggle with my own fear about the impact of cancer nearly every day in one sense or another.

Attached is the piece I wrote for Huffington Post. I hope that it may serve as an explanation for some, about the ongoing nature of what it feels like to wear these genes.

I Survived Breast Cancer, But Now I’m Afraid For My Kids

What It’s Really Like After Breast Cancer Treatment

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This is a pretty raw and honest look at what many women face after finishing all of the treatment and surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. What remains physically can be daunting psychologically.

As time passes I am feeling better and more like myself, and for that I am very grateful. And not to worry, I continue to laugh and joke my way through most of it, but not all days are afforded that levity.

I have decided to be as open about my experience as possible so that others going through it may feel they aren’t alone, and those who are in the support role may get some insight and a better understanding about what their loved one may be experiencing.

Health and Love,

–b

Reflection Confessions: Dealing With the Physical Aftermath of Breast Cancer Treatment

No one is in the bathroom with me, but I’m facing my enemy.

I pull the scale from its hiding spot between the toilet and the end of the vanity. It’s the perfect place since I’d honestly prefer crapping on it to stepping on it. I cringe.

Is this going to be a good day or a bad day? I’d better go pee first.

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I drop my clothes, squeeze every ounce from my bladder, and then use my toe to tap the ON button.

A rectangular zero blinks in the liquid crystal display. It isn’t ready to break my heart yet; it needs to warm up first. The numbers look just like the ones on my alarm clock, yet these are sinister. The clock tells me what I know: I haven’t gotten enough sleep; it’s time to shuffle the kids to school; I’m late. The scale tells me what I dread: I have zero will power, zero control over my life. And that the weight I lost before I discovered my cancer and kept off during my treatment wasn’t the result of eating well and exercising, it was because my body was devouring calories to fuel the disease overtaking my breast.

The scale stops flashing, my cue to climb aboard. I hold my breath, think thin thoughts, and wait. I watch it blink, blink, blink… 147.
Shit, I’m fat.

I close my eyes, exhale and step off.

Every day starts the same: I will feel better; I will eat better; I will work out longer. And every day ends the same: I’m still so tired; I don’t feel like eating anything green; it was too hot to run.

The rational side of my brain perks up.

You have cancer, so what if you weigh 15 pounds more than you did?

But the chemo was six months ago and the radiation two. What if the weight has nothing to do with cancer or the stupid drugs I still take? What if I’m just weak?

Seven months ago I was in the best shape of my life, training for triathlons, the picture of health. Then I felt the lump.

The scans and biopsies showed my doctors five, small, aggressive tumors in my left breast, so my oncologist decided to pluck a few key lymph nodes from under my arm and test them for cancer, too. A lot hinged on that procedure, because if she found any, my treatment would be longer, harder, and involve radiation.

“We’ll take the sentinel node out and test it while you’re still on the table. If that one is positive, we will take the ones around it.” Dr. Reed said. “If you wake up with a drain, you’ll know we found cancer.”

After navigating the haze of pain medications and anesthesia, I saw the tube sticking out from my armpit.

“Fuuuuuck,” I slurred to Reed. “How many?”

“We took eight more.”

Though my road would be longer, I was lucky. The rest of the nodes were clean.

I made it through four and a half months of intense chemotherapy, spending most of the time hiding in my house when I wasn’t helping others feel better about my situation. I joked, hugged, and smiled my way through the pickup line at the kids’ school, soccer practices, and holiday parties. While I kept up the public show, often I went home exhausted and in tears.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” my husband George commiserated.

“I know,” I said, “but they keep adding miles!”

I felt guilty whining. Two years before, his melanoma surged back after a six-year hiatus with such vengeance that doctors assumed he would die within weeks. I slept next to him in the ICU night after night, watching the treatment whither my oak of a man. And then I watched him come back to life.

When I was diagnosed, George reassured me that I was strong, too. And when I looked in the eyes of the man who had been my partner for more than 20 years, I believed him.

Because I had the BRCA2 gene mutation my boobs had to go. Doctors cut across each pectoral muscle and scraped out every ounce of breast tissue, then shoved in thick plastic expanders halfway inflated with saline. Once a week my plastic surgeon dangled a magnet over each breast, waiting to see where it stuck to my skin. When he had his target, he buried the needle to inflate some more.

My chest ached for days after each round, leaving me grumpy and distracted. The surgeon stretched in six weeks what had taken puberty two years; my breasts were back to their 16-year-old size and perkiness.

When the doctors were satisfied with my inflation, it was on to radiation.

“You’ll probably feel some discomfort,” Dr. Miles said.

Discomfort my ass. I felt pain and burning. By the end of two weeks my skin changed from light pink to a shade of crimson usually reserved for roses and nail polish. After six, it was crispy and blistered. I put the “raw” in bra.

Now, as I look in my bathroom mirror even the skin made so angry from radiation is only a shade or two darker than the right. And yet there is not one part of my reflection that looks attractive to me. I wonder if I will ever turn the corner and begin to accept what I see. Mastectomy scars bisect both breasts and there is a missing item of distinction from each: A nipple.

I know I should be thankful for this day, this life, this body. But right now all I see are the reminders of how much I have lost. Tears well and slowly fall down my cheeks.

A smile creeps across my face and I begin to giggle as the irony hits me: Here I am, hating my body, when I have tits just like Barbie. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, take a deep breath and start the shower.

Hot water pours over my face, washing away my tears and I begin to feel better. I will dry off, refreshed, and start again.

 

San Fransisco Got A Little Bit Hnath-ty

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I can claim victory! I made it all the way through May-hem without having to cry May-day! Woohoo! Part of what helped me push through the final week was the promise of a family vacation.

After a week of exploring the San Fransisco, California territory, we will head back home. Ancient Redwoods, hippie beach towns, seaside aquariums, and nationally ranked college campuses, Team Hnath has managed to cram more in than a Survivor contestant winning a food challenge on day 36.

We stayed with our good friend the kids call Cantina. (Our youngest couldn’t pronounce Cristina and, as all best ones do, the nickname just stuck.) We are fortunate that her home can accommodate the circus we bring anywhere we go, and more fortunate that she is willing to tolerate it.

With two young boys in particular, the loud factor cannot be overstated. They. Are. L-O-U-D. If they aren’t blowing fart noises out of the sides of their cheeks, you hear crashing, booming, or cheering with every soccer kick, iPad play, or basketball shot. Shutting a cabinet door can sound like the 4th of July. But with some planning and lots of sideways if-you-aren’t-quiet-I-will-totally-send-you-to-Alcatraz-I’m-not-even-kidding-you Mom looks, we managed to keep the activities rolling, the kids entertained, and everyone sane, for the most part.

In particular, I loved watching the three kids interact together in a way only possible when you get out of town. My daughter is now 13 and her interests have drifted increasingly further from those of her brothers. Gender is certainly not the only reason to blame here; age is also a major factor to this growing divide. When we are home, Emily has her group of friends with whom she spends time, so aside from soccer, the sport the children share in common, it is tough for all three kids to connect. When we are on vacation, they are forced to hang together and the results are great. I get to see my daughter giggle. Really giggle, without caring if anyone is watching, a rarity these days. And I relish every bit of it.

Jackson, our youngest, keeps us all entertained with his one-liners and keen observations. His is the most unique mind and sense of humor I have come across and I always look forward to hearing what he will think up next. The only consistent thing about him is the fact that he will make some kind of goofy face in EVERY SINGLE photo we take along the way.

So overall the experience has been great and I am sad to see it end tomorrow as we hop on a flight and get back to our lives in VA. There were only a few squabbles over seats, tears over toys, and fights over food. Oh, and the kids have been pretty good, too.

 

 

 

 

May-be I’m Crazy

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Think YOU can spot my two?

Every year at about this time, I notice that our entire family starts struggling with motivation and stamina. I have always blamed it on the end of a long school year, and the need for a nice, long break. I blindly assumed that everyone just needed summer, that delightful season of sleeping in, swimming at the neighborhood pool, playing in the sun, and hanging with friends. Three whole months for everyone to fill their collective culture tanks with trips to local museums, art fairs, and historical landmarks. And the perfect opportunity to dust off the board games, shut off technology, and reconnect with each other. Boy, was I wrong.

I now see that it isn’t really the lack of schedule or family bonding time during the summer months we are all craving (that bubble bursts approximately 8.4 seconds after we drive away from the building on the last day of school and the first squabble breaks out between my two sons), no, we just all want to be done with the month of May.

Between soccer practices, soccer games, school projects, school plays, end-of-the-year parties, Mother’s Day, two Hnath birthdays, Memorial Day, recitals, field days, teacher’s gifts, working at a school, etc., I can barely keep track of what kid needs to be at what event with what uniform. Throw a little chemo brain into the mix and you’ve got one hot, soupy, messy May-hem. Had I not remembered to check the backpack of my first-grader for something completely unrelated, my sweet little “Be Bop With Aesop” frog would have had to go on stage as a soccer goalie. I’m just ready for it to end.

I love to wrap everything up with a bow, in fact I’m all about it, but is there any way we could at least have the end-of-the-year celebration in, hmm, let’s see, early February? Oh wait, never mind, that’s basketball playoffs.

It’s easy for me to be dis-May-ed by this month, but you know what? About the second week of July I will be craving the schedule and routine (not to mention a house to myself for 15 minutes), that comes along with the school day. I have heard from other mothers that they LOVE! summer. That they CAN’T WAIT! for the school year to end and HATE! for it to begin again. I tend to put these mythical moms in the same category as those who LOVED! pregnancy, or whose kids NEVER! fight, or who CAN! bake. Amazing. Inspirational. Unobtainable.

The kids and I will do our best to entertain ourselves this summer. There will be some fun; there will be some fights. Humor abounds at Camp Hnath so often the roughest patches lead to family lore and giggles for years to come. And hey, at least I know what I look like bald, so if I end up tearing all of my hair out, no biggie. But please, oh please, may I just make it through May?

The Cancer Community

Click here to see this on HuffPost Women

Norfolk, Virginia is a medium-sized city with a small-town feel. Big enough that if you hit up a Starbucks in another neighborhood, you might be able to read the paper uninterrupted. Small enough that if you have troubles, someone always knows a resource that can help. This matters to me because I’ve needed a lot of help over the past few years.

In the three-year period between 2008 and 2011, my husband George was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, I lost my father to liver cancer and I was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer. I should also mention that George and I are 42 years old and have three kids under the age of 12. That’s a lot of bad news. Between our experiences as patients and caregivers, and because George is a physician himself, there is rarely an oncological question or emotion we haven’t asked or experienced. Now when anyone in the community is diagnosed with cancer, someone sends them our way for information and reassurance. Though George has and endless list of gifts and talents, interpersonal phone skills is not one of them, so I’m the one these scared cancer initiates get to talk to.

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“Cancer is the ultimate leveler,” I tell my newest friend.

She’s the third in three months, but I have fielded dozens of calls before hers. Her name is Catherine and she got my number from a mutual acquaintance. Her husband Mark has just been diagnosed with melanoma. “When you talk to someone else with the same diagnosis, you skip over the bullsh*t.” I say, attempting to make her feel at ease. “This experience isn’t worth anything if I can’t help someone else going through it. George’s cancer had spread to his lung, adrenal gland, brain and pancreas. He was given six weeks to live.”

It rolls off my tongue so easily now, like I’m discussing the plot of some shi*tty TV movie.

“He’s three years out now from the last tumor they found.” I say. “Let him be your shining beacon of hope.”

I tell people what they want to hear, what they need to hear. They need a calm, reassuring voice on the other end of their frantic phone calls. They need a story they can latch onto. They need me. They need hope. I give it to them.

I don’t tell them that George is the only stage IV melanoma patient we know who is still alive.

It’s an interesting dance of the diagnosed. I remember struggling myself with what to say the first time I reached out to talk to someone else. How much is safe to reveal? Will this person betray my confidence? Can I trust her with my real thoughts? The ones that make me feel guilty? The ones that make me question the existence of God? The ones that make me look at my husband differently? The ones that make me look at him with anger about how attached I am and how I will, therefore, collapse when he inevitably dies from this? The ones that make me view him as the walking dead already? The ones that make me want to turn off my heart to spare getting hurt? The ones that convince me that no one else would or could ever love me the way he does?

Catherine tests the waters, as they all do, by revealing that she feels incredibly guilty about wanting to get out of the house and away from the three young children who need the attention and focus she doesn’t have to spare.

“They all need me.” She says, her voice starting to crack.

Catherine has begun to release the chokehold on emotions that have stayed locked at the top of her throat all day long, just waiting for a private moment to punch through.

“Catherine, it’s OK to need time away. There is so much support for the patient, but not nearly enough for the person caring for him. George and I have experienced both roles and agree it’s worse for the partner. Sometimes I would just drive and scream at the top of my lungs, pound the steering wheel or hit the seat next to me. I was furious but couldn’t find a channel to get it out. I yelled at God, but he never yelled back.”

She lets go with guttural sobs; the kind where you can’t catch your breath, the kind that make you double over and your knees buckle, the kind only born from a broken heart. She has given me the gift of her vulnerability and I feel honored to comfort her. Silently I wait as she unloads all that she has kept masterfully hidden from so many for so long, terrified of revealing her own terror.

Slowly, she begins to regain her breath and her crying subsides.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she says, “I don’t even know you and here I am spilling my guts!”

“I get it.” I say. “Not one piece of this is fair, Catherine. I keep waiting for the cancer that only strikes pedophiles, but I haven’t heard of it.”

She giggles through her tears and I hear the soft crinkle of a tissue as she wipes her nose.

“You are so reassuring, so positive,” she says, still sniffing. “How do you do it?”

I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m not convinced that George’s melanoma, or my breast cancer, is gone and will never resurface. I even wonder if I was destined to guide George through his illness so that he could be here for our children when I die. I have a 75 percent chance of beating my disease, but sometimes I can’t help dwelling on the 25 percent chance that I won’t. I look to my father, to the cancer that killed him too young, and see my genes staring back at me, my double helix forming the twisting roller coaster ahead. My cancer cells are simply dormant, just waiting for me to relax my guard, for the moment to fire up again and betray me. Only next time they will kill me.

In order to carve any sense of meaning out of this cancer bomb that detonated in our happy little life, I reach out to those traveling the path behind me. I help them navigate the forest of hospitals, clinical trials and doctor visits. I translate the new language of disease, diagnoses and drugs.

Each time I talk with someone new about cancer it scratches the surface of wounds that have been buried under layers of healthy check-ups and clean scans. I know their fear; I know their pain; I know their sadness. But I hope in talking with me, my new friends will at least know they aren’t alone.

Coming Up Short

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Recently I began my annual hunt for shorts. I hate it. I double hate it. And I can’t be the only one.

The good news is that God gave me great dimples. The bad news is he put them on the wrong set of cheeks. I’m pretty good until about mid-thigh and then…that’s enough, thanks! Honestly, every time I try on shorts, I can’t ever seem to find any that are the right length for me. They are either hitting the top of my knees or the bottom of my ass.

I’m not going to Bermuda any time soon, the only board shorts I know are the ones attached to my kids when they groan about how dull it is when we have to shop for groceries, and as far as I’m concerned, the only reason that Daisy and Duke should be mentioned in the same sentence is if your talking about a campus flower garden.

Am I missing where to find CUTE shorts for women in the 40s? Come on! I’m not asking for much here, folks. Some basic shorts in some basic colors that come out of the laundry looking vaguely similar to how they went in. I’ve been baited and switched too many times to count by shorts that, in the store, are so cute and exactly the right length and fit. Then once through the machine and, voila, instant rumpled, size 6X!

Or if that order is too tall, then can we at least get some shorts that give us coverage when we sit down and cross our legs? You know, like we do almost every freaking day of the entire freaking summer?! I can easily justify aging out of bikinis and crop tops, but I refuse to move to Grannyville just because I want to wear shorts that don’t require endless fidgeting and adjusting every time I walk more than 7 steps in a row. I just want something short, but not micro; something long, but not culottes.

And before you assume I haven’t tried shopping everywhere, let me assure you, I’VE TRIED EVERYWHERE! Conservative, edgy, thrift, discount, department, you name it. If there is a store, I’ve been in it and tried on their shorts. One of these days I will hit the jackpot and score some good ones. I mean I obviously I still have faith, I keep on trying every year. Either that or I am simply looking for ways to torture myself.

I dream of that one day I walk into the fitting room lugging a sky-high, rainbow-colored stack of twill. One by one, I will try them on and look in the mirror checking the fit and length. These are too short. These are too long. These ones are just right! I guess that would make me Goldilocks and the three bare legs. I don’t know. What I do know is there is an absolute fortune, a MINT to be made on this one garment. I know plenty of creative people out there with time to spare. How about doing a mother a solid and whip up some perfect shorts? Until then I’ll just have to stick to the maxi dresses. (Giggle giggle.)

 

Summer Serenity

 

The summer before my 11th birthday is when I decided that life would be best lived underwater.

Our neighborhood housed many of the popular kids, but I didn’t look or act like they did. All tan skin, tight short shorts, perfectly feathered hair, every flavor of Bonnie Bell lip smackers. I only had the root beer lip smacker, my hair was flat by the time I hit the front door, and I had a better shot at blending all of my Irish freckles together than actually achieving a tan. And my mom thought short shorts looked slutty.

My parents both worked at the University, so they left the house at around 7am, even during the summer, to go to their important offices, get ready for their important meetings, and do their important research. My older sister Erin and I were left to fend for ourselves.

The ride between our house in the fancy neighborhood and the not-so-fancy neighborhood pool was about two miles. Rather than drive all the way home to cart us there, my parents told us to ride our bikes. They never encouraged us to wear helmets, call them when we got there, or to be careful. Instead they assumed if something went wrong, they’d hear about it.

My sister and I rode our Schwinn 10-speeds past manicured yard after manicured yard, our big striped terry cloth towels wrapped around our necks, the ends flapping from under our armpits. Erin always went first and I drafted along behind her. Sometimes we’d stop to eat the fresh, wild red raspberries along the side of the road, staining our fingers and lips a bright, deep pink. But most of the time we just wanted to get to the pool.

The way there was mainly coasting, hills so steep that pedaling was just for show. The wind from our speed blew hard in our faces and our hair, the ends bleached and ragged, flew behind us as we rounded one corner and then another.   We had made this trip so many times we knew how to make as little work for ourselves as possible. Erin and I crouched low, our chins brushing the handlebars, trying to build up speed to make a dent in the only uphill stretch. The last piece of road was scary. It was busy and, like most of the roads in my central Pennsylvania farm town, had no sidewalk or bike path, so we hugged the side of the road and shouted to each other if we heard a car coming behind us. Erin peeked over her shoulder to check on me, while I stuck close to her rear wheel as we began to pedal the last quarter mile to the pool. This was the only real uphill stretch, but I could see the chain link fence that separated the pool from the surrounding farmland in the distance and pedaled as hard as I could, my sweat smelling of chlorine and puberty.

Erin and I always challenged ourselves to make it the entire way without having to get off and walk the bikes, even if it meant going slower that way, and we grinned at each other with pride as we pulled into the parking lot, crunching the gravel with our tires. We just leaned the bikes against the fence; locks were as pointless as sidewalks here.

Our legs were tired, but we still ran to the entrance. I looked up at the clock and scribbled 1799 and 12:02 onto the blank sheet of spiraled notebook paper on the front desk. Erin and I were usually the first ones there, but even if we were early we didn’t wait to go in. We knew the guards wouldn’t care. Sometimes we wouldn’t even sign in at all. Our parents loved how much time we spent at the pool. It freed them to focus more on themselves. So the pool became our summer home, the lifeguards and coaches our family.

After I signed us in, Erin led the way through the women’s locker room, our flip-flops making happy, rhythmic slaps on the concrete floor. We wore our suits under our clothes, so we began peeling off our t-shirts and shorts as we walked. Both of us hot from the ride, we dropped our clothes and towels, kicked off our flip-flops and felt the grass under our feet as we ran toward the pool. We launched our bodies off the side and splashed into the cool water, sun shining through the ripples we made.

Within the hour the lawn would begin filling with the colors of summer: bright towels, beach chairs and toys. But for now the pool was ours.

We dipped our heads under the water and swirled around like otters, then practiced our weightless handstands, handsprings, and backflips, careful to keep our toes pointed, feeling like Olympic gymnasts. We tried to decipher what we screamed to each other under the water, and sculpted each other’s wet hair into silly shapes, giggling the way only sisters do.

It was only under the water I felt free. The friends I struggled to make, the parents I struggled to understand, none of it mattered there. On land I was average. But in the water I could power my little body across the pool beating swimmers twice my age and size. I was accomplished. I was cool. I was home.

If Life’s a Bowl of Cherries, How Come I Still Get Zits?

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There are lots of aspects to the long-term breast cancer treatment medications that either aren’t covered by doctors, or are covered and we simply don’t hear. We are too busy focusing on the joy of having to only take PILLS rather than drugs that require nurses to wear bullet-proof gloves and ski-masks to administer through tubes and needles stuck into various outlets in our bodies. We are like human iMacs. And let’s face it, most of us are really still on the high of realizing that, yes, our hair is actually coming back and, yes, we can totally rock that pixie cut.

Menopause, shmenopause! Who cares? I can actually TASTE chocolate again! And I even want to eat it! Woohoo! 

The thing is, hitting menopause head-on, without the benefit of drugs to help mitigate the symptoms, at the ripe old age of 40, when I still have little kids and a husband to keep up with, after having been fit and active my entire life, and having to be in a swimsuit for work for cryin’ out loud, just… sucks. IT SUCKS! The coup de grace? I still get pimples! Big ones! How is that even possible? I don’t have any hormones left!

I admit it, I love you estrogen, I miss you estrogen, and I want you back in my life. I’m sorry I never fully appreciated your ability to help get my ass out of bed and out the door for those pre-dawn runs. And I apologize that I didn’t thank you for all you did for my joints, especially in the mornings and on the stairs. And I’m not even going to GO into how much you helped with the, ahem, nether regions. Let’s just say, I’d trade a few weeks of needing to wear a bra again just to have you back, sweet, sweet estrogen.

Menopause, for me, isn’t an option. My doctors have lopped off more lady parts than I knew I had at this point, all in an effort to keep me cancer-free, and of course I wouldn’t trade it. But you’d think that if I’m forced to live without hormones, I’d at least be able to live without benzoyl peroxide, too.