Mind Games

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Yesterday was one of those days that could have either gone spectacularly bad or wonderfully good. Thankfully, it was the latter.

My son began his first-ever summer camp yesterday, a swim camp at the pool down the street from our house. He’s been taking lessons for more than a year now from the folks who run the camp, but since my mother-in-law takes care of him during the day, this would be his first time being left somewhere without a family member.

I had no idea how he’d react. He’s very clingy to me, so I expected tears and possibly a full-on meltdown.

To add to that anxiety, I also had a checkup appointment with my oncologist scheduled at the same time camp was to begin. Thankfully, I would be able to drop him off a bit early and with the cancer center being just down the road from my house, if everything went smoothly, I could make it to both things.

While anxiety-inducing, this logistical dance was an almost-welcome distraction from my appointment, wherein I’d receive the results of a brain MRI I had last week, along with my regular blood draw.

Last fall, when I got really sick after my first dose of Taxol, I had to get a brain scan done because they were afraid of brain metastasis. Thankfully, the symptoms I experienced were from the chemo, and the scan was clear, with one small exception–a little cyst on my pituitary gland. My oncologist said it was nothing to be alarmed about, and they would keep an eye on it.

Fast-forward eight months, and here we are, getting a follow-up MRI.

Even though I knew this was sort of a routine maintenance thing, I was still terrified. As the tech said to me almost apologetically as he got me prepped to slide into the tube, “I know nobody wants to be here doing this.” I assured him I didn’t, but I also appreciated that he was there to do the job. There are few things scarier than being rolled into a tiny tube (I don’t know how a claustrophobic would ever survive) that makes noises that sound like the effects from some terrible space invaders B-movie (laser sounds, lots of banging and clanging), knowing that this machine could reveal actual invaders taking over healthy tissue in your body. Martians sort of pale in comparison.

I had to wait a whole week to get the results this time. I tried my best to not think about it, to stay busy and distracted. But sitting in my doctor’s office, staring at the framed photos of his grandkids and a “Doctors have a lot of patience” cross-stitch on the wall, I felt as though I might crawl right out of my skin.

I sometimes wonder what it must be like for my oncologist before he walks into that room. On good days, he delivers news like he gave me–all clear, nothing’s changed, you’re going to be just fine. Others, he tells people things they never want to hear: it’s spread, it’s bigger, it’s not responding to treatment.

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Never has negative been such a sweet word.

I floated out of the cancer center with my clean report in hand, once again feeling an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude. I know how easily my story could change, or have gone awry. I know how many others are suffering and have suffered. So I am thankful for every moment like this. And I’m trying to use these little victories to propel me forward.

Back at camp, my son had a great day, too. There were no tears at drop-off–just a quick kiss and “bye, mom!” as he zoomed off to join the other kids on the playground. That day, he jumped into the pool for the first time without holding the teacher’s hands–a big advance for our previously timid to jump toddler. Both of us, leaping into the future.

Good Days

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My boy, on the pathway to happiness

I’m the type of person who always searches for some sort of lesson or sense of meaning when a bad thing happens. Even when terrible things occur, there almost always seems to be at least one little kernel of good that comes of the calamity. I need this silver lining to help me make sense of the bad, heal and move on.

When my mom died, I spent a long time looking for the why. It seemed so cruel and unjust to have her taken from us so soon. But in the years since her passing, I’ve been able to recognize the gifts her loss gave me. A stronger relationship with my dad. The means to live on my own after college. The pain that fed my creativity and allowed me to realize my true calling as a writer.

With my cancer diagnosis, I’ve tried to do the same thing. In the wreckage of treatment, fear and medical bills, I’ve found little blessings that have given me a sense of meaning in this horrible thing. A new sense of perspective (I no longer sweat the small stuff), a deeply humbling sense of gratitude for the people in my life (my family, friends, coworkers and even complete strangers have floored me with their love and kindness) and a new-found appreciation for life.

That last one is a biggie. I feel like I’ve always been appreciative of life, but like most people, I had a tendency to get caught up in the day-to-day bullshit that can distract you from what really matters.

But now, I have a new awareness of my mortality. I know that my time could be cut short. I know that each and every day matters, and I need to do everything I can to make the most of them, no matter how many I have left.

So, this year I decided to do everything I could to live my life to the fullest. Take the trip. Go to the show. Eat the amazing meal. Buy the fabulous pair of shoes. I’m not going overboard, mind you–everything in moderation and all that–but rather, I’m telling myself to say “yes” more often and enjoy as much as I possibly can.

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A boy and the sea

With that in mind, I’ve jam-packed this summer with fun. Last week, we went on our family beach trip, this year visiting Oak Island, N.C., for the first time. It was an amazing trip–just the right balance of activity and utter laziness. Clear-blue sunny beach days with a couple of rainy afternoons tailor-made for napping, reading and boozy card games.

Perhaps most enjoyable, though, was watching my son fall madly in love with the beach. This was his third beach trip, and this was the year he finally got it. The first year, he was just a baby and the water freaked him out. Last year, he was a bit more into it, but still not totally convinced.

This year, though? I had to practically drag him inside every afternoon. He played in the surf, squealing with delight as tiny fish skittered around his feet. He ran up and down the shore, greeting dogs, other children and pretty much anyone who crossed his path. He picked up two buckets worth of shells, and he and I built more sandcastles than I can count.

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Muse

Last night, I continued my quest for living life to the fullest by attending a concert with my sister.

In my younger days, I went to concerts all the time. But, as I’ve gotten older and become a mom, I’ve seen fewer and fewer shows, especially those that happen on week nights.

But last night was different. When my sister asked me months ago if I’d like to go with her to see Muse and 30 Seconds to Mars I said yes without hesitation. If I’m being totally honest, I barely know these two bands. But I really wanted the opportunity to hang out with my sister, so I decided to go for it, even though the concert was on a Thursday night.

I’m so glad I did. Even though I didn’t get home until 2 a.m. (and had to drag my ass into work in the morning), I had the best time. The show was amazing. Muse was excellent, as was 30 Seconds to Mars. If you’re not familiar, actor Jared Leto is the lead singer of 30 Seconds. Yeah, Jordan freaking Catalano.

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Be still my teenage heart

If you were a teenage girl in the ’90s, chances are you were in love with Jared “Jordan Catalano” Leto, the bad boy who broke Claire Danes’ heart on the amazing series “My So-Called Life.” And then, of course, Jared won an Oscar a few years ago for his incredible performance in “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Suffice it to say I was stoked to see him in person.

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I even love him with a Unabomber beard.

So, you can imagine how I lost my shit when he ran off the stage last night to serenade a boy in a wheelchair mere feet from where I was sitting. It was a sweet moment, and it made the concert even more special and amazing.

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Sisters

But even more than seeing my teenage TV crush, spending some quality time with my younger sister truly made the night. We sang, laughed and even cried a little–and I loved every minute of it. In the immortal words of Rayanne Graff, “We had a time.”

The old pre-cancer me probably would have declined her invitation. Driving to Charlotte for a concert on a school night? Sounds like too much trouble. It’s easier just to stay home. But that kind of attitude causes me to miss out on memorable experiences, so I’m trying my best to fight that instinct to stay in. Life’s just too short not to sop up every drop of enjoyment possible.

A Bright Light

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Today’s the day. The amazing book by poet Nina Riggs, “The Bright Hour,” is now available.

I wrote about Nina last year in this blog after reading her remarkable Modern Love essay in The New York Times about living with metastatic breast cancer. That essay led to a book deal, which gives us this gorgeous, gorgeous memoir.

I got the absolute honor of writing a piece on Nina’s book for The News & Record, the newspaper in the city where we both lived. It was probably one of the hardest–and most important–things I’ve ever written in my career as a journalist. Though I’m a writer by trade, I find it so hard to put into words the feelings I have about Nina, her story and this book. She has touched me in ways that I really almost can’t describe, at a time when I was most vulnerable and afraid.

Nina not only captures exactly what it’s like to receive a cancer diagnosis and go through treatment, but she also shines a light on the oft forgotten/overlooked metastatic/stage IV cancer community. Stories like hers are so important, and are so rarely told. Even rarer, told with such beauty, humor and courage.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It will move you, and it will change you. You do not walk away from Nina’s story unaffected. And you’re better for having heard it.