One Year and Counting

Well, the one-year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis came and went last week with little hullaballoo. Part of me was braced for an emotional tidal wave that never manifested. As it turned out, January 29th, 2010, was just another day. And, more than anything, I felt/feel lucky. Lucky that I’m on the other side of cancer (knock wood). Lucky that mine was the type that could be sliced out—I have a good friend with lymph cancer who will never have the luxury of another cancer-free day. Lucky that I’m back to worrying about the little stuff, like freelance work. Lucky that I get to move on with my life. Speaking of moving on, friends sometimes ask me what nuts-and-bolts lifestyle changes I made in the past 12 months, so I thought I’d make a little list. Of course, this is not meant to be health advice, I’m just offering a little window into what I did after my cancer diagnosis (aside from freak the hell out). So, here it goes:

  • Stopped drinking Diet Coke
  • Started drinking green tea
  • Started juicing in the mornings
  • Stopped eating sugar, wheat, soy and dairy
  • Went vegan at home
  • Traded anti-perspirant for natural deodorant (yeah, it sucks)
  • Got serious about buying only paraben-free soaps and shampoos
  • Bought chemical-free laundry detergent and dryer sheets
  • Traded soy milk for rice milk (I’ve eased up on the soy)
  • Reduced my use of canned beans
  • Replaced most of the tupperware in my kitchen with glass containers
  • Cut back on wine
  • Yoga, yoga and more yoga

None of these rules are written in stone. In fact, they fluctuate depending on the day. But, more days than not, I follow them, and my plan is to keep it up for a long, long time. I’m not naive. It would be silly to think any one of the actions above might ward off cancer. But it would be equally foolish to stick my head in the sand. I figure that the least I can do is to cut back on the number of cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting substances I invite into my home and body. After that it’s anyone’s game. This time around, maybe I’ll get lucky.


Standing on the cusp of my first cancer-versary, I’m surprised (but not) to note how much I’ve changed during the past 12 months. The most obvious and painful souvenirs of my trip to cancerland are also the most permanent—the two neat scars, like dash marks, running across my chest. The psychological shifts are harder to see.

Some days I feel like a completely different person, as if my body was hollowed out and re-stuffed. Other days I feel as though I’ve simply settled more deeply into myself, as if my psyche moved from the second floor to the basement apartment.

As cliche as it sounds, I’m less likely to sweat the small stuff (a parking ticket, a hole in my sweater, cat litter on the furniture–eww) and more likely to do annoyingly upbeat things (like hum in the shower). One of the most notable shifts is both physical and mental: a profound need to stay put.

I’ve always been a homebody. I like routine. I relish the simple stuff  like cooking, walking the dog, and practicing yoga. At night I love cuddling on the couch with Mary to watch a movie or laugh at bad reality shows. I love sleeping in my own bed. Since I need a lot of alone time and dislike crowds, confined spaces, and flying, travel has always presented a challenge. But I bite the bullet because I know I’ll be happy once I’m there.

So, last summer, after I’d physically healed, I thought I was ready to hit the road. Nothing crazy, just a few trips to visit friends and family. Oy, big mistake. Somewhere along the way, my travel angst blossomed into a full-blown aversion. Departing for each trip felt like walking off the gangplank into a churning sea of chaos and confusion. Mary deserves a medal of honor for traveling with me because I was a mess. In DC, I burst into tears when we got lost leaving the rental car facility. In San Francisco, my favorite city in the world, I felt physically pummeled by the city’s vibrancy and spent most of the trip in our hotel room, dodging maid service and crying. Fun times.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was mired in a bog of depression and traveling exacerbated my sense of helplessness. (I’m doing much better now, thanks.) Finally, at the end of my last trip, I had a complete and utter meltdown and realized that what I really needed was to stay home, so that’s what I’ve done. For the past four months I’ve stayed home and the world feels right again.

Shortly after my epiphany, Dana Jennings, a writer for The New York Times who blogs about his experience with prostate cancer, posted an entry about his sudden desire to stay home. He writes, “More than ever these days, I want to shrink the world to the couple of rooms in my house where I’m most comfortable…I’m still reinterpreting myself in the face of cancer, and that takes time and quiet.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Coming Full Circle

I’ve never liked January. Between the cold, the gray, and the post-holiday blues, the slog to February feels like an annual chore. But, as the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis draws near, I am in a surprisingly good mood. In fact, I’m positively upbeat. That’s because, compared to last January, this one feels light, airy, and carefree. Who cares about gloomy skies and frigid temperatures? Heck, at least I don’t have cancer! So what if it’s -10 degrees out with the wind chill? At least I don’t have to crawl out of my warm bed at 6am for a doctor’s appointment in Indy. More snow? Bring it on. Last year, the only significant snow accumulation fell on the day of my diagnosis. That was doubly depressing because, typically, Mary and I celebrate snow by breaking out the cross-country skis, putting the dog in the car, and heading for the University’s golf course where I scoot, she skis, and the dog runs cabin-fever-fueled laps around us. We laugh and putter around the snow-covered greens until our cheeks are frozen and the dog runs out of gas. It’s the best thing about winter. Last winter, the skis stayed in the basement. The dog sulked. Not so this year. So far this month, I’ve been skiing three times. The snow is gone now, but I’m hoping for more because, after all, it’s January.


Science giveth and science taketh away. Just when I was starting to feel downright giddy about my diet, another study comes along and rains on my parade. I’d be a hypocrite if I only raved about the good news, so here’s my bad news for the week.

Researchers at Kaiser Permanente in California found that drinking alcohol may increase the risk of cancer recurrence in breast cancer survivors. More specifically, women who drank 3 to 4 servings of alcohol a week—roughly 3 to 4 glasses of wine—were 34 percent more likely to have another bout of breast cancer than women who drank little to no alcohol. My personal silver-lining is that the greatest risk was among post-menopausal, overweight women; neither one of which describes me (yet). But I feel as though I’d be tempting fate not to take this news seriously.

To be honest, this finding is less than shocking. Drinking has long been known to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer because alcohol is estrogenic, meaning it increases the circulating levels of estrogen in the body, and estrogen—as we’ve discussed—is to breast cancer cells what Miracle Gro is to anemic backyard tomatoes. But the gap between knowing this information and its practical application is Grand Canyon-esque.

I’ve known about the link between breast cancer and alcohol for years but, at least before my diagnosis, I chose to look the other way. Like any self-respecting health writer I focused on research that supported my favorite indulgences, such as the stack of studies showing that wine is good for the heart. Since my family history is riddled with heart disease but has (had) nary a wisp of breast cancer, I easily rationalized a few glasses of wine a week. Heck, wine was practically a health food in my book.

That said, I was hardly a heavy drinker. I’d sip a glass of wine while I cooked, which was a couple of nights a week, plus drink a glass or two with friends on weekends. Although my weekly wine tally didn’t seem like much, it easily added up to 3 or 4 glasses a week—the same amount that showed negative consequences in the study above.

I swore off wine after being diagnosed with breast cancer. But, after six months of depriving myself of all of my favorite foods and food rituals (like drinking a little wine while cooking), I realized that living in fear of my favorite foods and beverages is downright depressing. So, in the past month or two, I’ve eased up a bit. Part of that has meant a return to wine, albeit less than I drank before. Although I’m not one to shift dietary course on the winds of a single study, this news does make me rethink my relationship with alcohol. While I don’t want to be a teetotaler, I might need to make wine more of a special-occasion treat. Sigh.

My Radio Debut

An abbreviated version of last month’s blog entry “Pinked” aired on my local NPR station (WFIU) last Thursday, October 29th. (Thank you to all of the Bloomingtonians who tuned in!) The spoken-word version of my essay is a mere 300 words (2 min), but I think I got my point across.

If you’re interested in listening, here’s the podcast.

Warning: clicking on the link will take you straight to the recording, meaning my voice will immediately leap out of your computer. So, brace yourself, adjust the volume, close your office door, whatever you need to do…I found it a little startling myself ; )

PS. Still blogging for Time Magazine (insert sound of panting here…) but sharing the load with another writer, so I’m a wee bit less stressed. Just one more week to go!