Five years and counting

My groovy little brother turned 28 years old today. He was over at my parents for dinner, where Zsolt and I are staying. At one point, he asked me if I remember my 28th birthday. Oh yes, I remember. I’d just had surgery to remove my right breast, and was trying to scrape together some reason to want to celebrate. My friend had thrown me a party in her backyard. Mom was visiting for the month to help in me recover and prepare for chemotherapy. Zsolt had had a birthday the week before – he was literally in the hospital waiting for me to get out of surgery.

So yeah, it was quite the birthday. It was also five years ago.


Five years is quite a significant number if you are diagnosed with breast cancer. I guess it’s the window in which, if you survive, you are deemed ‘cured’ in some measure. Lately I’m not sure how much it does or doesn’t mean to folks. But it’s still a big number. For instance, if you remain cancer-clear after five years you can apply for life insurance again. I was actually looking forward to applying for life insurance.

I remember planning to have a damn big party when I got to five years and was still cancer clear. It was going to be my line in the sand.

But this evening, right to the moment before I was asked that question, I’d actually forgotten the anniversary entirely. That’s not easy to do – many folks can tell you. But I’d forgotten because since five years ago, I’ve have a number of different moments to mark different test results. I’m obviously no longer cancer-clear. Now I fall into the stage 4 level of breast cancer where it spreads and they don’t have any amazing options or cures to offer. There are no more ‘all clear’ timelines. Instead, there’s average life expectancy.

But, dwelling there won’t help anyone, least of all me.

All I really wanted to say was five years. It’s good to be here. Great to be there. I just wish I could have said ‘Five years no cancer!’ you know? Instead, in that moment, I thought . . . five years. . . . and then had this weird feeling deep inside of me.

Here are some good things that have happened over the past five years:

Zsolt got his PhD

We traveled a lot, and did it well

I published Claire Never Ending and in a way, it makes me feel like I will live forever through the ripples

We moved to Canada

We created jobs when there were no jobs

We had our own apartment, and we made friends with our neighbours

I wrote and wrote and wrote, and became a freelancing writer

My friend and I started a podcast

I had three years of remission, and one year of shrinking

Every morning I woke up beside my best friend and husband

We traveled some more

I turned 28, then 29, then 30, then 31, then 32, and soon I’ll be 33

We came home

We made home

I sang in the shower

There was much drinking of tea with friends and family

Board games happened

And many other things, many big and small moments.

Life has been beautiful, just as much if not more than it has been hard. So, I am very, very grateful for these five years. They do mean a great deal to me, even if this anniversary isn’t what I had hoped it would be. Illness sure as heck changes your life, but I hope I am a better person for it. If I can’t have my life insurance policy, I can at least claim a damn good life.

So that is all I have to say about that.





The Pill, LuluLemon, and My Soap Box

Not so long ago (like last week), Lulu lemon went and threw a grenade into their enterprise. You probably know what happened so I won’t go into it. I’ll only say it sucks that my damn expensive set of yoga pants are now embarrassing to wear. Comfortable, but embarrassing. What a huge fail on their part. I loved their brand and didn’t give a damn about some stupid see-through trousers that were recalled. Now, they as a company have become embarrassing.

But this isn’t about Lululemon. It’s about the birth control pill. In this post on the Lululemon website, they link the pill—through social changes, promiscuity, Super Girls, shoulder pads, and whatever—to breast cancer. Because of the rambling leaps in logic, the conclusion is really stupid. However…

I link the pill to breast cancer because at 28 years old (okay, 27 turning 28), I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in my right breast. I had no risk factors. Cancer isn’t a common theme in my family tree. It was seemingly random.

Eight years (give or take) I was on the pill. I started around the age of eighteen, before I even began having sex. As soon as the concept of sexual relations (whooohoo!) came into play, it was off to the family doctor for a prescription. Forget carrying condoms with me and insisting the guy wore it – I was a teenager, and therefore, I was assumed to not be responsible enough for that kind of foresight. It’s no one’s fault. Teenagers are horney and like to have fun. Foresight can wane. There was fear around teenage pregnancy and throwing you life away.

The pill was the answer.

At first I wasn’t sure, but after visiting the doctor it seemed okay. She prescribed me with some medication, explained how to take it, and off I went into the world of Sexual Good Times. (Except I wasn’t actually having sex, that came later. I was just glad to be on the pill in case I decided to hit that homerun.)

And then, as I started to look around, I realized all the girls were on the pill. Everyone popped their pill and got bigger boobs, or stabilized their periods, or had a change in libido, or cleared their acne, and in general us young women had peace of mind that we were safe from throwing our lives away.

Do you know what? When I went to visit the doctor, we didn’t even talk about alternative contraception. I mean, okay, there were condoms (I’m pro condom since it doesn’t change our physiology), but I mean contraception that a woman could actively control with her own body like diaphragms, sponges, spermicide gel, etc. (Back then that metal T thing didn’t seem to exist). It was just assumed that this change to my hormones, tricking my eighteen-year-old body  into thinking that it was already pregnant all the time, was the way to go.

I was on the pill with various breaks for eight years.  I didn’t even consider it to be a real drug. When nurses, or doctors, or insurance people asked if I was on medication, I’d reply, “No. Oh, well, only the pill.” As if it was nothing.

For eight years, taking a pill that made my body think it was pregnant. Taking pills that made me flat-out nauseous and sometimes vomit if they were swallowed less than 12 hours apart. 

I’d never even seen a diaphragm before – didn’t even know how to get one. But that was okay, because the pill was okay.  It wasn’t a real drug.

I guess that’s what really ticks me off: my failure to appreciate that birth control is a real drug, with REAL impact on the body’s system. And it’s not just me. I have friends who’ve also been on the pill for eight plus years and spoke about migraines, fatigue, nausea . . . then, they went off the pill and the symptoms got considerably better (not all the way better, but consider if the body has been altered for so many years, would the impact clear up immediately, if ever? I don’t think so). I feel mad at myself for being so flippant about something so real. Just because everyone did it, I thought it was nothing.

And I suspect birth control is still being sold as the way to prevent pregnancy. It’s not a drug, it’s a lifestyle.

Obviously not everyone on the pill (actually, hardly any my age) has gotten breast cancer. But women do seem to be getting cancer at younger ages. What are the real risks? Was it something other than birth control that caused the disease threatening me today? I don’t know.

I do know that the pill is now listed by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation as a risk factor for breast cancer, so that is good. And what about young women who might be put on an eight year, ten year, or even longer path with this drug . . . is it still a lifestyle thing – a pill that you pop – or are the implications being explained, along with the alternatives?

Recently, I filled out the HOW study, which is a massive survey of women with and without breast cancer, comparing factors so that we can really learn about risks and differences and why people get breast cancer. Men and women are welcome to fill it out. You are welcome to do so, if you like.

I don’t know why I got breast cancer. A culmination of factors, I reckon. But do I think the pill is linked to this disease. It’s not a packet of candy, it’s a packet of drugs that alters our bodies. (And maybe guys don’t like condoms, but they’ll get used to it if that’s what women insist upon.)

So that is what the LuluLemon stuff kicked up inside of me. The pill makes me angry. I know it liberated women to take control of their bodies, but why should women have to alter their bodies to take control? Particularly in a relationship with mutual respect, where one doesn’t have to hide not wanting to get pregnant…

Anyhoo, that was a strong-opinion post. For birth control, I’m generally anti pill. Sure, there are cases when it is needed, but maybe as a whole we can be too quick to underestimate and overprescribe.

And that is all I’ll say about that.

Dressing for the boobies

Once upon a time I bought a dress online from H&M – a cheap red dress that I wore once to a Christmas party, and may never wear again. I say ‘may’ because ‘maybe’ next Christmas I’ll start feeling festive and  try it on once more. But honestly, it kinda reminds me of the chemo days, so thinking about it as I write, it’s probably better to send that red number along to the charity shop as a donation.

Anyhow – not my point.

Ever since ordering from H&M, they’ve been assailing me with magazines. Every other week I receive a magazine about their new spring line, new summer line, new home line.  This morning the delivery boy dropped off H&M’s  ‘Shades of Summer 2011’ and I’m just cracking into this baby.

Thankfully, magazine browsing somewhat satisfies my craving for new clothes. Somewhat. And I pour over these pages as though if I stare hard enough, the fashion will materialize from thin air into my apartment. I wish!

I’m noticing a lot of loose tops, which bodes well for my post-mastectomy figure. If you’ve had a mastectomy and don’t want to wear an overly structured bra every day (and if you have a small breasts, because I doubt this would work with a larger cup), then it’s somewhat easy to pull off the sans-boob look with the right clothing.

For example – sans boobs: Tube tops are OUT.  Bandeau bikinis are IN.  V-necks are GREAT. Plain t-shirts are OBVIOUS (obvious you’re missing a breast). Patterns, flowing material, and asymmetrical cuts are the best. Apparently crochet tops are back? But I don’t think that looks good on anyone, boobs or no boobs.

Talk about body image battles. If a woman can go without her breast and still feel sexy, then you’ve got to admire that. There are times when I feel like there’s been no change. Small or no boobs, the figure is still androgynous. And when I throw on my pink sun dress with those oversized shades and white flip flops, damn – I do feel sexy.

But then, I totally get why women wear prosthesis breasts. If you have B and above curves (which most women do) a missing bump will become far more noticeable. I’ve seen bras designed for the Amazonian woman (one cup only) and some really nicely structured clothing to hide any unbalance (or even the total absence of breasts). Actually, ever since my trip to the mastectomy shop, I’ve been taking my floppy falsie out on the town, and the response has been surprising.

So I’m out and about meeting friends, going to work, whatever, all while wearing my spare boob. And here are the comments:

“Oh, cute top.”

“I like your shirt.”

“Is that new?”

1) They are cute tops. 2) I am glad people like my taste. 3) No, they’re not new. They’re way old, and I’ve been wearing them every other week for the past nine months.

BUT – I haven’t worn them with my boobs on.

It’s so absolutely fascinating that as soon as I put on two breasts instead of one, my tops become all the more attractive. Maybe it’s because they’re cut for the typical women’s shape? Maybe it’s because my new mastectomy bra makes the girls pop out to their best advantage? Maybe people feel awkward when they notice my chest isn’t shaped as expected, and so look away before noticing how cute I’m dressed?

Maybe, maybe, oopsy daisy.

Anyhow. For this reason I’m starting to reconsider the idea of mastectomy lingerie. I love the bras we obtained two weekends past. And have my eye on purchasing a couple more before leaving the UK. There is this provider called ‘about a girl’ who I’m becoming curious about. They have silk mastectomy lingerie, and the stuff looks quite – dare I hope? – sexy. I’m thinking of making a pilgrimage to their store (because when it comes to mastectomy clothing, you generally have to make a long trip or order online) and see what’s what.

Anyhow, that’s me and my cup of tea – pouring over this morning’s junk mail, an easy start to an easy morning.