For the love of g-d, leave me alone

As you probably already figured out, I blocked you on the one dating app because I have no desire to have you in my life. Nothing has changed since 2016 when I said to leave me alone or since 2017, when my then boyfriend sent that email to you telling you to leave me alone. Just because I’m single now, nothing else has changed.

You and I have never been officially been boyfriend girlfriend, and neither one of us has ever said I Love You to each other in the 20 years since we’ve know each other. I have lost count how many fights and arguments we have been with each other, though. You’re the reason I’ve changed my number at least once. Whenever I’ve seen you in public, adrenaline shoots through my body and my fight or flight mode kicks in. THIS IS NOT HEALTHY!

“Our” story isn’t a love story – it’s a cautionary tale.

I am not your friend or your concern, and you are not mine. However, if for some reason, you actually do love me and have genuine affectionate toward me, albeit in a sick and twisted way, then you will do the right thing and leave me alone. You mess with my head and you cause me stress. You are bad for me, and I will not sacrifice my mental or physical health for you or frankly, anyone.

Even though I am not with my boyfriend anymore, he did show me what it was like to be in a loving relationship. That’s what I want again and what I deserve.

I’d rather be content and alone than miserable with someone else in the room.

Consider this my resignation from your life. Just pretend I’ve already died from stage 4 if it helps.

“Handling it so well.”

For some unknown reason, I have had loved ones and acquaintances tell me, “Lara, you have been handling your Stage 4 so well.” Every time I have heard this, I’ve been taken aback by this comment. Why would anyone think I’m handling my disease so well?

I have lived alone for the past 6 years, and I’ve been working from home for 2.5 years now. I’m not around any single person for extended periods of time. I stopped running, so I’m not seeing my running friends on a regular basis anymore. This is the most isolated I’ve been in my entire life.

Yet, I get these remarks about my state of mind. One day, I’m going to respond, “Am I handling it so well, or do you only see what I want you to see or hear?”

The weeks leading up to my 3-month scans always do a number on my mental state. I wonder, “Is this going to be the scan that changes everything?” As of right now, my cancer does not appear to be motivated and content to stay put in my sternum. I used to be anxious and scared out of my mind that my cancer was going to come back stage 4, and now that it’s confirmed stage 4, I’m anxious and scared out of my mind that my cancer is going to spread throughout my body.

How is anyone supposed to “handle this well”? I don’t think it’s socially acceptable for me to be periodically shrieking to people, “Do you know how fucking scared I am?” I have to deal with this the best I can because again, I live alone and there’s nobody coming along to “save me” and take care of me when I can no longer take care of myself. You know how terrifying that is?

What’s going to happen to me?

Living with stage 4 cancer is like staring down a mama grizzly bear alone in a forest. It’s not a matter of if but when.

I honestly believe several of the people who have said this to me wanted to convince themselves that I’m okay and totally don’t need any help. That way, they don’t have to ask or actually do anything. Out of sight, out of mind, amirite?

I am so appreciative of my friends and loved ones who have not assumed my state of mind and sincerely ask how I am doing. I am definitely grateful to be able to still work because it ensures a 40-hour reprieve from all things stage 4 cancer. This disease is full of emotional landmines, plus all the side effects that come with treatment (i.e., joint pain, weight gain, stomach problems, sleep issues, etc.).

I am handling this the best I can, but for the love of dog, don’t ever assume you know what’s going on with me. That just infuriates me.

Deep thoughts by Jack Ha-… Lara

Sometimes, living with stage 4 breast cancer and working full time, feels like living in two different worlds. I have one foot in the “normal” world, and I have the other foot in CancerWorld. I am not a full time cancer patient yet, and that fact never leaves the back of my mind.

I am so grateful that I am still able to keep working, and I truly believe being able to still work full-time job allows me some non-cancer time. At the same time, at the end of the work day, I am mentally and physically drained, as if I am using all the energy I have to perform my job and do so well. Come 5 o’clock, my brain sounds like a long, drawn-out beeeeeep.

At the beginning of the year, I look at my vacation time and occasional absence time and wonder, “Hmm, can I use these vacation days for actual vacation days, or should I save them in case something happens in a couple of months and I need to take time off?” I’m torn between wanting to be optimistic but feeling like I should be pragmatic and prepare myself for potential emergency.

All of this shit is just exhausting. I am coming and going to the pharmacy for my medication, or the hospital for my monthly Xgeva shot and monthly bloodwork. Don’t forget – these medications come with side effects because of course they do. On top of that, I have to get scans every 3 months to monitor my cancer and a year brain MRI for my tumor. I see my oncologist every 8 weeks, and I have other specialists to monitor my thyroid, etc.

I juggle all this and still work full time. By the end of each work week, it looks like a tornado came through my kitchen. I’m just so dog-damn tired. I live alone, which can be a blessing and a curse. I’m glad nobody sees the state of what my house looks like the majority of the time, but then again, it’s just me responsible for cleaning this up. If I could fire myself, I would, but then that would leave Boomer and Mal responsible for cleaning anything up.

I know I can ask for help, but I carry this insane amount of guilt with my illness. I am so damned lucky that as of right now, the cancer is just in one spot and I’m stable. As far as I know, the cancer in my sternum doesn’t appear to be motivated, and my brain tumor does not appear to be impeding my physical or mental capacity. Every damn day, I am grateful that I still have some semblance of health, but it’s like my battery is at 45% charged. I see others with stage 4 breast cancer who are doing so much worse and dealing with pain I have yet to experience.

So I hold back for asking for help because yeah, I’m fine. Am I fine, though?

Like I said, I have one foot in one world and one foot in another. I feel like I should know the answer to that. I’m gaining weight, and I know that my face is just aging. Most of my clothes don’t fit me. My eyebags have bags. I’m new to chronic illness and fatigue, and I’m pretty sure I’m not handling it in any awe-inspiring way.

Maybe I’m fine? It varies day by day, minute by minute, scan by scan.

Such is the life of an oligometastatic cancer patient.

Under Pressure

I know I don’t update this blog with any regularity. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say. My problem is that I feel like I am holding back so much, and if I open up the floodgate just a little, it’ll be mass flooding everywhere. I’m talking apocalyptic level damage. How do I even begin to vent and let it all out without taking everyone down with me?

I feel like I am low-key panicking pretty much all the time and can’t remember the last time I really felt relaxed and loosey goosey. Granted, I have never been really good at relaxing anyway. I have cried more in this past year than I probably did in the last 5 years. Man, I miss when I used to feel dead inside. All these emotions just bubbling up inside of me – gross. Make it stop.

Work has been a little crazy lately and we have a shorter timeframe to get everything done. Part of the stress I feel isn’t the result of any pressure that my boss or boss’s boss have put on me. Quite the opposite – my managers have made it very clear that they will work with me and allow me to take breaks whenever I need to take one.

That’s just it – I feel guilty. The things I wanted to do in addition to my job so that I can be better at my job – pursuing my CFE, data analytics badge, etc., – I just don’t have the energy to that. I pick up a new data analytics skill here and there, but once 5 o’clock rolls around, my brain just goes “Derrrrrrrrrpppppp.” I put in all the energy and effort I can to my job but I don’t have anything left to try anything more.

My cancer is still stable, and I’m due for my next round of scans next month. This damn disease never leaves the back of my mind. How can it? This is a damn elephant in the room. I get blood work done every month, and I have to go in every month for my Xgeva shot. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about this disease and wonder how long do I have before I have progression?

My stomach hurts pretty much all the time, and my teeth have been causing me hot and cold sensitivity pain. Guess what is causing both of these issues – oh yeah, STRESS. Apparently, I have been grinding my teeth when I’m asleep, and the specialist told me. that’s caused by stress. Gee, what could I ever be stressed about? Whenever I hear about my friends with the same disease as me, but they have great family support to help them out with cooking or going to appointments with them, I feel slightly jealous.

I’m not close to my family, both literally and figuratively. Seriously – what’s it like being close to your family? If I ask my own family that question, my question would probably not be well received. Haha. Well, at least this topic ensures that I’ll always have something to talk to my therapist about. In all seriousness, I don’t have the energy anymore to fight with them anymore and feel like I matter or important to them. Why would anything change now just because I’m sick? They have always made me feel like just a spare and insignificant. My own brother never checked in with me since my stage 4 diagnosis.

I doubt any of them will even read this because that would show concern into my well being. I AM TIRED OF ONE-WAY RELATIONSHIPS. My phone also receives text messages and phone calls. If history is rewritten after I’m gone (“Oh her cancer was so hard on us”), I will haunt whoever I have to. Not a nice haunting either – I’m talking poltergeist level shit. You’ve been warned. (See what I mean about the floodgates?)

I’m trying to manage side effects from treatment, working full time, emotional stress, and this constant stream of depression that my cancer has caused. It’s a lot. Throw on top the pandemic, and good lord. I don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with much more. I had to step away from Facebook for the time being because if I saw one more person share an anti-vax post, ugh. Just nuke all my social media.

I’m tired y’all. I’m just fucking tired. I need a break of some kind. Something. If anyone wants to drop off soups and casseroles on my front porch, I would be much obliged. My stomach would thank you, as well.

Cook Forest 25K Trail Challenge

So, I did a last thing last weekend. Several months ago in a running group I am, I spotted a post about the Cook Forest 25K Trail challenge. Normally, I would stay away from trail races because I am a giant klutz, and I cannot afford another accident. This one was different thought – this challenge didn’t have a time limit!

I asked my friend, Tammy, if she wanted to do this trail race with me. She agreed, and thus began our training for this race. We spent weekends doing long trail hikes at Frick Park in weather that could be best described as “swampy.” Not fun, friends.

The conditions for the Cook Forest 25K Trail Challenge were similar. I was hoping for a break from the humidity but Mother Nature just said “Nah.” During the second mile, we kept just going up, and up, and up. I struggled trying to get my heart rate to calm down and had to stop multiple times to regroup. Honestly, if my friend wasn’t with me, I probably would have turned back around and DNF’d the race.

I’m glad that I did power through. I’m stubborn but as you can see from this picture, I took every step carefully. I had two goals for this race: finish and finish without injuring myself.

Cook Forest is gorgeous. This was my first time hiking in this forest, and I am a big fan. It’s gorgeous. Honestly, this race reminded me why I love being out in the trails so much. Some folks like to go to the beach – me, I want to go play in a forest.

The weather absolutely sucked throughout the race, but my goodness, look at the scenery. Plus, I got to spend almost 6 hours traipsing along in a forest with a good friend.

The conditions were brutal, but Tammy and I finished. When the official race results posted, I learned that I actually came in last place. My first DEAD FUCKING LAST at a race. Haha, I am so proud. I am pretty sure Before Cancer (BC), I would have been bummed about my last place. Nope, not bummed in the slightest. I might have been last place, but I was probably the only runner there with MBC. First in my Age Group, baby.

Self-Care

One of the biggest physical issues I have been dealing with since my diagnosis would have to be my stomach. I go through periods where my stomach just outright beats the snot out of me. I’ve cried and been in physical distress, all while trying to keep up the appearance that everything is a-okay.

My stomach has always acted up (or more accurately, acted against me) when I’m stressed. What can be more stressful than stage 4 cancer? (Spoiler: Not a lot.) Juggling working full-time, a social life, and oh yeah, cancer treatment… yeah, it’s stressful.

I’ve been doing whatever I can to reduce my stress and not get myself worked up. First, I hired someone to mow my yard and pick up poop. Good lord, this has to be one of the smartest decisions I have made recently. Every penny spent paying this man to take care of my yard is worth it. Taking that off my plate has been huge for me and my stress level. I am currently looking for someone or a company to come and clean my house on a monthly basis. That’s the other big load that I need to take off my shoulders. Finding a cleaning company is high on my to-do list.

Running has definitely been a big part of my stress relief. The physical exertion is just fantastic for my soul, and I feel stronger overall. I don’t know if it will, but of course I hope this helps with my overall survival rate. Maybe I will be an outlier, a cancer unicorn? I keep running because I can, and during these runs, I can still forget that I’m stage 4, even if it’s just for 30 minutes or an hour.

My other stress relief as of late has been reading, specifically romance novels. I used to be judgmental about romance novels, and I honestly think I was just closed off for whatever hang ups I had. Not anymore, friends. Romance, smut, I do not care. I am about that romance novel life, and I give zero shits if anyone judges me. Life is definitely short. Do what makes you happy.

One of the big stressors lately for me has been certain family relationships. It has been strained for quite some time, and my illness just put a big ole magnifying glass on the trouble that’s been there for years. I had to cut off a family member from my life because they were causing me emotional distress. I am only on the defensive, and if I object to any hate or vitriol my way, I’m the one overreacting. I went nuclear and just did a straight up block, but this didn’t come out of nowhere. This has been happening for the last couple of years. I didn’t want to do this, but I cannot keep having the same fight and conversation. Over and over and over and over again.

I would like to think me just bowing out of this negative back and forth will cause my family member to do some self-reflection. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen. They’re going to do what they think is best, and I’m going to do the same. I am going to protect my mental health and in turn, physical health, at all costs. I’m not going to fight anymore, and I am especially not extending myself to anyone (friend or family) who hasn’t reached out to me once since my diagnosis to see how I am.

One thing cancer has taught me – you have to look out for yourself. That’s what I’m going to keep doing. Nobody is entitled to my time or energy, even if you are related to me. I don’t want to keep fighting but the other person has no desire to change, so peace out. I only have room for one cancer in my life.

My Birthday Fundraiser

Back in February, I created a fundraiser for Metavivor for my 41st birthday, which falls at the end of this month. I know many people get weird and emotional about turning 40. Honestly, I didn’t mind turning 40 because I lived quite a bit of life in my 30s: early stage cancer, switching jobs twice, kicking cheating boyfriend out of my house… and so on. I had planned a 40th birthday party and was looking forward to my 40s (man, I’m a dumb bitch haha).

My 41st birthday has been the one I’ve been feeling all my emotions about – this is the age my mom never reached. She died when I was 7, and she died 2 months shy of her 41st birthday. On top of this monumental birthday, this is going to be my first birthday since being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It’s basically like I’m getting emotionally gut punched, and while I’m down on the ground, moaning and groaning, I’m getting emotionally stomped on the head.

It’s a lot.

My mother has been my Health Issue roadmap all this time. If she had it, then by George, I had it, too. This is why I’ve been convinced for so long that I was going to get metastatic breast cancer, too. I’ve come to the end of my Health Issue roadmap, and now it’s like, “Oh shit. What’s next?” This is unknown territory for me.

This fundraiser is my way of not wallowing and be productive. Not only is this fundraiser my way of honoring my mom, this is me wanting to live. I don’t want to just live – I want to live well. Research is the way.

https://donate.metavivor.org/fundraiser/3139488

I set my fundraising goal as $4,100, and I honestly thought this was a lofty goal. That’s why I gave myself two months to fundraise. Well, because I talked to management at my work before I created it and they all seriously rallied behind me, I hit my fundraising goal last month!!!

As of right now, I have raised $4,300 for Metavivor, and I have three more weeks left to fundraise. Can I hit $5,000? That’d be so cool.

Run, Lara… RUN

It’s no secret that I’ve struggled since my cancer recurrence diagnosis. Basically, this diagnosis came into my life like a tornado, and I’ve been struggling to pick up the pieces and figure out what next. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by my circumstances that it feels like I can’t breathe. I try not to show the soul-crushing fear that comes over me, and whenever someone asks me how I am, “Doing okay, you?”

I needed to find a way to deal with my stress, and running used to be a be one of the ways I dealt with my stress and anxiety. Without running, I have felt lost and agitated. I do have other hobbies that don’t require a lot of physical activity, but running allowed me to get out my every-day nervous energy.

With the blessing of my oncologist, I started running again since the weather got decent. A fellow runner friend wrote up a 12 week couch-to-5K program for me. That’s right – I am starting over and running again! I’m a believer in the run/walk method, and I am going to stick with this method until I cannot run anymore. Run/walk is much kinder to your body, and I need to be as kind as I can to my body.

It’s been five weeks, and let me tell you, I can definitely tell a marked improvement in my overall mood. I am definitely less agitated. In fact, my therapist is so happy with my progress that she’s seeing me every other week, as opposed to weekly appointments. Waaaaat. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I am not cured of my terminal illness blues, and this depression and anxiety is sticking around. I’m just coping with the shit hand I’ve been dealt a little better.

Running is meditation for me. It’s one of the few times where my brain just shuts off, and I just focus on what my body is doing. I don’t think about cancer. I am focused on my breathing, my surroundings, and how I’m feeling. When I go run downtown, I am enjoying the view of the river or the many Pittsburgh bridges. I feel peace, which I know is an odd thing to say. If you ever saw me run, I don’t look like someone who’s at peace haha. Whenever I see my racing photos, I look either in pain or confused. I do feel peace.

I don’t focus on time anymore when I run. I just want to finish. That’s it. If I am able to do another half marathon and it takes me 3 1/2 hours to finish it, so be it. All I want to do is finish, and more importantly, I want to finish pain free. I never want to voluntarily give myself pain and discomfort when cancer is more than capable of doing that itself, thank you very much. I’m going to be smart about this.

I am liking that my legs are starting to feel strong again to me, and I’m sure my oncologist is going to be a happy camper tomorrow when I tell him my progress. Part of me does want to be a strong terminal cancer patient. However, I honestly don’t know how long I will be able to keep running. This isn’t easy for me. I’m tired pretty much all the time, and my joints feel achey as all hell. I take medication that sucks all the estrogen out of my body, so my bones are becoming old lady bones.

I might only be able to run for 6 more months or maybe a couple of years. I’m going to give thanks for every run and celebrate the physical strength I still have left in me.

“Do you want to be defined by this?”

This question was asked of me lately, and I have been really giving this question a lot of thought. Do I want to be defined by my illness, by cancer? More importantly, do I… have a say in this matter?

Cancer has been a part of my life since I was 2 or 3 years old, whenever it was my mom first got sick. Cancer for sure set off a crater in my life when she died when I was only 7 years old. Thanks to cancer, I learned at a very young age that life was not fair, and the people you love will leave you, even though they don’t want to.

I always felt weird and out of place going through school, like this major life event marked me as different, a weirdo. I was the girl with the dead mom. Navigating adolescence without your mother is difficult, and I went through many “you’re becoming a woman” milestones with my dad.

Then, cancer once again becomes a part of my life when I was 25 when I started getting yearly mammograms. Five years later, I am told I have stage 1 breast cancer. Now, at the age of 40, I am living with stage 4 breast cancer. This freaking disease has been a part of my life for pretty much the entire life, and it’s going to kill me just like my mom. So yes, I have been very much defined by breast cancer.

Yeah, I have been defined by my cancer, and I plan on fundraising for metastatic breast cancer research as much as I can before I die. However, I will always be more than my disease. I was a runner, and I take bomb ass pictures. I am accident prone, and I love memes. I like my job, and I really like and care for my coworkers.

When the time comes I find out once and for all if heaven is real, I know my loved ones will be talking about funny stories about me, and not giving cancer a second thought.

Good-bye 2020

Like everyone else in this whole wide world, 2020 was a giant dumpster fire of bad news, cancelled plans, and overwhelming feelings of isolation. A couple of weeks ago, I underwent my first ever brain MRI that my oncologist ordered. I had been experiencing more headaches than normal, and I had episodes of complete forgetfulness which worried me.

First of all, MRIs in general are just anxiety-inducing procedures to begin with. During my MRI, I did not have any option to listen to music. As a result, I spent the 35 minutes in the MRI tube trying not to think about the very enclosed space and cage around my face. I did try to go to my happy place, but the sounds of VMMMM VMMM DUM DUM WHIRRRRR, or a combination thereabouts, prevented me from going to my happy place.

Also, similar to that gut feeling I had when I pushed my oncologist to order the CT and bone scan, I honestly felt like something was there. Guess what? I was right. (Yay me.)

I have a 9 mm (approximately a 1/3 inch) tumor in the back of my brain. When my oncologist told me that news, I just broke down. When I thought I was just dealing with a met to my sternum, it was one thing. Oligometastatic, if you’re going to have stage 4 breast cancer, is the diagnosis you want because the good prognosis and life expectancy odds are in your favor.

However, the idea that I could be also dealing with brain mets not only pulled the rug from underneath me, it beat the shit out of me with a bat. I mean, come the fuck on. This is a lot for anyone to deal with. I knew that even if the brain tumor turned out to be benign, the fact that I had metastatic breast cancer, a brain tumor, plus all the bullshit that comes with Cowden’s Syndrome, felt downright unbearable.

ESPECIALLY IN A FREAKING PANDEMIC. It’s not like I can meet up with my friends for support, or travel down to my parents house for Christmas like I had really wanted to. I spent Christmas by myself (well, my dogs are with me). As a result, I lost it. I cried a lot, and both my anxiety and depression took the wheel, while I stayed in the backseat curled up in a fetal position. I wrote in a notebook how I really and truly don’t want to be anyone’s idea of inspiration or strength. Let me be weak and cry, and for the love of pete, do not put me on any pedestal. I hate that shit.

I’m human, and I’m doing the best that I can. I’m not going to put on a brave face to make anyone feel comfortable.

Finally, after consultations with a neurosurgeon and my radiation oncologist, my team of doctors all agreed that this tumor looked like a typical meningioma, and where it was located in my brain further suggested that it’s a benign tumor. However, since this was the first ever MRI of my brain, the neurologist can’t say with 99.9 percent certainty without a second scan. If this tumor doesn’t appear to have grown in between scans, she can say with almost complete certainty that this is benign and let’s just keep watching it.

If I didn’t have Cowden’s Syndrome, she would have re-scanned me in 3 months and then 6 months, and then so on. Since I have stage 4 breast cancer, they are going to scan me in 4 weeks or so (pending insurance approval), and then every 3 months for a period of time. We will only talk surgery if it looks like it’s growing or I’m symptomatic. I am a-okay with this plan because I have zero desire to have brain surgery unless it’s necessary.

Oh look, there have been research into the frequency of meningiomas in patients with Cowden’s Syndrome: Hidden association of Cowden syndrome, PTEN mutation and meningioma frequency (source). Fun, super duper fun.

I’m not surprised that 2020 ended with one last punch to my emotional well being. This year, I was told that my breast cancer is now stage 4. I missed out on my own planned 40th birthday party, my beloved niece’s high school graduation, and a trip to Maine with my best friend. I spent every holiday at home by myself. Why not add a brain tumor to the list?

In an effort to put a horrible year behind me, I will do my best to recap and focus on the good things that happened (or, in my case, the not so terrible news):

  • My brain tumor is certainly benign.
  • My cancer appears to be only in my sternum still, not widespread.
  • I still have my job, and in fact, I got a promotion!
  • Management at work has been so wonderful and supportive to me. My boss, and boss’s boss, have been the epitome of caring toward me. I will honestly work for them as long as I can.
  • Countless friends have helped me and showered me with love in 2020. They sent generous gifts, bought Huffman rules clothes, and sent me money. Because of my loved ones’ generosity, I have been able to save more money and prepare myself for the rainy day that is coming, and it is coming fast.
  • Last, and certainly not least, my boyfriend has stood by my side, and he makes me feel like the luckiest woman alive. (Never thought you’d hear that coming from someone who definitely did not win the genetic lotter, huh?)

Yeah, 2020 sucked royally, and my life will never be as it was. It’s okay. If my only win this year was that I survived, I’ll take it.