Time to get up swinging

During my most recent appointment with my oncologist, I talked to him about my desire to get back to the gym. Before undertaking any physical activity like this, I need to clear it with him to make sure I’m not going to do anything dangerous and hurt myself. The goal, as always, is to avoid ending up in the hospital. After our talk, he told me that he did not have any restrictions for me. My oncologist agreed with my idea for me to see a physical therapist just to get that peace of mind.

Last week, I saw a physical therapist who specializes in working with cancer patients. He had me do a series of exercises after going through my medical history. After we were done, he happily told me that he had zero problems with me going back to the gym. The only restrictions I have are avoiding exercises that could aggravate the pain and discomfort I feel in my sternum, such as push ups (haha) and fly exercises. Other than that, I’m good to go.

The day after my appointment with the physical therapist, I signed up with the new gym that opened up in the North Hills. I have an appointment tonight with a personal trainer to help me get started. To say I’m excited is an understatement. I miss being active, I really do. I just felt so much better physically (i.e., sleep, weight) when I was a runner and going to the gym on a regular basis.

However, I probably won’t ever be an active runner again because I am too afraid of the threat of spontaneous fractures. Given that I had a hysterectomy and I take arimidex, the risk of spontaneous fractures is too high for my liking. (Again, the goal is to avoid ending up in the hospital.) Maybe I’ll try to do a 5K again? I will keep hiking for as long as I can, but training for races where I’d have to pound pavement and beat up my knees, etc.? Nope nope nope. That’s a risk I’m not willing to take.

I have already shown that I can run a half marathon and shit, marathons. I have the medals and the memories. Now it’s time to pivot and adjust to my current circumstances, and that means doing activities that someone like myself can do. I know that lifting weights will be extremely beneficial for someone who is at high risk for osteoporosis. I also have no idea if going back to the gym will help me lose any of the 30 lbs I have gained in the last 2+ years. I truly hope so because about 80 percent of my current wardrobe does not fit me haha. It was either join a gym or pay a small fortune to replace my wardrobe. I’m trying the gym route first.

My recent breakup really showed me that I was stuck in so many ways, and I did not even realize it. I was emotionally stuck in a long distance relationship with someone who made it clear he did not want to move back or truly commit to me. When someone repeatedly says they never want to get married, you should believe them. Trust me. I kept thinking if I proved to him that I was nothing like his ex, then maybe he might change his mind. All that got me was getting my ass dumped and heart broken after 6 years with little explanation. He repeatedly asked if we can stay friends, which I flat-out refused for several reasons: 1) I have plenty friends, and the friends I do have are open and honest with me; and 2) I have no desire to wait around for more emotional scraps from him. To protect my peace, I have blocked him on all social media that I can found, and it has helped tremendously.

I recently met a new man, but I won’t go into details here. My stalker Randy still reads my blog for whatever reason, and there’s a chance that D might read this too. I’m going to keep this new, amazing relationship that’s been making me grin from ear to ear to myself. Let’s just say that I’m not stuck in this respect, anymore. I will never ever ever do a long distance relationship again.

I am proud of myself for picking myself up after this breakup and being the one to put myself back together. I have been accomplishing so much with my cooking, and I have seen a difference with my stomach issues. Once I get back into the gym on a regular basis, I’m going to feel like myself again, and all it took was for me to remember to get up swinging again.

2 Years

It has been 2 years since I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Two years since my heartbroken oncologist informed me that the bone biopsy I had confirmed that the breast cancer was now in my sternum. It’s not an exaggeration to describe that day as the worst day of my adult life. My biggest fear – dying of stage 4 breast cancer just like my mother – came true.

On top of that, I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer during a worldwide pandemic, squashing all those dreams and fantasies about going on bucket list trips. Now that I’m thinking it’s somewhat safe (with the right precautions) to go on these trips, my boyfriend of 6 years dumped me. He and I talked about going on these trips when the time was right, and the time ended up never being right.

Even with all these setbacks, I’m not going to let this stop my plans. I do not need a boyfriend to go on these bucket list trips I have on my list. He might have broken my g-d heart, but I won’t allow this to break my resolve. I have gone on vacations by myself, and I will do it again. If I am having issues walking and might need assistance to keep my klutzy ass safe, then I am sure I can find a friend that would join me on my bucket list trips. (I can hear some of my friends now thinking, “Lara going on a vacation by herself? Dear lord, she will trip somewhere and we will never see here again!”)

As of right now, I can walk and hike relatively well. I’m 2 years into a disease that on average, kills patients after 36 months. I’ve been stable since my diagnosis, and as such, been on my first line of treatment all this time. I am fortunate that I only have one met, and don’t suffer from any chronic pain. If I wait too long, will it backfire and I lose my chance to have these trips without dealing with pain and discomfort?

I can’t depend on anyone else for my happiness, and it’s up to me to make this happen. Only me.

“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.

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.

Mental Health, Metastatic Breast Cancer & a Mother-Freaking Pandemic

A question I get asked a lot, and understandably so, has been: “How are you doing?” I typically respond, “Hanging in there.” It’s an answer that tells you absolutely nothing, but conveys the sentiment that hey, I am still here. I am always touched when a friend or family member checks in on me, and it warms my icy cold heart that anyone has been thinking about me. I’ll let you in on a secret though: I often give the non answer of “hanging in there” because I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. I really don’t. Does anyone really want to know the real answer?

Most of the time, my stress level is probably at a 7 or an 8, and it’s been that way since the beginning of October 2020. I am going to do my best to try and explain what this feels like. To me, sometimes it feels like there’s a killer clown with a 10-inch serrated knife in the room with me. This clown looks like it crawled out from the depths of hell, and it has got murder on its mind. The killer clown has soulless, jet-black eyes, and yellowish fangs. It has a devilish smile, which enjoys mouthing the words, “I am going to kill you.”

The kicker – nobody else can see this killer clown.

“Can’t you see it, too?” I scream at others. They nod their head and shrug at me. Nope, it’s only me. So, I have to pretend to be normal and do my best to not pay attention to the killer clown, but sometimes I slip, look back and see it once again mouthing the words “I am going to kill you,” and then freak out accordingly. I still have to go about my regular day and pretend like I don’t see this clown but I am always aware that it is there..

Living alone during a pandemic was challenging and tough enough, as it was. I often felt lonely and isolated. Like so many, I felt cutoff from my friends and my running community. The big difference, though, was that I could still run and work out. Now, I am lucky if I get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on the treadmill. I keep gaining weight, and my body is changing so much on me. Soon, it’s going to be even more foreign to me, and I mourn my pre-diagnosis body with all my heart and what I used to be able to do.

I am lucky that I enjoy my job, and really like the people I work with and for. My job allows me to be creative, and I always try to learn something new every day. My job allows me to ignore the killer clown for 40 hours a week, and pretend to be normal, when I feel like anything but. I want to keep working as long as I physically can because it really helps my mental health, too. There are stretches of time where I actually forget I have metastatic breast cancer. Oh my, I am actually tearing up thinking about this. I desperately need these stretches of time where I can forget and feel like Lara again.

I truly believe my mental health will significantly improve when the weather gets warmer, and I can leave my house for physical exercise. I miss being on the trails so much. Don’t get me wrong – I will not be running on the trails ever again (well, unless something is chasing me). During my last brain MRI, I tried to go to my happy place, and I found myself transported back to the trails in North Park. I was climbing up the massive elevation on the purple trail, and then I was trotting along the green trail where I typically spot deer.

Even though I’m exhausted pretty much most of the time and my counts are currently in the toilet, I will hike those trails again. I’ll just have my boyfriend along with me (making sure I don’t trip and fall).

“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.