Monthly Archives: May 2013

Angelina Jolie

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of people have been asking me my opinion on the op-ed that Angelina Jolie wrote about her preventative double mastectomy. First of all, it’s awesome that any of you care about my opinion, so thank you! Second, I think she’s a God damn rockstar and the op-ed ruled.

Let me start by pointing out what I think is its single flaw: She really glossed over the whole mastectomy part of it. I don’t want to scare those of you who may one day need this procedure – it’s saved millions of lives and obviously I am doing fine these days (and looking pretty damn good if I do say so myself, tried on a bikini the other day and my new boobs are rockin’) – but seriously, she covered the whole thing in one sentence, like it was a cavity filling. Maybe my experience was more extreme than others, but I literally couldn’t sit up for nearly a week after my mastectomy. I didn’t shower for like nine days because I couldn’t stand up long enough, and I wasn’t allowed to take a bath. I wore the same pair of pajamas for a fortnight.

And don’t even get me started on the drains. THE DRAINS. They’re like a medieval torture device designed to be as painful and inconvenient as possible, all while also being unbearably disgusting. While I had my drains in, I was on Skype with my friend Danielle and her roommate Megan, and I lifted up my pajama top to show them where the drain went into my skin, and MEGAN FAINTED AND HAD TO GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM. True story. That’s how disgusting these drains are.

I hope Angie had an easier time with her procedure than I did, but assuming she had an experience even remotely similar to mine which included a lot of pain, vomiting and Law & Order, I think she’d do us all a favor by just admitting that it really sucked balls there for a few weeks. It’s all fine now and I don’t regret my choice even for one second, but I don’t want to lie to you all. It was miserable for a little while. But 100% worth it.

I also want to take this opportunity to clear up a little confusion about what a mastectomy is these days. When people hear the word – and certainly when I first did – they imagine a scarred, pitted crater where a breast used to be. But Angie and I actually had the same procedure (twinsies! BFFs!), which is a skin-sparing and nipple-sparing mastectomy with immediate implant-based reconstruction. With this option, my new breasts look natural. And awesome. The only thing indicating that they’ve been tampered with is a thin, light scar that runs from the outer side of my nipple to just before my armpit. So when you picture Angie and I as mastectomy survivors, think less sad cancer coffee table book portrait and more Pamela Anderson.

My favorite thing about Angelina Jolie’s op-ed, though, was this line:

I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.

It’s hard to struggle with a cancer that messes with your sexuality, especially when you’re in your sexual prime (me) or the sexiest woman in the world (also me. Just kidding. Obviously that’s Angelina). And it’s weird to think about my future as a woman when I’m missing one of the defining parts of being a woman, even if no one knows I’m missing it but me. I think Angelina Jolie very eloquently captured the idea that those of us who make this choice do so because we are strong, empowered and determined – qualities that are far more important than breasts when it comes to defining fierce, beautiful, inspiring women.

By the way, my second favorite thing about the op-ed is when she just casually mentions that Brad Pitt is her partner, like we didn’t know. DUH BRANGELINA WE KNOW YOU GUYS ARE ADORABLE.

Chemotherapy #5: The Musical Slash Educational Film from 1954

I’m back in California as of yesterday around 8pm, but I’m still on East Coast time. As a result, I woke up stupid early this morning and made a playlist for today’s chemotherapy session. I wish I could embed it, but Spotify won’t let me. If you’d like to listen, click here:

CHEMOTHERAPY: THE MUSICAL

It’s a weird, chill, eclectic collection of tunes including Rihanna and Of Monsters and Men and Lymbyc System and tons of other stuff. I’m usually on a ton of drugs during chemotherapy, so…it kind of sounds like music you’d listen to while you’re on drugs.

I cannot believe this is my second-to-last chemotherapy. Someone told me very early on in my treatment that actually, the hardest day for a cancer patient is the final day of chemotherapy, and I’m finally starting to understand what he meant. I mean, this is what people talking about when they talk about “fighting” cancer – sitting in this chair and getting up to pee every fifteen seconds from the constant saline drip, talking to my mom, dickin’ around on the instanetz. But the fight ends, and although the bell will ring, cancer will lie down and the referee will declare me the victor, I’ll leave the ring alone, unprotected and vulnerable. At least I’ve got one more treatment before I have to really start considering that.

After I left New York last Thursday, I hopped on a train to Boston to visit Gordie for the weekend.

By the way, this has nothing to do with anything, but I love trains. Every time one comes by, I have to stop and stare for several minutes, mesmerized by the rhythmic thumping of the wheels over the track’s joints and the blur of ridged containers flying by at a speed that seems impossible for the train’s lumbering weight. It’s like watching an elephant win the 100-meter dash. It’s like a steam-age fractal, a repeating series of shapes and colors, a weird, quaint piece of moving art that harkens back to a time I never knew. I want to grab a hitch and bindle and leap up on one of the ladders and ride away on track ballast, wood and steel to the 1840s. But if I did, I’d be dead, because I think chemotherapy/mastectomies were pretty primitive back then. They probably would have covered me with leeches and called it a day.

Gordie and I had a fantastic time – walking along the esplanade, visiting an outdoor beer garden, meeting up with some of my grad school friends who are interviewing at agencies in Boston, strolling through the public gardens, watching movies, grilling burgers and just enjoying young adult life (something I was isolated from for so long that I cherish it now more than ever before).

Gordie plays in an adult soccer league, so I went with him on Saturday morning to see them compete. While they were warming up, I left to grab an iced coffee before the match started and found myself walking through the middle of one of those Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure things. It was so weird – all these women in pink shirts and matching fanny-packs, with pithy signs about boobs and womanhood, and me, the very person they’re walking for, wandering through their midst while they march on unaware. It just goes to show that Plato was right: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle. And if their wig is realistic enough, you may never know what it is.

Back to chemo. I find that people often want to ask questions about my condition and my treatment, but they worry that it’ll somehow be offensive. I totally get that concern, but also, I absolutely love answering questions and it’s not offensive to me in the least. It makes me feel useful, like God was like, “Hmmm, I need someone to explain cancer to a smallish group of twentysometimes scattered across California and various mid-size cities on the east coast. I’m gonna use this petite brunette girl! She can tell everyone what it’s like! Michelle, your mission, should you chose to accept it (LOL I’m God just kidding you don’t get a choice), is to become Grand Cancer Ambassador.”

So let me answer a few of the Frequently Asked Questions I get about chemotherapy, in the form of a script for a 1950s educational film.

“CANCER AND YOU (AND ME, WAIT, WHO’S NARRATING THIS AGAIN?): WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW BUT MIGHT BE AFRAID TO ASK”

ME: Hello, I’m Michelle, and you may recognize me from such blogs as I’m 25 and My Boobs are Trying to Kill Me, the Tumblr that I occasionally binge-update and a Livejournal from 2001. Today, we’re here to talk about chemotherapy!

TIMMY, our pupil: What’s chemotherapy?

ME: Well, Timmy, it’s the worst thing on Earth. It’s basically like the devil pissed into an old Mountain Dew bottle on a long car ride when one of those signs that says “NEXT REST STATION 55 MILES” popped up and he couldn’t hold it any longer, and then he forgot about the bottle for like two months while the car was parked in a very hot parking lot (this is Hell, after all), and then eventually he was like, hey I can sell this!, and he gave it to some doctors, and then they stab you with a needle and inject the months-old satanic urine in your bloodstream.

TIMMY: Is that true?

ME: Yes. That’s exactly how chemo drugs are made.

TIMMY: Why does your hair fall out?

ME: The thing that makes cancer so dangerous is that cancer cells aren’t very different from other cells in your body, they just grow more quickly. The trick to “curing” cancer is to find a drug that targets cancer cells while doing minimal damage to normal, healthy cells (damaging your regular cells would, of course, paradoxically give you MORE cancer and/or kill you). So far, most chemotherapy drugs just target cells that are growing fast, like cancer cells. Other cells grow fast, too, though – like hair. Which is why hair falls out. Nails can also become discolored, raised or fall off, your reproductive system shuts down, your immune system is highly suppressed and you can get sores in your mouth and throat – other places where cells grow quickly.

TIMMY: That sounds like it sucks a big one!

ME: It does, Timmy, it does.

TIMMY: But are you able to do normal stuff?

ME: Mostly, yeah, but that’s because my oncologist is awesome and I absolutely refuse to lie down and take it from some dumb drugs. I feel like I got run over by a steamroller carrying the e. coli virus for the first ten days, and for the second ten days I feel mostly normal, except that I get winded halfway up the stairs. I generally try to cram everything fun and cool into those last ten days between treatments, which leads to some very action-packed weeks punctuated by weeks where I literally go days without changing out of my pajamas. The same pajamas. Yeah, I’m disgusting, whatever, I know it, and I have cancer.

TIMMY: Gee golly whillikers, that sure is gross!

ME: Haters gonna hate, Tim.

TIMMY: Are you allowed to travel?

ME: Yeah. I just got back from a three-city tour of the East Coast. And I’m in the midst planning a cross-country road trip. More on that in an upcoming post.

TIMMY: Are you allowed to drink?

ME: This is a 1950s educational film, you’re in like the fourth grade.

TIMMY: Yeah, but you’re writing this script, so the drinking age can be anything you want.

ME: I don’t think I want it to be 9.

TIMMY: Anyway, just answer the question. Are you allowed to go out for a brewski?

ME: Totally. I’m not supposed to get, like, freshman year hammered, but I can totally have a beer or two at the bar. Or, during one of my Pajamas Weeks, you’re totally welcome to come over with wine. We’ll drink it in front of Law & Order: SVU while I try not to barf into a metal bowl. And that actually sounds strangely reminiscent of the aftermath of a night of being freshman year hammered.

FIN.

Feel free to ask more questions in the comments, if you have some. Nothing’s off limits and I’ll answer as honestly as I can.

Graduation and New York City

What a whirlwind this week has been!

Despite saying for months that I didn’t really mind one way or the other if I got to go to my graduation, I decided to sack up on the Wednesday before the Saturday ceremony and buy a ticket to Richmond. I was already planning on a trip to New York City for some job interviews, so what’s a little stopover in RVA?

I honestly wasn’t expecting much out of graduation. These things tend to be 90% pomp and circumstance and only a small portion actual sentiment/appreciation, and besides, I’d already attended my high school graduation (throughout the duration of which I had to pee SO BADLY that I kind of blacked out and remember virtually nothing of the ceremony) and my college graduation (which was actually two ceremonies – one giant gathering for the whole 3,000 member graduating class, during which I cried inexplicably [hint: this is foreshadowing], and one smaller ceremony for the English grads), so I didn’t feel any burning desire to add another strut to my Walking Across A Stage in A Silly Outfit repertoire.

I completely mischaracterized this ceremony, however. Because my master’s program is (was!) so intimate, specialized and small, the graduation was not only interesting, it was downright moving.

First, the director of our program, who made it possible for me to graduate and to whom I will be forever indebted for her willingness to work around my INSANE medical journey, gave a talk. She actually gave a shout-out to this blog, so HOLLER, Y’ALL! Everyone cheered, and I got a little misty-eyed, to be honest.

Then came our graduation speaker, Fallon CCO Jeff Kling. If you have 20 minutes and even a passing interest in advertising, creativity, media, design or writing, please take the time to watch this video of his speech. You will not regret it.

After the ceremony, they called our names and we each walked across the stage to shake hands with our professors and receive our master’s degrees. I was completely calm and collected when my name was called, but then I looked out at the crowd and saw that they were giving me a standing ovation for some reason, and I burst into hysterical tears. I truly do not think I am deserving of any special recognition. I only did what anyone else in my position would do. Honestly, if anything, my desire to continue and complete my graduate studies in the midst of a cancer diagnosis was really kind of selfish. I was basically like, “WHATEVER, BODY, I’M THE BOSS OF THESE ORGANS AND NO MATTER HOW SICK THEY FEEL, I’M GOING TO MAKE THEM KEEP DOING WHAT I WANT TO DO.”

Anyway, I sobbed uncontrollably all the way across the stage. I hugged everyone. I hugged Jeff Kling, who has literally never met me or heard of me. I hugged my notoriously crusty, gruff professor who put out a hand for me to shake, which I ignored while embracing him fully and crying/snotting all over his button-up.

My friend Corey captured my emotional walk on camera:

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I was right about one thing, at least: We did have to wear silly outfits. But I’m not even going to lie to you, internet. I kind of like the beret and I think I look pretty fly in it. (I’m in the middle!)

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After graduation, my dad and I boarded a plane to New York City so that I could go to a bunch of job interviews. It was only my third or fourth trip to the Big Apple, and my second one since I turned 21. The last one was summer of 2012, when I visited my friend Hailee in Brooklyn and had a completely awesome adventure that involved touristy things like Times Sqaure, but also Viking halls, naked people passed out in cars, preventing a DUI by a total stranger and my favorite thing ever, late night sandwiches.

This time around, Hailee made me a walking map of some of NYC’s neighborhoods so that I could explore the Lower East Side, the East Village, the West Village, Chelsea and the High Line. In between interviews, I followed her route to check out the Chelsea Market, eat delicious Italian food and enjoy amazing views of the skyline. We met up for dinner and drinks and explored some more neighborhoods in Brooklyn. My dad and I also met up with my cousin, Danielle, who’s been living in Manhattan for more than a year now. I got a chance to chat with some alumni from my grad program, too.

At one point, I found myself downtown, standing in the shadow of One World Trade Center. An imposing structure stretching a symbolic 1776 feet high and seemingly made out of mirrors and magic because I don’t know how anything so majestic, shiny and moving can be constructed out of earthly materials, the building has been under construction for the better part of a decade. Most of New York is under construction, it seems. Despite being noisy and confusing to navigate, there’s something I like about the constant self-improvement happening in NYC. It seems hopeful. It feels indicative of progress, change, a willingness to adapt.

On a whim, I decided to head toward the building and found myself at the 9/11 Memorial, two pools emblazoned with the names of the people who perished in the attacks. The experience was considerably more emotional than I was expecting. Since my diagnosis, I’ve come to have a real and deep appreciation for how fragile and beautiful life is, and how terrible it is for anyone’s to end before its time. Prepare yourselves, cliché incoming: Life is awesome. I’m so glad to have mine, every bit of it, the good and bad.

In between all the socialization, walking ‘til I felt like collapsing and eating (YOU GUYS, THE EATING!!! There are restaurants serving the cuisine of nations I’ve never even heard of!), I started to gain a real appreciation for what it means to live in New York. Some people say New York is too much, but on the contrary, I think it’s not enough. Not enough space, not enough time, not enough money to do all the incredible things there are to do.

Until we meet again, New York. So long, and thanks for all the pastrami.

Over the hill: Chemo #4

I’m now 4/6 (that’s 2/3, for you math whizzes out there) of the way done with chemotherapy!

Y’all know the drill by now, so instead of blathering on about my uncontrollable drooling, nausea and food aversions (why do all of these have to do with my mouth?), I’m going to talk about something a little more fun: the upsides!

It may seem odd to say, but there are certainly some upsides to the whole chemotherapy process. I already documented all the perks of going bald in an earlier post, but there are even more things I can find to be thankful for when I really search for them, not just the ability to take a shower 5 minutes before I need to leave the house. (But let’s not lie, that ish the JAM. I can’t believe men have been getting away with that forever.)

For example, I have never had better skin in my life. I haven’t been able to figure out the exact reason for this, but it seems to be a well-documented side effect amongst young cancer survivors – acne is banished FOREVER. Normally I’d hate to admit this anywhere, but we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, internet slash blog followers, so I guess I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I used to have some pretty intense zit biz going on up in this face. Back in middle school, I not only had braces, frizzy hair (R.I.P., hair) and absolutely no sense of style behind oversized summer camp t-shirts, I also had a nice smattering of red pimples across my forehead and cheeks. Since then, the whole deal has calmed down, but like most other twentysomethings I would still find myself with a blemish here and there, and usually only at the most inopportune times. But no more, my friends!

Thanks to chemotherapy, I now have the complexion of a marble bust. If this were the 19th century, crows would alight upon my bald, ivory scalp and quoth, “Nevermore!” I get compliments on my glowing skin virtually every day, so now my secret is out. I wasn’t born with it, it’s carboplatin, taxotere and herceptin. I wouldn’t really recommend that regimen for any but the most severe cases of lingering adult acne, however.

My parents are gonna straight up die of happiness when they read this since I’m generally being super grumpy at them most of the time, but another perk of cancer is the ability to spend more time with my family. My mom, dad and brother all live out here in Los Angeles and I’ve spent the last seven years on the East Coast gettin’ schooled and/or paid, so it has been nice to come home for a bit – even if it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. Just chillin’ with my mom and dad in the chemo ward for like six or seven hours at a time is the kind of personalized one-on-one time you don’t even realize you miss when you’re all grown up and away. I bet I haven’t had this much attention since my little brother was born.

Honestly, my parents and I have had our fair share of squabbles since I was forced to move back home – and I think that’d be pretty standard for any 25-year-old ripped from a life of independence and thrust into a world of needles, drugs, fear and confusion, all while having her parents burst into her room every ten seconds to check on her like it’s ninth grade again – but I’m still incredibly thankful that they’re here for me. I can’t imagine doing this without having my mom and dad handy to shove water in my face three times an hour even when I’m not thirsty, or listen to me bitch about everything, or not rip my head off when I’m a super-rude chemo brat. Love you, mom and dad (and Ryan!). Can someone check and make sure my mom didn’t pass out from joy?

I also completely forgot to mention two other Important Moments in Hairlessness that occurred while I was in Richmond, but that deserve some time in the spotlight on this blog.

IMiH #1: The career fair at school was understandably stressful for all of us, so some of the recruiters and school officials were kind enough to get a few masseuses to come out and give us backrubs to help us calm down. I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven – you can ask Gordie; backrubs are my absolute favorite thing on earth. So without a moment’s hesitation I leapt up onto this lady’s chair, so, so, so ready to get my rub down. And then she started with neck. And then I remembered I was wearing a wig.

At first I was all blissed out on the idea of a backrub so like, whatever. This can’t be the weirdest thing this lady has ever seen, right? But then I start feeling her fingers going sort of under the wig and touching all of my bald, stubbly bits, and I can feel the hesitation in her hands, you know? It’s like her hands are saying, “WTF IS GOING ON HERE? THIS GIRL HAS NO HAIR?”

And I’m sitting there panicking like, Do I tell her it’s a wig? It’s too late now. She’s just going to wonder. Obviously it’s a wig. I can’t explain why I’m wearing a wig without playing the cancer card, and I don’t even KNOW this woman, so like, why should I give her my medical history? But is this weird? IT’S SO WEIRD I’VE WAITED TOO LONG OH GOD SHE THINKS I’M A FREAK!

I almost ruined my whole massage by panicking like that, but thankfully it’s a massage, so it literally can’t be ruined because it’s the best thing in the world.

IMiH #2: One of the recruiters who came to the career fair was wearing a hat with some fake hair attached to it, which was pretty cool since it’s always fun to see anyone – student, recruiter, professor, whoever – let loose a little bit. I had seen him walking around a bit and didn’t realize the hair was fake since I hadn’t looked closely, but then he walked right by me and sort of tipped his hat to me and of course THE HAIR CAME WITH IT and it was hilarious.

So then I’m feeling disarmed and sharing a chuckle with this guy over his shaved head so I’m like, “Hey, me too!” And then I LIFTED UP MY WIG SO HE COULD SEE THAT I WAS BALD UNDERNEATH.

Instantly his expression changed to one of total confusion. And who can blame him? I’m sure he was like, “WTF IS GOING ON HERE? THIS GIRL HAS NO HAIR?” He probably had to get a drink with the masseuse later to talk it out and figure out what was going on. I’m sorry, dude. If you’re reading this, you actually handled it super well, and I’m sorry I gave you absolutely zero explanation as to my hairlessness. Your fake hair rocked, and I’m pretty sure you gave me a thumbs up once you processed the fact that I was actually lifting up a wig, so that makes you a totally awesome guy.

All in all, each go ’round of this chemo business gets easier. I find that with every treatment, my drugs get adjusted more perfectly, I recover more quickly and I experience fewer side effects, so if you’re on this blog because you’re going through or are going to go through chemotherapy, I really hope that give you some hope and make it easier for you. I feel like I just got started, and OH SNAP! I’m 4/6 of the way done.

In case you forgot, that’s 2/3 for all you math whizzes out there.