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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Act of the Acquaintance

If there's one thing I've learned through this journey is that it can be awkward to have run-ins with people in your life who are "acquaintances". These are the people who know some simple facts about your life--where you work, where in the city you live, who you date, etc., but you're not close friends so they don't know the personal dealings of your day to day life. You see them at events and parties every few months, catch up, and then don't see them again for a while. You're friendly and happy to see them but they're not necessarily your "friend". Here in New York I feel like I have a lot of these "acquaintances" because the social circles are so large, its impossible to get close enough to everyone to really call them a "friend". As a result, when I'm in mixed company of both friends and acquaintances recently I've found it hard to answer the question, "How's life, how are you?", from a person I haven't seen in a while who has no idea of the major changes taken place in my life. It was easier in the beginning of this journey, I would normally say, "Life is good, planning a wedding, etc.", but as I've dealt with setbacks, I feel like a liar saying life is so good, yet am I really going to open up about my cancer diagnosis at a dinner party to someone I see just a few times a year?? It's a strange dance to perform. I want to say everything is all good with my life, even though it's not and often I'm not in the right setting to really explain what's going on.

Last night I went to a birthday party where I saw a lot of people that I haven't seen in a while and it was good to catch up, but the inevitable question, "How have you been? How are you?" hung in the air for me. Several people commented on how much weight I had lost and it's a comment 2 years ago that I would have loved and taken as a compliment but considering how I got here, I feel awkward acknowledging it. I realized later I could blame my weight loss on a wedding diet, which ironically I would totally be on if I never had been diagnosed with cancer, striving to reach the weight where I am now. But I feel odd celebrating my figure when I got it in such an undesirable way.

And then I never know how much people know. I've been very private about my situation from the beginning (yes, even though I have a blog!). I suppose it partly comes from the shame of feeling that somehow I went wrong in life. I did something bad or wrong to deserve cancer. I know that Hodgkin's isn't the kind of cancer you get because you did something "wrong" (i.e., didn't exercise, smoke, eat bad), but it doesn't stop me from feeling like somehow, someway I brought this on myself. So I've been ashamed to tell people that I have cancer, that I was an unlucky person to get an awful disease, I almost feel like I got an STD or something, a shameful disease that I don't want anyone to know about. As a result, not everyone at my job knows, there's a fine line between who knows and who doesn't. All of my close friends know, but only some acquaintances know and sometimes I can't be sure if one friend has told another. A few times last night, I saw people who said it was really good to see me, and then I became paranoid that they knew what was going on because they had been told by someone or they just were honestly really happy to see me! Such a strange situation. I had hoped to come out of this journey with only a few people knowing, but as my journey has gotten longer, the circle of those who know has grown and that's not a bad thing because I need all the positive energy and prayers I can get, it just makes it strange when you're at a party and someone asks, "How are you?". So I can't wait for the day when I can honestly say, "Life is good, can't complain!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wiggin' Out

If you know my personality or you're familiar with my blog, you'll know that from the beginning of this cancer journey I was obsessed with losing my hair. My fear was two-fold, first of all I've never had shorter hair than a chin-length bob and I didn't know how I would recognize myself with little or no hair and secondly, it's the unmistakable sign of cancer. A bald head, a scarf, a wig, no matter what you decide, people will wonder, they might know that you have cancer and I didn't want anything that would make me feel even more different from other people. The bald head is such a big sign of the illness that it was hard for me to fathom not having any hair, and even as I struggled to get through the physical pains of chemo, nothing could prepare me for losing it. I was lucky enough to keep about 45% of it during my 1st round of chemo and I foolishly thought, "Ha! They said I would lose it all but I didn't! I win!". But if I knew then what I know now, I would have said, "take it all off". Because the 2nd treatment after my recurrence was much harsher, much rougher and my hair literally wore off of my head. On a spring night in April I decided I would have to start wearing the wig I had bought so many months earlier, hoping it would never touch my head, and it was rough. I cried and cried because I hated the person in the mirror, the girl I didn't recognize, the girl with no hair, the girl everyone felt sorry for. It was real. I was a cancer patient.

I tried to convince myself that it would be ok, after all I had read so many stories of women who went through chemo, lost their hair and wore their bald heads proudly. I began to notice a lot of women (esp black women) walking around with extremely short hair cuts, almost bald. I was shocked at how easily these women walked down the street with little to no hair and I couldn't even take my wig off in front of my family or Ross. I vowed no one would ever see me without it because I didn't want anyone to have that horrible image of me in their heads. I could barely look at myself in the mirror and yet I felt jealous of these women who could walk down the street almost bald with such confidence. Several times I had to stop myself from running up to someone and asking why they cut their hair that short, or did they have cancer too? How do they show the world their baldness??

I became as insecure about my looks as I knew that I would the day I was diagnosed. Every mention of hair or hair salons or someone complaining about the state of their hair made me cringe inside. How I longed to at least look normal even if I didn't feel normal inside! I told my friends they couldn't talk about hair around me, I was just too sensitive and would flip out. Even if people complimented the wig, I felt uncomfortable. I felt like a fraud, I didn't feel like me. And on top of everything, I hated that I was still this vain when I was still being treated for cancer. I felt like my focus should be on my health, not my looks, but it goes to show you that I'm still the same person inside. I want to be healthy and pretty, is that so bad?? Especially with my wedding looming over me.

So as my hair started to grow back (my eyebrows came back first and that was amazing-they look better than before!), I felt such joy and tried to anticipate how long it would get the next month and the next month. Yet I still wore the wig. At this point I hated the wig, it felt like a ball and chain every time I had to put it on my head. I felt like I was branded with a scarlet C every time I walked down the street or went to work or saw a friend who hadn't seen me in a long time. The weekends when I would stay home and wear my scarf all day I felt the best because I didn't have to put something fake on my head (and lets face it, the wig was starting to lose its luster) and I could just be me.

My turning point came on my 28th birthday, just a month ago. I was getting ready to meet Ross for dinner and I cried that I was celebrating another birthday still fighting cancer and I cried that I didn't even feel pretty on my own birthday. I struggled internally because at that point I had more than enough hair to walk around without the wig, but I still was so insecure and Ross had never seen me with hair this short before. I didn't know what to do, should I wear the wig to my birthday dinner or go without? I decided to compromise. When my hair started falling out, my mom bought me a fake ponytail that I could use to make my hair look fuller. I had put it away after all my hair was gone, but I wondered if it would work now that I had a few inches of hair. So I bobby pined it to my head and it stayed! I literally felt like I was reborn and I was myself again. I was able to show my real hair with just an extension of extra hair and I recognized that girl in the mirror, she was the girl I've known for 28 years, I found her again. It sounds silly that a ponytail could give me that much confidence, but it made me feel like I looked closer to how I looked before cancer without the look of a wig.

It took a while for me to get used to the idea of ditching the wig and wearing the ponytail and my real hair everyday. Although the new drug I'm on, Gemzar is supposed to cause little to no hair loss, I was still scared that it would fall out. Then 3 days ago I realized that I've been scared to make any plans, scared to book vacations with friends, scared to move forward with planning my wedding, scared to look into the future and I thought, "maybe I'm holding myself back". Maybe I need to strut towards the future (with my real hair) and just don't look back. So the next day, I slapped on the ponytail and went to work with my real hair showing in the front. It's quite a different look from the wig, so I braced myself for comments that would make me feel uncomfortable, but everyone was great. And the best part is that I feel so much better about myself and my insecurities. Now the question is, could I go sans ponytail with just my new curly fro (I must admit my new hair is pretty nice, silky, soft and curly!)...I don't know...all I know is that I feel like me again for the first time in a long time, so thank God for small blessings.