A Cancer Survivor Who Still Sweats the Small Stuff

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I am a breast cancer survivor who gets really annoyed when our dog pees in the sunroom, a pipe bursts in our basement, and my 11-month old daughter poops in the tub. Yes, that’s right. Despite facing my mortality, I still sweat the small stuff.

But let me back up …

In October 2015, eighteen days after I married my husband on a picture-perfect fall day, I found a lump. As we waited for the doctor’s office to open, we convinced ourselves it was an infection. It had to be. I was only 34 years old, had no family history, and this mass in my chest had appeared out of nowhere.

Spoiler alert: We were wrong. It was not an infection. It was what we now call “The Cancer” or, more specifically, triple-positive invasive ductal carcinoma presenting as two tumors and one positive lymph node. (I’ve always been an overachiever. Why settle for one tumor when you can have two and a lymph node?!)

Over the next sixteen-ish months, I endured 18 weeks of chemotherapy, a single mastectomy, five weeks of radiation, a year of immunotherapy, and the very intense DIEP flap reconstruction. (Google it, if you dare.) To say it was an extremely difficult time in our lives would be an understatement.

But here’s the catch… it was also a pretty amazing time in our lives. People rallied around us in so many unexpected ways: meals; a boost box full of letters and small, fun gifts from college friends; a flash mob; Chicago Cubs tickets; an unexpected complimentary brunch from a local restaurant; a “No Mo’ Chemo” party; and so much more. Honestly, I’ve never felt more loved and supported by family, friends, and even strangers. We also managed to squeeze in our (rescheduled) dream honeymoon, spending almost three weeks in Italy. And – most importantly – the treatment worked. After so much fear and uncertainty, the cancer was gone.

So what does this have to do with a peeing dog, a leaky pipe, and tub poop? Well, for me, one of the hardest parts of cancer has been figuring out how to navigate life after treatment. The world not only expects you to “move on,” it wants you to do so as a Buddha-like figure who levitates above everyday annoyances. How can someone who battled down the cancer beast get upset about traffic? Shouldn’t you have perspective?

Let me assure you, I am not Buddha, and I can’t levitate. I also have perspective, just maybe not one you expect. First, one aspect of my post-cancer perspective is that I will never move on. Not only do I have scars and medicines that serve as daily reminders, but I am also a different person than I was on October 7, 2015. Cancer will forever be a part of me emotionally, even if no longer a part of me physically. I am not moving on; I am merely moving forward.

But, even while moving forward, cancer didn’t make everyday annoyances any less annoying. In fact, sometimes, I find myself more frustrated when things go wrong. I mean, shouldn’t a cancer diagnosis two and a half weeks after your wedding grant you a free pass for – I don’t know – at least a decade? And don’t even get me started on the rage that spills out when faced with the really big stuff. For example, we struggled with post-cancer fertility and had multiple doctors tell us we’d never be able to have children because the chemo had destroyed my eggs. I didn’t “move on” or take a deep breath and transcend into a happy place, just grateful to be alive. I cried every.single.day for almost a year while screaming to the universe, “This isn’t fair!”

So, no, cancer didn’t change me into a lighter than air idealist who rises above every negative emotion and thought. In fact, kind of the opposite. Cancer made it very clear to me that life is messy. Really, really messy. Awesome things happen. Awful things happen. And the majority of our days are spent somewhere in between … like with a beloved, elderly dog who pees on the porch. Or living in an older home with both character and leaky pipes. Or laughing at your miracle baby as she poops in the tub.

Dog pee, bath poop, and leaky pipes … all of these things are still really annoying. Cancer didn’t change that. But what it did do is change me into someone who is becoming more comfortable and content when sweating the wonderfully messy small stuff.

P.S. If you don’t get annoyed cleaning poop off bath toys, please email me. I need to know your zen secrets.