In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we have guest blogger, Michelle Zwirn, here to share her experience. Read her blogpost below.
Ten years ago if someone asked me what my life would look like on the brink of my 27th birthday, my response probably would have gone a little something like this- “well….I will have completed my Master’s and be a successful psychologist with my own practice and be married to Dave Grohl and just starting to raise our first child together by the beach.” I am absolutely positive I am not alone when I say that my life right now looks nothing like I thought it would. Cancer has changed my life in so many ways, I could write an entire saga about it that would go on longer than Grey’s Anatomy has even been on the air. I had this long post typed out about all my treatments, doctors, physical changes, but I feel like that is only a slice of this whole journey/experience/story/(insert pseudonym for “incredibly crappy situation” here). I have fought physical battles in my past and came out on top, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was in for both physically and mentally with a cancer diagnosis, especially one that is considered “incurable” by modern medicine and came out of left field at my age. I am by no means on my death bed, and am certainly not here to scare anyone, but I have learned so much this past year and I feel like the mental perspective in these types of situations isn’t often shared, and if me sharing this opens up just one person’s eyes, then being an open book, for me, is totally worth it.
Sometime in 2014 I noticed a lump in my right breast. I was told by my doctor at the time that it was just some sort of trauma to a ligament brought on by years of exercise and that basically I’m too young for breast cancer. I was either 23 or 24, I don’t even remember exactly. I was told to come back if the lump gets any bigger. In the summer of 2016, I had been traveling nonstop all year for work, when all of the sudden almost half of my right boob was swollen and started to feel like really hard rubber, and stabbing pain was radiating through it, so bad that it was keeping me up at night. I went back to the doctor, which led to an ultrasound, which led to a mammogram, which led to a biopsy, which led to an MRI and PET scan, which led to my diagnosis of estrogen-positive metastatic breast cancer. In those 1 1/2-2 years since I first noticed the lump, it had spread to my lymph nodes, all over my ribs, spine, pelvis, and my liver. I was put on a hormone therapy drug that had just been FDA approved along with 4 painful infusions/shots every month which got rid of 90% of the cancer in my body, even cleared up all my bones, but 9 months later it started growing again on my liver. I was put on another hormone therapy drug that slowed things down but not enough, so I am now onto chemotherapy options. I am lucky in the sense that breast cancer is so common that there are a myriad of treatment options, but there is still no “cure” once it goes to another part of the body and this is the thing too many people don’t realize when breast cancer is glorified with pink tutus and giant pink ribbons on NFL fields.
For some reason in our mid-20’s-30’s us strong, independent women (and some men too!) start putting this pressure on ourselves that we need to fulfill what is expected of us- get married and start having babies. I mean, all of our parents were married and had 2 kids by the time they were our age, so that’s where we should be at too, right? Before I was diagnosed with cancer I had been graduated from college for 4 years and had been working nonstop but also LIVING. IT. UP. in Santa Monica and the South Bay since. I was Tindering and Bumbling and meeting people in bars but couldn’t help but look at my friends who were settled down and having kids and wondering if that would ever be me. Now, freezing my eggs was not even something that was brought up to me before or throughout my treatment until I brought it up myself and looking back, if I had to guess, I would say it was because I wasn’t married or serious with anyone at the time. Instead I was thrown into medically induced menopause overnight and the prospect of me ever having children is looking pretty grim, and if I am able to, I will need a surrogate (any takers?!) .
What I am getting at here is that I wish my friends and other women my age knew how different everyone’s situation is. That married couple that is constantly flooding your social media with happy posts or that person your age with the awesome six-figure job—you have no idea what issues they may actually be facing or what it took for them to get to that point. Trust me it has taken me so much time and practice to come to terms with the fact that my life is SO different than most people my age now, and I still struggle with it. However, I HAVE accepted that these feelings, comparisons, guilt trips, will arise, but I have to dig down to the deepest depths of my soul to not let myself unpack and stay stuck in those moments and thoughts. I have learned to pick my battles and that the phrase “energy flows where attention goes” is my new motto. Do I want to focus on the “friends” who have dropped off the face of the earth, or build on those relationships of those who were there in the waiting room the day I was diagnosed? Am I going to be scared that my life could be cut short or am I going to be stoked that this weekend I get to spend my 27th birthday in the middle of a National Park I’ve never been to with 5 of my best friends when this time last year I didn’t even know if I would be here? Picking your battles has got to be the hardest life lesson for anyone to learn, and I am still working on it every day. I encourage you if you are reading this to start doing the same too. I am going to sound super cliche here, but it’s true, we NEVER know what life is going to throw us out of left field and if you look around there is everything to be grateful for. I personally am grateful to have a caring family, a core group of friends who love me as if I am family, my pups, having my good days, the snow season, the ocean, my home state of CA where we have both those things, music, Dave Chappelle for making me laugh on days I don’t think it is possible, and for making it this far and having hope that I will live a long, happy life.
It has been one year and I still haven’t wrapped my head around it, and I’m not sure if I ever will. I am now on my third gnarly treatment plan after the first two failed, been medically induced into menopause and then had to reverse it, am now on oral chemotherapy that makes me wake up every morning wanting to vomit, BUT I am happy to report that all the while I have traveled to six countries and too many states to count, completed all the large events I was planning before I was diagnosed, was still able to snowboard all winter and still plan on doing the same this winter, continue almost everyday with my yoga practice, and I feel pretty damn good considering all that my body has gone through. I leave you now with a quote that was randomly in my inbox the other day from a yoga studio in Maui, but is oh so fitting:
“My body has taught me I am stronger than I realize And more fragile than I like. I can endure pain with courage And be reduced to tears by a virus. I am marvelous, miraculous, mysterious. My body has it’s own deep intelligence. I carry my memories in my cells. I am constantly being born anew. I hold tight to fear and resistance. I breathe deeply, and let go. My legs will carry me farther than I think I can walk. My heart will keep beating even when it is broken. My mouth will kiss, laugh, drink tea and eat chocolate. My skin will shiver with pleasure. My bones will tell the weather. My feet will find the path. My hands will soothe a crying child. And write a story that will make you cry. And pour you a glass of wine. And brush your hair. And stroke your cheek. And hold your hand. My body will chop wood. And carry water. My body understands the wisdom of rest. The beauty of stillness. The power of touch. The importance of dance. And that there is only this. Here. Now. My body understands joy, delight and play. My body knows what I am hungry for. My body has taught me to pay attention to my desires. To listen to my gut. To trust my appetites. My body has taught me I am human. I am here. I am beautiful. I am powerful. I am brave. I am scared. I am alive. And I am grateful.”
-Marianne Elliott “What my body has taught me”