Wednesday, March 17, 2010


On the way into the office this morning, I saw tulip blossoms (pictured above) poking through the dark ground and I almost cried -- it was just so beautiful. Spring! New life! Rebirth! And it's an apt metaphor for what I've been feeling lately: contentedness, optimism, peace.

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and it's dizzying to consider all the changes that have happened in the last twelve months. When I started writing here, I was terrified; I hadn't even tested positive for the gene mutation yet, but I was so scared and so alone that I needed to create a forum in which I could express myself. A year later, while I still love writing here (and reading your comments, which I'm a little sad to see have petered off recently. I miss you guys! Say hi to me!), I'm in a totally different emotional state: I'm happy, sometimes deliriously so.

If spring is a rebirth, the winter -- and its gray weather and leafless trees -- is a kind of death. If I'm now reborn, it follows that I was a little unanimated before. And I realize with the benefit of hindsight, that, if I wasn't quite dead before my surgery, I was deadened: my joy was tempered, my optimism was muffled, my anxiety piloted me. And now, after surgery, I'm alive, more so than I've been in a long time.

The last time I wrote about my post-mastectomy emotions, I talked about my post-surgery blues. But equally important, and to my mind more astonishing, is the phase I find myself in now: unadulterated glee. I was down for only about the first two weeks after surgery; once my drains came out and my house guests left, I began to feel more like myself and less like a patient. But the real return -- or perhaps the ascent -- to happiness began shortly after I returned to work. The most mundane things -- the way the sun shone through the window of the southbound el train as I headed to the office, the simple pleasure of doing my makeup and blow drying my hair, bundling up and braving the Chicago cold -- suddenly seemed new and beautiful; the normalcy of a simple life no longer clouded by the fear of cancer was blindingly bright. And it wasn't just being back at work where I felt different; at home, my laptop lay clamped shut rather than propped open, forever searching the internet for information about breast cancer. I began baking and cooking -- domestic activities I was never known for -- and found immense joy in creating and nourishing. I found myself with so much free brain space: the part of my mind that was clogged with fear and worry had been cleared, and now it is filled with a sense of empowerment. And this feeling of accomplishment has turned into happiness.

After surgery, I feel I can do anything. I can take on any challenge. I can climb mountains. My BRCA year was life-altering and life-sucking, and now that I have recaptured the elan, there is nothing that is too hard. Which leads me to my next point. Before BRCA, the initials that ruled my life were OCD: I presented with symptoms during puberty and have struggled my whole adult life to control the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behavior. This is real OCD, not just oh-yeah-I-like-my-shoes-lined-up-neat-too kind: every second of every day I struggle with irrational thinking and palliative rituals. It's a hellish disorder, but I decided a long time ago I wouldn't be held prisoner by it. And it's a testament that many of my friends and acquaintances don't know this secret shame: I work really hard to control my behavior so that I'm not stigmatized as that nutjob girl.

But I've also spent most of my adult life medicated. I long considered OCD a chronic condition that, like, say, diabetes, required constant medication; my SSRI was like insulin. I had been wanting for a while to switch up medications; the pill I took was notorious for being particularly side-effect laden and difficult to wean from. But in my BRCA year, with so many changes afoot, I thought it would be prudent to wait. But after surgery, I felt strong enough to try something new; after all, I felt I'd be given a new lease on life and I had a check-list full of things I was anxious to start working on. So in February, I spoke to my doctor about trying something new; she devised a plan by which I would gradually taper off the old drug and get onto the new one. But something happened halfway through the weaning: I realized I wanted to make a go of it without medicine. I had heard such nightmarish stories about the withdraw symptoms that I worried whether I'd be strong enough to get through it. But I discovered, not only was it not as bad as I thought it would be, I didn't feel all that different. So when I got to the end of my weaning period, I stopped. No more pills. And it's been wonderful. I don't feel all that different, to be honest. Sure, I still have symptoms of OCD, but no more than I did when I was supposedly controlling them with medication. It's been about a month, and I feel great: I can access my emotions -- both sadness and happiness -- more readily and I feel things more acutely, but this is what I want: no buffer, just life. It's like my mind has been reborn, or at least reawakened.

I'm a big believer of better living through chemistry, and I think medication can do a lot for a lot of people. And I'm not writing off the possibility that one day I might once again set sail on the S.S. SSRI. But right now, I'm seeing what life is like through these eyes. And so far, everything I see is beautiful. It's spring and I have new boobs and a clear mind: I'm reborn and I'm happy.


  1. It's hard to believe a whole year has gone by, isn't it? Last month marked a year for me too - February 09 to February 10 I went from finding out about my BRCA1 status to having all of my trouble parts removed. It's crazy how much can happen/change in the span of one year!

    I'm really glad to hear that you are so happy. That's the whole reason for the surgery, right? So you don't have to have the fear of cancer looming over your head. You have a new lease on life! :)

    Funny, right after my PBM I started thinking that as soon as I'm healed I want to really LIVE my life. Not just be a bystander of it, but be actively involved. I figured if I went to all of this trouble to prolong it, I should make the best of it! :)

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I'm happy for you, you've come a long way!

    Good luck with the OCD / non-medication route. :)

  2. Hi Steph- My name is Stephanie too and I am scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy on 3/10/10 I am 40 years old and I have 6 girls. 2 of my own 4 that are step-daughters. I have been reading your blog and it has helped me overcome so much. The fear of it all. I just got my BRCA test back yesterday and it was Negative- still my plans are to move forward with this surgery- I have breast cancer it got me and I am going to get it - thank you for finding me - you are such an inspiration to me your awsome!

  3. Happy anniversary to you, too, Teri. Amazing how much a year can change EVERYTHING, huh? And welcome to Stephanie! Thanks for saying hi!

  4. This entry is great. I'm really happy to hear that you're able to manage the OCD without medication for now -- I hope that things continue to go well, whatever you choose to do on that path.

  5. What a great post! It must have felt as wonderful to write it as it did to read it. It is quite the inspiration to see how far you've come and how you've dealt with your feelings and emotions. I'm still sorting things out, but knowing that others have gotten through it is beyond comforting.
    Enjoy your renewed life!!

  6. Thanks guys for all your kind words. I'm so glad to read your comments again after the dearth of late.

  7. Hi Steph,

    I found out I was BRCA2+ last July and, on March 2nd, I had my PBM with DIEP reconstruction. A few days after coming home from the hospital, I made a comment to my husband about somewhere it would be wonderful to travel someday. Then, it suddenly hit me that, for the first time in all those months,I was speculating about the future in a positive way.

    The concurrent Winter to Spring transition (all the more dramatic for some rare March sunshine here in Toronto) does put a magical frame around it.

    I have very little family history of breast and ovarian cancer, and no known early onset so, the test result was a complete shock. Never having faced mortality, I went from 'I plan to still be dancing at 70' to 'I wonder if I'll live to be 70 and, what my quality of life might be'

    I wondered if I'd ever have my joy and optimism back but I find, quite as suddenly as it shattered, it's restored and as strong as ever.
    Maybe stronger, because I know my own strength and resilience now.

    I've been enjoying your blog all along the way. Your wit and insight and irrepressible humour have been an inspiration. Thanks for sharing that and, Happy Spring!