Monday, June 21, 2010

Holding a Mirror to Myself

It's funny how life has a way of teaching you lessons. Last week, all I could think about was revision surgery; today, I feel much more content.

Over the weekend, I helped friends who own a fair-trade clothing design and import business sell their wares at a street festival on the North Shore. I love working for them for a number of reasons: 1) Their clothes are fabulous (see what I mean?) and, since I get paid for my shifts in clothes and jewelry, today I'm rocking this little number, and 2) Their mission is unimpeachable: they work with democratically structured women's cooperatives in India that provide benefits--including childcare and overtime pay--denied to many in the garment industry. The clothes they produce aren't just stylish and unique, they're helping empower women in impoverished communities; they are beautiful on the outside and on the inside. And I'm proud to watch my friends grow their small, independent, women-owned business. It's an honor to put in a couple shifts a summer, and I look forward to the weekends I can help out.

Saturday was a picture perfect day. A little on the hot side, perhaps, but the sun was bright, and we were busy. I've never had a retail job (does that summer I worked in a coffee shop count?), but I think I'm a natural saleswoman, especially when I believe in what we're selling (and boy, do I ever). I like interacting with the customers, answering their questions, and helping them find something that makes them feel good.

Towards evening, two women--one blond, the other brunette--ducked into the tent (we were selling outdoors, of course). They were probably in their early forties, and the brunette had in tow a young daughter who dozed in her stroller just outside the booth. Not long after they started shopping, they grabbed a few items and hit the dressing room. We were cramped for space and among my many duties--including running credit cards, giving people the wrong copy of their receipt (note to self: we keep the white one), and generally forgetting to keep an accurate track of inventory--was holding the full length mirror (this was a job I was particularly good at). As soon as the brunette came out of the dressing room, I could see it. And my heart leaped to my throat. She'd had breast reconstruction, I was sure. I could see that her left breast was different than her right, I could see the familiar roundness of an implant. I wanted to say something, but what could I say? "Hey, fellow fake boobed lady, I couldn't help but notice..." But I felt an immediate kinship with her, and I wished there was a way to reach out.

What really astounded me, though, watching her watch herself in the mirror, was how happy she was. How pleased she was with her reflection, with how happy she was with the way the clothes fit on her body, even with her imperfect decolletage. She went back into the dressing room and tried on another dress. This time, because of the cut, I was even more sure she'd had reconstruction; her armpit was hollowed out, a telltale sign of a sentinel node biopsy. And then, this time, as she stood before me, in front of the mirror I held, she adjusted her neckline and I saw the scar from her chemo port. She was a breast cancer survivor, I was sure of it.

She smiled so brightly and exuded such joy it nearly took my breath away. There I was, feeling very different about my post-surgery body. I was self conscious and worried that my reconstruction was noticeably imperfect. I worried what people would think if they knew I had implants. I feared people could tell. Here was a woman who didn't care, who didn't apologize, who didn't fiddle with the dress and ask sheepishly, "Can you tell I've had breast reconstruction in this?" She just seemed so very happy to be alive.

It put things into perspective for me. You can own your new body, with its new imperfections, and you don't need to explain it to anyone. You can be wear your scars, your choices, your journey with pride. My friend Cancer Bitch is one-breasted and proudly so. After her cancer, she chose to not to reconstruct. And I'm always astonished when I see her how amazingly confident she is, how it doesn't bother her, so it shouldn't bother you either. I need to see more of that. More women who aren't worried so much about what others think because they are happy with their bodies. I forget to think like that sometimes. But I'm going to try to more.

When I held up that mirror on Saturday, I got a better look at myself. And I'm going to try to learn to love what I see.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Happy half birthday to my new rack

Happy half birthday to my new rack! Six months ago today, I traded in my natural breasts, cancer free though they may have been at the time, for a new set that would never try to kill me.

The first six months haven't been easy. If this were a new relationship -- a new love affair with a new boy -- this is around the time we'd be testing out those three little words, the sweetest of them all. But I can't really look at my breasts and say "I love you" yet. And unlike a new relationship, where it's all acrobatic sex and hopeful fantasies about a life together, it's been a slower courtship for me. And I'm pretty sure these aren't the breasts I'll have for the rest of my life. In fact, I'm pretty sure righty won't live to see her first birthday. (More on that in a moment.)

It took be a long time to even look at my breasts. I mean really look at them. At first, I was so relieved that I'd made it to the other side, I didn't want temper my euphoria by becoming critical of my surgical result. After at all, especially at first, that wasn't the point. For a long time, the girls we bruised, hard, flat, and swollen. I knew they wouldn't be perfect, and until I fully healed, I didn't want to get too nit-picky. But now that things have settled and the swelling has receded (I would say, truthfully, I was swollen -- to varying degrees -- for a good five months), I've been looking closer -- really examining them from all angles (hands up, bent forward, jumping, etc) -- and I can begin to admit I'm not totally happy with what I see.

I've written about it before, and from what Teri tells me, lots of women in the BRCA community have problems with their right breasts (she calls it something not PC which I won't repeat here; suffice it to say our right breasts ride the short bus to school). I surmised it was because the majority of us are right-handed and that side is given less time to heal before we're reaching for things, slinging purses over our shoulder, and picking thing up, than our left. She guessed it might have something to do with blood flow (our hearts being somewhat to the left). In my case, the reason my right breast isn't as full as my left is that simply, the implant doesn't fill the entire pocket left by my mastectomy. It was always the larger of the pair, and now, while the implant fully inflates the runty pocket of lefty, righty is like a saggy balloon, dented on one side. You can see the edges of the implant. I've got a dent on the top of my breast and the inside slope, and the implant sits closer to my armpit. To me, it's very noticeable. And I'm beginning to realize I want to have it fixed.

I've heard stories of women, pre-surgery, ogling other women's breasts. I never really did that. But post-surgery, I can't stop checking out strangers' racks. And when I stare covetously at their natural breasts, I don't envy their size, their bounce, their cleavage. I lust after their slope, the way their chest swells seamlessly into their bosom. I don't have that right now, and I realize I want it back.

It's hard for me to admit I'm considering revision surgery. For one, I feel vain. Part of the mental and emotional preparation for surgery was forgiving myself for seeking elective plastic surgery; in my pre-BRCA life, I never aspired to self-improvement under the knife. I'd never considered paring down my rather substantial schnoz or tapering my beefy inner thighs. And when I first considered reconstruction -- especially implant reconstruction -- I was torn between understanding on one hand that it wasn't about vanity and hating myself on the other for thinking it was. I was having surgery to prevent cancer. It wasn't supposed to be about anything else. And eventually I forgave myself and was able to proceed, knowing I wasn't shallow. I was brave.

But now I realize that, in the post-surgery world, aesthetics matter, and they matter a lot. I've talked time and time again here about the peace of mind that comes with risk-reducing surgery. All those dark shadows of fear that kept my world overcast have dispersed; I'm free to be me again. But while I feel great about my decision to have surgery, and I feel great that I'm no longer burdened by the fear of breast cancer, I don't feel all that great about the result. And I think I need to allow myself to feel great, even if that means having more surgery.

Things have been pretty good since surgery. Mentally, I feel about a thousand pounds lighter (and physically, too, there's less of me to love. My year of stress eating behind me, I've lost about 10 pounds since surgery). I'm running, I'm powerful, I'm capable. But I'm just not comfortable with my right breast. It's a small thing, to be sure, but when you don't have confidence in your appearance, it can be far reaching. I want to live life fully -- as fully as I did before I'd ever heard of a breast cancer gene -- and to do that, I want to feel good about myself physically and emotionally. And, I need to remind myself, I deserve this. There's no point in going through all of this just to withdraw because your relationship to your body has changed for the worse. This is about celebrating life, and I'll be happier when I can look down at my new rack and say with confidence, they're fake and they're spectacular.

A few weeks ago, when visiting my dear friend B in Dallas, I bought a super cute top that just happens to be perilously low cut. I knew I was making a bold purchase, but I thought I was ready let it all hang out there, so to speak. I've worn it a few times, but instead of feeling sexy, empowered, and proud, I worry if I look strange, if I have Tori Spelling chest, if others can tell something isn't quite right with righty. I think I'm going to hang it up for now, not out of defeat, but with the goal that one day, I'll be able to wear that top again with full confidence. And that includes the confidence to allow myself to pursue the tweaks that will make me most happy.

So happy half birthday to my new rack. Not sure how much longer you'll last, but if we go our separate ways, I can assure you, it's not me, it's you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On my soapbox: Support FORCE through Chase's Community Giving Program

It's no exaggeration to say I wouldn't be alive today without a group called FORCE. Ok. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but I've never been one to shy away from hyperbole. The truth is, I wouldn't be sane without FORCE. About three weeks after I learned my BRCA status, in April 2009, I attended my first FORCE meeting at the home of a woman who would become a dear friend. Brain foggy with fear, eyes baggy from lack of sleep, nerves jangly with anxiety, I walked into a room of women who understood exactly what I felt like... and my life was forever changed. A few weeks later, I attended the annual FORCE conference, where I learned more about my risks and what I could do about them; I met more women just like me and learned more about what the road ahead -- from options regarding surveillance and surgery to recovery and reconstruction -- looked like. From the first moment I connected to the organization, I knew I was a part of a community whose support would be vital to me as I made my risk-reducing decisions and beyond. And it has been. I can't imagine having gone through what I did in the last year without FORCE.

Simply put, FORCE provides an indispensable service: it connects women at high-risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer in peer support networks and advocates on our behalf. But for me, it's been so much more: a lifeline, a community, an example to aspire to. FORCE is the only cancer charity that focuses exclusively on hereditary cancers, and it's one of the only places where women like me -- previvors, or women who have a high risk for but have not yet developed breast cancer -- have a voice.

I believe FORCE is an organization worth supporting, and luckily, it's pretty easy to do. Chase Community Giving is preparing to donate $5 million to 200 local charities, and if FORCE receives enough votes, it could be awarded anywhere from $20K to $250K. With that money, FORCE could do so much to improve the lives -- and options available to -- women and men affected by hereditary cancer. Casting a vote is easy. Here's how to do it:

If you are on Facebook then it’s very simple to vote. The first thing you do is go here:

The next step is to join the movement by scrolling down just a little bit on the page and clicking the ‘Like’ button.

Next step: Click the big green ‘Search’ button and copy this text: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered and paste it in the box that says ‘Charity Name.’

Click the big blue ‘Search’ button to the right of that.

After you click that, you’ll see Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered in blue lettering. Click it.

Scroll down and check the box that says: “Please display my name and profile picture below so this charity knows it can contact me to get more involved.”

Click ‘submit’. A ‘Request for Permission’ box will pop up. Click ‘Allow’.

Vote – and share (and share and share and share again) with your friends, and ask them to share with their friends, and so on. This is the key to getting the word out there, especially as we are only allowed one vote per person per charity.

Here's more information about FORCE and what they'd do with the money if they got it:


• To provide women with resources to determine whether they are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer due to genetic predisposition, family history, or other factors.
• To provide information about options for managing and living with these risk factors.
• To provide support for women as they pursue these options.
• To provide support for families facing these risks.
• To raise awareness of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
• To represent the concerns and interests of our high-risk constituency to the cancer advocacy community, the scientific and medical community, the legislative community, and the general public.
• To promote research specific to hereditary cancer.
• To reduce disparities among under-served populations by promoting access to information, resources and clinical trials specific to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

What would FORCE do with the money if they won?

For starters:
$1,000 delivers the latest in BRCA research and information to 500 families.
$500 gives 60,000 visitors access to their website for one month.
$300 provides a scholarship to FORCE’s annual conference to one person that could not otherwise attend.
$200 provides life-saving information to 100 people through their newsletter.
$100 provides phone-based support and resources via the Helpline for one month.
$50 provides a package of informational brochures to doctor’s offices and hospitals.

Just think, if $2250 can do all of that, a lot more good could come if FORCE places in the top two hundred charities.

Voting on Facebook starts on June 15, 2010 and the lucky 200 winning charities will be announced on July 13, 2010. Please take two minutes out of your day to vote for FORCE. They've made a huge difference in my life; your vote could help them make a difference in the lives of so many others.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

(Don't) Say (Just) Anything, Part II

Sometimes it's hard to know what to say to a previvor. After all, we aren't sick (we just have a higher likelihood of getting sick). And it's not like we just "came down" with the gene mutation (we've had it since birth). Last fall I wrote a post about what previvors do and don't want to hear, and I got a lot of positive feedback both from gene mutation carriers (who mostly said, "My thoughts exactly") and the people who love them (who said "Thanks for this guide to keeping my foot out of my mouth."). Since then, I've gone through a double mastectomy and reconstruction and have noticed that people still don't know what to say. So it struck me today, after reading this list of ways not to cheer up a cancer patient, that a new primer was in order. I call this list "How Not to Act Like a Boob in Front of a Woman with New Boobs."

1) Don't stare at my tits
I know, the temptation is almost too much. But my eyes are up here. During my recovery, I got a new haircut, complete with distracting bangs, in order to razzle dazzle people from checking out my new rack. It was not quite the sleight-of-hand that I'd hoped it'd be. Inevitably, the eyes would wander south, often apologetically. Here's the thing: yes, I got new tits. But I didn't do it for attention. I don't actually want people to stare at my chest; in fact, I want my chest to be so unremarkable, so very normal, that no one noticed I had anything done. So eyes up here. I can see you trying to steal a glance.

2) Refrain from coded compliments
Last weekend, I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen since surgery. She embraced me in a warm hug, stepped back, looked me over, and declared, "You look great!" I know she meant to be kind. But I couldn't help but wonder, what the hell did you expect me to look like? Deformed? Emotionally and physically scarred? I heard this -- "You look great!" -- a lot right after surgery, and I wanted to take it in the spirit it was intended, but I always heard something slightly different. What I heard was more along the lines of: oh, she doesn't look like she had a mastectomy. Or: oh, phew, she doesn't look as bad as I feared. I know it's coming from a good place (and I've likely been guilty of this, too), but as innocuous as it might seem to the speaker, it sounds much more coded (and loaded) to us. When I saw my friend this weekend, what I wished she'd said was something like, I like what you're wearing, or I like that new haircut, or you look pretty. But nothing is better (or linguistically more strategic) than saying simply, "How are you?" It puts the ball in our court, so when we say, "Oh, I'm doing really good, really happy to be healthy again" and you respond "Well, you look fantastic" we know you mean it.

3) Don't tell me I should have gone bigger
This may come as a shock to those who confuse the very different procedures of breast augmentation and breast reconstruction, but most women aren't going into this hoping to win circus tits as their consolation prize for carrying the breast cancer gene. Sure, some women go bigger, some women go smaller, and many stay the same. The difference between a boob job and a recon is that, with the former, you want to look like you've had work done; for us, we just want to not get cancer. The truth is, I have no idea what cup size my new boobs are. Despite popular misconception, boob size isn't at the forefront of our minds when deciding on reconstruction. In fact, it's often left to the plastic surgeon's discretion (they take into consideration the size of your rib cage, your height, and your natural breasts when deciding what size implant will look best on your body). When I first consulted with my doctor, I told him I wanted to be about the same size or maybe a half cup fuller. And that was the last time I spoke to him about it. The boobs I woke up with, from my vantage point, seem bigger. But really, they are just so differently shaped (so much more spherical than the distended bags of flesh that formally occupied this space) that it makes comparison difficult. Most of my old bras (size C) no longer fit, and some of my clothes are tighter in the bosom region. But even though I now buy bras a cup size bigger (hubba hubba), I don't think my breasts have changed that noticeably (especially in clothes). And that's exactly what I wanted. Believe or not, this wasn't about vanity; it was about health. So I don't regret not taking this opportunity to go dramatically larger; that's never what this was about.

4) Say something, Or: Don't mistake this for the end
When I first learned my BRCA status, I got lots of call and cards. When I went through surgery, I got all of that plus flowers, gifts, food, you name it. But now that I'm on the side side of all of it, there isn't much to say -- or so it must seem to outsiders. The truth is, being BRCA positive is a lifelong ordeal. When I had my mastectomy, I didn't repair my wonky genes; I just removed the part of my body they were most likely to affect. But I'm still at high risk for a number of other maladies (first and foremost is ovarian cancer), as are my family members who are also affected by the mutation. This isn't over. Sure, I've gotten through surgery and reconstruction, to me the most urgent actions I could take in light of my BRCA "diagnosis". But I've still got to consider reproductive options, and whether or not I want to avail myself of technologies that will allow the mutation to end with me. And before too long, that same anxiety I felt about my breasts -- that same fear they were, at any moment, without notice, going to kill me -- I'll feel about my ovaries, and then I'll be in a hurry to yank those out, too. The thing is, being BRCA+ is a lifelong condition, and the kindness that people showed me when I first learned my status was nice and reassuring, but I hope people realize I'm always going to need their love and support in the face of the many complications wrought by my faulty genetics.

Previvors will always be an odd bunch. Lots of people don't know what to make of us (which I think explains why were so quick to form communities and fellowships within our mutant ranks -- no one can quite get it like someone else exactly like you). And sometimes, it's hard to know what to say or how to act around us. The truth is, we're a bit of a conundrum: we want to be normal but we also want it to be acknowledged that we're not (and therefore might need a little more compassion and sympathy, require a little more patience and understanding, from time to time). It's a delicate balance, and one that's not easy to achieve. If all else fails, of course, just try not to gawk at our tits. We can see you staring.

Friday, June 4, 2010

On the Origin and Nature of Fear

Yesterday, I began reading an advance copy of a new BRCA book that's due out this fall. It's called Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decision and it'll be available in October. But because I'm special (and because of this here blog I gots), I received an ARC (industry shorthand for advanced reading copy, or as we call them at the publshing house where I work, galleys) from Random House and dove right in.

Previvors is part-guidebook, part personal stories. It follows five women who navigate the repercussions of being at high-risk for breast cancer. Three of the five women are BRCA positive; two are not. All five chose the same path to reducing their risk: prophylactic surgery (although several spend years, and in one case, even decades, undergoing surveillance). Their stories supplement the very practical advice and scientifically sound research laid out by the book's author, Dina Roth Port (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year's FORCE conference and who is, according to LinkedIn, an alumna of the very same journalism school I attended. Go cats!). So far, I'm enjoying it very much.

(Pause to say I will have a full review of this book when I've finished reading it, and I owe several authors and publishers reviews on other BRCA books I have sitting on my nightstand, which I promise I have not forgotten.)

I'm only about 100 pages in, but something on page 7 gave me pause, and I wanted to explore the issue further here. Chapter two of Previvors is called "Living in Fear," and it contains a number of thought-provoking statements. For instance, Port writes "All diseases are scary, but for some reason breast cancer packs a particular punch. In fact, one survey showed that women fear this illness more than any other, even though cardiovascular disease claims more than ten times as many women's lives each year." This is a statement which with I can completely agree, and I'm sure many of you feel the same way. I spend nary a second thinking about my heart (which I presume, due to my assiduous diet and stringent exercise regimen, to be in tip-top shape), but even before I knew I was high-risk, I knew enough to be scared of breast cancer. Which is what makes the next statement so thought provoking. Roth writes, "Fear of breast cancer don't just appear out of thin air. It stems from a source; there's a definitive point in time when it all begins. For some, that might be something as innocuous as reading a magazine story about a women who battled the disease. For others, it's often watching a loved one actually suffer to the end with it." I read that and thought, huh, where did my fear come from? Where did this fear -- an emotion so strong I decided to preemptively remove the very body parts that may at some point try to harm me -- stem from? The truth is, I'm not exactly sure.

As I've written many times, I did not grow up around breast cancer. It did not affect my life or my perspective of my future health or mortality. My grandmother had it when I was a child, but it was dealt with as a non-event, and she survived for two decades after beating it. (She was not a BRCA carrier; I inherited my mutation from her husband, my grandfather.) I did not learn to fear breast cancer from watching my grandmother. And since the BRCA mutation was passed to me from two generations of men, breast cancer did not manifest itself in anyone else. Therefore, it wasn't by watching anyone suffer that I learned to fear breast cancer. So how did I learn fear?

It could be that I learned to fear breast cancer when, at age 27, I found a lump in my right breast. But I was assured by doctors it was nothing to be concerned about and, indeed, it eventually disappeared as suddenly and mysterious as it had appeared. (I was also told I was too young to have breast cancer and that I should begin routine mammograms at age 40 and simply put the whole event out of my mind. Funny how things can take such a sharp U-turn so quickly...)

In truth, I think I learned to fear breast cancer the minute I learned I was likely to get it. In other words, I wasn't scared of breast cancer until I understood there was a genetic mutation in my bloodline that conferred an astronomical risk of developing the disease. The moment breast cancer ceased being abstract and became concrete, that's when I felt that tightness in my chest, that acidic discomfort in my stomach, that cold sweat on my palms and feet. But to be specific, the fear really kicked into high gear when I got my results of my BRCAnalysis; I have never been more scared of anything in my life.

For some people, learning their risk (which will likely cause fear of the unknown and uncontrollable) when they have lived a life relatively removed from that anxiety is not worth it. So why did I chose to learn my risk and subject myself to a life clouded -- at least temporarily -- by fear and anxiety? I guess the short answer is that in this case, what I didn't know might have hurt me. I could be living a completely different life right now if I hadn't taken that genetic test last April. I'd still have my natural breasts, I'd probably be jogging along the lakefront on this humid evening rather than typing a blog entry, and breast cancer would still just be something that happens to someone else. But that alterna-Steph would still be BRCA positive; the difference is, she wouldn't know. Despite the fear engendered by learning my risk, I'd much rather be safe than sorry.

Fear has been very much on my mind today. I've been exchanging emails with a woman who recently tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation and she's paralyzed by fear. She's scared of surgery and scared of cancer. And it's funny because the advice I gave her is very much coming from someone who is still afraid (or at least aware of the fearfulness that it raises in me) of breast cancer. I told her that cancer is scary, that chemo is scary, that fear of reoccurrance or metastasis is scary. But surgery is not. And yet, long time readers know how scared I was of surgery, how convinced I was I would suffer some unseen complication under anesthesia and never wake up. My fear was specific; I was never scared of pain or what my body would look like after. I was just scared of doing something to ostensibly prolong my life and instead accidentally end it. But that fear was very real to me, just as the fears this woman is experiencing. In my case, my fear of an unknown and unknowable diseases motivated me to make a decision; in other cases, fear can debilitating.

Fear, I think, is inescapable. Whether you've witnessed the ravaging effects of cancer claim a loved one or if you've only experienced it from afar, breast cancer is a terrifying disease. It touches the parts of us that make us women, that make us nurturers, that make us attractive; it's indelibly linked to many aspects of femininity and self-worth. Breast cancer is scary, and no matter how its shadow has darkened your world, no matter the event that triggers it, what we as BRCA mutation carriers must face is scary. Inaction is scary, but action is equally so. Yet we manage our risk in such a way to make fear is manageable. For me, that meant having surgery, despite my fears of anesthesia.

This is a community bonded by fear. And yet, as the women in Roth's book show, we are also a community with a rare choice to escape that fear. I told the woman I exchanged emails with today (and have written here before) that when I had my mastectomy, sure I lost my breasts, but I also had all that fear and anxiety removed too. It's funny; I may not be able to pinpoint the genesis of my fear, but I sure as hell remember when I stopped being scared. That was the moment I woke up from surgery and realized I'd done something irreversible to reduce my risk. And I haven't had a moment of fear since.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Making Progress, Setting Goals

It's hard to believe it's June already. Time truly is elastic. Pretty soon, I'll be celebrating six months since surgery. That time flew by in a blink; on the other hand, the six months prior to surgery were a slow slog through hell.

Despite the length of time that's passed, I'm still healing. Or, perhaps I should say, I'm still making progress. And most of that has to do with learning to trust my body again and being astonished by what it's capable of. For months after surgery, I felt infirmed. I was limited physically. Although I was healthy (and indeed had chosen to have preventative surgery to remain that way), I was -- temporarily -- weakened and compromised by the assault on my body. But as time passed, I slowly began to reclaim my corporal capacities. It started when I got back on the treadmill at the gym. Then, I tried rowing. And gradually, I realized that I was healing and that I was capable of a great deal more than I thought.

But I still was aware for a long time I wasn't yet 100%. Even as recently as six weeks ago, I was more aware of my (supposed) limitations than my (untapped) abilities. When I boarded that plane to Aruba in April, I panicked when it came time to lift my bag into the overhead bin. It was heavy (who knew how much sundresses and sandals could weigh?) and I didn't think I'd have the upper body strength to do it. Luckily, a kind gentleman jumped out of his seat and helped me with my bag (and even retrieved it when we landed) without me having to ask. But last week, on a flight to DC (It was my fourth pre-7 a.m. flight in less than a month. Note to self: stop torturing yourself. You aren't a morning person. And watching the sunrise at O'Hare is no fun.) I didn't even think twice when I went to stow my baggage. I hefted the suitcase up and into the overhead and didn't even think about it until I sat down in my seat (and mercifully had the ENTIRE row to myself) and realized what I had just done. I was back.

I've been feeling pretty powerful lately. A lot of it has to do with the strength I've discovered rowing. Let me tell you: it might look easy, but it ain't. Rowing on the ergometers is challenging in a number of ways: there's the technique, the posture, the monotony. But because we work out as a team, it's impossible to stop while your teammates continue to row; even when you're dog tired and can't imagine another jump, you look to your right and left and see women who've beaten cancer and you know you have to push ahead. If they can do it, so can I. And I have.

I've also been running a lot lately. In fact, I'm probably more dedicated to it than I've ever been before. I've always been athletic, but despite the fact I'm super tall with legs that go on forever, I've never quite figured out how to use them to my best advantage. I was exceedingly mediocre at just about every sport I've ever played, but what I lacked in talent I made up for in sheer will and dedication. I graduated with seven varsity letters and even made the all-state basketball team my senior year (that state being the state of Delaware, so don't get too impressed). But as an adult, I've struggled to reconcile my lack of natural athleticism with my desire to be active, healthy, and fit. I dabble in yoga, love pilates (and if I were a real housewife of New Jersey or wherever, I'd pay big money to have a studio installed in my mansion of conspicuous consumption and hire a live-in trainer), enjoy a bike ride along the lakefront, but I've become, despite my lack of natural grace, a runner (or a person who runs) first and foremost. When I get pedicures, the women always say, "You are a runner." (It's not my lean calves that give me away; it's my gnarled feet.)

And yet, I'm an extremely moody runner (I've written before about my love/hate relationship with the sport here). I abandon the pursuit for weeks -- months -- at a time, go soft, and then start all over again. But not so much recently. There's something I'm getting from running right now that I never have before: a sense of power, accomplishment, potential. Which leads me to my big announcement (well, the big news is that I'm making public a personal challenge, so I have that much more reason to complete: accountability to you all). I've decided to set an ambitious goal for June: I want to run (or walk briskly -- we can't all be superwomen everyday) 100 miles this month. Typing that number makes it seem absurdly small, and I realize dedicated athletes can pound that out in a week. But to me, it's a challenge. That means I've got to run about 25 miles a week, or 5 miles a day (with two days off). But I know I can do it. And I know I'm capable of it.

When I learned I carried the BRCA mutation last year, I felt betrayed by my body. But now that I've taken control of my health, I feel more powerful than ever. See you at the gym!