2022 rewind: Breast cancer edition [long read]
It's been quite a year, in the best and worst ways
Well, my friend, we’ve made it to the end of 2022 and, for me at least, this year was a biggie. Too many headlines… How to summarize? I could tell you about the trips I took, my big breakthroughs, the creative projects I started, or how I gave my life and business a major glow-up with some fresh audacious goals. This was definitely my Year of Doing Epic Shit. But the real scene stealer of 2022 was this: I got cancer.
My diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was heavily invested in a year-long personal and professional development program, and epic shit was indeed getting done. I was traveling the world speaking and teaching, I had recorded the first full season of my podcast; reignited my creative writing practice and launched The Underwire on Substack, and created The Big Leap, an immersive eight-week book planning program and VIP retreat.
Each of these projects represented a specific crucial move I wanted to make in leveling up my life. To follow through on them, I would need to replace myself in several functional roles at Wonderwell with a new Chief of Staff and an Editorial Director: hiring them would be my biggest goal of all.
All of this added up to an exciting yet stressful year packed with research and road-mapping, risk assessments, and scary-huge investments. Most challenging of all, it put me in direct confrontation with my stickiest old dysfunctional patterns and hottest of hot-button triggers. I spent the first five months of the year on an emotional roller coaster, ricocheting from “I can do anything” to “I’m doomed” and back again at a head-spinning pace.
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In May, something snapped — in a good way. Here I was, up to my throat chakra in amazing new experiences and opportunities, and surprise, surprise, my emotional patterns and thinking traps were about to fuck it all up if I let them. I didn’t want to scale back my plans or crash and burn, so I made self-mastery my top priority. (Isn’t doing the inner work the whole point of life, anyway?)
Drawing on what I’ve learned about trauma responses and the cultivation of resilience, I focused on regulating my nervous system and staying within my window of tolerance as I went about my business and measured my progress. If I felt myself getting too giddy or manic, I did some grounding practices to bring myself back down to earth. If I felt myself numbing out or becoming paralyzed by overwhelm, I rested, took stock of my strengths, and found stamina by placing my faith in myself to cope with whatever came up while surrendering to uncertainty.
I also fired the peanut gallery of judgy voices in my head and gave myself full permission to lean into my own true nature. It dawned on me that a huge part of my anxiety, procrastination, and overwhelm comes from trying to appease the aspects of myself that stand divided against me. And that I needed no one else’s permission to simply disregard what did not feel nourishing or true.
It took consistent practice, but, you guys, it worked. Perhaps for the first time ever, I felt I’d achieved a tender sort of balance, with my sights set on the stars and my feet firmly planted on earth.
I think I can do this, I said. But the rest of the year *has* to go like clockwork.
And then I found a lump in my breast.
The day of my discovery I had just received some disturbing news from a friend: An ex of mine had posted something untrue and unkind about me on social media, where I had long ago blocked him. Did I want to hear the details, she asked? In the past, this kind of thing might have sent me into a three-day tailspin of hurt feelings, embarrassment, and an overwhelming urge to set the record straight. This time there was none of that. All I felt was… nonplussed. No, I told my friend. I don’t want to know what he wrote; it has nothing to do with me.
I was still marveling at this surprising new equanimity and thinking about how it was such an awesome testament to the possibility of real growth and healing when I got undressed for my bath and ran my hands over my body. There it was, at two-o'clock from my left nipple, a slippery bead under my skin the size of a fat grape.
It can’t be cancer, I told my friends. I’m right in the middle of a big transformational year! That would be the dumbest plot twist ever.
One mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy, and MRI later, the plot was officially twisted: It’s cancer. And so, instead of spending the summer producing season two of my podcast, I took a crash course in breast cancer, learning everything I could about its terminology, biology, treatment, and patterns of recurrence. For those in the know, my baseball stats are: stage one, grade two invasive ductal carcinoma, ER / PR positive, HER2 negative, with PALB2 genetic mutation and no lymph node involvement.
I was lucky not to need chemotherapy, and after weeks of research, doctors’ appointments, blood tests, scans, conversations with other patients and survivors, and a great deal of soul searching, I opted for a unilateral mastectomy, which meant I could forego radiation.
I have a lot to say about what my breasts mean to me and what it was like to have one of them amputated, but I’ll only be able to write about that once I’ve processed what I am still going through. For now, let me just say that I happen to be very attached to my breasts, and losing my favorite one (yes, really!) was extremely difficult.
Cancer brings tremendous emotional upheaval with it, and I decided early on that I would deal with it by fully feeling my feelings as they bubbled up, neither pushing them down nor clinging tightly to them. If I felt a wave of grief or horror or fear or anger rising, I let the tears and words flow until they ran dry, whether that was half an hour or only a few seconds. When it was over, I moved on to the next moment; cracking jokes with my sister, hunkering down for a nap, or just staring out the window and musing on the quotidian miracle of life in a human body. And when the next wave swelled, up and down we went again. In this way, I processed my feelings in real time and found some measure of grace and peace in each day. I believe this approach kept me sane and prevented a difficult experience from becoming a traumatic one. I also believe that I would not have found it possible to move through it this way even six months earlier.
Having largely put my life on pause, I scrutinized all of my priorities through a new lens: Will this thing matter when I’m on my deathbed? Is it more important to me than the other items on my to-do list? Do I enjoy this for the sake of it, or is it an obligatory means to an imagined end? Should it stay in my life, or should it go? Cancer is a brutally efficient sorting tool.
Meanwhile, there were logistics to manage. The podcast went on hiatus and I canceled travel plans and resigned from a board of directors on which I served. In a stroke of divine timing, the perfect candidates for both newly created roles appeared, and with some trepidation I forged ahead with my hiring plans, knowing my brand new Chief of Staff and Editorial Director would be thrown in at the deep end while I recovered from surgery. And that I would need them more than ever.
The post-surgical recovery periods proved to be even more disruptive than I expected. Between September and December, I had three surgeries. This means that as I write this, I have spent most of the last four months largely in bed, either at home or in a hospital, often on drugs. Normally a fit and active go-getter, I’ve become a person who limps around gingerly, avoids lifting anything over five pounds, and swallows a lot of pills. It’s weird.
My left breast is now gone, and I am officially cancer-free, thank god. But my breast cancer journey is far from over. There will be revision surgeries to come next year, and a lot of physical therapy to regain my range of motion in my left arm. I will have some amount of tightness, shooting pains, and a total loss of surface sensation across the left side of my chest and armpit for the rest of my life. And of course, “the girls” are no longer twins. They look balanced enough with clothes on, but naked the reconstructed one looks like a taxidermied version of its former self, too high and too tight, creased and rumpled, with a dead-eyed nipple that I was lucky to keep. My doctors would like to remove my healthy right breast, too, just in case, because of my gene mutation. But I can’t even contemplate that right now. Besides, she’s my new favorite.
And now, this needs to be said: With all the legitimately distressing experiences I’ve just described, I could have had it so much worse, and it is so much worse for many people with breast cancer. Having now heard many survivors and previvors share their experiences, I have a new appreciation for the dreadful side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and hormone-suppressing medication, the many possible complications ranging from lymphedema to tissue necrosis to permanent nerve damage, the profound support required through treatment and recovery, and the lifelong fear of cancer’s return.
The survival rate for breast cancer is on the higher side, especially when it’s caught early, and this leads some people to see it as “the good kind of cancer”. But please don’t think it’s a walk in the park. And for god’s sake, if someone you know is going through it, do not utter any sentence that starts with, “At least it is / isn’t X…”
All that being said, my cancer experience delivered many insights and gifts to me. Here are a few treasures I can already count among my gains.
The “worst possible timing” may actually have been the best possible timing. Being forced to stop work for longer than planned meant that I had no opportunity to micromanage my new hires or cling to the reins of responsibility. Unfortunately this meant a bumpy onboarding process for them, but it also meant that they moved along their learning curves at record speed and became self-sufficient much sooner than they would have done if I’d been by their side each day. In the long run, this is the best possible start for our new team dynamics and reallocation of responsibilities in 2023. And they are shining in their new roles.
Relationships are our most precious resource. We really don’t know how much support is available to us until we need it, and the discovery of all that love on standby is the greatest silver lining that any crisis can bring. Have you ever had to ask someone else to take out your trash for you? It’s hard. I have endless gratitude to those who swooped in to meet a need unasked.
No more taking my health for granted. Before cancer, I’d never had as much as a single stitch or a broken bone. Now I’ve had a body part amputated, and although you might not think of breasts as useful, I can tell you that the loss of tissue, loss of range of motion and loss of sensation represent a functional loss as well as an emotional one. I will never again fail to appreciate the privilege of life in an able body. I am putting my health first from now on, staying alcohol-free (two years and counting!), and eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. What’s more, I am monitoring and managing my stress levels seriously for the first time.
I know what truly matters to me. I was already on a pretty major journey of self-discovery and integration this year, and my cancer has only made me double down on that. Whatever shyness I might have been harboring about the secret self inside — with all her weirdness, emotionality, pet obsessions, traumas and talents, personal ambitions and bag of magic tricks — is gone. I am the author of my story. I’m not here to persuade any skeptic or ask for anyone’s permission. I’m here to speak my own truth and make my own weird art out of the raw material of my lived experience with all its misery and ecstasy. Bring on more writing. Bring on more risk-taking, and also more resting. I’m in this human body for a scant few more decades if I’m lucky, and it’s up to me to decide what I will do with that time.
Gosh, this has been a long read. Thanks for hanging in there with me while I worked all this out. I guess what I’m realizing is that, significant as it was, the bare fact of my having had cancer doesn’t begin to convey what my year was like, as I’m sure is true for you in the complexities of your life. It’s the meaning we make of things that matters, the feelings we feel about our life events, the connections that spring up around them, and the ways in which they change us.
Yes, the cancer happened, but that’s nothing compared to the fact that it happened in the middle of the most ambitious, risk-taking, consequential year of my life. I choose to make an empowering meaning of this unwelcome interruption, which turned out to be not a detour but an accelerant, pushing me deeper into the emotional healing, creative expansion, professional ambition and spiritual faith I was already reckoning with.
With that, I’ll wish you a happy new year, friend. May the events of the past year bring you empowering insights, valuable skills and resources. May 2023 bring you ease and serendipity, along with the perfect challenges to aid your growth and healing and move you closer to your soul’s calling. And may you lean into it all and find a truer, stronger, more joyful and peaceful version of your own self.
Some links for you
My top reads from 2022
Body Work, by Melissa Febos - Superb writing-craft book in defense of personal narrative nonfiction by one of my all-time favorite authors.
The Way of Integrity, by Martha Beck - Uplifting, effective spiritual self-help with reassuringly intellectual undertones. This book did more for my growth this year than almost anything else. Read it!
Breasts, The Owner’s Manual, by Dr. Kristi Funk - Traditional medicine meets naturopathic lifestyle factors in this breast surgeon’s guide to breast cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.
What My Bones Know, by Stephanie Foo - Deeply intimate portrait of horrific childhood abuse and treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Breast cancer stuff you should know
The Breasties: Inclusive, supportive community for breast cancer survivors and previvors.
Have you got “extremely dense breasts”? Don’t rely on mammograms. (I had two mammograms falsely give me the all-clear despite having a tumor big enough to feel with my fingers.) Instead, conduct regular self-exams and insist on an ultrasound if you find anything odd.
Soy lowers risk of breast cancer and we should be eating more of it. No, it does not cause breast cancer; that theory has been debunked.
Anaono: Stylish bras to wear post-mastectomy or lumpectomy. Also suitable for flat closure, and implant or flap reconstruction!
Writing and speaking resources
The Big Leap: Writing a nonfiction book? Come work with me and my team in person in February!
Confidancia Collective: The year-long personal and professional development program I participated in, run by Wonderwell author Melanie Spring.
Narrative Healing: Lisa Weinert’s fantastic online community for those who want to write their way to a wiser, healthier self.
The Selfish Gift: My podcast about what it takes to go public with your life’s work. *New episodes dropping in January!*