Thursday, August 15, 2019

Anxious as a Mother

The other night, Quinn came home from a monthly dinner with his preschool friends and their families, visibly upset, tears pooling in his enormous blue eyes. I pulled him in for a hug and asked what was wrong.

I’d left dinner early to get Noelle to bed, and wondered if I’d missed an incident. As soon as his head was against my chest – when did he get so tall? – his body shook in sobs. 

“Oh, buddy, what is it?” I asked. 

“I just don’t want people to keep dying,” he said. 

I racked my brain. Who had died? Had we talked about death recently? We’d just returned from a nine-day trip to Seattle to visit my best friend and her family. Her daughter, my 14-year-old god-daughter, was diagnosed with melanoma in May. That is a whole other post because FOURTEEN ARE YOU KIDDING ME, but two surgeries later and doctors have declared her cancer-free. So we’d talked a little about cancer -- it seems we always talk a little about cancer -- but not about death.

My big-hearted boy
“What brought this up?” I asked Quinn. 

“I’ve been thinking about it since that magazine I read in Seattle,” he said.

What magazine? I wondered. I still don’t know. 

He could see I still looked puzzled. “It was a medical one about people donating their organs, and I just wish people didn’t have to die. I want them to drink from the cup in Indiana Jones.” 

“Remind me what happened in Indiana Jones?” I said. I’d been chatting with Alana on her deck for half the movie, watching the late summer sunset while he’d watched the movie with his cousins. 

Movie night
“There are several cups, and lots of them are deadly poison, but one is a potion that lets you live forever," he explained, his eyes lighting up. "Why can’t we find that and give it to everyone we know, and the people we don’t know, too, so no one else has to die?”

“I don’t know, bud,” I said. “We haven’t figured out how to do that, yet. But hopefully it’s not something we need to worry about for a long, long time," I tried to put an optimistic spin on it, even as I wondered whether I caused this. Is it because he sees me upset about losing friends to cancer? Is it because I had cancer, and his grandpa died of cancer before he was born? Is it because I have other anxieties and fears I'm working through as we speak? Is it just a normal age-appropriate fear that has nothing to do with me? 

And then he surprised me. “I wish I could talk to God about it,” he said.

We are not a particularly religious family. To put it lightly. Chris and I were both raised Catholic, but have stepped away from the church – and any organized religion, really – at different points in our lives. My leaving came more recently, a disillusionment after my cancer diagnosis that I haven't quite figured out how to reconcile.

I don't think I got better because I prayed harder, but I still value the power of prayer. I also respect that millions of people find solace in their churches and church communities. If my son needed this, I would support him.

In parenting, I sometimes have to observe silently and allow my kids to discover their own particular beliefs about how the world works. My job is to support them in a safe, loving, accepting environment as they make sense of this universe in their developing brains. 

So I responded, “Well, you can talk to God, if you want."

"I can?" he asked, like I'd just shown him how to time travel.

"Of course," I answered. "He may not answer back, but we can talk to him. Would that help, do you think? Should we pray?”

“Mmmhmmm,” he answered, and suddenly he seemed so much younger to me than the big kid who just started third grade. 

Of course he needs something external to give him hope and promise that all his worries might be okay, I thought. I don't always have those skills as an adult, and I go to intense therapy every other week. 

I tried to remember how to pray. 

Now I lay me down to sleep. No, too morbid. I asked Chris if he could remember the non-terrifying version of that one. “Nope, that’s all I knew,” he said. 

Ok, The Lord’s Prayer, then. “I used to start with something like this,” I said to Quinn, “something I knew by heart and could repeat every night.” And we went through it, line by line, a matter of rote memorization to me, unfamiliar to him. We finished and he asked a lot of questions about forgiving trespasses and the meaning of temptation.

Am I doing my kids a great disservice by not taking them to church? Why is being an adult so tough?

On Father’s Day, I’d taken both kids to a Mormon Church service. Chris was in Tanzania, and Quinn had requested to go to church where a couple of his friends go. Arrangements were made, we dressed up in our Sunday finest, and listened to the service about a father’s love for his family. Quinn’s friend’s dad gave the sermon, and teared up as he spoke about his dad always being ready to play ball with him, even when he was still in his work clothes and it was still 100 degrees outside. He’d roll up his sleeves and they’d head to the backyard. Such a simple act of love. I thought of all the ways dads show their love, of my own dad, and I wondered if Quinn was absorbing this or just happy to be sitting with his friends eating peanut M&Ms. 

Back to our praying. I recommended that he start with something easy to remember, and then go through what he’s grateful for. “It can be really helpful to think of all the things you’re thankful for. It always makes me feel better,” I explained.

“Everything,” he started. Oh, this boy. My heart. His enormous one. “I’m grateful for my family and friends, for Noelle, for food, our house, clothes, school…”

“For your powerful brain that lets you learn,” I added. “I’m thankful for you,” I said. “And my health.” I was holding him, lying next to him on his bed, our heads resting on stuffed animals.

“I’m thankful for our cars, for our pets…” 

“Yep,” I said. “And then from there, you may want to ask God about what it is that’s bothering you, or what it is you want. When I was little, I would ask God to protect my family, keep soldiers safe and bring them home, make sure children around the world have food, that kind of thing.”

“But what about why we came in here?” he asked. “I want to ask God to stop people from dying.”


Our conversations about this have continued for several days now. We've talked about how to cope with our fears, even when we know they won't go away completely. How to use deep breaths and meditation to make the tightness in our chests feel less constricting. We've talked about how I go to therapy, and why that helps.

About how I try to give back to my community in the cancer world to honor those who have died. How Chris aims to be a good dad to keep the memory of his parents alive.

We've talked about how everyone dies, so that what's important is making this life count, and remembering that we are here today.

I've promised him that it is always worth it to love so big, even if it means occasionally losing big, too. To not let his fear shut down his willingness to open his heart.

We've talked about the importance of movement and laughter and, yes, prayer. We've journaled together, written a short story about overcoming fears and finding courage, and have tried dance parties in our kitchen.

But he is just like me in this way. We feel deeply. His empathy knows no limits, as far as I can tell. I only hope we can work through his anxiety a little earlier in life than I started figuring out how to approach mine.

Oof, parenting is exhausting and all-consuming sometimes. (All the time.) AND I HAVEN'T EVEN MENTIONED THE TODDLER.

Friday, June 14, 2019

On Men's Health for Father's Day

June is Men’s Health Month, and this week marks Men’s Health Week, the purpose of which “is to heighten the awareness of preventable health problems and encourage early detection and treatment of disease among men and boys. This week gives health care providers, public policy makers, the media, and individuals an opportunity to encourage men and boys to seek regular medical advice and early treatment for disease and injury.” 

I posted earlier this week on Instagram about my three brothers, and how much the men (and one blue-eyed boy) in my life mean to me. Are you talking to the men in your life about their health? If not, here's a gentle nudge.

So given the theme of this month/week, it seems fitting both that this week culminates in Father's Day and that today is my dad's LAST radiation treatment for prostate cancer. Whooot-whoot! Dad, I know you're exhausted in a full-body, cement-in-your-bones kind of way, but you did it. You've crossed this finish line, and I'm so thankful. I'm particularly appreciative that you see your doctors for regular check-ups and then follow through when something isn't right. 

To back up a bit, in mid-March, I got a call from my dad. “I have news. I have prostate cancer,” he told me. This isn't the first time my dad has called to tell me he has cancer. And I am conditioned to think worst-case-scenario when I hear the word cancer, but he assured me his doctors considered this very treatable. Still. What do they know? I am a skeptic about medical certainty nowadays.

After losing Chris's dad to pancreatic cancer in 2009, I also knew prostate cancer has a better prognosis. But still. Cancer is cancer and fear is fear.

Four generations, circa 2013
In April, I went to the HealtheVoices conference and talked about my dad's health to a few prostate cancer survivorsEven if my dad wasn't fully comfortable seeking out support from strangers, I knew these men from past conferences and needed my own support network. 

Somehow, having been through breast cancer and bared my deepest fears online already, it seems perfectly acceptable to me to talk to others about the health of my dad's prostate. Because at their core, these conversations were about my fears for him. Would he be okay? What are the chances of recurrence? Would radiation be enough? Would he need hormone replacement therapy?

And this is the beauty of connecting with others who've walked in those shoes. Of facing our fears and seeing them grow smaller as we speak. 

These are the men who crushed those anxiety demons for me. Joel Nowak lives with metastatic prostate cancer and spent at least an hour walking me through what to expect, assured me that most likely this would never bother my dad again, and gave me tips to pass along to my dad to make treatment a bit easier. And Rick Davis, who also had prostate cancer, offered to chat with my dad (or me) anytime about our fears or concerns. On his flip phone. 

Wedding day, 2008
My dad will most likely be okay because he took action. He saw his doctor for regular physical exams, and then didn't balk when a treatment plan was in place, as draining as it has been. In many cases, it really is that simple: visit your doctor, talk about your concerns, follow through with treatment, go on living a healthy life. So this Father's Day, how about reminding the men in your life to visit their doctors? Next step, connecting with support networks.

I love you, Dad. Happy Father's Day.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What Makes a Cancer Survivor, Anyway?

They say you become a cancer survivor from the moment you are diagnosed, for as long as you are alive. If that's the case, later this summer will mark 8 years since I became a breast cancer survivor. Eight years and I still grapple with the term survivor, like I should be on a deserted island competing for a million dollars. Although I guess there are parallels between the long-running reality t.v. show and cancer, like facing unfamiliar challenges that have the potential to kill you. Learning to navigate one's way from an infusion chair to the bathroom while connected by three different tubes to a chemo pole is not the same as learning to fish for your dinner with a spear, though. I don't think.

I posted this to Instagram...

View this post on Instagram

I never asked “Why me?” when I was diagnosed with cancer. I knew it was too random for there to be any explanation from the universe that made more sense than that. But every day since I stopped being a terminal patient and moved to the realm of people who can look at cancer in the rear view mirror, I have wondered why. Why did I survive? . . . I’m not sure I’ll ever know the full answer to that, but as one of my favorite survivors said this morning, “I want to help other cancer patients know what the other side can look like.” That, and I want others to know what questions they might ask to avoid a story quite like mine. . . . For me, surviving cancer means falling in love with myself again. It means forgiving my imperfections because they are my story. It means the possibility another life unfolding before me, my toddler chasing our dog down the hallway and around the coffee table while squealing with glee, fearless. She is teaching me to be brave again. It means I get to imagine a future. This is what it could be like. #nationalcancersurvivorsday #breastcancer #bcsm #cancersurvivor
A post shared by Jen Campisano (@jencampisano) on

Lots of patients instead mark survivorship from the day they finish treatments. By that definition, I've been surviving cancer for just over 3 years. But that definition doesn't sit well with me, as it leaves out too many who never get to finish treatment. For five years, I thought I would be one of those patients who died with my disease. Was I not surviving then? In some ways, it felt like I was hyper-alive -- surviving in a vivid, punchy, super-saturated way -- during that period. As my friend Emily wrote about living with metastatic breast cancer a few days ago:

I feel like I have been moving at such a frenetic pace lately because I am continually reminded that my timeline has been drastically shortened. How do you fit an entire career, and an entire lifetime, into the space of “months to years”? You can’t. And you don’t. No matter how hard you try.

But oh how we try. Nothing like coming face-to-face with your mortality -- and a generous dose of treatment-based steroids, too -- to shock your system and routines into high gear for a bit.

And plenty of patients, mostly those I know in the metastatic community, but not exclusively, shun the term 'survivor' altogether. For them, it feels wrong to leave out those who didn't make it. The word feels too exclusive and divisive -- and celebratory, even, in the face of what is often a cruel and devastating disease. I totally respect that line of thinking.

On the other hand, I also think this life is worth celebrating, even in the midst of a terrifying shit-storm. As my late friend Lisa Bonchek Adams said so wonderfully when she was facing the end of her life:

Find a bit of beauty in the world. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.” 

My bit of beauty in this world
Sunday was National Cancer Survivors Day. I read through dozens of posts from friends and patients. I watched most closely the posts and reactions from those I know living with mets. I always wonder how they would feel about my celebrating this life, and I worry. But something I heard recently, from BrenĂ© Brown because I'm on a kick, touched on the fact that our experiencing joy gives room for others to grieve and acknowledge that their pain is significant. That other people's pain matters because this life is so worthy of celebrating. I am paraphrasing greatly, so I hope I'm doing her words justice.

How do you define survivorship? Does the word ring true for you, or do you turn away from it and find it divisive? Why or why not? Na

Monday, May 20, 2019

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First

Quinn and I spend half an hour or so most nights reading side-by-side in his bed before I tuck him in. He recently suggested I start reading some of his books, and then he'll read them when I'm done. We have our own two-person book club and so far it is one of my favorite things that has happened to me as a parent. Right now, I'm a few chapters into book two of the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. The series is about a couple of kids who crack literary puzzles and codes to find hidden books and also solve bigger mysteries. The second book, the one I'm on, is called The Unbreakable Code.

I'm one of those people who's always got a handful of books on my nightstand, and right now I'm also reading Creative Trespassing: How to Put the Spark and Joy Back into Your Work and Life by Tania Katan, a local creative genius and also breast cancer survivor. I met Tania through my friend Sandi a couple of years ago at a storytelling event Tania was emceeing. And listening to her engage the crowd with her enthusiasm for story itself, I decided then and there I wanted to be her when I grow up. When her book came out a few months ago, I grabbed a copy, but it has taken me a little bit to dive into it because time does not grow on trees. Or something like that.

As I was reading Creative Trespassing the other night and highlighting and drawing stars next to passages left and right, including, "The moment you choose to let the world see the real you -- messy, imperfect, warts and all -- is the moment you choose to shine too."

A little further down the page, Tania writes, "And then I look on my  refrigerator to see the poem I placed there in case of an existential emergency, "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver. The last line of poem is "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Oh, it gets me every time. Because this is it, kids. I don't mean to get all life-or-deathsy here, but regardless of what your beliefs are about death or life or life after death, why would you want to squander a single moment of your one wild and precious life?"

I love that passage, and I have long loved that line by Mary Oliver. But here's where it got super weird for me, you guys. The very NEXT night, as I was reading next to Quinn, the kids in the Unbreakable Code book met with a librarian who has a tattoo sleeve on her arm. One of the tattoos is of an airplane carrying "a banner that read Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Which gave me goosebumps because what are the chances? Sometimes the universe bonks you on the head with these signs, and if I've learned anything, it's to pay attention to the neon signs in your life -- and also lumps and bumps that aren't typical.

And these signs I'm getting lately, I believe, tie into a conversation I was having with a survivor friend recently about self-care versus selfishness.

In a post-cancer world, we survivors are acutely aware of the value of time and the resources that go into how we choose to spend it. For many of us, side effects linger long after treatment ends. Chemo brain is a very real hindrance in our day-to-day lives. Depending on how far out we are from surgeries or other treatments, we may have physical limitations like the extreme tightness in my right pectoral muscle. Many of us struggle with anxiety and PTSD. Despite all of this, we show up in this life because we have seen the terrifying possibility of an early end to it, up close and personal.

We show up by paying attention to our own needs first. Which might sound backwards to some, but what we've learned is that our health is everything. That without it, we are in hospital beds or on chemo chairs or recovering on the couch, and it's much harder to show up as our best selves when we're not well. We know that we can't take care of our families, or advocate for other patients, or live the fullest out of our one wild and precious life if we don't first take care of ourselves. It just doesn't work that way.

This is why flight attendants tell parents to put their own oxygen masks on first. On a plane that has lost cabin pressure, you can't help your child breathe if you aren't breathing.

It's why the spoon theory about how chronically ill patients choose to spend their spoons each day went viral, because others could concretely visualize why we are so frugal with how we spend our energy.

And because I'm on a Brenè Brown kick lately, it's why this quote makes so much sense: "In a society that says 'Put yourself last,' self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary." If we are to show up for this one wild and precious life, we have to engage in self-care, as revolutionary as that might sound to some. So go to the gym, eat the vegetables, have a mom's night slumber party away from your kids, see your therapist, get the massage, walk more, cuddle with your dog, read with your child, do something creative. I am not just talking to the cancer survivors.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Construction Can Take Eons

Driving Quinn to school yesterday, we were listening to The Absolutely Mindy Show on Kids' Place Live. She told a story about an eagle in Kodiak, Alaska, that got ahold of a piece of halibut someone had thrown out because it was freezer-burned. A second eagle then got wind of the feast eagle #1 was having, and a fight for the prize broke out in the air.

I have seen almost this exact thing happen a few years ago visiting my home state of Washington. A heron caught a fish and almost immediately, an eagle came into attack and steal the catch. It is fascinating to watch these majestic creatures that symbolize our country swoop in to try to take what is rightfully someone else's. Metaphors abound.

3 years ago in the PNW - photo by my friend Lara Agnew 
Where we saw the eagle / heron fight
But Mindy was talking about these two eagles, and how suddenly, in the chaos of their dogfight (er, bird-fight), one went CRASHING THROUGH SOMEONE'S WINDOW and landed in her house. The homeowner, Stacy Studebaker, said, ""It was so unbelievably loud. My first thought was: I thought an atomic bomb had dropped and the windows were blowing out." Ironically, Studebaker founded the local chapter of the Audubon Society. 

Mindy went on to describe the mayhem that the eagle caused with its EIGHT-FOOT WINGSPAN and Quinn's eyes went wide as we both imagined the chaos. "That's like the size of a dad, lying down, plus one extra foot on either side," Mindy explained, and we laughed at the thought of a bird that giant in our house. The woman, Mrs. Studebaker, and a neighbor tried to get the eagle outside, 

"But it freaked out again and flew into the dining room and there was just stuff flying everywhere — broken glassware, art supplies, you name it. It was still trying to get out through the windows in the dining room," Studebaker said.

Eventually they maneuvered behind the bird and were able to get it out of the house, which took her and her husband hours to clean up.

"If you could have seen the house, it really looked like a bomb had gone off," she said. "There was glass that had been thrown into a bookcase that was 25 feet (7.6 meters) away and all over the furniture. The carpet was sparkling with glass."

She added: "It was like having a wrecking ball coming through your window — with wings!"

And it was funny, and we were laugh-crying in amazement as I dropped Quinn off at school.

Quinn's wingspan is not quite that of an eagle's
But later, it got me thinking about destruction and how quickly devastation can set in. I mentioned I've been seeing a massage therapist for my neck / shoulder. Last visit, she asked how I was recovering from the car accident. "Honestly? I feel like I take two steps forward, one step back," I said. I was talking about my shoulder, but it could also apply to processing my cancer recovery.

"Construction can take eons," she said.

"What?" I thought, lying with my face smushed into the cradle at the end of the massage table. Conversations are weird when you can't see the other person's face and their knuckles are digging into the muscles under your shoulder blade.

"Destruction only takes a moment, but for the body to recover can take years," she said. This woman is so much more than my massage therapist. She is quickly becoming my secondary therapy therapist.

Years, you guys. One foot in front of the other. Until one day you wake up and the overwhelming, repeating mantra in your head isn't about when the other shoe is going to drop. Suddenly, it is simply gratitude that you can see the other side, that you get to spread your wings and live this beautiful life. I am still somewhere in the in-between, but I am moving forward and taking steps (19,365 a day at Disney a couple of weeks ago).

Acting like movie stars at Disney with my favorite boy