Becoming Pinkognito

Pink is everywhere, especially in my birth month of October. People buy it and wear it with the full intention of showing support for those of us who’ve fought breast cancer. They use words like “boobs, tata’s, and Survivor” with the best of intentions for increasing the funding and focus on finding a cure for this horrible illness. However, what is not acceptable in the mainstream is the discussion of the truth about fighting, enduring, and the challenges associated with soldiering on after active treatment is over. After several years of attempting to get back to normal, I’m realizing that goal is absolutely impossible to achieve. While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I’ve learned so much on this journey that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Recently, I’ve felt compelled to put these thoughts and challenges into words in the hope of helping one person feel a little less alone. I’m starting this blog with the intention of pursuing a more healing lifestyle while discovering my next direction in this journey called life. Because I’m a high school teacher in a small town (and hoping to leave the profession soon for the sake of my mental health), for now I must share anonymously. Welcome to the Pinkognito Warrior Page. If you are a survivor, I hope you find some comfort here. If you’re in the fight, I wish you peace and strength. And if you know and love a breast cancer warrior, I pray that the words found here will increase your understanding and empathy for those of us who are doing our best to keep showing up every day. 

The Pros & Cons of Staying or Going

This week, after regaining my senses following a month of depression, I made a list of pros & cons about my current situation. There are so many reasons that I must leave the classroom. First and foremost, my mental health will not get better until my daily routine is built around healing activities and a less stressed environment. Second, that still and small voice of intuition is screaming at me that my daughter, a 12 year old in middle school, needs me now more than ever. And, finally, my life outside of work is non-existent, as I have no energy for the good things in life after I spend it all on my students. 

The days of the past week were filled with additional stresses facing all classroom teachers. Students with learning disabilities and emotional issues demand much of the time we have to focus on teaching, as each lesson must be customized, all conversations documented, and our choices questioned to the point that it makes us wonder what the original goal might have been.

Then, the current issue of entitled children who think it’s acceptable to tell us what they do and don’t wish to do in our classroom troubles me deeply. As a teacher who works hard to accept all students and create a comfortable environment where they can all thrive, this is a new obstacle for me. At one point in time, when I entered the education field, this option would not have been available to students; they were all required to comply with teacher’s reasonable directives to complete assignments. However, my conversation with an administrator this week, regarding that exact scenario concluded with the response that “we should probably address this later, as the student’s current mindset wouldn’t lead us to a good resolution”. A phone call to the parent revealed the source of the student’s attitude, as the person on the other end explained to me how the way I had addressed the behavior (unplugging a computer on which he would not stop playing games) embarrassed him. I reminded the parent that the verbal disrespect and refusal to comply with my requests had initially drawn attention to the child as my other students were shocked by the way he’d addressed me. I’ve been told that this situation is probably not resolved, and I should expect a meeting. I lack confidence that I will be supported as a professional in further discussions. 

Now, let me remind you that my paycheck after ten years in the classroom is $2400 per month. Yes, I get the summers off. But the month or two of rest does little to build up a person who must deal with 75 different personalities every day, and the increasing demands of every year. This week (which began our Thanksgiving Break) ended with active shooter response training. While I know that these things happen, the irony of the timing of this training is not lost on me. A time that once included wishes for a relaxing break and a sigh of relief for all was focused on a presentation hi-lighting situations where evil crept into our sacred schools across the country. No specific safety plan was delivered, leaving us all a little more fearful of the environment we work so hard to create for transforming lives and building futures every day.

So, back to the list of pros & cons. My pros now consist of insurance and a paycheck. The career that at one point seemed to be the biggest blessing now feels like it is sucking the life out of me. So, this Thanksgiving week, I will spend making plans for ending this chapter.

After fighting through the chemo brain fog of the past few years, and being asked to teach a new class and learn new subject matter without sufficient curriculum each year, I realize that I have no more to give to this cause. I must plan breast reconstruction while I still have insurance, as the reflection I see in the mirror each morning reminds me that I’m stuck in my current situation due to breast cancer that occurred 5 years ago. I have given myself time to heal before enduring an extensive surgery, and I now realize I’m ready. I’m hopeful that my employer will allow me to use FMLA for reconstruction, and not consider it “elective” after so much time has passed. At one time, it would have saddened me to leave my students mid-year for any reason. But, now, I know that self-preservation must be my priority, so that I can find my way back to a life of peace and contentment. 

My hope lies in the vision I have for my future, my precious family, and a life of purpose and gratitude for all of the little things.

What a Difference a Day (or Two) Makes

School this week was filled with extras. One day, there was a duck & cover drill (in case of an active shooter) where we had to huddle our kids in the corner, turn off the lights, and remain silent as administrators walked the halls making loud popping noises, while banging on our doors and rattling door knobs. This drill sends intense anxiety through my bones as it brings up fears of “what if”, while I see the same thoughts reflected in the eyes of my students. I realize that we must be prepared for a situation like this, my heart breaks for the fact that our kids have to think about this possibility at all. I work so hard to create a “safe place” for ALL kids in my classroom, but societal norms and fears will always find a way to creep into our zone. 

Yesterday, our district held the annual community Veteran’s Day Program. It is always a huge production, complete with performances by students of all grade levels, and a guest speaker who has fought for our many freedoms. As the daughter, ex-wife, and Aunt of several Veterans, it is always an emotional experience for me. This year was no different, as I planted myself amidst the crowd of students to take in the celebration and ceremony of the event. Students around me were laughing, mocking, and talking throughout the entire program. While the highly decorated guest speaker reminded us of the sacrifices of men and women who defend our rights and freedoms, students were throwing items at one another, and complaining because it was taking too long. This was a clear picture of the stark contrast I see every day between the respect that young people have for our beautiful country and the people who make it that was. Next, I fulfilled my obligation of cafeteria duty, visiting with students who were having lunch. When the bell rang, I walked through the tables left behind by students anxious to attend the next class. Heaps of trash were left behind, and I did my best to gather and throw the items away on my way back to class, trying to lessen the visible sign of disrespect left for our custodial staff each day.

Each of these scenarios reinforced to me that there are many battles occurring in our daily lives which are beyond my control. I do believe in the power of one, but I also believe that my family deserves 100% of me. What I give every day to fight causes where I may or may not have an impact is the small portion of mental energy I have available. The time has come where I must use what I have for the improvement of my physical and mental health, and the good of my own family. I know that many other teachers face this same challenge. In this case, I am grateful for cancer as its short appearance in my life provided clarity for me to see where to aim what I have to give.

Fast Forward, Then Pause

The last couple of years have been dominated by a constant struggle within my mind. When I feel good, things are great! I’m creative, inspired, and productive in the classroom. I have energy after work to do ordinary life tasks of grocery shopping, spending time with friends, and for the first six weeks of this year, I actually completed a Graduate level course, and made an “A”!!! I was regularly moved to tears with gratitude to have a brain that could learn, the clarity to organize, and the energy to feel like I could do all that I pursued!

But then, the darkness of depression started creeping in as the responsibilities, deadlines, and additional duties continued to pile up. It started four weeks ago and I’ve been telling myself to “hang in there; things have to get better”. Meanwhile, I’ve dealt with students who have behavior issues like I’ve never witnessed before…I can now say that a student flipped a desk in my room, screamed obscenities, and slammed the metal door on his way out of the room so hard that rather than the lock catching, it BOUNCED off the hinges. Then, another student has told me about his nightmares of “ripping a friend’s head off” then cried about it because he’d kill himself if that ever really happened. The remainder of my energy must be spent on creating lessons for 4 separate courses, distributing daily Announcements, and monitoring the coming and going of 75 other students. Do you have ANY idea how often high schoolers need to go to the restroom in a day? Whew!

By the end of each day, I drive home on auto pilot, sometimes with tears streaming, wondering if my brain will ever function properly again. Depression comes in waves, and I know those waves eventually pass. But this feels like hell on earth. I sit and stare at my computer, wondering how I can get it all to stop? I thought I needed to stay one more year so that I’d have insurance and income to be able to have reconstruction surgery. But, today, I just want to be okay…physically, mentally, and emotionally, so that I can be a better Mother, Wife, Daughter, and Friend. Boobs don’t seem to matter so much when faced with that choice.

So, this leads me back to the purpose of this blog. My main goal: to share the reality and struggles of life after breast cancer. I wonder how many others feel trapped by trying to get back to normal versus being able to live in peace, and experience the joy of everyday life? I’m weighing my options, and praying for the best solution to become clear to me very soon.

The “Pink” Journey

After a successful surgery that removed both breasts and 23 lymph nodes (2 of which were positive for Cancer), the real treatment began. The oncologist recommended 8 rounds of dose-dense chemo (because I was young & healthy…let that sink in), including a cocktail of Adiamycin (known as the “Red Devil” because of its cherry kool-aid hue) and Cytoxan for the first 4 rounds, followed by 4 rounds of Taxol. As if the poison from these life-saving toxins weren’t enough to cope with, they were accompanied by IV steroids, neulasta, and several other drugs. I finished out the school year in the classroom, getting my first infusion just a week before school was out for the Summer. Those four months consisted of side effects that were listed on the paperwork I signed, but had secretly wished would not apply to me. Hair loss was the least of my worries as I dealt with daily hot flashes, diarrhea so acidic it made sitting painful, deep aching bone pain, anemia that made getting ready to leave the house feel like I’d run a marathon, then constipation that made my face swell up like a water ballon. The scariest part of that process for me was the day I went to get chemo and my red blood count was too low. I was sent straight to the hospital for a blood transfusion. The weakness and feelings of fear I’d felt in the days leading up to that visit made sense, as there was physical evidence to back it up. I was able to go back to the plan a few days later. That was the last dose of my treatment, and I was so thankful that the truly scary part was over. 

School started again in the Fall, and I went back to work until it was time to start radiation. For seven weeks, I would have to go to the Cancer center 5 days a week to be lined up in a machine inside a room with concrete walls, and have my skin burned deep inside to prevent a recurrence. I opted to take off work during that period as it just didn’t make sense to be at work half days and still have to plan for a Sub the other half. So instead, I chose to be “off”, which gave me the time I needed to rest while still keeping up with daily lessons and grading. This was the first glimpse I got of the demands on a teacher who experiences a health challenge. The fatigue that accompanied those treatments was debilitating. It was literally all I could do to make it through the days. The Holidays consisted of preparing myself mentally for going back to work. I mean, that’s the goal, right?

The rest of the year went by in a blur, with most of the days ending with my fiancé driving me home in tears because I felt like I couldn’t keep up with what I was doing in the classroom, much less at home. This was the beginning of my journey back to normal…one that I’m not sure I was intended to make at all. 

Our wedding took place the following Spring Break (the life of a teacher…all events revolve around a school year & the breaks). It was a beautiful moment where we were able to celebrate as a family all that we’d made it through together.

What Happened?

Well, I’ve made it through the past 4.5 years since my diagnosis of Stage 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I thought this would be a good place to start, although the critic in my head screams at me, “DO NOT dwell there!” But you can’t understand where I am without knowing the back story. 

Five years ago, I had “become”…the best version of me that I had ever thought possible. I was pulling off the “working full time as a single Mom” role like a champ, and had started dating the sweetest man I’d ever met, who, like me, was also a teacher with a passion for helping students. I felt for the first time in my life like someone actually “got” me & “every little thing is gonna be alright.” About that same time, I noticed that I had discharge coming from one of my nipples (breastfeeding had stopped over 5 years ago and I was definitely not pregnant), I went to the doctor and had no worries when they conducted several tests and told me there was nothing to be concerned about. Life continued to seem like a dream over the next several months. I was on my “A” game in the classroom, my daughter was doing well in school and developing a strong relationship with her Dad, and I was being courted in a way that I’d never experienced before. Yes, it was finally “my time”. 

A few months later, my new man & I decided to start working out together. We’d been walking after school every day & thought weight lifting would be a good addition. Like I said, I was looking and feeling great…better than ever! The day after our first session, I was a little sore under my right arm. After feeling around a bit, I noticed a lump that was about the size of a golf ball. I thought, “better safe than sorry…I’m sure it’s nothing”, and made an appointment to go back & get confirmation that, again, this was nothing to worry about. 

What happened next literally pulled the rug of joy and peace I’d been floating on out from under me. Breast cancer had been detected in my lymph nodes, and surgery would be scheduled within a couple of weeks. I had to decide in that short period of time whether I wanted to lose one or both breasts. Being thrown into survival mode overnight made the second option seem like the best one at the time. 

My boyfriend immediately told me and my family that he’d be moving in and would never leave. This was such a blessing to me & my daughter as we knew he was truly on our team for the long haul. The double mastectomy was performed soon after, and I spent several weeks recovering and anticipating what was to come next. Drain tubes, bandages, and follow-up appointments consumed my days, along with the continued responsibility of planning lessons for my substitute and grading student work.   As a teacher, the job never ends…even when a health crisis strikes.