Each month this year in our Monthly Message email, we’re sharing a writing prompt with our readers. This month’s prompt had to do with spring cleaning - not just your house, but maybe your life, too! We sometimes select an entry to appear here on our blog, and each month we will also draw a random entry to win a $20 Amazon gift card! If you don’t receive our Monthly Message program news email and you’d like to sign up for it, visit our website hereforthegirls.org and scroll to the bottom. Below is one entry we selected from this month.
If you read my previous blog entry about my Bucket List, then you know that my husband and I are setting off to full-time in our tiny RV so naturally, this idea of Spring Cleaning caught my eye because figuring out which items are beloved enough to put into expensive climate controlled storage has been a monumental task. However, the thoughts that provoked me to respond to this prompt weren’t about deciding which household knick-knacks made the cut, but how I really had to confront some of the reasons I have been holding onto “Cancer Crap” in an unopened box moved from house to house for 11 years. Some of the items excavated from that box were protected for positive, sentimental reasons that help me relive encouraging memories even if those were formed during one of my most difficult times.
If the Konmari Method is about keeping things that spark joy, I think keeping my Cancer Crap longer than truly necessary was either some perverse idea opposite of joy or more likely a little magical thinking. I can admit now, that along the way, deep down I was struggling for some sort of control over cancer and that perhaps keeping some of those items would somehow ward off the possibility of recurrence like an amulet of protection. Perhaps I was subconsciously preparing myself for the next wave of bad news. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I’ve had periods since my cancer diagnosis where I kept various items due to this vague sense that together they might be a magical talisman to ward off recurrence or a new primary cancer.
Of course intellectually, I know that’s not how biology works, but in some desperate corner of my mind, I clearly believed that I needed this Cancer Crap just in case. At that time, my need to prepare for the “what if” was partially fueled by regret that I hadn’t even thought to worry breast cancer at 33 and even after diagnosis, I surely never thought that genetic test would be positive because it’s so rare. The Konmari Method talks about keeping things that speak to your heart and maybe all that Cancer Crap spoke to a broken part of my heart. The part that said, “nah, I don’t need to go for the mammogram today, I’m sure it’s nothing like you said, I’ll just go next week to confirm.”
I’ve confronted part of this stash once before, but in the last few months, I really had to challenge myself to internally justify exactly why I thought I needed to continue to keep some of these items.
The first time I cleared out some of the bits and pieces of my Cancer Crap was challenging because it was my stash of all the head-coverings and different iterations of post-mastectomy bras, and prosthetics. I could easily articulate why I was holding on to those for a long time because they were expensive and were useful items that might be needed if there were more surgeries or complications or more chemo at any point. I knew the statistics for recurrence for triple negative breast cancer in the first 5 years and I figured it was likely I might really need that stuff again…and soon.
During chemo, I never bought or wore a wig. I know there are so many that look great, but a few friends had told me they seemed itchy and sort of pain to keep up. I just didn’t see myself as ever being comfortable physically or mentally in one as I knew I’d somehow feel like a fraud. I was also just not the in-your-face “I’m bald & so what” person either. So for me, scarves and hats were the happy medium that suited my personality and lifestyle. Just like anything though, one can get carried away and that ended up leading to way too many purchases and an entire box of scarves that coordinated with all sorts of outfits from the everyday, super comfy casual scarf with jeans to the dressy, matching my work outfits scarves.
Initially, I had a lumpectomy but after learning of my BRCA1+ mutation, I had a preventative bilateral mastectomy. I still needed radiation so I was flat and unreconstructed for a long period of time. Later, after my first reconstruction surgery I got a post-operative infection and had to have an expander removed so then I was doing the expansion process on one side and waiting for the other side and repeating the same process separately. Even the different iterations of drain holders and what worked for a 1 drain lumpectomy definitely did not work for a 6 drain reconstruction. Naturally, there was an array products purchased for each of these phases.
One day, I decided that part of my Survivorship Plan to truly recover emotionally from cancer needed to be donating these things to others in need and who were facing my same situation. I also rationalized this by first telling myself that if I had to do chemo again one day, I’d want fresh new scarves anyway and that not everyone has insurance that covered a new set of prosthetics every year and/or new ones when things changed during different surgical issues. While it was an uneasy feeling of tempting fate while parting with the “just in case cancer comes back box,” it was made much easier by having a purpose that benefited others.
Now, several years after that first clearing out, I was still dragging around that other box. The box with those things I just couldn’t seem to part with that somehow I deemed my “Important Cancer Crap.” While facing this box as we prepare for the RV Adventure, there were some items, I had no problem tossing because 11 years later, I couldn’t remember why I had even believed them so sacred or important to keep. Other items were reminders of some of the supportive cancer-friends I met along the way, like personalized, hand crafted name tag from a YSC Conference. Yes, I ultimately had to let some of those types of possessions go because while the memories are important, I no longer felt the necessity to actually keep them. More importantly, in finally confronting this box, I wasn’t just getting rid of THINGS, I was releasing the idea that I needed to keep the box to avert disaster. In letting go of that misguided idea, I was able to choose the 3 things that I truly did want to keep and express why.
The first thing I selected to keep was a box within Important Cancer Crap box that is filled with cards which serve as a tangible reminder of how my life genuinely matters to others. There are times in our lives when we think to ourselves that while we know that we a valued team member at work, we don’t think that all of those co-workers really value us as just a person. Seeing the product of people taking their time and money to send me a card when I was sick amassed together is profound for me. It shouldn’t take getting sick to make one know this universal truth, but it’s a powerful visual reminder that my life matters beyond my contributions at work or some other superficial thing I can do. Those cards also serve as a cue to remember learning the lesson that sometimes the people you think are your friends, are either unable or don’t know how to respond or support you during a difficult time, but that others you thought were just acquaintances or co-workers fill in that gap and surprise and support you in ways you couldn’t have previously imagined.
The next items I decided to continue to preserve are the old-school radiology films showing my tumor. At first, I kept those films out of necessity as I visited various doctors for consultation. Since that time of necessity has passed, I then began mulling over this nebulous idea of creating some sort of art from the films. While I’m still not ready to turn that vision into action, I’m not prepared to abandon it either. I know that I simply need more art experience and additional time to allow my ideas for these films to solidify in my mind. Stay tuned for more on this one day!
The last item I kept from the Important Cancer Crap box is the one that’s the hardest to explain…it’s a polka dotted soft knit beanie that I wore for so long and almost 100% of the time I was home, even when I slept because I was cold. I called that beanie my “Chicken Hat” because I read this moving blog post by a woman that so clearly articulated my exact feelings at the time. She eloquently wrote about getting home each day, changing into PJs, removing her wig and donning her favorite softest Chicken Scarf. I think it was called that for some funny reason connected to her love of chickens and hence why she selected fabric with chickens in the pattern. What she was able to put into words was that in that Chicken Scarf she felt secure and comforted and almost normal after having removed all those “masks” that are occasionally necessary outside our homes. I desperately tried to find that old post, but the details escape me now and I couldn’t find it. Much like a child’s beloved “lovie” my polka-dotted Chicken Hat doesn’t bring me comfort when I hold it now, but I can summon the feelings it did give me and it’s the one remaining piece of Cancer Crap that I will probably never part with not because I might need it again if I get cancer again, nor because it’s a charm to ward off misfortune, and it really doesn’t spark joy, but it sure reminds me of the solace I felt while wearing it and during tough times like cancer treatments, relief is just was welcomed as joy.