Burned Aging

I remember wanting to look older when I was in college. I used to volunteer as a reading tutor at a public elementary school my senior year. One time when I was at the school, a teacher told me to get to class. She saw me as 6th grader and not a 21-year-old senior in college. The fact I had my hair in pigtails probably didn’t help. I just recall being so upset that I was mistaken for someone so young. Now, I would give anything for that to happen again.

How come no one tells us how drastically cancer ages the body externally? Many of us internally feel older due to permanent side effects and other illnesses that were triggered by our cancer treatments and surgeries. I honestly never thought once about how much my face and neck would age.

Yes, I have always been on the vain side. Growing up in community theatre and ballet meant always looking in the mirror and looking the part. I always used to look years younger than my actual age, even in my early 30’s. This rapid aging is tough to accept because no amount of creams or concealer can fully cover it up.

I first noticed the aging of my neck. It used to be so smooth. Now it looks like lines of multilayered necklaces going down it. Quite shocking to see in the mirror. Why did I age in that area?

I honestly believe it has something to do with the radiation burns that went up the left side of my neck. I could see the beginning of lines then. I’ll never understand why I burned so terribly in so many areas (neck, back, under arm) aside from my left breast. Radiation was just as painful and horrific as chemo. This picture below still makes me cringe. By the end of my 33 treatments, the layered lines had formed completely across and down my neck. Instantly looking 20 years older in that area.

It has taken a full three years for the dark panda circles under my eyes to fade enough to where I no longer need to wear a pound of concealer to attempt covering them up. As you can see below in the pictures from three years ago, nothing could fully cover them up back then. Aside from looking fatigued, I looked…haunted.

It’s only recently that I no longer need a pound of makeup to cover the visibly aging skin. I just need half a pound instead! Seriously though, I continue to struggle with externally looking so different and just so much older. Then add medically induced menopause to the mix, and all hell has broken loose.

I don’t know my skin post-cancer. It’s dry and scaly in some areas now. The skin underneath my eyes has taken the biggest beating due to constant rubbing, new allergies to certain dye and contact dermatitis. I’m constantly trying different creams trying to find the right one to truly hydrate my skin.

Don’t even get me started on my lips! They used to be smooth too. Ever since the chemo days, I continually struggle with peeling and cracked skin on each corner of my mouth. Fortunately, my dermatologist gave me some cream that I use on my lips and under my eyes to help with the dryness. I never know what will cause another skin flareup.

It just boggles my mind that all this aging happened without zero warning. The physical changes are just so jarring. To everyone else, I look super healthy. I treat my face like a canvas. It is amazing what makeup and good lighting can do. I miss my thick eyebrows. It’s still strange to fill them in with a brow pencil. Now I’m a master at it.

Once the makeup comes off, I look a little gray, burned and forever fatigued. My face and neck are constant reminders of the trauma which is why I can’t ever NOT think about my cancer experience. It stares me in the face and plagues me daily.

My Breakup with High Heels

I braved the crowd and returned a jacket to the mall this afternoon. As I’m walking through Macy’s and other department stores, my eyes couldn’t help but see all the fabulous and sparkling high heels. They were on every corner – high heels, low heels, boots and wedges. I can honestly say my heart hurt a bit.

There was a time pre-cancer when I loved, LOVED wearing all kinds of heels. When I had my statuesque body, adding heels just added to the flair. I could strut my stuff like nobody’s business too. I could even run and do cartwheels in heels. Even when the weight started piling on, I still loved wearing my heels.

When I saw those heels today, I had a million tiny flashbacks to all the heels, especially heeled boots I used to wear. I would pretend I was on the runway and walk with long strides, swaying my hips.

Thanks to the Taxol chemo, those days are long gone. I had to breakup with my love of heels and wear flats because of severe chemo induced peripheral neuropathy in both feet. I literally do not feel the upper balls of my feet thru my toes. And do you know what I discovered? It’s super hard to find really cute and stylish flats, especially when wearing a dress or suit. That height I used to love is gone.

My long strides in heels have given way to short, quick steps in flats. I no longer feel graceful. I tried to push past my feet and make them work it in heels and fell. I still have the cute heeled booties in the closet. I wobbled so badly that it was embarrassing. Landing flat on my butt really hurt my pride.

Yes, flats are more comfortable but really missing that special feeling when finding the perfect pair of heels.

I’ve had to modify so many areas in my life post-cancer. When I tell people this, they completely invalidate me and tell me to just “try harder” or “you can do it if you push yourself more.” Neuropathy is serious, and my case is severe. No amount of turmeric, acupuncture or B12 is going to help. The nerves in my feet are literally dead. Dead. They never tingle or hurt like my hands, which also have neuropathy. My feet get super cold. I honestly believe that’s why I don’t have hot flashes while in medically induced menopause. I get cold flashes.

So, while many get dressed up for holiday parties in sparkling outfits with fabulous heels to match, I’ll be the one in the corner with the short legs in flats staring wishfully at your feet.

So, hair me out…

I’ve been accused in the past by other warriors/survivors for being attention-seeking when I talk about my hair. I had trusted three, who I thought were friends, so took the insulting words to heart. That’s why I permanently left one local breast cancer group and took a three-month break from a national one. I came back to that national one because it’s too fabulous of a group to allow certain people’s insulting views keep me away from the support I need.

Now, I’ve always been a tad extra. That’s my natural and dramatic personality. Even when I’m sad or depressed, it’s done with flair.

It’s why I took ballet and always wore my hair in buns, French braids and twists.

It’s why I basically lived at Macon Little Theatre and Theatre Macon in high school and minored in Theatre at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.

It’s why I had special outfits during my salsa and swing dancing days.

It’s why to this day, I want to be an actress.

Losing my hair was even more traumatic than I could’ve ever imagined. Not only did I lose the hair on my head, I lost all the following as well:

Eyebrows

Eyelashes

Nose hair

Arm hair

Leg hair

Lady parts

Underarm

That’s why I get so infuriated when people say, “it’s just hair.”

So, losing my hair and being beyond upset and devastated has been genuine. It’s why when my hair came back that chia pet curly I always reference was so difficult to process. That’s why it’s especially hurtful when those in cancerland question my feelings.

It’s never been about vanity. I know I rocked the bald look. I also rocked the chia pet curly look. That’s called style. The anger and just utter disbelief came from not physically recognizing my image in the mirror. I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with so many issues post-cancer like weight gain, more surgeries, more scars, and don’t recognize my body at all. None of it is even remotely the same. I just wanted the hair that I had known my entire life to grow back the way I remembered it – straight and super thick.

 So, I made a video to show all the different looks of ME past and present (also posted earlier on social media). It’s MY hair story.

My Hair Story

I didn’t post it to reel in compliments. I posted it for myself, to see the progression of my hair pre and post cancer and see the different looks as I’ve tried to adjust to my reflection. I see the pain in my eyes masked with a smile in the ones starting in 2015 thru present.

I know I “look healthy” and all should be right with the world, but that is not my reality.

My friends continue die by the hands of the cancer beast – two died this week.

My mother’s treatments for her rare blood cancer continue to wipe her out.  

My chronic pain continues to be a challenge to manage.

My career in the corporate world is stagnant.

So, don’t come at me with insults or how hair isn’t important to you. Every single person’s cancer journey is THEIRS and extremely personal. I just want to claim some part of me that hasn’t been devastated by breast cancer.

I want to see ME again.

I deserve to see ME again.

When the Strong Weep 5.0

I was dealing with depression and anxiety long before cancer. Now I feel the most fragile I’ve ever felt. Just when I think I have a handle on things, everything explodes. I’ve written about this in the past. What happens when the strong need to weep? They weep alone.

I’ve struggled finding people to talk to and let my guard down, really and truly let my guard down. What tends to happen is they listen for a few minutes and then inevitably tell me the following:

You’re so strong.

You’ve got this.

Be positive.

This goes on for a few minutes until the shift happens where I become their therapist and shoulder their pain and their fears.  They assume I’ll be just fine and can handle anything.

When others can’t handle hearing your fears or darkness because your “normal” personality is sunny and zany, that’s pressure to always appear okay. That’s my current situation. Heck, it’s been my ongoing situation.

The chronic pain makes it harder to keep my emotions in-check. I no longer have the energy to keep up the appearance of being okay. I don’t get a break from what my cancer treatments and multiple surgeries have done to me. I wake up hurting every morning and go to bed hurting every night.

I’ve been very down on myself about my weight and being chronically single. I grow even more frustrated with being told the following:

Weight isn’t everything.

Dating or relationships are overrated.

You’re your own worst critic.

Not understanding my body and loneliness just adds to my depression.

Sure, I’m resilient. I don’t know where that comes from, but I somehow always get back up after being slammed to the ground over and over and over again. I’ve wanted to give up, but my nature just won’t let me.

I don’t want to be alone.

It’s not fair.

It’s not easy.

Wading through the darkness while leaping from one friend to another, sharing spurts of what’s hurting the soul but knowing there’s no one shoulder big enough to hold all your darkness is my daily struggle.

This is what strong people do.