Tuesday, October 30, 2012

storms and strength

Sometimes there are such devastating things people endure and we watch from a distance wondering, "How on earth do people go through that?".

We watch widows mourn their late husbands. We see individuals live with disabilities. We see cancer patients looking pale and bald.

All these harrowing life events evoke feelings of intense empathy; this human need to relate to and commiserate with our fellow beings. To see them in circumstances that so turn our idea of normalcy on its ear is a poignant way of making us more appreciative of our circumstances.

But perhaps more significant, is the way it seems to bridge massive divides among people. I can't help but ponder that point as I sit here tonight watching the news coverage of Sandy--the phenomenally devastating storm assailing the East Coast. I, nestled in my suburban home outside of Salt Lake City, suddenly don't feel like there's virtually an entire continent that exists between myself and these individuals for whom Sandy has wrought such devastation. While I cannot in any first-hand capacity relate to the events of those in New York and New Jersey, I feel so moved and affected by the shocking state of their once, "normal," environs

It's remarkable watching the coverage of a women's center in New York City as they care for new mothers and tiny infants amid a maelstrom of unprecedented scale and I find myself asking, "How on earth do they do that?"

But they do. We do.

We endure. We adapt. We forge a new existence sans partners. We learn new ways of living without the abilities we might have once taken for granted.

We adjust to the once-foreign image of our bald heads. (This one for some us is especially familiar. ;))

Because each of us is strong. Every one of us. Each of us possesses a provision of strength, the true nature of it unknown until a circumstance surfaces that demands our fortitude and then--like withdrawing funds from a rainy-day account--we garner these reserves of mettle and implement them in ways that surprise even us.

But, unlike a store of money tucked aside for unforeseen expenses, rather than depleting our supply of strength, we actually build on it. It compounds and grows with the exercising of it. Our intrepid natures grow exponentially as we brave the swells of life's challenging storms.

So as Sandy's effects are further made manifest, I find myself marveling at the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the inhabitants of the eastern United States and am reminded of that courage in all people.

It's like The Universe telling us in its really crazy way:

"You're tough and you're resilient. You're brave and you're hearty. You have no idea how many people your struggles inspire."

I try and allow myself the opportunity to inspire myself as often as possible. ;)

Because sometimes we need reminders of how awesome we are. If we didn't have those reminders we might never know.

Take care of yourselves, everyone in Sandy's path. <3

Monday, October 29, 2012


So cancer, without a doubt, was such a frustrating experience with which to contend. I've mentioned before how irritating it was to feel like I had gotten myself pointed in the direction I wanted to go only to have cancer waylay me.

No one likes feeling powerless and I least of all. The Universe foisting this trial of cancer on me with absolutely no input from me, mind you, was almost too much for this headstrong Hollie to bear.

Peace was sometimes just not to be found.

But keeping a sense of humor with myself was imperative and cancer didn't disappoint in giving me plenty of opportunities to laugh at myself.

For instance, a couple of days after my third round of chemo, I noticed the injection sight for my chemotherapy located on the inside of my left elbow, began to look infected. Infection is never a good thing, but chemo suppresses the immune system which makes getting an infection even more ominous.
So,as a standard measure,  my oncologist prescribed me antibiotics. The antibiotics were some I had taken numerous times. But this time, I started to feel a little funny....

I noticed welts forming under my skin, and soon enough I experienced difficulty breathing. Clearly I was having an anaphylactic reaction.

I got my sweet self to the emergency room where I was plied adrenaline and was back to my usual, welt-free self soon enough.

But one thing that was more than a little amusing, perhaps the only symptom of shock that was utterly hysterical, was my lips......Oh my. I looked all sorts of stripper.

They. Were. Huge.

Imagine a hot dog cut in half length-wise, opened and stuck to my face. Too hard to imagine? Well aren't you lucky I took a pic.....

Here are my lips at about 60% of the total size they achieved. All I can say is.....

Yeah...every cancer patient needs a good laugh, even if it's just at yourself!



Monday, January 2, 2012

the bald and the beautiful

Chemo is one of the most dreaded words. There are no positive associations that immediately leap to mind upon hearing the word, "chemo." The word evokes images of emaciated, wearied cancer patients devoid of hair and exuding a sense of utter exhaustion. Gaunt and pallid, their faces haggard and drawn from sleepless nights and varying stages of malnutrition; dusky semi-circles clinging to the underside of blood-shot eyes.

It's possible I have a tiny flair for the dramatic. I consider it one of my most under-valued of attributes. ;)

As previously discussed, my own associations regarding chemo were probably even less positive than most peoples'. Having stepped into the cancer-treatment fray despite my deep-seated presumptions, I can testify to having developed a greater appreciation for the all the complexities of this mildly-barbaric treatment.

About the time I was beginning chemo, I embarked on a good-sized pity party with all the, "woe is me," you could possibly tolerate. And then a bit more.

Chemo, and its subsequent misery, terrified me. And don't even get me started on the whole hair loss bit.

Losing your hair is traumatic enough, but for a woman it has to be significantly more so.

I remember my chemo nurse, the brilliant Kathy, preparing me for what was to come. Just prior to beginning my first round of chemo, she stood in my room and, propping her hip against the counter, effected a soothing, but direct tone as she listed for me what to expect in the coming days/weeks/months.

Hair loss, as we all know, is a relative inevitability as the chemo that endeavors to kill stray cancer cells also happens to staunch hair growth. You not only don't grow hair, but you lose the hair you already possess.

The hair loss, she explained, typically took place within the first ten days or so, but everyone was different. That meant that my rounds which were spaced at three-week intervals, would see me only attending my very first treatment with any of my own hair.

Big. Fat. Bummer.

I was hoping for a longer transition. Or that maybe somehow having fewer rounds--as I only had four--might mean I could curtail the entire hair loss portion of cancer.

No such luck.

It was sort of an either or thing. Black and white. Yes or no. There was no sliding scale. No grading on a curve. No gray. No maybe.

And it that moment I had to jump on board. I had to leave the ever-ruminating, over-thinking Holl at the door and just dive in. If I hadn't, I probably still would be vacillating on the topic, even eight months later.

Act a little more, think a little less. Not a mantra for everyone, but gospel for me.

So I did.

Kathy educated me on the nuances of chemo hair loss. Here are some of the things she told me to expect:

  • Tingling in the days proceeding the most significant loss. I didn't really have this, but it's very common.
  • As the hair falls out and in the initial first few weeks of being bald the scalp can be hyper sensitive. This was super mild for me, but I know some people complain of it being unbearable.
  • Loss of all body hair. Okay FINALLY a chemo side effect I can get on board with. I didn't have to shave my legs for months! And, most people lose their lashes/brows, but I didn't.
Not that it would have mattered as I have drawn my spartan eyelashes on since the seventh grade and I've worn fake lashes for over twelve years. Ha! Take that, cancer. (Hey, I'll take victories where I can get them! ;))

The hair, when it did begin to come out, really came out. By the handful. My pillow and mattress looked like I had been grooming Wookies in my spare time.

above: Chewbaca, the most famous of wookies.

But the whole chemo/hair loss thing really was an exercise in just-doing-it-ness. You know...lots of biting of bullets and grabbing bulls by horns, etc.

And I did a couple of things that helped me overcome the inevitably frustrating impotence that accompanies cancer, particularly chemo.

  • I bought a stunning wig. Wigs aren't for everyone, but mine was a godsend! I made sure to buy it before losing my hair so as to ensure I was as objective and non-emotional as possible. I invested in a really great one. Forget whatever you think you know about wigs, NO ONE knew I was wearing one until I told them. More about that in a later post.
  • And I shaved my head. Once it became all patchy and I started to resemble more a junk-yard dog afflicted with mange, I decided to take control and have my mom shave my head for me.
The day I shaved my head, my little three-year-old nephew was visiting and he stood in rapt attention attempting to make sense of what I was doing. Upon finishing, he pointed to my head and said, "Caillou!" For those who don't know who Cailllou is, he's an animated character on children's programming who's bald. Like Charlie Brown. I obtained the moniker, Cailllou that day and it was all my nephew insisted on calling me, up until a couple of months ago, anyway.
above: Caillou

Sunday, January 1, 2012

good riddance, 2011!

I typically imagine my life--not as a linear strand of events--but rather a complex, landscape of varied terrain.

And inevitably, on my wandering path through said landscape, I find myself encountering one striking vista after another. BUT the Universe is not content to let me view these sights through nothing more than my standard vision--awesome though it may be. But rather I am required to see them through ever- evolving eyes so that each unique experience is observed through a constantly changing perspective.

This year, and its subsequent foray into the world of cancer, required some real trailblazing on my part and I found myself donning a new lens through which to view my life.

2011 was a year characterized by my first--and last--mammogram. Ultrasounds, biopsies, MRI's, three surgeries, multiple rounds of chemo and its subsequent hair loss, tissue expanders, and allergic reactions (all of which I'll get into in a later post.) Not to mention the acquiring of a team of gifted surgeons and clinicians and a whole new title to add to my life's resume:

Breast Cancer Survivor Extraordinaire.

However, this year will also be remembered as the year I gained greater perspective, finally learned patience, developed greater control over my thoughts and attitude, realized the breadth of relationships and discerned my increasing fortitude.

So, while I'm eager to embrace the coming year and brand it with a fresh perspective, I am not unappreciative of the blessings this year has provided.

I will make this clear: like junior high, 2011 was an essential and formative period for me, I just have no desire to repeat it! ;)

*I feel I should note that the aforementioned mammogram is my last only because--having endured a double mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction--my circumstances will require me to have only physical exams and regular MRI's. I am nothing if not an avid proponent of regular mammograms. Consider me an ever-responsible provider of relevant disclaimers! :)

Monday, August 22, 2011


Despite my unequivocal trepidation regarding chemo, as I have mentioned more than once, the process was actually surprisingly anti-climactic.

As is often the case with our fears, it was an experience that equated to a fraction of what my expectations hitherto had been.

Hey. No complaints here. Thank God for small favors. :)

I came home from chemo and busied myself. Among the many lessons the years have taught me, distraction as a tool for coping with anxiety was one I had employed on many occasions. It had not disappointed.

Twenty-four hours post chemo I was expected to inject myself with a shot called Neulasta. As I have no aversion to needles, this hardly seems worth mentioning. The fact that at this point there was no notable nausea, however, made that a banner day.

One day fled into the next and with relative speed, accumulated behind me becoming part of the rich fabric of my mortal experience.

It was like the proverbial family road trip with the incessant whining from the children in the crowded backseat of the family station wagon demanding impatiently, 'are we there yet?' Then, as if by magic, after seemingly hundreds of times, they ask and the answer is


That is what chemo felt like.

I had two calendars: a wall calendar and a small pocket calendar. I relished the daily ritual of crossing each day's square with a giant pink, 'X.' I decided I needed both of them so that I had a large reminder in my room and one to keep with me in my purse. It was a reality check during those times when treatment seemed interminable and allowed me to refocus; taking pride in the accomplishment of enduring another day.

After a short time, I saw a the X's lined up in a row celebrating the completion of my first week of chemo. Then one week evolved into two. Soon the grid was awash in X's and I found myself celebrating the turning of a calendar page as I graduated from May to June.

I put my mantra, 'I can totally do this,' on repeat in my head and utilized the power of distraction whenever things seemed inundate me.

I had demons with which to contend in the form of fatigue, migraines, mild mouth sores, body aches, sore throats, queasiness, and general malaise to name a few. But I just brought my secret weapon out and put it to good use.

What's my secret weapon?

My sheer, unadulterated awesomeness.

The good news? All women have it.

And that is why breast cancer is 99% curable when caught early.

End of story. ;)


Saturday, August 20, 2011


That's a loaded word. One that elicits many emotions:






(insert virtually any of your own negative adjectives)

Twenty years ago Vera Jane Williams Hoffmann, my paternal grandmother, died after a valiant battle with breast cancer. My highly-impressionable mind and often overly-sensitive nature absorbed the experience as one of incomparable physical pain and discomfort. I watched as her strength dwindled and her spirit waned. I overheard stories of the tortures of cancer treatment—chemotherapy to be specific—and those second-hand tales left me smarting.

I became familiar with the descriptor, 'a treatment worse than the disease.' My mind formed a conclusion that suffering from cancer and living seemed oftentimes to be only marginally better than dying from it.

I was young and it was a formative time for me. I mean, what thirteen-year old girl is rational anyway? I took these morsels of incomplete information and allowed them to mushroom into a profoundly irrational basis for judgment. Chemo became something I equated with the sheerest physical misery a person could endure and this tiny monster of fear in my mind fed on ignorance born of the trauma a young girl experienced watching her grandmother die of a disease she'd later contend with herself.

So, when my oncologist, the illustrious Dr. Elizabeth Prystas, gave me her professional opinion suggesting chemotherapy, I went into a severe state of shock.

It's possible I uttered the words, 'I'd rather die of cancer than go through chemo.'

And it's also possible I didn't so much utter the words as I wailed them.

But, let's not split hairs...

I knew what I had to do. I knew there were too many people who loved me in all my mostly-perfect glory.;) I knew there was a whole wide world of opportunity waiting for me; children to be raised, friends to be made and a soul mate to find.

I don't think there can be a much more compelling case than that.

So I started chemotherapy the following week. Monday May 2, 2011. I went in to said oncologist's office and confronted that monster that had taken up residence in my head two decades ago. It had indubitably grown in size, but I conquered it with impressive veracity. I'm a very strong person, something I've never had the luxury of doubting.

But even I was surprised to know just how strong.



Monday, June 20, 2011

a letter to cancer

Dear Cancer,

I've given you a lot of thought lately; it would really be impossible not to as you have endeavored with great success to encroach upon my life--attempting to rob me of opportunities, peace and time.

Ahhhhh, but you have greatly underestimated me. ;)

I am stubborn. Some might call that a detriment, but I know it for the fortuitous blessing that it is. A lot of traits fall under the umbrella of, "stubborn," chief among them:


and let's not forget one of my favorites: resourceful.

And you might be interested in knowing, I've been through and survived worse than what you've thrown at me.

I am sure it scares you to know that I have all these weapons stashed in my arsenal. I know it's humbling for you--a disease teeming with hubris--to know the strength of my resolve.

I'm aware of the way you ravage lives, deplete resources and separate loved ones from their families. I am not ignorant to your grip on so many lives and the negative effects that lie in the wake of your devastation.

I know that for many people, you are a form of death and fear; that those attributes are your calling cards. I am also aware that not everyone has the blessing of forging a life beyond your arrival.

But I think you underestimate human spirit: the need to not only survive, but to prosper. The aching need in a mother's heart to watch her children age. The subtle desperation with which a husband prays for his wife's recovery while she struggles to gain physical strength in a wearied and weakened body.

I think you have no clue of the great gifts you often leave behind. Your devastation knows a boundless reach and impacts the lives of nearly every individual on this earth in some capacity.

But what might surprise you, is how great a blessing you provide to so many. The family rifts that mend, the strength and courage that is adopted by so many who's hearts had long been ignorant of their true caliber. The poignant awareness that breaks boldly, exposing the genuine scope of a human's soul.

It is because of you I've had a blessed awakening--a restructuring of priorities, dreams and all the aspects of Hollie-ness I hold dear. I have been honed and polished--as cliche as it may be--and have received a glowing glimpse of the woman I'm becoming.

You have been an incomparable impetus in the evolution of my spirit. Thank you for that.

You probably find that appreciation of mine intensely irritating. Another point in my favor. :)

It's not in your nature to enjoy losing, but you should get used to it because I am not the only strong one out there and science is gaining on you.

I hope you've enjoyed having the last laugh for as long as you have, because the tide is turning and your days are numbered.

Consider that your prognosis, Cancer!