The “Before”


This photo popped up in my Facebook memories.  It was taken two Octobers ago.  Just one month before I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When it popped up I couldn’t help but stare at it.  Was that me? The girl with the long hair and a carefree smile?

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law went with me to one of those paint nights at a cute little art studio.  The ones where an instructor leads the whole class through a lesson and everyone ends up creating the same version of a painting.  The ones where (mostly) women gather with their friends, family, or co-workers, drink wine and do their best to imitate the artist’s brush strokes.

I remember looking around the room and seeing everyone working so carefully to follow the directions, to move their brushes in just the right way.  I saw how my mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s paintings were evolving so nicely,  they had patience, and precision, and some natural talent.

And then something came over me.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  And I remember wondering if I was brave enough to break the rules.  To smear my paint and start over.  To make my own version of a tree. As a usual rule follower this was hard for me.   I moved my brush back and forth and all the colors smeared together to make this deep shade of black.  Oh shit.   I saw the instructor give me the side-eye.

But once the initial shock that I had actually gone rouge was over, I started to relax.  It didn’t appear as if anyone was going to kick me out.  And so I gave into my wild rebellion and made a dark sky (that for some reason had stars AND a sun), a bare tree, and these two simple words: “be you.”

Now looking at this painting, it feels like a premonition.  Is it crazy to think that? Probably.

But I can’t help but think that tree is me.  Me after chemo.  Bare.  All my leaves fallen and blown away.  Me naked against a dark sky.  Vulnerable.  And that sun?  The sun that I for some reason painted into the night.  That sun is the promise of light.  It makes total sense.  And it makes no sense at all.  But life is funny like that.

As this October marches on, I feel a certain weight of sadness.  Not a heavy coat of sadness, not winter sadness.  Maybe just windbreaker sadness.  I notice the trees starting to surrender their leaves.  The gentle way they dance to the ground.  Fall signals change, and now it will forever remind me of cancer.  October also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness month, so there are lots of pink reminders, too.  (There are even pink ribbons on my cereal box.)

But this picture reminds me that there is always a “before”.  We never know when our lives are about to change.  So be brave.  Break the rules when you can.  Listen to that little voice telling you to blur the lines.

Be you.

(And also do your monthly self-checks & get those mammograms.)

So Worth It.

sun-rise“Getting married is one of the most unnatural things two people can do.” Those were my dad’s words on the day of my wedding.

I laughed. Cause this is so my dad. He and my mom never sugar-coated marriage. It never looked easy in my house growing up. It looked hard, and bumpy, and frustrating, and maddening, and also. . . worth it.

I was at a party with my boyfriend the night I met Joel. He knew instantly that he wanted to marry me. And if you know Joel at all, you know that it is nearly impossible for him to make a decision (he had to feel the weight of the silverware in his hand before we could register for it.) But with me . . . he just knew.

Our story starts with Joel pursuing me–  and me rejecting him.  Again. And again.  And again.  But when we finally starting dating, it was only five short months before I had a ring on my finger.  And before I could blink we were married, had two kids, a house, and a cancer diagnosis.

Joel says every time he looks at our garage ceiling, his stomach sinks. He was hanging installation in the garage the day we got the call that my biopsy revealed invasive ductile carcinoma.

I’ll never forget the way we clung to each other and sobbed. How could this be our story?

Joel went out and bought a pink leather journal. He brought it to each of my doctor appointments and wrote down everything the doctors said. He underlined the hopeful statements, and read them back to me when I felt like I might not make it.

Joel fed the boys, and tucked them in, and got them up, and dressed them, and put a smile on his face as he zipped their backpacks and drove them to school. He folded the laundry, and shaved my head, and made me tea.

In sickness and in health.

Our marriage isn’t always neat around the edges. It is not seamless, and shiny. We don’t always agree or walk the same way. Sometimes I roll my eyes, or flick him off behind his back (sorry honey . . . never in front of the kids), or scream and stomp up the stairs. Sometimes one of us feels underappreciated or unheard. Sometimes we have to dig up all of the messy stuff and study the pieces.

And it’s not like the movies. We aren’t riding around in a convertible with the wind blowing in our hair. There aren’t rose petals on our bed.

No, it is not like the movies.

It’s better.

It is noticing that Joel never starts eating until I am sitting at the table. He always says “bless you” when I sneeze (even when we are fighting). He puts toothpaste on my tooth brush in the mornings when I am running late. He makes me smoothies with organic fruit (even though he thinks it costs too much).   He washes my car, and holds my hand when we run errands, and scrapes the pieces of spinach out of my teeth. He tickles our boys until they can’t breathe with laughter. He picks up trash when he sees it on the sidewalk. He shovels other peoples’ driveways.   He sings along to Dave Matthews when he makes pancakes on Saturday mornings. He makes the bed every morning. He speaks highly of other people and he designs beautiful spaces.

And he loves me. Not just the pretty parts of me . . . but the broken parts, too.

And he sees me. Not just the stuff on the surface . . . but all the hidden parts, too.

And this feels like magic. Like moonlight on the ocean. Like snowflakes in the wind. Like sunlight on my face.

When I was at one of the lowest parts of my cancer battle, I remember telling him, “I would rather be sick with you, then healthy without you.”  And that is true.

Last month we went on an early anniversary trip. On the last day we got up early and hiked up to a lake in Rocky Mountain National Forest to watch the sun rise. We found the perfect spot to sit. I set up the camera behind us to capture this shot.

This is us. Backs to camera, knees touching, me leaning into him. This is us. Together watching the darkness fade. Together witnessing the promise that light always comes back.

And we were so ready for that light.

Ten Septembers ago I made the single best decision that I will ever make in my lifetime.  I married Joel.  He helps me be the best version of myself.  And I pray that I do the same for him.

Marriage is not about the wind blowing your hair as you glide across the sea.  It is more like holding hands while the storm rages around you.  Like getting drenched in life, and waiting patiently for the sun to dry you.  It is about choosing again and again to reach out.  To reach out, and to keep reaching out.  It is about promising to be all parts of you, even the ugly, crazy parts.  It is about keeping eye contact with each other no matter what.  It is hard, and messy, and beautiful, and real.

And so, so worth it.img_8790








How to suffer well.

Today I chatted briefly with a woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer.  I could see the suffering in her eyes.  And it all came back to me.

The way my spirit felt broken.  The lump in my throat.  The pit in my stomach.  They way I didn’t eat for days.  The middle of the night panics. The crying in the shower.  The forced smiles for my kids.  The tears that could bubble up in an instant.  The constant fear.

It is always amazing how quickly I can return there.  Sometimes when I’m running and my muscles are aching in the very best way, and my breathing is regular, and my heart feels strong — I think — maybe I can out run it. Maybe I can pretend it never happened at all.  And then I look over my shoulder, only to see “oncology appointment” written neatly in my planner.

While I was hiking in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about my suffering.  And this may sound strange to say, but I think I suffered well.  Could it be that there is an art to suffering? A graceful way to fall?

In my mind I kept writing and rewriting this blog:

How to suffer well:

Fall all the way to the bottom.  Don’t catch yourself.  Don’t brace yourself.  Don’t prepare for the landing.  Fall all the way down.  You are going there anyway.  To embrace the fall, is to shorten it.

And here is the thing about being at the bottom — you get this unique perspective of life, you get this unbelievable view of -up. Sometimes I would imagine myself on the bottom of the ocean floor, life swirling around me in this rhythm that wasn’t mine.  I would picture bubbles, and slanted light, and that feeling of being a kid in the pool and opening your eyes underwater and looking at the sky.  From down there the light bends, and colors merge, and you can hear sound, but no words, and you know when you rise to the surface you will fill your lungs with air, just to float back down again.

Sometimes beautiful, tragic, devastating, and powerful things happen at the bottom. Fall all the way down.

Shed your leaves.  Let go of all the stuff that covers you up.  This is hard to do.  And cancer doesn’t leave you with much time.  Sometimes you find yourself shaving your head when you were only months away from having your hair long enough to pull off a side braid.  Sometimes knives are involved, and surgical glue.  Sometimes you don’t have a choice as to how and when you will let your leaves go.  And you find yourself staring in the mirror bald and broken wondering how you ever thought a zit, a patch of gray hair, a new found wrinkle, or jeans that didn’t fit — ever brought you down.  Let all the stuff that covers you up -go.  Be bare.

Sometimes there is such beauty in the bareness.

Finally, be both. Be both brave and terrified.  Take deep breaths and steps forward. Put on your tennis shoes, turn your music up and move. And also, allow yourself to cry.  To wilt.  To curl up in a ball on the couch for as long as you can.  Be both graceful and a mess.  Tie up your scarf, put on your dangling earrings and dare yourself to dance.  And also, cry so hard that your eyes swell up.  Go out into the world red, and blotchy, and broken.  Be both.  Never make yourself choose.

There is such freedom in both.

So there is my advice: fall all the way to the bottom, shed your leaves, and be both.  I call it the art of suffering.  It is something I never aspired to be good at, but life is funny like that.  And you don’t have to have cancer to suffer this way, perhaps it is a universal truth.  To kneel down to the dragon.  To surrender yourself in a way that doesn’t make you weak, just vulnerable.  To say out loud, “I am broken.” I like to comfort myself by believing that to suffer well, is to heal well.

And here is the most important part . . . you will heal.  It’s a promise.  Your healing might not look like what you think it should look like, but you will heal.  This is how I know:


The sun always rises = darkness never lasts.


There is beauty in the shadows.


Love will always find a way.


Her funeral was magic.

kathy and melissaKathy Cramer.  She was one of my mom’s first friends in St. Louis, and because we had no other family in the area, she became our chosen family.  She was often at our table on holidays- stopping by my parent’s house for a drink, or just dropping off the perfect present to my boys for no reason at all.  She always smelled great, looked beautiful, and hugged me fiercely.  I always liked Kathy.  She was kind, and good, and made me feel special. She brought with her delicious food, engaging conversation, and a contagious, positive energy.

Breast cancer made us closer.  I had it.  She had it.  Different stages.  Different treatment plans.  But the same cancer.  We shared text messages, conversations, and the hope that both of us would be well again.

Last week as I drove to the ICU.  I knew I would be saying goodbye.

And all that energy, and sparkle that she had always radiated, was gone.  She was dying.  I have never seen someone dying before.  It is not like the movies.  It is not peaceful, and pretty.  It is raw, and hard to look at, and scary . . . and real.  I watched my mom and her friends whisper their goodbyes.  I watched her nephew stroke her face. I watched her husband hold her hand, and kiss her head.  I watched her chest rise and fall, each breath was a battle.

She died later that night.

And it all feels like it happened in a blink of an eye.  She was just here.  She was this force, this fire, this light.  How is that possible that she is gone?

How is it possible that we are all here, and then in a blink, we’re not?

It feels impossible to digest.  And yet, it is the only thing we know to be true about life: it ends.  We are all going to die.  It is a truth, a reality.  And yet, it shocks us, surprises us, knocks us down, and leaves us shaking our heads and hands.  How can she be gone?

Today was her funeral.  And to say that it was magic, might sound strange, but it was: it was magic.  It was inspiring, and devastating, and joyful.  It was beautiful and full of such a sweet sorrow.  It was, as her husband named it:  a “celebration of impact”.

Kathy spent her life’s work as writer, a motivational speaker, an innovator, and a risk-taker who developed a organization that focused on the impact of being positive.  I watched her TED Talk recently, and she tells the audience not to stay in the negative for too long, to move it aside and say, “besides from all of that, I can solve this anyway.”  And somehow even though her closest family members, friends, and husband were beyond devastated with the loss of Kathy’s life, they focused on the positive.

They focused on their memories, on their gratitude for knowing her.  On their ability to see the extensive reach of her wisdom.  Instead of focusing on her death, they focused on her life.

Is it possible to be lifted up at funeral? To be inspired, and motivated, and to leave feeling grateful?  Is it possible for her husband to stand up – on what will probably be the saddest day of his life – and so gracefully speak of his love?  Yes.  Her funeral was magic.

It is true that we will all die.

But it is also true that Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.

And it has to be true that Kathy was there today, in the music that left us with chills, in the magic that left us hopeful and motivated to walk out into the summer air, and in the moments that left us feeling the weight of death, and the hope of love. 

As the lines of a Mary Oliver poem read at her funeral say “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

It is a blessing, and a burden to remember these truths.  We are blessed with this “one wild and precious life,”  and we are burdened with the question: “what is it you plan to do?”

Kathy and I spoke about how cancer brings you a certain clarity.  A new lens to look through.  How the depth of the small stuff sticks with you.  How your ability to notice and recognize beauty intensifies.

And Kathy lived all the way up until she died.  She recognized her one “wild and precious life” and she did great things.

Today I left her funeral wondering what risks I will be willing to take?  What leaps of faith will I be willing to make?  What will I do with my one “wild and precious life”?  The teacher in me thought about working backwards with the end in mind.

I too, want a funeral, that’s magic.



I did it!


Last summer I wrote this about my cancer experience: “I described this journey as a triathlon: bike (chemo), swim (surgery), and run (five years of ovarian suppression and hormone blockers).  I guess I am here finishing up the swim.  Tomorrow will be three weeks since surgery.  Every day the pain lessens, and my boobs look more like body parts, and less like Frankenstein’s head.  But as I end this leg of the race, I am feeling that familiar dread of the unknown.  What will the run be like?  Is my body strong enough to keep going?  What does forced menopause look like for a 36-year-old body? What will the side effects be of these new meds? When will I get my full energy back? How long until my hair doesn’t scream “cancer patient”?”

Today, (about 14 months post double-mastectomy), I completed my first triathlon.  I used the triathlon metaphor as a way for me to visualize my breast cancer journey.  I said the swim was like the surgery because I was a swimmer when I was young and had a lot of experience with it, and after Alex was born I had a pretty intense surgery to remove a blood clot- so surgery was not new to me either.

I said chemo was like the bike ride, because I had no experience riding for long distances, and it was the part that scared me the most.

And I said the five years of pills and ovarian suppression were like the run.  Because it seemed the most doable and familiar stretch of the journey– I completed three half-marathons before having kids.

I wanted to do a real triathlon so that I could prove to myself that my body was back.  To prove that it belonged to me, that it wasn’t a prisoner to my port, the heaviness of chemo, or the slow movements after surgery.  I wanted to feel strong again.

Last night it was hard to sleep.

I was scared and excited.

I felt ready, and unsure.

I felt like a chapter was closing, and another was opening.

This morning there was a lot of waiting (there always is with unknown and scary things), and then before I knew it I was in the water, swimming, and breathing.

If I concentrated on the full distance, I felt overwhelmed.  But if I focused on Joel walking along the shore of the lake taking pictures of me, I felt okay.  I kept moving forward.

I wore a swimsuit, not a tri-suit, so I am sure a few people got a good laugh at me trying to squeeze myself into some spandex biker shorts with wet legs.  And then I was on the bike.  At first it was nice.  I didn’t feel too hot, I felt my breathing starting to regulate, and the sun and wind were at my back.  Then people started zooming by me, and I started to slow.  I kept thinking, how many miles has it been?  Can I really bike 15 miles? But I forced myself to remember chemo.  Chemo was the bike.  I can do this.  I focused on keeping my legs moving.  Just keep moving forward.

The bike was finished, now the run.  My legs felt like dead weight, I really wanted to sit down.  Just rest for a few minutes.  But I pushed on.  I focused on my breathing, one foot in front of the other.  Just keep moving forward. And then I saw it.  The finish line.  I couldn’t help but smile.  I did it.

My body is back.  It belongs to me.  I wore a swimsuit and biker shorts to run –I didn’t even need a sports bra (implants don’t bounce!).  My hair no longer screams “cancer patient”, in fact I don’t think anyone except my few friends and family members there knew I had cancer.  My cancer journey isn’t defining me in the way it once was.  I am someone new.  I am strong, and experienced at focusing on the small moments, movements, and emotions that make the long game possible.

No matter what comes my way, I know that I can concentrate on my breathing, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward.






Another Type of Cancer

There are some things that you can’t “un-see” . . . even though you wish you could. I just watched the video of police killing Alton Sterling. I wish I could un-see it.

I got goose-bumps. My throat felt tight. Tears squeezed out.

Seeing it makes me responsible. It holds me accountable. There will be part of my brain that will want to listen to the voices that will probably eventually say things like: “He had a gun. He was a threat. He was a thug. He had a criminal record. “ Part of my brain will want to find refuge here. Here in this place that helps this not feel so awful. Maybe if I can separate myself and my husband, and sons from him, it won’t be as bad. Maybe if I desensitize myself just a little more, it won’t seem like we have a crisis on our hands. And this part of my brain is not evil, it is not bad, but it is wrong. It is dead wrong.

We cannot find comfort in making Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Tarika Wilson, and the countless of other people who have suffered this same tragic fate – seem less than ourselves. If we go there, we are missing the point, we are failing each other.

I am a white woman. I cannot, even for a second, know what if feels like to be black. But we don’t need to be black to be devastated by this. We cannot let our brothers and sisters suffer alone.

Please. Please. Please. Do not allow yourself to rationalize these deaths. If you find your brain clinging to words and phrases that make this violence seem justified: thug, threat, criminal, dangerous — watch the video. And ask yourself: even if it is all true, even if he was a bad man, with a bad past – what happened to the part where he is arrested, read his rights, and taken to jail? What happened to that part? Watch the video.

You will not be able to un-see it. You will wish you could. But human suffering should stir something inside of us.

I have written my blog about my journey with breast cancer. But this is a different type of cancer. One that makes us all sick. It is easy for some of us to pretend it is not there, silently racing through our veins. But these episodes of senseless brutality and violence, they are symptoms of this disease. We cannot heal until we admit that we are sick.

Cancer made me sick, but it also taught me how to heal.  I couldn’t get well until I knew what was causing the symptoms. We have to know what we are up against.  We have to call this what it is: racism. We have to be vulnerable, and weak, and admit that we need help.  We have to be good to ourselves, to our souls.  We have to feed them with truths, and empathy.  We have to be willing to lose something: our comforts, our artificial harmony, our quiet meetings.

When I was sick, those who loved me suffered alongside of me.  They were uncomfortable at night, they begged and pleaded with God.  They sacrificed their time, and their energy and sat with me and made me soup.  They suffered alongside of me.  And they did it so gracefully, that I never once had to yell: “you wouldn’t understand, you don’t have cancer! You don’t know what it is like.”  They were graceful, and sorrowful, and even though they didn’t have cancer, they felt my pain, too. This made me feel like I wasn’t alone, like I was still connected, like my fight, was their fight too.

I want to stand up for my black brothers and sisters. For my friends who will have to teach their sons of color about keeping their hands visible, their heads down, and their voices soft. I want to suffer with them because I know, and believe that “No one is free until we are all free” – Martin Luther King.

I am healing from my own cancer, but sickened by this one.  Watching the video is like seeing the pathology report.

But what? What can we do? The truth: I don’t really know. I truly don’t. When problems feel THIS big, I feel this small. I raise my hands up, and shake my head. And feel like one drop in the ocean.

And then last night I attended a performance by Show Me Art’s Academy as part of their “Spreading the Love Youth Tour”. As I was waiting for the show to begin I read the back of the program: “SMAA, was established by Marty K. Casey, a little more than a year ago, due to the civil unrest in Ferguson, which highlighted very serious concerns for the overall welfare of youth in the St. Louis area.” Marty got on stage before the performance and told us that she wanted to be part of the solution, and she had this idea that she could use music to heal. She called her friends, she rolled up her sleeves, and took a risk.

And there I was watching a group of 20 students, both white and black from all different zip codes sing their hearts out. The final song was “Glory”. The lead vocalist was young girl. She came out on stage with crutches and sat on a stool. The song began to build as the Hazelwood Drumline circled around the audience. The volume grew, and their powerful voices rang out:

“The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually…”

The crowd was on their feet. I watched young singer’s face change as she saw us: white and black, young and old rise to our feet. I looked around and saw everyone begin to join hands. My eight-year-old son set his program down and grabbed the black man’s hand next to him, I reached for the woman’s hand to my right. And we lifted our arms together. The music poured into our souls. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and the girl on the stage could see this, the kids singing on stage could see this, they were healing us. Their words, their voices, their passion, it ignited the room. This is what healing looks like.

When I was falling asleep last night I kept hearing the words, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Watch the video. And turn off the voices inside your brain that attempt to make Alton the “other”.

There is no other. There is only us.

As my one of my favorite bloggers, Glennon Doyle Melton, always says: “we belong to each other.”   This is a crisis. This is a cancer. How many more lives will be lost before we open our eyes?


Just a snapshot


This is the only picture that exists of me getting chemo.  I stumbled across it the other day, and my stomach sank.

My dear friend Meghan took the picture (she also made the adorable sign).   If you look closely you can see a clear tube running up to the top of my chest, my sweatshirt is  covering my port.

I stared at it for awhile.

My eyebrows are thin and small.  I have scarf on my completely bald head.  It is April, but I have a heated blanket covering up my super thin frame. (I lost about 10 pounds during my treatment). I’m a bit pale, but that smile is real.  Although I was dreading the aftereffects, it was the last time I was going to have the slow drip of lead forced into my veins.  I couldn’t wait to fast forward time, and be done.

This picture does something to me.  It digs up something that wants to stayed buried.

There are no other pictures of me getting chemo.  And that is on purpose.  I did not want to capture it.  It was too painful, too raw.

But as I look at this picture, I feel grateful to Meghan.  Her bright spirit handed me the sign, told me to smile, and snapped it in a blink.  And now I have this image.  This image of me at one of my weakest points in life.

What I see behind that smile is flashes of the raw pain that cancer brings.  I see my face puffy, red, streaked with tears.  I see Joel’s sad eyes when he found me sobbing in the shower, my fists balled up, my chest heaving with fear and anger.  I see my boys walking out the door in the morning without my hand in theirs.  I hear their laughter as someone else chases them to the park.  I smell the lavender oil that I would swirl in my bath, and the ginger tea I used to settle my stomach.  I see the pill bottles and sticky spoons.

Recently when I was back at the cancer center for one of my shots, I got stuck in the waiting room for over an hour.  I always dread going back there.  The smell of the building gets my heart beating fast.  I feel like I am awaiting impending doom.  It is hard for me to sit still.  I try to distract myself with my phone, but I can’t help but notice.

I notice the dad that has his two kids with him.  It is summer, they don’t have school, so they have to be there to see this. The grandma that has already lost her hair, and looks so tired, but smiles and holds her grandson’s hand.  The man in the wheelchair that is asking why his insurance won’t cover something, the woman that looks like she can’t be a minute over 25, the scarf that sits lopsided on her head.  The husband and wife that don’t speak, but clutch each others’ hands close to their chests.  The elderly lady carrying a container of her urine, she has to wait in line to ask the receptionist where to bring it.  I hear the words, “oncology, radiation, pet scan, MRI, chemotherapy . . . “.

It all makes my head spin.  The suffering is so orderly.  So neat, with lines, and comfy waiting chairs, and brightly colored magazines.

As each minute passes, I grow increasingly anxious.  I start fantasizing about taking the hand santizer stand and using it as a baseball bat to break the beautiful stain-glass wall that divides the space.

“Melissa,” the nurse calls my name and apologizes for my wait.  I smile and collect my keys and purse and walk back to the lab for my shot.  The deep sting of the needle is nothing compared to waiting room waiting.  My friends tell me this could be PTSD.  I think they are right.

When I was making my way through the first part of my diagnosis I compared my cancer journey to a triathlon.

Chemo= the swim               Surgery= the bike               Shots+pills for five years = the run.

On July 10th I will competing in my first real-life (sprint) triathlon.  I will bring my broken body to the edge of a lake and swim.  I will hop up on my borrowed bike and ride.  And then I will run.

When I cross the finish line, I will be thinking about this photo.  This reminder of where I have been.  It does not define me, it is just a snapshot of my story.  I imagine I will be crying, but there will also be a joyful bursting in my chest. I am here.