It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday, it’s my birthday!

No more cringing when asked how old I am…no more wishing there was one less flame-adorned candle on the cake…no more thoughts of, “Is that a wrinkle? A grey hair?” Never again will I dread the ticking of the clock or the turning of the decade! I had a birthday! A BIRTHDAY!!! ONE MORE YEAR! (and boy it felt good!) Sometimes we forget how precious the next step of our life can be until we’re faced with the possibility that there will be no more celebrations, no more “days after” when you step on the scale and wish you’d said no to that last piece of birthday cake…no more family get togethers with you in it, no more moments when you’re sharing your deepest hopes and greatest fears with those closest to you…But yesterday, and for this moment, there is no sadness of such days! I had a birthday!

In the midst of all the happiness and fun, there was an underlying sense of straight up gratitude that I was even here to experience it all. Last year for my birthday, my brother took me to radiation and then we went back home where I slept and then quietly enjoyed the chaotic sounds of my nephews playing and laughing and fighting and whining and just being kids! I ate one last birthday meal and one last amazing birthday dessert (I can still smell and taste that fantastic blueberry pie my sister-in-law is so famous for!)

This year, there was no sadness of what could be, no thoughts of fear for the future…there was merely joy! I received the best card from my sister this year! “I don’t know what we’ll be like when we’re little old ladies…” That was enough for me…I lost it right then and there…and her message finished the job! “Love the thought of us being old together and looking back at our LONG lives!”

I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know much about anything, but I do know, how sweet to hear that special little tune, “Happy Birthday To You!” And thank you to all who have wished and prayed and hoped for more years to come!

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“Fake it til ya make it!”

In social work, we have a saying, “Fake it til ya make it”…basically, if you’re not feeling it, just pretend until you do. If your client has got the best of you, don’t let them see it…if you have no idea where to go with this particular case, make up something clever until you figure it out…”Fake it til ya make it!” And I’m sure it’s the same for all of us. No matter what our field of expertise, there’s been at least one time in the history of our career that we’ve done it…we’ve slapped on a smile and made some weak effort at convincing the person on the other side of the conversation that we’ve got it all under control…just to buy some extra time until we can find out the answer.

The hard part is when it comes to trying to fake ourselves out…trying to convince ourselves that everything’s gonna be fine when deep down it feels just the opposite. I’ve been in this mode of self-assurance for the past couple of weeks now. I get myself out of bed, put on my “big girl” dress up clothes, smooth out the hair, add the perfect accessories and walk out the door for work…all the while, giving myself the pep talk. “You can do this, you’re fine, you have no reason to be feeling this way, everything is going to be okay.”

I’m not unhappy, in fact, I enjoy my life immensely. I have a peaceful house to come home to, a roommate who is zero drama, a job I actually really like and am passionate about, a group of friends and a family who love and support me and an outlook on the daily grind that allows me to appreciate the way the sun bursts through the clouds just so, or the way the air smells slightly of cut grass on a windy day…add all of that up and you’ve got yourself one lucky, okay, one abundantly blessed girl! But somewhere in the midst of all that blessing, deep down in the crevices of the contentment and gratitude, there lies a sense of fear…a sense of inexplicable dread…a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Last Thursday I was talking with my supervisor about one of my cases when I rested my hand against my chin. My skin felt unusually warm for the cold temperatures inside the building, and as I ran my fingertips down my neck, along my scar, I could feel that it was extra swollen. Since surgery and the radiation, I have what’s called Lymphedema (basically, the fluid builds up in that area and it presents as swollen or puffy)…apparently it’s totally normal, so I don’t usually think anything of it, but that day, it felt different. I went to the bathroom and noticed that my skin was bright red where merely an hour before it was fine. So I pretty much panicked. I just knew it was really back this time, so within ten minutes I had an appointment scheduled with the doctor.

The thing I’m learning about life post-Cancer is that no matter what the ailment, the final recommendation from my primary doctor will go a little like this…”Got a bruised finger? If it doesn’t go away in a week, you should come back. It might be Cancer” or “Your back hurts? If the pain worsens, you should get a scan cause it could be Cancer” or Thursday it was, “Weird red skin infection I can’t identify or diagnose? Take this medication and if it’s not gone by Monday…call your Oncologist. It could be Cancer.” I’ve decided that this is not the most comforting comment to receive when already on edge about this particular issue. I’m genuinely thinking about writing a booklet entitled “What not to say to your patient when he or she is already freaked out about a Cancer reoccurrence.” I think it’s pretty catchy!

Needless to say, I booked an appointment for the next day with my Oncologist just to be sure. He looked at me a bit strange when I told him what my primary doctor said, but assured me that there is no Cancer that presents with a red infection on the outside of the body. He then told me in not so many words to “go a little easy on your primary doc. They don’t really have any idea about Cancer so they’re always going to want to rule out the most serious condition first.” In other words…if they scare you with Cancer when it’s really a hang nail, give them a break…afterall, they’re just “practicing medicine.” And of course I couldn’t just leave the office visit on an up note, so I asked him, “So doc, while I’m here…do you think my swallowing is going to get any better?” (I have been known to choke quite frequently on pea-sized foods as they attempt to go down the pipe, and naturally I was curious as to when I could expect some improvement on that issue.) In his typical, unemotional fashion, he looked at me and said, “Probably not.”

Cue the crashing thunder and the bolts of lightning! Definitely not my favorite answer, nor one that I wish to accept. I cannot imagine that this is it for me, that this is where the story ends. I cannot let myself believe that it will always be like this, and that no matter what I do, it will take me an hour to eat half of a sandwich or that I will always have to carefully visualize each little bite as it goes down the canal, cheering on its journey until it’s safely through the danger zone. I refuse to see this as a forever side effect, but the reality of it is that this is my reality…for today anyway. Yes it’s true, God can fix this, He is bigger than a tiny little Esophagus, but for right this minute, the possibility that this will never go away feels like the enormity of the Grand Canyon. And right this minute I don’t exactly feel like faking it…faking that I’m okay with this…faking that I wouldn’t give just about anything to taste, to chew and to swallow like any other person out there…faking that I don’t wish for my whole self back…faking, faking, faking.

But I know, even as I write this, that everything will look better in the morning, what feels overwhelming right now will be alright with a good night’s sleep and that I’ll get myself out of bed and do it all over again tomorrow. And one day, I’ll wake up and realize there wasn’t any need for faking…one day I’ll look back on all of this and realize I made it. Today is not that day. Tomorrow may not be it either. But until then…