30th birthday

30, Flirty, And Thriving (Cancer Aside)

When I was 13 myself, the movie 13 Going on 30 was released. A classic rom-com mirroring my own coming of age time frame, starring Jennifer Garner, struggling with the all-too cringeworthy embarrassing plight of being an unpopular and awkward teenager, who manages to literally wish herself into the future, as she so anticipates being “30, flirty and thriving” – a mantra not only repeated throughout the film, but now echoed by the masses who have witnessed it, manifested in everything from 30th birthday theme decorations to internet memes. (And the award for the longest sentence goes to…)

Fast forward to 2020, the year in which I arrive at age 30. I had always been told that the decade of your 30s is the best; one without hesitation to look forward to. The decade of some of your best milestones. I had lofty goals for what I wanted my life to look like by age 30, most of which were unceremoniously derailed by COVID19. Like, what is up with this virus assuming that any of us had the luxury of giving our goals a whole year off?

Not only did I feel a sense of failure, mentally I was not in the best headspace either. I was feeling the strain of spending half the year on half my salary due to an unstable survival-mode crisis at my place of employment, coupled with the most unsuccessful job hunt I’ve ever endured. I must talk to three recruiters per week. Each time, this peak of your emotions feeling like you might finally have your next opportunity ahead of you, met with the feelings coming crashing down by the constant rejection and/or an unwillingness of the company to pull the hiring trigger. I’ve always thought that I will be met in equal measures of success with outcomes that reflect the effort I put into them so it is difficult to experience that being completely not the case. Additionally, I was lonely, fearful, worried, angry and a cocktail of myriad negative emotions related to the constantly changing news cycle, as well as not having my normal methods of stress relief such as being able to really sweat it out at the gym, breathe deeply into hot yoga, or just the physical touch and presence of being around loved ones. I could very much feel social distancing, living alone and being half employed yet fully unproductive having a major effect on me, and I became concerned with the psychological possibility for long term impact. SO CLOSE TO 30, SO FAR FROM FLIRTY AND THRIVING.

As go the peaks and valleys of life however, I found that once I really sat with the emotions and let them run their course, feeling and processing it all (rather than trying to reject or deny or slap a stamp of false optimism on anything), that this meant I was able to take the necessary action to dig myself out of it. A bit of grit to get back on the ‘30, flirty and thriving’ plan.

As for the thriving part, the time afforded from working from home without a commute allowed me to take on a handful of both ongoing and one-time freelance projects. I replaced all lost income and then some. Thriving financially! Most recently, a website for a Pilates instructor who is compensating me with biweekly strength training sessions that I am adding as cross-training to my half marathon running plan. And did I mention I converted my spare bedroom into a weightlifting zone with pink and purple and teal barbells and dumbells and resistance bands and a bench? Thriving physically!

So there’s that. And then, there’s also this guy. Who, in a display of highly questionable judgement, has bewilderingly elected to appoint himself my boyfriend. I mean, of all the unexpected twists and turns of 2020 this just may be the most shocking to be recorded in the history books, that I for once successfully navigated the lost world of #datingwithChar to have produced a favorable outcome. I suppose I will have to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge that I must be truly FLIRTY after all!

Despite a cancelled summer Europe adventure and travel ban, I was able to visit Seattle for the longest time I’ve been back since my freshman year of college and it was honestly one of the best trips home I’ve ever had. I indulged in a Palm Springs getaway with the girls in which we overdosed on sunshine, laughter, and forced quesadillas (‘you must order a FULL MEAL with EACH DRINK’), as well as Catalina and Laguna Beach getaways with the man.

Next, I’ll get to host my brother + dad in a rare visit from them. My company scored some emergency grant funding that will keep the lights on, I closed the door on a couple of overhanging battles that had been weighing heavily, the Orange Buffoon got COVID, and all things considered, it all seemed like the year had turned a corner and I was finally tapping into the elusive magic reserved for the stuff of chick flicks!

At this point in the movie version of my life, the mood board is equivalent to those laughing salad stock photos, and you would see this montage of me confidently doing all these thriving, flirty things while this song is playing

But you know in every chick flick, the protagonist always faces a seemingly unsurmountable obstacle, right? That moment where the record skips and the frame freezes and the character is suddenly realizing there is a reason for the phrase ‘it’s too good to be true.’

In the version of life where I’m the protagonist, this setback comes in the form of a possible breast cancer diagnosis, nbd. Essentially my routine annual women’s wellness checkup resulted in a large lump. The conversation went a little something like this:

Dr. C: ‘Do you feel this? Anything more than pea size we are concerned about.’

Me: ‘Omg yes, I feel this…it’s not a pea…it’s a full GNOCCHI! THIS IS VERY CONCERNING!

If 30 is for being flirty and thriving, I’d say 40 is for being glammed and mammogramed (Jennifer Garner will spend the next decade I imagine preparing for this career defining role I have just invented for her in the upcoming 13 Going on 30 sequel). But mammograms are not for your 30s! That is the territory of the 40s. In your 30s, the breast tissue is still too dense to show much in the way of conclusiveness via imaging so there is honestly not much point to the mammograms….

However, this week I visited the Memorial Care Breast Cancer Center where the mammogram and ultrasound appointment confirmed there is in fact a very significant lump, that, whether cancerous or not, will most likely require surgical removal. That full anesthesia, stitches, pain, scar tissue, non-routine medical bill glory of it all. But first I will undergo a core needle biopsy. In the case of cancer, then comes a series of further diagnostics to discern if/where it has possibly also spread to, and whether the removal surgery is enough, or if I will need to undergo additional treatments. The documents uploaded into my patient portal estimated the risk of cancer to be 24-33%. The lump is 1.4”. The cost of the visit is $1,970. While the Affordable Care Act did deem mammograms to be 100% covered without any out-of-pocket expense, apparently that is only for ‘routine’ mammograms. A cancer scare at age 30? Most certainly NOT routine, and NOT covered by insurance. Always a loophole that benefits big pharma. Our medical system literally makes money off of us being sick and encourages detrimental health outcomes so that they can profit.    

As I laid on an ultrasound bed, half naked and shivering, waiting for a doctor to come explain all of this to me, suddenly the rest of 2020 up until this point felt entirely trivial, like comparing the woes of an emotional and angsty 13 year old to the real life problems of a 30 year old who the universe has decided to gift with a seemingly disproportionate abundance of ‘life experience.’ I found myself wishing the reversal, that I could just transport back in time to age 13 and be a bit carefree for a while.

My biopsy appointment occurs on Election Day which I have now dubbed the Day of Potentially Catastrophic Outcomes. I’m hoping that by the end of that day, both myself and the White House will be pronounced free from cancer. Can you imagine the state of my body if it had been inhabiting me for 4 years? I learned as I began her book during my waiting room time, that Kamala Harris’ mother immigrated to the United States with the sole aim of finding a cure for breast cancer. I wonder how anyone could look down upon immigrants and think that we are somehow above finding room in our country and our hearts to accept those who strive not just for a better life for themselves, but to make society as a whole a better place. Honestly think about the people around the world who are vying for an opportunity to come here and make our world thrive, and ask yourself can you really justify turning them away? If the answer to that question is yes, then let’s see YOU develop a cure for cancer, because that is something that could ACTUALLY make America great again.

Anyway, my point with all of this was not to get political, but to catalogue some of the observations that have come with this medical scare:

Firstly, my community is hands down just the best and most incredible. I have never felt the presence of those who love and care about me as much as I have in the last few days – from the people who are closest to me that I speak with anyway on a daily basis, to people I haven’t heard from in years, even decades. I am humbled and grateful. This is such a lesson to me in how people develop strength in these types of situations: it really is afforded to them from the outpouring of prayers, well wishes, check-ins. I imagine these people and these communications as rays of sunshine beaming towards me and I’m absorbing each and every one, allowing it to help me glow brighter. There are so many to consider, but a few that have stood out:

  • The fact that I could have rented a minivan to include everyone who offered to drive me to my appointment, and despite not being able to have any visitors inside, I had two friends sit outside and wait the 2 hour length of my appointment to keep me the least amount of alone as possible.
  • People who I have met ONCE expressing to me their deepest personal vulnerabilities, then saying, ‘I know what this is like,’ so ‘know that you’re being covered by prayer from me.’
  • A simple ‘hi’ gif just to check in.
  • Two different people actually thanked me for sharing my story because it gave them the opportunity to care about and pray for me and that was astoundingly beautiful.
  • People who have vowed to keep my calendar busy with friend filled activities to distract me in the time in between appointments.
  • The friends who are not afraid to ask ‘how are you really feeling about everything?’ and have the strength to absorb the answer and accompany me into the difficult thoughts and dark places even if it may be heavy.
  • My brother sending me cute animal photos on the daily to cheer me up, notably his roommate’s cat Pumpkin who was rescued from a dumpster, but is now being referred to as ‘Doctor Orange’ a reassuring medical persona offering affirmations that everything will most certainly be okay.

All in all, I have found that no gesture is too small, no context is wrong. This will stay with me regardless of outcomes and next steps, as a reminder that if something is on your heart, just speak it. Say the bold things, or say the things that are less bold without fear that they will be insignificant or unnecessary. Sometimes that is a challenge I face. I doubt: why would this person care what I think when they are clearly going through something so difficult? or What if I say the wrong thing? That’s not at all the point nor a thought that has crossed my mind at all. I’m just so thankful for it all.

Second, and the main reason I chose to share more deeply and publicly about something so personal, is that in conversing privately with so many women in my network, they ALL had a story. Their own stories, as well as stories of those they knew. To paraphrase: ‘Don’t worry! This happened to me! It is just something they don’t tell women with big boobs, that we all go through this at one point or another’ or ‘I tested positive for the gene mutation and elected for a double mastectomy as preventative care’ or ‘I actually just made an appointment because I found a lump in my own breast that I want to go get checked out’ or ‘Two of the women in my family beat it, but are very adamant about reminding me to do my self-checks.’ I convinced my mom to make the mammogram appointment she had been putting off. A woman in my network shared she too will be having a mammogram on Election Day and I promised to send messages of positive vibes and titty solidarity to her that morning.

The prevalence of everyone’s stories communicates a couple of things to me. Foremost, prompting this blog post at the deepest level, is to encourage anyone who has not scheduled their mammogram (40+) or annual ogbyn visit (21+ I think?), pull a Nike and JUST DO IT. The reason why all of these women had stories to share is because we have understood the importance of early detection and have checkpoints in place to be able to reveal the early indicators. We just have to tap into them. I always knew I *should* do a self-exam and never really did, mostly because it just feels sort of weird, but you bet I’m going to be the biggest proponent of it now.

But at a level outside of just breast health – health in general. I have spent the majority of the year being pretty heavily plant-based. Like, the no gluten, no dairy, no grains, no meat, no soy, no sugar kind of plant based. I’m finding creative ways to maintain fitness during COVID and have always prioritized working out and eating healthy. I have no family history of cancer, I was never a smoker, I love my supplements, and I’m always down for a yoga, meditation, massage, cryotherapy session or other such wellness activity. I’m allegedly 30, flirty and thriving, after all. How could I be affected?

But I think that exact ‘it can’t happen to me’ mentality is something I have learned sets an expectation that in turn results in more emotional upheaval and devastation when it is not proven to be true. This year was so hard for me to process because COVID upended things in a way that I never predicted could be, precisely because I presumed I was in control of my life, yet my sphere of control never factored in a contingency plan for the whole centennial deadly global pandemic catastrophe thing. There is a lot in life that we cannot control, but our health is one thing so precious that we can safeguard and steward. Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, sexually and entirely holistically. To quote the signoff of one of my favorite podcasts, “take care of yourself, and, if you can, take care of someone else too.” I just want to encourage and motivate people to learn about their bodies and what feeds and nourishes them from belly to heart to soul to mind, and to love themselves enough to put that into practice with the choices that they make. It may not halt cancer or pandemics but it will be so valuable in blessing you as you weather whatever life throws your way.

Back to another takeaway from the prevalence of the stories…we are all so complex, experiencing so much life so deeply. These are the moments where we see things revealed and understandings arrived at that we would not have ordinarily been privy to. The moments that allow us to relate to others on a deeper plane because of the vulnerability they can unveil. The moments that create patterns worth paying attention to for the insight they can add up to. We are not naturally accustomed to inviting others into these worlds, but it is such a beautiful thing when we do. So that’s another call to action: to share your own story. Share the deep things, the difficult things, the things that keep you awake at night. It is not shameful or weak. There is so much strength in having the maturity to be able to wrestle with life’s difficult moments and allow yourself to be shaped and taught by them, rather than trying to live above it and pretend that everything will work itself out, or ignore the lessons the universe is trying to urge you toward and only publish your social media highlight reel of the good things. No. I want to share my hardship to let it be grounds for better ministering to people and helping them through whatever they are struggling with. In a conversation I was having last week, this concept arose: a current definition of art as the creativity of survival. I love that. There is art in presently engaging through life, with less of a need to define it or answer the cosmic ‘why’ or be able to predict every future outcome…just seeking the beauty in the experience itself. And the deeper you have to seek to pull it out from, the better it gets. Not the obvious surface level beauties of life, the really raw ones.

I’m not sure the conclusion that this chapter or year has in mind for me, but I do know this: there is nothing so far that me and my fabulous boobs have not been able to overcome, and whatever this biopsy reveals will not be any different. I remain committed to being thirty, flirty and thriving – cancer aside.