Cancer, Gardening, And Letting Go Of Perfect

When I was a child, maybe around three or four, my parent divorced. It was prior to the times of this being every day, and with a separation of a family and the trauma that it brings to everyone involved, it had its effects on me. My mother left my father and I, and my young mind just couldn’t comprehend this. Although my father’s outpouring of love more than compensated, I inevitably felt loss and rejection. I compensated by becoming a perfectionist. And I am talking the perfect, perfectionist. Even as a young girl, my room would be impeccably clean and organized; stuffed animals arranged just so. As I aged my school supplies would be settled in neat rows; paperclips all in alignment, clothes hung color coordinated placed together, shirts with shirts, dresses with dresses, sweaters in perfect piles, all in the tiny closet that sloped down with its slanted ceiling. I don’t think that OCD was really “a thing” back then, but I definitely had it. I would have been a child psychologist dream, had we known about these things or had the money to send me to a specialist. Creating perfect was my way of controlling the chaos around me. And maybe just maybe, if I could achieve being perfect… my mother would see that and love me.

Over the years I held onto this trait, using it to my benefit when I could, and it also, at times, became my demise. Because, let’s be honest… there is never reaching any form of perfect. Things can always be more, and yet, they can also always be less. Another one of my funny quirks was that I would accumulate toys and such, but not be able to actually use them. I was a collector of unused things. Instead of “The Island of Misfit Toys,” I was “The Room of Faultless Toys.” It was the the art supplies; crayons barely touched in their boxes, crafting kits, chemistry sets and microscopes that Santa brought me for Christmas; all still in their cardboard containers that I would open and place its pieces in my tiny hands, and then neatly put back in their place. Because to me, they were beautiful and flawless. And I was not. If I used them, they would inevitably become blemished.

I moved to Portland, Oregon in my early 20’s and lived in a quaint little two-story, two bedroom townhouse. I loved my home, and I made it my own. Outside the kitchen door in the back, I had my very own garden. Each of the four apartments had a little space to call our own. I was so excited to grow things! I had become interested in medicinal herbs at the time, and I wanted to learn and create my own healing potions and lotions. I gathered little plastic pots from the store filled with starters and began what friends teased me as “my mini farm,” all in rows, not knowing any idea what I was doing or how to make things beautiful like my neighbor who lived next door had. Her garden was somehow, not perfect, yet beautiful… And I looked on in admiration and wonder at what she had created. My rows grew aside hers, and for the most part, flourished. Slowly, I learned from my teacher as I watched and took in her ways. But still, my old ways crept in. What I found was that I was afraid to cut back or harvest anything once it was time. I couldn’t do it. I looked at my plants just as I had my toys, and was afraid to devastate what I had created. The plants grew and then eventually died back because I was too filled with fear. What would happen? Would everything die? Would it come back? I didn’t know. I was too afraid to let go and let my garden evolve into what it was destined to become. And so, I tried again the following year. And then the next… I was determined to learn to release the reins from around my own neck and somehow change.

Years later, I find myself living back in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. We bought a house this past year with a sizable yard, in hopes to eventually build a big and beautiful garden. It is still my dream. But after moving, and the accumulated some debt for caring for my father while he was sick, and other expenses that are necessary with getting settled into a new home, we’ve been taking it somewhat slow as we try to nestle in and recover. We’ve been focused on the inside, and are hoping to start this project next year or the year after. I did, however, start a container garden on our deck to satisfy that need to grow things that has become a vital part of my healing process.

Truth be told, it hasn’t been an easy season. Our winter was long, and once the sun finally came to thaw the earth, so did the rains. Many of my containers didn’t have proper drainage, and my plants were hurt by this. And then the sun came out, with too much heat. Our backyard faces mostly west with very little coverage, and too much direct sunlight added to the problem as well. Although I’ve been told, again and again, that this summer here is not the norm, it has still been a learning experience with studying new weather patterns and following the sunlight. Portland summers are dry, but fairly mild temperatures for the most part, with intermittent heat; very different from Pittsburgh. My plants have all suffered along with me. Our greatest learning experiences often comes from failure, and although I know this, I am still a sensitive, and that inner part of me, that little girl deep within who was not allowed to fail, has felt as though I have let these plants down; even to the point of destroying some of them. For whatever reason, it hurt my heart deeply. By doing this, allowing for this imperfection to occur, I let myself down as well. I continue to remind myself that, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Henry Ford.

I think that it’s time to share with you… It’s time that I drop the “C” bomb. You see, I have “the cancer.” I was diagnosed back at the end of May with two types of breast cancer. John and I found out the day after my biopsy; Tuesday, May 22nd. I am actually so incredibly creative that I came up with TWO types of cancer. In ONE tiny, tiny breast! That would be the right one. The two types of cancer that I have are Ductile Carcinoma and Invasive Metaplastic Squamous Carcinoma. It started from the first and then formed, or metastasized, into the second. Because of the size of the tumor, I am Stage 2, and I am HER-2 positive as well. I am to receive 4 treatments, 2 HER-2 focused and 2 chemo. I call it my “kamikaze concoction.” I will receive these once every three weeks, so, one week on with a treatment, two weeks off, which doesn’t sound horrible. And I’ll be getting these treatments at Magee Women’s Hospital… where, ironically, it all began for me. I was born there oh-so many years ago. Yes, I will be losing my hair. And I look forward to rocking this. As far as the other symptoms, I’m not sure, we’ll see how it goes, but the oncologist did say, “You can continue to work, travel, live your life as you do. Just wear more sun-screen.” I will be receiving these treatments for six intervals which will end around mid-November. Half way through, I’ll meet with the surgeon for an ultrasound to see if the tumor is responding to the treatment. If the tumor is still there at the end, we will follow with surgery, and only a lumpectomy at this point. But. There is a high probability that the tumor will be completely gone once I finish treatment. They recently fully cured a woman who had a full double mastectomy after a similar treatment plan and similar diagnosis, and there was absolutely NO CANCER found in either breast. If they have similar results with me, I may be eligible for a clinical trial where they do not operate. Let me repeat, they would not operate. They would follow with a few more HER-2 treatments and radiation, and monitor my progress. This could potentially be revolutionary with how they treat future breast cancer patients. THIS. This is huge. I am focusing all my intention on making this a reality, for myself and for others.

I have an incredible team of physicians, nurses, supporters, both medically, family wise and friendships that are on the ready to see me through this. And I am ready. And I am okay. No matter what the end results are, I am solidly and strangely okay. I accept and trust this path that I’m currently on, and I’m ready to see it through. Even though nausea and needles are two of my biggest ‘icks,’ and the ideas of my own death are not necessarily my favorite, I keep saying that sometimes we need to go to the darkest places within ourselves to fully heal those parts that we sometimes can’t see. Francis Bacon once said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” I think that it’s my time, and I’m ready to finally heal. I’m looking at this cancer as an opportunity, a learning experience, a growing place to deepen my spiritual path and connection with God, and I know that this will have enormous effects and opportunities for those who choose to be moved by and share in my journey. My intention is to inspire every step of the way.

The day before my first treatment, I went out into my little space where my potted plants awaited me. I had neglected them because of family coming into town and other preparations for the day where I would be fully diving into the first steps towards my healing journey. I was armed with my scissors and clippers. And I began to cut. I started to trim the dried and dying leaves from my plants, something still frightening and unsure to me. Something that I knew had to happen, and although I have grown from this place with gardening, it still felt a bit uncomfortable. As I stepped forward in thought and action, I realized that this related to my cancer. It related to my life on so many levels. I realized that I needed to begin to cut back the dry and dying parts in myself, in order to fully heal. I needed to let go of perfection in order to evolve and become my true and new self.

A few weeks have passed and the weather has eased. The temperatures have reduced, and the rain have returned more gentle. And as I set forth for my second treatment tomorrow, I see that my little garden… is slowly beginning to thrive. Just as I intent to do.

Side-note: Although I have breast cancer, this is not a blog about or focused on my cancer, nor my cancer experience. And although I will inevitably write about my passage with cancer, because it is a part of my journey, my focus will be on creating stories, images and recipes with heart, authenticity, and beauty, as I live my life to the fullest in the moments that allow, and as I continue savoring life one bite at a time.

Dad's Famous Scrambled Egg Sandwich
What Sometimes Feels Like The End, Is Often Actually, The Beginning.

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