My Mindfulness Journey – How I Ended Up on a 10 Day Silent Meditation Retreat

The week of my cancer diagnosis, I wandered into a bookstore and perused the self-help section (because if there was ever a time for self-help, it was now). I came across a book called “Full Catastrophe Living” by John Kabat-Zinn. I laughed to myself and thought “Yep that sounds about right”. Then I read the tagline “Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” and I essentially brought it to the check-out counter and screamed TAKE MY MONEY.

This book was basically my bible when I was first diagnosed. At 650+ pages, it definitely wasn’t a light read, but the weight of the book gave me comfort. Anytime I felt stressed or overwhelmed, I knew I could pour over this book and it would make me feel better. In those early days, it was never far from my reach. I read it at home, in waiting rooms, in doctors’ offices, and on my conveniently timed trip to Hawaii. I even had my sister read it out loud to me while I was waiting for my PET scan because I wasn’t allowed to move my eyes due to the radioactive isotope that was circulating through my system (being a cancer patient, am I rightttt).

So what is this book all about anyway? John Kabat-Zinn is the founder of an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course aimed to teach mindfulness and meditation to those suffering from illness and chronic pain. MBSR is taught at cancer centres all around the world as it is the only evidence-based mindfulness program of it’s kind. The book, “Full Catastrophe Living” guides you through the MBSR course and is essentially a “how to” guide for coping with the stress of living with an illness.

After reading the book, I was lucky enough to actually take the 8 week MBSR course because it was offered at my hospital. It’s one thing to read about something, but another to actually participate in it. The course was a game changer. Before, I always doubted myself whenever I tried to meditate. I always wondered “Am I even doing this right?”. But this course made me realize that I was totally overthinking things, and that meditation and mindfulness is actually a lot more simple than I had made it out be (but the simplicity is what makes it so difficult!).

The course broke everything down for us. We learned how to do a body scan, a seated meditation, a walking meditation, mindful eating, and mindful movement (i.e., yoga). I strongly recommend anyone going through cancer to find a local MBSR course, or to pick up a copy of Full Catastrophe Living because both were life changing for me. I think the course is available online for free at You can also check out some of John Kabat-Zinn’s free meditations on YouTube.

At the end of the 8 weeks, we had a 1 day silent meditation retreat where we got to practice all the different strategies we had learned from the course. I was hooked. It was like I had finally figured out how to keep my body and mind in a calm and peaceful state, regardless of what was happening to it. All I wanted to do was dive as deeply as I could into the world of mindfulness and meditation. So I decided to strike while the iron was hot, and I signed up for a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Merrit, British Columbia.

You might be wondering: “What even is Vipassana?”. Vipassana is the most ancient form of Buddhist meditation. Translated, it means “to have insight into the way things really are”. It was “rediscovered” 2500 years ago by The Buddha and has been passed down to various teachers ever since. Today, there are hundreds of Vipassana centres around the world. Did I know any of this when I signed up? Nope. I just knew that it was something I needed to do.

I was initially put on the waitlist and didn’t think I’d get a spot… but then 2 days before the retreat, I found out that a space had opened up for me. At first I came up with all of these excuses not go: It’s too last minute, I’m not ready, I can go any other time… But then I realized that it was fear that was talking. Once I reminded myself why I signed up to do it in the first place, I figured “Screw it, let’s do it”. The retreat was also taking place during my 1 year cancerversary, so it seemed like a sign from the universe that I needed to go.

So I (poorly) packed my bag, filled up my gas tank, and off I went. I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was going to be hard, but I had no idea just how hard it would be. Disclaimer: The reason it’s taken me so long to finish this blog post is because I struggle to put my experience of this retreat into words. But here we go!

We had to arrive the day before the retreat started (Day 0) and we couldn’t leave until after the retreat had finished (Day 11). When I arrived, I was shocked that people were talking to each other. My first thought was… “Umm I thought we all agreed there would be no talking. Isn’t that the one bonus to this whole silent retreat thing?… No forced socializing?”. Turns out you were allowed to talk on Day 0 and Day 11, just not Days 1-10. Although I wasn’t over the moon about making small talk on Day 0… by Day 11 I was desperate to talk to anyone and everyone.

When I arrived, I was given the timetable for how the next 10 days would go. It basically consisted of meditating for 10+ hours every day and only eating two meals a day. We weren’t allowed to do anything that could possibly distract us from our silent introspection… that meant: no reading, no writing, no exercising, no yoga, and of course… no talking. In order to help ensure minimal distraction, we were given a strict dress code that included no tight clothing or bright/distracting patterns. The men and women were divided, meaning we slept separately, ate our meals separately, and wandered the premises separately. The only time we were in the same room was during the group meditations in the meditation hall. I personally thought this seemed a little unnecessary and outdated (not to mention non-inclusive). But, hey I guess that’s ancient Buddhist tradition??

I shared a room with 3 other people, which eventually became 2 after one of them left a few days in (people started dropping like flies!). We all had single beds with curtains around them for privacy. Living with other people and sharing a bathroom is hard when you can’t communicate about basic things like “When are you getting a shower?”, “Sorry, I’m almost done”, “Can I open the window?”, etc. But we made it work!

In order to explain what I learned on this retreat, I first need to give some background information on the principles behind this mediation practice. In Buddhist philosophy, all human suffering (referred to as Duhkha) stems from craving and aversion. Craving refers to wanting a sensation that is not present, and aversion refers to not wanting a sensation that is present. Another basic tenet of Buddhism is the nature of impermanence (also known as Anicca). Anicca states that everything in nature is impermanent, whatever arises will eventually pass away (including sensations in the body). Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ultimate goal is equanimity. To be equanimous means to be non-reactive, to observe both pleasant and unpleasant sensations without craving or aversion. By simply observing these sensations as they arise and pass without craving or aversion, we release what are called “Sankaras”. Sankaras result when we repeat certain habits over and over (mentally, physically, emotionally). When we repeat these habits in the mind and body, they manifest as Sankaras which rise to the surface in the form of craving and aversion (Stay with me!). In other words, these Sankaras are manifestations of mental, emotional, and physical habits and they express themselves in the form of craving and aversion. So, according to Vipassana teaching, if you are able to observe these cravings/aversions (i.e., Sankaras) in a non-reactive way, you break the habit of your mind and body and become free from those Sankaras. This is why Vipassana is considered a “mental purification process”. You are literally releasing and breaking countless habits that otherwise cause you to suffer.

After the first day, I felt like I needed major reconstructive surgery on my ankles from sitting cross-legged for 10+ hours a day. When I told my meditation teacher how distracting the pain was, she reminded me that physical pain is mental pain, and it was just another Sankara that needed to be released. The idea that my physical pain was somehow connected to mental pain made sense to me, so I pushed through. I sat with the godforsaken pain, and lo and behold, it eventually went away. Just like they said, everything that arises eventually passes. Even the screaming pain of my ankles that once convinced me they would surely need to be amputated.

So what do they actually teach you to do in the meditation? It starts with just focusing on the breath and fixating all your attention on the sensation of your breath passing in and out of your nostrils. By having such a laser focus on such a small area of the body, you start to feel subtle sensations that you don’t normally feel (such as tingling, buzzing, temperature fluctuations, etc.). You might think these sensations are pleasant or unpleasant, but the key thing is to just observe them equanimously, as they will eventually pass away.

Once you become an expert at sensing the subtlest sensations around your nose and nostrils, you move on to every other part of your body. Piece by piece, you tune into the most subtle sensations available to you. Eventually you learn to scan down throughout your whole body, feeling all sorts of sensations in every part of your body (I bet you didn’t know you could feel your upper arm simply existing when you’re sitting completely still, but you can!). It could be tingling, buzzing, warmth, cold, prickling, throbbing, etc. Any sensation. I couldn’t believe how many sensations I was suddenly able to tap into. The funny thing is that these sensations are there all the time, we just tune them out.

Eventually the goal is to scan en masse, feeling a free flow of energy and sensation throughout your body from your head to your feet. Once you are able to do that, you begin to scan your body internally by piercing from front to back and back to front, and then left to right and right to left. This allows you to become more aware of the field of energy from within your body, and is a lot harder to tap into.

For me, I had no trouble at all tapping into the sensations in my head, arms, and legs… but I had a lot of difficulty feeling any sensations in my torso. I was going crazy wondering why I couldn’t feel much sensation in my chest. I was convinced it was because of my cancer and surgery, which kept leaving me emotional and frustrated. Then I recognized that what I was doing was craving… craving for a sensation. I had to learn to let it go.

It wasn’t until the very last day that I went into my deepest meditation of the whole retreat. I had an intense hot flash (which would normally cause me to start frantically shedding layers), but this time I was able to just sit and observe the hot flash. After days of not being able to feel my torso, my torso was now screaming at me. HELLOOOO TORSO! My chest was on fire and the sensations were racing everywhere. It was then that I realized my hot flashes were an opportunity to go even deeper within myself. My entire body felt like a field of energy that became one with the space and people around me. What at first was an awful hinderance throughout the whole retreat, suddenly became my ticket into discovering a new field of awareness. It was pretty incredible.

I can’t lie, by no means did I spend every minute of every day in a transcendental state of bliss (far from it, really). There were many times that I sat and stared at my watch, daydreamed about all the possible outcomes of The Bachelor, and studied every word/ingredient on every skincare product I had to pass the time. Also napping… a lot of napping. I spent a lot of time outside staring up at the sky and dreaming of the sweet, sweet moment they would give me back my phone. Not to mention the time spent plotting how quickly I would escape on Day 11. There were many times that I broke down in tears, and debated leaving early or calling home. But something inside me told me I was right where I needed to be, and I’m so glad I didn’t quit.

This mindfulness journey has been a huge part of my healing process. It has genuinely changed the way I move through the world and handle stress, and for that I’m forever grateful. I’m by no means perfect, but I’m definitely not the same Sarah I was before cancer (for the better).

I’ve slacked off recently on my meditation practice, but I’m trying more and more to make time for it again. After all, no one else can do this work for us. We are the only ones that can take care of ourselves in this way. So let’s make the time for it!



Hair, Interrupted

When you get diagnosed with cancer, your first thought is “Oh my god, am I going to die?”, and then your second thought is “Oh my god, am I going to lose my hair?”.

You would think that once your life is in danger, you automatically stop caring about superficial things like your hair… but it turns out that fears don’t really cancel out other fears. Although it’s entirely superficial and very much temporary, losing your hair because of cancer sucks. A lot.

Hair is so closely tied to our identity, whether we like it or not. For most women, it’s a big part of what makes us feel feminine. For others, it’s a form of self-expression. For me, it was both. As someone who has never had hair above my shoulders in my adult life, I couldn’t even imagine what I would look like with short hair, let alone bald.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to commemorate all of my past hairstyles: the good, the bad, and the why-was-I-such-a-scene-kid-WHY.

Pro tip: before you shave your head, get a pixie.

Before I shaved my head, my amazing friend Charli had the idea for us to go get pixie cuts together to ease the transition to baldom. I’m forever grateful that she arranged this because it made the transition so much more bearable. It also gave me an idea of what it would be like once my hair started to grow back into a pixie.

Donating my hair was an easy decision. Hair suddenly became this sacred thing in my eyes so I couldn’t just let it all go to waste like that! So, the day after my first chemo, Charli and I went to the salon together. The hairdresser tied a bunch of small ponytails all around my head, and the snipping began.

Two weeks later, after my second round of chemo, my hair started falling out… and it was EVERYWHERE. On my clothes, on the floor, on my pillow. My little pixie hairs were always tickling my neck and driving me crazy. One thing most people might not know is that your scalp actually HURTS before your hair falls out. My scalp was so sensitive, every movement of my hair would make my scalp ache. So instead of dreading the idea of shaving my head, I was desperate to do it. It felt like ripping off a bandaid. I just wanted to get it over with.

When it was time to shave my head, my other amazing friend Leah stepped up to the plate and wanted to shave her head with me (once again, I don’t know what I did to deserve such amazing friends). The only problem? She was in rural Zambia at the time. But that didn’t stop us! Leah went to a nearby city and found a barbershop with a terrible wifi connection and, boom, we were in business.

I’ll never forget this day, not because it was traumatic (which it still kind of was), but because it was also one of the funniest days of my life. I’m talkin’ big belly laughs. I wish I took more screen caps of our FaceTime call to share here, but at the time I didn’t realize that I would ever be sharing this experience with the world.

So there we were, Carlos and I in our bathroom in Vancouver, and Leah in a Zambian barbershop. I remember Leah asking “Have you ever given this haircut to a white girl?”, and the barber simply replying “no” which sent us into a fit of laughter. The barber also rightfully critiqued Carlos’ shaving skills, which also kept us laughing.

I was hoping/expecting to look like Natalie Portman from V for Vendetta after this, but sadly, that was not my fate… Carlos’ razor died halfway through the process, so he had to use his back-up razor, which cut a different length from the first razor. Note to future cancer patients, if you want to try and look like Natalie Portman, don’t let your boyfriend shave your head in the bathtub with his semi-charged razor. Go to a salon/barbershop with real clippers!

While Leah left the barbershop lookin’ like a babe:

I left my bathroom looking like the victim of a nuclear disaster:

The rest of my hair fell out shortly after, which I’m thankful for because the only thing worse than being bald was the monstrosity that Carlos created on my head.

When I look back at pictures of my bald self, I find it so shocking. Like “Wow, I was really bald!!” It sounds silly, because, duh… I lived it. But the truth is, I got really used to seeing myself bald. Don’t get me wrong, I hated every second of it… but it became my “new normal”. Some days I couldn’t bare to look in the mirror, but other days I still felt beautiful.

The worst parts about being bald:
– Looking like a sick person
– Your head is always cold
– Always having to put something on your head before going in public (headscarf, hat, or wig)
– Accidentally answering the door while bald and having the delivery man stare at you like a deer in headlights
– Forgetting to put your headscarf back on while in a changing room, being seen by the person working, and proceeding to cry in the changing room after the fact

The best parts about being bald:
– Not needing to wash or style your hair
– Saving money on hair products and haircuts
– The feeling of your cats fur on your scalp when she’s sleeping next to your head (it’s oddly satisfying)

My eyebrows were the final thing to go. I was warned that they would be the last to leave, but mine fell out 1 ENTIRE MONTH after my last chemo. I’m still bitter about it.

Watching my hair grow back was probably the most exciting part of the whole cancer process. I was constantly taking photos of my lashes and scalp, and comparing them to the photos from the day before. Even to this day, my phone is filled with unremarkable before and after pictures that look like a “spot the difference” game. I was obsessed. No one has googled “hair after chemo” more than this girl right here.

6 months post chemo

Do I love my short hair? No… but anytime I get down about it, I remind myself of when I was bald and DREAMED of having a pixie cut. It may be “just” hair, but it’s what makes us feel normal and gives us a sense of control.

I’m not looking forward to the many awkward mullet phases that I’ll have to go through, but at the end of the day… I’m still here, I’m alive. Every millimetre of growth feels like a little badge of honour. Proof… that I survived and I’m that much further away from the thing that tried to kill me.

It may sound corny, but I’ll never let another day go by where I don’t appreciate the feeling of the wind in my hair.



Chemo Cocktail: My 5 Month-Long Hangover

Sometimes, I’ll be going about my daily business and then all of a sudden it hits me: I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and survived 8 rounds of chemotherapy. From diagnosis to treatment, everything was such a whirlwind. When all the dust finally settled, I was left thinking… did all of that really just happen? How am I still here?

Chemo Crash Course: Chemo stops all quickly dividing cells in your body (because cancer cells divide quickly). Unfortunately your hair and nails are also quickly dividing cells (because they are constantly growing) which is why your hair falls out and your nails get real weird (more on that in a future post). But chemo doesn’t just destroy your vanity, it messes with your mind and body in all sorts of ways. This was my experience:

Chemo was my biggest fear. A lifetime of movies and TV shows had prepared me for the absolute worst. All I could envision was being bed-bound, throwing up, helpless, and bald. And yes, I did tick off those boxes on some days, but to be perfectly honest, most days I coped really well (all things considered). Don’t get me wrong, it was no walk in the park by any means, but it was significantly more manageable than I expected. I still lived a “normal” life. I went for daily walks, tried to keep up with my yoga practice, went grocery shopping, cooked, cleaned, etc.

It all started on August 17th, 2018: My first round of chemo. My port was freshly placed only 3 days prior and it was still swollen and bruised. My doctors told me the port would be ready to use as soon as it was placed, but what they didn’t tell me was how uncomfortable and stressful it would be to have a nurse poking and prodding at it when it’s still healing. It definitely made an already stressful situation a lot more stressful (and even made the nurse close the curtain so that other patients didn’t have to witness my mini meltdown). When it was all done, I felt surprisingly ok. We even went for tacos directly afterwards and then had a Sex and the City marathon (although I don’t know if you can call it a marathon if you fall asleep after two episodes). Is there anything Sex and the City can’t fix? The answer is no.

The first 4 rounds of chemo that I had (Adriamycin and Cyclophosphamide) is lovingly referred to as “The Red Devil” because it’s a red fluid that the nurse “pushes” into you from a large syringe. It also temporarily makes your pee red which is just one of many lovely side effects (including hair loss, low immune system, nausea, fatigue, diarrhea/constipation, and mouth sores). Luckily, I managed to not get bad nausea. My crowning achievement throughout chemo was only throwing up 2 times (once because of anxiety, and once because I had been exposed to too many fumes while staining some furniture… a casual activity for a cancer patient).

The cherry on top of all of this chemo business was the nightly injections I needed to get in my stomach to help boost my immune system. Carlos had to give me these injections because there was no way I would be able to give them to myself. These “Grastofil” injections make your bone marrow produce more white blood cells, which boosts your immune system. This is important because not only do they prevent you from getting sick easily, but they also ensure your immune system is well enough to withstand the next round of chemo. In total I needed (I believe) 42 Grastofil injections. Each injection caused my bones to ache, specifically my lower back and ribs (a slight preview of the real bone pain that would come with the last 4 rounds of chemo).

I also had to get monthly “Lupron” injections in my bum to keep my body in chemical menopause. Lupron puts your ovaries to sleep and therefore protects your eggs from the toxic effects of chemo. This helped preserve my fertility for the future (something I’ll also probably talk about in a future post). Even though I’m done chemo, I’m still receiving these injections to prevent estrogen from feeding any possible cancer cells. The side effects include hot flashes and a risk of osteoporosis. Ladies, I know periods suck… but let me tell you, menopause is worse.

me n’ my non-existent immune system

After chemo round 4, I needed a blood transfusion because my red blood cells were way too low and I was anemic. I never really realized that cancer patients were an entire group of people that sometimes need blood transfusions until I was a cancer patient that needed a blood transfusion. (Please donate blood if you can! It’s a small thing that can make a big difference). I was so nervous to get a transfusion, but afterwards I could literally see the colour return to my face and I suddenly had so much energy. It was like I literally had life injected back into my veins.

The last 4 rounds of chemo that I had was called Paclitaxel, AKA Taxol (no “cute” name for this one). Along with Taxol, I also received my targeted therapy drugs (Herceptin and Perjeta) which I’m still receiving now every 3 weeks (thankfully, they have little to no side effects). Taxol, on the other hand, has all the same side effects as “The Red Devil” but with the addition of hard core bone pain and numbness in hands and feet. The bone pain felt like I was being stabbed in my knees, ankles, and hips. The first day that I experienced it was the worst. I could hardly walk without my knees feeling like they were about to buckle in. I still sometimes have “flare ups” of this bone pain even months after I’ve finished. Apparently this is normal and it will eventually fade away. Anytime I have a flare up I’m like, “Wow Really? Rude”. It’s like a little evil reminder of the pain I’ve already suffered. I also experienced the numbness in my hands and feet during chemo. It actually became too much and they had to reduce the strength of my last two rounds of chemo in order to protect my nerves. I still have slight numbness in my finger and toes, but apparently that’s normal and it takes a while for your body to recover (but it can be permanent for some people).

I also experienced “chemo brain”, which is a brain fog that affects your cognitive functioning (memory, attention, etc.). I’m currently trying to see how long I can keep blaming things on “chemo brain”, will report back.

Luckily I never had an allergic reaction to the chemo. To prepare for a possible allergic reaction they give you a benadryl drip before each infusion (which makes you super sleepy). They also have to give the chemo as slowly as possible when you’re first receiving it in case your body has a negative reaction. If you don’t have a bad reaction, they speed up the time it takes to give it to you so that it gets faster and faster every round. This makes for very long days in the chemo chair (7 hours or more).

I still can’t believe I survived all of this. But I think, like a lot of difficult things in life, you just get through it. One way or another. One day at a time. Then, when it’s all passed, you look back and you can’t believe the mountain you’ve climbed. Although I still have many more mountains to climb, this one has been by far the biggest and has left me feeling so much stronger than I ever thought possible.



To Port, or Not to Port

I’ve had a severe phobia of needles for as long as I can remember. I like to think it all began when my sister and I were kids and we discovered a tree in our backyard that had long and (surprisingly) sharp pine needles. We came up with a game called “Doctor Doctor”, where we would take turns chasing each other around our backyard with a pine needle yelling “Doctor Doctor!” (real creative, I know). If you were caught, you’d be pricked with the pine needle until you could either A) fight your way free or B) scream and cry enough to make the other person feel guilty and stop.

Ironically, my life nowadays is like a never-ending game of “Doctor Doctor”. Except I’m the only one getting pricked and options A) and B) don’t work anymore (and are frowned upon when you’re an adult in public).

When you have a needle phobia, cancer is something you want to avoid if you can. Cancer treatment is basically the equivalent of becoming a human pincushion. Luckily, modern medicine has come up with this thing called a port (port-a-cath). A port is a little device that gets surgically implanted under your skin (usually on your chest). A small catheter connects the device to a large vein in your neck. The port can be used for receiving cancer treatment and for drawing blood. I once heard someone refer to it as “the window to your heart”. Under normal circumstances, I would never want a “window to my heart”. And if I did have one, I would keep that window boarded shut. But this stupid little window actually has a lot of perks:

For one, it saves the veins in your arms (which can collapse and become very fragile from the chemo). Once the veins in your arms are damaged, it becomes harder for the nurses to access them (meaning you might get poked by a needle more than once). Another great perk, for me, is that you don’t need to have a tourniquet around your arm (the tourniquet is a huge phobia trigger for me). So, after chatting with my oncologist, I agreed that the port was the best option for me. The surgery was then booked for August 14th (shortly after my Hawaii trip and 3 days before starting chemo). In case you missed it, my last blog post outlines the timeline of my diagnosis and the start of treatment.

When I land back in Vancouver on Friday, August 10th, I receive a call from a random doctor (I believe he was filling in for my oncologist) who was wondering why I was booked to do the operation under general anesthesia (as it’s normally done when the patient is conscious or semi-conscious). He explains that if I do it under general anesthesia, I would need to be intubated and it would be a more serious operation. I explain that I never requested to be put under general anesthesia and that there must have been a misunderstanding. Then, he then starts trying to talk me out of getting the port altogether. He tries to convince me to do my first round of chemo through my arm, and if it’s too much for me to handle, I can always choose to get the port surgery at a later date. He then talks about the possible complications of having a port. I feel super confused and spend that weekend reconsidering the port altogether.

I wait until Monday to try and get ahold of my oncologist to see what she thinks. I’m now leaning towards not getting the port because I knew I’d need a million needles for the rest of my life anyway, so I might as well get over my fear and avoid an extra surgery… right?

When Monday finally comes, I can’t get ahold of my oncologist. I start to panic because my surgery is booked for the following day and I’m still feeling very conflicted. When Tuesday comes (surgery day), I still can’t reach her. I debate it over and over in my head and finally come to the conclusion that: I don’t want the port anymore.

Lucy and I are near the hospital, so we decide to go in person to tell them I won’t be going ahead with the surgery and to apologize for waiting until the last minute to let them know. When I arrive, they want me to speak with a doctor before leaving (turns out they don’t like it when people say “yeah nevermind, no surgery for me thanks, bye!”). So Lucy and I sit down with a doctor who makes a lot of valid points. “Your oncologist thinks this port is the best decision for you, which is why it was the original plan you agreed on together. If you wait and decide to get the port after you start chemo, your immune system will be compromised and surgery could be more risky”. And with that… I decide, “Ok well it looks like I’ll be getting surgery today!”. Very luckily and coincidentally, I hadn’t eaten in a few hours so we were good to go.

I know surprisingly little about what’s involved in the operation. A radiologist comes to see me before the surgery and introduces himself. He explains “I’ll be running a catheter through your neck…”. I want to throw up at the thought of this, “My NECK??”. He seems surprised by my reaction. With a blank look on his face he asks “Is… that going to be a problem?”. Looking back, this moment perfectly sums up cancer treatment in a nutshell. It’s an awful and horrible thing, but there’s no point resisting. You just have to lean into your new pincushion lifestyle.

About 10 minutes before the surgery begins, I finally get a call from my oncologist reassuring me that I should, in fact, get the port. I’m high on Ativan and Lucy and Carlos are both dying laughing at me as I struggle to put a coherent sentence together. I tell her I already have the IV in, I’ve taken Ativan, and I’m about to go into the OR.

The surgery was pretty quick (I believe less than an hour). I was conscious throughout it but also very high.

I have a love-hate relationship with this little guy. For some unknown reason, I was given a “dual” port (meaning the device is twice as big because it has two access points instead of one). Every nurse/doctor that encounters it says “Huh! I’ve never seen a dual port before”. I feel slightly cursed with this dual port because ports need to be “flushed” once a month to avoid any clogging. Because I have a dual port, I technically have two ports that need to be flushed every month. This means that I get pricked by a needle twice instead of once (slightly defeating the purpose of the port in the first place!). Also, for some reason, the brand that makes my port had the brilliant idea of making it purple. As someone who has essentially translucent skin, my port looks like a giant bruised lump that sticks out of my chest. It’s a constant reminder that I’m sick and I can’t wait for the day that I get it taken out.

All that being said, it’s made so many infusions so much easier for me. I’ve used it for chemo, regular blood work, and a blood transfusion. The first time I had it accessed was for my first chemo and it was just 3 days after it was implanted. Not only was I stressed because it was my first day of chemo, but it was still so bruised and swollen and made the whole process extra unpleasant. But ever since then it’s been A LOT easier. It took me a long time to embrace the port. For the first couple of months I refused to even touch it. I hated how I could feel it move up and down my ribcage whenever I put my arms above my head. But now, although I don’t love it, I’m much more comfortable with touching it and having others touch it also.

In the end, I’m happy I got it. I’m especially happy on the days that I’m sitting in the chemo chair and the patient sitting across from me is in pain because the nurse can’t find the vein in their arm. Sure, it’s big, it’s purple, and I was left with a very visible and crooked scar… but it has served me well and I haven’t had any complications so far. If you happen to be someone who is planning on getting a port, make sure you ask your health care team exactly what model you’ll be receiving to avoid any confusion.

It’s up to me when I decide to remove it. But considering the fact that I’ll need infusions every 3 weeks for the next year (at least), I figure I’ll hang on to it until then. I’m trying not to rush things lately. I’m trying to embrace my port, my scars, my body, and my short hair exactly as is. It’s hard, but it also feels like the ultimate lesson of patience and self-love.



The Diagnosis: Part 2

From the moment I heard the word “cancer”, everything happened so quickly. Like someone hit the fast forward button and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

Carlos and I had a flight booked to go to Hawaii for a week on August 2nd (for my 27th birthday) and I had no idea if I would be able to go. They rushed my first appointment with my oncologist for this reason. I met with her on July 31st and she told me the tentative plan for treatment:

  • 8 rounds (~4.5 months) of chemotherapy (expect hair loss, nausea, fatigue, and bone pain… yes BONE pain)
  • Nightly injections in my stomach to boost my immune system during chemo (expect more bone pain)
  • 1 year of targeted therapy (this is toxic to your heart so regular heart scans are needed)
  • Surgery (preferably lumpectomy with lymph node dissection)
  • 20-25 rounds of radiation (every Monday-Friday for 4-5 weeks)
  • Hormone therapy (oral pill and monthly injections) for possibly 5 years (this keeps your body in chemical menopause so that no estrogen can make the cancer grow, expect hot flashes and mood changes)

As someone who once fainted at the optometrist when I found out that I needed glasses, you can imagine how I handled this information.

When I asked about the trip to Hawaii, she explained that delaying treatment by a week wouldn’t make a difference and that I should go ahead and enjoy my vacation before I begin treatment.

So that’s what we did! It was a little taste of paradise to hold on to before I entered… well, not paradise.

The Road to Hana, Maui
RIP hair. It should be noted that I resisted EVERY temptation to not shave my head in Hawaii. Having to detangle it from salt water and wind every day was extra tedious knowing it would all be gone in a few short weeks.

I know it’s hard to believe, but I actually had an amazing trip. Sure, there were times when it all hit me at once, but changing my environment was the best possible thing I could have done for myself. On my birthday I rolled around in the sand, splashed around in the waves, went to a movie, and ate the most delicious fish tacos I’ve ever had in my life. It was perfect.

Having cancer sometimes makes being alive feel like you’re touching a live wire. It’s like all of a sudden, everything is amplified. The highs are so much higher, and the lows are so much lower. You start seeing beauty and joy in so many places you never saw before. This trip let me experience that and it kept pushing me to live in the present moment. When everything is new (new sights, sounds, smells, foods, activities, etc.) it invites you to fully absorb the present moment, which is exactly what I needed.

When I land back in Vancouver, it’s go time. Here’s a brief timeline of what happened:

August 14th: I have a port surgically put under my skin on my chest so that I could get treatment and blood work more easily (you can read about that here)

August 16th: I have a PET scan in order to find out exactly what stage I am.

August 17th: I start chemo (ew).

August 18th: Me and my amazing friend Charli get pixie cuts together to prepare me for hair loss.

August 21st: I go with Carlos and my sister Lucy to meet my oncologist for my first follow up appointment after chemo. My oncologist also has the results of my PET scan (warning, this is where shit gets real). Her voice gets a bit somber. She says “The good news is that it’s not in your heart, your liver, your brain, or your lungs, but… we did find two small spots on your sternum, I’m so sorry Sarah”.

My mind went completely blank. I instantly crawled up into a ball and just kept turning towards Carlos and looking at him with a complete look of panic. I couldn’t even cry. I was completely shell shocked. I couldn’t look at Lucy. I could see her in the corner of my eye with her head between her knees and her hands on her head. My oncologist continued, “So unfortunately this does make you stage 4 and you will be considered a cancer patient for the rest of your life“. I basically combusted into a ball of anxiety and panic. I didn’t have anxiety, I transcended and BECAME anxiety personified. Even though she followed this up with “but I don’t view you as a stage 4 patient because you have such a minimal amount of disease in your body”. And “There is a very good chance you will make it through this”.

So let me just clarify, no I’m not dying. The cancer did metastasize to my sternum in a small area (which technically makes me stage 4), but I’m not considered terminal by any means. My oncologist explained that I am what is considered “oligometastatic” (a new term, and very rare). Oligometastatic means the cancer has spread to a different part of the body, but it has only spread to one area and in a very small amount. What does this mean? It means I have a shot at a “cure”, meaning I could live a long life without this ever coming back. The other good news is that my mets (metastases) are in the bone, and women with bone mets have better chances of long-term survival. Bone mets also respond really well to radiation.

Let’s fast forward to present day for a second: The GOOD news is that I responded insanely well to chemo. After my lumpectomy, they analyzed the breast tissue and 7 lymph nodes they removed and found ZERO cancer cells. In the cancer biz, this is called a complete pathological response and it’s the best case scenario. Although I haven’t had a follow up PET scan yet to confirm all the cancer is gone, my doctors tell me it is HIGHLY likely that the mets on my sternum are also gone.

So am I cancer free?
The answer: we think so, but it’s not yet confirmed. But trust me, when I know for sure I will scream it from the rooftops!

I expected my treatment plan to completely change with this new stage 4 label stamped across my forehead, but it didn’t. What did change is that my oncologist added an extra drug into my targeted therapy regime. Instead of just receiving the drug Herceptin for 1 year, I was now going to receive Herceptin and it’s sister drug Perjeta to better attack the cancer cells. She also explained that instead of just doing targeted therapy for 1 year, I should now do it for 5 years. However, since I had a complete pathological response, she thinks that maybe it won’t be necessary (it’s something we’re going to discuss in the future).

In case you don’t already know, the survival rate for metastatic breast cancer is extremely discouraging. But, I am not going to let it bring me down. I’ve responded incredibly well and I’m going to keep fighting every day to live a happy and healthy life for as long as possible. I never understood the concept of “fighting” cancer until I had to fight it myself. It’s more than a physical battle, the real fight is choosing to take back your life every day and live it to the fullest, despite your circumstances. So that’s what I’m going to keep doing. It’s hard as hell and I didn’t expect to ever have to do this, let alone do it in my 20s, but it’s really the only choice I have.

I don’t know why I suddenly feel like writing a thank you speech, but I honestly cannot put into words how much I love and appreciate all the people in my life who have been there for me or supported me in one way or another. I have the best partner, family, friends, and coworkers anyone could ever ask for. My heart feels so full and I’m so excited to beat this with all of you amazing people by my side.



The Diagnosis: Part 1


My name is Sarah and I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 26. This is my story.

July 2017: I just finished grad school and was on top of the world! It was finally time to move across the country to be with my partner Carlos and to start my first real-adult job as a Speech-Language Pathologist. Once I get all settled in Vancouver, I decide to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic for the pain I was having in my left breast. She gives me a breast exam and explains that I’m most likely experiencing pain from a cyst and that I need to quit caffeine and manage my stress levels (as caffeine and stress can cause cysts to form). She explains that breast cysts usually go away on their own and only need to be drained if they get too big. I figure “Ok, makes sense! My family doctor back home also told me I have cystic breasts, my mom had a breast cyst before, and I have no family history of breast cancer”. I follow the doctor’s orders and quit drinking coffee immediately. Coincidentally, the pain subsides and I figure “problem solved!” (spoiler alert: the problem was not solved).

January 2018: Six months later I return to the same doctor for a routine pap test and breast exam. She doesn’t feel anything concerning during the exam (and neither do I at this point), and I’m no longer experiencing the sharp pain in my breast. All appears well.

May 2018: Fast forward to May, I find a pea-sized lump in the 6 o’clock position of my left breast (it is my non-professional opinion that this is the worst place for a lump because it is the most hidden!). My first thought is “Shit. It’s probably a cyst. I have been really stressed lately. I should go to the doctor. Hopefully it goes away soon”.

Ok listen… I know what you’re thinking. Before I was diagnosed, I would hear stories of women finding a lump in their breast and not worrying about it or not acting on it right away. I used to think to myself “How can you not be worried about a lump in your breast??”. In my defence, I was worried, but I had been told by my doctor (and my previous family doctor back home) that I have cystic/”lumpy” breasts (scientifically known as “Fibrocystic Breasts”), I had had two recent breast exams done by a doctor, and I hadn’t had any breast pain in about 9 months. All of this along with the fact that I have no family history of breast cancer meant I didn’t see a huge red flag. *rant over*

June 2018: I notice the pea-sized lump is suddenly much bigger. I start googling like mad. Google tells me that cysts grow quickly and that tumors grow slowly. I figure “Well this is definitely growing quickly so it must be a cyst). Worst case scenario, it will need to be drained” (ah, how I miss my naivety).

July 2018: The lump is still growing (now the size of a large grape) and I can’t delay it anymore. I drop everything and decide to go to the same walk-in clinic, but they tell me I would need to wait another 10 days to get an ultrasound. My anxiety gets the best of me, so Carlos and I decide to go to the emergency room. The doctor there also tells me it’s probably a cyst but refers me to a rapid access breast clinic for an ultrasound to be sure. Even as a self-proclaimed hypochondriac with an anxiety disorder, not even I was seriously entertaining the fact that it could be cancer.

July 19th, 2018: I go alone to my ultrasound (pro tip: don’t go to important appointments by yourself). When the ultrasound is over, they bring me to get a mammogram right away. I keep asking the staff if I could see a doctor. Finally, when a doctor does come to speak with me, I think it’s because I had succeeded in badgering the staff for one, and not because the doctor had life-changing news to tell me. They bring me to a small dark room (normally used for ultrasounds). The doctor looks very young and seems a little nervous. I wonder if he’s nervous because he’s inexperienced (in hindsight it’s clear why he was nervous). He explains that they won’t know for sure until they do a biopsy, but that the imaging showed all the characteristics of breast cancer

It feels like my chest is on fire. My ears start ringing and I can hear my heart pounding in my head. It doesn’t make any sense. I feel like I’m watching a movie and someone else is sitting on the hospital bed hearing these words. The word cancer feels like it’s being seared into my skin. I burst into tears of panic. The doctor robotically puts his hand on my knee and I want to recoil from him. I’m furious and confused. I ask for a tissue. He looks around the room and hands me a towel, it feels scratchy against my face. Once I compose myself a little, I try to make sense of what he is telling me. I ask, “So how sure are you that it’s cancer? Like 90% sure?”. He replies “Yeah about 90% sure”. All I’m thinking is… “Are you just saying 90% because that’s the number I threw out there?? What the hell is going on?!”. As he continues on, he explains in detail why exactly he thinks it’s cancer. He then tells me that he will do the biopsy himself tomorrow morning and the results from that will tell us for sure. With all care for social etiquette out the window, I ask if he’s done this procedure before. He laughs and tells me that this hospital does the most breast biopsies than anywhere else in the province. Even though it wasn’t confirmed yet to be cancer, the doctor had enough confidence that I lost all of mine.

Biopsy Day (Made possible by Ativan and warm blankets)
Also pictured: The ominous black blob

We have to wait about 6 days for the results of the biopsy. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate Carlos for literally keeping me alive through these 6 days. I could hardly eat or move for the first day or two. I lost about 10 pounds in the first week alone from stress. I just couldn’t fathom that everything I knew felt like it was being ripped away from me. But as time went on, Carlos pushed me to keep living life. We went to the gym together, we went blueberry picking, and I went to work. That’s the crazy thing, life continues on even after it feels like a bomb has just been dropped in your lap. I allowed myself to feel my feelings but needed to be pulled back to reality every once in a while (ok, more than every once in a while). I had to grieve the life I had before cancer because I knew my life would never be the same again. It’s important to go through the grieving process, but it’s also important to keep living life, as difficult as it is sometimes. My motto became “one day at a time”. Everything seemed so insurmountable when I looked at it as a whole, but I slowly learned to focus on getting through each day at a time.

When life gives you lemons, pick blueberries!

July 25th, 2018: Biopsy results day. I wake up and think “Ugh, someone is going to tell me I have cancer today”. I meet with my surgeon that afternoon and lo and behold… I receive the official diagnosis of Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Breast cancer can be described in three main ways: estrogen +/-, progesterone +/-, and HER2+/-. My cancer was ER+, PR-, HER2+. My surgeon tells me that the HER2+ component of the breast cancer is a very fast growing and aggressive form of breast cancer that was considered practically untreatable up until about 15 years ago. However, now, many women with this type of cancer respond very well to treatment (thank you science!). THIS is the reason that sucker grew so fast. After my surgeon examines me, she tells me she thinks I’m very early stage 2. I think to myself “Ugh why couldn’t it be Stage 1! I could handle Stage 1”. However I wouldn’t find out my actual stage until I received a PET scan (more on that in the next post). My surgeon gives me an idea of what she thinks my treatment plan will look like, but explains that I won’t know for sure until I meet my Oncologist (and so begins the life of having so many doctors that your family and friends begin to lose track of who’s who).

I’ll have to cut it there for now, otherwise this is going to turn into a novel! I’ll talk more about the staging of my diagnosis in the next blog post (read here). Thank you for making it this far!