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Last June I got an email from my friend Sam in Portland telling me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I think it came as quite a shock to everyone. She hadn’t yet turned 30; I had seen her just a few weeks before when she came to Eugene to meet baby Paul and give him a quilt she’d made. She’d seemed vibrant, happy, and healthy when she visited. We’ve been staying in touch via email, and I asked her to share part of her story here:

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One of Sam’s lovely hand-made quilts. Photo credit: Samantha Breen

 

My name is Samantha and I am a fiery, passionate young woman. I am also an elementary school teacher, quilter, printmaker, salsa dancer, and Ed.D (doctorate of education) candidate.

In mid-May 2015 I was reaching for soap in the shower when I hit my left breast, hitting something different, something hard. By May 27, 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a very common type of breast cancer known as IDC (Invasive Ductile Carcimona). I got placed in the Multi-Disciplinary Team for Breast Cancer with an appointment for June 2.

In a PET scan ordered before the appointment, my worst nightmares were revealed: I not only had advanced breast cancer, I had metastatic breast cancer meaning the cancer was Stage IV and had spread to my lung and thigh. I had 0% chance of survival and was told by my all the oncologists in the little exam room along with my parents that they could make me comfortable until the end, but they could not cure me. I was 29 years old.

I ended up being one of the lucky ones. With further examination, they discovered I did not have Stage IV cancer — the spots in my lung and thigh turned out to be non-cancerous. I think that the initial horror that my time left was to be limited and unpleasant led me to be grateful for all moments. I remember waking up from my bilateral (double) mastectomy now breastless, hairless and infertile (from chemotherapy) thinking that these were just battle scars to a better life.

Cancer helped me to clarify my perspectives. I had many friends before I got cancer. Many of them left and stayed away after I got cancer. The friends that have stayed I have learned are true friends, not just friends who are there when it is convenient for them. The deep love my parents have for me is unmatched. I realized that more framed degrees on my wall would not make me happier, but that I should focus on slowing down and enjoying life with the people I enjoy being around.

To help me cope, I go to cancer patient groups. I go to a group that meets weekly that is people mostly 30 or more years older than me and along with a cancer counselor we help each other problem-solve. It is a group made up of people with many different cancers. I also go to a 40-and-under (when diagnosed) group for breast cancer; that group meets once a month. I also walk as much as I can and spend time with the people I love.

If you are just being diagnosed with any kind of cancer, I say you should find a group that works for you. There are writing groups, groups that are just for men, women, and young survivors. Not every group just sits and talks, many groups go on all kinds of outings. For me the greatest help came from another young teacher diagnosed with breast cancer who came to my house when I couldn’t leave for comfort. I hope to do the same for someone else someday.

If you want to be a supportive friend, I suggest finding yourself a job that you can do. The hardest friends to me were the friends who would make plans; I would rearrange many medical appointments, and then they would cancel. I had a friend who loved to drive so she would take me for rides at a good time in my chemotherapy cycle. Other friends lived far away and would send me care packages.

Remember that the worst thing to say or do to someone who has cancer is nothing—it completely invalidates that they exist. Having cancer, I thrive on connection. A hug, a letter, a phone call, they mean the world.

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Please join me in keeping Samantha in your thoughts and prayers as she continues to fight to regain her health.

 

 

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I’ve quit Facebook before. After I graduated college in 2006, I got married, decided I didn’t need to stay superficially connected to such a large number of acquaintances, and canceled my Facebook account. But over the next few years, Facebook transformed from a college social network to a worldwide phenomenon. In grad school, I realized I was missing out on social invites that were happening via Facebook (or then again…maybe people just didn’t want to invite me). So, in 2009 I rejoined the world of online social networking.

Have there been positives to having a Facebook account? Sure. I started getting invited to a lot more events and attending many of them. (And then I became a mom). One former close friend who I’d lost touch with did contact me on Facebook and we ended up getting together once when she was in town. Sometimes I’ve enjoyed sharing photos and updates from my life and getting responses. And it can be a convenient online scrapbook.

But mostly I try to avoid looking at Facebook. Because, keeping in line with some psychological studies, looking at Facebook does not tend to improve my mood. Rather, my reaction to other people’s status updates usually falls into one of the following categories:

1) Jealousy. Admit it, you know what I’m talking about. People post about highlights from their weeks, their summers, their years. And Facebook posts the highlights of their highlights at the top of your News Feed. It makes me think, why is everyone else’s life so much fun than mine? Or hey, why wasn’t I invited to that party? Or, Wow, that’s great that your 6-week-old sleeps through the night. Congrats.

On this topic, one of my writing buddies wisely said, “Don’t compare your inner world to someone else’s outer world.” Meaning, someone’s life might look great on social media but you don’t know what that person is thinking and feeling. And if I just posted all the highlights of my summer online, my life might seem more than fun than it really is on a day-to-day basis. Weekend trips to Portland, the beach, a toddler-free hike at Tamolitch Falls, a visit to the Wildlife Safari. Or I could go back in time and throw in some of my life highlights if I really wanted to skew reality and make others jealous.

Look at that! A giraffe right outside our car window! My life is exciting!

Look at that! A giraffe right outside our car window! My life is exciting!

2) Annoyance. Sometimes status updates are just annoying. Thankfully, I rarely see annoying political posts, because I’ve hid the few people who are obnoxious about politics. My annoyance is more along the lines of: Glad I could find out about your important life event via your FB status update! (This is reserved for former close friends, members of my wedding party, etc., not random co-workers or people I used to go to church with).

Though, undoubtedly to me the most annoying person on Facebook is The Narcissist. Need I elaborate? I’m sure you have at least one, if not many, Narcissists within your social media circle. The friend who posts just a few too many selfies, always in a bit too perfect lighting, always with a bit too perfect of a pose. The Narcissist would not, as I have done, post of photo of herself holding her newborn baby after staying up all night in labor — wearing no makeup and not having showered for several days. The Narcissist would however post several shirtless photos of himself that nicely highlighted his washboard abs. If you are The Narcissist, I doubt that you recognize yourself in these words. But if you do recognize yourself here then I would say to you a) Maybe there’s more to life than being really really ridiculously good-looking but also b) Congrats! Recognizing you have a problem is the first step to getting better. Then again, maybe I’m just jealous that I don’t photograph well.

3) Who is that person? Most of my Facebook friends are people I only vaguely know. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that the human brain is only designed to handle a community of about 150 people, and only about a dozen close relationships. So even if I have more than 300 Facebook friends, my brain cannot really keep track of more than 150 of those relationships. And is it healthy to keep so many random acquaintances in our online community? Like, do I need to read updates about someone I met once 5 years ago?

Am I just a cranky, anti-social depressive? Perhaps. But I do enjoy talking to people about the interesting things happening in their lives. I’ll even look at your vacation photos if we hang out in person. It’s all just a bit overwhelming, impersonal, and out-of-context when I look at my Facebook News Feed. I have a hope that if I get rid of Facebook, I may put more effort into connecting with friends directly via phone, e-mail and hanging out.

What do you think about Facebook? Do you enjoy using it? Did you cancel your account years ago and feel that your life is better without it? Or is it a necessary evil?

 

 

Dear 15-year-old Ursula:

Greetings from the future! It is the year 2014. You are a successful film and stage actress and drive a Mercedes hovercraft. Last year you made People’s Most Beautiful People list, and this year you’ve been nominated for an Academy Award.

Okay, just teasing you a little bit. I’m choosing to write to you at 15, because I’m now 30. I hope that in doubling my age I’ve learned a few things about life. Perhaps this means I can soon expect a letter from the 60-year-old me? Maybe by then they’ll have better technology for communicating across the space-time continuum.

First, I will encourage you to enjoy high school for what it is. A time to learn and make friends. Thank you for not caring about being accepted by the “popular” group. That’s very wise and admirable! You’re choosing instead just to make friends with people that you like. This will be a blessing to you during your high school years. Most of these friendships will fade after high school as people move away, so enjoy the time you have with these fun friends. I know you want all your close friendships to be lifelong and some will — but not all. Life is filled with surprises, including the surprises of which classroom acquaintances bloom into long-term friendships, and which BFFs fade into the memory banks.

This is also the year that you’ve started going to church and chosen to get baptized. Thank you also for making these wise choices! Seeking to know and follow God is, in my opinion, the most important thing you can do in your life. Your faith will bring you peace and joy and will ultimately lead to you meet your husband and develop many significant friendships. As a sidenote that is perhaps related, thank you also for not being interested in drinking and partying — you will need all the brain cells you can get to help you through the sleep-deprived early parenting years.

Do not be afraid to try some new things and meet new people. I know you’re shy and afraid that new people won’t like you. Don’t let that stop you from participating in activities you want to participate in. Be nice to people and they will like you. Except when they don’t, because sometimes they won’t. (Well, those people are jerks, so you shouldn’t pay them any mind). Also don’t let your fear that you might not be good at something prevent you from trying it. If you want to run on the track team, then run on the track team. Maybe you won’t be very good, but you won’t know unless you try. Likewise, if you want to join the choir or start a photography club — you should do those things! You won’t have as much time and energy when you’re in college and beyond.

Lastly, don’t worry so much about academic success and getting into an elite college. I mean you should do your best in school, but don’t give yourself a heart attack. You don’t really want to go to an elite college anyway — it’s just not your destiny. You’ll get a good education and meet your husband at the University of Oregon. But maybe you should reconsider the journalism degree? Marketing perhaps, or something else with the potential for good pay?

Love,

30-year-old Ursula (wife, mother, freelance writer, substitute teacher, world traveler, ice cream enthusiast)

 

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. I can tell I’m getting older because I have to dye my hair more frequently. Tragically I have been going gray since high school. Also I’m not as skinny as I used to be, though that is probably more to do with a combination of my husband’s amazing cooking and my being a mom.

My 6th birthday party.

My 6th birthday party.

Anyway I had a very nice birthday. I would have loved to have a big party for my 30th, but since we just moved back to my hometown we don’t know many people here. Spencer and I were able to go out to dinner Sunday night with my friend Giselle who I have known since freshman year of high school — which was half my lifetime ago (!). It was nice to spend some time with her as she’s been living in Chicago for the past seven years, during which I’ve only seen her a couple times. She tells me that for my 18th birthday all my friends decorated my locker with pictures of Ben Affleck, but I have no memory of this. I do remember that we ate dinner at the Olive Garden and that my friend Kevin “Prom Date” Bryan wrote me a rap.

On my birthday Marie and I joined my parents and grandmother for breakfast at The Glenwood, where Marie ate about 50 blueberries (also known as “bluebees”). In the afternoon my mom, Marie and I went shopping. Spence made dinner that evening and my parents joined us. We had grilled salmon, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes, and salad with Chardonnay. Followed by an incredible Sweet Life tiramisu and some champagne. Tiramisu might be my favorite dessert ever. It was the top layer of our wedding cake — because, why not?

And so — goodbye to my 20s. I started dating my husband a few months after my 20th birthday, which means that we’ve almost been together for ten years. My 20th year was quite a life-changing year for me. I strongly reconnected with my faith, started dating my future husband, and spent 6 weeks interning at a newspaper in Ghana.

Have I accomplished the things I had hoped to accomplish by age 30? I had definitely expected to have more success in my career by this age — if you’ve been reading my blog you may have noticed this as a recurring theme. The recession has taken its toll on that aspect of my life, but that is what it is. I seem to be doing pretty well in my personal relationships. That’s really what matters.

I am very goal-oriented and I would use this opportunity to share my five year plan for my life now, but to be honest I don’t really have one anymore. At least, not in terms of my career. For my life, my plan for the next five years is to continue to be a good mother and wife. To build strong relationships with my family and friends. To continue to grow closer to God and to seek His direction and provision for my life. And to keep writing because writing is an important part of who I am. Beyond that — we’ll have to wait and see.

I’m feeling writer’s block after the fifth day in a row of posting here. My daughter is napping and I know that at any minute she might wake up and then my chance to write will be over. So what to write about? I have a few topics that keep coming to mind but I don’t know if I feel like writing publicly about them at the moment…

During my time in Portland I felt like I was living in a Christian bubble. It’s odd that this could happen in Portland, Oregon, but somehow it did. I ended up going to graduate school at a Christian university, then teaching at a Christian elementary school, then working in the office at a Christian high school. Our social life mainly consisted of going to church events and hanging out with people we met from church. So poof, Christian bubble created.

Is it healthy to live in a Christian bubble, where everyone has the same religious beliefs as you? Well probably not, especially when the surrounding community is very non-religious. But I don’t know where else I would have really made friends, since it takes me awhile to get to know people. Still this is pretty much the opposite of my growing up years, when I hardly knew anyone who went to church. So maybe it was important for me to have this experience.

I think a lot of Christians probably end up in this situation because it is really just easier to be friends with people who are similar to yourself. Also you tend to hang out with the people who are around you. In college, I found myself hanging out mostly with other Christians because I wasn’t interested in drinking and partying, which is a lot of what college social life is about.

Well my little darling has awakened so I guess it’s time to push the publish button. What about you? Do most of your friends have the same religious beliefs as you? Do you wish you had a more diverse group of friends?

 

 

Dear former BFF,

I’m thankful for the years of friendship we had, even though it seems now that our friendship was only ever meant to be a temporary thing, and not a lifelong thing as my mom had been told in a dream so many years ago.  I still remember how, although you didn’t know me, you cheerfully invited me to your sixth birthday party, while we stood on the steps outside our school. I attended and we were all entertained by Sparkles the clown. My hippie parents were undoubtedly thrilled that I had befriended one of the only brown kids in school.

It’s easy for little children to make friends, isn’t it? We were so open then, not like we are now. I still remember the sleepovers, the Michael Jackson dance contests, the endless rounds of Monopoly. How we started a band in third grade and we really thought we might become famous, though none of us played an instrument. Then in fifth grade, I remember how I was going to a different middle school and you told me that you wanted to make sure we stayed friends.

In high school we were reunited. We got our first jobs together, conducting marketing surveys over the phone. Remember the weirdos who went through training with us? There was the guy who dropped a condom on the floor, looking at us while he slowly picked it up. And there was that other guy who called his mom to come pick him up next to the jail, “where he’d gotten bailed out that one time.” We only worked there for about a week.

I remember the New Year’s Eve trip to San Francisco with our other best friends, and the time our theater group shared a poster with Slick Rick. And in college, there was the time you stole a kazoo from my ex-boyfriend’s bathroom, and the time our drunk friend got locked in a dorm stairwell overnight. Most of all, I remember the laughter – no one could ever make me laugh like you could.

I’m sorry for the ways in which I failed you as a friend. I can think of a few, and you can probably think of more. Still, I don’t understand why you stopped returning my calls. As an only child, I’m one who hangs on to friendships, who doesn’t want to let them go, and so I’m almost always the last one to call. But it hurt the most when it was you. You were the best of friends, until suddenly you weren’t.

Nine years later, you’ve moved on, and so have I. I have other best friends – my husband, my daughter, my mom. I have lots of good friends from my new, adult life. I wish we could be friends again like we used to be, but time has changed us, and we can’t ever go back to that place where we stood, two first graders on the steps outside our elementary school, fulfilling MLK’s dream without even knowing.

Me with my new best friend.

Me and my new best friend.

I want to make new friends, but I’m too tired. Plus I forget how.

Probably the first step is to leave the apartment. Which I actually have been doing quite a bit lately. Mondays Baby Bear and I go to sign language class, Tuesdays to the library and on Wednesdays it’s yoga. We try to keep a busy schedule. Hence, I have not been updating my blog.

Going to these activities is great. They provide fun ways for Baby Bear and I to interact, and allow us both to see a little bit of the world. I’m feeling much happier than I did when we sat at home all the time.  However, I kind of wish I could make friends with some of the other moms in these classes.

But how to make friends? If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve never been great at making friends even in the best of situations. Maybe it has to do with being an only child. Or being really nerdy. Whatever. Either way, I’m just an extrovert wannabe.

This is not to say that I don’t have friends. I do. I have some wonderful friends. But it has taken years to make them.

I’ve read How to Win Friends and Influence People. It helped. I now have a general sense of how to converse at a dinner party. If you haven’t read it, the basic gist is: 1) smile 2) ask people lots of questions 3) remember their names 4) give compliments 5) never tell someone that they are wrong – even if they are.

Number 5 is kind of hard. Working on that one. All of them can be hard when you haven’t really slept much for 6 months, actually.

I have made one new friend lately. We’ve been spending a lot of time together. Some might say we’re even best friends. She’s not potty-trained yet, but she does have an amazing sense of humor. Her laugh can light up the whole room.

Me with friends — yes, I have them!