Thursday, November 12, 2015

Reflections On My Birthday

I normally don’t think much about my birthday. Well, that’s not true. I THINK about it, but I don’t really really do much about it. If it weren’t for Facebook, I don’t think anyone would know when my birthday was. I rarely if ever have parties, and the ones I do have are thrown together so last minute that very few friends can come. Somehow I have always viewed my birthday as a solitary thing - something to quietly ponder as the year marches feverishly toward the holidays.

This year is different, though. It’s different because for the first time my mortality is staring me in the face. Not because my years are advancing, but because chemotherapy is ravaging my body to kill cancer that’s been living unchecked in my breast for who knows how long.

We all have this survival instinct that says, “I’m going to live forever.” It helps us believe that we’ll fall on the right side of statistics and that miracles can occur. And that’s really comforting to live with.

But I don’t live with that feeling anymore. Those feelings have passed in innocence like my childhood. I meditate to reclaim that feeling, but instead my brain is forcing me to look rationally at my life, forcing me to contemplate, “You may not fall on the right side of the statistics this time. So, if this cancer means your time is up, what do you have to say about that?”

The scariest thing about my cancer is not the cancer that I have right now - the Stage IIB Grade 3 (most aggressive) Triple Negative Breast Cancer. It’s the cancer I might get later on. Even if I go into complete remission, I have a 34% chance of having a recurrence somewhere else in my body with the average relapse time of 2.6 years. This is also known as Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. There is no cure. Many of those people die, some very soon after the relapse. But recurrence rates drop dramatically after 3 years, and after 5 years people with my kind of cancer have virtually no chance of relapse.

My brain asks again, “So, if this cancer means your time is up, what do you have to say about that?”

I have been sitting here for what seems like hours trying to answer that question, but it just leaves me with more questions. Do I pay attention to the statistic that says I have a real chance of relapse that will likely kill me, or do I pay attention to the statistic that says that most women with my cancer do not relapse?

And then I feel an odd sense of calm. I have come up with an answer.

2.6 years. There’s an agreement here - this is the time both sides of the statistic say that I have. 

What I do with that information is the difference between living with cancer and dying with it.

What do I have to say about that?

I’m not done here. NOT YET. 

There are plays I want to share with the world.
There are more Christmases with my mother.
There are cities to visit that I’ve never seen: Berlin, Portland, Austin, Sydney, Rome
I want to take a long road trip with no firm destination.
There's the possibility of marriage and puppies in our future.
I want to see my theater company hit the Off-Broadway level so our artists can earn a living wage. Heck, *I* need earn a living wage as an artist.

I’m not done here. NOT YET.

There are more movies to cry to.
There are more songs I’ll sing to make YOU cry.
There are at least 120 more Saturday mornings to sleep in.
I have milestones to reach with my friends.
I need to be Candice's maid of honor.
I have resources I want to impart to anyone wanting empowerment.
I’m not waiting anymore.

I’m giving myself 6 more months of rest and sanctuary, to complete my treatments and get my body back into full health. During that time I will create my official bucket list. And when I’m at full strength I’ll tackle it. Because I have a number - 2.6 - that tells me everything I need to know about life.

So, yeah. It’s my birthday. I’m pretty sure I’ll be thinking a little differently about it from now on. It’s somehow scary and peaceful all at the same time. But I still think I want reflect alone for this one...

Erin


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Many of you have asked how you can help. I’ve created a wish list of things that would really make a difference as I go through treatment. Click here.

To read my medical updates, including how I’ve been doing with chemo treatments, click here.

I love comments almost as much as getting mail. Leave something below!


Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit http://www.erincronican.com.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

What I Think About Cancer Buzzwords

So, we’re ending the month of October - Breast Cancer Awareness Month - and I for one will be very glad to see pink relegated back to babies and Glinda in WICKED. I’ve never been someone who jumped on bandwagons just because they were popular. But there’s something about having cancer and having buzzwords and themes swarm me that puts my discomfort at a whole other level.

Almost as soon as I uttered the words, “I have breast cancer” my inbox, mailbox, and social media pages have been filled with all shades of pink and words like fight, warrior, brave, strong, battle, journey, etc. I understand why they’re popular - at a time when it’s so difficult to know what to say, sometimes buzzwords are all that come to mind. They come with love but are thrown with such abandon that their intention is often lost in a murky haze.

What’s happened is that these buzzwords have, in me, created a sense of isolation from the world, because when someone with so much love says, “You’ve got this, you’re the bravest person I know,” I can’t share how I really feel. That would be anti-social. Ungrateful. Mean. So I say, “Thank you - that means a lot! Happy face emoticon!” Because people want to know that I will be ok. So I make sure they know that I’ll be ok. But by not saying how I feel, I’m hiding a very real part of the experience of cancer:

Isolation. Fear. Fury. Frustration. Exhaustion. Loneliness. Confusion. Numbness.

The truth is, I don’t feel brave. You hear cancer patients say this all the time. Bravery is when you have a choice to go forward or back and no matter the fear you go forward anyway. There is no choice in fighting cancer. There is no going back. It’s only forward, no matter what. Beyond that, it’s obvious - you get cancer, you treat it. There’s no bravery in that. That’s survival - a basic human instinct.

I know that people view my openness to be brave. But that’s really just selfishness on my part, because sharing is my only connection to feeling human. I feel very lucky that you find value in it, but that doesn’t feel like the definition of bravery. Maybe self-benefitted altruism? :)

Alas, I’m not a warrior. I didn’t sign on to fight a war, and didn’t earn the distinction. I certainly feel a war going on inside of me, but I don’t own it. There is a crazy medicine being pumped into me every week and it’s everything I can do to just go about daily functions without falling over from “the wobbles” (thanks for the awesome description of that feeling, Laura.) If I had a spear in my hand, I would probably look pretty silly, so warrior has always felt disingenuous. (Note: I do know other breast cancer patients and survivors who thrive on the word WARRIOR, and that is fantastic. Don’t begrudge them their name - I just don’t feel like it fits me.)

Source: The Boston Globe

There are times that I marvel at everything my body is able to handle, and honor my body as being powerful and awesome. But it doesn’t feel like my body. I feel like I’ve been taken over by aliens, and I never know what the surprise will be from day to day. Will this be the day where the other 50% of my hair falls out (despite all of my best efforts to keep it in place with Cold Caps?) Will I have normal bathroom function today, or will I have to wait that out ANOTHER day? How many days of fatigue will I have this week? Am I really hungry or is that the steroids talking? Are those normal chills, or am I starting to get neuropathy (a dangerous side effect of Taxol, the treatment I’m on for 12 weeks)? Wait... is that ANOTHER cold? WILL I EVER HAVE A DAY WHEN I FEEL WELL AGAIN?

I don’t want to fight. I’m very competitive and already had enough fight in my life, thank you very much.

I don’t value this journey. Yes, I’m sure I will come out a better person on the other side (people have told me so,) but I attribute that to my ability to make awesome out of crap. It’s NOT because cancer is a valuable as a journey. Don’t believe me? Would you like to take my cancer and have the benefit of the journey? Didn’t think so.

One thing I avoid talking about is my anger. Man, that makes people so uncomfortable. So, I hide it and it eats me up inside. So I’m throwing caution to the wind, and I’ll share something that really makes me angry.

I was at an open mic and a comedian was joking about menopause and she said, “Wait - is anyone here still menstruating? Show of hands?” Normally I don’t raise my hand when listening to a comedian because I don’t want to be singled out, but in this case I realized that I COULDN’T raise my hand IN REALITY because I’m in early menopause from cancer. Nope, strike that. I'm in early menopause from chemo, not cancer. As in, I haven’t had my period in 2 months. I’m in my 30s. Something’s not right. No period = no fertility.

And guess what? My insurance would not approve the one drug that might help me preserve my fertility. There is a chance that my menopause will reverse when chemo is done (as can happen to women in their 30s) but there is a greater chance that the damage to my ovaries will be too great and the menopause will be permanent. The worst part? I didn’t even know I wanted kids until the day my doctor said I wouldn’t be able to have them. In that moment, I began to grieve for the choice that had been taken away from me by cancer - a choice I didn’t know I held so closely to my heart.

Ah, yes... see, anger is just a foil for what’s really going on at a deeper level. It’s GRIEF. I’m grieving for the life I’ve left behind. I’m grieving for my innocence. I’m grieving for a body that will never be the same (with 4 knife-slashed scars across my chest to prove it.) I’m grieving the time I’ve lost with my friends and family due to appointments and the need for rest. I’m grieving the time lost in my acting career as I battle huge self-esteem issues due to hair loss, facial redness, eyelash fallout and steroid-induced weight gain. Will I age out of my “type category” before I’ve put myself back together? Yep - add ANXIETY to that list, too.


Speaking of anxiety, did I mention that there is chance that this invasive cancer could kill me? A small chance with all of the nuking going on inside my body, but a chance none the less.

Moving on...

The very hardest thing to hear people ask is, “How are you?” I truly do not know how to answer that, and the few times I’ve been brave enough to say so in the moment, people have responded, “Answer however you want to answer - I just want to know that I’m thinking about you.” So, maybe it’s better just to let me know THAT rather than asking how I am. Because I can’t answer that in the short, snappy way that social interactions have time for. When I’m asked, “How are you?” all I hear is, “Please tell me you’re ok” (which I’m not) or “I want to know what’s been happening recently,” (which, jesus, where do I begin?) At any given moment I can be feeling all kinds of things, it’s enough to drive me mad. So I’ve created standard replies that keep me in people’s good graces but allow me to keep closed the gaping emotional wound, “I’m hanging in there.” “I’m taking it one day at a time.” “Cancer is surreal.” “Cancer is stupid.”

I know I have been changed in ways I cannot fathom, and I am so grateful to gaining experience as a human being. But late at night as I stare at my ceiling, I hear this echo in my head:

I just want my old life back.

I’m on a speeding train and I can’t get off until treatment is done. Life will be a blur until then. I learn new things about my body every day that scare me and awe me. I want to cry and I can’t, and then I cry at the silliest things and I can't stop crying. Most of the time I just want to be held and don’t want to talk. Or I want to hear about things happening in your life, even the mundane stuff, but everyone's too afraid to talk about themselves because they think my cancer trumps whatever they're dealing with. (It really doesn't. Whatever is happening for you *is* what matters to you, and that's what *I* care about.)

The last thing I want to say...It’s hard to get your advice and suggestions for how to make my life better. My friends want so badly to be a part of the solution, but that’s already being taken care of by the doctors, nutritionists and wellness practitioners that I’ve hired to take care of me. I just need my friends to be my friends, to make me smile, to remind me that I’m ok to be me, and to help me out with the small stuff.

There are two great articles I’d like to leave you with, which share much more eloquently than I how best to deal with someone who has cancer:

• The Spoon Theory (which is about lupus but applies here. Thank you, Emily, for sending this to me.)
• What To Do When Your Friend Has Breast Cancer

And I can't leave you without at least a little motivation (for me as much as anyone else):



Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, because I actually have a humor article ready to publish here in the next week or so. See? We'll be back to our regular scheduled programming soon. In the meantime, please leave a comment to let me know you were here...

Erin  :-?

(That's an emoticon for "I don't know what the hell I'm feeling!)


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Many of you have asked how you can help. I’ve created a wish list of things that would really make a difference as I go through treatment. Click here.

To read my medical updates from 2015-2016, including how I’ve been doing with chemo treatments, click here


I love comments almost as much as getting mail. Leave something below!


Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit http://www.erincronican.com.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Art of Healing

This amazing piece of artwork is by Marilyn Huerta
I’ve been away from writing for a while as I try to get used to my new normal - life with cancer. It’s something I talk about with ease when people ask questions, and yet now as I write I get a chill as I write the words: I have cancer.

The truth is: I never talk about how I FEEL about having cancer.

Does that surprise you? Most people comment about how open I've been and how much of an impact that's made. So how can I assert that you don't know how I feel?

I chalk this up to always being a person who is perfectly open with talking about what I think about how I feel.

I'll say that again. I talk about WHAT I THINK about how I feel.

It’s a trap that I’ve enjoyed living in for quite a long time. If I’m willing to talk about things openly, people will naturally assume I’m being open. But the expression of how I feel and how things occur for me is different than talking about details and facts. And so this blog - distinct from my medical blog - is part of my quest to unlock my true expression, in a way that can be cathartic for me and (hopefully) illuminating for you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how art and creative expression make a difference for those who are dealing with extreme difficulties. I’ve already written here about how I was able to use the terrifying moments of my diagnosis and subsequent testing to fuel my work in BOY GETS GIRL presented by The Seeing Place (click to read that post.) But that was pre-treatment, at a time when I was still full of energy and the “battle” was on the horizon, not yet in my daily life. Now that I’m in the middle of aggressive treatment, art is becoming a healing of a different kind.

Many people who know me have looked at me concerned when I say that this fall I’m producing two plays, one in which I’m starring and the other co-directing. Those who know me know that I have always been indefatigable, never slow down, and always have a dozen or so projects at any given time. People beg me to rest, and to take time for myself, and to listen to my body. They hope that my doing so will mean that I step aside from projects or take on less so that I can shore up my reserves to fight this cancer that is trying to overtake my body.

It was good advice. And I contemplated that. What would it be like to step aside for one program of shows? Could I just silently produce the pieces without the effort of directing or acting? It would definitely be easier physically for me to pull back. And it would wipe to worried looks off the faces of the people who care about me the most. And so, with careful consideration I made a plan with my theater company to see how I could step back without the work being impacted adversely. I thought I was being smart. I thought I was being generous.

And then I stopped and listened to my body. Like, REALLY listened. Not just to the physical core, which tells me what kinds of mountains I’ll be able to climb, but also the spiritual core which fills me with the drive and passion to continue to make a difference in the world. And that part was dying.

If I pull back from the one thing that makes me feel whole in the world - telling stories - cancer wins. If I say, “I’ll set back just as a producer on these projects so that other people have the chance to feel the things I should be feeling and learn the things I should be learning through a character that I’ve been meant to play...” - how can I look at myself in the mirror each morning? How can I brush aside everything I’ve been working up to, in the name of “being good to myself”?

It just doesn’t make sense. Cancer can’t win - I must win. Art must win. Expression must win. Chemo, surgery and radiation will heal my body, but if I lose my soul in the process - what good am I to this world, and to myself?

So I told my body - I’m open, and I’m listening. And it said:

Heal your soul through art.

I knew it wouldn't be easy. And knew I still needed to answer the nagging questions about time, energy, and money which are finite and fleeting. I laid out all of my options, and asked myself one key question: How would I like to spend my time, and what will serve me best in the most holistic sense, including finances, home/family, friends, business, art, personal growth/reflection? I found that with good time management and clarity of purpose, I can have the exact life that I want without having to give anything up - in fact, everything will occur like this is the way it was meant to be all along.

So rather than step back from things that mattered, I have gone about restructuring everything in my life around that really matters to me - sort of stepping into a new kind of reality: My New Normal.

• I reduced my career coaching hours to a focused 15 per week (down from a haphazard 30+) and brought on 2 amazing marketing & PR associates to help me take on tasks that I’ve never had time to do but are vital to growing the business. The ultimate goal? Bring on a staff of coaches who can expand the services I’ve been providing while reducing my workload. MORE TIME AND ENERGY FOR ME = CHECK

• I deepened my commitment to developing The Seeing Place’s key ensemble members to take on leadership positions, which will position our company far better than I ever could alone, and will allow me to step up my game while reducing my workload. MORE TIME AND ENERGY FOR ME = CHECK

• I’m examining my relationships and saying "no" far more often, but I’m also saying "YES!" more often as well. I’ve noticed that in my frenzy to fit everything in to my schedule I’ve been someone who says “maybe” and then can’t be counted on. Learning to say no while still being love and support for people is a real challenge, but in doing so I improve my relationships with others and reduce the amount of interpersonal stress and anxiety. MORE TIME AND ENERGY FOR ME = CHECK

• And I’m opening my life to brand new experiences that never before were possible. I explore the city far more often as I try to work exercise into a daily routine. I’m checking off massive to-do list items that have plagued me for years. I’m accepting the gifts of time, advice and love from my friends and family, which has led to things like astrology readings, last minute karaoke, looking at puppies in windows, my first ever acupuncture treatment, coloring books, and playing with bubbles.

I have no idea what it’s going to be like to do a play while receiving chemo treatment. But dammit, I’m not going to bow out before the starting whistle has even been blown.

Take that, cancer.

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To read about all things medical, including how I’ve been doing with chemo treatments, click here.

Want to help? I’ve created a wish list of things that would really make a difference as I go through treatment. Click here.

I love comments almost as much as getting mail. Leave something below!


Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit http://www.erincronican.com.


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