Friday, July 22, 2016

Your Brain On Cancer

When something traumatic happens in your life, the moment it occurs it's burned into your memory and in your body, never to be forgotten. It’s how people know where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger exploded, when the Twin Towers fell.

On May 15, 2015 I received a phone call that is similarly burned into my memory. The phone call was from a radiologist telling me that the breast tissue they biopsied the day before was, indeed, cancer.

Cancer. Me. Cancer.

From that moment on I was whipped into a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments and disbelief, decisions and numbness, advice and anger and crippling fear.

I remember distinctly that the medical team said that in a year, treatment would be done and I’d be embarking on a new, cancer-free life. They said that this year would fly by, but I didn’t believe them. How could a year that would be filled with 3 surgeries, 5 months of chemotherapy, 7 weeks of radiation, and countless biopsies, scans and tests, “fly by”?

What’s so troubling about this whole concept is not only that they were right - it’s that I barely remember any of it.

Of course I remember all of the details and events, I’m not saying that I have amnesia. But somehow my mind has shellacked those details with a layer of “remove” that keeps me from remembering how hard it was, how much pain I felt, how much fear and anxiety I had, and how alone I felt. Someone might think this remove is a good thing, but I’m feel robbed of the experience that has newly shaped me, and shaped me so completely. To be honest, I feel numb. Numb... all the time.

People ask me how it was to go through chemo and I say, “I tolerated it really well, luckily.” They ask about what it was like to try to save my hair and I say, “It was really hard to lose it, but I’m glad I look ok with short hair.” They ask how I feel these days and I say, "I'm getting better and better!" It’s like I’ve forgotten how devastating the whole ordeal was, to be reduced to sound bites of optimism. The day to day difficulties are just glossed over so that my experience is only as palpable as my last headache or my last heartbreak.

And I’m not meaning to do this. It’s how my brain is allowing things to be remembered in those moments.

I know why the mind does that. It’s such a miraculous thing - it shields the psyche from giving us too much to deal with. How amazing is that? The brain has a way to cloud memory so we don’t remember the depth of physical or emotional trauma. And I could go on very nicely under this guise and just rebuild my life, but I always have this nagging feeling that I’m overlooking something, and I don’t want to do that. The intuitive empath in me won’t let me ignore myself for long.

After treatment ended in April I began seeing a therapist, because I knew that finding healthy ways to manage stress would be important in maintaining my health going forward. What I learned was that there was far more to deal with than just stress management. Unfortunately, I learned that there’s a new battle on the horizon, one that rears its head only after treatment is over -- the battle for my mental well-being.

One of the things I had been beating myself about was the fact that I didn’t “take advantage” of the extra time I had to reflect and plan while I was in treatment. I had reduced my work schedule and had every intention of being proactive with my down time to really focus on my emotional needs. (As I type this, I recognize the oxymoron of that last statement -- being proactive with my downtime? Hello!!) What I found was that I was too tired, physically depressed, and emotionally numb to focus on anything other than surviving the damned treatment. And the workhorse in me has seen that as lazy and self-indulgent.

Is it turns out, there was no real way to deal with my mental health while in a physical battle for my life. We all know that chemo and radiation have devastating effects on the body, so naturally all of my effort went into into merely staying alive. My therapist invited me to see my first year post-physical treatment as the time to be in emotional/mental treatment - which means I’m right on schedule, and at least 8 more months of mental healing to deal with.

So I’m going to be spending some time reflecting on my experiences and posting them here. I’m sharing on this blog for a variety of reasons. One - I hope that other cancer patients & survivors might find some comfort and solidarity in what I'm writing. Two - I hope that I can help people understand what happens to someone who goes through a trauma like this - just because treatment is done we are not "fine" or "finished." Three - I want a place where I’m forced to be open, because it’s way too comfortable to shut everyone and everything out (especially for introverts like me.)

So... I thought I would share some stream consciousness I wrote on the anniversary of my diagnosis:


May 15, 2016.
One year ago today was a Friday.
It’s the day I found out I had breast cancer.

I lost my innocence that day.
The innocence that made me believe that if you do all the right things you’ll be safe.
Because cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Being good doesn’t get you a pass.

I became isolated that day.
Doctors don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
Their focus is on getting rid of the cancer first. All else comes second.
Friends. Family. Colleagues...don’t always know the “right” thing to say.
They just want you to be fine.
And you’re a jerk if you tell them just how un-fine you really are.
Because no one wants to know the truth.
They say they do, but then you have to take care of them, too.

I became a “warrior” that day.
And all other kinds of ridiculous nicknames.
I don’t want to be a fucking warrior for fighting a disease.
I want to be a warrior because I fight for my theater company to have a voice, I fight for actors to find empowerment, I fight to be the best friend, girlfriend, daughter, sister, aunt, boss, coach I can be.
Not for getting cancer. Fucking cancer. I didn’t choose that fight.

I became a sage that day.
Because when I was in high school I had this small inner voice that told me that I would get cancer. That statistics can be in my favor all they want to be, but someone is always on the wrong side of those numbers, and I knew that would be me.
Years later I now accept that my mind and body just know things sometimes.

I became lost that day.
The path has always been obvious, and when it hasn’t I created one for myself.
Now, I know I’m still moving but everything is murky.
Everything has weight. Everything has meaning.

As I type innocence, isolation, warrior, sage, lost - I experience these things like they happened that first time. I’m grieving. I’m aching. And a new experience starts to grow.

If I’m lost, that means there’s nothing left than to be found.
I lost “innocent” but found “sage.”
If I was called a warrior, it must mean I had something to fight for.

Damn it.

I don’t want to be a better person for having had cancer.
I don't want to be an after-school special on self-love.

But even when I want to revel in the darkness, I recognize that’s only defined by the light. And as I allow myself to grief, I start to feel healed. I start to feel lost, and then I realize that I can take ANY path I choose because I can’t see the old one anyway.

So this blog may reveal pain and anguish as I trace my steps at each milestone a year ago, but I’m starting to see that it’s the only way to find my way back to center.

Thanks for bearing with me.


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To see my description of what happened the day I was diagnosed, check out my first post, “Yes, I Have Breast Cancer.” And here is a link to all of my cancer posts.

To experience the art I’ve created through grief, come see me in the play GETTING OUT with The Seeing Place Theater - July 16-August 7, 2016.

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Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose 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 www.erincronican.com.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why I Self Produce

As a part of my theater company's 2016 Fundraising Initiative I was asked to write little blog post to help our patrons get to know our members. We were given a little challenge: To start, The Seeing Place asked each of its members 3 questions which they could answer via text or video:

1) What is your hometown?
2) What is your dream role?
3) When was the last time you contributed to a campaign and how did it make you feel?

They then asked is to craft a little blog post about what brought us to The Seeing Place and why it means so much to us. I thought you might enjoy learning a bit about my love for the company!



"WHY I SELF-PRODUCE" BY ERIN CRONICAN

When I was younger I never had any aspirations of being a director or a producer. I was an actor - there was no way I’d overwhelm my life with other things. It was, “Be an actor” or nothing at all.

The last few years in my hometown of San Diego I worked for an amazing organization called the Actors Alliance, a non-profit that helps actors have all of the resources they needed to be professional artists in San Diego. One of our projects was our actor-driven Festival of Short Plays, which would allow actors to sit into the producer’s seat and have a chance to create work for themselves. What was so amazing about co-producing this event is that each year I was able to feel the pulse of the community and curate content that a) our audiences would appreciate and b) would inspire our artists. And all of the sudden a day job which once simply supported my efforts as an actor became a training ground for what would be a life-altering jump into the abyss as a Managing Director of The Seeing Place.

Erin Cronican
(headshots with new hair coming!)
I’ll be honest - when Brandon approached me in 2009 and said, “Hey, I’m starting a theater company, and you’re going to start it with me,” I said no. I’d known Brandon for years, from back in our mutual hometown of San Diego where he worked with me in my final year producing the Festival. I assumed that all he wanted was my producing acumen rather than my skills as an actor, and I wasn’t having any of that! But he wore me down with a promise that we were going to do something different. Actors who led the company would have choices. They would have a voice, an opportunity to have a real say in the art they created. And how can you turn down a promise like that?

So many people describe productions that actors self produce as “vanity projects” and I find that term so disheartening. Where is that distinction when a writer produces their work, or when a director finds a script they love and have a vision to bring it to life? I think that what “vanity project” actually refers to is when someone creates something for their own good or use with no regard for their audience. People fear that actors only want to perform because they like to show off or want personal accolades. But thinking that way does actors a great disservice, and we at The Seeing Place are fighting to return the name of ACTOR to their rightful place as Living Historian - a position that, in the past, held great reverence. Actors are the conduit that allows an audience to see themselves and learn something about the world around them.

A thank you Erin received from Judy Shepard
of the Matthew Shepard Foundation
What is most inspiring to me about being an actor who produces is that I don’t just have a voice in the roles I play - I also have a voice in the organizations we partner with, the audiences I help to develop, and the issues that I’m burning to shed light on. When we did THE LARAMIE PROJECT (2014) I got to dream big about how I wanted to make a real impact, and we were able to partner with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Tectonic Theater Project (who wrote TLP with Moises Kaufman) and multiple other organizations who put humanity over hate. When we did A LIE OF THE MIND I was able to coordinate talkbacks on traumatic brain injuries and violence against women, and our dramaturgy sessions help educate our cast about the very real issues surrounding abuse that is passed down through families. Can you imagine how inspiring it is to be able to make a difference not only on stage in bringing a human being to life, but also off stage with our audiences and our members where the real difference is made?

So when you donate to The Seeing Place, you do more than give us money so that we can act. You are funding a company that teaches its members how to give back to society. You’re enabling our producing staff to mentor dozens of actors to be conscientious self-producers, the way I was mentored back in San Diego. And best of all, you’re a partner in creating art that makes a real difference for its community, which means you’re an artist, too. 


Learn more about Erin at www.erincronican.com

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To help create new work with Erin and The Seeing Place by contributing to our campaign, visit www.TheSeeingPlaceTheater.com


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose 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 www.erincronican.com.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

I'm A Survivor

I have been sitting here staring at the title I just wrote for this post, having the hardest time knowing where to start. I have just finished active treatment for breast cancer, and now I’m in what they call the phase of “survivorship.”


I looked up the work “Survivor” in the dictionary, and here is what it said:

• a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died. Example: ”the sole survivor of the massacre"

• the remainder of a group of people or things. Example: ”a survivor from last year's team"

• a person who copes well with difficulties in their life. Example: ”she is a born survivor"

And this is what people have been saying to me when I’ve told them that I’m done with treatment:
“You’re cancer free!”
“You’re done!”
“You’re better now!”
And that makes sense, given the definition listed above. But Survivorship means something different in the cancer world. According to the National Cancer Institute, here is the definition:
“In cancer, survivorship focuses on the health and life of a person with cancer post treatment until the end of life. It covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, beyond the diagnosis and treatment phases. Survivorship includes issues related to the ability to get health care and follow-up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also considered part of the survivorship experience.”
So when someone asks me if I’m planning a party to celebrate "the end of cancer" I almost don’t know what to do.

Because I’m not done. I will never be done with cancer. For the next 5 years I will be going through an inordinate amount of tests to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. (I wrote at length here about the prognosis for my kind of cancer recurring.) And thereafter will always been someone who almost lost her life, and that changes you. Will I be fine? Yes. Am I better? I don't know. I'm pretty sure that if given the option I would have never wanted to get cancer, no matter how much of a silver lining I fight to see.

But I do feel an immense sense of accomplishment. As of Saturday, March 19, I am completely done with active breast cancer treatment. I stare at myself in the mirror and marvel at how resilient my body has been through this whole process: 2 biopsies, 2 surgeries, 16 rounds of the most intense chemo they could throw at me, and 33 rounds of radiation. I have had more scans and needles sticks than I care to count, and my body has withstood these invasions with aplomb. I didn't know I was so strong, and I am in awe of my body and truly honor it in a way I didn't know possible.

The one thing that did not survive, so to speak, was my long blonde hair which I had worked ravenously to save. For the past 5 months I’ve been in a pretty deep depression about the loss of my hair, covering my naked head with hats and a wig. When I lost my hair I lost my sense of self. I no longer knew who I was - and hated who I saw in the mirror. I was at war with myself daily, and here was no end in sight.

But this week, to commemorate the end of treatment, I bucked up my courage and took my scrawny, newly grown locks to the hair salon, where I spent several hours creating a whole new look with my stylist. I have never in my life had short hair, and it was time to face the fact that I can't ignore it anymore. Hiding will not make the problem go away. It's time to embrace it, and find out who I am now.

And it’s as if I’ve been reborn - perhaps not the way I had envisioned, but no phoenix rises from the ashes in the same form they were before the fire. And within one day, I have fallen in love with myself once again.

I'm back. 

So, without further ado... The New Normal:

Twiggy...eat your heart out!

And yes, if you look closely enough you’ll see that I gave myself a bit of naughty color - a big stripe of purple to bring life back to my being:

I'm a little bit rock and roll...

So...What’s next for me?

Well, as the definition says above, my focus for the next 5 years is survivorship. I have to take care of this body, but I also now know how precious life is so I will do everything I can to squeeze every last of goodness out of it. I will continue to create with my amazing theater company, I will continue to love and support my friends, and I will try to leave the planet and humanity a little bit better each day. I’m commit to expressing all of myself and not holding back, letting go of the small anxieties, and learning everything I can about the world we live in. No sticking my head in the sand. No running away when things get tough. LIVING.

I look forward to keeping you on this journey with me. Please leave a comment so I know you were here!

Erin :)

PS: I have a bunch of “retrospective” posts that I will be sharing about some of my inner thoughts as I’ve gone through treatment. I’m going through my personal diaries to pull some of the better excerpts, and will share them soon.


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose 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 www.erincronican.com.
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