My Ambivalence of Normalcy | “Normal” After Breast Cancer


After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I can remember that maintaining normalcy, especially for my family, was one of my main concerns.  I didn’t want to hide the fact that I had breast cancer, and I knew that things would be different for everyone.  But, for the most part, I wanted things to feel normal for them. I wanted to help with homework, drive to gymnastics, play games, and do Girls on the Run.  But I wanted things to be normal for me, too. Not to pretend that there was no cancer, but to give me some sense of control.  I wanted to be stronger than the cancer, I wanted to be my normal self in spite of the breast cancer. That’s how this blog got its name– I was determined to keep things normal by going for a run and always putting on some lipstick, even if chemo was my next stop.  It did take a lot of energy to be nothing more than normal, but it was energy that I wanted to expend.

But now I have a love/hate relationship with the word normal.  Exactly six weeks after my mastectomy, I went out on my first run post-surgery.  That  night, I was standing in the kitchen, and I remember Clay congratulating me on my first run, and he asked, “So is everything back to normal now?” I bristled. Was I supposed to be the same as before? Was he just hoping that he was off dishwasher-unloading duty?  Of course, I know his question had more to do with the relief that I was healthy and cancer free– free of treatments and their restrictions and side effects– than the dishwasher.

But back to normal? No.  Of course, physically, I don’t have any more restrictions.  I can reach what I want, lift what I want.  I don’t take any medications. (More on that in a future post, if you’re curious.)  But seatbelts still irritate me. My hair is growing out and driving. me. crazy. I have scars and tattoos. I have worries that no elementary school mom should have.  So maybe  a new normal, then? Lots of people love that phrase. I am not one of them, for the record.  I guess technically I have a new set of things that are part of my “normal” everyday life.  But to embrace the phrase new normal seems to acknowledge the fact that there’s no going back to the old normal, there’s no going back to that girl.  The girl with long hair who blamed headaches on PMS. The girl who went for a run because she wanted to lose ten pounds and be healthier, not because she feels like she’s inviting a cancer recurrence with her couch potato ways. The girl who bemoaned having to wear her cute little balconette push-up bra.  She’s gone, and sometimes it makes me sad.

Of course, there are a lot of good things about the word normal.  In fact, when I enter the auspices of Virginia Hospital Center, I crave the word.  My MRI? The PET scan? Normal.  Blissfully normal.  All my genes? Plain old vanilla normal. At support group? It is so reassuring to hear that what I’m feeling is completely normal. Normal is good.  Normal is just, well, so normal.

And so I find myself walking a very fine line.  Between loving and hating the word normal. But I continually strive spend more time considering the good, plain old vanilla type normal than mourning the old normal that is gone.

Lessons Learned at North Parking | Breast Cancer Awareness at the Pentagon

pentagon breast cancer awareness run lipstick chemo jamie holloway
Early morning PT, that’s the Pentagon behind the group to the left.

When I got a call the last week in August from my friend, Karen, she had just started as Nurse Educator with the Fit to Win program at the Pentagon health clinic, and she had just over a month to help put together a breast cancer awareness event.  It has been a work in progress for most of the month, but I consider myself an easy going person, so I’m fine to go with the flow if the details change.  (foreshadowing alert!) The whole day was a great experience, but I’m waiting on pictures from Natalie, the day’s official photographer, so we’ll start the recaps with the early morning fitness routine, since I managed to grab a quick photo of that.

The general premise of the day had always been perfect for me.  I would join the clinic staff for their monthly RUN, head inside the Pentagon Athletic Center to shower and put on some LIPSTICK, and then give a couple of talks about breast cancer and CHEMO.  Run, lipstick, chemo.  Like the day was made for me.

After agreeing enthusiastically, I got a little nervous.  I was intimidated to run with all those military types– I run, but I’m not fast. Karen reassured me, it’s just a three mile run to the Lincoln Memorial and back, and the first half they run all together at a 12 minute pace. I can do that.  I was ready.

Imagine my surprise (shock, horror?) when the gentleman in charge of the o-dark thirty festivities, whose arms and legs resembled tree trunks, announced that we would not be running. Instead we would do something “fun.” Twenty minutes of army PT followed by fun relays. Gulp. I was a good sport, managed not to totally humiliate myself, and was, quite frankly, thankful for having had a mastectomy, which gave me an easy out from all the push ups.  Man, they do a LOT of push ups.  I decided to do sit ups instead to show that I was a “team player,” but did opt out of the bear crawl relay with a few others recovering from recent surgeries.  It was fun, and I even learned a few things:

  • They do a LOT of push ups.
  • Sit ups on an asphalt parking lot hurt.  If you position your spine along the parking space stripe, it’s not quite as uncomfortable.
  • Running short distance relays where you turn and go back (suicide style, at least that’s what we called it in middle school) works out a totally different group of muscles than “normal” running or body pump classes.
  • Doing upwards of 200 sit ups on an asphalt parking lot (even on the stripes) will leave you with bruises along your spine. You may wonder if you should blog this, not wanting any of the push uppers to make fun of you later. Secretly, though, you may consider your bruised spine a badge of honor.
  • Did I mention they do a LOT of push ups?
  • Being a VIP has its privileges– when they picked teams for the relays, I got picked first!
  • Most sets consist of ten of each exercise, and as they count off, after nine comes not ten, but one-zero.
  • Sometimes they do more than “one-zero,” in which case everyone (except the random civilian) knows to stop because of the tone of Mr. Tree Trunk’s voice. Said random civilian gets an extra workout by doing two extra jumping jacks before stopping like everyone else.

Intimidating as it seemed, I know that they were taking it easy on me. (I was a lot more sore from the body pump class full of ladies that I took earlier in the week!)  But they didn’t act like they were taking it easy on me, they let me feel like I was totally hanging with them, and they had great team spirit– lots of cheering on those relays for everyone. They made me feel completely welcome and it was a pleasure spending the day with them. And stay tuned, there are more stories to tell!

Early Morning Reflections


You know when you’re at a shopping mall and you’re looking for the directory and all you can find is those signs with the ever-changing ads? I guess after the kids thought Daddy worked at a mall the first time we visited him there, it shouldn’t surprise me that the Pentagon has those same signs.  But this week, my face will float by that screen for ten seconds at a time!  So cool.

Yesterday I got to meet a lot of people at the clinic, and had a nice time speaking to the nurses after a yummy lunch.  I even got to chat with one woman nearing the end of her reconstruction process, and as always, it was like we were old friends, bonding over our common experiences.

As I sit waiting to form up for this morning’s run, I am in awe of the fact that I get to do this! I’m sure some people are used to this type of thing, but the idea of being a “VIP” with my face plastering the walls of such a high profile building kind of makes me giggle. I definitely feel like this is another instance of God getting everything ready before I knew what was even going on.

But that’s probably enough reflection for now. I’m starting to see people show up, I should probably stretch so I don’t injure myself somewhere between the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial. At least running with the Pentagon clinic staff, I know I’ll be in good hands even if I do!

Eighteen Months Post-Chemo | The Pixie Grow Out Saga Continues

post haircut august

Ah, what a difference a little hair and make up make!  Thought I’d give another update in the great pixie grow out saga. Not because I need to see more of my face on the screen, but because I keep looking for pictures of other people’s!  It’s hard to get an idea of what to expect when you’re waiting for hair to grow back from nothing.  So for those keeping track, my last chemo was February 1, 2013.  That makes this just over 18 months of growth, though I have been getting regular haircuts to keep it under control, the most recent was last week.  On the left, you can see how long those front pieces are getting.  I think they should tuck behind my ears by Christmas.  But on the right, you can see that I’m a hot mess when I go running now– my sweaty band keeps my hair out of my face, but now it’s getting too long to do the cute little thing where it all stands up behind the headband.  Clay just got his hair cut this week, and my hair is now officially longer than his.  Somehow, I think he’s a little happier about that than I am! But I’ve promised to keep at it, and Dragan says I should “play around with it,” so stay tuned for more ridiculous hairstyles!

Pre-Op Checklist and a Physician Mandated Trip to Nordstrom

pre op tubesThis week I needed to head back to the hospital for another round of pre-op questions and tests.  I decided to combine the stop at the pharmacy (to drop off the heavy antibiotics and narcotics scripts for post-surgery) and the trip to the hospital with my morning run.  The whole trip would only be 3-4 miles, but I failed to realize that the first mile and a half was almost completely uphill.  I think I’ve been spending too much time on the nice flat parts of the trail– I’ve forgotten what a workout those hills can be!

Between the hills and the fact that it is June, I was pretty sweaty by the time I got to the hospital.  Everyone kept offering the empty chair next to them, but I was too sweaty to sit in a chair! So I hung out with my Spotify tunes and water bottle on the floor. The woman who pre-registered me for surgery has pre-registered me at least once or twice before. It’s always a little strange when someone at such a huge place recognizes me. And the woman doing the blood draw was also a familiar face.  Next time (though let’s hope there’s not a next time!) I’m going to have to remember to ask her not to use the tape that they put on after the blood draw, a band aid would be fine.  It left a much bigger mark than the needle!

I also had the requisite 30 minute nurse phone interview where I had to recount my entire medical history. I can’t imagine what that phone call must be like for someone who’s older and has lots of meds and decades of surgeries to recall.  Mostly, after I went through my surgeries list, I just said “no” a lot. I’m apparently as healthy as a horse. Except for that pesky cancer.

So surgery’s coming up next week.  I’m hopeful for an easy recovery.  I’m not supposed to run for six weeks, but I did get my surgeon to concede that I could ride a bike, so I’ll have to do that.  I don’t have to wear a compression bra, but I wasn’t in love with the compression gear he suggested if he does lipo on my tummy. This would be a good time to point out that it never hurts to ask if you have a question. While the high waist girdle with suspenders (so wretched for July!) was the best option from the company whose brochures they have in the office, a quick chat with Cami let me know that a pair of high waisted spanx from Nordstrom would provide just as much compression without the waistband issue that they’d had with the non-suspsender girdle.  And since the Spanx don’t have zippers down the side, they can go in my regular Spanx rotation. Win-win.  One more trip to Nordstrom, a few last runs, and I’ll be ready to head back to the familiar confines of outpatient surgery.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon | I Am Stronger Than My Body


Friday I headed into Georgetown with my friend, Sarah, to pick up my packet for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon. Nike knows how to throw a race– and a party– so after standing in line for maybe three minutes, we still had plenty of time on the meter to wander around. Perfect for a few photo ops. They even had a huge wall and theme colored sharpies so that everyone could leave a message– why they run, encouragement for themselves and others… I decided to go simply. Suck it, cancer. I will do this.

I have to admit that cancer didn’t really take all that much from me. I made it through the treatments pretty well.  I didn’t miss any major life events.  Maybe a couple of field trips, but I can handle missing a trip downtown with 25 kindergartners.  But I did miss this race. I had been looking forward to it, and there was just no way that I could run it last year. But this year, I was determined. Cancer had taken this away, and I was taking it back. Suck it, cancer.we run dc 3

They were so efficient putting together my bag at packet pick-up, I didn’t notice until I got home that I’d gotten assigned to the wrong start corral.  I don’t quite run less than an eight minute mile, at least not for longer than a block or so. I guess Nike was a little more optimistic about my performance than I…

we run dc 4

It was a beautiful morning for a run. Crisp, cool, and sunny. And the course was so lovely. I’ve run parts of it before, and I’ve walked or driven most of the rest of it. But running through, with so many clapping and yelling words of encouragement, trees in bloom, was special. After mile 5, I still felt great and felt pretty confident that I would make it. Through East Potomac Park I started getting stiff and stopped to stretch a few times. After the third time or so, it became one of those situations where you start talking to yourself.  (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.) “You’re stronger than your legs,” I told myself as I stretched against a tree. And then it came to me. “You’re stronger than your body.” (Rats, that could have been my #5words2cancer!) I’m stronger than my legs. I’m stronger than cancer.

we run dc 1a

As I came out of the Ninth Street Tunnel and with less than a mile to go, I knew I had made it. A few times before and during the race, I was fighting back tears– not sad tears, not really happy tears, just overwhelmed. This was one of those times.  Yet the sun, the spectators, and loud music quickly overcame my tears and I finished strong. “On Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons will forever hold a special place in my heart. Perfect timing. At the top of that hill, the finish line in sight, I was on top of the world. My only goal had been to run the whole way, and after my knee started bothering me a month ago, my goal had become to merely finish. And yet, I made it. I met my original goal. I ran. I finished. I was stronger than my body.

finisher 1a

finisher 2a

Not only do they know how to organize a race at Nike, they know that most finisher’s medals end up in a drawer or hanging in a closet. But when it comes in a blue box from Tiffany? Oh, yes, then it gets worn.

finisher pendant a

I wanted that necklace. Yet I wanted to earn it, I wanted to be proud of it if I were going to wear it.  After today’s race, I will wear it, and I will be proud of how I earned it. I not only finished, but I finished well. I finished strong. I am stronger than my body.

The Miles I’ve Traveled

Last year at spring break, the kids headed home with my parents and I stayed at home, thoroughly drugged up, recovering from my mastectomy. This year I packed up the kiddos and we headed that way together. So instead of being stuck in my house, sleeping and watching bad tv, I was running around the St. Louis area and literally, well, running.

scctd run

I tried out the “new” trails around my home town.  Last year, I was stuck on the couch, and this year, I ran the entire trail that runs along the light rail tracks! At almost eight miles, I’m hoping that will be enough to prepare me for this week’s half marathon. (A pesky knee problem has kept my mileage down, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to power through.)photo 2 - Copy

I was a little bummed to be missing out on all the flowering trees along the trails at home.  Somehow, the view of cornfields, bus lots (yes, there were two!), and the train tracks just weren’t the same.  It was cool to run along the trail, trying to pick out exactly where I was.  I even ran past a softball field where I spent a night each week one summer, with my cousins while the guys played ball.  Fun memories really made the miles 3 - Copy

(I wasn’t kidding about the cornfields.  I really had to watch my step to make sure that I didn’t step on a corn cob and twist my ankle!)spring run

Luckily, when I got home, the trees were still in bloom! Some have started to leaf, but there were plenty of beauties like this one from yesterday’s run. From the corn fields of Illinois to the flowering trees of Virginia, I’ve covered a lot of miles in the car and by foot this week. But more than that, I’ve been thinking about how far I’ve come in the past year– from the operating table to a half marathon. That’s a lot of miles to cover in a year.

What to Wear to an MRI

What to Wear | MRI

Just a few days after that dreaded call from my surgeon telling me that the cyst aspirate which was supposed to be nothing was, in fact, cancer, I went to the hospital for my very first MRI. Besides the whole cancer thing, I’m very healthy, and I’ve never had a broken bone, so I’d never even contemplated the idea of having and MRI.  I talked to the people from nuclear medicine and was sure to follow their instructions and get there plenty early, doctor’s order in hand.  My surgeon asked if I wanted her to write a script for Xanax, but since I’d never had a problem with claustrophobia, I assured her I’d be fine.

I showed up wearing my favorite white jeans and a pair of high heeled gladiator sandals.  Sally and I were going out to lunch after that, and I wanted to feel good about how I looked.  (My hair looked great, too.  I can remember so many people telling me how beautiful my hair looked. I know they were being nice.  But salt in the wound, ok, people?)

Anyway, I should have thought it through a little better.  An MRI is basically a giant magnet that they stick you into, so of course, you can’t wear jeans with all the metal rivets and zipper inside.  I put on a hospital gown and walked barefoot to the exam room.  It gets pretty cold in the exam room, so they wrapped me up like a burrito in warm flannel sheets. My husband (and probably my college roommates!) will tell you that I like it to be cold when I sleep, I’m a shorts and a tee year round kind of girl. The idea of flannel sheets that have been warmed and then tucked in all around me just makes me shudder. Ick. I don’t know why I didn’t say something from the start.  For a breast MRI, you lay on your stomach with your arms Superman style ahead of you, so the kind nurse wrapped them up, too. And it’s super loud, so they stick in ear plugs.  Then they back you into the tiny tube.  At which point I had my first major freak out.  I’m pretty sure I was hyperventilating, and this usually unflappable gal had to make the technician extract her from the tube post haste. After a few tears and many apologies, I finally convinced them that I could not go back in the tube all wrapped up like that.  So we took off nearly all the blankets (maybe every last one), I took a deep breath, said a quick but fervent prayer, and back in I went.  I did relatively well, though by the end of the nearly 40 minute exam, I started to get pretty cold, and was scared to death that my shivering was going to mess up the part when they add contrast, which is “the most critical part” for which you must lay absolutely still.  The thought of doing it all again the next day was enough to keep the shivering pretty much at bay, and I managed to get through it.

The next time I went in for an MRI, I was much more prepared.  See, if you wear stretchy pants with no metal parts and socks, you get to leave them on! If I had to go back tomorrow, (which I don’t, for the record) I’d be wearing my fave yoga pants*, a shirt that reminds me I’m strong, and some happy socks.  (I don’t own these socks, but if I have to go back in that tube, I think I deserve to be wearing a pair of socks whose brand is Happy Socks.) Dressed all casual and comfy like that, Dior Addict Lip Glow is the way to go– more of a lip balm that looks like my natural lip color, only better.

Oh, and I forgot to include one thing in the picture.  The Xanax.  If a doctor ever offers you Xanax, you go ahead and take it.  My second MRI was so much better, and I’m sure the pants and the socks helped.  But also, the Xanax.

*These pants are on sale right now, and I’m fighting the urge to stock up.  Seriously, they’re worth every penny.

New Tunes | Runnin’ Like a Mother With Spotify

mother runners
Sally and me with Sarah and Dimity, authors of Run Like a Mother, May 2012

I have to admit that I’ve heard of Spotify, but hadn’t gotten around to finding out anything about it.  I’ve had Pandora for ages, and have been happy enough with it to bother with anything new. Big. Mistake.

I adore the ladies at Run Like A Mother. (If you’re a mother runner, or have even considered taking up running, you must read their book. It will get you out the door, I promise!) Sarah works tirelessly to create special running playlists, and I’ve taken lots of her suggestions to add to my little iPod shuffle. Last week, their blog featured the 50 Best Running Songs, and provided a link to the playlist on Spotify. I headed there right away and got my own account immediately. I tried it out on my run today, and was delighted.  I could head straight to the mother runners’ playlist and shuffle through their picks.  It is definitely a diverse playlist, but it was so much fun!  Those six miles literally flew by as I anticipated the next song. A few songs were brand new to me, one started off so depressing, but seriously, hang with it.  I was literally laughing out loud as I ran down the trail.  I’m not super speedy, so six miles takes a while, and I didn’t hear one single ad, even on the free version. (I’m looking at you, Pandora.) It didn’t drain my phone, but I’m guessing you’d have to watch out for data usage if you don’t have an unlimited plan. But since I do, I’m afraid my little shuffle might not get much action anymore. I think I’ll tuck my phone into my SPIbelt (also a must have in my book– it doesn’t bounce around at all!) and head out with Spotify.

Lessons Learned | Running Through Chemo and Beyond

love where i live
Such a lovely view from last week’s impromptu run with a friend.

To be clear, I was never a runner. At least not until a few years ago.  Diagnosed at 3 years old with exercise-induced asthma, my allergist told me that if something I was doing made it hard for me to breathe, I should stop. Empowered with his stern instruction (and his handy note!) I always got out of the one mile Presidential Physical Fitness run and anything else that required me to traverse the high school track.

The decision to become a runner was more about convenience. It was a way for me to exercise that took the least amount of time away from my family. I could sneak out for a quick run and be back before Clay was out of the shower during the week, or before anyone was even awake on the weekends.  Being a not seasoned (read: slow) runner and needing to get out and back quickly, I was always a solo runner.  Just me and my iPod.

While I have a friend who swears she couldn’t possibly run without her running buddies, I never thought I’d be a social runner. But last year as Sally was training for a half marathon (the one I was supposed to run with her), she would faithfully ask me to run with her at least once a week.  We enjoyed the time together, lots of good chatting was done as we covered the miles around Old Town.  I’m sure she enjoyed the company. But there was the unspoken– we both knew that while I was on chemo, I needed the run. My body needed to stay active.  My solo runs had dwindled to almost non-existent, and I needed those weekly invitations to get me out the door. Lately, finding a day when both she and I are free, have healthy kids, and aren’t snowed in has been tough. I’ve started running with a neighborhood friend, too, which is great as we can meet up while the kids are still (supposedly) sleeping. But I was a little worried this weekend when I headed out for my first significant solo run in a while, resurrecting my favorite Sunday run.  I struggled.  To put it mildly.  I stopped every mile to stretch my very tight legs.  I finished, but I felt defeated physically and emotionally.  I wrote my new running pal, lamenting my struggles.   “I thought I’d be faster without the chatting.  I guess chatting is good for the soul.  And the legs.”

Today’s schedule had a longer solo run waiting for me. If I could have come up with an excuse, I would have embraced it for all I was worth.  I had to force myself out the door.  And would you believe it?  That first mile flew by. I wasn’t tight, I wasn’t slow (for me), and I wasn’t dying to stop and walk home.  It was the longest run I’d been on in ages, and it was so fun to be back on the trails, reminiscing about when I used to run that loop all the time. Friends I’d run into at certain points. I finished strong, relieved that I could run strong on my own. But all those chemo runs with Sally encouraged me to say yes to the intimidating invitation to run with another friend. And the miles spent chatting have taught me something important.  I may or may not be faster when I run with a friend.  But friends are good for the soul.  And the legs.