A former student asked if he could use me as the subject for a mini-documentary for his film class. He managed to condense the past five years of my life into a video that’s under five minutes. I watched the final product with tears in my eyes, reflecting on all that’s transpired.
I’m thankful for being just where I’m meant to be. And, thank you to Max for this video!
When I found out that I needed to have a cyst removed from my right breast, I had an idea. Since I still have yet to finish my breast reconstruction, I wondered if I could get some or all of the next reconstructive surgery completed at the same time. One operation was better than two, right?
Despite my breast intentions, my doctor informed me that it wouldn’t be realistic to add any reconstruction onto the procedure. She offered to construct nipples for me, but said that we’d have to remove and redo them when I go for reconstruction. In addition, the best quality nipples involve a skin graft. My doctor didn’t think that I could start teaching six days after surgery, if we added nipples into the mix.
I was disappointed for a minute, but then realized that my doctor knows best. I wanted to feel as good as I could for the start of the semester. I couldn’t avoid another surgery after this one since there was more reconstruction to complete. And, if I just got the mass removed, my incision would be small and only on one side. (That was especially important since I wasn’t sure how well Roya would respond to me not being able to lift her for two weeks.) I decided to just focus on the procedure on the books for January 6th.
On the day of the surgery, I functioned like a well-oiled machine. This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, after all. I drove myself to the hospital. I answered the nurses and doctors’ questions like I was in the speed round of a game show. I only shed a few tears and cursed twice when the three best people in the ER couldn’t find a good vein to start my IV. I kept reminding myself that this would be over soon.
When I saw my surgeon before the procedure, I asked her, “So, everyone thinks this is benign, but we’re just doing this to be cautious, given my history, right?” My doctor nodded. Then, I commented, “This is our 7th surgery together. I remember several times after you’d remove a mass, you would see me in recovery and say how confident you felt that everything was benign…that we’re just waiting for confirmation from pathology. That’s what I want to hear so I can exhale!” She agreed that’s what she wanted, too.
Ninety minutes later, I woke up in recovery. I felt sore, but not that bad. Shortly thereafter, my breast surgeon came to see me.
“Surgery went well. We should have results on Friday,” she said without much expression on her face.
“That’s not what I wanted to hear,” I replied.
“I’m not sure,” the doctor admitted. “I think it’s benign…I think it’s scar tissue…But, it was hard so I don’t know.”
We talked for a few more minutes before she went on to her next surgery. And, that’s when I finally cried…hard. I thought about Roya. I thought about my job. I thought about the fact that I didn’t want to be “It” again. I knew I would find the strength to go through treatment again, if I had to, but I didn’t want to be facing this possibility.
I allowed myself a few minutes to feel what I was experiencing, and then I dried my tears. I thought of those whose struggles were far greater than mine for some perspective. My mass was small, and as of now, its pathology was unknown. I didn’t have the time or the energy to spend the next three days sobbing. (It helped that the night before surgery I got assigned a new class to teach. I had six days to develop a syllabus from scratch.)
Two days later on Thursday, I was on the phone with the cable company, when my call waiting flashed. Surprisingly, it was my breast surgeon. I hung up on the cable company’s representative (sorry!) and took the call.
“It’s benign!” my surgeon exclaimed, as I started to cry happy tears. I could exhale. Cancer didn’t win this round.
So, what’s next? I’m doing a little more each week, and I should be fully recouped by early February. I’ll see my breast surgeon in six months for a follow up, and my reconstructive surgeon sometime in the next year or two for surgery. And, I continue to send thoughts and prayers to the many loved ones who are dealing with this insidious disease.
For those who sent me well wishes and prayers, thank you. xoxo
In 6th grade, my English teacher tasked the students in my class with writing their own autobiographies. I couldn’t think of a title for mine and asked my mom for help. She didn’t need more than a second to respond:
Doing It Stef’s Way.
Yes, I marched to the beat of my own drum even as a child. When I started this blog six years ago with a post about whether or not I could date a much younger man, I didn’t know where this online path would lead.
I rarely blog anymore, and yet, I don’t see shutting this site down anytime soon. These are my words…my journey…my successes…and my mistakes. I’m proud of the good and the bad experiences in my life since they led me to where I am today.
A recent comment from a reader noted how much my life and blog have changed since my earlier posts. Yes, it’s true that I no longer write about my sex life and the guys who wronged me. But, if I had never dated the guys I did, I would have never met The Man and Roya wouldn’t be here. And, if I had never had such an eventful dating life, my professional path might have been very different, too.
When I started blogging, I wrote only for me. One year later, I had received enough sexual health and relationship questions from readers that I decided to join the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists as a supporting member. I began to blend more advice posts with my own dating tales and write about sexual health for two websites.
Several students at American University were regularly reading my blog, and I was invited to speak at the Social Learning Summit in 2011. That led to my idea to teach a class on Sexuality and Social Media on that campus. In 2014, after three years as an adjunct professor, American University offered me a full-time contract as an instructor.
In many ways, my life is so different than it was six years ago. 3am texts from whomever I was seeing at the time have been replaced by 3am feedings. My club attire and fancy dresses are in a closet, collecting dust. Date nights now happen at cocktail parties organized by the parents in Roya’s playgroup.
Even though my daily routine has changed profoundly, I’m still the same. I continue to march to the beat of my own drum. My blog tagline is “Educate, Advocate, Titillate.” As a professor, I focus on the first two words in that phrase. I still talk a lot about feminism, branding, sexuality, relationships, health, and double standards in the work force. My discussions just occur in the classroom, rather than on this site.
Back when I blogged regularly, I didn’t write about my dating life in real time. I enjoyed crafting a story with the benefit of hindsight and doing things differently. As a teacher, I’m thankfully allowed the creativity to develop classes that find academic merit in popular culture. In three years, I’ve created the curriculum for seven courses from scratch. I proud of what I’ve accomplished and know how fortunate I am to love my job!
Shortly after I began blogging, I shared with my readers that I wanted to adopt a little girl. A few comments were highly critical of of that decision, stating that I wasn’t capable of being a mom and that I wouldn’t be able to prioritize motherhood in the midst of such an active social life. I didn’t know that my journey would lead me to have a biological daughter, rather than adopt. But, I knew then that I was ready to be a mom and how much my life would change. I was fully prepared to hang up my stilettos, and I have. I don’t have much of a social life or time to write for pleasure anymore, but that’s not atypical for moms of young toddlers.
Even as a mom, though, I’m still the same me. Roya is the most important and amazing thing in my life, but I know that she’s not perfect. I set boundaries, and I say, “No!” when I need to. I don’t coddle her when she isn’t hurt or sick. I don’t throw fancy parties for her or care if another child does something earlier or better than she does. And, I don’t feel guilty when I say that motherhood is both the best job and the most exhausting job there is.
When I started this blog six years ago, I didn’t know where the journey would lead me. I sit here today in front of my laptop with happy tears in my eyes. Because of my blog, I’m blessed to be where I am today — at American and with Roya. For those who have supported me along the way, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It warms my heart to know that the doors to my home in the blogosphere are always open. xoxo
True or False: If a woman has a double mastectomy, she can never get breast cancer.
Despite what is often touted by celebrities in the media, undergoing a double mastectomy does not mean that a woman will not get breast cancer.
Think about it from a scientific perspective. Is there such a thing as zero risk, when dealing with the human body? Is anything a 100% guarantee?
Having a double mastectomy reduces the risk of recurrence for those who are in remission. If a woman elects to have the surgery preventively, she dramatically decreases her chances of developing breast cancer.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my right breast, but not my left. Following treatment and a double mastectomy, my doctor estimated that I have a 12% chance of a recurrence in my right breast and a 5% chance of developing cancer in my left breast. A double mastectomy was the right choice for me, but nothing is foolproof.
Following a double mastectomy, my doctors informed me that I don’t need to get anymore mammograms. (Mammograms are a scan of breast tissue, and the double mastectomy removed my breast tissue, rendering the test unnecessary.) Instead, I get annual breast MRIs.
I scheduled my 2014 MRI for November. Much like last year, I noticed that I felt edgy – or some scanxiety — for a few days prior to the test. I just wanted it over with and to receive the “All Clear” call from my doctor.
Following my MRI, I headed to the Sibley cafeteria. I ran into three women who work in the Center for Breast Health and ended up talking with them during their lunch break. As we discussed my health journey, one of them commented, “We’ve watched you grow up!” And, they have. I first saw the head of the breast center in 2000. To say that a lot has changed since then would be an understatement!
The day after my MRI, I received a call from my doctor. The scan showed a tiny 8mm area of concern in my right breast. The right breast was the side in which I had cancer. The mass was also located in the chest wall. (A breast cancer recurrence can occur in either the chest wall or where there’s any residual breast tissue.) A biopsy was scheduled for the following week.
Before the biopsy, the doctor tried to locate the mass with an ultrasound. It took her quite a while to do that because the area of concern is that small. Once she located it, she took samples.
In the very good news column, the biopsy results came back benign.
In the not as good news column, that’s not the end of the story.
Since the mass is so tiny, the doctor recommended that I obtain another MRI. She wanted to confirm that the area of concern that lit up on the previous MRI was no longer evident.
In the somewhat good news column, the small area of concern on the first MRI was even smaller on the second MRI. But, from a clinical perspective, the second MRI was inconclusive. The thought is that the benign area that was biopsied was part of the area of concern. (That would explain why the area reduced in size between the two MRIs, but wasn’t eliminated.)
My team of doctors all believes that the mass is benign. When I asked just how confident they felt that this was benign, one doctor replied, “85-90%.” But, they want to be 100% sure. The only way to do that is to have the area of concern surgically removed.
Surgery is on the books for January 6th.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been a patient of Sibley’s Center for Breast Health for years now. I trust my medical team implicitly. When my doctors have been concerned that an area was malignant, they’ve told me. When they felt as though the odds were 50/50, they shared that with me. I know that this situation is no different. Although my Best of the Breast team of doctors doesn’t think this area is cancerous, they are approaching my case conservatively. (And, with my health history, that’s the right move.)
I’ve worked hard over the years to not give too much emotional energy to “What ifs?” This has been no exception. I shed a fair amount of tears for the first 24 hours after hearing the news, and then I let it go. There are so many people who are dealing with major known health issues and limitations. This is minor outpatient surgery for a diagnostic purpose. I’ve had several masses removed before. I typically leave the hospital feeling uncomfortable, but not in pain. If my biggest concern is trying to figure out how to deal with not being able to lift Roya for two weeks, I consider myself very lucky.
I’ll keep you abreast as always. xoxo
As a PS, I had to look up how big 8mm was. It’s interesting from a surgical perspective that 8mm is small. From a jeweler’s perspective, though, 8mm isn’t that small!
Since I’ve had Roya, moms or moms-to-be often ask me the following question:
Isn’t it amazing?
I always respond in the same way:
She’s amazing. It – motherhood – is exhausting.
Motherhood is the toughest job there is. It is 24/7. There are no holidays, vacation days, sick days or snow days.
I teach about feminism in several of my classes, and yet, I find it difficult to inspire when it comes to gender roles within a heterosexual family unit. We continue to live in a culture that assumes that the mom will handle an overwhelming majority of all matters related to children.
When The Man asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I responded:
I want to be the dad for a day.
What did I mean by that?
I don’t want to handle night care for a toddler who is going through yet another sleep regression.
I don’t want to purchase any milk or diapers.
I don’t want to coordinate Roya’s schedule or childcare.
I don’t want to conduct research online about preschool, vaccines or anything developmentally appropriate.
I don’t want to have my ability to work or shower contingent on childcare.
I want to go to the bathroom without Roya attached to my leg the whole time.
I don’t want to have the pediatrician’s number memorized.
I don’t want to be the disciplinarian and enforcer of rules and schedules.
I want to have someone thank me for spending one-on-one time with Roya.
I want to live in a society that values a mom’s work outside of the home as much as a man’s work outside of the home. (This infuriates me even more so when the woman in a given couple earns more than the man. And, if I can add a dream to this thought, I’d love to live in a country where women’s work inside the home is valued similarly to men’s work outside of the home!)
I wish that mothers felt able to openly vent about the difficulties of motherhood without feeling as though they’re bad mothers, guilty or ungrateful. (I’m the first to acknowledge how blessed I am to have Roya. I’m thankful for our health and having The Man in our lives. I just don’t feel as though complaining about how exhausted or overworked I am is mutually exclusive from any of that!)
So, I never got my birthday wish. That wasn’t in the cards for me. I’m the mom. This is my journey.
I had a vision that Summer 2014 would be the Summer of Stef! After 11 months of being up two or three times a night every night with Roya, she was finally sleeping at least a nine-hour stretch. For the first time since I began teaching, I didn’t have any summer classes. And, most importantly, our nanny had agreed to work for us full-time until Labor Day.
I relished the thought that I could catch up on some sleep, get back into meditation and the gym, read books for pleasure, and begin developing my curriculum for the fall.
Alas, my plans for some much-needed rest and relaxation did not come to pass. A few days after I finished spring semester grading, Roya developed a yeast diaper rash. (For those of you who are parents and caregivers, a yeast rash, as opposed to a traditional diaper rash, requires antibiotics.)
Unfortunately, Roya’s rash was resistant to the antibiotics that the doctor prescribed. She was in so much pain that she would bite her own arm while I was changing her. After several days, we thankfully found a prescription that worked.
In order to keep the rash from spreading more, I needed to change Roya the moment her diaper got wet. Neither of us slept much those first two weeks. Once the rash began to go away, her sleep schedule was off. We were up two-three times a night every night again through mid-August.
My Summer of Stef plans officially went awry when the Childcare Gods stopped smiling on me. In late May, our nanny learned that she needed knee surgery and would be out of commission for the rest of the summer.
I had assumed that Roya would start day care in September and reached out to the center to move up her enrollment date. Luckily, the center had a space for her in July! (For those of you in the DC area, I highly recommend getting on center waitlists when you’re in your second trimester to maximize childcare options!)
Our luck changed, though, when I visited that center…and another…and saw both on bad days. How bad was bad? Well, one of the two women who would be Roya’s teachers walked out on the job while we were there! I felt cautiously optimistic about a third center, until I learned that Roya couldn’t start in their young toddler room because she wasn’t yet walking well or eating a lot of solids.
I shifted gears and began to search for new nannies. During that time, I was Roya’s sole caregiver. (For those of you who are stay-at-home moms, I give you so much credit!) After four weeks, I found a combination that could work for the summer and fall semester. After acclimating the new nannies to Roya’s schedule, I found myself with 10 days to fill as I liked!
Discomfort soon replaced glee, though, when I contracted hand, foot and mouth disease. (HFM is also known as the day care virus. It’s not the same as foot and mouth, the disease that cows and sheep get.) Ironically and thankfully, Roya never got hand, foot and mouth. But, I didn’t feel 100% for almost two weeks.
My summer ended with a text from the new 27-year-old nanny. She had been working the most hours for us and abruptly decided not to return to DC. (Note to anyone over the age of 16: Do not text your resignation. Ever.) I was due to teach in a week and needed to look for childcare…yet again.
I can chuckle now, when I think about my hope to have a Summer of Me. I’m the mom. It’s rarely about me anymore. It’s Roya’s World, and I’m just living in it.
What’s my current childcare arrangement, and how did I go about finding it? Were there any positive things that happened to me this summer? (Spoiler Alert: Yes!) And, most importantly, how is Roya, and what has she been up to? I promise to get to all that and more in upcoming posts.
I tasked my students in my Body in American Culture course with examining their thoughts about the body, beauty ideals and body image. The basic guidelines for this Body Genogram are as follows:
Connect your early life experiences with your current understanding of your body and beauty in general. How do they or do they not impact you today? Throughout the paper, ask yourself, “How did my culture, religion, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, friends and family affect my own views? How do these factors impact my current attitudes about my body and beauty ideals? What role, if any, did television, magazines, advertisements and social media play in influencing my views?” Your genogram will be graded on a pass/fail basis.
It’s ironic that I’m reading my students’ genograms today of all days. On September 21, 2010, I walked into my oncologist’s office. I was scheduled to begin treatment for breast cancer with a “lighter” form of chemotherapy and only had a 15% of losing my hair.
Once inside my doctor’s office, though, I learned that was no longer the plan. I needed a stronger chemotherapy cocktail because I had an aggressive strain of HER2 positive breast cancer. My hair would likely be all gone by mid-October.
I knew that losing my hair would change me, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much. I also had no way of knowing then how poorly my body would react to chemotherapy. Steroids caused me to gain 23 pounds and develop insomnia and an eye twitch. I forgot conversations and plans. My migraines increased to three times a week. And, after hemorrhaging following my second round of chemo, I was thrown into menopause.
Four years later, my hair has grown back, and although my weight isn’t what I would like, it’s in a healthy range. I’m also proud of all that my body has done from the minute (being able to walk three miles a day) to the miraculous (getting pregnant and giving birth to Roya despite being post-menopausal).
Nonetheless, I’m not the same woman that I was four years ago. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time in my life when my body looked its best. My metabolism was stable, and the age of 37, I was able to eat what I wanted, rarely exercise beyond walking and physical therapy, and not worry about the scale moving. (After suffering from an eating disorder in my late teens-early 20s, I was in a much-improved place emotionally and physically.) I looked in the mirror and felt attractive. My priorities at the time were my blog, increasing my experience as a sex educator, charity and social events, and boys. I also was considering taking a local modeling agent up on her offer to book me and had met with an adoption agency to begin the lengthy process to adopt a little girl.
Shoot with Patrick Onofre February 2010
I had waited to submit my adoption application and to schedule the meeting with the agent until after I had my mammogram. The mammogram led to biopsies which in turn led to a diagnosis. My plans to adopt and my chance to do some local modeling were put on hold. Four years later, I doubt that I’ll adopt now and I objectively wouldn’t have a shot at modeling. I look at the photograph above, and I’m no longer that girl anymore.
Most days, I relish the roles I now play and the directions that my life took. I love being a professor, an advocate, and a partner. And, I don’t doubt for a second that God had a plan for me to be Roya’s mom. Cancer forced me to reprioritize my life, my views on women’s bodies in general and my body in particular, and my relationships. That was all meant to happen.
However, there are times like today when I can’t help but wonder, “What if?” Where would my life have taken me if I hadn’t gotten cancer? How would I feel about my body, if I had never gone through chemotherapy and a double mastectomy? What would it be like to watch a movie or read a magazine and not be so uncomfortable with how women are portrayed, and their bodies sexualized and commodified? Will there be a September 21st in the future when I don’t question these things?
I’m left with more questions than answers, but that’s my reality. I’m beyond thankful to be cancer free, but my life isn’t free of cancer.
What factor or experience has played an influential role in your views about your body and beauty ideals?
At Gymboree, a then 10-month-old Roya was playing with two 15-month-old boys. One of the moms approached me and said, “She’s very cute.” I thanked her. She then moved over to Roya, extended her hand, and said, “High-five.”
Roya just stared at the woman so I interjected, “She doesn’t know how to ‘high-five’ yet.”
The woman’s eyes opened widely. She took her hand away and commented with a twinge of discomfort, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“No worries!” I replied. “She’ll learn eventually.”
The woman looked at the other mother in a manner that conveyed a blend of pity and disapproval.
The three babies continued to play together before the boys walked in one direction and Roya crawled in the other.
Seeing Roya crawl, the woman realized that she had guessed Roya’s age incorrectly.
“How old is she?” she asked me.
“She just turned 10 months,” I answered as the two moms expressed their surprise.
“We thought she was older since she’s so tall!” one exclaimed.
“It was great how well they played together,” the other commented.
As I smiled and headed off toward Roya, I chose not to state the obvious: That in just a few minutes, Roya went from “slow” to “gifted” in their eyes.
Since I had never seen these women before, I restrained myself from saying the following:
Stop with the competition. It’s not a race.
We do not need to measure ourselves against each other as parents, and we definitely don’t need to compare our children to each other. As any adult knows, there is always someone out there who is able to do something better, faster or easier than we are. That has been and will continue to be the case at any age and stage!
My daughter’s ability – or lack thereof – to give you a high-five will have no bearing on her future. No one includes when they said their first word on their LinkedIn profile or mentions on a college application how old they were when they took their first step. The parents at Gymboree thankfully have healthy children who will reach all the milestones soon enough. Not every parent is so lucky!
I can high-five with the best of ’em now ;)!
A child’s milestones should be celebrated with joy and gratitude, not serve as a point of comparison to determine who is advanced and who is developmentally below the curve. I don’t feel bad or sorry for those milestones that Roya hasn’t reached. Likewise, I’m not paying tuition to Wellesley just yet because of the milestones that she reached early.
Stop the competition. It’s not worth the energy!
I wish this type of competition wasn’t so common! I’d love to hear some of the competitive moments that made you shake your head in the comments.
I didn’t throw a first birthday party for my daughter, Roya.
I write that without any guilt or shame.
Nonetheless, my decision surprised quite a few loved ones. Why didn’t I go the traditional route?
Roya won’t remember anything about any event at this early point in her life. As such, her first birthday will come and go without any recollection of it. All she knows is the here and now, and whether she is fed, warm, dry and loved. To her one-year-old mind, every day is a party!
The Man and I are both only children, and Roya is our only child. Some people turn a one-year-old birthday party into a larger family celebration. Others utilize the event as a reminder that life, joy and laughter continue in the midst of loss and illness. The former isn’t our reality, and the latter thankfully isn’t our necessity.
I’ve never been one to follow the pack or tradition. (Remember the amazing cocktail party that my friends threw me in lieu of a customary baby shower?) I didn’t want this occasion to be the exception.
Party planning stresses me out. Birthday parties for one year olds are typically for the adults. Why should I add something to my plate, if it doesn’t make me happy?
To me, smash cakes are an exercise in messiness and forced responses. Some babies love having their faces covered in frosting, while onlookers applaud. Others don’t.
Roya has been and will continue to be celebrated every day in small and big ways by her loved ones. I envisioned her birthday to be intimate and special to those of us who have raised her over the past year. And, it was just that!
All smiles on her birthday!
Roya was feted at brunch by her parents and nannies at one of our favorite restaurants, Peacock Café. We showered her with snuggles and kisses, rather than presents. For her birthday dessert, I picked up a vanilla cupcake from Sprinkles. In typical baby fashion, though, Roya fell asleep before she could taste it! We finished out the day enjoying the beautiful weather and having Campono pizza at home.
It’s my (non) party, and I can sleep if I want to!
There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the birthday of a one-year-old. If having a large party makes you happy, then that’s what you should do! Likewise, if you don’t want to throw a big party for your baby, don’t feel like you have to for anyone else’s sake. I have no regrets about choosing a simpler way to celebrate.
In 2010, I was on a date with a man who wanted to talk a lot about my blog.
Him: Your stories would make a great book! Each relationship could be a chapter with the last chapter about the man you decide to marry and spend the rest of your life with!
I thanked him for the compliment and then paused before responding, “You know? I don’t think a man will be the love of my life. I want to adopt and become a mom. I think that my daughter will be the love of my life.”
Prior to starting chemotherapy for breast cancer, my oncologist asked me if I planned to have children.
“I’m going to adopt a girl who is of elementary school age,” I said, matter of factly. I didn’t need any information about freezing my eggs since I never envisioned getting pregnant or giving birth.
When I was going through treatment for breast cancer, I would picture the daughter that I would adopt as a source of inspiration. I couldn’t see her face, but I visualized her black hair in pigtails with a white cardigan over her navy dress.
Medical professionals don’t typically use words like, “miracle,” but with my pregnancy, they did. During my bi-monthly sonograms, four different radiology technicians commented that my daughter-to-be was gifted and sassy. I would smile and remind myself that she was just a fetus. But, a part of me realized that even as a fetus, she had already proven that she was strong!
After the doctors delivered my daughter, Roya, one of them commented that my ovaries were postmenopausal. Medically, there wasn’t an explanation for my pregnancy or her birth. And yet, in spite of all the odds and obstacles, Roya was born.
I’ve heard from quite a few people over the past year that Roya’s birth has given them hope. It’s important to believe that the seemingly impossible is in fact possible. She is living proof that miracles can happen!
Several doctors and friends have commented that Roya is destined for greatness. Well, greatness is subjective and ascribes to certain conventional benchmarks of success. I hope that whatever the future holds for Roya, she realizes that she’s great just as she is.
On the eve of Roya’s first birthday, I held her in my arms with tears in my eyes. So much of the past four years was unplanned, but I guessed one thing correctly: