cw: body image, cancer, infertility

“I didn’t know you were expecting!”

Well-meaning words, the speaker wanting to share in your happiness. They come from a place of joy, not malicious intent.

And yet, they cut deep.

Five years ago, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I had a single mastectomy then to remove the cancer from my body. I made the decision then to not get reconstructive surgery. It would have meant two to three more surgeries, plus no guarantee of a successful reconstruction.

Last year, I had a prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy to reduce the risk of cancer returning. I still decided to forgo plastic surgery. I’d always felt a little uncomfortable with my breasts. They drew attention I didn’t always want. Men would talk only to my chest and not to me. Bras were annoying and never fit quite right, sometimes they chafed. They got in the way a lot. Not having breasts felt freeing.

I have prosthetics that I can wear, but most of the time I don’t bother. I was mostly content in my new flatness. This is my body now, literal scars and all.

Then the pandemic restrictions started to lift. I had to go back to the office. I had to go out more and more. I saw more people. The well-meaning comments about my possible pregnancy began.

My weight tends to go to my belly. Not having breasts makes my belly really obvious.

The last five year have been exceptionally difficult for me and my husband. One difficult circumstance after another has landed in our laps, in addition to a global pandemic. Trauma does things to bodies, and I’ve put on more weight.

I’ve always been self-conscious about my belly. I look at photos of myself from ten and twenty years ago and feel sad for the person I was who thought she was fat. I hate that feeling fat made me feel bad about myself then, that I felt ugly and unworthy. I hate that it still makes me feel bad about myself. I’ve been working hard to untangle these feelings about my weight and my looks, to repair some of my learned beliefs. To feel like my body is worthy.

And while the pregnancy comments do trigger my self-esteem regarding my weight, they cut even deeper than that. They’re a reminder of a dream that is just out of my grasp right now.

Blair and I have been trying to expand our family with a kiddo for six years. A year of trying ourselves before the cancer bomb went off. Then having my eggs harvested in between having a traumatic surgery and starting chemotherapy. Then learning that the hormones a body needs to make a baby are exactly what my cancer likes to eat. Years of processing this grief that my body won’t do what it should do, working through the guilt and the loss. Making the big (and expensive) decision to pursue surrogacy. Putting our hearts on our sleeves to find a surrogate. Trying once, twice, three times with no success. Still putting our hopes out into the universe and putting our hearts into someone else’s hands.

My belly is a reminder of grief and loss, of pain and struggle and sacrifice. It’s a reminder of a story not yet finished; a reminder of dreams not yet reached.

No, I’m not expecting. I’m hoping and hanging on.

The healing power of games

Hey interwebs! It’s been awhile!

The healing power of gaming
My last chemo treatment!

Life threw me a major curveball in 2017. I’ve shared bits of it over on twitter, but if you don’t follow me there: I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, and spent the last year and a half going through treatment. I’m officially considered a cancer survivor, but as any survivor will tell you, it’s something that will echo through the rest of my life.

And thus for my first post back I’m going to talk about… the healing power of gaming!

There are a lot of benefits to tabletop gaming, even if you aren’t suffering a major illness. But reflecting back, gaming really was a positive factor that got me through the bad times. My husband and I wouldn’t have made it through this past couple of years if it hadn’t been for our family, and for our awesome friends who kept our spirits up through gaming.

TCTC 2018 with my hair just barely starting to grow back.

Since I’m a big fan of lists these days, here are my ways that gaming helped me heal:

  • Distraction. Gaming gave me the chance to think about something else. Whether it was an immersive RPG or just a quick five minute party game, it gave me something totally different to focus on than my medical issues.
  • Escape. With Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games, I was able to become someone else for a while. For a few hours I wasn’t “Andrea the cancer patient”, I was Ocoria the Goliath Monk, Ellie the vampire, or Wren the Starfleet Security Officer. It also gave me the chance to feel their strength even when I wasn’t feeling strong in my own life.
  • Connection. My friends wanted to be supportive and present in my life, but sometimes it was difficult for them to know what to do or say. Gaming gave our friends a way to bring some extra positivity into our lives when we desperately needed it. I think this really solidified our friendships in many ways.
  • Accessibility. New technology in the gaming sphere allowed me to continue playing, even when some of the side effects of my treatment would have otherwise prevented me. I could still participate in our regularly scheduled D&D games on roll20 without having to leave our house.
  • Mental focus. Chemo brain is this fuzz that rolls into your mind and memory. Some days it feels like you’re in a heavy fog. Some days it’s like your short term memory has taken a vacation. But gaming gave me something specific to focus and concentrate on, to help me keep my mental acuity as sharp as I could.
  • Laughter. It really is the best medicine. Even on the worst days, laughter was possible. (And laughter releases endorphins, which makes you feel happier.)

Tips for introverts at gaming conventions

Andrea and Blair at Gottacon

Playing Chez Geek at Gottacon.

Gaming conventions are a great place to meet new people who share your interest, try new games without taking the risk of buying a game first, and to share your favourite games with others. But if you’re an introvert like me, sometimes conventions can be intimidating because they require a fair amount of energy and socializing.

Fret not! The good times and gaming at cons definitely outweigh the energy requirements. Over the years I’ve learned ways to make the most out of gaming convention while keeping my introvert sanity.

Here are my tips for introverts to survive a gaming convention:

  • Start small / go big. There are advantages and disadvantages to attending small conventions and bigger ones. Small conventions tend to be quieter, but more intimate. Bigger conventions make it easier to disappear with the crowd, but the noise level and number of people are also a lot more stressful. I plan my activities and break times for each type accordingly. If it’s your first time going to a con, determine what size you’re comfortable with against what you hope to get out of the event.
  • Take a friend. This ensures you’ll always have a buddy to play games with. It’s even better if you have an extroverted friend who knows your introversion. I’m terrible at introducing myself and making small talk, but husband is awesome at it. Or if I’m feeling particularly bashful about approaching someone I want to talk to, he either helps to give me courage or is willing to step up and help me approach them.
  • Find a quiet space. Whether it’s a quiet corridor or a coffee shop down the street, find a space where you can get out of the noise. This will help you build your energy reserve back up again. This is especially important if you aren’t staying at the con hotel and don’t have your own space to flee to!
  • Stay at the convention hotel. By having a space that’s my ‘own’ that’s only a short elevator ride away means I have that quiet space I can escape to when I just need to get out of the noise and be a zombie for an hour. I know this can be costly, but over the years I’ve found this is the best option for me attending a convention. Otherwise, try to stay with a friend who lives close enough to the convention and doesn’t mind you returning to their place by yourself for a few hours.
  • Take breaks. Don’t feel pressured to DOALLTHETHINGS. Instead of gaming 12 hours straight, set your own pace. Watch games being played, go for a walk, or borrow a game from the library and read it’s rulebook.
  • Stay fed and hydrated. This will help you keep your energy levels up for longer.
  • Teach a game you know. Not only does it automatically give you something to talk about that you like, but it’s also a way to ensure you have a captive audience. The only downside to this is if it’s a particularly noisy event space, it’s really easy for an introvert to lose their voice as they fight to be heard. After DMing one session of D&D5e last year at a con that was in a gymnasium, I could hardly be heard when I spoke for the rest of the event…
  • Volunteer. Sometimes having a specific task to focus on makes it easier for me to break out of my shell, especially when I’m having a low energy day.
  • Go outside your comfort zone. I’ve made awesome friends, learned new games, and had some cool opportunities happen because I was willing to go outside my comfort zone. That’s not to say you have to be uncomfortable for the entire event, but sometimes introducing yourself to a game designer, trying a new game, or volunteering will be worth it. (Of course, when I say go outside your comfort zone, I don’t mean try something that is or makes you feel unsafe. Trust your gut).

Introvert friends: are there any other tips for introverts at conventions I missed?

At first you’re going to suck

This morning I pulled out an older manuscript of mine, determined to give it a thorough editing. It was one of those pieces that I’d written and, when finished, thought “gee, this turned out better than I thought.” It was one of those pieces that had got me to thinking that maybe I could take a crack at the whole “getting published” idea.

As I read through the chapters my optimism rapidly dissolved. “How in the world did I think this was good?” The writing was hokey. I immediately poked a tonne of holes into the story and the characters. I’d started so many different subplots, which thread was meant to be the main plot? I hadn’t even finished the story itself.

Reflecting back on it, perhaps at the time it was a good piece for me. It surprised me that something only three years old could be so awful. Because I write every day, I don’t see the improvement I’m making – the same way a parent doesn’t notice how their kids grow until they see an old photograph. Three years is a long time to improve my skill, even if only enough to see where I went wrong with the manuscript.

One of the best writing tips I think I’ve ever received is, “at first, you are going to suck.” And it’s true. Nobody is perfect on the first attempt; or maybe the second, sixth, or one hundredth. But every attempt you make, you will get a little better.

Despite knowing that, it still socks it to my self-esteem. Will I ever improve to the point where I have a finished manuscript that I’m satisfied with enough to submit to a publisher?

I hope so.

Finding my voice

Voice. In writing it means the author’s style that makes his or her writing unique, which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character.

Voice in official sense is something that constantly changes over time for a writer. In the beginning they are trying to find that voice, mimicking the voice of those they admire, throwing in dashes of their own self when they dare. As they mature more of their own spice gets added into the pot, until their voice is a dish all it’s own.

In my day job I’m told I have voice nailed down. “You’re really brought a refreshing and friendly voice to our organization Andrea – great job!” my boss’ words echo in my ears. It brings a smile to my face to hear that, feeling as though as a writer I’m having some success. After all, they wouldn’t trust me to completely re-write the organization’s website content if they didn’t have some modicum of faith in my abilities.

With that bit of ego rub under my belt, it frustrates me that I seem to stop short with my own projects. I don’t believe it to be my voice in the above sense that suffers because, while I may not be one of those Type-A always confident people, I’m at least reassured of my own sense of identity.

Yet why do the words dry up?

When I’m writing for myself, the words always come easiest at the beginning. The words flow, ideas come, I fill paragraphs and pages with stories and thoughts. Things take a turn for the worse. Ideas continue to swirl in my mind, but they refuse to come out. I begin to force myself to go on writing. Annoyance turns to ambivalence. The project dies.

I’m scared to count the number of pieces I’ve started and not finished.

I have a difficult time finding the cause. My voice is there, fighting to break onto the page and declare itself. It knows what it wants to say, but struggles to make it’s way to end the piece with a resounding final period.

It’s not as though I cannot finish a piece, otherwise I would never have graduated university and I wouldn’t be working. Yet even this blog post I’ve lost steam on. I’ve changed ideas, scratched out the entire section on voice, stopped, restarted, got lost on twitter, and come back to it. At one point I was sure it would rot in my drafts folder.

Where did that capable work-Andrea go? The one who can bang out a press release in an hour. Who can write website copy about topics that are beyond my understanding. Who can tell a story on social media and drive traffic to our site. It’s gone and hidden and refused to come, refuses to express itself.

Somewhere along the way, something is scaring my voice away.

I like to think that I don’t care if anyone reads my writing, that I do it for my own pleasure. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. In the career path that I’ve taken, everyone’s an editor (even when they’re not), so I’ve learned to have thick skin when I need it.

I do my own personal writing because it gives me an outlet. It lets my imagination go to places that I’ve dreamt about since I was a kid. It lets me contribute my own thoughts on one of my favourite subjects. It allows me to create. I write for myself. If some pour soul stumbles on my works and enjoys it – that’s just a bonus.

But ah – now isn’t that the rub? When I write for work I always have a purpose, an audience that I”m aiming for. When I’m writing for my own whims, that’s the only purpose I have – I’m writing to please myself.

Somehow I’m scaring myself away from completing anything. Aren’t we always our own toughest critics?

I need to chase that feeling of writing without purpose away. Shoo it under the rug. Because even if I’m only writing for myself, I’m still writing with a reader in mind.

I need to hear my own voice.