One year ago today I received the official diagnosis of my breast cancer, and a mad whirlwind of treatment began. It was chaotic, frightening, sometimes confusing, often stunning, and almost always overwhelming.
Everything happened rapidly so I could begin treatment as soon as possible, and then, of course, once treatment began, so did the side effects of treatment (in my case, Adriamycin and Cytoxin), and pretty soon I was too darned tired to do anything except try to get through each day as best I could.
I barely was able to register that I had cancer; I certainly didn't have energy to process what was happening to me, how it would impact my life, and what it meant to me.
Now I'm a year out from the initial diagnosis and a couple of months past my last treatment. I'm still dealing with some of the side effects, most notably fatigue, and will be for some time, but I'm slowly getting better, and for that I'm deeply grateful.
And now I have time for the cancer diagnosis to really register with me.
My initial response and attitude throughout treatment, apart from all the emotions, was that this was simply something that I had to get through, and I would.
And I did.
Of course, it's been so much more than that.
Although I learned several years ago when I was a caregiver for a friend with terminal cancer to not sweat the small stuff, my own cancer was a reminder not only to not sweat the small stuff -- but also to not sweat the big stuff. And to not take on what isn't mine, including what people may try to make mine. People often project their own fears and feelings onto others -- we all do that -- but with a cancer diagnosis, it seems to stir up things people may not want to face. Instead of looking at those unpleasant thoughts and feelings as theirs, they tried to give them to me. Fortunately, I know when something is mine, and when it isn't.
Early on in my treatment, my own cancer was a reminder of how important it is to process whatever feeling I was having – to respect that feeling for what it was telling me, let it be there, and then let it go. This is especially important with feelings that, let's face it, we'd all rather avoid or never even have, like fear. Ignoring it, or saying it doesn't exist, or telling myself I "shouldn't" feel it, only denies it and stuffs it down to reemerge later and often with more of a vengeance. My body and my soul send me these emotions for a reason, and I only hurt myself if I don't allow them the same space that I allow other, more pleasant emotions. So sometimes I sit with pain, or hurt, or fear, or whatever is nagging at me at that particular time. It doesn't stop me from living my life, or even from enjoying my life. These feelings are part of my life. Beneath them, they often have a deeper message that I'm open to receiving once I allow the feelings in. And once I allow them to exist, and look at them and what they mean, they dissolve and leave room for other emotions. Like joy, happiness, wonder. Gratitude. Love.
Cancer has been a reminder to live the lifestyle I want to live, now. Don't wait for better weather, or to lose 10 pounds, or any other future event that may or may not happen. Do it. Now.
How does that play out for me? Since I'm still dealing with a fair amount of fatigue, I'm not going to run any marathons any time soon; but if I get out for walks several days a week, I feel good. I'm eating lots of fruit and veggies, whole grains, and cutting out or at least down on things that aren't good for anyone, but especially people who have had cancer. Eating well also makes me feel good: physically, yes; and on a deeper level, because I’m following a path that’s right for me.
I spend time doing things that are meaningful to me, that bring me joy. I spend time in meditation. I practice self-discipline in large and small ways. And I spend time doing things that are fun!
I don’t do any of these things because I think they’ll make me invincible; I know there's no magic bullet that will prevent my cancer from coming back, just as I know that doing one good thing won’t counteract doing something that isn't good for me. But the whole package, doing all these things, gives me an edge.
And most of all, I do it because I feel better here and now: better physically, because I'm getting regular exercise and eating well; better mentally, because as I feel better physically, I have energy and clarity to let my brain do what it needs to do; better emotionally, because I'm taking care of me, in all the many ways that help me most; and better spiritually, because many of the things I do nourish my soul and deepen my spirituality.
My cancer was a reminder of my values, and how I can live my values. It's easier said than done and will always be a work in progress, but I try to hold certain questions in front of me: will this nourish me? will this nourish someone else? That doesn't mean everything that I do or say is positive or that I won't conflict with others; sometimes it means standing up for what I know is right for me (or, just what is right as I see it), and that can be in disagreement with what others think. But I learn more and more about how important it is for me to listen to my gut and trust it. And act on it accordingly.
And that's another thing my cancer was a reminder of: how much I can trust myself to know what's right for me. Other people tell me what they think is right for me, give suggestions, offer advice; and I usually listen and take in what they say, but in the end, I know best what works for me, regardless of what anyone else thinks. When I follow my gut, my instincts, whatever you chose to call it, I not only have no regrets, but I end up knowing I've done what is best for me, and I'm at peace with myself.
My cancer diagnosis was, ultimately, a reminder of my mortality. A reminder that (watch out, here come the cliches!) life is short, and whatever I want to do with it, I'd best be doing now. The future is promised to no one. As the bumper sticker says, “Don't postpone joy!” It's difficult to feel joy in the middle of cancer treatment, but now I'm moving beyond that. Now it's time to dance with the wildflowers!
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart...
Who looks outside, dreams.
Who looks inside, awakens.
Last chemo: Sept. 23, 2009 -- Done!! WOO HOOOO!!!!!!
Surgery, Oct. 29, lumpectomy with removal of 17 lymph nodes. Biopsy results: all negative. WOO HOOOO! again! The surgeon said I was in a group (of women with my cancer type, stage, etc.) of only 10% that comes back totally clear and negative. Happy dance!
Radiation begain Dec. 7; I had daily (weekday) treatments for 38 treatments, with a few days off for holidays and when my mom died.
Herceptin continued until I had "minor heart impairment." I'm on a beta blocker and doing well.
I'm on an estrogen-blocking med for five years. Update, 2015: I've been put on it for an additional five years.
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
So often, we believe that we have come to a place that is void of hope and void of possibilities, only to find that it is the very hopelessness that allows us to hit bottom, give up our illusion of control, turn it over, and ask for help. Out of the ashes of our hopelessness comes the fire of our hope.
Anne Wilson Shaef
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Kahlil Gibran
The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.
As your faith is strengthened you will find that there is no longer the need to have a sense of control, that things will flow as they will, and that you will flow with them, to your great delight and benefit.
Peace comes from within your own heart and mind, not from some outside source, and when you refuse to be disturbed by things about you, life will flood your being with dynamic energy.
Peace requires us to surrender our illusions of control. We can love and care for others but we cannot possess our children, lovers, family, or friends. We can assist them, pray for them, and wish them well, yet in the end their happiness and suffering depend on their thoughts and actions, not on our wishes.
I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward.
I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day - the invocations and benedictions of Earth.
I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear.
And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.
Terry Tempest Williams
Faith is the bird that feels the light And sings when the dawn is still dark.
Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it.
We have no right to ask when sorrow comes, "Why did this happen to me?" unless we ask the same question for every moment of happiness that comes our way.
Do, or do not. There is no try.
If you're going through hell, keep going.
I seem to get some questions often, so I'm going to address a few of them here. I'll update from time to time, too. Unless you read otherwise in a post or email, these things hold true:
1. I'm still working and plan to do so throughout treatment. My oncologist, his staff, my boss, and I all see no reason I can't continue, although I may have to make schedule adjustments from time to time. I have bills to pay so I don't really have the option of quitting anyway.
2. Mom is holding her own. I have to put my own health first right now but I'm going to do everything I can to help her. And she's doing what she can to help herself and to help me as well. We're working as a team, even if it's a cancer-ridden, chemo-taking, sometimes bumbling one!
3. As I've shared with most of you, and I want to keep emphasizing, don't feel like you have to wait to hear from me. In fact, sometimes it helps when you take the initiative, because I may not always have the energy to do such a simple thing myself. Call or email any time -- you can't disturb me -- if I'm too tired or otherwise unavailable, my cell ringer is off; and I answer email as I can and know you understand if it's not always in a timely manner.
4. My last A/C treatment was June 17. Taxol has begun and in spite of what's normal, for me it's been harder than the A/C. Lots of immediate, significant side effects that need frequent adjustments to control. I had to drop one week of Taxol and am on reduced doses for the duration of treatments because of the severe neuropathy I'm getting. Herceptin began with the taxol and continues for a year; surgery sometime in the fall. Radiation, maybe.
5. I was told not to expect hair growth until after the Taxol is over, but I'm getting white (! my hair was only partly gray when this started!) and spikey regrowth right now (late August). It may or may not fall out as the Taxol continues, but whatever! It's been an amusing part of the journey for me to go bald, see funny regrowth, etc. I still don't expect any real hair length until next spring. Going bald has it's own freedom, and I love the feeling of wind on my scalp, but I can't say I feel like bald is "beautiful" in my case!
6. This isn't an FAQ, but as a reminder: I prefer you do not share this blog with others unless you ask me first. I probably won't mind your sharing, but I'd rather be asked first. I consider this a personal journey, and while it's no secret that I'm dealing with cancer, I prefer to chose who to share details with. Thank you for understanding.
7. For those asking about my photos, I mostly post them on my nature blog. However, some of the photos here aren't mine and I don't want to take credit for them. Ask if you're curious -- I haven't been taking the time to tag what's mine and what isn't. If it's really good, it probably isn't mine! :)
8. Details on my diagnosis: localized, no lymph nodes involved, HER2+, ER slightly+, PR- (those last three have to do with cancer receptors -- the positives mean more treatment options, so are a good thing in their own way), IDC, stage IIa, I'm probably forgetting a piece but most of this won't mean much to most anyway and those are the highlights.
9. I'm not afraid of the cancer. Not too thrilled about the side effects of the chemo, but I'm not afraid of the cancer! My prognosis is excellent; I have confidence that I will beat this and have an incredible circle of support: oncologist, staff, counselors, support groups, family, friends, even friends of friends... (listed in no particular order, as all of you are prime!)... thanks to all of you, I will get through this! Hugs to every one of you!