Nine Years and Counting

Since 2007, my typical day on August third usually starts the same way.... I am grateful for being alive. This year I am grateful that I have had nine additional years, and counting, to see my three daughters grow and flourish and to spend with my family.

I think back on that day, as I was waiting outside the operating room, waiting to be ushered in to start what would turn out to be a ten and a half hour operation, involving two teams of surgeons. First my oncologist would remove both breasts; one of them full of cancer, and check my sentinel node for cancer cells. As some cells had spread to the sentinel node, he also removed twelve lymph nodes; the conduits through which cancer cells travel to other parts of the body. Once the oncology team was finished, the plastic surgeon took over with his team. He removed tissue from my stomach and pelvic area, reconstructed new breasts; included the intricate vascular system, and reconstructed my belly button.
I checked in to the recovery room in the early evening; having spent all day in the operating room and with both legs equipped with what resembled moon boots that expanded and contracted several times per minute to ensure that I would not develop dangerous blood clots. I also had two drains attached to my pelvic area, and two other drains on each side of my chest. I do not remember being in the recovery room at all. My first conscious recollection, since early morning, was being wheeled into my hot and muggy hospital room; a place I would call “home” for the following week.
That night, I would receive two additional units of blood, and countless injections of pain medication. I can only imagine what my family was going through.
I recovered well over the few days I spent in the hospital; thanks to the fact that I was in good physical shape. I even went for a five kilometre run the day I was admitted to the hospital, as I knew I wouldn't be running for quite some time.
The post operative care at the hospital was a different story. My room was small and illogically located on the maternity floor, was not air conditioned, dirty and had paint peeling off the walls. The nurses would pass by in the morning, and would not be seen again until the new nursing shift was about to start. My mother, who often spent the day at the hospital with me, had to track someone down if I needed help to go to the washroom or required action following my surgeon's prescription. My room was not washed, and the garbage only emptied if someone who was with me asked a hospital official to do it. So much for universal health care in Quebec. Part of the reason this happened was that my operation took place in the middle of the summer, when many regular nurses took vacation time and temporary agency nurses were brought in as back ups. More hospital beds are also closed during the summer months to accommodate holiday time. This should not be an excuse.
Thankfully time replaced my hospital stay with more positive memories and countless feelings of gratitude. This was also a turning point in my life. The time that drew the line in the sand for me between the before and after cancer. There were surgeries prior to this one, and many surgeries following this one. None of them can compare to the one I had on this day.
I was walking my dogs with my parents, who were visiting from out of town this past weekend. We were walking along the road near my house, and passed a gateway where I walked with my mother while I was recovering, and after my doctor permitted me to leave my house. She remembered this spot, as it was exactly half a kilometre from my house. I laughed, as I think of those moments each time I pass that area.
And so as I reflect on the state of things today, I am grateful that August 3, 2007 is getting further away from me. Four years ago, I had a party to celebrate five years cancer free, inviting sixty people, consisting of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues. We had a wonderful time, and I'm sure glad I celebrated that way. Back then I thought of it as an important milestone to be celebrated. Now I realize it's a time where I become a statistic. A time that I am considered “cured”. I still think that these occasions, and any of them before or after are important dates to celebrate; even in a small way. On this day, I will celebrate with my family, and perhaps enjoy a glass, or two, of prosecco. And I will be grateful....always.

A Step Past Self Improvement

I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in Aril 2007; almost nine years ago. In the beginning all my energy was concentrated on organizing surgery, getting medical advice and learning about my new status in life. With events happening so quickly, and decisions that have to be made without the luxury of taking your time, I had a one track mind and tunnel vision. It was a real fight for survival.
The first few months after surgery were similar. Complications, lab results, being informed that there would be more surgery to come, and decisions about chemotherapy all cloud the mind with insistence and stress, and force you to concentrate with the moment and immediate future. There's no time to worry about the past or the future.
And then something happens. You suddenly have some breathing room and can catch your breath. Your mind starts to wander; asking that question you almost screamed in the beginning.....“Why me?!?!”...but looking at it more profoundly. There is no answer at this phase; although there are many suspicions, and if you have the least bit of intuition, you are probably able to as least partially answer your burning question.
Life will coast for awhile after this, and the pent up stress of the year of cancer treatments will take its toll. Fatigue settles in and forces you to rest and let your body recover. But if you're like me, more and more questions are asked and the mind increasingly wanders. At this time I took the opportunity to buy self help books, books of inspiration, and wellness books. Yes! The wellness community had started to pick up steam and was becoming more strong and vibrant. I had books on wellness, books on healthy eating and nutrition, books of affirmation and inspiration....and yes, I even authored an inspirational chapter about my cancer story in a collection by British journalist, Chris Geiger.
Don't get me wrong. All these books, and blogs are extremely helpful. They lift you up when you are at the lowest of your lows. They inspire you to get out of bed and put your clothes on; even when you are so weak, you don't even know you'll be able to stand up. They make you cry and blow off steam, and bring the light and positivity back into your life. They inform you that your lifestyle could have caused your cancer. Cancer was brought on by the food choices you made, or the alcohol you drank, the bad marriages you are in or the troubled childhood you had.
They also make you think.....and think.....and think. I believe I started thinking so much, he hole was getting deeper and deeper, and I was fast approaching wonderland. Sometimes you just have to get out of your head.
And this is the point of this blog. Although all the conclusions certain experts and bloggers come to are accurate and properly encourage you to understand your inner workings, and there are many people out there that are able to teach you, and inspire you to become a better runner or learn how to meditate, you need to take that step, and stop lingering in that cozy cocoon. That step out of your mind. That step to action.
It may be a scary prospect, but the answer is out there, and you can realign yourself towards better life choices.



Remembering Uncle Norm on World Cancer Day

It's World Cancer Day. It has also been awhile since I have written a blog. It hasn't necessarily been intentional. It a mix of the job I presently have that requires a fair amount of writing, and my explorations and continued evolution as a cancer survivor. 

I have been ironing out my authenticity. Attempting to quiet my mind, at some point in the day, so that I can tap into me. Learning to love myself, even though being a cancer survivor is a constant reminder of the inadequacies I used to have in the self love department. 

Going within is hard, but essential work. 

But today is a celebration of survivorship, and a day of remembrance for those who succumbed to this disease. It's a day of recognition for those who endeavour to raise funds for future research, as well as the researchers who are making inroads and inching nearer to a cure. It's also a day to recognize the thousands of survivours who participate in the variety of clinical trials that will enable the medical specialists to understand the state of this dis-ease.

It's heartwarming to see the advances we have made in treating not only the body with the symptoms, but the mind and the soul. Lifestyle, it turns out plays an important role, as does the state of our mind. 

I lost another family member to cancer last month.  It is to my Uncle Norm that I dedicate today's blog. Once he started radiation and chemotherapy therapies he lost his ability to swallow. Although he was told this was a temporary situation, he never regained the ability to swallow, and lived for the last nineteen months of his life with a feeding tube; unable to eat. As someone who loved good food and enjoyed a nice beer or a glass of wine, he did not lose his optimism or his sense of humour, and, although I'm sure he was frustrated from time to time, he never showed it. 

He left us way too soon. But in the face of adversity, the true personality of a hero comes out. And that hero lives on in each of us.  


Spring Cleaning

I remember a day when my pivot nurse, Dail Jacobs asked me to speak for the annual "Girls For a Cure" campaign back in October 2011. Back then I was a four year cancer survivor and I remember her saying that it was important to have a keynote speaker who had not just completed their treatment. At the time, I didn't see or maybe understand her reasoning. I felt that people just completing their treatment for cancer were very passionate about life and moving forward. They were on a "high" of having their body back in "ease". They succeeded at showing their families and loved ones that they could survive.

So as a keynote speaker at a few all-girl schools, my audiences were groups of high school aged girls between the ages of 12 and 17. I spoke about my experience with breast cancer; particularly as a mother with three daughters around the same ages as the girls in the audiences were. It was a really wonderful and rewarding experience, which leads me back to Dail's point.

Dail was right.

I wouldn't have realized it back then, but I do today. There are also stages of survivorship. There's the, at times, very emotional stage of just completing treatment, where passions run high and the thirst for life is supreme. It's as if the survivor get a super boost of steroids and has tons of adrenalin that provides them with lots of energy.

Soon after this initial stage the survivor settles in to a stage that is a little longer. For some, having chemotherapy meant losing your hair. In this case the peach fuzz appears and the regrowth begins. I have to say that was an exciting time for me, as to lose one's hair is one of the more difficult consequences of treatment.  During this time the survivor settles back into "normal" life, or what they perceive as normal life. In this phase I mourned the fact that I wasn't seeing my doctor all the time. Although I worked through my treatment, I wasn't as "busy" with medical appointments and related treatment. Family, friends and caregivers go back to their regular lives, and celebrate the fact that you're cured. I felt abandoned during this phase, as I wasn't getting as much attention as I was while going through treatment. Learning to lead a "normal" life again was an adjustment .

The next phase brings you back to reality. Most survivors have moved on with their lives and various activities. The memories of the dis-ease that invaded your body are further behind you, and, although you worry and fret before each semi annual check up with the oncologist, cancer becomes less of an occurrence in the daily thought process. As a cancer survivor, you are much more objective. This is the phase I was in when I was a keynote speaker for "Girls for a Cure". 

Of course there are periods of time where there are moments of panic scattered through your daily lives, as, for example, there are problems with some test results, or other tests needed by your oncologist or other specialist. Perhaps there are weeks of waiting on pins and needles for that result to be as "fine" as it can be. This is, after all, the new reality of any cancer survivor. It's something we will live with for the rest of our lives.

And while life goes on, there are also more phases of survivorship. Or at least the one I know now. As I was spring cleaning last week, during some time off of work, I was going through my books. I'm an avid reader, and I read about a wide range of topics. During my cancer treatments I read a variety of books about breast cancer, breast cancer treatments, healthy eating for cancer survivors. One of my favorite books was Kris Carr's "Crazy Sexy Cancer", which now looks extremely well read with many pages dog eared.

Anyways....while I was sorting through them and deciding which books I was going to pass on for others to enjoy, it suddenly dawned on me that all those cancer books, that I had been holding on to for dear life, were no longer needed. Just like that my decision was made.

My semi annual appointment is coming up in early April and I will but a pretty ribbon around those precious books and donate them to the oncology ward at the hospital where they will certainly help other patients.

I couldn't tell you how many other phases to survivorship there may be, but I think I will enjoy this one.



Playing My Cards Right

 Life is what we are dealt. It's how we handle it that makes us who we are. A colleague and friend sent me this earlier today. Another colleague and also a dear friend has been going through some very difficult times at work. The three of us share e-mail laughs and words of encouragement every morning. I am reminded that the world is a great place, and that the poor actions of one person; even if it's someone in a leadership position, should not be the game changer of life.

Life is a series of decisions that are taken daily. It is the continuous thoughts that stream through our mind; many of them unconscious. Are they positive or are they negative? That all depends on the self and how aware we really are.
Looking back to 2007, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was on autopilot making my way through life. I was unconscious to the fact that the myriad of thoughts appearing in my mind was actually shaping my future and dictating how people saw me, judged me and even treated me. I was married and had three young girls, who I loved dearly. I was doing what I thought was important work; although I was in a job that occupied far too many hours of my day.
I was a women who, stubbornly, thought I could do it all. I was also sensitive and somewhat of an introvert. I was a pleaser with a victim mentality. Although I looked calm and collected on the outside, I was a nervous nelly on the inside. I worried about all sorts of insignificant things. I worried about what I thought I couldn't change and worried about what I knew I could change. I would fret about what my family or friends would think of me if I said something they didn't agree with or made a decision that they would question.
I welcomed family and friends into my home and my life. I made them feel welcome and they never left with an empty stomach or without a few laughs. I constantly sought peace and wanted my home to reflect it. Peace, though, came with a price. Some people abused my good nature, while others judged me or talked behind my back without really knowing who I was. I put up my guard, and internalized way too much.
How heavy is that, one asks?
Looking back through my years of increasing self awareness, I can say that it was quite heavy. Imagine living with all that baggage. Why would one choose that?
I don't know why I worried so much about cancer, or when that thought process started. It may have stemmed from the fact that my maternal grandmother, a woman I was very close to, died of cancer when I was thirteen years old. It had a deep impact on me, as I was old enough to hear my parents talking, and understand the gravity of the situation. My grandmother lived with bone cancer for four years before succombing to the disease. They were the formative years of my life.
Many years later, and during my pregnancies, many articles were published on breast cancer and self awareness. I read them with my unaware mind and worried. Would I get breast cancer? I was doing “everything” right... I breastfed my children, was active and made home cooked meals, which was supposed to lower my risk. Right? Of course these things are good, and recommended today. But I believe what is equally important is the thought process.
I have done myself a big favour through the centering of myself and through meditation. It is just as important to surround oneself with positive people and those who will be there and support you with love. This creates a positive mindset, and tips the balance from a negative to a positive thought process. Believe in yourself. It may be a cliche, but it's very true. I am not finished my spiritual growth, and have a long way to go, but I can now relate to the cards life has dealt me, and play with them in a way that has left the welcome mat in front of my door, but doesn't let just anyone walk all over it. Some of the strongest people I know have done just that. They have been through their own hardships, but used their experience to inspire others. They are our true leaders.