I have been writing about cancer surviorship and running for over four years now, and sometimes I find it hard to believe. When I first started writing the ideas just flowed from me. I was still a "fresh" cancer survivor, with the experience still etched in my mind. This year, in August, I will be seven years cancer free. The experience of the double mastectomies and chemotherapy are further behind me. In a way I have made peace with it. I am also a more experienced runner.
Looking back, I think the start of this was therapeutic. It was good for the soul to let out all that emotion while feeling I could help others. I suppose it was either writing or succombing to my emotions in other less constructive ways.
And so I chose to write.
There was much to write about during those early days. Topics that are obvious to a cancer survivor, through experience, but really important information to have for a patient about to start chemotherapy. Take, for example, the steroids that a cancer patient must take prior to a round of chemotherapy. They are prescribed, in part, to help control nausea; a side effect of the treatment. When I started treatment, I too was on steroids prior to treatment. Once over, I went home feeling like superwoman. I could rule the world, go for a five kilometre run, make a gourmet dinner and clean every nook and cranny in the house in half a day. I had eight arms. I was a queen! I rocked!
This great energy lasted for less than 48 hours, after which I came crashing down from my throne. By then, after my first of eight treatments, I recall one dinner with my family where I burst into tears and said that I didn't think I was going to be able to make it through my treatment. You should know that I am definately not the type of person that gets depressed like this.
If the professionals at the hospital would have told me to expect this crash after treatment, I wouldn't have been taken by surprise. Instead, I was overwhelmed, and frightened.
And so I write for those who are in the same situation. Those who are vulnerable and scared. Those who turn to the internet and social media for information from other survivors who have already been there. A place where cancer patients can find a shoulder to lean on. A place where they can voice their fear and their pain.
As time goes on, the emotional need is lessened, and the passion of survivorship takes somewhat of a back seat to a sense of contentment and peace. Now the work of the first few years of survivorship is done, and it's time to refine it. Since my promotion to the illustrious role of cancer survivor, I have changed as a person. I have learned how to respect myself and put myself first (although I have been known to regress from time to time...). I know the importance of taking time outs, and listening to the wisdom of my inner voice. I have learned, and deeply appreciate, how to meditate. In short, my perspective in life has completely changed.
I even see people in a different way. I'm more open to talk to strangers and smile at those who need a little pick me up in their day. As I look at the faces of strangers, I sometimes wonder what's behind their mask. Are they happy or suffering? I always send good thoughts their way.
And on my many hours of travel by train to my work, I meditate or read....From inspirational stories to those that make you laugh. This is my learning platform. A platform from which I will continue to grow.
So I believe I have come to a new phase of survivorship. One that is exciting, challenging and gratifying. One that still has many lessons to teach. One where listening is key. One that I would be honoured if you continue to run beside me on this amazing journey .
Today is World Cancer Day. A day that means different things to different people. For some it's an opportunity to highlight what their healthcare organizations do to benefit cancer patients. For others it highlights fundraising or research successes.
But for the average cancer patient or survivor, it brings up mixed emotions. It's not really something we want to think about, but we can't really help it, with all the newspaper and television headlines there to remind us.
Things sure have changed in the six years since I had the mastectomies. Research has come a long way, and cancer organizations such as the Army of Women have really helped gather women from all over to tell their stories and relate their experiences. More women have participated in medical trials as a result.
There's also a much bigger emphasis on the importance of exercise than ever before. Exercise is important, not only for those of us that have been through cancer and have now hung our cap on the survivor peg, but as a form of prevention as well. The clinic where I was first diagnosed with cancer didn’t even whisper the word exercise back in 2007, but they are now strongly encouraging their patients to participate regularly as a form of prevention. This warms my heart, as I know all too well the benefits of exercise; even while going through chemo. Although some patients may be too tired to run or do another form of exercise while undergoing chemo, and it's always best to listen to your body, I found that running during my treatment made me less tired and helped tremendously with my energy levels.
Another improvement in the cancer survivor's world is the vast amount of information about healthy eating. Changing bad eating habits is so important, and there are many cookbooks out there that can inspire it. Check out Kris Carr's blog and cookbooks for some really fine inspiration. A cancer survivor herself, she keeps cancer abay partly by eating the right foods, and sharing her ideas in a fun and witty way. She put a smile on my face with her first book “Crazy Sexy Cancer”; a book I received it as a gift when I was first diagnosed.
And to inspire us to change the way we see a medical diagnosis, Lissa Rankin, a medical doctor herself, has some new and innovative ways of treatment. I’m sure she will go a long way to revolutionize standard medical treatment!
And last, but not least, my running hero, Kristin Armstrong, whose love of the sport and quirky way of tying it into her everyday family life is also inspiring. Her Runner’s World blog, Mile Markers, highlights the highs and lows of a long distance runner in training. Recently one of her blogs highlighted the thrill of pinning on a race bib. For anyone who has done this, you know what I mean. I can’t adequately explain the feeling when you take your bib; number and name, and proudly pin it on the front of your race shirt for all to see. It symbolizes the many kilometres of running, the several hours of meditation done on a peaceful solitary run outside, and the accomplishment of your person. And what is my best race day bib? The 26.2 With Donna, in Jacksonville, Florida; a run for cancer.
So on this World Cancer Day I may not want to see all those “c” words around me, but I sure am proud of the strides our collective community has taken to better our whole person. The people I mentioned in this blog are some of my heroes, and ones I tend to read regularly, however there are many more out there, including the hard working professionals on Oncology wards in hospitals around the World. One could not finish commemorating this fine day without thanking her homegrown hero, and pivot nurse at St Mary's Hospital in Montreal, Dail Jacob.
There's a wealth of innovative knowledge at our fingertips and it's encouraging to see the direction we are going in. The future is sure looking bright!
We said good-bye to 2013 a couple of days ago. For me, it was a bittersweet good-bye; sad because I have always been emotional with them, and happy because 2013 was a year of endings and new beginnings. And that type of year is filled with sadness, hardship, effort and joy. The roller coaster year, as I like to call it. A year of learning and growth.
So....as I rang in the New Year, it was with feelings of melancholy and relief......although it was with much more of the latter. It's strange how certain events can take up so much room in your mind and in your life. It was three years ago today; during a cold (although not as cold as it is right now!) and lazy post holiday day, that I got the phone call. Two of the directors from my office e-mailed me in the morning, wanting a conference call. I was on sick leave, recovering from an operation that I had in late November; one of the many follow up surgeries following my double mastectomies.
Being the consummate professional, I immediately thought of the items I would list as goals for the new year. As I got on the call, we started the usual banter about how nice the holidays were, and how much we appreciated our down time. Our jobs were very demanding, and the hours were long. One of my colleagues on the call was a woman, whose mother had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. We had spoken at times over the past months about her mother, and I had been open in talking about my own experiences with her.
It didn't take long to figure out that the call was not regarding our future plans, but regarding my future plans specifically. I was being fired.
And thus started the year of 2013. As with a cancer diagnosis, your mind goes into a sort of shock when you first hear the words nobody ever wants to hear. The same sort of questions go through your mind...What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Why now? Then it rolls into more thoughts, like...What will I do? How am I going to break the news to my family? I have three girls that I have to provide for, and a roof to keep over their head. Poor me....poor me....poor me......The feeling sorry for myself phase was intertwined with feelings of anger. I had given so much of myself to this job. Many hours away from the family, lots of high pressure situations and stress, many yesterday deadlines, all whilst I endeavoured to provide leadership to those working in my division. But most of all....I had never let them down. I took only six weeks off following my double mastectomies, and worked through eight rounds of chemotherapy, never skipping a beat.
And then you get to a fork in the road. That same one I reached after my cancer diagnosis. You can call it quits and do nothing but feel sorry for yourself, or you can decide that you're better than that and move on. Choosing to fight is not always easy. Any cancer survivour can relate to that.....I picked myself up, shook off the dirt rummaged around for my pride. First I did things that I hadn't done in a very long time. I took a few weeks to visit my parents who were down in Florida (Yes!). When the snow started to melt I took my pent up energy outside and picked up years of leaves in my large, tree infested backyard. My garden never looked so beautiful!
And yes, I went back to work. To a position that has a few less hours away from family and me time (even if I am still working more than I thought). To a position where I am appreciated and have a title of prestige (the title's not so important to me), and to a new job where I have met new people and have made a new friend; someone who I have felt I have known for a long time (even though we just met).
Similar to cancer survivourship, you also figure out who your real friends are. After working for over twenty years in the same profession; nine of which were with the group of people I dedicated the most to (six of those years were as a cancer patient and cancer survivour), only a handful of them have called to see how I was doing.
All this growth is in the name of making room for better experiences and new, and more positive people, to enter my life. My cancer diagnosis taught me many lessons on how to deal with life. I was able to use this knowledge in dealing with 2013. And, as with cancer, had this not happened, I would not be in the place I am now. Standing proud and tall....with a few visible scars on my body, and some that nobody can see. Oh.....and a huge smile on my face.