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.




Dear Pre-Cancer Me 

This week What's Next had an interesting post on Facebook asking cancer survivors what they would write to their pre-cancer self if they had the chance. I shared the post and wrote a shortened version of what I decided would be a good blog post here.

 Dear pre-cancer me,

You are enough. Please don't let negative people bring you down. Those that don't appreciate you for the smart, generous and loving person that you are don't deserve you. Let them go. Surround yourself with positive nurturing people who truly want what's best for you. Reciprocate by being there for them. This may not be easy, but your body's good health will be the ultimate reward.

Wake up feeling grateful, and give thanks for the wonderful day that is about to unfold before you. Be thankful for your family, your children and your loving pets. Believe that you are exactly where you should be at this time, and that you will never face any situation you can't handle.

Take some time to smell the roses. Life is not a race. There is absolutely no rush to get to the end. Savour the moment and sing in the rain. Celebrate your successes and bask in the lessons you learn through your failures. Don't be so hard on yourself. You don't have to be your own worst critic. Be as gentle to yourself as you would be with your dearest friend.

Life is not about the things you have, but the moments you make. The people you impress with the things you have are not the ones who will be there for you on the rainy days. Create your memories with the people you cherish the most. The ones who love you unconditionally.  

Love the work that you do. So many hours are spent on the job, that it is essential to do what inspires you and makes you happy. As with your personal life, don't waste your time in a negative workplace. Those that can't work in an atmosphere of support, encouragement and sharing of ideas should not have the privilege of working with you.

Most of all have a blast! Try new things. Challenge yourself. Walk on that sandy beach. Ride those waves.  Don't sweat the small stuff and always live in the moment. It's all there.

With love and snuggles. xo




The Seven Year Itch

Last August marked seven years since I had the mastectomies and reconstruction. January marked seven years since I finished chemotherapy. Since then I have had four more surgeries related to my breast cancer diagnosis and initial treatments. The last one happened at the end of November 2012.
There are so many phases to suvivorship. They differ depending on how one reacts to the inital diagnosis and how they handle treatment. It may also depend on the relationship the patient has with their medical team, and the habits they develop as survivors.
All patients feel some letdown following the completion of treatment. While going through surgery, physiotherapy and susequent treatment; whether chemotherapy, radiation therapy or both, a patient is kept busy, and your mind is dedicated to "winning" the battle. You are left on your own after that, with only two to four visits to see your oncologist per year.
And perhaps that's where I can comment on the not so small subleties of the changes that occur, the further you get from your diagnosis and treatment. I no longer see this as "winning the battle". I see it more at putting my body at ease. My body was not healthy, and was diseased when they found the cancer. The initial diagnosis was DCIS in situ, and I was told that it was the best cancer I could get. I'm not sure if doctors say this as a sort of consolation prize after telling a patient the bad news, but it didn't seem to work for me. I was young; only 45 years old, with three young girls who needed their mother.
My initial diagnosis was made in April 2007. I had my first surgery that same month; a lumpectomy. My oncologist was hoping to remove all the cancer at that time, based on the results from my ultra sound and infrared testing. Unfortunately the margins were not clear, and I was faced with the decision of either going back for another lumpectomy, with the hope that the margins would be clear at that point, or a mastectomy. I chose the latter. By the time I had surgery; over three months later, the cancer was not only all over the right breast, but it had started forming into a tumour and was moving through my lymph nodes. All I can say, is that given this is a a slow moving cancer, by my oncologist's standards, my body was probably dis-eased for a few years before diagnosis.
So why, do you ask, did I title this blog post "The Seven Year Itch"? It's because being a cancer survivor is a title we have had bestowed on us for the rest of our lives. There are days we use it for good things and there are days we wish we never had it. Luckily the self pity parties are few and far between for me. I nevertheless need to say that the more time that is put between a cancer diagnosis, and therefore adds to my cancer survivorship, the more I have put in time to delve into my inner soul to figure out why my body became dis-eased in the first place.
I have mentioned in my blog posts before....Cancer happens for a reason. I initially thought that it was for a good reason, and I still believe this to be true today; but for different reasons. It enabled me to see through people more clearly, to weed out the people in my life who were only there for the sunny days anyway. It helped me be centered and start new habits of meditation and inner soul searching. It helped me live in the day and not in the past or the future. It helped me appreciate and be more grateful. These are all good things, but the real work starts when you have to clear all those roadblocks that initially caused the dis-ease in your body to start with. They can be more easily seen through regular meditation and soul searching, but one has to be realistic when confronted with the truth. I call these more profound realizations the cancer survivor's seven year itch.
My surviorship has reached a new level, and so have I. The true work has just begun.

A Tribute to Jim Flaherty and All Who Have Come Before and Will Come After Him

As I was writing a decision this afternoon, I thought of the funeral that was about to happen for a person I was fortunate enough to see on a regular basis over a number of years. Not fortunate to have known terribly well, but grateful to have on the same team. 
He was a person who grew up in the same neighbourhood as I did; the suburbs of Montreal. He eventually moved into the same profession as I did; politics. Having left Quebec, he eventually ended up in provincial politics in Ontario. I worked for cabinet ministers and MNAs in Quebec. He as an elected official, and I not for the lack of trying, as a staffer. We eventually gravitated to Federal politics and both ended up in Ottawa. Again, he as an elected official and eventually Minister, and I, again not for the lack of trying, as a staffer. 
He is the late Honourable Jim Flaherty.
The work of a politician, and those who work as their loyal staffers is often misunderstood. People just don't get what we do; even those closest to us. Because it's a profession that's misunderstood it's also open for criticism. Our profession is tough. We are open for partisan attacks on a regular basis. We suffer the wrath of those who do not agree with our policy or opinion. However difficult this can be.....we are only human.....we are strong with our convictions and work hard to accomplish what we believe in. Those that succeed and are liked get into the business for all the right reasons. We think we can make a difference. We are not in it for ourselves, but are in it for others. We believe we have something to offer. Something that will better the lives of those who live in our communities. We have the calling of public service.
This is the case of the short, free spirited Irishman that I got to know from afar. He worked hard and lead by example. He fought for the underdog and did what he thought was best for Canadians. He had friends in the greatest and most elite of international financial circles, and was the hero of those who could not fend for themselves.
We have another thing in common as well. He was afflicted with a rare skin ailment and I with cancer. We both worked through our illness and treatment, and gave our all to our political family and to Canadians; regardless of the pain and fatigue.  Sadly, having just resigned from such a stressful and busy life, Minister Flaherty would not live to enjoy some of the many pleasures life would have waiting for him. I am no longer part of that world either, but I am still working for Canadians through public service in another way. 
And herein lies the heartache for the loss of someone who was suddenly taken from us, after giving so much of himself, and at a time when he was free to give his time to those that counted the most. Your contributions will not be forgotten. Thank you, and rest in peace.