My Life...As It Is Now.... Is My Message

Today is Cancer Survivor's Day. It's a day that will be meaningful to most survivors and their loved ones, in many different ways. To those who have just started their journey, it is a day of hope; that one day they may look back at the tremendous effort they made, and be proud of how they handled it, and thankful for the most special people that are closest to them, and the support they got during hospitalizations, after surgery, and during radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Many early survivors, as I once did, aspire to get to that five year cancer free milestone. The road there is full of surprises, changes, turns in the road, enlightenedness, and knowledge.
As I look back at my own journey, I am always amazed at how far I have come, and how my life has changed. Since my diagnosis, reading and keeping up with cancer news has been really important. As social media has become more important, cancer patients and survivors have a multitude of blogs websites and tweetchats at their disposal. As with my lifepowerblog, many blogs by survivors, and even non survivors, are inspiring and helpful; especially about the little things.....ones that health care professionals don't bother telling you. Sharing our journey with you is also therapeutic. The words just poured out of me when I started this blog. And with every one, I became stronger and stronger. Blogs I have especially enjoyed are Lissa Rankin, for her healthy life perspective; Kris Carr, for her healthy recipes and green juice; Gabrielle Bernstein for her “spiritjunkieness” and motivation to meditate; and Sue Carter Ansari, and her beautiful and healthy raw cooking......to name a few.
But that's not all....
Not all cancer survivors will agree, but cancer gave me my life back. It was the wakeup call I didn't listen to when it was only a whisper. It encouraged me to look at my own life, and what was working and what wasn't.
As a result some friends and acquaintences became better ones, others; many of whom were too afraid to “catch” my disease, or felt awkward because they had no idea what to say, or what to do, simply disappeared.
Survivorship has been good to me in the way I treat my body. Over time I have changed my diet considerably, and have even become a good cook. Being in the kitchen and preparing fresh healthy foods is one of the ways I relax now. I can often be seen on a Sunday morning sifting through my many cookbooks for inspiration, and thrilled at the prospect of trying something new. Prepared foods don't exist in my house. Everything is made with loving care.
Regular exercise has also been key. I will always be grateful that I started running, even before my breast cancer diagnosis. Running helped me in my darkest days, and darkest moments. There have even been reports coming out regarding the benefits of running during chemotherapy. I can attest to that, as I didn't suffer from the extreme fatigue that hits many patients as a result of treatment. I truly believe that running made the difference, and provided me with that added boost of energy that was so important during eight rounds of chemotherapy. Running, along with my almost daily meditation have been the base of my support system on the road of survivorship.
There is a no nonsense attitude that has also seemed to incorporate itself in the survivor me. I mean this in a really good way......but I really don't care what people think (sorry to my three daughters, who are sometimes horrified by this). Where I used to be shy to ask a question, or ask for what I want, I am now more outspoken. Discussions with total strangers are more common, and I will ask questions until I'm satisfied with the answers, or until I understand. When I forget someone's name....I'm no longer deeply embarrassed, but simply blame it on chemobrain!
And yes....I sometimes go to the grocery store with dirt on my face, in my cut off sweats, gardening shoes and my straw cowboy hat!
And so is life as I know it now. Mahatma Gandhi once said “My life is my message”. My life IS my message. A wonderful, challenging, adventurous, peaceful, meaningful, inspirational, positive and beautiful life that I am grateful for with each surviving day.
Happy Cancer Survivor's Day. May those of us who put up the fight and won, provide the inspiration and knowledge to help those who follow in our footsteps.

Angelina Jolie's Brave Decision

When Angelina Jolie's opinion piece came out in the New York Times yesterday, revealing that she had a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction, as a result of testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, there was a lot of discussion and chatter by various media outlets and by social media.

I applaud Jolie for her bravery and willingness to share her experience with the public. By doing this, she will be able to shed a greater light on breast cancer in general, and its genetic issues. Knowledge is power, and anyone going through a battle with breast cancer knows that you need to stay well informed in order to make the best decisions for your own case.
As a mother of three daughters, I can also understand where her mind was when she received the bad news. No, she didn't have breast cancer. But she had pretty high odds of getting it. With the passing of her mother, as a result of breast cancer, and at such a young age, there is no doubt in my mind how difficult it must have been to think of her own children, and the unenviable position she found herself in.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, six years ago, I was not aware of the extent of my family's history with the disease. I knew that one of my aunts had ovarian cancer, and that another also had breast cancer, but after my first surgery, a lumpectomy, more family members came out of the woodwork. As the margins were not clear after the initial surgery for the lumpectomy, I had to go back for more surgery, and had to decide whether I would have another lumpectomy or, as there were no guarantees they'd get all the cancer on the second try, go in for the mastectomy.
It was during the days of contemplation prior to my decision that I heard that not only did I have two cousins that were diagnosed with cancer when they were in their forties, five out of seven of my father's sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer, another sister had passed away from ovarian cancer, and two out of four brothers had prostate cancer.
My decision became much more crucial. I had already decided to go for a full mastectomy, but now I needed to think of the other breast as well. It was also recommended that I go for genetic testing.
After a few months of testing and waiting for an operation date, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a gruelling ten and a half hour operation that, first, had my oncology team in to remove the breasts, the cancer and test my lymph nodes for any sign of cancer cells that could be spreading. The second part of the operation had my plastic surgeon's team reconstructing my breasts, using tissue from my abdomen; in more medical terms, a tram flap.
It was a few years following this operation that I started genetic testing. Much of this involves a detailed family history, so that doctors can determine whether or not it's worthwhile going through the blood tests that would indicate whether I was a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. My decision to go through with the genetic testing was partly for myself, and partly because I had three daughters, and two sisters who would benefit from the information contained in my results. If I was a gene carrier, I would have a much higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, and would have another difficult decision to make. My daughters would have a much higher chance of acquiring breast cancer as well, and would be in the same situation that Jolie found herself in.
The decision was made to go through with the blood tests. I would be called back in a few weeks to get my results. During this time there were many things that went through my mind. I would have to decide, sooner rather than later, that I would have a full hysterectomy.
And I was scared; not only for myself.
I was scared for my daughters, still so young, and their futures. What if breast cancer hits them even earlier than it hit me? I thought of the implications of carrying one, or both, of these genes. Should I get life insurance for the girls? Should I get a safety deposit box and put the results in there, only to be taken out at a much later date? If my daughters were told that I was a gene carrier, they would not be eligible for life insurance in Canada. My sisters, who were already considered high risk, because of me, would have to be tested themselves.
Even while I was afraid, my logical self also thought that, at least, I would have a clearer picture of why I got breast cancer.
It was a beautiful, but cold, sunny day in February of this year that I went to the hospital to get my results. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. In my usual take charge way, I had mentally prepared myself for any bad news. Similar to the day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything was moving in slow motion. I was in a daze, but remember things in vivid detail. I was on an emotional roller coaster as I sat in that hospital waiting room. Alone.
And it was with sweaty palms, like a prisoner in court awaiting the judge to read their verdict, that I sat across from the genetics councillor to get my results. After a few bits of information, that, frankly, I don't even remember, she said the words I longed to hear: you tested negative for both genes.
Relief cannot amply describe my feelings, at that point. The information that followed was a blur as well. And when I left, my results on one piece of paper, neatly folded in my purse, I sat in my car and cried. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude and tears of joy. The emotions that had been cooped up for many months spilled out on my steering wheel and down my winter coat.
I know how it feels to be there. And even if you're a movie star, those decisions remain the same.


Happy Mother's Day

It has been six years since my life took a drastic change with my diagnosis of breast cancer.    Back then I was a forty five year old that had finally started taking her health more seriously....I had started running, and was training for a half marathon. But I was also a workaholic, had more of a type A personality, had run for public office....twice, a superwoman....took care of all the children's activities and their various appointments, and tried to keep up with a social life while living in one city, and working in another.

Phew!!! I feel tired already!
Then came the day....a few months after I ran my first half marathon. Twenty pounds lighter than I was before I started running, I felt fantastic! I was in better shape than I had been since I was a competitive swimmer, track and field runner, and ballerina in my teens and early twenties. That day I lost some blood from a nipple on my right breast. It was a small amount....the size of a needle head....and I probably wouldn't have seen it, if I hadn't been wearing a white bra.  That spot of blood would come and go, but never went away. 
I knew something was wrong. 
And in April of 2007 I heard the words, from my newly appointed oncologist, that nobody wants to hear...."You have cancer". 
That's the day my life changed. I was dumbfounded, confused, mad, in denial and hurt....not physically, but mentally. How could this happen to me????? I had three daughters, aged thirteen, eleven, and seven at the time. My mother and one of my sisters lived seven hours away from me. The other sister was closer, but several hundred more miles away in other ways. 
I felt alone.
These are real feelings felt by many cancer patients and survivors around the world. They come and they go.
They are more pronounced when first diagnosed.  Once treatment starts, cancer patients tend to be vey concentrated on getting better, and are not as concerned with the feelings of isolation. 
Once treatment is over, the feelings of depression and isolation tend to come back twofold. Many worry about what is to come next..... Suddenly the doctor visits go from two weeks to three months. 
That is the bad side of cancer.
But there is another side to things. The one where the cancer patients decides in their mind that they are going to survive. The one where they start to really appreciate the small things in life. The one where family takes a truly special significance, and the people who have stuck around, not only through treatment,.....but more importantly....way after that...are an important part of your life. The one where you are incredibly grateful for your children, and you give thanks for them every day when you wake up. The one that uplifts you, almost to tears, when you are running the last kilometre of your half marathon. The one where you are sooooo happy to celebrate the special holidays with your family and loved ones beside you. The one where your are incredibly happy to be alive. 
Nobody can feel this as much as a cancer survivor. 
And that is what I'm feeling today. A mother, to three incredible daughters, a daughter to one incredible mother (who has been there for me through thick and thin), and a sister to one.....who is still very far away (but I hope will come closer one day), and one who is had become more and more close to my heart.
It's Mother's Day, and I have appreciated celebrating this day, more and more, since I have survived cancer.
 This has been a wonderful weekend spent with my daughters. The first one since I have survived past five years.  They have shown me how important I am to them too....by giving up much of their time to be there with me. 
Thank you.
And to all mothers out there; whether cancer survivors, or not.....Be grateful, be happy, and enjoy your day immensely. 



Change....It's Your Decision

Recently, a good friend of mine wrote me, wanting  to introduce me to an esteemed colleague, and friend, who has cancer.  She wanted me to meet him, and felt I would have a lot to share with him. She spoke to him about me as well. She shared this blog, and my history.

And yesterday I met him for the first time. 
I'm always a little nervous before I meet someone I don't know regarding something as personal and life changing as cancer.
But we instantly bonded, and the conversation was easy and flowed naturally. At first our discussion revolved around  his particular case, and the decisions he would have to make for his treatment path, moving forward. Not an easy feat, to say the least. 
As it is with all cancer patients, and survivors, we compared our individual experiences. Many of them  are similar, with, perhaps, slightly different outcomes.  For example, those who have had this disease have all gone through the inevitable natural selection of friends.  In my case, one of my best friends of more than twenty years disappeared after my cancer diagnosis. On the other hand, some mere acquaintances;  people I hardly knew, were there for me at every turn. 
Following our discussion, I reflected on a few things. I have since accepted some of, what I perceived at the time, as "deceptions" from friends gone by, who were unable to handle the sad fact I was struck with the disease.  Some people are just not equipped to handle the intense feelings and heartbreak of seeing a loved one who is sick.  Others were of the absurd, yet completely real to them, impression that they could actually "catch" cancer from me. In any case, the people that surround me now, are the true souls who were there when I needed them.  My life, as it is now, was simply meant to reflect the internal changes I went through on this truly remarkable journey. 
It is these subtle, yet transformative changes in a cancer survivor that gives us our strength. People naturally resist and fear change. We are human beings that are just comfortable in what we know, and how we feel; no matter how toxic those feelings or situations may be. Lissa Rankin's Daily "Your Inner Pilot Light" spoke about change in today's edition:  "We try to protect ourselves from change by clinging to what we cannot make unchangeable, then we mourn it....even when what we lost really didn't make us happy in the first place. 
She concluded with " Change is inevitable. Suffering is optional."
This struck a cord in me, as a cancer survivor.  Anyone who has had cancer, and anyone who has been with a cancer survivor through their journey, can attest to the fact that the disease is life transforming. It changes you. 
I, as many of us, was afraid of change. I was scared, more than words can describe, the day I heard the words "you have cancer".  In fact I went into immediate denial.
I'm too young.....I still have so much of my life to live......So much to do...What will my young children do without their mother?.....
I  scratched, clawed and resisted any way I could. I cried. I wanted to cling to my old life; the healthier and carefree me.   
Many of the survivors I know went though this as well.
However, what isn't always the case with every cancer survivor, is that I didn't really suffer. Yes I lost my hair to chemotherapy. I went through the terrible depression of coming down from the steroids I needed to take with every chemotherapy treatment. I had a severe allergic reaction to one of my chemotherapy treatments, and would have died, if not for the watchful eye of my mother, who had accompanied me that particular day.  I went through a ten and a half hour operation, and four blood transfusions, to remove my breasts and have them reconstructed with skin from my abdomen.  I saw the sorry looks from a thousand people; some who knew what to say,  others who didn't.  I had four subsequent  operations following the first two....some that I couldn't anticipate or prepare for.
But through it all, I made a choice. I chose not to suffer. I chose to survive. I believed I'd be well. 
So Lissa's wise words can be applied to us as well. We cannot change the fact that we got cancer. But we can decide whether we suffer. The mind is a very powerful tool in the art of overcoming a disease. 
And suffering IS optional.



Welcome Back

 This week I did something that I hadn't done in longer than I'd like to admit.   I went for a run.   Now one would ask why I haven't gone out for a run in awhile;  especially  since I've been writing a blog on cancer survivorship and running over the past two and a half years.
 A few months ago in mid-November  I had my last surgery.  It was the sixth surgery that I had related to my breast cancer diagnosis.  When I had the double mastectomy in  August of 2007,  I also had reconstruction done at the same time, using tissue from another part of my body.   The reconstruction was well done and I was very happy with it.  Unfortunately, after time, and when everything had settled, the breast on the side I had cancer in became noticeably smaller.  So for the past few years I have undergone a couple of surgeries to correct the situation.
Once this last surgery  was over, I had the standard six week period of no exercise....running included. This brought me into the month of December, and the Christmas season.  One thing led to another and before I could blink, the New Year had been rung in, and 2013 was off to its start. 
And so there I was, in early January; one of the coldest months of the year, where I come from. The snow banks were huge, thanks to record snow falls in December, and my motivation was low. For some reason I cringed at the thought of putting on my coldest winter running gear, my ice grips and getting out the door. 
And I have always loved running outdoors. No matter how cold, or what the weather forecast is.  
But this year I didn't. 
There are many reasons why, and none at the same time. Suffice it to say that a couple of months later, and a trip to Florida, I still wasn't out on the road.....or even a treadmill for that matter. Sure, I had been walking. I have two dogs, and I'm out with them all the time. There's nothing I like to do more at the beach than go for a long walk with a loved one.  While in Florida walking was a daily occurrence. 
Then came Monday, April 15th.  The day of the Boston Marathon. Although I have never run it, I always get excited for those that are there.  Having run several half marathons, I can easily imagine the excitement in the air, and the delighted anticipation of the runners at the start of the race.  
And I put on my shoes and went for a run. It was fantastic and everything I had hoped for. Inspiration and hope for the future.
Then I returned home to the news from Boston.  How horrible!  Gut wrenching.  My sympathies go out to the families who lost a loved one, and to all those innocent victims; runners, spectators,  volunteers, race officials, and law enforcement, who were traumatized or injured as a result of this senseless act of terrorism.    I hope they find the perpetrators, and that they receive their due punishment.
But the running world is strong and resilient. It reminds me of the world of cancer survivorship; a second family. There is a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship in both worlds. It's all about positivity and humility.  Runners, like cancer survivors, stand up for one another. They lend support, encouragement and inspiration.
And so yesterday evening,  in the middle of rush hour, across the Charles River, in the parking lot of a bar in Boston, a group of three hundred runners did a commemorative four mile run  following a 26.2 (the number of miles in a marathon)  moment of silence.  Feisty and resilient, these runners sent out a clear message. You can't knock them down.  Although this race was targeted, they wanted the world to know that nothing can stop a runner from what they love.
If I wasn't inspired to get back on the road then, I sure am now.
I'm back!
And I, too, will run another race!