Back to My Normal....or Where I Was All Along

A few days ago I had my regular biannual appointment with my oncologist.  Going on six years later, the process, strange as it seems, is still the same....... I get a case of the jitters, and start a list of topics I'd like to discuss with my doctor.  In some circumstances I write my pivot nurse, Dail, and send the questions ahead of time so she can speak to my doctor, and have the answers ready for me when I get to his office. I see my doctor, ask the questions I want answered, and then go home, or to work, with a deep sense of relief that I'm OK.....in fact I feel like a rock star!

Prior to this appointment, there had been a few medical articles published regarding tamoxifen, the drug I'm on. When I started it, the prescription length was for five years. Medical specialists and researchers are starting to suggest a period closer to ten years instead. I wanted to have a discussion with my own physician regarding these most recent studies, and his suggested treatment for me. 

I knew when I was driving over to the hospital that there was a possibility that I would have to remain on my medication for a longer time. At the same time, I was really......really....looking forward to coming off of it, and getting "back to normal".  The behind the scenes story, and one that most people don't talk about, is that this medication is known as the twenty pound pill. Does every patient that takes it gain twenty pounds? Probably not. But I did. 

And I wanted off of it. I wanted to run with that extra weight off. Imagine running, or walking, with that extra twenty pound sack of potatoes all the time.....

As with everything since being diagnosed with breast cancer, life is different, and the twists and turns that I have been subjected to in the past with this disease will continue in the disease free life that I know now. I left the hospital with the understanding that if I wasn't going to be on one pill, I'd be on another. 

And I realized that the "normal" I was looking for was no longer my normal. It hasn't been my normal for six years now, when my new normal started.  

In fact, my new normal is way better. Since I have been cancer free, I have gained a few friends, and lost others. I have changed my lifestyle and become much more health conscious. I eat healthy and exercise regularly. I meditate, and have developed a more positive attitude. This blog, I truly hope, is helping more and more patients and survivors find their happy space, as well as the inspiration to find that special light in their "new normal".  I have been a public speaker, and love talking to high school aged children about my experience, and about the importance of learning to maintain a healthy lifestyle at a young age. This summer I'll be walking to raise money for women's cancers during the "Weekend to End Women's Cancers" at the end of August. 

This IS my normal, and it's so much better than the normal I have been looking for in my future. Sometimes we spend too much time and energy coveting one small thing in life...and we get lost in there. It's similar to those who are never happy with what they have.....They always want that special something that is bigger and better.


When all the time........it's been under your nose.


So here I am, once again, smelling the flowers (albeit figuratively........please, please, please go away snow) and dancing in the rain (that I can do). Being grateful for who is in this journey with me....pills and all.


Teaching By Example

Back in the day, when I was in Grade 9 at Malcolm Campbell High School, in Montreal,  I played the flute in the high school senior band. Miss Gold, our band leader/teacher and a very involved and active conductor, was always looking for opportunities for our band to flourish and perform our magic. 


One of the opportunities we had was to do a band exchange with a school in Belleville, New Jersey; not far from New York City. It was during that time that I met Joanne and Donna, students and musicians at Belleville High School. They came to Montreal for a few days, and both girls came to stay at my family home. When it was our turn to go to New Jersey, I stayed with Joanne's family.


We put on concerts, went sightseeing and had a few parties. It was everything a fifteen year old travelling with a very cool and mother-like band leader, and a busload of her fellow band members could imagine. I had a wonderful time, and the hospitality of my American family was warm and generous. Friendship bonds were made, and remained strong over a number of years, where the only means of keeping in touch was good old snail mail. 


As with most things in life, we fell out of touch. Life has a way of twisting and turning, and some people stay along the winding road. Others do not.  All of us went on to higher education, met our significant others, and started families.


And that's where most people would end their stories......in the sad limbo of life where you never really get to know what happened in the lives of their good friends.


But the unexpected happened a few years ago, when Joanne and Donna found me on Facebook. We were thrilled, and grateful to have found one another again. This was followed with a long phone call with Joanne, where we caught up with each other and the successes, as well as the trials and tribulations in our lives. We have seen pictures of each others' children, and now share the successes of their lives as well. 


And this happy story is a very longwinded way for me to get to the point of today's blog. I have always believed, and ....... yes, pontificated..... (there will be a few eye rolls here) about how important it is to teach children through our actions. Words are cheap sometimes, and simply saying "I love you" or "I'm sorry", without showing it through actions and intentions will not allow that message to strike home. Children are very observant. They watch and hear more than any grown up or parent can imagine. 


The way we conduct our lives, and the way we treat people is the ultimate lesson for those following in our footsteps. My friend, Joanne is one of those examples. She has brought up two girls who have learned, and continue to learn from her generosity and the number of hours she gives freely of her time. 


The result? Her daughter, Jenna, just donated ten inches of her hair for Pantene who is accepting these donations in Canada in order to make wigs for those going through breast cancer treatment. When Joanne contacted me yesterday to let me know, I was so touched. She told me that Jenna had a particular interest, partly because she knows of her mother's link to her Canadian friend, and her journey through breast cancer.


This is but a mere drop in the sea of generous donations that are made to the cause on a daily basis. But to me, it is like gold. The importance of such a gesture is indicative of the nature of the leadership that surrounds her, and the compassion she has in her heart for people who are suffering. At a time where most pre-teens or teenagers are worried about things like getting the newest electronic gadget, or getting their hair and makeup just so.....it's nice to see that there are young people in the generations that are following ours that are aware of the impact that cancer, or other chronic diseases has on a family and loved oness. The drastic change in in her image by cutting off ten inches of her hair is something that would be stressful for someone her age, and it takes a lot of will to overcome the anxiety she would have had, in order to offer such a precious gift.


So to Joanne, and Jenna, as well as all those who are, or who have wonderful role models in their lives, I say thanks. On behalf of all breast cancer patients, and those who have survived and know the importance of such a gesture, we are grateful beyond words. Your action says it all. 


Life is My Beach

The beach has always held a special place in my heart. When I walk on the sand and listen to the waves hit the shore, there's a veil of peace that covers me. It brings me joy and happiness...like I'm walking on clouds. I'm sure it's probably like that for a fair number of people. Others may find their joy and peace at the top of a mountain, by a lake, or in a forest. When you find that special place, you know it. You've found your inner child....your inspiration....your true emotions.


I've been at the beach for two weeks now. I'm visiting my parents, whom I haven't seen since Canadian Thanksgiving, last October. They didn't come back to Canada for Christmas, so it's been a long time. Since my cancer diagnosis, times like this have taken a much greater importance. The "taken for granted" factor of my earlier, pre-cancer years has been replaced with a deep appreciation of where I have come from, and the people who are important in my life. My parents will not be around forever, but none of us will. There are people that leave this world early, and all too suddenly. Others fight an illness over a number of years. Some leave this world peacefully in their sleep.


And so here I am at the beach, being at one with my inner child and at peace. I am also creating memories with my family members that are so dear to me. The longer I get into cancer survivourship, the more I look for occasions like this. That new dress, or that newest gadget will always be there for one to buy. The experience of a holiday, a cruise, an out of town visit, or just plain making time to see the ones that are the most important to you will not. These are the occasions that you'll remember when you're old; the memories that will cause your heart to flutter as you replay that time in your mind, or share a laugh with your friends while telling them your story about it. 


This is the true meaning of happiness, but one many people tend to ignore. As our life passes before us, and as our busy schedules dictate where our time and energy is spent, we overlook the child before us that only wants you to read them a book, or an elderly friend or neighbour who would be thrilled with a visit and a few minutes of your time. 


Life waits for no one. People come and people go. It's up to you to choose whether you create memories with them or not. The satisfaction of creating these special times far outweighs the temporary thrill of a shopping spree, or the laughs one shares with a sunny day friend.


And even the beach will see the rain from time to time. Those that remain there, similar to the rainy day friends, see it for what it's truly worth. For even in the rain, there is peace and warmth. I was walking on the beach with my eldest daughter, Stephanie, a few days ago. She remarked that even when the harsh waves slap up on the shore, there is balence. They eventually retreat, and the land knows they will be back with a vengence, or maybe a little calmer next time. They are in harmony and peacefully co-exist.


I will remember that conversation as we walked along the beach that day, as I will remember the conversations during the many walks I took with my parents. You see, the problems of the world can be resolved while walking along the water. The most ingenious ideas are born there as well. Look around at the beach some day. There are not many sad people there. 


And while I must leave soon, I will do so with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face....and a whole lot of memories that will fill my scrapbook of life, to be taken out when I need some warmth, or to plain just keep that smile on my face.  


That scrapbook is getting much fuller now....with the rich memories that count. 


Running for Gold

The other day I was going through a box of accumulated stuff in my house. In one of the boxes I found a pile of Runner's World calendars. I use them to record my runs and my usual form of cross training; biking. I would also write down the times that I did weights in the gym. 

I started doing this in 2007,  a few months after I had run my first half marathon in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  It was very encouraging to look at the month on my wall, and see all training I had accomplished. I would line the square with a different colour for each; pink for running, green for biking and orange for weights.  It inspired me to keep it up.
Flipping through my calendars, I got to April of 2007. That was the month I was diagnosed with cancer.  My first operation; a lumpectomy was done on April 25th.  I ran a 4k the day prior to my operation. One week later, On May 3rd, I did my first 3k walk (wasn't allowed to run yet). A couple of walks later, and two weeks after my first operation, I started running again.By the third week of May, I was back on track with my training schedule, and by early June, I had run 13.1k, or half marathon distance. 
During this time I had received the unfortunate news that the first operation was unsuccessful. The margins were not clear. We were now discussing a mastectomy. 
But running kept me company during the hot summer months leading up to the double mastectomy operation scheduled for August 3rd, 2007. The operation lasted ten and a half hours, and I was in the hospital for one week; a long time in hospital standards here. For six long weeks I was recovering at home. I had strict instructions from my surgeon to stay at home, and for a few weeks, was not even able to walk off my property. It would cause serious damage, if I was to fall.
I was allowed to start running on September 10th. I have a big "OK TO START RUNNING" written in the square on my calendar for that day. I ran a 1k. Underneath my distance I wrote "very difficult". But I kept up with it and slowly started increasing the mileage. 
Again, and as fate would have it, I was not out of the woods yet. They had removed 17 lymph nodes during surgery as they had found traces of cancer cells. I started the first of eight chemotherapy treatments on September 20th that same year. Running had become my lifeline at this time. I was running an average of three times per week, and even ran a 5k race in Ottawa, Ontario on October 28th.
You see, running was good for my health; even then. Even when I was weakened by surgery and chemo. Even when I had a high level of stress in my life.  As hard as it may seem, continuing with an exercise regime improved my outlook, helped reduce my side affects from chemo, and lightened my mood. I may not have covered the distances I would have as a healthy person, but the distances I covered mentally and spiritually were even better. 
And my daughters saw, first hand, how to act in the face of difficulty.  I hope this will be a comfort to them later in their lives. When I look back at this time in my life, I even surprise myself! I was a gold medal winner in the race of life.



Cancer- Did You Know?

This week we celebrated  World Cancer Day. The declaration and theme of this year's important day is to dispel damaging myths and misconceptions about cancer, and uses the tagline “Cancer - Did you know?”.  This day gives anyone who has been touched by cancer a chance to collectively call for improvement of general knowledge around cancer and  to raise awareness about some of the misconceptions about the disease. 

On a global level, World Cancer Day targets four myths: That....Cancer's just a health issue; it's a disease of the wealthy, elderly and that found in developed countries; it's a death sentence; and it's my fate.
As an example, data from a recent international study, and initiative of the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (includes Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) is very revealing.  The data reveals there are a variety of reasons why people delay going to the doctor. Some believe that cancer means a death sentence.  Others think that if they were to be diagnosed with cancer, the treatment would actually be worse than the cancer itself. Other reasons to delay visiting the doctor are that they are worried about what may be found, or that people are just too busy.
So.... if I get this right, the early signs of cancer are being ignored, and people are putting off going to see their doctors because of a variety of fears and their busy schedules.
Having been through cancer, I can attest that nudging yourself out the door was the hardest thing I ever did. I was losing blood from a breast nipple. I knew it wasn't normal. I was also training for a half marathon. I had read in my running books that this was common among women that were training hard.
It's not like the blood was trickling out constantly. It was a little speck, hardly visible at first. But I went to the doctor anyway. He actually agreed with me that it was quite possible that I was chafing as a result of running, and told me to get a more supportive bra.
And he sent me for a mammogram. 
I'd like to say that's how I was diagnosed, but it wasn't. The mammogram came back negative. Turns out I have dense breast tissue, but didn't find this out until I WAS diagnosed.
So I had to push for more testing.  You see, I knew something was wrong. We are very in tune with our bodies, if we just sit back and feel.... Two weeks after my "normal mammogram" I was diagnosed with breast cancer. 
And through all this, was I afraid?  Yes I was terrified.
Was I worried about what they would find? Absolutely, although I inherently knew what was going on; I was just in denial.
Was I too busy to see the doctor? Oh yes! I was working 90 hours per week in a high stress job. The excuse, "I have no time" would have been easy. 
Was the treatment worse than the cancer. No. It's not fun; it's just different. 
Cancer is not a death sentence. I am a five year cancer survivour, with intentions to live a full and happy life. Would I be here now, if I chose to ignore the signs? Most likely not. And look at all I'd be missing.  
So find it in your heart to treat yourself right. If not for you, then for those you love.  My daughters were young when I was diagnosed. They're now 18, 16 and almost 13 years old. They need me. They love me. They would miss me terribly if I was gone.  I am here to attest that you have the strength to do it. Whether you initiate it, or that kick in the butt come from someone you love or respect, that doctor appointment can be made.  It's not easy, but once you start, you have owned the situation, and more strength will come to you. It will get easier.
And all those myths will be dispelled.