Monday, March 11, 2013

Stripped Bare

That's me on the bottom right doing my best to fit my square peg in a round hole
 I think the person I was before cancer has disappeared into the shadows. I mourn that version of myself. She took forty-four years to create and three to dismantle. She put everyone else first. She had a self-deprecating sense of humor. She was shy, humble, and quiet (except when she laughed). She was constantly on the move making sure that life ran smoothly for those she loved. She swallowed her feelings so that no one would be bothered or upset. She was kind to a fault, timid, and unsure. I miss her familiarity. She was a comfortable pair of shoes and I walked all over her until I wore her out.

Attempting to be Supermom

Cancer brought my life to a screeching halt. Little by little with every treatment, surgery, indignity, stab of the needle, and falling hair illness stripped me bare. There was no where to run and nothing to hide behind anymore.

A battered blank canvas

Cancer began to define me. It still does, in a way, otherwise I'd have no interest in writing about it. I resented how cancer forced me to throw away the worn out, familiar me. I mean, who am I if I'm not that woman-child who smiled and performed on cue?

I don't know. All I can say is I am in process, a one thousand step project with no instruction booklet included. I constantly add a new pieces and toss aside those that don't fit any more. The results can be shocking, especially to the people who knew me before my dismantling.

To the chagrin and annoyance of some, I've shed the drive to please others because it will make me look worthy and good. I've replaced it with a desire to do for others (no agenda attached) because their happiness makes me feel alive.

I'm rebuilding beauty. My mood and self-image is not swayed by perfect hair, make-up, clothes, and a number on a scale. I look to my heart to tell me if I am beautiful or not. Beauty is as beauty does or as Forest Gump's mother taught him, "Stupid is a stupid does." It was stupid and not beautiful to demean myself on the basis of what I saw in the mirror. No more of that.

I threw away my easily intimidated nature and discovered my strength in the realization that we are all equally vulnerable and equally strong. I used to be afraid of what others could do to me. Now I'm aware that there is nothing anyone can do to me because I am so much more than one difficult moment in time. Cancer made me keenly aware that I can survive a massive storm and be better for it in the end.

And a needle guided lumpectomy brought home an important lesson in a painful but necessary fashion. Here is the epiphany, my friend...Every day is a treasure and every moment is a gift. I get to decide how to feel and how I will react. I am in control of my inner life because that is all I can control. To see my life this way is a complete turn around. Once, every day was another set of problems to solve (or avoid) and every moment was a minefield to be cautiously navigated. I lived in fear of making the wrong move.

For two years it was obvious to the world that I had cancer. My short, spiky hair, pale skin, and various treatment apparatuses (i.e. drains, neon colored bandages, port-a-cath, tissue expander, ace bandage wraps) gave me away. Not so now.

Now the "apparatuses" and changes are all internal. I can choose to share them or I can hide my pink ribbon survivor status. It's a decision I make every minute of every day. Yes, in many ways the big C defines me but it doesn't control me.

Amen for that.

We are works of art
To all my pink ribbon sisters - If you are struggling with what to do now that you have moved from patient to survivor reading a booklet called Facing Forward - Life After Cancer Treatment might be helpful. It was written by the National Cancer Institute to help us with this transition. There are chapters about intimacy and feelings (things we most often avoid talking honestly and openly about) and a chapter on managing your follow-up care, which is very important. I hope you find the booklet as helpful as I did.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Circle of Support

When I found out I had cancer I felt so alone. It didn't matter that my husband was with me holding my hand. At least, not until the initial shock passed. And when it did something miraculous happened. My friends and family drew close around me like a wagon train circling tightly together to fend off dangers in the night.

My support circle (I like this term) formed organically with almost no effort on my part. The word got out that I was sick and suddenly they were there. It doesn't happen this way for everyone. I thank God for the loving people in my life.

People who cared about me seemed to know instinctively what I needed. My in laws, God bless them, made plans to fly across the country every three weeks to help while I underwent chemotherapy. A neighbor took in my youngest son, Ethan, on the afternoons that I couldn't lift my head off the couch.

Sheila (friends for 30 years) helped after my mastectomy
A lifelong friend flew out from Georgia to be with me when I had my mastectomy. My children cooked, cleaned, and cared for me to the best of their ability.

Alicia ran in the Alaska Run for Women
 My niece participated in a race in my honor. Another friend volunteered to give Ethan rides to and from school when I was so out of it that I didn't trust myself behind the wheel.

Marla called often from Hawaii and sent care packages in the mail
 My husband, God bless him too, never let go of my hand. He held me, bathed me, changed surgery dressings and emptied drains, and most importantly made me smile and laugh at a time when every happiness seemed like a double edged sword.

Every woman deserves a loving partner like mine

And that was just the beginning.

Two FaceBook friends who'd had cancer sent letters of support. They were my mentors, my sisters. They guided me through the darkness and listened to all my fears (and lots of whining and bitching, too).

Even with this help I did my best to go along as if nothing was happening. I kept my regular schedule until after two months of chemo I hit a wall and could do no more. It took all of my energy just to sleep. This may not make sense to everyone and I'm glad it doesn't. I posted on FaceBook that I really needed help. Within hours my phone rang. It was Ronda, a lovely lady I'd met through PSI Seminars.

Ronda said, "Tell me what you need and I'll get it done."

I collapsed into tears and couldn't speak. Ronda stayed quiet and waited. The only sound I heard through my cries was a gentle shhh it's going to be okay on the line.

Ronda got it done. She organized friends from PSI and The Henderson Writers' Group. Food appeared at my door each evening. My house was cleaned from top to bottom. All transportation for my children was provided. Holiday dinner was prepared for us by several families and delivered on Thanksgiving morning.

This is what I wish for anyone diagnosed with a serious illness. I wish for them to have a circling of the wagons, loved ones who hold back the dangers in the night, shielding you from stress and strain so you can give all your energy to recovery. This is the kind of world I want to live in and what we all deserve.

Since my illness I've often imagined what it would have been like to go through cancer alone. It makes my blood run cold to think about it. This happens too often. People are left (for many reasons) without a support system. My prayer is that we would all offer our help to those in need and be part of their support circle. I truly believe that it's a blessing to the receiver but also to the giver.

Thank you to those who were/are part of my support circle. I love you and have the deepest admiration for you.

Thank you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cancer, Cancer Go Away. Come, Never!

When I was a little girl I never thought about money or the financial gyrations my parents went through to provide for me. I never thought about taxes, or insurance, or politics, or illness and disease and death.

Illness and disease and death.

Three little words, really. I know I can't ignore them or pretend that they don't effect everyone on the planet at some point in their human journey. After all, what is the saying? Nothing is sure in life except death and taxes? So why am I so bothered by them lately? Bothered to the point of wishing for the return of my childlike view of the world - a world where my mother held me when I cried, my dad worked to pay the bills, and my biggest worry was if my friend would be at home when I knocked on her door carrying my pink Barbie case under my arm.

Sleeping in blissful peace

I can't go back, but Lord knows I've tried in the last month to lock my vision on the shiny parts of life and ignore the rest.

Today I'm taking the blinders off. Here is the ugly and hurtful truth. People I know and love are going to get cancer, all shapes and forms of this dreaded disease. People I care about are going to die of cancer and die quickly in some cases. People I like and admire who have had cancer are going to relapse. I might even relapse. Ouch, that one stung but it's painfully true.

I visited the doctor today. She ordered a chest x-ray because I shared with her how I've been feeling lately. "It's nothing, I'm sure. Let's just be proactive," she said as she wrote the order.

"Yes. Let's do that," I replied as those three little words played like a scratched record in my head.

Illness, disease, death.

I'm vulnerable to this droning music because, lately, the point has been hammered home that the earth could suddenly move under my feet. Again. I'm well now but who says I'm going to stay that way? In the last few months I've been reminded over and over how fragile our bodies can be. It's left me shaken.

Since I have not asked anyone's permission to write about them I will honor my beloved friends anonymously.

Except for this one, as I now have permission. Mrs. Theresa Beauchamp lived in upstate New York. She raised a large family, giving everything she had to her children and their children. Her smile and dancing eyes lit up all the photos I've seen of her. She lifted, lugged, remodeled, and worked around her house well into old age because it made her happy. She gathered with her family at the lake and reveled in the noise of passels of grandchildren playing in the water. Late last year she was diagnosed with cancer and to her family's dismay was gone seven weeks later. I mourn her because I love her daughter, Terry, and through her daughter I see all of this glorious lady's accomplishments. She will be missed.

Terry and her mother

There is a man who loved kids so much he taught them English for many years. He loved to write. He loved to play basketball. He was the fiercest critic of my writing. I am better and more skilled because of it. One evening not so very long ago he passed out on the basketball court. He had a brain tumor. He stopped  going out and I missed the way he'd line through and scribble over my manuscripts. One Monday evening last year he showed up at a writers' group meeting. I was lucky enough to be there. Afterwards, several of us went out to eat. We talked and laughed until my sides hurt. My friend joked in his usual off color way. I was so happy to see him but I could tell he was fading. We talked on the phone a few times before he moved across country to have the support of his family. He died in December. I cried when I saw the picture of his headstone. I can't bring myself to erase his number from my phone.

Another friend is recovering from breast cancer. She seems to be as sassy and vibrant as ever but I can't wait to hug her and look in her eyes. I need to see for myself that she has come through to the other side. And yet another friend is in the hospital again, working her way back to remission and normal life.

And a few days ago, a dear friend in my home state of Georgia shared that she's been diagnosed. She's reaching out to me because she knows I will understand. I'm her big sister in cancer. If she were pledging my sorority I'd turn her around and face her toward the door with marching orders to never come back. Sadly, life is not a college campus and she doesn't have a choice in learning the secrets of the breast cancer club.

Since I have been in her shoes, I can't go on blissfully saying bad things only happen to other people. I can't say that someone else will be there to provide comfort. It's not okay if I look the other way until the crisis is over. If I put my fingers in my ears and sing la, la, la, one day I will have to take them out, acknowledge that life is scary and not at all fair. My parents knew it. Every generation before them knew it. It's my turn.

Illness, disease, and death.

Don't ignore.



Be strong.

And, there you go. It's all anyone can do.