Surviving

A Real Non-Event

On Tuesday I had my annual check-up with my oncologist.

NINE YEARS!

(Of course, I will mark and celebrate these nine years many times over the next several months.  Nine years since my diagnosis.  Nine years since my "port" was installed.  Nine years since my chemo began. Nine years since my first clean scan.  Nine years since the end of chemo.  Because . . . really . . . there are so many anniversaries to "celebrate.")

Anyway.  The appointment.

All. Good.

A-OK.

See you next year!

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So.

Other than the appointment being a Big Life Marker . . . it also made me realize something I never-ever imagined possible in those raw-and-shining days just out of chemo . . . 

Having cancer is just not something I think about much anymore.

This is unfathomable to me.

I can go days now . . . maybe even weeks . . . without thinking about cancer or treatment or that I had it or worrying that it might come back.

I can hear about someone else (or someone's sister) (or someone's sister's ex-fiance's mother-in-law) (or someone who just happened to be a friend of someone's sister's ex-fiance's mother-in-law) (etc.) being diagnosed with cancer without that trap-door opening and sucking me down into the depths. 

I can think . . . I am a nine-year cancer-survivor.  And just be grateful for that -- without feeling guilty because of all the other cancer survivors who never made it to nine years. 

I can allow myself to trust in a future again, as much as any of us can.

THIS IS A BIG DEAL.

I've passed some huge milestone of "survival" somewhere along the way to nine years.  I'm not exactly sure when or where I did that . . . but I did.  I'll never kid myself.  My experience with a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma back in the fall of 2008 changed me . . . forever and for good.  

I have no illusions.  

I know that every day is a gift.  

And that life can change on a dime.

But after nine years . . . I'm grateful that my annual oncology check-up is just routine for me now.

A real non-event.


Slipped My Mind

Tom was away over the weekend - to curl in a bonspiel up in Canada.  Before he left, he reminded me, "Don't forget about the wine sale on Saturday."  (Because Tom manages our beverage inventory - and would usually hit the sale himself.)

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I had every intention of stocking up at the wine sale.  But I got busy with other things.  And, well.  I missed the wine sale.  It just slipped my mind.

It wasn't until yesterday that I realized . . .
the wine sale wasn't the only thing that had slipped my mind!

Saturday - February 4 - was also the 8th anniversary of my final chemo treatment.  A Big Day.  A Red Letter Day.  A Day I usually set aside for some serious reflection and celebration.

But it slipped my mind, too.  Completely.  I never even gave it a thought.

I think that's really significant. 

Y'know?


February 4: Not Quite Just Another Day

While there are many "anniversaries" to mark a cancer journey (diagnosis, treatment, NED*, etc.), I have chosen to mark the end of chemo as the anniversary I celebrate.

That's today.  
February 4. 
Seven years.

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In some ways, it seems like it was a long, long time ago.
And in others, I think . . . only 7???

Whatever.  It was a lifetime ago.

I really don't think about cancer or chemo or "survival" or any of it every day anymore.  I used to.  (Although I can conjure it all up in the blink of an eye.  Trust me on that.)  Seven years ago, I couldn't have imagined a day when I DIDN'T think about it.  Worry about it.  Freak a little.

So now, I guess it's "normalized" for me.  I suppose I've fully returned to my life-in-progress.  And that's a good thing.  My cancer experience . . . seems to be kind of a little "blip" on the radar screen of my life.

Except.  That's not quite it.

Because I didn't actually return to my life-in-progress.  That life . . . ended.  It wasn't just an interruption.  I emerged . . . a whole new person.

And this new person (that would be me) understands life just a bit differently.  This new person, 7 years on, understands that life is finite.  That every day really does count.  And that we shouldn't waste a moment.

So celebrate with me today.  Smile at everyone you meet.  Tell your friends and your family how much they mean to you. Color outside the lines.  Have dessert.  Take a risk and try something you've been dreaming of.  And, by golly, let people take pictures of you, even if they're goofy.

Because life is good.  
(But it is finite.)  (So don't wait.)

XO

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*NED is "cancer-speak" for No Evidence of Disease.


Lessons from Inside the Parentheses

Today . . . is the first in a series of personal "anniversaries" marking the beginning of my cancer diagnosis and treatment.  Much as I try to put these dates and events out of my mind, they tend to make their presence known . . .  down at my very core.  

And especially in September.

So forgive me while I revisit these ghosts of my past . . . and try to make sense of my experience seven years ago.  (It seems to happen every year in September.)

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Recently, I read a rather wonderful analogy of personal crisis (be it a cancer diagnosis - or any one of the myriad other Things That Go Wrong).  The author suggested that "catastrophes provide a pair of parentheses in which to live apart from real life, depositing you rather abruptly on the sidelines for a bit while normal life continues to eddy downstream."*

This description completely resonates with me.  When I was first diagnosed with cancer, and then for the long months of chemo, I craved only one thing: my normal life.  All I wanted was to live outside those parentheses again!  Back then, in the midst of treatment . . . I swore I'd never take the ordinary-ness of my days - the normal stuff- for granted again.  I looked forward to celebrating the little inconveniences of every day life.

And - for a time - after treatment, I did.  Because cancer is a very good teacher teacher.  It forces you to face up to what you should have known all along:  that life is fleeting, there is little time, and no room for regrets.

At first, after treatment, I felt . . . shiny and new, sanded and polished, incredibly fragile.  I knew - for sure - that I would never experience life in quite the same way again.  While I stepped lightly - but purposefully - away from The Edge, the colors seemed brighter and the boundaries sharper -- and everything tasted much, much fresher.  I took more risks, I reached out, I tried new things, and I spoke out louder and sooner than ever before.

But then one day . . . I was stuck in traffic.  I got impatient.  I yelled in frustration.  And then I realized . . . that I had gotten normal back.  I had moved away from The Edge, and out of the shadow of my cancer ordeal.  I was - once again - cranky about a routine traffic jam, something absolutely unimportant!

I had moved outside the parentheses -- away from the catastrophe and back to normal life.  (It's amazing how resilient we really are.)  But sometimes, it's good to revisit those lessons we learn inside the parentheses.

That's where I am right now.

It is September, after all. . . 

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*Lynn Darling in Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


On Breathing

"Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?"
                                                               --- Mary Oliver

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Today, February 4, marks a Very Important Day that I celebrate each year:  the anniversary of my final chemo treatment.

Six years.

This year . . . (for the first time) . . . this day kind of snuck up on me.  (Because, you see, I'm not Thinking About It all the time anymore.) (Like I did for the first four years.)  Although I knew my anniversary was coming up, I wasn't really thinking that I needed to mark it in any special way.

Until . . . 

Ted died last week.  

When I was going through chemo, I formed a "posse" -- with two other kindred chemo spirits.  Ted and Joel, people I already knew, were diagnosed with similar kinds of cancer right at the same time I was diagnosed. Together with our spouses, we socialized while we were in treatment.  Later, when our remissions set in and we were all back to Living Our Lives, the "posse" didn't ride together anymore.  But that bond was still there.  Y'know?  

But Ted's lymphoma came back.  And now . . . he's gone.

I only saw Ted once during this past year, but I do know that Ted filled his last year with living.  He did all the things he loved best.  He didn't waste any time.  He didn't just "breathe a little" -- he took big gulps of air.

So, against that backdrop, I'm celebrating my sixth anniversary.  I'll admit, Ted's dying has me a little freaked out.  It brings it all a little too close.  But it also adds perspective.  Now, it just seems a little more important to me that I mark this day . . . by thinking about how I might be able to take bigger breaths.  

Here's what I'm going to do today . . . to mark this occasion:

  • I'm going to FILL MY LUNGS . . . by going outside . . . where the air is cold and clear . . . and I'm just going to breathe.
  • I'm going to BREATHE HARD . . . by working out and working up a sweat and going into oxygen debt.
  • I'm going to TAKE A DEEP BREATH . . . by challenging myself to commit to a couple of things I've been thinking about trying.  
  • I'm going to EXHALE . . . and just keep purging all this . . . stuff . . . I really don't need anymore.
  • I'm going to STOP HOLDING MY BREATH . . . and just start something lovely . . . by ordering some Loft and casting on for this sweater.

And then, I'm going to celebrate with Tom at dinner tonight by making a toast . . .

To taking big gulps of air.  
And calling it a life!

 

 


Words . . . with Impact

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First, two facts:

  1. Yesterday was the 6th anniversary of my first chemo treatment.
  2. I am struggling with a big decision I need to make; one that involves priorities and decisions about how I want to live my life; one that isn't easy for me.

Next, the backstory:

Last March, I received an email from Dana, a blog-reader.  She let me know how much my story meant to her.  She told me that she wanted me to understand the "the impact your blog and willingness to share your experiences has made on a stranger's life."  She also told me that she was embarking on her first chemo treatment the next day.

We began a correspondence.

Now, to yesterday:

Yesterday was a rather difficult day for me.  Like I mentioned above, I am struggling with a decision.  In my heart, I know what I'm going to do, but I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do it yet. (And that's the hardest part.)  And, in my head, I kept circling back to starting chemo six years ago . . . and how cancer changed my way of thinking about the world and my place in it . . . and how, now, I'd slid back to the "before" . . . losing sight of my own priorities and getting swept up in the drama around me.

And then, before I went to bed, I opened my email.

And there it was.

An email from Dana's husband.  He wanted to let me know that Dana had passed away in late August. He said the chemotherapy was just never effective in stopping the advance of her cancer.  He wanted me to know that I "had made a difference in Dana's life and helped her from a distance at a time she needed it most."

I came undone.

It is overwhelming ... the power of words.

I can't help but think that, on that particular day at that particular time, his words were the words I needed most.  It was like Dana was reaching out and reminding me, "Girl. Where are your priorities? You don't have forever."

Words. . . with impact.

 


Before and After

We look before and after, and pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those
that tell of saddest thought.

                                            --- Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

There are turning points . . . watershed events . . . defining moments . . . in our lives all the time.

Sometimes, we notice them right away.  But, sometimes, it takes a little time and perspective before we can really understand just how pivotal and important certain events are in our lives.

Whatever the watershed, it is marked by a definite before . . . and a definite after.

For me, the biggest turning point in my life (so far!) has been my cancer diagnosis and treatment.  The contrast between my before . . . and my after . . . is remarkable.

Or.  

Maybe. Not.

Maybe . . . 

I'm just more aware.

I can just say that, for me, going through cancer and treatment -- and coming out the other side -- created a definite dividing line in my own life.  

Before.

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After.

Although the whole cancer nightmare is something I could certainly do without, I can use it as a marker in my life . . . for the new and different and interesting things that have happened in the last five years.  Things that I may not have been open to . . . before.

Friendships.

Travel.

Work.

Blogging.

Open-ness and sharing.

The liberating embrace of natural hair color.

A just-do-it sense of adventure.

A seeking . . . that just wasn't there . . . before.

Today . . . I celebrate my Five-Year-Blog-Anniversary.   Thanks to ALL of YOU . . . for being part of my after.  It's been a privilege and a pleasure to share my journey over the last five years with all of you.

 


I Am . . .

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Five years . . .

Five years ago today, I woke up early and headed off for my final chemo treatment.

I've celebrated February 4 every year since . . . as the day I truly began to think of myself as a "cancer survivor."  (My oncologist marks the day-of-diagnosis as the anniversary date of "survivorship."  I note that day, too, but I tend to consider my finished-with-treatment day as the more significant anniversary.)

I've been doing a lot (a LOT. . .) of thinking over the days leading up to today . . . about how to mark this day, how to honor it, and how to celebrate.  It's a bit overwhelming, actually, to think about . . .

Five years.

And then Carole sent out this week's Ten on Tuesday topic.  And I knew just what to do!  Celebrate with me, on this incredibly special day, as I reflect on what . . .

I AM!

1.  I am a SURVIVOR.  I actually despise that term.  But I'll accept it and use it, because it means something to other people.  And because I can't think of a better term (and I have tried).  What it means, to me, is that I went through something pretty awful, and I became stronger  - and different - because of it.  I try to take that strength and apply it to the world around me.

2.  I am GROUNDED.  I have figured out what is important to me - and what is not.  I tend to be less bothered now by things I can't control.  That's not to say that I don't get my panties in a bunch over stupid things.  Because, trust me, I do.  But I tend to be able to get my perspective back pretty quickly, and I tend to roll with situations a little better than I used to.

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3.  I am TUNED IN to my body and my health.  I was active before my cancer diagnosis, true.  But chemo knocked me on my butt in a pretty intense way.  By my final chemo treatment, I found it a challenge to walk around the block.  I got winded going upstairs in my house.  I was hyper-concerned about my white-cell count.  Now, I celebrate my fitness every day.  Running, spinning, jumping, dancing.  I love moving.  Moving . . . is living.

4.  I am HUMBLE.  Once you lose your hair, well. . . you find out what a minor part of yourself that REALLY is!  Yes, I used to spend a fortune on my hair.  Covering the grey.  Highlights.  Lowlights.  Standing appointments.  Thousands of dollars.  What a waste of time and money!  Now . . . grey hair.  Au natural.  Easy and cheap.  I am comfortable leaving the house without makeup.  I wear hats in the winter -- even if they mess up my hair.  It doesn't mean I don't like dressing up and making up -- it just means I've learned that I am fine As Is!

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"Graduating" from Chemo

5.  I am GRATEFUL.  I couldn't have made it through chemo without the angels in my life.  (And, believe me, the slog of chemo really reveals the angels!)  Five years out, I need to acknowledge those folks who slogged through it all with me every day:  the friends who didn't get "creeped out" (because many do. . .) and helped keep it "normal" (Cheri and Sue, especially); the friends who were in the same boat and became my "cancer posse" (Florence and Joel and Lissa and Ted); Dr. Liepman, my oncologist, with her no-nonsense approach to the whole experience; my kids (all THREE of them that year -- Erin and Brian and Dominik) who didn't freak out and just let me keep being be a mom; my sister (where do I even BEGIN with that one!) who sent me flowers after every.single.chemo treatment (and that was only the beginning); my mom and dad who cared for me, Tom, my kids, my dog, whatever I needed and whenever I needed it (and especially that One Day); and Tom.  Oh, Tom.  Beside me at every appointment.  Every treatment.  With his little laptop, researching treatments and drugs and taking notes and oh . . . I just can't begin to express my gratitude.  But I think you begin to get my drift.

6.  I am OPEN.  My cancer experience made me hyper-aware that time is limited.  For all of us.  Every day.  Don't wait.  If you want to do something . . . or go someplace . . . or say something . . . DO IT.  Go for it.  Just make it happen.

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7.  I am AWARE.  I am far less private than I was before my cancer diagnosis.  I used to hold back.  I didn't reach out.  I didn't say what I wanted to say.  But that's not true anymore.  Now I know that connections matter.  And I try to make them whenever I can.

8.  I am REFLECTIVE.  You could say that I've always been one to follow an inward journey, but I am even MORE that way now.  I think about who I am and how I want to interact with the world.  I want to figure out how to make the most out of my life.  I am sort of obsessed with self-reflection.

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9.  I am IMPATIENT.  I know that life is fleeting; that "normal" isn't forever; that the clock is ticking for all of us.  I have little tolerance for bullshit, subterfuge, waste, and manipulation.  Life is just too short.

10.  I am STEPPING AWAY FROM THE EDGE.  Every day.  Finishing cancer treatment is both exhilirating -- and terrifying.  That terrifying part is tough for family and friends to understand.  Chemo, terrible as it was, was my lifeline.  It made me better (by making me worse); it, ultimately, gave me my life back.  So. . . what happens when it's . . . done????  Will the cancer come back?  Will "normal" ever return?  Family and friends want the treatment to be the End of It.  Time to celebrate.  Time to get back to normal.  And . . . it is.  It surely is.  But.  It's also never going to be same again.  Because . . . now you know about The Edge.  You've come right up against it.  You've danced on it.  Maybe you've even teetered right there.  About to go over.  But you step away.  A little farther every day.  Until, after 5 years, you feel pretty safe.  (But it's there.  And you know it.)

So.  That's how I AM today.  Happy to be here.  Happy to be five years out.  And happy to share this post with all of you.

 


Can't Stop

Today . . . I need a soundtrack. **

 

Five years ago right now, I was in the midst of being diagnosed with cancer.  Although I don't think about it quite as obsessively as I once did, I still think about it every day.  And, in many ways, that whole experience - from concern to worry to diagnosis  and right on through treatment and into  "survivorship" - has defined who I AM now.

This life is more than ordinary. 

If there's one thing that my cancer experience has shown me, it's that life really IS more than ordinary. 

So, reach out.

Grab it.

Wring as much out of it as you can.

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Go write your message on the pavement.

Figure out what you really want to do.  And then do it.

Travel the world.

Learn new stuff.

Move.  Jump.  Stretch.  Run.

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Can't stop, addicted to the shindig.

So, go do something big.

Something you never thought you could do.

Because . . . you can!  And, in fact, you ought.

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This life is more than just a read-through.

CAN'T STOP!

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**  This weekend, I ran a 5K.  Not that big a deal, really.  But, for me, it was a Big Deal.  My personal 5-year "thing."  I need to acknowledge the Couch-to-5K app for getting me going . . . and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for providing the soundtrack that worked best for getting me through the actual running part.  Their songs, in my ears, kept me moving.  (Can't Stop: Definitely my running mantra.)  But, mostly, I need to thank Tom . . . who never laughed and only supported my running efforts