Surviving

Trust Me

About this time twelve (!) years ago, I was beginning my very unnerving, frightening, and frustrating path toward an eventual cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen.  How could I have known then . . . that the emotions and feelings of those days would be back to haunt me twelve years later in the form of a global pandemic!

Yep.  

They're all there; the same emotional elements . . . 

  • Shock . . . learning that life really IS temporary -- and that none of us is guaranteed a future.  Or, at least, a future that we can control.
  • Denial . . . this can't really be happening; they must be wrong; let's get another opinion.
  • Living in a "trance" . . . going through the motions of life while adjusting enough to deal with the reality of the situation.
  • Freefall . . . losing life-as-we-knew-it -- and the comfort of thinking that we knew what the future would look like.
  • Living in limbo . . . because we really have no idea what will happen next, or when, or what it will look like AFTER; hoping there IS an AFTER.
  • Fear and anxiety . . . about being sick, about dying, about not knowing, about, well, EVERYTHING.
  • Accepting . . . what we're dealing with, focusing on the facts, taking action.

Cancer diagnosis.
Global pandemic.
More alike than different.

Twelve years ago, I was going through these feelings on my own, really.  Now . . . all those feelings and emotions are collective!  Rather than just me feeling those feels . . . well.  Right now we're ALL feeling them!

Oh! Oh! There's one more thing.

Hair!

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When I first got my cancer diagnosis, the first question out of my mouth was not (as you might expect) "Am I going to die?"  Oh, no!  It was, "Will I lose my hair?"  

And, yeah.  I did.  (Lose my hair.)

It was devastating.  Pre-cancer-Kym cared a lot about her hair.  (A LOT.)

But it didn't take me long to understand that my hair was not really all that important in the overall scheme of things.  Losing my hair to chemo freed me in ways I never could have imagined before my cancer diagnosis.  When my hair grew back, I embraced the silver.  I kept a low-key, simple-to-maintain style.  I threw away my round brush!  I didn't worry about my hair looking goofy when I rolled out of bed and went to the gym.  Sure.  My cowlicks still bugged me, and I got regular haircuts -- but I didn't stress over it anymore, y'know?

A lot of my friends are stressing about their hair right now -- with all the salons closed and our favorite stylists sidelined with the stay-at-home orders.  Maybe you are, too?  

I'm here to tell you . . . it'll be okay!  

Use this time as an opportunity to start growing out your silver.  (You won't believe how liberating it is.) Now's your chance to let your hair grow long enough to try a different style.  Or grow out your bangs.  Go natural.  Maybe you've always wondered if you could cut your own hair.  You could even try some crazy, temporary hair dye and try something off-the-charts different.  

Or you can just put a hat on!

It's just hair.  
And it turns out that hair . . . is just another something we think we can control.  It's sort of a physical embodiment of all those other feels we're feeling.  Something concrete . . . in the midst of all that heavier stuff like the limbo and the "trance" and the freefall and the fear and the anxiety.

Keep moving.  
Once we get to the AFTER - and we WILL get to the AFTER - we'll ALL look different.  We'll BE different.  Our hair.  Our attitudes.  Our compassion.  The way we deal with adversity.  The way we see the world.  The way we see EVERYTHING.

Trust me on that.

 


It's My Life

Today is a special day for me.  An auspicious day, in fact.  A private anniversary.  

You see, ten years ago today - February 4, 2009 - I walked out of my last chemo treatment.  I was weak, exhausted, wrung out -- but in remission.  I felt relieved and fragile and pretty raw. 

Here I am today.  

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Ten years later.  Healthy.  Moved on.  Ready for whatever comes next -- but always remembering what came before.

In those first days post-chemo, I chose a theme song . . . (hit it, Jon) . . . and I've been singing it ever since. 

It's my life.
It's now or never.
I ain't gonna live forever.
I just want to live while I'm alive.

Today, I'm celebrating.
It IS my life.
(And I'm really glad to still be here.)

 

 

 

 


In Quiet Celebration

"I decided if you're lucky enough to be alive, you should use each birthday to celebrate what your life is about."
                                                                              ---Mary Steenbergen

Today is my birthday.

I'm 59.

And I'm damn happy about it!

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Ten years ago, when I was turning 49, I was in a much different place.  I had a kid in college and a kid in high school.  I had a puppy.  My husband was really busy with his job and traveling a lot.  I was looking for a new job.  I spent a lot of time and money hiding the grey in my hair.  I was dreading my next birthday.  And . . .  I was beginning to seriously worry that there was something wrong with me.

By the time my 50th birthday rolled around, though, I was so happy to see it.

Although I never think having cancer was a "good" experience, I  know that it brought a perspective about life and living that changed everything for me.  As I celebrated my 50th birthday, I was just a few weeks out of chemo.  My hair hadn't grown back yet.  I was just beginning to feel strong enough to take a walk around my neighborhood every day.  I was fragile, but ready to begin living again.  Trust me -- I had no regrets or concerns about turning 50!  

I'm pretty sure that this entire decade of my 50s has been different because of my cancer experience.  Although I likely would have gotten to the same place (physically, emotionally, spiritually) eventually, I'm pretty sure my new perspective got me there faster!  Before cancer, I can't imagine I'd have let my hair just be its natural white.  I think it would have taken me longer to go out without worrying about putting on makeup.  I know I would never have started a blog.  I doubt I would have had the confidence to take art classes.  I would have thought meditation was too "out there."  And I'm certain I'd still be just dreaming and waiting-for-someday to travel.

Being diagnosed with cancer . . . and then coming through treatment . . . just brought a sense of clarity and immediacy to just LIVING.  Really . . . this decade of my 50s has been so much richer because I suddenly understood (in a very real way) that I actually wasn't going to live forever!  That I needed to take responsibility for embracing every day that I have.  That if I wanted to do something, I better do it now.

I am so lucky . . . 
to have been diagnosed early
to have a new treatment protocol available
to have had the support of Tom and my kids, my sister and my parents
to have LIVED.

So, my birthday is a big deal to me.  It's a marker that I've reached another year.  I'm still here.

Older.

And damn happy about it!


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.