Cancer-versary, Take 4

Cancer-versary, Take 4

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Four years ago today, I heard the words “you have breast cancer” forever changing my life and challenging my limits. I’ll never forget that day. My time on this planet became more precious that day. My future became more fragile. Looking back brings a flood of emotion as I recall the experience of that moment in time, now altered by the lens of time and new perspective. I now count every year that passes as progress towards the goal of so many survivors – stay on the right side of the percentages to become a 5-year survivor, a 10-year survivor, and on and on.

Amongst cancer survivors, this date is known as a Cancerversary. There is some debate regarding which date truly represents a Cancerversary. Some choose the day they were diagnosed. Others choose the day surgery removed the tumor and they became cancer-free. Others count their anniversary as the day they complete all active treatment. For me, there are several dates that will forever stand as milestones on this journey. I mark January 31st as my Cancerversary, the day I learned of my diagnosis, a day I will never forget. I consider February 24th as my Cancer-Free Versary, the day I became cancer free with surgery. Other dates also are permanently etched into my mind; the first day of chemo, last day of chemo, end of radiation and active treatment, reconstruction surgery.

As much as I’d love to put it all behind me, being a cancer survivor has become a part of who I am. As time goes on, it tries to fall into the back recesses of my memory. Unfortunately, there are always reminders that pop into my day unexpectedly. My latest surgery is a big reminder. Pain is a reminder. Limitations on the things I am able to do is a reminder. The friendships I’ve made, the women who have touched my life in ways I never imagined, and, sadly, the friends I’ve lost serve to keep cancer’s ugly presence in my life.

January 31st never comes and goes without my thoughts turning to what cancer has taken from me, but also what it has given to me. Each year, when I reflect on the impact cancer had on my family, I’m thankful that I’ve been blessed with another year to watch my children grow. I’m thankful that my children have grown to be strong, amazing girls. I’m thankful for every year that I have with my husband. I’m thankful for each new adventure and the ability to plan new adventures for my future.

I honor this anniversary as a day that changed me deeply. I honor this day with respect and love for all of my fellow cancer survivors. Here’s to one more spin around on this amazing planet.

 

 

50 After 50

50 After 50

I’ve been working on a “50 after 50” list for over a year now. I suppose you could call it a bucket list, but I’m not planning to kick the bucket any time soon, so I prefer not to use that term. I’m keeping a list of fifty big things that I want to achieve after I turn 50 years old. My original idea was to do all fifty things in my 50th year on this planet, which would have been an amazing accomplishment, but what’s the fun in rushing. I’m here for the long haul. I am going to aim high and enjoy each and every experience on my list. Today I hit that 50 year milestone (hooray!!) That means it’s time to start checking things off my list.

My kids tease me, saying that I don’t understand what a bucket list is supposed to be. This is perhaps because I sometimes joke around, saying things like, “Cancer – I can check that one off my list”, “getting hit by a car-check”, and “one more surgery-check that off….” I know that a bucket list is supposed to be the things one wants to do during one’s life. I realize it should not contain “things that could have knocked me off”. Yet the way I look at it, all of the things we experience in this life add to who we are and what we are capable of. I’ve faced things that could have killed me, but didn’t. That’s a big deal. So, as much as I would prefer to not have to check these things off my list, they are the things that have made me strong. Moving forward, I’m certainly not going to intentionally put things on this list that might make me kick the bucket (though, I guess kite-surfing falls into that category). If they come up, I’ll check them off, nonetheless, and move on.

I thought of the idea for a 50 after 50 list after my first triathlon, back in 2015. Being a part of Team Phoenix taught me that I could re-define my life after some significant obstacles. Before that tri, I had feared that I would have to alter my goals, settle for less in life due to these setbacks. I know now that I can still aim high if I’m focused and work hard to reach my goals.

The first thing on my list is to complete an Ironman. I’m going to need to be in good shape to do some of the other things on my list, so why not start big. Ironically, the day I was riding my bike through Grant Park, I was thinking about the Madison Ironman. I was going to sign up for the 2018 race after my ride, until my ride ended unexpectedly. Then plans changed a bit. As it stands, it is uncertain if I will be able to do an Ironman, but I’m keeping it on the list for now. Maybe I’ll wait until I have a bionic knee.

In the name of keeping myself accountable, I’m going to share the first few things on my list:
◦ Complete an Ironman
◦ Show my daughters the beauty in this world
◦ Live in a warm climate
◦ Visit all of the National Parks
◦ Learn Spanish
◦ Hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
◦ Travel the World by Motorcycle
◦ Kite-surf
◦ Play Bass Guitar
◦ Scuba dive the Galapagos

That’s a glimpse of my list. Stay tuned to see the rest….

Friday, the 15th – Setback Number X

All of a sudden, I was on the ground, a stream of curses flowing as fast as the tears. I was yelling at the white Jeep that just hit me, throwing me off my bike. I hollered at the driver “what the f#@&*^%! are you doing?” I paused for a moment when I realized my phone was still within reach on my bike’s handlebar mount. I wanted to call Andy. Crying and cursing, I dialed and said, “I just got hit by a car.” I wanted him there.

I couldn’t believe what just happened. I’ve been riding my bike all my life, in all sorts of conditions, including chaotic, urban streets. I’m a safe and defensive rider and have always felt confident that I would stay safe. I’ve had a few close calls before, and even a couple of wipe-outs, but I never imagined that I’d get hit by a car. It didn’t feel real.

People started to gather around me. One man wanted to help me in the worst way, but there wasn’t much for him to do. He wanted to make sure I was okay. He wanted to move me off the street. I wanted to wait for Andy. Oddly, he wanted to keep pouring water on my skinned and rapidly swelling knee. I asked him to stop because he was using up my drinking water! Another woman stopped and called 911. An impatient commuter started beeping at the Jeep so she could get out of the parking lot. I wanted to tell her, “Calm down! I just got hit by a car-my day is not going as planned either! Why can’t you take a minute out of your routine to wait and make sure all is well instead of impatiently blasting your horn?” All I could think was don’t disturb the “crime scene”. Don’t let the Jeep drive away. Get a picture. Get his license plate. It was a jumble of thoughts and tears. But the guy who was pouring water on my knee (still…), moved my bike and let the Jeep move out of the way for the impatient commuter. Luckily, Jeep guy did not leave the scene. He stayed over by his Jeep, making calls on his cell phone. He never said one word to me. He never apologized for running me and my bike over. He never gave any indication that he was sorry.

Quickly, the police and paramedics started arriving. I repeated my story over and over to each person. I was riding northbound on the bike path. The Jeep was stopped at the stop sign, I attempted to make eye contact, and then proceeded. The jeep hit the gas just when I got in front of it. It seemed to happen in slow motion, but I could not prevent it. I watched as the Jeep mangled my bike while I was tangled underneath it, my legs getting contorted and banged up as it twisted under the force of the Jeep. My elbow, hip and knee hit the concrete with a hard impact.

That split second changed my day. I had just been feeling invincible-on top of the world. In the next minute, I was sitting in the street, in tears, in pain and unable to move my knee.

The paramedics were asking me questions and checking me over while the policeman was assuring me that cases don’t get any more clearcut than this scenario. I was in a marked crosswalk. The Jeep had a stop sign. He reassured me that it would be clear in his report that the driver was 100% at fault. That’s great. Except that I was lying in the street, broken, next to my Team Phoenix bike, which was mangled on the side of the road. (Andy’s line is, “how does it feel to be right?) I was watching my goals for 2018 slip to the back burner for yet one more setback in a long string of setbacks. I couldn’t bend my left knee. Damn. Honestly, my left knee is (was) the one part of me that isn’t damaged…

Andy arrived and I started to feel a little less hysterical. He had called his employer, Bell Ambulance, and they soon arrived on scene, too. The second cop was a little cranky about it when I told him that I would be using Bell if I decided to be transported. He said that’s not how it works. Cudahy rescue was here, and if I wanted transport, I’d have to go with Cudahy rescue. I told him that was not my understanding of how it worked. I looked at the paramedic, and asked, “in your opinion, would you even suggest ambulance transport for these injuries?” He was noncommittal, but told me that I could sign to refuse transport. So I did that and then started talking to Bell’s paramedics. Being full of grit and determination, I really didn’t think I needed to go by ambulance. I just wanted Andy to drive me to the hospital. It was less than a mile away. It was a struggle to get in the car, because I couldn’t bend my knee much, but I got in and then the policeman came over to finalize his report and wish me luck. The Jeep guy’s friend also came over to apologize, but the man who hit me still never said a single word. He altered the trajectory of my life. I wonder if there was any consequence to his.

In the meantime, Andy loaded my bike onto the car while I sat in the passenger seat. Usually, I lock my bike to the rack, but something told me that nobody would steal a mangled bike off a car that was parked at the emergency room.
On to the ER. I did promise Andy that I would take him to a doctor to get his foot checked and we were on the way to see a doctor. Maybe we could get a two-fer. The nurse just laughed. Why is it that they always think I’m joking? Honestly, I wasn’t trying to get out of taking care of Andy.

He insisted on getting a wheelchair to get me into the ER. I didn’t object. Much… We spent the next three hours getting my injuries checked out. There was a physical exam, and x-rays of my knee and femurs. My knee was becoming increasingly swollen and the bruises started to appear on both thighs and right shin, where the bike frame struck me. My left hip had huge bruises, too, from hitting the concrete. The X-ray tech kept asking me to position myself in various ways on the table, each position hurting more than the previous one. The last one was extremely awkward. At least they got good images.

Luckily, nothing was broken according to the x-ray. They gave me pain pills, a knee brace, and asked if we wanted to watch a video on “how to use crutches”. I said no. How hard could it be? But Andy thought a little entertainment was a great idea, so we agreed to watch the video. I’m glad we did, because it put me in a better mood. The nurse literally wheeled in an AV cart set-up straight out of my 80s high school days. A CRT TV sat on the top of the cart and a VCR on the bottom. She popped in the VHS tape (I am not kidding!) and the ensuing video took my mind off my pain. It was hilarious-so hilarious that I did not pay any attention to the tips on using crutches. I think I figured it out pretty fast, and I made my way out to the car to get home to start recovering and re-calculating my plans for the year. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to work around a set back.

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Friday, the 15th

It was Friday, September 15th. I woke up feeling great. I drove the kids to school, and then back home to get ready for my morning bike ride through Grant Park. I smooched my husband a bit (we’re newlyweds) and tried to get him to come biking with me. He’d been struggling with foot pain all summer, so he didn’t want to join me. As I was getting ready to ride, I told him, “that’s it, I’m taking you to a clinic today to get your foot checked out….”

“AFTER my bike ride.”

Andy is the kind of guy who takes care of everybody else first, and doesn’t want to complicate things by imposing his own problems into the mix. He has taken such good care of me through so much, and I want to be able to do that for him, too. Sometimes, I have to force him to let me take care of him. I had to get him to the doctor. His foot pain had gone on too long. Nothing was going to prevent me from biking on a morning like this, though. It was an absolutely ideal morning for a bike ride. The temperature was in the 60s, there wasn’t a hint of wind, and the blue skies were perfectly clear. I’d get home before the clinics opened, anyway, and then I’d get him to a doctor.

I put on a long-sleeved shirt and biking pants, but decided not to wear my bicycling shoes that clip into the pedals, because they’ve been making my feet go numb when I ride. Instead, opting to wear my running shoes. And off I went. My favorite part about living here is the fact that we are right on the parkway off of Grant Park, which gives me over 20 miles of beautiful, off-road biking paths right at my doorstep. Being a part of Team Phoenix has re-ignited my love of bicycling, and my morning ride through Grant Park has become my favorite way to start my day strong. I ride early, so I often have beautiful Grant Park to myself. I get to enjoy the sun rising over Lake Michigan, fresh morning air, and I usually see wildlife. I use this time for morning meditation. It has become a rejuvenating part of my life.

It’s been a long recovery from my DIEP flap surgery in January. I’ve been in pain, and haven’t regained my full strength or mobility. I was getting stronger all the time, though, between my regular swimming and biking. In one week, I would be doing my second sprint triathlon of the year with my two daughters. The first triathlon was at the end of July, and I almost dropped out of it. I pulled a muscle in my back in early July pulling a weed out of the ground. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the weed. The muscle in my back snapped so hard that my knees buckled and I fell to the ground. After an ER visit, rest, ice, and ibuprofen, I was back to swimming and biking, but not ready to run. I did not feel ready to do a triathlon, but my family and friends encouraged me to stick with it, and I did it!


That morning, I was feeling particularly good. For the first time since surgery, I felt ready for the upcoming triathlon. As I made my way through the park, I was reflecting on how far I’ve come since my cancer diagnosis. I felt strong and fully in sync with my bike as I sailed effortlessly across the winding path. It reminds me of a feeling I get as a motorcyclist, when I’m so in tune with my bike that it becomes an extension of me. It is a liberating feeling. My muscles control the bike subconsciously, leaving my mind and body and all senses free to fully immerse in the surroundings. That was the state of mind I was in and my thoughts turned to my up-coming goals. I’ve been keeping a “50After50” Bucket List of 50 big, high reaching goals that I want to achieve after my 50th year on this planet. Think Big. Aim High! I was feeling strong and had decided to sign up for the 2018 IronMan in Madison. I had watched my niece, Tamra, and some of my Tri-Faster and Team Phoenix friends do the IronMan this year, and I wanted to experience it. I’ll need to be strong to tackle some of the things on my bucket list (kite-surfing, hiking the Inca trail, hitting all of the National Parks, exploring the world on my motorcycle)! What better way to prepare?

My goal this summer was to have a strong recovery from DIEP surgery and go into the second phase of surgery strong. The plan was to do the triathlon on Sept 24th, accompany my dad on a Stars and Stripes Honor flight on October 14th, and then tackle the next surgery in November, so that by 2018 (and my 50th birthday!) I could hit the ground running and live big.

All of these reflections were in my mind as I came up out of the park, nearing Cudahy, where the bicycle path crosses the entrance to a parking lot. As I approached the driveway, a Jeep was coming out of the parking lot. I slowed way down as the Jeep came to a stop at the stop sign. I did what I always tell my kids to do. I say, “Never assume the driver is going to see you. Always make eye contact.” I paused and looked at the driver. I even said out loud, “Do you see me? Are you stopping? You are stopping, right?” And I proceeded to cross (at the marked crosswalk).

He did NOT see me. It seemed surreal, almost like he intended to scare me. He suddenly hit the gas, but surely he would stop again before he got to me. Then he hit the gas again and soon his big, white Jeep was riding over my bike, with my legs tangled under the bike frame. I was thrown to the concrete-Hard.

Team Phoenix

I have been so fortunate to have spent the past 14 weeks training side by side with the remarkable group of cancer survivors that is Team Phoenix 2015.  We were thrown together this spring by the common bond of a battle we did not choose.  We started out with a degree of uncertainty, not knowing what to expect from Team Phoenix.  Somehow, they believe that they could transform us into triathletes, even after the hardships our bodies had faced due to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

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As time went on, and we grew stronger, it was clear that Team Phoenix was changing our lives.  We were in charge of our next battle.  We were going to take control of our healing.  We were going to swim, bike and run across that finish line.  The support and encouragement is unlike anything I have experience before in my life.  The dedication of the coaches, sponsors, medical staff, and volunteers is amazing.  I have learned so much.  I have pushed beyond fears and perceived limitations.  I have become strong, proud, alive and re-defined!!!

Sunday, August 9th, our group of 47 women will swim 1/2 mile, bike 12 miles, and run 3 miles in one big victory lap.  We are in charge of our health!  Please consider making a donation to Team Phoenix so that many more women can take control and experience cancer survivorship re-defined!  Come cheer us on at the Pleasant Prairie RecPlex, August 9th at 7am.  Wear purple!!