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.

Healing Henna

Healing Henna

I can’t go so far as to say that I am glad that cancer came into my life. What I can say is that I am fully embracing the healing journey that this life experience has plunged me into. I can also honestly say that some of my happiest moments have come to me as a result of this experience. I’ve made deeper connections with people with whom I may never have crossed paths with otherwise and they’ve brought so much to my life.

I face round five of six chemotherapy infusions today. Previous rounds have involved a pre-chemo margarita with friends to prepare myself for the rough patch that sometimes follows an infusion. However, this time, I decided to make use of the fresh mint proliferating in my garden to make mojitos with my friends. This was also my way of thanking those who helped me whip my backyard gardens into shape (see Victory Garden). I also invited a friend from the neighborhood to join us and do henna tattoos for everyone, with the finale being a full henna tattoo on my bald head.

We made our mojitos and enjoyed a cookout while we watched in amazement at Anita’s talent as she created her beautiful art on our bodies. Her true talent shines through in the flawlessly smooth strokes she uses to create her art. She started with the kids and, somehow, through her brief conversations with them, and nothing more than the images that she envisions in her mind for them, she created unique designs which seemed to perfectly suit each kid’s personality. I am absolutely amazed at this talent!  See more of her work at Hands of Henna by Anita.

Towards the end of the evening, as all the other tattoos were completed, Anita had a wonderful suggestion. It was nearing 10:30 (on a school night), and she mentioned that she did not want to rush my tattoo, but rather go to the beach the following day to work on mine. I love the beach, so this sounded perfect to me.

It couldn’t have worked out better and the experience of tattooing my head on the beach will always have a special place in my heart. We chose my favorite time of the day to go to the beach. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny morning and the sun was sparklingly beautifully off the water. We found a great spot in the warm sand to spread our blanket, close to the water so we could hear the soothing sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore. We set up Pandora to play world music, and I settled in comfortably on the blanket, feeling the sun on my skin, and perfectly relaxed in a kind of meditation. The feel of the henna going onto my head, with the backdrop of the music and the waves and the feel of the sun, was incredibly soothing, reminiscent of a scalp massage.

We spent the next two hours in relaxed conversation. I’ve know Anita for years, but only casually from living in the same neighborhood, and having some mutual friends. This was the first time we really spent a solid chunk of time getting to know one another. It was a really special moment. We spoke of our love of travel and passion for living fully. We also shared our experiences with life changing events. I attempted to express how cancer has changed my perspective on how one goes through life, and Anita shared her experiences recovering from a life changing accident. We talked about how to raise our daughters to be strong, independent people, and how to involve them in travel more to expose them to the variety of cultures on this planet. It was a really wonderful experience, and all the while, Anita created a beautiful work of art on my head. It’s one of those moments that I never would have enjoyed had cancer not entered my life, so for that I am grateful.

After finishing the tattoo, it would be the first time venturing out of the house without the concealing protection of a hat, though the tattoo was, in a sense, a beautiful head covering which allowed me to walk around with a feeling of confidence. I received a lot of compliments when I picked the kids up from school. The first question people asked was if it hurt until I explained that it was a temporary henna tattoo. My kids’ classmates were the best, because kids have that uninhibited way of wanting to see new things and learn. Some thought it was a wild haircut, others wondered what it was, but they all thought it was really cool. Adults asked questions too, but with a little more reservation.

All in all, it was a perfect way to get myself mentally prepared for another round of chemo. I need to make sure the positives of this experience outweigh the negatives. There are definitely moments when I just want to have all of this behind me. But since I can’t control that, the least I can do while I endure the treatments is to create wonderful memories that I will cherish as I put this experience behind me. So far, so good.

Victory Garden

Victory Garden

It may be a bit premature to declare victory over cancer. I am not quite four months post-diagnosis. I have one surgery behind me. I am half way through my six rounds of chemotherapy and am still facing six weeks of radiation after chemo, and, potentially, three more surgeries. That being said, from the very start, I only considered one possible outcome for this circumstance. It will be victory over cancer. When my doctors started showing me percentages for this and that, my only comment was that I intended to stay on the right side of these percentages, no matter what that takes. I am not finished with my life on this planet. I have so much to live for. I see it in the faces of my young daughters. I feel it when I plan future road trips and travel adventures with my boyfriend. I have nothing but excitement and happiness when I think about the rest of my life. Maybe the difficulties I have had in the last few years, culminating in the discovery of cancer in my body, were the wake-up call I needed to reset my life onto the right path. It certainly has made me re-evaluate my priorities. I am improving my eating habits, eliminating stress and negativity from my life. I am taking more time for important things, such as time with my kids, time for exercise, time for fun and lots of laughter!

So where does the garden come in, you may be thinking? Well, to celebrate the return of spring after this brutal winter, as well as a way of marking my halfway point in chemotherapy prior to tackling round 4 (yesterday), I called on a group of family and close friends to come help me tackle my neglected back yard. I bought a deteriorating duplex on the verge of foreclosure two and a half years ago, and have been working gradually to restore it to its glory. The backyard was so overgrown with weeds when I moved in that I nearly lost my children back there, yet that project always seemed to get set on the back burner. I knew I wanted to work on it this spring, yet, still weak from surgery and less than energetic from chemo, I also knew it was time to take my friends up on offers of assistance. I couldn’t have done it without them.

I am so grateful for the help. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon. I spent the week buying native perennials, veggies for a nice healthy vegetable garden, and blueberries, blackberries and strawberries (because I took the girls to the garden center with me). Of course, I stocked up on beer, soda, water and food to take care of all those who put in hard work to get the back yard in shape. I’m amazed at how much we accomplished. In a few hours, we churned up a lot of dirt, pulled weeds, added topsoil and mulch, planted a whole veggie garden, as well as a great perennial garden with a perfect spot for my hammock. To borrow a lovely sentiment from a friend who expressed, “I thought of my chemo as roundup…a weed killer…so my garden could grow!”.  My backyard will always remind me of the wonderful love and support I am blessed with in my life. That is what my victory garden represents to me.

The Early Bird Gets the…

Freshest air, apparently.

sunrise-and-birds

I have always been a morning person. In fact, I prefer to be up before the sunrise. Since I moved into my new apartment, my routine has been to settle on my east facing couch with my cup of coffee and wait for the sun to rise. It’s my zen moment of each day, my chance to reflect on things, organize my thoughts and prepare myself for the chaos that usually envelopes the rest of my day.

For this reason, I have been fascinated by a particular story in the book I am reading. The book is called “Radical Remission”, and the author follows the stories of people who have beaten cancer against all odds. The story that caught my attention is about a man sent home because there was nothing more the doctors could do for him. He woke before the sunrise and was grateful for another day. Each day, he went to his rooftop to take in the sunrise, feeling that each day truly was a gift as he prepared to die. He focused on the energy from the sun and his breathing. Then he began to notice that the birds were singing well before sunrise. Curious to track when the birds began to sing, he woke earlier and earlier each day, until he discovered that they always started 42 minutes before the sun rose, even though the sun rises at a slightly different time every day. Further researching why this would be, he found that trees start photosynthesizing as soon as it gets light out, which happens to be 42 minutes before the sun rises each day, and that the birds are taking advantage of this peak time of fresh air. His take from this was that deep breathing exercises at this time of the day provides a maximum amount of oxygen.

My days and nights have been a bit mixed up lately, as I’ve struggled with insomnia, so I am usually wide awake around 3:30am. Yes, 3:30am. I like mornings, but this is a bit ridiculous, even for me. What these sleepless nights are doing, though, is provoking thoughts about the man’s theory about the birds. In the past, I recall wondering why I was hearing birds in, what felt to be, the middle of the night. Now that I am aware of this interesting fact, I am listening for the birds. Yesterday, I started hearing birds at 4:51, and sunrise was at 5:34. Today, I heard birds at 4:48 and sunrise was at 5:32. This is pretty fascinating in my opinion. Almost fascinating enough to set an alarm 52 minutes before sunrise every day to track when the birds start, as my own little scientific experiment.

Almost.

But I know that sleep is also crucial to my healing, so I prefer to try to sleep when I can these days.  I’ll just put my trust in the fact that the birds know what they are doing. They are far more in tune with nature’s rhythms than most humans are.   That being said, maybe, instead of my cup of coffee while waiting for the sun to rise each day, I will open a window and focus on my deep, healing breaths.