Cancer-versary, Take 4

Cancer-versary, Take 4

CJ52cqOWwAA03in

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….

Honor Flight

Honor Flight

Dr Gordon had told me to call him if my knee still hurt after the swelling went down and he would order an MRI. After a couple of weeks, it was clear that my knee was not going to heal quickly. It was still swollen. I was wearing the brace, and struggling with pain, lost range of motion, and a limp. I was determined to be ready to walk all over D.C. with my dad for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight on Oct 14th, but I wanted to know what was going on with my knee before the trip.
I had the MRI on Oct. 3rd and scheduled a follow up with the doctor on Oct 11th. Dr Gordon came in to the room and told me that my MRI “threw him for a loop.” He pushed and pulled on my knee again, just to make sure it still felt stable and that “he wasn’t an idiot” (his words). He said he never misses this type of injury upon physical examination. Yet, the MRI told him quite a different story from the physical exam. The MRI showed that I had a complete PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) tear in my knee. That can’t be good. I have experience with complete ligament tears (elbow and rotator cuff), and I know that they do not heal on their own. My first sinking though was, “one more surgery.” After all, the PCL is the strongest ligament in the knee. How can I get through life without a PCL? He did not suggest surgery, though. Instead, he said I should do six weeks of physical therapy to see if I can heal without surgery. That blew my mind a little.

While we were there, Andy took the opportunity to ask him about his foot. Right away, he told him that Andy had his least favorite injury. He said that if Andy was his patient, he would put him in a cast for 6 weeks. For now, he advised that Andy wear the boot 24/7. Andy decided to schedule his own appointment with Dr. Gordon.
Before we left, I asked him if my knee could handle a day of walking around D.C. He was fully supportive of the trip, and told me to thank my dad for his service.
By the 14th, I was feeling strong enough to go on the Honor Flight. I figured I would be able to keep up with 150 WWII Vets. I might have been wrong about that assumption, though. The day was very fast paced and we did a ton of walking. We saw all of these memorials in one day!


Arlington National Cemetery
Air Force Memorial
Pentagon Memorial
Korean War Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Vietnam Memorial
WWII Memorial
FDR Memorial

SSHF_ALPHA_0717
I’m so glad I got the chance to go on the Honor Flight. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve had with my dad. We were pretty tired out by the end of the trip, but the homecoming at the airport gave us a boost of energy. I’ll always treasure that day.

 

 

 

Livestrong

Livestrong

As of Tuesday, I am a graduate of the Livestrong program at the YMCA (I even have a certificate!). Livestrong is a 12 week program designed to help cancer survivors achieve their health goals. I would highly recommend the program to anyone just finishing cancer treatment, unsure about how to rebuild after the difficulties they’ve just faced.

2014-12-03 12.18.19        Photo Dec 02, 2 10 45 PM

While I still have a ways to go to regain the strength and fitness level that I had prior to cancer treatment, I feel like it was an excellent way to start. Participants in the Livestrong program get a free Y membership for the duration of the program, too. My class met twice a week, and it was just the push I needed to get off the couch and hit the gym. It was extremely difficult to find the motivation, and the energy, to exercise during chemo and radiation, but having a class to look forward to was an excellent way to get me out of that mode.

I’ve always had a physical lifestyle. I love jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, playing sports, and on and on. But I’ve never been terribly interested in “classes”, or group exercise. I have to say, there was something invaluable about being part of this group exercise program, though. For me, it was less about the exercise, and more about the camaraderie I found in a group of women who had recently gone through the same treatments and challenges that I had. It was the opportunity to talk about our experiences that motivated me to go every week. My group was very small, only 3 of us came regularly, and we grew comfortable talking about some personal stuff. It became like an intimate support group ( another thing I’ve never really been interested in). We were there to encourage each other and cheer at our small successes.

Photo Dec 02, 2 11 43 PM Photo Dec 02, 2 34 37 PM

Over the 12 weeks, we tracked our progress and did a baseline and post-class assessment of our progress. I’m proud to say that I improved in the areas of endurance, strength and flexibility! I hope to keep working toward my goal this winter. One more hurdle to clear, with surgery imminent, but after that I’m on track to join Team Phoenix at Aurora next spring! (more on that in future blog posts…)

Last Round. Done.

2014-07-01 13.10.59 2014-07-01 14.56.24

Tuesday, July 1st was my last round of chemotherapy! A huge milestone, no doubt, and I am happy to be able to say that the experience of chemo is behind me. Never again (I pray) will I have to sit for hours with these chemicals coursing through my body. But, I’m not cracking the champagne yet. Realistically, it is merely the last hurdle in an event that is not yet finished, and there are additional events still looming on the horizon for me. As in track and field, the last hurdle needs to be taken cleanly and the runner still needs to land firmly on their feet and sprint across the finish line.

With the hurdles behind me, the final sprint is proving more difficult than I had imagined. I have cleared many hurdles and fought for my strength between them, seemingly just in time to clear the next hurdle. But the cumulative effect of the hurdles, chemo with its side effects, has left me weak. I was prepared, mentally, for the last round to end on July 1st, but that is just the first part of the last round – I still need to land and make it to the finish line. The drugs, along with their debilitating side effects will remain in my system for another four to six weeks, at least. I did not mentally prepare myself for that, and then, yesterday, that reality made me falter.

Going into the last round, I was already anemic, on the verge of needing a blood transfusion, and profoundly fatigued. I guess I had prepared myself to breathe a sigh of relief and move forward at this point, but the side effects hit me hard again this time, throwing me off balance.

Physically, I have never felt weaker. Small tasks sap any remaining energy I might have been able to summon. I have to stop to catch my breath halfway up a flight of stairs. The long list of things I want to do each day seems insurmountable.  Digestive problems have made it difficult to eat properly. Nothing tastes right, and my appetite is off. If I chose to eat the wrong thing, I become extremely ill. I also find it really difficult to keep hydrated, which further weakens me. Body aches and bone pain make getting around a struggle, too. Lately, I have been sleeping, hard, for fifteen or so hours a day, and it’s still not enough. Unfortunately, each round requires steroids to lessen the side effects, and with that, disruptions to the sleep I crave. Without sleep, and nourishment and water, I am finding it hard to rebuild the strength I need to cross the finish line.

Emotionally, it is taking a toll on me, too. I was not prepared for the physical effects of the final round, nor their effect on me emotionally. Chemo throws the body into sudden menopause, with its accompanying emotional moments. This week, the sleeplessness, chemo-pause, dehydration and negative external forces have been more than I was ready to handle. This weekend has been particularly hard for me and a low point on this journey.

It is the Fourth of July weekend. It is perfectly beautiful summer weather, yet I feel like I’m in someone else’s surreal life. It feels like a haze is over me. Surely, I did not just go through chemotherapy. This can’t be my body struggling to do simple things. None of it seems real. I am sad to be missing the usual celebrations that I have always shared with my kids on this holiday. There will always be an empty gap where there should have been more. Andy, who has been there for me when my own strength waivers, reminded me that missing this year’s memories to focus on getting healthy will ensure many more years of memories to come. I have to keep that thought clear in my mind when I’m feeling down. My priority right now has to be on my recovery and health, so that I will be here for all of the happy memories to come in my future.

I have a month to get back on track, rebuild and recover from the hurdles of chemotherapy before tackling my next event – radiation. I’m confident that I will be ready. Today is a new day, and I feel like I am back in my own life again and ready to reach the finish line.

 

 

 

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.

A Bicycle, a Motorcycle, and one Margarita

A Bicycle, a Motorcycle, and one Margarita

With the pain of shingles a fading memory, I was back. Feeling ambitious, I was looking for a few fun things to do over the weekend before “spa day” numero tres tomorrow. Friday saw decent temperatures and I was feeling strong, so I decided to see how it felt to get on my bicycle. It’s important for me to stay as active as possible throughout chemo, and since my indoor exercise bike is not all that exciting, especially after a winter like this, I was beyond ready for some outdoor exercise and fresh air!!

A bit uncertain about how my upper body strength would handle the bike, I started out cautiously. That didn’t last much beyond the alley, as I was feeling strong and confident. Comforted by Andy’s encouragement, I felt like I could ride without any problems. It felt wonderful pushing the pedals through Estabrook Park. I made my way comfortably to a favorite spot along the river, where the rapids were flowing with that soothing sound that rejuvenates me. We sat at the overlook by the beer garden (no, it’s not open yet, but I will be there as soon as it is… who’s in? Melissa? Marty, with your cold, spring birthday parties?), taking in the sunshine and the scenery. We got a nice walk along the river before getting back on the bikes to head home. These are the things in life that are the healing moments for me.

The bike ride felt so good, that I decided to skip the baby steps. On Saturday, I got the motorcycle out of the garage. Cautiously at first, again, until the end of the alley, and again, with Andy there in case I needed help, it felt remarkable to get back on the bike!! Andy was a little worried, and wanted me to go up and down the alley and leave it at that, but that didn’t sound fun at all, so we decided that a ride to the new Sprecher restaurant at Bayshore to meet his mom for lunch wouldn’t be too far for a first time out. I felt so good, that I couldn’t stop smiling and bouncing up and down every time we came to a stop light! After lunch, we headed to the lakefront for a cold photo-op near the water.

1st ride since chemo 2014 2014-04-26 16.14.37

Getting on my bike was a huge milestone for me. When I first heard my diagnosis and the dizzying array of surgeries and treatments which I would be enduring, I did not think I would ride my motorcycle until the fall, if at all in 2014. I had plans for weekend motorcycle trips with friends that would have to be postponed. This made me very sad, because being on the bike is my throttle therapy!! It always cures what ails me and provides me with such joy. The thought of leaving the bike in the garage all summer was even more depressing than a cancer diagnosis.

I am committed to getting stronger through this, continuing to do the things I love to do! Now I feel confident that my goals are not out of reach.

Oh yes, and I can’t forget the one margarita, which I had on Sunday.

Here’s to hoping that the third verse is not the same as the first!

one margarita

one margarita