Friday, 8 August 2014

My Life-After-Cancer-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Journey

As I approach the two-year anniversary of the onset of my cancer treatment (which, thankfully, also means we’ll be approaching my two-year anniversary of having it all completed and behind me…), I’ve been able to step back and truly figure out where I am in my journey. Common sense dictates that my cancer journey should officially be over but I’ve come to realize that common sense is not always so common.

Although having cancer was merely one chapter within my journey, I’ve come to realize that, similar to a “choose-your-own-adventure” book, that chapter has greatly influenced the direction of the current and future journeys.

One of the things I’m certain about is that life is filled with uncertainties. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t even know how I’m going to feel about whatever it is that does happen. What I do know, however, is that life is an adventure – and I’m going to do whatever I can to choose the pages that send me down the path towards the ‘happily ever after’.

My hair grows incredibly slowly. After a year and half it still isn’t anywhere near I thought it would be and every time I look in the mirror I still think “in progress”.
But it is growing and it’s long enough to get messed up in the wind on a beautiful summer day.

My body hasn’t fully bounced back from the weight gained during my treatment.
But I’m here and I’m healthy and there aren’t tons of deadly drugs or radiation waves flowing through me anymore.

I still have residual numbness and lack of strength in my arm from my surgery.
But my arms are still strong enough to wrap around all of the people I love in my life.

I can’t help but see my scars and radiation tattoos every single day that serve as constant and permanent reminders of what I’ve been through.
But they are also permanent reminders of what I survived.

I can’t hear phrases like “two-time cancer survivor” or “three-time cancer survivor” or stories about people who have been forced to endure this journey more than once without  feeling the pain through my very core.
But I choose to focus on the word “survivor” and how important it is for me to be grateful for where I am in life right now.

I still have days where I feel sad and think about everything I lost since being diagnosed with cancer – friends, strength and the belief that things like that “can’t happen to me”.
But more often than not I have days where I’m extremely grateful when I think about everything I have gained since being diagnosed with cancer – friends, strength and the knowledge that things like that can happen to me… and I’m stronger for it.

There are days where I still wake up feeling somewhat lost and sad.
But I wake up.

It can be incredibly frustrating to have things like this just “happen” to a person, with no choice in the matter.
But I can choose to focus on what I can control – my passions in life, my happiness, my love for my friends & family… That’s an adventure I would choose every single time.

Monday, 9 September 2013

I'm Running... But Not Necessarily Why You'd Think

This time of year always seems full of new beginnings and inspiration – maybe even more than New Years. Maybe it’s the new routines that come with the whole back-to-school world, or perhaps it’s the pull to get outside and enjoy the beautiful Fall weather but I’m always filled with a little bit of restlessness that needs to be channeled into something productive. It’s always seemed like good timing that the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure takes place in the Fall, as it gives me a focus to not only work off the “summer excess” but also channels my energy into a worthwhile cause.

My boys and I have been taking part in this event for the last four or five years and it has always been an incredibly emotional and inspiring experience. Last year, being in the middle of my own cancer journey, everyone understood why we were running. Even though the physical demands were incredibly difficult and the emotional strains were tough to overcome, but obviously the prospect of a cure to end our current suffering was our focus.

This year I have no doubt that everyone will assume I’m running because I had cancer last year. And I am. It is an incredibly moving and overwhelming experience to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other woman who are fighting similar battles or with family members who are honouring those whose battles ended far too soon. At the finish line last year I watched a woman in the identifiable pink “survivor shirt” cross the finish line to cheers and hugs from at least 20-30 people with her name emblazoned on the back of their shirts. There were smiles and tears and, to me, it personified the reasons why we do this run.

So yes, I’m running because I’m a cancer survivor – or surTHRIVOR, as the inspirational Look Good Feel Better workshops founder, Sherry Abbott, wrote. I’m eternally grateful to be on the other side of this journey and I want to make sure that neither I, nor any of my loved ones, ever have to deal with such an ordeal again. I’m running to raise both money and awareness and to send good karma out to the universe in the hopes that positive energy can help eradicate something so incredibly negative. This year, as always, I am running for a cure – but this year, I’m also running for so much more: 

• I’m running because one in nine women diagnosed with this disease is one woman too many.

• I’m running so that no woman ever has to feel like a patient and not a woman.

• I’m running so that no woman ever has to look at the scars on her breasts – or the places where her breasts used to be – and ever feel less than a beautiful woman.

• I’m running so that no other woman ever has to sit beside her little boy as he helps pull out handfuls of her hair.

• I’m running so that no other man has to look at his wife and be forced to imagine a future without her.

• I’m running so that no child ever has to write “My Mom” as their reason for joining the event.

• I’m running so that no woman ever has to attend their child’s school event and fight back tears as they wonder if they’ll ever get to see another one.

• I’m running so that every woman can look forward to and attend their children’s milestones in life and cheer them on every step of the way.

• I’m running so that friendships are never lost because the journey has become too complicated or difficult.

• I’m running so that no woman ever has to feel lost and alone as they navigate their “new normal” following their own journey.

• I’m running so that no woman ever has to face losing their battle and the thought of leaving her friends and family behind.

• I’m running so that no family or friends ever have to say goodbye.

• I’m running because I love my son and my husband more than life itself and they’re not getting rid of me that easily! ;)

I’m also running because my incredibly 9-year old has set a goal to beat both my husband and myself in fundraising donations. So if you’re looking to donate, it’s a great cause – and if you’re looking to help beat cancer AND make a little boy's day, you can donate here .

For more information on the CIBC Run for the Cure, as well as how to Register, Donate or Volunteer, join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook.

Monday, 24 June 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cancer Clinic...

Let me start off by saying Cancer sucks. Plain and simple. From diagnosis to treatment to aftermath, there is absolutely nothing enjoyable about having Cancer. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy and I cross my fingers every day that I never have to embark on this journey again.

That being said, I truly believe in the power of the mind-body connection. If you want to start feeling better, start thinking better. It may not completely cure what ails you but, really, can it hurt?

My own personal Cancer journey was full of many emotions – sadness, frustration, anger, fear… but anyone who knows me even a little will know that it was also filled with laughter. I don’t know if laughter really is the best medicine, but speaking from experience, it beats chemo hands-down!

So why was I smiling as I went through one of the toughest eight months of my life?

  • How many places can you go and have virtually everyone continually tell you how young you are?
  • Nothing gets the older crowd in the waiting room talking like showing up in a bright orange raincoat & leopard-print rain boots - no sensible shoes here!
  • “Preferred parking” at the hospital’s Cancer clinic – score!
  • Finding a discarded receipt at the parking machine for more than yours was for – yahoo!
  • Free coffee from the bald guy at the local coffee shop – solidarity, brother!
  • Think of all the money you save on hairdresser’s & esthetician’s costs!
  • Getting trapped in underground parking can be an experience - did you know you can have quite a lovely conversation with the person on the other end of the "Help" button?
  • Ever wonder if you could rock a “GI-Jane” look? Now you know!
  • Do you have any idea how quickly I can get ready in the morning – goodbye, blow dryer!
  • When else can you eat a full meal of chocolate milk & powdered donuts and not have one person raise an eyebrow??
  • When people say they like your hair, how often can you take it off and let them try it for themselves?
  • Months of lying in bed watching HGTV makes one heck of a “Honey-Do” reno list!
  • There is no better time to immerse yourself in some full-character Sinead O’Connor-style karaoke…
  • My amazing nurses’ names were “Joy” and “Bliss” – seriously, can you have better karma than that?

So do any of these reasons offset the physical or emotional suffering? Absolutely not. But if you’re able to smile for even a few moments throughout the darkest moments of your life, isn’t that already a victory?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Use Your Words

Let me start by saying I love the internet and social media. I love the instantaneous nature and instant gratification surrounding all it has to offer. I love being able to connect with people and events in my life – all from the comfort of my own home. And truthfully, can it get any easier? Need to know something? Google it. Want to touch base with a friend? Message them. Appreciate some cute pictures of your friend’s new Labradoodle? Like them. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s fun.

However, like with most good things, problems can still arise… (Ice cream? Good. Eating too much? Stomachache. Eating too fast? Brain freeze.)

Here’s my issue. This simplistic, instantaneous nature that makes the process so enjoyable has also succeeded in providing some people with a false sense of courage and security. It’s so easy to send a quick “Hey there” to a friend or a “Love your product” to a brand – but unfortunately it’s just as easy for people to spew out streams of negativity. There are far too many examples of people saying negative things to or about people, businesses, etc. – all while hiding behind the safety of their computer/laptop/Smartphone. Facebook groups, message boards and the Twittersphere are great resources for a number of things – but being able to interact with people you don’t know and have never met seems to give some people the idea that they can say or do whatever comes to mind without considering any or all consequences of their words.

People tweet or post negative or cryptic comments about people in their lives and can become much more hurtful or aggressive when sending messages or emails to a person – simply because typing words on a keyboard seems to remove them from any emotion or reality about how these words will be received and/or perceived.

This isn't to say some people have very valid things to say and reasons to say them. After all, the world is not always full of sunshine and lollipops alone. It's just the off-the-cuff comments and excerpts that seem to be thrown out without any thought to their impact or consequences that don't seem right. 

The process of getting feelings, thoughts and emotions out via the written word is certainly not a new development, and it can be an extremely helpful, informative and cathartic process. Sometimes it’s easier to truly articulate all that a person is thinking or feeling through a thoughtfully crafted note, then to find the words and speak them aloud. I’m a huge fan of the written word and think more people should take the time to appreciate all that it has to offer.

The problem occurs when people convince themselves that making unfounded assumptions, uninformed judgements and general negative and hurtful comments – and sending them unedited into cyberspace for the world to read – is somehow acceptable. I’m not sure how that cultural shift began but it saddens me to think people are operating under the assumption that there is no responsibility or accountability for their actions – even ones as simple as sending an email or firing off a posted comment.

One of the lessons I have always emphasized with my nine-year-old son is “Use your words”. It’s important to me that he grows up knowing that people can often be judged by the words that they choose to use – both when writing and when speaking aloud. I want him to know that words carry great power and that he has to make the conscious choice each and every day to take responsibility for the words he puts out there.

I know that we are all incredibly lucky to live as we do – with the freedom to express our thoughts and feelings however we choose, and with the technology to allow ourselves to do so quickly and conveniently. But it’s also important to treat that freedom with the responsibility that comes with it. Just because you hit “Send” or “Post”, doesn’t mean you don’t still own the words. Next time you’re about to fire off a tweet, post, message or email, take a look at it and think – would you be okay reading this allowed in front of the person or company you’re sending it to or about? If not, maybe it's time to take a deep breath...

Second photo image credit:

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Ultimate Cancer Care Package

I hope you forget about this post. I hope you read it, enjoy it, and never refer to it again.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps. But unfortunately if you happen to find this article helpful and useful at all it means that you or someone in your life has thrown into the ring to battle against one of the most unforgiving opponents.

I am by no means stepping up as the ‘poster child’ for the Cancer journey. Nor can I attempt to speak for the millions of people who have been impacted through their own personal experiences. 
Everyone’s cancer experience is kind of like fingerprints – many similarities but ultimately everyone’s reactions are unique to themselves. If you want to support a loved one at any stage of their journey, there are a few things I’ve learned that I’m passing along in order to help you create the ultimate cancer care package.

  • Lip balm – hospitals and doctor’s offices seem to all be moisture-free zones to begin with. Throw in some chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments and you’re practically Sahara-bound!
  • Hand  & body moisturizer – same reasons as above. And gold stars to you if you get a large bottle for home and at least one travel size version to have on hand at all times.
  • Glaxol skin cream – if going through radiation, this cream is recommended to keep the skin hydrated and protected throughout the treatments. You can pick it up at your local drug store.
  • Deodorant – No, your friend won’t start to stink. Many deodorants contain aluminum, which can impact the radiation treatments (and probably isn’t all that good for you, anyway!) – so if you can find some ‘natural’ deodorant or at least an aluminum-free variety, they’re already ahead of the game.
  • Alcohol-free mouthwash – chemotherapy can be extremely drying and can leave you with that pasty dry-mouth feeling. Fabulous. Normal mouthwashes just aggravate this but the alcohol-free types seem to work much better.
  • Epsom salts – Sometimes a good soak in the tub just makes everything better – easing sore muscles, and allowing for a temporary escape from the reality of treatments. Adding in some Epsom salts helps add health benefits, including soothing the body, easing stress and drawing toxins from the body.
  • Hand sanitizer & wet wipes – germs are definitely not a cancer patient’s friend. Picking up any sort of virus or illness can result in prolonging the treatment – something no one wants, so the more things they can add to the germ-fighting arsenal, the better.
  • Money – you may not be able to ease their physical pain but you can help ease the financial pain with money that can be put towards parking, or even a two-week parking pass if you know he or she will be going every day (common for radiation treatments).
  • Pyjamas – odds are they will be spending a significant amount of time in bed, on the couch, or assuming other horizontal positions. A cozy pair of PJs or a nice comfy outfit to hang out in can help lift people’s spirits and keep them looking & feeling better – plus it’s great for greeting drop-in guests.
  • Gatorade or Vitamin Water – staying hydrated is so important – not just during treatments. Unfortunately, I found I wasn’t able to drink water during my treatments – not sure why, but I was sometimes able to sip some Vitamin water or Gatorade and that seemed to help.
  • Green tea – There are tons of health benefits to drinking green tea, and it is even believed to be helpful in preventing cancer. (Can I get a big ‘Yahoo’??) I’m no stranger to green tea but during my treatment I was lucky enough to have great friends who dropped off a green tea sampler package from David’s Tea – it felt great to be drinking something good for me, and having tons of options to be sure I found some that I liked. That and a pretty mug can make a big difference on an otherwise crummy day.
  • Kobo/Chapters/iTunes gift card – A thoughtful way to help people kill time during and between appointments – they can load up their iPods or eReaders, or have some great new books shipped to them. Anything to make waiting and waiting seem less exhausting.
  • Sour candies – A wonderful friend of mine introduced me to these during my treatments – specifically the Icebreakers Sour Orange variety – and for whatever reason, they were extremely helpful when it came to dealing with dry mouth issues, and was even somewhat helpful as an anti-nausea aid. No idea why but trust me, when you’re in the middle of it all, you’ll try anything!
  • Magazines – sometimes mindless entertainment is just what a person needs to take their mind off of everything.
  • Blanket – it can get darn cold sitting in those chemo rooms, so a nice light throw or afghan would definitely come in handy. Some hospitals give patients a quilt as part of the process, but I know for me, they forgot and I didn’t get mine until the end so extra blankets would have been great.
  • A cute tote bag – something bright, cheery and practical to carry around all of these handy things to their treatments – bonus points if you include a cute lunch bag to match. Chemo treatments can go on for hours so bringing lunch and snacks helps.

One thing I need to mention is when purchasing any of these items, always opt for the unscented varieties of products, where applicable. Many of the treatments can leave you very sensitive to various smells; plus, if you happen to be one of those people who are suffering through unending waves of nausea, the last thing you want is a strong smell to set things off again. Even if the smell isn’t particularly offensive, I found that there were certain smells that I now associate with my “treatment time”. I had to give away certain body washes, shampoos & soap because just one little sniff was enough to transport me back to a time I would rather not go back to.

So there you have it – it may not cover all the bases but it’s definitely a good starting point if you’re thinking of picking up a few items to support a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. As I mentioned, everyone’s experience is different but I’ve had so many people ask me what they can do or what they can give to help someone through it, I’m hoping this is a good place to start.

Most importantly? Caring enough to read this article and wanting to do what you can to support someone through a difficult time means more than all of the lip balms in the world.

But trust me on the candy…

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

After the Happily Ever After

Once upon a time there was an evil disease that invaded a body and ravaged a family. In response, many of the local villagers banded together to defeat the evil disease and declare the body a safe and happy place once again. The disease was gone, the villagers cheered and everyone lived happily ever after.

Like most well-known fairy tales, people assume the story ends there. But did you ever wonder what happened after the happily ever after?

In some ways, my cancer journey was like a story – not necessarily a great bedtime-read, mind you, but there was a ‘good vs. evil’ plot, a battle, and a victorious finish.

I’ve learned, however, that the ‘happily ever after’ we were all working towards is not exactly as comforting as originally written. What if “after-cancer” is just as difficult as “having cancer”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thrilled and that the surgery is done, the invasive treatments are done, the brutal symptoms and side effects are done – and now I’m happy, healthy and on the ‘winning’ side of this crazy battle. 

Here’s my problem – for someone that’s as Type A as myself, even though the cancer journey was absolutely horrible and I never want to go through it again, I was still able to find elements of comfort within it:

I could still work the disease and all things surrounding it into some sort of controlled schedule – my life and my calendar were full of various doctor’s appointments and treatment dates.
I came to know which days I would feel more like myself and which days I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.
I could still quarterback plans and playdates to keep my beautiful boy busy and distracted on the really tough days.
I was still able to prop myself up with my laptop and my cell phone and continue working on most days throughout the process.

In short, I was still able to “be me” and feel like I still had some element of control, even though I was in the midst of something that seemed to be beyond my control. I had a goal and a focus every day – concentrate on one day at a time, one treatment at a time, and appreciate how much closer to the end goal that brought us all to. I was surrounded by an amazing support network that continued to visit/call/email/bring meals/cheer on/check-in throughout the entire process, and I’m so fortunate to have had that. Doctors and nurses were checking in on me all the time and letting me know how I was doing, how the treatment was going, etc. Really, I was far too busy to ever be worried or wonder what life was going to be like after it all ended – the goal was just to get to the end.

Well, here we are at the infamous ‘end’. Hoping to be cancer-free and ‘back to normal’. Here at my own ‘happily ever after’. Yet now, more than ever, I find myself feeling scared, unsure and alone, with the question “What now” echoing loudly and drowning out many other thoughts in my head.

Now I’m learning that the post-cancer experience isn’t quite like they depict it in the movies. I didn’t get that chance to sit across from my doctor, anxiously awaiting the words “Congratulations – you’re cancer-free”. I pictured sitting there with my husband, letting tears of joy & relief stream down my face as we hugged and thanked her for all she had done for us. In reality, it felt more like a “good luck to you” send-off, complete with a “We don’t test to see if you have it anymore but let us know if you have any symptoms” finale. Really? After all we’ve been through, that’s it? Not even a high-five or a balloon?

Now I have time to truly process everything I’ve gone through. Previously I was far too busy & focused to be sad, scared, or introspective – now I’ve got nothing but time to field these thoughts and feelings that keep washing over me and figure out what the heck to do with them.

Now the daily ‘check-ins’ and support are less frequent (as they should be, of course!) which leave me feeling less distracted and, at times, more alone.

Now I’m mourning friendships and relationships that didn’t survive the bumpy road I found myself on.

Now I’m acutely aware of stories about people whose cancer continues to return – those who successfully battle it time & time again, and those who were sadly unable to claim victory once again.

Now I’m not working anymore and I desperately miss the routine, the outlet and the camaraderie that meant so much to me during these difficult months.

Now I’m learning that getting my body and my mind to get back into total alignment (or something close to it) is trickier than it looks. My mind says “We’re done, we’re healthy, we’ve spent far too much time in a horizontal position lately and we need to get back into shape!” My body, on the other hand, says “We don’t have the energy, we’re still reeling from the last year or so, we need to ease back into things.”

Now I feel like I’m supposed to have learned numerous life-lessons throughout this journey designed to “make a difference” or “ensure my life really matters” – a lot of pressure if you’re not sure how to do that.

Now I understand with every fibre of my being that life is short and can have its own agenda, despite all of our best-laid plans and preparations. It’s so incredibly hard not to be absolutely terrified about the prospect of not being there for those people who mean the most to me.

So there you have it – a lot of “what now’s” that you may not expect to run across when you begin your “once upon a time”. Does that mean I don’t believe in happy endings? Absolutely not – the most important “what now” I have taken away from all of this is that now I am extremely aware of all of the things in life that are beyond my control – but also that there are still things that I CAN control. I can control my reactions to what happens in life and I can choose to appreciate where life has taken me. Perhaps this story isn’t over after all – and now it’s time for me to figure out how that next chapter will go…

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Cancer doesn't discriminate

When I shared my “D-Day” (aka “Diagnosis Day”) details with my friends and family last year, the overriding response was “Why you?”. No one in my family has ever had cancer; I work out 2-3 times a week; I eat relatively healthy (hey, I even willingly ate kale!); and have never suffered more than a cold throughout my entire life. So admittedly, I was on the “Why me” train with the rest of them.

Here’s what the past year has taught me – why NOT me? Cancer doesn’t read the checklists. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if the “rules” show that you shouldn’t have it. It doesn’t care that you weren’t planning to get sick. It doesn’t care that you didn’t see this coming. It doesn’t care if you don’t feel strong enough to deal with it. It doesn’t care if you have a lifetime of plans and goals ahead of you still to achieve. It doesn’t care whether you’re young, old or somewhere in between. It doesn’t care if you have a loving partner or supportive friends & family that count on you. It doesn’t care if you have children at home who could not (and should not) have to imagine a life without you. It has its own agenda and truly couldn’t care less about yours.

So if these checklists don’t mean as much as we thought they did, we really only have two options. Continue to bemoan our fate and worry on what should or shouldn’t be… or make a new checklist. A checklist that allows us to take some of the power back and focus on the things that we CAN control. We fight for – and enjoy – every single minute we have.

We fight even harder knowing that there are things beyond our control.

We continue to build our bodies to be “un-cancer-friendly” environments.

We eat the foods that make cancer run in the opposite direction.

We work out to make sure our bodies are ready to fight off any intruder.

We go for regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments and we do self-exams on a regular basis.

We make sure our heads are not stuck in the sand somewhere and we arm ourselves with the knowledge that makes us powerful.

We listen to our bodies and appreciate them for all that they are and all that they give us.

We look around us and make sure we are surrounded by a positive, loving, support network.

We make sure to let this support network know how much they mean to us.

We recognize that every day is a gift and it is our choice every single day to decide whether to celebrate it or take it for granted.

We make a conscious effort not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ – compared to the thought of not being there for your family and loved ones, does anything else truly compare?

If cancer doesn’t read the checklists, then maybe it’s time to focus on a different list. Perhaps instead of focusing on the question of “Why me” we should simply focus our energies on “Me”…
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