This time last year, I had big plans. Grow my business, travel internationally, and play tons of golf with Mathis. On February 22, 2015, I was shocked to learn my cancer had returned as Stage IV after 2 prior occurrences. Right after losing Tracy, my womb-mate in May, 2014. Since then, surgery, 20 weeks of chemo, another surgery, radiation and pills for life.
Who knows what is around the bend in 2016? Nobody. And that’s my new reality. Living with cancer for the rest of my life will be a true test of my emotional strength. That reality also sucks because it impacts my family and friends around me. I wish I could erase 2015 by using the Men in Black neuralizer. But I can’t.
What can I do? Believe me; I’ve spent many days thinking about this, day and night.
My Key #1: Control what I can control
Here’s what I can do: (and what I enjoy doing)
- Exercise – Half-way through radiation, I started Pilates on a reformer at my Club Pilates in Bellevue and I’m addicted to it. For me, it’s exercise with stretching, breathing and within a safe, stable environment with great instructors.
- Laugh – Mathis and I kicked in the New Year with watching Amy Schumer live on New Year’s Eve and we’ll be going to more comedy shows and concerts going forward. If you have ideas, count us in!
- Spend quality time with family and friends – I’ll be home a lot, especially in the first half of 2016 since I need foot surgery on February 3. Unrelated to cancer, I need to repair my big toe with surgery that requires a long recovery. So open invitation to come on over!
- Love – I’ll treasure all the times I’ll spend with Mathis, my children, family and friends. I’ve learned to just “be” and not feel the need to go out or entertain.
My Key #2: Face my fears and talk about them
Although I appear optimistic and upbeat, which I am, I do have moments of pure anxiety. Fear of the unknown, sadness, tired of being the patient, and worry. I am seeing friends who are further along in their stage IV path and it’s hard. While I don’t want to wallow in my cancer life, I can’t stuff it, either.
So, warning: if you ask me how I’m doing, you can expect a wide variety of answers, depending on the moment.
My Key #3: Take one day, week and month at a time
While I will keep planning things for the long haul, I’ll also just continue through the steps my great Virginia Mason medical team advises. Here’s what’s coming:
- I just started new cancer treatment pills, called aromatase inhibitors, which will block estrogen production. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anastrozole. I will be on this the rest of my life.
- In January, I will start another pill. It’s a new use of a drug used for osteoporosis; however, now used for metastatic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastasis), post-menopausal breast cancer patients. The theory and recent findings show that by strengthening the bones, we may be able to prevent my cancer from spreading there.
- January 26: big scan day with the findings that same day. Then every 4-6 months after that.
The following helped me, so I thought I would share it: My dear friend, Mary Foss-Skiftesvik, shared these wonderful insights from her friend, Dr. Dale Atkins, a psychologist, speaker and consultant:
In times of illness, particularly prolonged illnesses, people often have a difficult time adjusting to the significant changes we experience in our lives. Old familiar habits and rituals that shape our daily routines often become more challenging. The inability to do something as well as before (or not at all) has the potential to zap hope and add to a feeling of despair.
Generally, when we are ill, our energy levels decrease. Sometimes this is hard to accept. We may be used to, consciously or unconsciously, equating our productivity and energy level with our personal worth. Even though we are learning ways to adapt that help to maintain our health (making previously “simple” tasks, doable), we may still feel frustrated and disappointed that we cannot to live up to our image of who we were before the illness. We may judge ourselves harshly, questioning that we lost our “work ethic” because we no longer perform at our previously high standard. We may compare ourselves with others, feeling guilty that because we need to attend to our illness (need to rest more, attend to side effects of medications that affect the way we think, feel, or move), we haven’t “accomplished” much. This thinking can result in our overextending ourselves when we are just not able, inhibiting both the healing process and living healthfully.
It is during these times that we are wise to readjust our focus. Accept what our capabilities are at this time and figure out what we need to do now. The question is not one of self-definition, “Who have I become?” But rather, one of self-assessment, “Given what I am facing now, what can I do or not do?” When we compare our self to others, or to what we capable of, we can observe, just take notice. It is important to resist becoming entangled in a downward cycle of despair and regret. We can stop our self and tell our self that for now, there is a new standard and we can learn to adapt as we meet it. This awareness of where we are at this moment helps us to accept and adapt while keeping our sense of self intact. We focus on what our strengths are, and what remains and can improve, rather than what is gone. Such self-acceptance can lead us to feel a significant relief of pressure and a renewed sense of gratitude, contentment, and hope.
Illness is about adaptation to change and acceptance. Along the way, there is an opportunity for spiritual growth. A spiritual journey during illness can begin with simply noticing the feelings that come up when we think of not being able to work or accomplish projects because of our illness. Are we comparing our self to others, whether or not they, too, are ill? Do we view our personal worth as diminished as a result of these comparisons? When we focus on healing and doing what is necessary to find our spiritual center we are more likely to notice an inner resilience and strength that we may not have been aware of before.
Our family vacation during Thanksgiving in Puerto Vallarta was fabulous. Mathis, Mom (Ilse), Shane, Chad, Milo, Greg and I enjoyed the sun, great meals, zip-lining (the boys) and lots of laughter. You can see some of the photos here. https://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/welcome.sfly?fid=b348c3c68fb85719&sid=0AcM2LFq1Zt2jJYA
Christmas time was fun, as well, with Shane and Chad flying into Seattle for about 4 days. Lots of eating, watching football and Scrabble.
I’m already loving the new year and there is something magical about January 1st and being able to say “adios” to 2015.
My new year’s resolutions recommendation to you: Make time for your family and friends; tell them how much you love them (often); listen more than you talk; complain less; and slow down to enjoy the wonder around you!
You don’t know how good you have it until you face mortality.
Love and hugs,
(top feature photo taken by Alison Jensen, friend and wife of the fabulous Paul Jensen)