Health, Memoir, Personal

Cancer Graduation Day

It finally came.

The day I’ve been looking forward to for 10 years.

I went to see my oncologist yesterday and she said, “Congratulations. You have graduated from oncology.”

Oncology — the study and treatment of tumors.

The field of medicine that is devoted to cancer.

About a month ago I went to the breast surgeon’s office and she said, “You don’t need to come back anymore unless it gives you peace of mind to keep coming.”

No thank you, I told her, I will not be back.

I am done with cancer.

I am done with the doctors, the drugs, and the anxiety that is caused by every visit to a medical facility.

I wonder if doctors understand the impact of their words when they tell a patient their cancer case is closed.

The sudden rush of emotion surprised me — so many memories flooded my mind.

  • Sitting across the desk from doctors talking to me about treatment options and survival rates.
  • Looking out the window of the doctor’s office at the trees for a brief mental and emotional escape from what I was hearing.
  • Sitting for hours hooked up to a chemo cart with bright red fluids infusing my body.
  • Friends streaming into my home with food, cards, flowers, and endless amounts of love and support.
  • Doug organizing my medications, running to the drug store at all hours of the night, and showing up unexpectedly for doctor appointments and chemo treatments.

“I never have to come back?” I asked her.

“Only if you want to come back or if there is another issue,” she said.

Another  issue…

That worry will always haunt me, but for now, I will celebrate the end of the cancer era.

Ten years is a long time.

One minute everything was normal.

The next minute, I was processing words about invasive ductal cancer.

What have I learned in those 10 years?

I’m not sure I could cover the lessons of 10 years in one blog post, so let me name just a few…

  1. I’m never alone. Even in the dark of the night when pain and anxiety will not subside and sleep will never come, I am not alone. I have God to “hear my soul’s complaint” as the church hymn goes. And, I have friends and family who astound me with their love, support, and kindness.
  2. I am stronger than I think.  I like what Elizabeth Taylor said about doing hard things. “You just do it. You force yourself to get up. You force yourself to put one foot in front of the other, and you refuse to let it get to you. You fight. You cry. You curse. Then you go about the business of living. That’s how I’ve done it. There’s no other way.” I would amend her list — you fight, you cry, you curse, you pray your heart out, and then you go about the business of living. It’s that prayer part that gives you the strength to go about the business of living. It might sound silly but from the day I was diagnosed, I promised myself I would never spend one day in my pajamas or in my bed. I would get up every morning, shower, put on my makeup and get dressed for the day. No. Matter. What. For some reason, those small daily routines made me feel stronger. I also decided I would always cover my bald head with a scarf or a wig because, for some reason, I felt less like a victim of cancer when my head was covered.
hair
This was taken when my hair had grown enough for me to lose the wig! What a great day.

As I walked out of the doctor’s office yesterday, I stopped and texted my family to tell them the good news.

“I never expected this day to feel so HUGE,” I wrote.

Then, when I got into my car to come home, I cried.

Unbelievable relief washed over me.

I can never be sure cancer won’t terrorize my life again, but for now, after 10 years, I will celebrate that it’s finally part of my past; and I will move forward with profound respect for the magnitude and depth of the lessons it taught me.

I’ve enjoyed many graduations in my life, but this might be the best one yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized

Family Friends

After a busy, laughter-filled Thanksgiving week, I sit in a quiet beach house listening to the clock tick, the ceiling fan spin, and the ocean waves rhythmically, consistently roll in over the sand and back out into the water again

2014-05-03 15.52.21And I remember…

Only a few days ago, this house was filled with people busily baking pies, basting turkeys, and tying gold ribbons around napkins for a beautiful holiday table. The house was full of happy people working together to create another memorable Thanksgiving dinner.

Eric, the master pie crust maker
Eric, the master pie crust maker

After dinner, we lounged around the family room and reminisced.

We remembered the Thanksgiving we spent in a cabin in West Virginia when it snowed and we made makeshift sleds and sped down the hills, hiked back up and did it again.

We remembered our friend, Annette who recently died of cancer. We proposed a toast to her and laughed remembering the year we were cleaning up the Thanksgiving dinner dishes in the kitchen and she pointed at some leftover pie and said, “Who made that wretched pecan pie?”

“I did,” I said.

Her face turned fuchsia and she immediately tried to explain that she was talking about a different pie, a store-bought pie that was the wretched one, not my homemade pie, which, of course, was delicious.

Uh huh. That’s why she pointed at my pie.

What else could she do when she called my homemade pie “wretched” right to my face?

Now it’s an annual joke. “Who’s making the wretched pecan pie?”

Actually, I think we dropped pecan pie from our menu after that.

At least I know I never made it again.

And then there’s the driveway pie.

That’s the creamiest, most delicious coconut cream pie you’ll ever eat. And we only have it once a year.

Tragically, one year, while being carried into the house, it was dropped on the driveway – shattering the glass pie pan and splattering the custard all over the driveway.

We were so disappointed that we could only think of one thing to do – get spoons and eat it off the driveway, carefully picking out the shards of glass before ingesting.

I wish I could say I was kidding about that memory, but truly we found ourselves huddled around the splattered pie spooning out as many tastes as we could before giving up because we started spooning up pieces of glass.

We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with this same group of friends for about 30 years.

After dinner Thursday, Doug thanked them for being part of every major event of our lives from our dating years to our marriage years, through the births of both of our daughters and every milestone in between and since.

When I moved to the Washington, D.C. area, my boss said one of his favorite things about living here was that friends became like family.

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He said since most people in the DC area are transplants from someplace else, it’s like we’re all out on a limb together so we take care of each other.

That’s definitely proven to be true for us, particularly with this group of friends we met after first moving here.

We’ve supported each other through the deaths of parents and siblings, through dating relationships and breakups through marriages and parenting, illnesses and job changes and more.

Through it all, we’ve created memories that cement our friendships; and don’t friendships and relationships sustain our lives?

So as I sit here savoring the silence as the sun goes down on my last evening at the beach, I remember the loyal, true friends I’ve been blessed to know, the ones I don’t see often but the ones I know will always be there for me because they always have been.

Friends

Friendship 101

Meet my friend, Trina.

Don’t go stealing her away though.

Just meet her and appreciate her like I do.

I am perhaps the most blessed woman in the world in many ways.

One of them is that I have terrific friends.

Trina is one of them.

How do I love her?

Let me count the ways:

1. She is my flower fairy.

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It started when I was labeled with the dreaded “C” word. She came over and planted pansies in my flowerbed so that I could see them every day and be reminded that I could be like the pretty pansies — strong and resilient. They helped me make it through the worst winter of my life.

I love flowers but I’m not much of a gardener. So I rely on Trina to help me. It is a treat to go flower shopping with her because she comes alive in a garden shop or nursery. I mean, really comes alive. Her pulse quickens, She squeals with delight. The array of colors and varieties of flowers and plants are the candy store to the kid in her. You know, the Christmas morning to her inner child.

I’m overwhelmed with all the choices and all the labels about sun, part-sun, shade, annual, perennial, border plant, etc. While shopping for flowers for a big pot on my porch, she says, “Think thrill, spill and fill. That’s all you need to know.”

Okay, so something that is beautiful and thrilling, something that spills over the edge and something that fills up the pot.

Got it.

I mistakenly went without her to get some mums and pansies for fall though.

Mums thrill. Pansies fill. What spills? No time to search for spilling plants so I went with only mums and pansies.

Trina to the rescue.

While visiting her daughter in North Carolina she visited a nursery and discovered — you won’t believe it — spilling pansies.

Yep, in North Carolina they have trailing pansies or “cool wave” pansies.

She was so excited she had to buy some and bring them home. And guess what lucky friend got some of these plentiful pansies?

Not only did she bring some home to me, she planted them. And they are spilling out all over the place in my pot on the porch.

Thrill, spill, fill?

Check.

She even added some spring thrill with some daffodil bulbs to delight me when the mums are gone.

2. She knows how to celebrate.

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Nobody entertains, decorates, crafts or celebrates like Trina.

See a beautiful wreath made of hydrangeas on Pinterest? Call Trina. She’ll get excited to make it, track down the supplies and make it with you.

Hosting a baby shower? Call Trina. She’ll rush over and help you make an enormous diaper cake.

Have a chronic illness? Call Trina and she’ll find a way to make it funny. We once had a party to celebrate diabetes so that we could learn how to entertain using diabetic-friendly food.

Daughter gets elected senior class president? Trina will show up at your house to wait for the results with you. Then, she’ll rush to the store to buy balloons and party supplies with you for an impromptu party in the school parking lot to celebrate.

Hosting a big party? Trina will come early and get to work helping set up.

Trina is so fun and ready to party that when my kids and their friends (including her daughter) once wanted waffles at midnight, they called her to ask her to bring them some. And, she did! (This might put her in the crazy category but that fits too.)

My daughter Sara once said to me, “Mom, why have you been hiding Trina from me?” It wasn’t that I’d hidden her, but Sara had to lose her teenage blinders to discover the gem that is Trina. Now, she says, “It’s not a party without Trina.”

3. Nobody loves to help people more than Trina.

A day is not complete without Trina helping someone. Last week she went to the bakery and found a round loaf of orange bread with a jack-o-lantern face on it. She bought it and said, “I have to give this to just the right person — somebody who really needs something special today.”

This is not an anomaly. This is how she lives.

The motor that makes her run is fueled with the question, “Who needs me today?” She genuinely wants to cheer people up and make them happy.

She takes care of her elderly neighbors, always searching for how she can help them. She takes care of so many people.

And there is not a better mother, grandmother, sister, wife, aunt, cousin, friend in the world than Trina.

When her kids are discouraged, she tells them to forget about their troubles by serving others. And, it works!

Trina is happy when I’m happy; sad when I’m sad; and mad when I’m mad. And she can change the sad and mad with a little silly.

Aren’t you glad to know my friend, Trina?

I’ll share her, but don’t steal her away.

She’s the real deal of a friend that everyone needs.

 

 

 

 

Community, From the News

Proud to be an American

Happy Fourth of July!

photo credit itthing.com

What better place to be on Independence Day than in Washington, D.C. at Nat’s Stadium with your family and best friends?

That thought has been in my head from the minute I got up this morning.

Highlights of my Fourth of July:

  • Watching all the families dressed in their Nats fan gear pile on the metro
  • Two little boys sliding together on their seat, and saying, “Do you want to sit down?” With mitts in hand and autographed ball caps on their heads, they told me they were hoping to get Bryce Harper’s autograph at today’s game.  I loved their excitement. “How many more stops?” they kept asking their parents. “Why is this thing so slow?” they asked as they bounced up and down in their seats. Their enthusiasm was contagious.
  • A huge American flag draped between two fire truck cranes at the entrance to the stadium
photo credit Washington Examiner
  • Four home runs!
  • Standing up to sing America the Beautiful with a stadium full of proud Americans. I loved the patriotism that surged through the crowd.
  • Thanking our military with a packed house of fans
  • Sharing stories about last week’s storm but not letting it affect a great game, a beautiful city, and resilient group of people.
  • Heat wave? What heat wave? We had a breeze that kept us comfortable all afternoon in the sweltering heat.
  • Fireworks
  • Homemade Strawberry gelato
  • Feeling proud to be an American and celebrating freedom in the greatest nation on earth with the people I love most.
Friends, Health

My friend Amy

 

Should I choose pink polish or clear? I wondered as I sat at the nail technician’s station last spring for a manicure.

As I pondered my shallow conundrum, the salon door swung open and a frail looking petite woman entered the room and threw her tiny arms around another nail technician’s neck.  “Oh, it’s so good to see you,” she said in a vibrant voice that defied her waif-like frame.

She sat next to me and introduced herself as Amy.

We talked about everything from our nail polish choices to politics, education (she was getting her second PhD at American University) and then to my children, and then religion.  She is a Christian and we talked about how much she loves the apostle Paul and wants to meet him someday.

I didn’t know what was wrong with Amy but I suspected cancer.

When she left, I asked Annie, her manicurist, more about her.

Cancer. 

I knew it.

The doctors gave her two months to live.

That was last spring.

After I went home, I couldn’t get Amy off my mind.  I wanted to reach out to her, support her somehow. In our 90-minutes together in the nail salon, we connected with each other.  I loved her fighting spirit, her thirst for learning, and passion for life. I loved her sense of humor, her faith, and the simple fact that even though chemotherapy was battering her poor cancer-riddled body, she had gorgeous nails. Somehow, through all of her treatments, she dragged herself to the nail salon to keep up those beautiful hands of hers.

I called Annie at the salon and asked if she had Amy’s contact information.

Unfortunately Annie didn’t have Amy’s information, and probably couldn’t have shared it with me even if she did. I’m sure there’s some rule against giving out a client’s personal information.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her and the awful news of her cancer death sentence. I knew she had to be afraid and overwhelmed.

A couple of weeks later, I again stopped into the salon without an appointment. Again, it was unusually slow. The phone rang, Annie answered it and it was Amy wondering if she could drop in for a manicure right then.

Coincidence?

When she walked in, she again sat next to me and we talked for probably two hours.  She told me about her cancer diagnosis and said, “I’m not ready to die. I’m the kind of person that wakes up with a to-do list every morning and crosses everything off as I do it every day.  I still have a long to-do list.  I just don’t feel like it’s my time to go.”

I looked at her with her blonde hair, dressed in what could have been kid’s sized jeans and wondered whether we ever really know if we’re ready to die.

She said, “Don’t you think you would feel ready if it was going to happen?” she asked me.

I didn’t know the answer to that. I’ve also wondered about that.

“What do you think it’s like to die? I mean I’m afraid of being alone.  Will I just be alone or what will happen?”

I told her I don’t believe we are alone when we die.  In fact, I said, when my husband’s mother died, we studied a few Hospice books on the process of dying and learned that many people actually see someone coming to pick them up to take them to the other side.

“I think someone you know will come and escort you.  I think it will be a happy, peaceful time and that your chemical-ridden body will finally rest.  You won’t have the physical and emotional struggle that you have now.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” she said.  “I have a grandmother I was really close to and I’ve always wondered if I would see her when I die.  Do you think I will?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s the one who comes to get you,” I said.

When people die, they often smile, relax and get a look of recognition on their faces like they are seeing someone they love or someone who is familiar to them, I told her.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that we’ve been at the salon together twice now.  I need someone to talk to about these kinds of questions,” she said. “If I talk to my parents, I can see the sadness all over their faces.  I try to put up a front for them so they don’t know how much pain I’m in and how many questions I have about death. So it’s good to talk to someone who isn’t that close to me, someone that understands the toll chemotherapy takes and how you have to ask yourself some pretty hard questions.”

I did little talking as she fired questions at me like, “Why does God make me suffer?  Why did He make cancer treatments so debilitating?  Why does He want me to die? What will happen to me when I die?  Will I just leave this earth and then be alone somewhere in the clouds?”

My mind spun as I tried to know where to begin.  “I know the answers to these questions,” I thought but our nail appointments were winding down and how could I thoughtfully respond to all her questions in the brief minutes we had waiting for our nails to dry?

When we both left, we traded e-mail addresses, promised to stay in touch, and hugged like old friends.

“If you know more about dying and what happens to us, will you teach me?” she asked.

I told her I would send her some information from the books on Hospice and share some of my beliefs with her.

Later that week I sent her an email about my belief in life after death.  I sent some encouraging quotes to help her keep fighting.

She told me she couldn’t take what her doctors said to heart so she went to Pennsylvania to the Cancer Treatment Center of America to see if they could do something new for her.  She came home discouraged because they gave her some options but in the end, they were treatments that might extend her life briefly but not lead to full recovery.  She continued to get chemotherapy treatments. But she refused to give up hope.

All summer I worried about her when I didn’t hear from her, I wondered how I would ever know if she died.  I wanted to be able to go to her funeral at least.

In about August, she sent me an e-mail to tell me our manicurist and her assistant moved to another salon.  She said she was very weak but wanted to meet for a manicure soon.  “When I’m stronger and have more energy, we’ll go get manicured and talk.”

It’s a morbid admission but I scanned the obituaries during the months I didn’t hear from her.  I had to know if she died.  After all, the doctors told her she wouldn’t live more than two months. We were easily into five months by then.

Later, after reading Steve Job’s eulogy delivered by his sister, I thought of Amy again.  I wondered why Jobs said, “Wow!” three times before he died.

Did someone come to pick him up?  He looked happy and amazed as he was in his last moments.

I sent the eulogy to Amy and said, “What do you think made him so happy at the end of his life?”

She wrote back immediately and thanked me for thinking of her.

She said, “You won’t believe what happened to me! I got in a car accident and broke my leg.  I haven’t been able to drive or do anything for weeks.  I am not the kind of person who can just sit around though so I cleaned all the wood floors in my huge house.  I wish I had a video to show you.  Can you picture me on the floor with one leg out straight, scooting from one piece of floor to the next? It’s hilarious! Oh, and I wanted you to know Annie had a new baby boy and she’s doing great.”

No mention of cancer.

I wrote back and said, “You didn’t say a word about cancer.  You are such a strong fighter.  I am not sending you any more information on death and dying. You are beating the odds!”

Again, she wrote back immediately.  She said she tries not to think about cancer because she has so much to do, like finish her dissertation.

“Besides, it makes me too sad,” she said.

What started as a frivolous, last-minute nail appointment turned into a wonderful, enriching experience that led to a new friendship and some deep conversations about some of the most important questions in life.

I thought of Amy again today as I made my Christmas “to-do” list.  I wondered how she was going to get everything done for Christmas.  I sent her an e-mail asking if I could help her do some Christmas shopping, wrapping or run errands for her, or even just meet her to get our nails manicured.

Now, I will hold my breath and pray she writes back.

It’s been eight months since we met.  Eight months since she was given only two more to live.

I want her to keep writing those lengthy “to-do” lists and checking off all the things she accomplishes.  I want her to get that second PhD.  I want her to have another Christmas.

I pray she writes back.