The Lessons of Cancer…Giving Thanks

Perhaps you are newly diagnosed or in the midst of grueling cancer treatments.  I write this to bring you hope and encouragement.  It is necessary to give a year to cancer if you need chemo, radiation, and surgery.   When I started it seemed like that year would never end.  But it does, and it will for you as well.  When you are in the  middle of the darkness of the cancer tunnel, it is difficult to see even a few hours at a time.  But once you get out of that tunnel, life takes on a whole new meaning.

Today is the anniversary of my Mastectomy.  Thanksgiving Day was the day I returned home from the hospital.  It was the day I was forced to accept the role of “cancer patient” and officially begin my one year of cancer treatment.  As I reflect over the past year, one thing comes to mind:  I have been deeply and richly blessed.  My former pastor, Fr. Ed Schleter, told me he would give me 5 years to recognize the gifts of cancer.  Hopefully, I am a fast learner and already clearly see so many of these gifts.

I would be depressed if I focused on what I have lost over the past year:  my breast, 14 lymph nodes, my hair, my muscle strength and range of motion, proper functioning of my heart because of an herceptin/chemo heart attack, a few brain functions with onset of chemo brain which are improving, medicine-free living, a life without lymphedema, ongoing side effects of chemotherapy….

It sounds like quite a bit when I write it all down.  Even with all of that, I feel good and am overjoyed to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year.   But let’s talk about what I have gained and for what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Wisdom and Knowledge – My insurance company paid out close to $200,000 and I paid out over $10,000 so far in co-pays, medicines, and incidentals.   I am so grateful for Medical Mutual of Ohio.  Being self-employed, I never dreamed I would have such amazing coverage.  For this, I thank God every day, and for my agent who always discouraged me when I wanted to change insurance companies.  Thank God I listened to his experience!

The wisdom I have gained amounted to so much more than those sums of money could buy, however.  There is no price I can put on what I have learned about cancer, about the strength and stamina of cancer patients, the education, care and concern of medical doctors, nurses, and medical staff, and the love and devotion of family and friends.  The unbelievable care I received at the University of Michigan Breast Care Clinic as I am their biggest cheerleader. Plus, I learned how tough I am through the gift of God’s grace.

My Will to Live – I never would have guessed that I had such a strong will to live.  Had someone asked me before diagnosis, I would have said I probably didn’t care if I lived or died.  I was so wrong.   Something kicked into gear the day I told my Oncologist I wanted to quit chemo and didn’t want to live.   He gave me the gift of compassion and understanding which inspired me to live.  From that day on, I never looked back.  The strength of wanting to live took over.  Never underestimate the gift you give to another with the power of compassion and understanding.

Family and Friends – I was able to receive the amazing gift of the love of my family.   Now that is an incredible thing!  All of them went above and beyond the call of family obligation!  And friends…I received over 350 greeting cards!  I didn’t even know I knew that many people.  My family and friends stood by me, cooked for me, created recipes for me, helped me clean, took me to treatment, sent me flowers, took me to the grocery store, and brought me groceries.  It was my family and closest friends who listened to me even during my horrible, steroid mood swings and angry outbursts, laughed, thought it was funny and didn’t condemn me.  Friends helped me exercise, gave me so many gracious and cherished gifts, visited me at my home, planted my flowers, sent me multiple greeting cards to cheer me, wore pink hair and clothing in my honor,  donated money in my honor, traveled for miles and miles to see me, and called and called and called to make sure I was okay.

Also, I received the great gift of knowing who my closest friends are, the boundaries of my relationships, and what true friendship really is.  So many people never get that opportunity, but I clearly was able to see the clarity of my relationships.   Their love and devotion got me through.

The Gift of One Day – I see the gift of a day so differently now.  I wake up and thank God I am here.  A sense of excitement and eagerness takes over and I think, “What will this wonderful day bring?”

My Blog – How amazing this has been for me.  I get many emails from women going through Breast Cancer.  I cherish each and every one.  Today I heard from a gal who had written me on several occasions while going through Chemo.   She had her PET Scan yesterday and she was cancer free!   Her Oncologist had given her less than a 10% chance last April.  The entire medical team was astonished she is cancer free.  She wrote to thank me for my Blog and my encouragement.   You cannot come up with a better gift to receive than her email!  The tears were flowing down my cheeks as I felt her joy.

I don’t have enough time to write about all of things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving and each day.  My heart overflows with gratitude.  But to give you an idea how the ordinary brings me much joy, I just finished peeling 10 pounds of potatoes.  Before breast cancer, I hated peeling potatoes and let everyone know it.  Now, being able to peel 10 pounds of potatoes was the most fabulous thing I’ve ever done.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

The Lessons of Cancer…Cleaning House

So we all love a clean house.  At least most of us do.  I love it when my house is clean, but I don’t like to do it.  Having a cleaning person was one of the great joys of my past, but I can no longer justify that expense.  During cancer treatment I did not have the energy to clean other than the basics.  My sister helped me on several occasions.  I am still catching up!

Perhaps you have a very regimented cleaning schedule.  I truly have been disorganized in this area of my life.  If someone came to my house unannounced it was presentable, but I made sure I dimmed the lights and threw stuff in the closet as they were walking up the sidewalk!

Since cancer treatment, I realized I just didn’t want to put so much energy, both mental and physical, into things that don’t matter that much.    You might think that I have it easy because I live alone.  Oh quite the contrary!  There is no one to blame for the messes except me!  That is a heavy burden to bear!  I am the only slob in the house!

My new routine involves something I’ve read about for years, but only did once or twice.  Now I do it regularly.  In the early morning when I have the most energy, I set my kitchen timer for 15 minutes.  I focus on three rooms and do the most I can do in that 15 minutes.   It is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished in that short amount of time!   It is a contest for me, I get exercise in, and I am twice as fast as I would be if I didn’t have that timer set.  Today I added 10 minutes so I could clean even more!   If I wasn’t under the gun, no way would I ever add time to my cleaning detail!

In 25 minutes I was able to sweep and mop one bathroom floor, unload and load the dishwasher, straighten the kitchen, dump the wastebaskets, make the living room neat, sort and throw away junk papers, and sweep the entire house!!  The timer was buzzing when I finished sweeping!  Instead of feeling depleted, I felt energized!

If you need even more motivation, get a close friend or family member involved.  My sister and I discovered this motivational tool.   We call each other and say, okay 20 minutes of cleaning – ready, set, go.   And we have a competition to see who can get the most done at our individual houses!  It is extremely motivating!

In summary, cancer treatment made cleaning less of a chore to me.   I am so thankful to have the energy to clean and I am grateful.  As a result, I have found a new way of doing things to bring better results.

The Lessons of Cancer Continue…how much stuff do you need?

I am finding joy in putting into place the lessons I learned during one year of cancer treatment.  They are important lessons that I cherish and will write about.  Today I will focus on “STUFF”…

Number one is I don’t need so much stuff.  I’ve never been a hoarder, and it’s always been easy for me to give things away.  However, I still have many things I do not need.  So I have been busy giving them away.  Like how many Russian Nesting Dolls do I need that I collected back in the 1980s?  The answer is none!   I do care about my grandmother’s dishes and keepsakes, and a few treasures from my late father.  I also care about the treasured gifts that were given to me during cancer treatment by my amazing and wonderful family and friends.  Those things matter to me because I really know how much my friends cared about me and are a constant reminder of that love and compassion.   Clothing that I was holding onto that will be totally out of style for some unknown event is on its way out.   And Christmas decorations are another whole blog post!

I learned that the things I do need are really cozy pajamas, really comfortable socks, amazingly comfortable shoes,  clothing that makes me feel prettier, and healthy food.  Since I have to use all paraben free make-ups and non-estrogen causing soaps, I’ve really scaled down in that department.  Now I am using Dr. Bronner’s Castile organic soap both liquid and in bar form for my face, body, and use it periodically on my hair.  Now I use aloe for my face which I discovered while going through radiation.   Now all the rest of the hundreds of dollars of miracle cosmetics that really didn’t do a thing are headed out the door!

As for makeup, I am still trying to figure all of that out.  Some of the natural things haven’t proven to be that great.  I’m researching and see where it leads me!  In the meantime, I am using up what I had stocked up and what I received at the wonderful Look Good Feel Better (www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org)  seminar put on by the American Cancer Society for women undergoing cancer treatment.

Shampoos and hair care have gotten really easy.  So far I am using Aveda Shampure Shampoo and some kind of second-hand hair paste my niece, the hair stylist, gave me!  Gosh, I need that paste.  My post-chemo hair is about 2 inches long now and getting wilder by the day!  If you are old enough to remember Red Skelton and his hair, that about sums it up!  But boy am I grateful for it!  I was sharing some of my hair dilemmas with a valued friend.  She was giving me ideas.  But they were all too complicated for me, and she knew it!  We laughed about it.  Another lesson of cancer for me is that daily hair doesn’t have to be that complex and doesn’t need to have that much energy given to it!   When I think of how many times I let a “bad hair day” ruin my day is just ridiculous and petty, or so it seems to me right now.

Since quite a bit of my lingerie now comes from the medical supply house  (this makes me laugh or I may cry!), I find it important to have pretty lingerie for the items that don’t!  A lace camisole makes all the difference!

And then we come to one of my passions which are books.  I just have to let go of them.  This might be more of a sacrifice, but this winter I am determined to cut my book collection by at least half to three-quarters.

As for cleaning products, I need to be so careful about these and their toxins.  So I have it down to two cleaning items – apple cider vinegar and white vinegar.  Okay, I do sneak in a little Bar Keeper’s Friend on my stainless steel sink!  But I am ridding my household of the other toxic cleaners that don’t do that great of a job!

And in the food and vitamin department, well that is where it gets complicated.  If you start researching what keeps cancer at bay, you will be more than overwhelmed.  So far I am committed to real and expensive Pomegranate Juice, walnuts and parsley.  There is real research on these foods with Her2Neu Positive Breast Cancer.  I’ll write an entire blog post about this at a future date!

One thing I do know, I cannot go back to my old ways.  It won’t work for me any longer.  So I rejoice about the new path and appreciate the lessons along the way!

Chemo Brain after Cancer Treatment

Chemo Brain is real.   I am 5 1/2  months post Chemotherapy.  During Chemotherapy, I had difficulties remembering words.  Then I had difficulties with my memory.  Thankfully, those two things have subsided dramatically.   But I do notice other issues.

I belong to internet support group of 20 women.  We all started chemotherapy within a few weeks of each other and finished about the same time.  We had a chemo brain discussion recently on our Facebook page.  Everyone is suffering with chemo brain to some degree and some more than others.  We were all different.  Some of us had difficulty with attention, others with memory, others with speed, and many with finding the right word.

In an interesting article from the New York Times, it shows from research chemo brain can last 5 years or longer. “It’s clearly established now that chemo brain does exist and can continue long-term,” said Karen L. Syrjala, co-director of the Survivorship Program at Fred Hutchinson and the study’s lead author. “The real issue here is that recovery from cancer treatment is not a one-year process but a two- to five-year process. People need to understand the extent to which the cells in their bodies have really been compromised by not only the cancer, but also the treatment.”   The entire article can be found here:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/chemo-brain-may-last-5-years-or-more/#postComment.

I don’t want to wait 2 to 5 years, so I have started doing brain exercises to help my cognitive brain functions!  There is a website called Lumosity.   I have found it very helpful.  They will give you 30 days free, however, then you have to pay a monthly or yearly fee.  But I feel like I am sharper already just doing the assigned exercises.

I’ve been trying to do other things to stimulate my brain.  Simple things like trying new things, driving a different way to a familiar location, visiting new grocery stores, and even different churches.  New ways of doing things help me and my brain very much!  Some effects of chemotherapy, I cannot change.  But if I can help my brain, I am on it!

If you are suffering from chemo brain, don’t despair.  It can definitely improve.  It may take some time, but don’t be too hard on  yourself.  You have been through so much.  I challenge you to “change it up” and start doing things differently.  If you play the piano or other musical instrument, do so.  If you always use your right hand, use your left hand for some things.  Learn and use new words, do Sodoku or Crossword Puzzles, or brain challenges like I am.  You will notice an improvement!