Lessons of Cancer…Living in the Moment

Today marks another cancerversary.  One year ago I started Chemotherapy. It was by far the scariest day of my life.  I was terrified to begin Chemo and rightfully so.  But I am very grateful for Chemotherapy as it taught me so many lessons.   The biggest thing it taught me was to live in the moment.

When you are so sick during Chemo, you only have a few moments when you feel good.  You learn to cherish those.   You don’t have the energy to worry about what will happen tomorrow or next month or next year.  All the precious energy you have is focused on right now.

I carry those lessons with me on a daily basis.  If I find myself obsessing or worrying over some future event, I remember the lessons of Chemo.  It stops me in my tracks to refocus, regroup, and trust that it will work out.   Here are a few examples:

1) During the Christmas season this year, never once did I experience holiday stress.   Many times during previous Christmases I ended up ill with a cold, the flu, and one time mononucleosis because I PUT MYSELF under so much stress and unrealistic expectations.  The only person to blame was me.

2) Last year I was not able to file my income taxes in a timely fashion because I was too sick to see my accountant.  He filed an extension for me, and I did get it done in October.  This year I will be able to file them on time.  However, no longer do I have any of the stress about it.  I already have written down on my calendar when I need to start preparing, and forget about the rest.

3) If I could bottle the energy I expended to keep my house clean over the past 30 years, I could live to be 135.  Now, I don’t really worry about it.  I had always put some unrealistic Martha Stewart expectation upon myself.  I’ve learned that if I am surrounded by a cluttered mess, my brain is a cluttered mess.  So it is worth the energy to unclutter it.  But if the house doesn’t get swept, there is always next week.

4) Because of cancer and chemotherapy, I was able to let go of what I thought others expected of me.  Now I absolutely do not care.  It never even enters my mind to even think about it!  That is freedom!

5) I used to have difficulty saying yes to things I really liked to do, or saying no to things I did not like.  No longer do I have any difficulties about those issues.  I have almost an instantaneous feeling that comes over me about which is which!

Before this New Year begins, please take the time to really ask yourself what is causing you stress and start making attempts to get it out of your life.  If you can’t remove it from your life, get help or find a way because it will take its toll on you.   Helpguide.org says this about stress:

It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll.


Cancer Free Stories: There is Always HOPE…do not give up!

Perhaps you just “happened” upon my Blog as you were just diagnosed with a late stage cancer and the Oncologist gave you little hope; or perhaps you feel like quitting Chemotherapy because it is such a grueling road.  Please read these women’s stories!

I received these two emails from women over Thanksgiving to tell me their amazing gifts of being CANCER FREE.  Their stories will give you courage, hope and encouragement!  Both of them had very aggressive cancers and were given grim prognoses by their Oncologists.   I KNOW YOU WILL CELEBRATE WITH ME AND THEM AFTER YOU READ THEIR STORIES!!!

from Rozane on November 21, 2012:  (Rozane was diagnosed in late March, 2012 with Stage 3C – Grade 3 breast cancer.  10 nodes removed.  9 cancerous ones.  And two that were inoperable that were cancerous, with veins of cancer into the chest wall.  She is  HER2 +, ER- and PR slightly + – her cancer was very aggressive.)

Dear Denise – I made it!!  My PET/CT scan came out clean!! 
Am beating it, so far.  My oncologist only gave me 10% chance back in April, 2012. At the PET and CT scans…they could not believe what they were seeing.  NO cancer.  NONE left in me.  The tech guy told my husband they were looking at my scans extra hard.  Because they could not believe what they were seeing.

Went into my oncology office for the results and he was shocked.  hahah.  I looked him right in the eyes and said “You were not expecting that, were you!?” and he said no, he was not.  Was a huge shock.  With me he was expecting to keep treating me until the cancer finally over-took me…

They will be checking my tumor markers in blood work every three months and doing regular blood work on me every three weeks (when I go in for herceptin) and then will do another PET and CT scan next summer to see how I’m doing inside. 
I’m scared.  Very scared.  But I’m a fighter and will not give up.  And I’ll do everything I can to keep it away. I’m about to leave for a radiation treatment, my last one, but you have been on my mind so very much and I wanted to get on here and tell you. THANK YOU for all you do.  I hope all is well with you!!  You are in my thoughts a lot!
When I wrote to Rozane to ask if I could include her story in my Blog, this is how she answered:
Hi Denise – Of course!!  Please do let others know there is always hope.  NEVER ever ever give up!  Never.  Fight!  Believe and fight for your life! 
I truly believe that some of my success was giving up sugars.  I read somewhere that 30% of all cancers, including breast cancer, are insulin receptor positive (yet, they do not test for this!!  WHY?).  I feel I weakened the cancer, allowing the chemo drugs to get in there and beat it better.
I gave myself hope and I believed.  I changed my life style on what I ate and I did not give up.  No matter how awful I felt during the treatments.  I remember one time laying on the couch during a chemo week and thinking “This is it..I am going to die right here…..”
I was feeling so awfully bad. I looked up at the wall and there were the photos of my sons and I looked at them and said “I WILL NOT die!  I WILL NOT give up!!”  I was laying there, not even able to move, tears running down my face and fighting for my life. 

from Yolanda on Thanksgiving Day, 2012: (note: Yolanda was diagnosed Thanksgiving, 2011 with Stage 4 breast cancer, also Grade 3 which is the most aggressive Grade)

I am so thankful today for everything God has blessed me with. My family and friends, my health, my education, career and a whole host of other things. God blessed me with some really great news today, something I wanted but did not expect to receive…..I have to share just how good God is….This time last year the day before Thanksgiving, I was diagnosed with stage IV grade 3 breast cancer that had metastasized. This year the day before Thanksgiving I am completely cancer free and God has blessed me and my Family ten fold. I am truly amazed by what God has done for us!!!!!!!

and this followup from Yolanda:

Denise, Thank you so much for including me in your blog. I am a walking talking testimony. This was my second go around with cancer Stage 0 the first time and 4 short years later stage IV. Now that I am cancer free I have learned to embrace life, enjoy it and truly go for what I want in life. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. I recently shocked everyone at my job and went for a management position  that I got and then within a month was promoted again. I have also learned not to take my family or myself for granted, I compliment someone everyday and smile often.

How these stories bring us hope and encouragement!  Thank you, Rozane and Yolanda!!   You have given many the courage to go on and keep up the fight!

Do not quit Chemotherapy even if you want to…be encouraged!!

Maybe you are in the middle of Chemotherapy and want to give up.  It is totally understandable you feel that way.  The road is long and so difficult. Some of you may be on this road for a second or even third time or even more.    When I was only 6 weeks into 5 months of Chemotherapy, I told my Oncologist I wanted to quit because I did not care if I lived or died.  Thankfully he said, “I won’t let you”, held my hand in a doctorly fashion, told me he didn’t know how bad it was because he never went through it, and promised me the next drug would be much better.  It was and I made it through the 5 months of chemo.

Donna, from Marshall, Arkansas wrote to me on September 21, 2012 with this fabulous news!

I wanted to give you another update.  I had my first visit with the surgeon on Wednesday.. .In talking with the surgeon she called me her miracle patient! How about that?!  I have  absolutely no residual cancer in my pathology report! This is like getting an  A plus on a report card… I am so happy! All of the treatment has worked! And as I have said before you deserve credit for cheering me on and making me feel that I could finish the horrible AC Chemotherapy!   You are an angel!

Well, trust me, I am no angel.  I simply gave Donna encouragement that she could make it through Chemotherapy and told her that absolutely no one can understand what it is like unless you have been through it.

Less than 2 months before on July 28, 2012, Donna felt so many opposite feelings when she wrote me this:

While in the midst of my AC Chemotherapy treatment I was feeling so awful that I thought I would try to research a little online about AC Chemo.  What I had on my mind was just exactly what is the “lifetime” limit of Adramyacin Chemotherapy? I wanted to know this because I felt so horrible after my second round of AC ( I have already been thru 4  Taxol treatments and I breezed through those) that I wanted to ask my doctor if I could stop and not take my remaining two AC treatments.  With all that being said I stumbled upon your blog and have been reading about your journey.  Because of you and the many others walking this journey I have decided ” I CAN do it” I’m not alone! 2 more 2 more I can do it! Thanks for your blog and I wanted to let you know that God is working through you….he brought me to you !  Just when I needed someone who I knew, knew how I felt. Thank you!
(I was diagnosed April 17, 2012 with IDC triple negative stage 2a due to auxiliary node involvement…)

I am so grateful that Donna did not give up.  She kept persevering and now she is cancer free!!   When I wrote Donna to ask if I could use her emails, she responded:

I live in Marshall, Arkansas. I am so happy to have you write about me and my journey through cancer because if it helps even just one person, it’s worth it!  It has become my passion to help people now.  I have even spoken with the American Cancer Society about becoming a volunteer and hopefully starting a chapter here in my small town.  The town population is about 1,200 with about 6,000 in the county.  We have to drive at least 35 miles to the closest Emergency Room and about 70 miles to a better hospital.  So the people of this county need something for support for the people who are stricken with this horrible disease.
Donna will be such an encouragement to so many!  She exudes love, friendship and support.  What an asset Donna will be to her community, the American Cancer Society, and cancer patients who need her giftedness.
My new friend, Donna, and I understand!  We wanted to quit Chemotherapy but we kept going.  YOU CAN TOO!!!     (Please make sure to read the comments on this post, too!)   
Also, I learned that cute Chemo Caps are important.  Please check out my store at www.hellocourage.com  or click on chemo cap below.

Breast Cancer and Depression

Today I had a regularly scheduled check-up with my Medical Oncologist. I had a long visit with his Physician’s Assistant, Megan. Megan is very skilled and knowledgeable, and treats post-treatment breast cancer patients. After we reviewed my physical health, Megan asked me if I was experiencing any depression as the most common time for any cancer patient to become depressed is a few months after all active treatment has ended.

I told Megan that surprisingly I was not depressed. I’ve experienced depression before in my life so I certainly recognize the signs, but I am not experiencing it now. Megan told me that most cancer survivors experience it at this point because “the fight is over”. Once the fight is done, depression can find room to set in.

My medical team is aware of my Blog. They determined that I am not depressed because I am still fighting cancer through my Blog – for myself and by helping others fight cancer. I thought this was wise thinking and could relate to it. They made me promise if I had any symptoms of depression, to call them immediately. “Do not let it get out of control”, I was told. “There is so much we can do to help.” I was extremely thankful for the discussion.

If you are a breast cancer or cancer survivor, be aware of the symptoms of depression – insomnia is common, withdrawal, sadness, and feeling like you are in a hole and cannot get out. Promise me you won’t fight the battle alone.
Call your Oncologist. If he or she has not had this talk with you, talk with them about it.

This short video has helpful information. I am sorry about the advertisement first, but it is worth watching if you believe you are experiencing depression after cancer treatment. Dr. Mary Jane Massey, Psychiatrist, from Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City is interviewed.

Breast Cancer and Depression

Lessons of Cancer…Christmas without Stress

Cancer has taken a lot of things from me.  One positive thing it has taken is holiday stress.  I have none.  It’s all gone.  It has been removed from my life.  What a great feeling.  All of the should dos, ought tos, and why don’t yous are gone!   Evaporated!

One of the great blessings of Chemotherapy is learning about your energy.  When you have absolutely no energy, you cannot do anything.  If you have a little, you can do just a little.  There isn’t any more.  Now that I have much more energy, I still keep those lessons in the forefront of my mind. DO NOT EXPEND ENERGY THAT YOU DO NOT HAVE,” I say to myself in a mantra!  If I start to put some unrealistic or even realistic Christmas expectation on myself, I first ask, “Do you have enough energy to do that from beginning to completion?”

For so many years I put so much pressure on myself to do this, see that person, go here, do this, do that, cook this, bake that…it is a form of self-punishment, I decided.  I have 365 days to do those things.  Why did I think I had to do them in the course of a couple of weeks?   I was delusional!

Last year paved the way as I was recuperating from a mastectomy and started chemo two days after Christmas.  I have a difficult time even remembering last Christmas.  But even in the midst of that, I did learn to shop online — free shipping and delivered to my door.  What a great thing.  That new and improved behavior is being repeated this year because I like to buy gifts.

I have a cute collection of small Christmas trees that I enjoy, and I put them up this year.  But I didn’t decorate my fireplace or my staircase.  So what?   I would have never NOT decorated my fireplace or staircase in the past because of some stupid expectation I put upon myself.   I look at my fireplace and staircase now and want to applaud.  I’m free!

Yesterday I visited an historical home in my area that the park system owns. Each year they decorate it for Christmas in lovely and beautiful ways. This year was no exception. My friend and I enjoyed every minute of being there and felt like a mini-vacation. But when I left, I left. I didn’t come home and think, “Gee Denise, your house should look as good as that one.”

So this year my celebration consists of thanking God for being alive. Everything else is secondary!

Lessons of Cancer….Social Events and Feeling Isolated

Recently, I was making a poor attempt to explain to my Book Group of 3 other women that I do not feel fully present in social gatherings.   During active treatment, I would feel about 10% present.  Now that I am getting better, I feel about 50% present.  At first, I felt this way even in one-on-one conversations.  Now, it is mostly in larger group settings.  It feels like part of me is there and part of me is somewhere else observing myself, like an out-of-body experience.   The “somewhere else” is still processing what I have been through:  who I was before cancer, who I am now, and where I am going.  The “somewhere else” is figuring out what I believed before and what I believe now about various issues that tend to get discussed in social arenas.

Since we are a Book Group, we tend to discuss deeper topics.   We were talking about Christianity and martyrdom came up.  My observations of myself during this discussion were:  “Hmm, pre-cancer I would have thought ‘What a horrible death’, but now I think:  ‘That would be a fast way to go.’ ”   My observations of myself are not just about death.  They are about any topic.  I have to decipher how I feel through this new lense of “Cancer Survivor”.

Throughout my morning with these accomplished women who had supported me in wonderful and thoughtful ways during my phase as “cancer patient”, I felt out of sorts.   It was certainly nothing they had done.  They are all spiritual women who have all been through adversity and trials in their own lives.  These women are understanding and giving and continue to be role models for me.

Thinking I was the only one on the planet with these feelings, I came home and immediately posed that question to my Internet Breast Cancer Support Group of 20 women, who reside in different parts of the world.    We all began Chemo during the same month and walked our journeys together.   Immediately, I started getting responses that mirrored my feelings.

Dorrie, one of my support group members,  has gone through cancer treatment TWO TIMES.  Dorrie also writes a blog filled with her wisdom.   http://adancerlivingwithcancer.blogspot.com/   This is her meaningful statement.

“…this is my second time as a cancer survivor. When I finished treatment the first time, I was 40 years old and had three young children.   I felt like I was “different” from most of the people I dealt with daily. It did make me feel so isolated. The only place I felt completely myself was in my dance studio teaching my students and dancing.   THAT is what helped me find “normal” again, Mind you, it was a different normal than I had before diagnosis. It took a long time, however, and, being a cancer survivor has always made me feel slightly separated from the pack.

Twelve years later, here I am again, even more distanced in a way. But, now I realize that the people who are like me, like all of you ladies, are some of the most insightful people I know. We see things differently now. We have faced death square…Cancer equals Death in our society. We walked away from death, but now, we know death a little better. Death is not something we humans want to think about. We had no choice. Even if we knew that our chances of surviving were good, we still understood that Cancer can be a formidable opponent. And we now have to live with that fact…”

Dorrie’s statements helped me understand that I am different from myself, and I must realize it will take time.  It is not possible for me to tell others who I am now, because I do not know myself.  If you are a cancer survivor, Dorrie’s message to us is that our “new normal” takes time to develop.  It is a process.  We cannot stay away from every social event because we feel uncomfortable.   In fact, when we feel most uncomfortable, it helps refine the process of who we are becoming.