Lessons of Cancer. . .Live the Miracle, Be the Miracle

Every year for many years, four high school friends and I go on vacation together.  Some of us have known each other since kindergarten!  We feel like teenagers again for a brief week remembering our carefree days!  This year we spent our time in the picturesque Upper Peninsula of Michigan driving along the shores of majestic Lake Superior, touring lighthouses with fascinating histories, and viewing gorgeous waterfalls.  Then we ventured to Mackinac Island, home of the legendary Grand Hotel.  Horse carriages and bicycles are the mode of transportation on the historic island.    They are amazing places to visit.  It is like living in an impressionist painting while you are there, but all too soon, it is time to emerge.

Traveling in two separate cars returning from Upper Michigan, three of the gals were in one car as they were going to drop off one of our friends in the Metro Detroit area.  They got a late start from the Upper Peninsula, stopped for lunch, made a wrong turn, got into traffic jams during rush hour in Detroit, and finally got our friend home south of the city.  Then the remaining two friends made a last-minute decision to stop for gasoline before getting back on the interstate.

As they were fueling at the very busy BP gas station in a suburban neighborhood, Linda noticed a young man lying on the ground next to his work truck.  Another young man was putting cold water on him attempting to revive him.  No one else was paying attention but going about their business getting gas.  If anyone else noticed him, they ignored him.

Cathy, the other gal, ran over to see what she could do to help.  Seeing the young man probably in his 20s on the hard concrete floating in and out of consciousness, she asked his co-worker if he was diabetic.  Cathy’s husband has blood sugar issues and that was the first thought that came to her mind.  The co-worker responded that he  was, but he did not know what to do.

Immediately, Cathy ran into the gas station to tell the attendant to call 9-1-1.   The young woman behind the counter handed Cathy the phone as she didn’t want to be involved.  Cathy reached 9-1-1 and another customer in the store helped her tell the Operator of gas station location.  Since this customer had helped Cathy during the conversation with the 9-1-1 Operator, he went and got orange juice to assist Cathy.  The young attendant made him pay for the orange juice before they could take it out of the gas station’s store!

My friend, Linda, was out of her car by this time.  She held the young man up from the ground and put a rolled sweatshirt under his back so he would not choke as Cathy started getting orange juice into him by drop fulls with a straw.  Cathy and Linda were operating from instinct as they had no medical training other than CPR.   But they said they knew they had to do something to try to keep him alive.  Cathy said once she used the straw method on a pet, so thought it was worth a try.    After a few drop fulls, the young man started licking the orange juice and responding a little, starting to swallow and opened his eyes.  By this time a crowd was gathering with onlookers as my two friends were willing this young man back to consciousness and preventing convulsions.

Finally, the paramedics arrived and took over.  The paramedics determined that the young man’s blood sugar had been down to such low levels that in a short time, left unattended, he most likely would have died.   My friends waited until he was conscious and responding.

I already knew these women were heroines.  They were on the front lines when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and remained there for the duration. Within one week they arranged a luncheon for me, showered me with love and gifts, and promised me they would be there for me.  And they were!  ( Linda was the person who sent me the greeting card every week for a year!)   These two women along with many other friends and family  jumped into action and did not stand on the sidelines watching.

I receive so many letters from people who were abandoned by friends and family members during cancer.  It is difficult for them to get over the pain.  One woman told me her friend’s abandonment was worse than her cancer diagnosis.  Many divorces happen after a cancer diagnosis and many other relationships end.  So often cancer survivors struggle with people who now want back into their lives once they are feeling better.

My question to them is this:  ” Before cancer, did you do the majority of the giving in the relationship? ”   One hundred percent of the time, the answer is yes.

The people who run away from cancer patients are like those that saw the young man on the ground.  They had the potential to help this young man live, but they did nothing.  If asked why they didn’t help, many would have excuses like, “I  didn’t know what to do”, “I was giving him his space”, and “I thought about helping, but. . .”

If you are a cancer patient or survivor, you can relate to the young man on the ground.  You felt like your life was slipping away and each act of love and kindness was like that dribble of orange juice into your mouth — just enough support to help you keep fighting.

If you have not had to endure cancer, perhaps it is time for a relationship review.   In your soul, you know the relationships that are not healthy in your life.  Who would let you lie on the ground and only watch, and who would rush to your aid?

Surviving Cancer–Adapting and Adjusting Equals New Hope

Perhaps you landed here because you are a Cancer Survivor and are having difficulties.   Or maybe a spouse, parent, or loved one had cancer, and you do not understand why they are having such a difficult time adjusting to life after cancer treatment.

Six months into being an “official” Cancer Survivor, I made this realization:  Life is not going to be what it was before the cancer diagnosis.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that someday, somehow, everything would shift and it would be business as usual, and my pre-cancer life would come back magically.   I kept waiting for it.

This all started because one morning as I was donning my Lymphedema gear, taking my medicine cabinet full of pills and supplements, trying to walk because of the severe pain (side effect of the drug Arimidex), and inserting my prosthesis in place of my amputated breast,  it finally hit me that “this is the way it is going to be and you damn well better get used to it.”

I was praying and asking for guidance about what I need to do so I can move forward and not stay stuck. The big, burly, bearded husband of Food Network television’s star Southern cook, Paula Deen, popped into my head.  Why is he in my head, I wondered? I don’t even know his name!  So I googled “Paula Deen’s husband” and interestingly, I found out his name is Michael Groover and he is a Harbor Pilot.   Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean for me?

I found this definition and explanation:   A harbor pilot, often known as a maritime pilot, is a boat pilot with specialized knowledge of a particular port or harbor. The pilot is needed to direct large ships into a port where there are specific deep water channels surrounded by shallower flats.     Without the services of a harbor pilot, docking ships would become a big hazard. There would be a real chance of running aground and damaging the ship and the cargo.   It’s precision work, and as with the many steps and players involved, safe docking and undocking is crucial to the ultimate success of the voyage. 

Wow, I need a Harbor Pilot to help me with this part of my journey as I do not have the knowledge or tools to navigate these unchartered waters of Cancer SurvivorSHIP.  While I was out to sea in cancer treatment world, my medical team did all the captaining of my ship.  Now, I needed someone experienced in the hazards of maneuvering my ship into this new port.  And it is okay because I have never been here before, and it is all new to me.

A friend had told me a former pastor of mine from 20 years ago, who was a gifted counselor and a cancer survivor, would be glad to speak with me.   He is a survivor of a rare cancer.  He was not expected to live, but 4 years later, he is still here and celebrating life.  We shared cancer stories.  And when I heard about all that he had to deal with on an everyday basis because of all the damage done because of Chemo and high dosages of Radiation, it was inspiring and uplifting.

He then listened to me and was able to immediately assess where I was on my survivor journey.  “AA” he said, “Adapt and Adjust.”  He told me that the biggest learning curve for him in the past 4 years was adapting to what he can do, eliminating what he cannot do, and adjusting to new, yet exciting ways to live life. 

Two simple words, but because he has been there, he knew exactly what I needed.  He is a Harbor Pilot.    The imagery of my Cancer SurvivorSHIP coming into a new port, with new things, new possibilities, and new opportunities resonated with me.  Sure, in order to adapt and adjust, I have and will have to give up things that I can no longer do, no longer take care of, or that no longer serve me.   But I have, I can and I will. For the first time in a very long time, I felt real hope and not manufactured hope!   There is a big difference.

If you are a Cancer Survivor, please take time to focus on those simple words – adapt and adjust.  Perhaps, like me, you have been waiting for life to go back to the way it was before cancer.  Unfortunately, it will not go back.   But with some adapting and adjusting, you can be ready to accept the new life that awaits you.  Also, look for a Harbor Pilot to help guide your way to this new port – a support group, a counselor, or someone who has been there.  You cannot navigate these treacherous waters alone.

I had this Inspirational Subway Sign made for my www.hellocourage.com  store.  These are the words that I realize it takes to transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor.  These have FREE SHIPPING to the Continental USA and are solid wood and beautiful!!   Click on picture for more details!

Survivor Sign Black

If you are not a Cancer Survivor, I’m not going to let you off the adapting and adjusting hook!  Perhaps it is time to review your life and see what you are holding onto that no longer serves you.  Oh, there can be many things:   a job, a relationship,  a certain way of doing things, a grudge, old habits, clutter, painful thoughts…the list goes on.  Time to adapt and adjust to new ways, new thoughts, new ideas, and new hope!  And if you cannot maneuver those waters of change, find or hire a Harbor Pilot to help you.

I would love to hear your stories!     Denise

The Joys and Sorrows of Writing a Breast Cancer Blog

This Blog is so meaningful to me.  I am so thankful I followed my intuition to chronicle my Breast Cancer journey.  And here is why…

The letters I get from other women going through Breast Cancer often make me cry.  I got two emails from women this week who told me they found my Blog because they were going to quit chemotherapy because it was so awful.  The letters were so similar it was shocking they came from two different women in different parts of the country.  Both of them said after reading some of my writings about Chemo, they realized that although many people had no idea of what they were going through, they knew I would understand.  And because I understood, they were going to keep going through Chemotherapy.  Now that is humbling.

It makes me feel like all of my emotions, fears, sorrows and joys are shared by others.  And what I sometimes feel are crazy feelings are also felt by others going through the same thing.  They aren’t crazy thoughts, they are normal for what we have endured.

One of my sorrows was when a previously understanding friend said to me during my 5th month of Chemotherapy that they missed “Joyful Denise” and “I needed to get out and have some fun.”   At that point it was amazing I was even dressed and walking.  Fun to me was being able to watch yet another episode of “King of Queens” at 1 am because the steroids were keeping me awake.

Those words of not being understood are extremely painful – still are.  So when I get letters from others that I felt what they are feeling, it is very healing to me that God can use my sufferings to help and heal others.

I have also gotten letters from Caregivers, Spouses, and Partners of a loved one going through Breast Cancer.  They have told me my writings help them understand what their loved one is going through and as a result, have been able to be a better caregiver.

The tears come and go with the letters I receive.  I cherish each and every one and delight in writing to all of you who have written me. Your letters always help me far more than I help you.  Invariably, they are always extremely timely.

When Friends Disappear during Cancer Treatment


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One woman who reads my Blog wrote me about her long-time friends who frequently stayed as guests at her cottage on the East Coast free of charge.   When she was diagnosed with cancer, these friends never contacted her to offer their help or support in any way.   Eight months had elapsed through her Mastectomy, Chemo and Radiation and total silence on their part.  She was so angry at these friends, wanted to share her pain and ask my opinion.  I told her I had no solutions, but understand this to be the experience of most cancer patients as I have seen thousands of posts on this topic.

As a follow up, I wrote her again to inquire what happened with her “friends.”   She said as soon as she completed treatment, they contacted her and indicated they were ready to go to her cottage with her and her husband, never mentioning what she had just been through.  Basically, she told them what she thought about fair-weather friends and let them know they would never be staying with her again.   She said she experienced much freedom emotionally after this conversation.

I’ve been trying to figure this out since my cancer diagnosis.  Why do some friends step forward and help you immediately in loving, kind and supportive ways, and other friends disappear never to return until you (1) are through cancer treatment and live or (2) until they run into you and have to face you.  This has been extremely perplexing to me.

Two of the top searches on my Blog consistently are:

1)  What to Say to a Cancer patient

2)  When friends abandon you during cancer

So the first group is wondering what to say to their cancer patient friend, and the second group is feeling totally abandoned.  They both care enough to search the internet for answers.

This all has been beyond me until I discovered an extremely interesting article in The New York Times entitled “Coping with Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/health/views/17essa.html?_r=2&ref=health&pagewanted=all

It is a fascinating article which explains that the people who abandon you are terrified that they will attract trauma into their own lives and are desperately afraid to be close to your trauma.  Of course it explains it in much more psychological depth, so I suggest reading the article!

When I examined my wonderful friends and family members who have supported me in unbelievable and consistent ways, I realize that all of them have been through traumas in their own lives.  They are not afraid of trauma.  They have gone through their trials, learned their lessons, and have become stronger and more balanced individuals as a result of them.

People who abandon others either have had no traumas or had traumas, but always ran away from them either by not facing them, running to their addictions, or by putting a happy face sticker over the trauma and never dealing with the psychological or emotional issues.

This article brought me a little peace and a little understanding.  But I am still working through my anger.   UPDATE:    I am now one year post treatment.  I have cleaned out my friend’s closet.  Those who abandoned me are not part of my life now.  If I see them or our paths cross, I am polite.

When You Are Diagnosed with Cancer You Move to Planet of the Cancers

The day the words, “You have Cancer” are spoken is the day you are transported to Planet of the Cancers.  It happens immediately. You don’t have a bag packed, nothing is ready, and when you get there, you cry to go home to the familiar.  Of course, you have heard the stories of people who have been abducted by aliens.  That is exactly what happens.   An alien illness has taken over your body and as a result, you are forced to live in this painful and bleak habitat.

You will not be prepared in any way for life on Planet of the Cancers. Your life as you know it is over. On Planet of the Cancers most people are bald, they are a lethargic group, and their life revolves around medical appointments and poisonous medicines that drip into you.

Many, many wonderful family members and some amazing and treasured friends will make the journey with you to this isolated planet. Time and time again, they will help you adjust to your new life and make sacrifices for you.   Also, some acquaintances and friends from your distant past may absolutely shock you by showing up on Planet of the Cancers!  You certainly did not expect them to arrive.  They will bring amazing comfort to you when you need it the most, stay awhile, and help you adjust to this foreign lifestyle. You will never forget the heroic acts made by family and friends and all the energy it took them to visit you on Planet of the Cancers to bring you comfort and hope.

Unfortunately, just a few that you think might visit you on Planet of the Cancers, will make a choice not to make the trek.  There will be excuses from these previous adventure travelers,  but finally after a lot of disappointment, you learn that their journeys usually involve more pleasant destinations.   Planet of the Cancers is anything but joyful.  A few may deny that you have even moved to this new world as they want to believe nothing has changed.  You will get over these losses, however difficult, move on, and become stronger as a result.

As with anything else, after time, you start to adjust to life on Planet of the Cancers as much as you deplore it.  You learn to endure.  Many amazing residents of Planet of the Cancers will inspire you, bring you strength and hope along the way.  The inhabitants of Planet of the Cancers are an amazing group!

Along the way, you finally surrender control as you meet up with The Person in Charge.  He tells you that while you are here on Planet of the Cancers, you will not understand why you had to make this difficult journey.  But some day, you will understand.  Then He tells you that in the meantime, He will be taking care of all of your needs, you just have to trust Him.  Is that ever a challenge.  You thought you knew who The Person in Charge was in your previous environment, but on Planet of the Cancers?  This is a whole different reality.

The Person in Charge alludes that one day I may be able to go back to my previous existence as I am being healed while on Planet of the Cancers.  But He prepares me that life will never be the same.  Planet of the Cancers will forever change me.   It will change you too.

To be continued….

Cancer Wig or Chemo Caps – what is a Cancer Patient to Wear and Public Response

When I go in public, I wear my wig that looks pretty much like my pre-chemo hair in color and style. It is a decent wig in a modern cut.  It doesn’t stand out and flash “wig” in neon lights.   I blend in with everyone else.  No one pays any attention to me.   And, at first glance, I look relatively healthy. At my last Chemo Infusion, I had on my wig, makeup, and had clothing on in bright Spring colors.  Plus, I am chubby.  No gaunt cancer look for me!   One lady receiving Chemo stopped me as the Chemo Nurse was leading me to my Infusion Chair next to hers.  She asked me if I was a Cancer Patient.  When I told her I was in my fourth month of Chemotherapy, she said, “Wow, you look the picture of health. I would never have known.”  That did make me feel better, I must admit!

The next experiment was to wear bright and colorful chemo caps or caps with pizzazz!  Oh my gosh, I got the best responses like “Wow, I like your hat”   “You look so nice today” and “Where did you get your hat?”    I felt like a Hollywood starlet with all the positive attention I got!  It made me FEEL so good to get a positive response from strangers!

Last II donned a dull gray Cancer Turban, did not put on any makeup or draw in any eyebrows, and wore sort of pale, washed out clothing.  I had “Cancer Patient” written all over me.

My first stop was the local Rite Aid.  On my way in, I could see people catch me out of the corner of their eyes and then with a little humor and a little sadness, I watched them try to avoid me.  Inside the store, I got stares, looks of sympathy, and avoidance.  Mostly avoidance.  The check-out gal that normally waits on me, said nothing, absolutely nothing.  I don’t think she even asked if I had the pesky little Wellness Card!

Then it was on to a medical class regarding Lymphedema presented at a local hospital.  The seat next to me was the only one unoccupied in the entire group of 35 people, and I had arrived 20 minutes early!   One person even stood rather than sit down in the very visible seat next to me.   I did feel like a leper.  Maybe people really do believe that cancer is contagious?   The shocking part of this hospital visit was that most of the people in the room had been through Breast Cancer!  After the presentation, the only woman who spoke to me had on a cancer turban!


I am now over a year post Chemo and have opened an online store for cancer patients and survivors at www.hellocourage.com     I am selling bright and pretty cancer caps because of this experiment.   Please check them out – click on cap below.    Free shipping and 20% off to Blog readers if you enter   BLOG    discount code at checkout.  I accept all major credit cards and PayPal.    You will feel good again too!   Click on this pic for my store!



The next day, I took a bigger step.  I decide to arrange to see friends that haven’t been overly sympathetic during my Breast Cancer journey as they have always seen me in my “cancer wig” get up looking pretty healthy.  When they first saw me, I saw the look of shock and surprise on their faces.  It was the look of, “Oh I guess this really is far more serious than we thought.”   I could tell they felt very uncomfortable around me, and a little worried I might die in front of them!  It still makes me laugh to think about this!

Then, on my way through town, I ran into another acquaintance.  The very odd part of this encounter was, although she knew I was battling Breast Cancer, she never brought up anything about it, asked me how I was, or what was happening.  Plus, I had not seen her since I was diagnosed.    She started babbling nonsensical stuff about her life and family. I felt how uncomfortable she was, and I could not wait to get away from her!

Then it was on to the drive-thru window at my local Wendy’s.  I ordered a sweet potato and side salad.  When I went to pay at the window, the poor young girl had a look of shock on her face.  She delivered the news that they were out of sweet potatoes, would I like a white potato?  I said, “No, I would like a refund please.”   She then stated they had to give me a white potato.  Her manager came up, took one look at me, and promptly gave me a refund.

The person that was the most understanding, was a Clerk at my local Post Office.  She took one look at me, and said “what is going on?”   I told her I had been going through Chemo since December.  She was visibly shocked because I always wear my wig when visiting the Post Office.  Postal Clerk Kelly gets the award for being the most understanding person on my 3 day experiment.  Immediately, she asked me how I was feeling, if I felt comfortable where I was receiving treatment, and told me that Chemo wasn’t for the faint of heart.  I knew she had experience with cancer.  She proceeded to tell me about her father and his cancer journey.

I am thankful I took the time to do this experimentation.  Time and time again, I found when I wore a dull cancer turban, I didn’t feel as good.  If I wore bright and colorful cancer caps or my wig, I felt much better!

The American Cancer Society has a free class they offer to female cancer patients around the country called Look Good, Feel Better. (www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org)   They teach you how to put on makeup, draw on eyebrows, and compensate for “that cancer look.”  Also, they provide you with about $300.00 worth of makeup to help you do so.   I realize there is real merit to this philosophy.

From now on, I am going to take the time to look good even if I don’t feel like it.  .  Every Cancer Patient is different and every one’s reality is different.   Dressing like my healthy self, makes me feel better!

What to Say to a Cancer Patient, What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient, What to Buy for a Cancer Patient

I’ve included what to say to a cancer patient, what to do for a cancer patient, what to write in a greeting card for a cancer patient, and  the things NOT to say to a cancer patient.   After my own experience with Stage 3 Breast Cancer and over a year of treatment, I learned what things help heal a cancer patient.   Let the gift or card do the talking for you.  Just do something for them!!

Top 5 things you can do for a cancer patient:

1)  Send a greeting card – or send more than one.  Greeting cards have been a source of great strength to me.  I have received multiple cards from many people.  This has surprised me.   At least 8 people have sent me over 10 cards each!  One friend sent me a card every week for ONE YEAR!

Food is difficult especially if the Cancer Patient is receiving Chemotherapy.  Before you bring food, ask what they can eat.

2)  Drop something off to their house or send it by mail. Inspirational gifts are the best.  I had told my Oncologist I wanted to quit chemotherapy, give up, and die I was so sick .  On that very day an old high school friend sent me an inspirational gift.  Knowing she cared and the words were what I needed to hear, I decided I had the courage to keep fighting.

3)  Ask them if you can take them to treatment, a medical appointment, or a pharmacy.  You may need to be insistent with this, but make sure they know you are available and willing to do so.  Do NOT make a casual offer like, “Oh call me if you need a ride.”  The cancer patient does not have the energy to call and make arrangements. 

4)  If they have small children, ask how you can help with the children – babysitting, food for kids, taking them for a day, something, anything.

5)  Ask if you can visit, but let them call the shots.  Be specific and ask them to set the rules as far as time and date, and always give them an out if they don’t feel up to it.  Make sure you are not sick or have been around sick people, as this is disastrous to a cancer patient.


SEND THEM A GIFT THAT WILL ALWAYS BE APPRECIATED — MY CHEMO CAPS START UNDER $10.00 AT MY ONLINE STORE http://www.hellocourage.com   I will send a gift note card and gift packaging stating it is from you at no charge.




5 things to ask a Cancer Patient:

1) How are you feeling today? It is NEVER WRONG to ask someone how they are feeling especially today.
2) Where are you in your treatment? Cancer patients need to talk about this.
3) What are your chemotherapy infusions like? The first time someone asked me this made me feel so loved as they cared enough to ask this question.
4) Would you tell me about your medical team? I had a couple of people ask me this. I loved the question because it gave me the opportunity to share the wonders of my medical team. This was important to me.
5) What has been the most difficult part of being a cancer patient? I don’t think anyone had ever asked me this. But it is thought provoking. It would have been a question I would have liked to have been asked.

5 things to write to a cancer patient in a greeting card:

1)  I am very sorry you have to go through this.

2)  I admire your courage and strength to fight this disease.

3)  You are on a very challenging road right now, and you are doing a great job.

4)  My prayers and encouragement are with you.

5)  You are an inspiration to me and many others.

The Top 5 things NOT to say or do to for a Cancer Patient:

1)  Tell them they have been whining or complaining.  Cancer treatment is a living hell.  Unless you have been through chemotherapy, please do not pretend you have any inkling of what they are going through.  It is not like the flu.

2)  Ignore them physically or emotionally – do not run the other way if you see a Cancer Patient at the grocery store or church.   If you feel like you don’t know what to say, simply ask them how they are feeling.  The Cancer Patient is still the same person!   They just want you to show you care in any way – a simple “how are you” means alot.

3)  Do NOT tell them about your mother, sister, father, old Aunt Milly and their experiences with the horrors of Chemotherapy, how much they vomited, their terrible death, how badly burned they were through Radiation or other awful stories that will simply depress a Cancer Patient.  If you are going to tell them about someone, tell them about the Cancer Survivor!

4)  Do NOT call them on the telephone, tell them all about you and never bother to ask how they are, how they feel, or how treatment is going.  Ignoring the obvious is watching the elephant in the room.

5)  And NEVER say, “call me if you need me or if I can do something for you” unless you are a really close friend of the cancer patient.   I know we all have good intentions when we make those statements.   The truth is most cancer patients do not have the time or energy to really call.  Please be understanding that the cancer patient does not have the energy to keep up their relationship with you right now in the ways that you may have been accustomed.

I hope these things help you with understanding the needs of a cancer patient.  One small act of love or kindness can make a cancer patient want to live or give up.  It is so important to them.  I know my friends and family kept me alive!  Your kindnesses make a difference!