On the Cusp

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Memorial Day is my favorite of the summer holidays.

I like the sentiment behind it–honoring those who died serving our country in the military–and I like its place as the unofficial first weekend of summer. On Memorial Day, the long, lazy days of summer stretch before us with the delicious promise of three solid months of warm weather, vacations and fun outdoors.

Last year, I felt robbed of my summer. Or, at least of half of it. I was diagnosed in early July, smack-dab in the middle of summer. I went from pool parties and beach trips and baseball games to chemo and hair loss and fear–so much fear.

While the rest of the world was still enjoying the sun, I was cowering indoors, terrified of my own body. My beachy glow was replaced with the ghostly pallor of a person who spends her days inside the cancer center, poison flowing through her veins. While my son was still wide open, eager to soak up every minute of daylight for playtime, I struggled through the evenings, exhausted from the Neulasta shots yet uncomfortably wired from the steroids that helped keep me from puking my guts out.

I’m excited for this summer. I have a lot of fun things planned–a beach trip with my family, a trip to New York City with my sister, work trips to Chicago and Vegas, a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert (woot!). There will be pool days, and barbecues and hours spent helping my son build castles in his sandbox.

But as excited as I am for this season, I’m also anxious. I’m afraid something else will happen. Something new will pop up. More bad news. I have a follow-up brain MRI scheduled next month, and just thinking about it makes me nauseous.

This is my life, post-treatment. No matter what good thing I have going on, there’s that little voice whispering from the depths, reminding me what could go wrong. I’m getting better at tamping it down, but it’s definitely an ongoing process.

 

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The Sweetest Word

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I got a card in the mail from my OB/GYN office this week. Just a simple card with a couple of check marks and one beautiful, glorious word: “benign.”

For a cancer patient, this is the best word in the world. It means everything’s OK. Everything checked out. You can actually exhale.

In my anxiety-ridden mind, I’d already diagnosed myself with ovarian cancer before this procedure. I’d gone as far as mentally preparing myself for the news, trying to wrap my mind around what that would mean–more chemo, more invasive surgery, maybe radiation, maybe death. This is what life is like post-cancer. Worst-case scenarios running through the mind all the time.

But thankfully, this is one I no longer have to worry about. I am so grateful.

 

The Bridge

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Exhibit A of why I’ll never be a visual artist.

This morning was my last session with the therapist at the cancer center. She’s a master’s program intern, so she’s graduating next week. I sort of felt like our time was kind of winding down, anyway, as I’ve talked ad nauseam about my anxiety over recurrence/metastasis. She has introduced me to some techniques to help manage said anxiety (hello, meditation!), and also helped me see some of my underlying issues with control and needing to always have it together for others (it’s the responsible oldest/middle child in me).

As part of today’s session, she asked me to draw a bridge that represents my journey, and draw myself somewhere in the photo. That’s the masterpiece you see above (pretty sure my sisters got all the genes for visual artistry in our family).

In explaining my drawing to the therapist, I divulged a longstanding irrational fear of bridges. There’s something about them that’s always kind of freaked me out, particularly those over water (I also have an irrational fear of water I can’t see the bottom of, too, so I’m sure that plays into it.). I told her about the Bonner Bridge that takes travelers out to the Outer Banks–that one has always given me the willies. I mean, look at it:

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I drove over this thing at night once, and nearly peed my pants before reaching the end. 

I also told her about a recurring dream I have about crossing a precarious bridge, usually represented as the old I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River linking Rowan and Davidson counties in North Carolina (I grew up in Rowan county). I’d post a photo of that one, but it was permanently closed in 2012 (see, I was freaked for good reason!), and images are few and far between on the internet.

In my drawing, I put myself halfway across the bridge. There’s a pretty substantial chunk of land behind me, and a smaller one ahead with a sign: “Normal life.” That’s the goal. That’s the magical place I’m trying to reach. I’m not really sure what it looks like. In my drawing, I’m almost half-way there.

Below me, the water churns. I wasn’t planning to draw water at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the water was the perfect representation of my fear. If I fall off the bridge, I could drown or something in that abyss could reach up and grab me. I might survive, but I could just as likely die.

That’s what metastasis/recurrence looks like to me. I could survive, but I also could die. So many others have.

But on the bridge, I’m safe. I’m moving forward. I’m figuring out a way to make sense of all this, to live life without constant fear, to get closer to “normal,” whatever that means now.

Another point the therapist made was all the worrying I do is a way to trick myself into thinking I can prevent something bad from happening. It’s true. If I’ve thought about it, considered it from every angle, run through all the scenarios, they can’t possibly come true, can they?

Of course they can. And that’s where I am right now. In meditation, I’ve learned to acknowledge these thoughts when they pop up, and then send them on their merry way as I get back to focusing on the moment at hand. The truth is, obsessing about this stuff isn’t going to stop any of it from possibly happening. Rationally, I know that I’m still under pretty careful surveillance by my doctors, and they’re likely to catch something should it arise. In the meantime, fretting and Googling and working myself up into a froth isn’t doing anyone any good.

All that is easier said than done, of course, but I’m working on it. And step by step, I’m going to get across that bridge.

Pins and Needles

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In my quest to quell my anxiety and improve my overall well-being, I’ve been trying a lot of new things.

I’ve been going to therapy (that’s not really new to me), I’ve been meditating, and last week, I tried acupuncture.

I’ve always been curious about the ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into pressure points around the body to treat various ailments. I have a coworker who’s been swearing by her acupuncturist for years, so I decided to give him a try.

Right away, I liked that he works out of a traditional doctor’s office (he rents space there). I’m a little hippy-dippy, but I also believe in the power of Western medicine. Our session began with talking. I told him about all I’d been through in the past year, we talked about my diet and exercise habits, and discussed what I hoped to get out of this treatment.

I told him about my fear and the anxiety it causes. Like my therapist, he said I’m still in fight or flight mode (I am), and I’ll have to work to get out of that and back to feeling more normal mentally and emotionally. I really liked what he had to say and how he approached things–he definitely has a sense of humor about what he does, but he also takes it very seriously and truly wants to help people.

After our chat, we got down to the business of treatment. He showed me the tiny needles–not much thicker than a strand of hair–and explained that I might feel a slight bit of pain when they were inserted. He only used five needles–one on my forehead between my eyes, one on each of my hands just above the bend between my thumb and forefinger, and one on the top of each of my feet. I felt the teensiest sensation when he inserted them–honestly, I can’t even call it pain.

The needles were just the beginning, though. The other part of the treatment was cranial sacral therapy. This basically entailed him holding my head in his hands with his fingers placed around the base of my skull. He told me to just let gravity do its thing and let my head rest in his hands.

For 45 minutes I laid there like that, needles poking out and my head in his hands. As he held my skull, his fingers moved very slightly against pressure points in my head.

At first, I honestly didn’t feel much of anything. I was relaxed, but no more so than during a massage. But after a bit, something strange happened. This is going to sound totally bonkers, but I almost felt like I was floating–I could barely feel the table beneath me. That’s how relaxed I was.

Holy hell, I haven’t been that chill in a loooong time!

At the end of the session, I felt sort of like I’d just awoken from a really good nap–relaxed, refreshed and slightly dazed. It was a good feeling, and I tried to carry it with me throughout the rest of that day.

Did acupuncture totally change my life? No. But did it give me some peace and calm, even for a few minutes? Absolutely.

As I continue my all fronts war on cancer and the fear and anxiety left in its wake, I’m excited to add this new weapon to my arsenal. I know it’s not some magical cure for my woes, but if I can add even a minute of anxiety-free time to my day with it, it’s worth the time and money.

Fear of Flying

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I hate flying.

This is a rather unfortunate affliction,  as I’m required to fly at least half a dozen times a year for work. And even though one would think becoming a fairly frequent flyer would make me more comfortable, it really doesn’t. I loathe the rigmarole of the airport–the buggy machines at the check-in kiosks, the shoeless chaos of the TSA lines, the rush to make it to the gate on a layover. And the flight itself invokes all sorts of anxiety–I’m that freak on the plane with the white-knuckled death grip on her seat arms during any little bump of turbulence–all linked to the fact that my life is in someone else’s hands, at 30,000 feet above the ground.

But last week, a funny thing happened.

I flew to Las Vegas for work. This was my first trip since the one I made last summer to Chicago–the trip I received my cancer diagnosis during.

After six months off the road for treatment, it actually felt good to travel again. I’m not a huge Vegas fan, but my boss and coworkers decided to make this work trip fun, booking tickets to shows and making sure we had a good time after our long days at the furniture market. It has been a long time since I’ve gone out for fun in Vegas, and while I felt much older and dorkier than I did the last time (a good 10 years ago), it was still a good time.

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I saw my first Cirque du Soleil show–Zumanity. So fun!

But what was truly remarkable for me during the trip was the flight. Nothing special happened airline-wise, but rather, a change came within me. I still felt the same rush of adrenaline trying to get through the airport, but once I was on the plane, an odd sense of calm settled over me. I fastened my seat belt and rested my head against the window’s edge, taking in the scene of workers scrambling on the tarmac to load luggage and prepare the plane for takeoff. And as we taxied down the runway, instead of sweaty-palmed panic, I felt serene, watching the plane tilt skyward as we descended from the ground. The world below got smaller and smaller, and I was totally fine.

I couldn’t help thinking back to the last time I was on a plane, staring out the window with tears flooding from my eyes. I’d just received that awful news, and my mind was full of the dark fears the word “cancer”conjures. I’ve come a long way since then, and I have changed more in the last six months–both physically and emotionally–than I probably have in the last 20 years. I can unquestionably say that I am probably a thousand percent stronger than I was that day.

A colleague of mine who battled breast cancer more than a decade ago told me something very wise not long after my diagnosis–“You gain perspective.” And she couldn’t have been more right. Not only did I gain perspective as far as life goes–sweating the small stuff is not something I do anymore–I also gained a new sense of courage. I have faced one of the most terrifying things that can happen to a person. I have literally battled with something that could kill me. And I lived. I survived. If I can handle that, a little turbulence isn’t going to rattle me anymore.