Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Finding meaning

Recently someone on my young breast cancer survivor's support group website posted a question about making changes after treatment was over, and trying to find meaning in life after breast cancer. This is something I think about constantly - truly constantly. I thought I'd share my response here, though it's not articulated terribly well, because these thoughts are what are lurking in my brain, trying to make themselves understood, much of the time.


This is something I think about all the time. ALL the time. I completely understand where you are coming from, though I do not quite have my mind wrapped around the answers yet.

Here is what I think I understand so far:

We are all here on this planet for a short amount of time. Having cancer doesn't necessarily change our timeframe, it just makes us aware of how mortal we are, and reminds us that old age is not a guarantee. It is this awareness that makes us different from others: other people, those who have never experienced a life threatening health crisis, do not yet understand that life is short. We understand it in ways that we never dreamed of, and this changes us.

The change is frightening; loss of innocence is frightening. However, for this price (it is NOT a gift, as it has come at a heavy price) we gain some keys to insights not previously offered to us. I think that the insights are different person to person, but I can share mine with you.

1. We only get one body, and we must take care of that body or suffer the consequences. Before my diagnosis, I was 20 pounds overweight and not exercising regularly, full of the regular excuses (no time, daughter wouldn't go to a gym daycare without crying, too tired, etc). Now, I watch my health - including my diet and fitness - because I know what illness feels like, and I don't wish to repeat my experiences of being a critically ill patient. Diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis, etc. are all conditions influenced by lifestyle, and if I can avoid those diseases I will. And, of course, the 50% reduced rate of recurrance for those with a healthy BMI who exercise regularly but not obsessively. I always knew that it was good for me to take care of my body...but now I do. No excuses, I jsut do it.

2. I am a likeable person just the way I am - I do not need to put on a false front to please other people. I have always worried about what people thought of me; I think everyone does to some degree and perhaps I did more than some. Well, with cancer, I was stripped of pretense: my body was completely distorted (no breast, bald, 20 extra pounds from dx, etc.), I was hardly able to think a coherent thought (couldn't read The New Yorker because I couldn't concentrate...my favorite magazine!), I couldn't offer to help a friend because I was too tired...all of the usual. And people still liked me. And they told me that I was inspirational, and they drew close to me. This startled me more than I can say; at first, I didn't understand it at all. Now, however, I see more in myself of what they saw. I am generous with my friends, I am enthusiastic and optimistic, I love to laugh, I am loyal to my friends, and I am kind. I don't question these things any more, and therefore I allow my real self to show through all the time. I talk a lot, I'm unusually outgoing and social, I love to have people over all the time and cook for them...and I love it. I don't shut up to please people by being quiet; I speak my opinions loudly, though hopefully not rudely...and whaddayaknow, people like it and listen to me!

3. I am stronger than I ever dreamed possible. This strength means that I do not feel fear of the unknown in ways I have felt fear before. I am not afraid of saying the wrong thing; I can handle the consequences of speaking my mind. I am not afraid to run a marathon, because the pain of training is nothing compared to the pain of treatment. I can help others in pain, because I know what pain feels like, emotionally and physically, and I'm not afraid to witness it. I am stronger than most people, and as such I have a responsibility to myself and others to use that strength.

4. I am worth it. I am worth pretty clothes, time to read good books, date nights with my husband, a bottle of wine shared with girlfriends, walks on the beach, a good haircut....I am worth it. I do not mean that I now need to spend beyond my means to have nice things, just that I am worth it and I don't need to justify my existance to anyone. I know my own value, and it is high.

5. I am meant to do something meaningful on this planet. I have decided that my task is to be a part of finding the cure for breast cancer. I am working with the Susan G. Komen Foundation to fundraise, and I will not stop until we have found a cure. I find great meaning in this work!

6. My will to live is stronger than I ever imagined possible. There is no pain that I would not endure to stay alive to watch my daughter grow, to laugh with her, to hold her hand as she becomes a woman. I am not afraid of knives, needles, poison.

These thoughts are still disconnected; I think about them constantly, and try to figure out the pieces. I know I must run a marathon, work with the SGK to find a cure, speak out against the disease, fight the hard work that it takes to make my marriage the best that it can be, and spend more time playing with my daughter and holding my husband's hand and laughing with friends and building sandcastles on the beach and hiking and cooking for friends than I spend commuting, doing laundry, worrying about what others think of me, or playing Keep Up with the Jones'.

I am NOT the person I was before diagnosis. Cancer has changed me, for good and for bad. Like you, I refuse to let the lessons slip away. I am changing my life's habits, and hopefully modeling them to my daughter so that she can grow up with these ideas of herself.

I am a PollyAnna and proud of it. I have my moments of sheer terror and anger and confusion, but when it comes down to it I am an optimist, and I am determined to take the good out of this situation and use every last drop of it.

And with all of those ramblings, I'll close with this last one: I am committed to squeezing every last drop of living out of every day. I am always up for an adventure, and I seek out beauty in my life, reveling in it where I find it (whether it's the smile of a friend, or the power of a rainstorm, or a delicious piece of chocolate cake, or a pretty piece of jewelry, or the kindness of a stranger, or a hike in the forest, or....well, you get the idea!) and never forgetting for one minute how lucky I am to have these moments.

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's everywhere

There are SMALL advantages to having breast cancer; they don't make it "worth it" and they're not gifts (I've paid heavily, thank you very much!) but I take what I can get. One is that when I get telephone solicitors seeking donations, my truthful story that "I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and all of our charitable funds are going towards that cause," really gets them off my back.

Today, just a minute ago, the call was a bit different. I politely told the lady from the Seattle Aquarium my line, and she said, "I'm so sorry. My mom died of breast cancer 38 years ago, and I know how that is." The woman then asked me questions, commiserated with me, and told me that she was 25 when her mom passed away. It was obvious that she still misses her mother, and that she needed to talk about it for a minute. She mentioned how barbaric the treatments were; I agreed with her. I know that the treatments were worse then, and the prognosis was worse...but I couldn't help but think of being slashed (mastectomies, node dissection, hysterectomy/oopharectomy, port), burned (radiation...oh that was rough!), and poisoned (chemo; I will never forget my allergic reaction, in addition to the "normal" chemo side effects. Slashed, burned, and poisoned...I am convinced there must be a better way!

These conversations only strengthen my resolve to find a cure. Fast. Of course, looking at some stats, it will be a miracle if I live to see Tessa at 25; I want much much much much much more than that.

Fighting with every minute!


Tessa and Santa

Tessa loves to visit Santa! Here's a memory shot of Tessa with Santa when she was a baby, alongside Nina and Lexi (I love that shot!); and here are this year's Santa pics: Santa and Tessa, and then Tessa with Lexi & Nina again. This year all three girls had fun...but it really brought back the memories to see them together with Santa again. Tessa was doing only the cheesiest of smiles, and then this tongue picture....so much for showing off her pretty face! The tongue picture does capture some of who she is right now, though...silly and playful.

I am healing well. As a matter of fact, I did a dinner party for 10 yesterday (my dad's birthday) and recovered just fine. Hurrah! And now I'm off to run 100 errands...!