Thursday, September 18, 2014

Cancer Just About Bested Me

It's been a long time since I wrote anything. I used to really enjoy
sharing my thoughts and strong opinions but the last year has been
full of challenges, blessings, and change.

Cancer just about bested me. I don't mean to imply that cancer wore me
down physically, because I was very blessed in that aspect. I had an
aggressive form of cancer that was caught early and the prognosis has
never been anything but good.

When I say cancer about got me, I mean mentally and emotionally.

What the oncologists don't tell you, is that once they've removed
cancer from your body, it will live in your mind forever.

I set up internal checkpoints to keep my sanity and my goal was always
"if I can make it to one year cancer free, everything  be better!" And
it was, for awhile.

Shortly after my one year anniversary things were good and my mind was
at peace and I thought,  "finally, I knew one year would make a
difference" and slowly the angst and fear started creeping back in. I
almost didn't notice it at first, it was very subtle and very sneaky.
My heart would drop when I'd read the word "cancer" or my pulse would
race when my knee would hurt but none of these things set off alarms
and I dealt with them. I worked through or got around them but they
kept building.

Then in July, I started having a strange back pain. I was (mis)
diagnosed with myriad of things until finally, an ultrasound showed an
ovarian cyst. When the ultrasound tech told me I had a cyst, to put my
mind at ease, I felt my heart sink. I focused on holding it together
long enough to get in my car. I have zero memories of anything past
the words "ovarian cyst" until I got in my car. And fell apart.

I went to my ob/GYN with the news and she scheduled surgery. I was
told that it wasn't cancer but with my history, they'd need to remove
and biopsy it just to be certain.

So I spent the next week, pretending that I was confident that it
wasn't cancer. Pretending that my faith was in God's healing and
saying everything I knew I was supposed to say. I told people "ahh,
God got me through cancer once, so even if it's cancer he'll pull me
through it again" and I believed that my "good luck" was probably out
so if it was cancer, forget it. I said things like, "sometimes a cyst
is just a cyst" and I believed that, "other times a cyst is cancer."
Life went on relatively normal and I think most people believed in my
false bravado.

Surgery day rolled around and I was nervous, because let's face it,
surgery is rough on a control freak like me, especially when I'm
convinced that it will be followed with tragic news. I was in my
surgery bed and holding it together quite well when that darn
anesthesiologist called me out!

He said, "you're terrified aren't you?" And of course, the good
southern girl in me said, "oh no, I'm okay" with a smile. Then he said
"your heart is beating out of your chest and we have to get you
settled down before we can do surgery" so I admitted I was struggling.

When my doctor came to discuss the surgery, I broke down so bad they
gave me something that would be like "having a couple of glasses of
wine..." Which was LIES!  It was more like shotgunning a couple of
heavy cocktails!  I was gone, but so was the anxiety and I have a
feeling my heart rate must have slowed down because I definitely had
surgery!

The surgery results were as expected, by everyone but me. It was not
cancer and the cyst is gone. What wasn't gone was the reality that I
had nearly lost my mind after facing my fear of cancer, again. The
truth was staring me in the face, I'm scared and I haven't overcome
the emotional destruction of cancer.

People who haven't dealt with cancer can't understand, and now that
I'm a cancer survivor I get it. Friends will suggest therapy, or
they'll remind you how wonderful it is that you're cancer free.
They'll try every method they've ever used or heard to try to get you
through it and it's all done in love. People who've had cancer will
say things like, "this is reality and it sucks, but we are cancer free
now" and they'll sit with you until the wave passes, then when it's
over they'll go on like normal.  So far, that's been about the only
thing that's helped me.

Often times cancer is equated to death, you have to deal with each
stage of grief to overcome it. The difference is, at any moment it can
return and wreck you. So not only do you lose a part of yourself, you
get a quarterly reminder of how real it was.

I walk through the doors of Vanderbilt hospital every 3 months so I
can be reminded that I had cancer. The visits are spaced out just
perfectly enough that I start to adjust and heal, and even feel
"normal" but right as I'm settling into the role of cancer survivor,
I'm reminded that there's a very real chance of, once again, becoming
a cancer patient.

To me, it's not like dealing with death and I'm sure I've tap danced
around and stomped on all of the stages of grief throughout this, but
it's more like having PTSD.

First, I'm not comparing cancer to war. I have friends fighting in
this war, and I would never compare my experience to their's but you
don't have to be military or in a war to suffer from PTSD.

No amount of therapy or drugs will erase the reality that I had
cancer.  For those who benefit from support groups, therapy, or
medication I support you doing what you need to do to survive!  I'm
not judging anyone's path to healing, I'm only sharing my view of this
horrible journey.

Most cancer survivors that I know are like me, we don't need answers
on how to help with emotions. When my doctor asked if I'd thought
about counseling, I told her that I can't think of anything worse than
carving out time in this precious life to talk about my emotions,
about cancer, with a stranger that I'm paying to listen to me. She
agreed that if I wasn't into it, it wouldn't work and promptly pulled
out her prescription pad!

I did take anti anxiety meds for awhile and I have zero shame in that.
They got me through the worst days in my life and recently when I went
through the ovarian cyst, I asked for more meds. I haven't filled the
prescription yet, because I wanted to see if this would pass, but if
it doesn't-I'm in!  I covet each moment with my precious family and if
I need something to help me overcome cancer anxiety, then I will do
what it takes.

With all of that said, I come back to my original statement that
cancer almost bested me. Almost. But it didn't!  Someday I hope this
is part of my testimony and I can use this to help others. I'm not
there yet, but I am in a place where I've learned to relax.

My house is a mess. Dinner isn't always good, or even cooked. My
laundry will never be caught up. My kids are a little spoiled. But
every one of them is loved, and when I say loved I'm talking hugs all
around for no reason, stop what you're doing and have fun, sporadic "I
love you!!" Shouted across the room, LOVED.

My husband and I truly appreciate each other and make an effort to
show it. I saw compassion in Keith that I didn't know he was
capable of. It broke my heart when I saw his face after finding out I
had cancer, because as terrified as I was, he was too.

It still melts me to think of the meltdown I had when I couldn't get
my pants on over my bandages. It was such an irrational moment that
could have been so frustrating but Keith calmly took my yoga pants and
cut the leg off of them. It seems like such a small thing, but that
spoke more love than almost anything I can think of. In fact, I still
have the yoga pants and I cherish them just like I would a fine piece
of jewelry.

Now, when people try to drag me into their drama, I back away. I've
had real drama. I no longer care about the petty stuff.

I cherish my friendships more than I ever thought possible. I
genuinely value the people who chose to stick with me in my darkest of
dark and the ones who listened to me freak out, over and over. The
friend who offered to shave her head if I had to do chemo. The friend
who said she loved me but she was keeping her hair. The friend who
repeatedly told me I needed therapy and that she'd go with me. The
friend who came over, cooked dinner, AND cleaned up after himself. The
tons of friends who passed my kids around and made it feel like a
field trip for them, every day!  The friends who laid in bed watching
tv with me, while I slept off the narcotics. The friend who cried when
I told her I had cancer.  The friend who made me blow up balloons for
hours, to keep my mind off of the fact that I was waiting for lab
results.  The new friends who've listened to me blurt out that I had
cancer and they didn't run screaming, they chose to hang on and stick
with me! The friends who tolerated me at a March madness party, where
every other word was cancer. (Or who brought the gummy bears!) Each
and every person who never let it slip, to my kids, that I had cancer.
By the way, they still don't know!  And the countless other people who
showed up in my life when I needed them most.  Those are the things I
hold onto and I let the rest go. I want to love these people as
unconditionally as they loved me. I pray for them all and I pray that
my kids build friendships like these.

So, cancer almost bested me, but it didn't!  And it won't!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The First Step is Always the Hardest

I have spent the last year terrified.  I've been scared of everything and anything that I could possibly be afraid of.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, everything changed and I really mean everything.  I went from being just like my Grandma Ruth, who was often described as "not having enough sense to know when to be afraid" to turning into a person I didn't even know.  What's worse, is that in the last few months, I've began to accept that I'm afraid of everything.  It has become so normal to be scared that I don't even fight it any longer.  When I'm afraid, I stop or I refuse to do whatever scares me.

A couple of years after 9/11, Hadley was born.  Suddenly, I was scared to put my baby on an airplane.  If a trip required flying, I would decline, and I remember the moment that attitude changed like it was yesterday.  I was in the back yard of our little blue house in Lafayette, LA and I realized that I hadn't flown since Hadley was born because I was scared.  I was on the phone with a friend and when we hung up, I immediately booked a plane ticket for Hadley and I!  I said, "this fear will NOT alter my lifestyle!" and I didn't let it.

I have always embraced fear as a healthy emotion, as long as you can confront it and harness it.  The minute I find myself working around fear, is the minute I realize I need to face it head on and fix it!  I've admitted that I don't really enjoy conflict, in fact I hate it, but I will endure it as a means to an end.  Until recently.

My daughters have been bitten by the horse bug and they want to ride and show!  I grew up riding and showing and some of my best memories and even my best friends are from my days with horses, needless to say, I've been very excited by my kids desire to follow in those footsteps.  Now, I've looked at several horses over the last few months and I've managed to not ride any of them.  My plan with this horse was also not to ride.  After all, the horse is for my kids and Keith can do any riding that needs to be done that the kids can't do.  And riding is scary.

When we had Fancy, our first horse since we started this journey, she reared up and wasn't very nice so I never rode her, that's healthy fear!  That's using your head and not doing something stupid!

Like I said though, I've looked at several horses over the past few months, but none of them were "right" for our family.  When I met Barry, he had Bravo and Sadie, both incredible horses, for sale.  I knew almost immediately that they were the ones for us!  The kids rode Bravo, and he was great.  I knew Keith needed to see him so I didn't want to waste Barry's time saddling Sadie, but I knew we'd love her too!  Not to mention, she is a descendant of Doc Bar, who was also an ancestor of my first horse, Ozark!  She was already practically family!

Anyway, Keith, the girls, and I went back to Barry's house so Keith could meet the horses.  He fell in love too!  He knew I was in love, and he knew the girls were in love.  Then he looked at me and said "have you ridden him?"  Of course, I hadn't, I'm scared to ride now!  (Because I'm scared of everything!)  Then he said, "well you need to ride him, if we're going to buy him..."  Ummmm....no.....I tried every excuse I could think of.  Ultimately, I ended up on the horse, because I knew Keith wasn't going to be on board with buying him if I wouldn't even get on.

I got on Bravo, a 16 hand grey quarter horse gelding.  He was a perfect gentleman.  I rode him around the arena some then tried trotting a little and could feel my heart racing.  I instantly decided to slow him down, only he didn't immediately slow down.

"CRAP!  This is why I haven't ridden..."
"I can't let this horse run away from me"
"It's going to hurt if I fall"
"I will be HUMILIATED!"
"What if he runs away!!!"

Then, he slowed down!
"Oh, thank goodness."
"That wasn't so bad"
"Wait, that was a little fun..."
"Hmmm, maybe I'll try again."

So, we trotted again.
And again.
And again.

Then we loped.

And slowly, I started feeling a little more like myself.

Right there, in that arena, I felt a piece of myself return.  The first step is always the hardest, and I've been reminded of the freedom of overcoming fear and letting it go.  I liked the remembering how it felt to be me.

Bravo and Sadie will be here tomorrow morning and we are going to spend more time together, discovering me.