Laughing all the Way

June 28 will be the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis with breast cancer; July 3 is the two-year anniversary of my last treatment. It was radiation, and my underarm was burnt to a crisp and smelled like death. I remember it well, fondly actually, and with wonder. Within 10 days it was healed and a distant memory. The amazing healing ability of the body …

Throughout my adventure, I heard again and again that I should turn this into a book. To that end, Laughing All the Way: Not Your Usual Breast Cancer Journal is now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle formats. It can also be read through Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited.

Link to Book

Thank you for your encouragement, for following along, for reading and sharing my thoughts with others you thought might benefit, and for seeing the fun in it all while understanding the gravity that rumbled beneath the surface. If you would please share this for me, that would be awesome. Apparently since the subject matter of the book is personal illness, my advertising options with Amazon.com are limited.

Thank you!

Cruising through the lens of an experiential blogger

There are a bunch of reasons I haven’t written about my recent vacation cruise. For starters, I’m not a travel blogger. Second, I don’t travel for pleasure that often and when I do, I revel in the experience more than I concern myself with the details of the sights, so it wouldn’t really read like a travel blog. I prefer to soak up the feelings about a place more than ooh and aaah over the visuals. Still, it’s nagging at me. Those five days have something they want to say, thoughts they want to share, lessons they want to pass on, and I want to honor that (and stop the nagging). So, in deference to the voice within, here are some highlights of my trip, aka cruising through the lens of an experiential blogger.

1. Virgin Mango Daiquiris – I don’t drink alcohol, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a tropical frozen drink. When in the Caribbean, go mango! Sweet, frozen goodness that slides over the tongue like a river of heaven. Add the ocean breeze in your hair and the lap of the waves on the hull and it’s better than a day at a spa. Sometimes relaxing is as simple as a change of pace for your senses.

2. Steel bands on the pier – Music always sounds better when my body gets involved. Hands in the air, a swivel of the hips and a backbeat in my step brings the first impression of any island home. It’s hard not to smile, or join in, when their is so much fun to be had. Heck, even the band cracked a grin in Haiti. Listen to music with your ears, but feel it with your feet.

3. Laughter – Nothing feels quite so good as real laughter, the kind that erupts without warning and insists on running its course unfettered. My best friend, Heather, she knows how to laugh, and when I’m with her, the laughter flows like champagne on New Years Eve. The entire trip was seasoned with laughter to a mirthful perfection that would put a pair of rose colored glasses to shame. Laughter is tonic for the soul.

So you are likely wondering about that last statement. Laughter, for me, makes everything better, makes everything okay. I laughed my way through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation treatment so I know what I’m talking about – attitude is everything in life. Laugh, often and genuinely. Laugh until your belly hurts, laugh until you cry, and then look at the world with fresh eyes. That rosy glow is laughter at work.

4. Please and thank you – some of my best vacation experiences were the gratitude from crew members when they were addressed with “please” and appreciated with “thank you”. They are small things, but orders become requests when wrapped in politeness. Please don’t leave your manners at home when you travel. Thank you.

5. Say good morning, afternoon or evening to everyone you pass in the halls and smiles will ensue. It’s a small thing, but the walls we put up tumble down under the power of an enthusiastic greeting. I found when I reached out, most people responded regardless of their age, nationality or sex. Being noticed is a universal feel good.

6. Smile, smile, smile – frowning is hard work. It takes more muscular effort to wrinkle up your forehead, drag down the corners of your mouth and purse your lips then to let it all fly free in a smile. Plus we all look better with a smile. A relaxed countenance is more inviting than a frown. Yet even I find my brows crunched together at times, telling me it’s time to fly my smile flag. Your face is your calling card, so choose wisely what you wish to wear on it.

There are delicious moments going on all the time. Sometimes it takes a cruise to remind us, to press the reset button and get us out of our rut. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and smell the sea air, mountain air, whatever air takes you to your happy place. Let it jump start your smile, then open your eyes to all the wonders around you right now.

Perfectly imperfect

Lately I have been taking grim trips down memory lane. You know the kind, the ones where you revisit old events with chagrin and, dare I say it, embarrassment. I’m not really prone to embarrassment, but lately I seem to be entertaining it in relation to certain occasions. In reality, if I step away from whatever “stuff” seems to be sucking at me, I see most of it isn’t really that bad, yet still I’m vexed about it. And so it goes when you wear “less-than” tinted glasses.

Sometimes I wonder if these questionable choices are due to an inability to control an outcome I would have preferred. It’s not such a strange concept, we do it all the time. Ruin that diet with ice cream? Then might as well have two bowls, heck, the whole carton! Slip up on your effort to curb (fill in the blank – alcohol, cigarettes, meat, dairy, sex … ), then you might as well let today be your last hurrah (again) and enjoy the heck out of it before tomorrow comes and you lay a blanket of misery and self-loathing over yourself for comfort. Looking back, and around me, I see these reactions as an effort to create control where control has failed. If I can’t control the outcome I want, then why not embrace the outcome I have been given? Why not just be.

Maybe that’s the core issue, the feeling that we cannot just be ourselves. There always seems to be some part of ourselves we need to change to attain perfection, reach Nirvana, to be lovable and be loved, when in reality, all that feeling less-than is the only thing we need to change.

Even as I type this, I can feel it looking over my shoulder, breathing it’s gnarly breath on my neck, a snicker on its thin lips. Less-than never feels threatened, it only becomes mildly amused. It is unstoppable. It is a part of me (you, all of us!) as much as my confident side, sad side, happy side, passionate side, angry side and gentle side, which means it is really up to me to develop a better relationship with less-than, just as I have one with my other emotions.

Here is the thing, though. Less-than has really lousy interpersonal skills. It is supposed to be a motivator, yet somewhere along the line the blueprints for that neuro-pathway went awry and instead of a nice bridge, like the kind you find on a country lane, it is more like a rickety Burma Bridge. Integrated correctly, less-than should be the one that motivates me when the encouragement of a reward fails, urging the other parts of me to want to explore the world when I’d rather stay snuggled under the covers, or to write about it instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.

Less-than is a member of the family of emotions and skills I have accumulated over the years, and as such it is present in every choice I make and everything I do. What is up to me is how I treat this esteemed member of my family, with shame and disdain, or like a quirky aunt. Personally, I like quirky aunts, and so I have high hopes for my new venture into friendship with the less-than voice of my psyche.

In reality, no one can make me feel less-than, only me. The feelings that well up to encourage me to be more, do more, I am free to process any way I want and it is I that have chosen to turn myself into a knot over a simple suggestion of change, new activity or differing physical attribute. I spent a good deal of my life trying to be perfect, yet here I am, no breasts, five pounds heavier and happier and more well balanced than I have ever been. In reality, the only unhealthy thing about me was obsessing so much about meaningless things.

Today, I don’t worry about myself physically except to be healthy and happy and I certainly don’t worry about what size bra I need. The universe has a sense of humor and I have embraced the joke. This one time, less-than gave a hint and I realized it wasn’t to chase rabbits down stale rabbit holes, it was to possibly learn the only lesson that ever mattered. I am me and always will be. The rest is just a suggestion.

It seems, less-than has a sense of humor too.

Coddling myself like a wounded bird

Enough is enough. That is where I am right now, in the mindset that enough is enough. I am over a year out from any kind of treatment (I’m not counting anti-hormone therapy, as that will go on for some time) and I am still limping along, coddling myself like a wounded bird. Funny thing happens when you do that, you become the wounded bird! So, enough is enough.

It started when I went to see a potential new primary care physician. My prior doctor and I weren’t quite seeing eye-to-eye anymore.  I don’t like  doctors that encourage me to do things that I don’t see the point in, especially when they have not done a good job of convincing me otherwise. I am not the sort that follows the herd. I need facts, data, a reasonable explanation that doing something will indeed have a benefit, not just that they hawk supplements in their office and here’s the latest one, so take it. So, I found myself someone new. She is very knowledgeable, very thorough, and she listens. In my mind, that’s a medical trifecta. Plus she is a woman, so she can relate.  A trifecta+. In the course of our conversation (yes, we actually had a conversation!), she mentioned that she likes to read self-help books and the book she is reading now talks about people that are task-oriented having trouble letting go and having fun, which can be tiring. She didn’t say me, per se, but since I had mentioned to her that my energy level isn’t back to what it used to be, and since I recently worked three weekends in a row (Saturday and Sunday), I’m pretty sure it was aimed at me.

I won’t admit to having  trouble having fun, but I will readily admit to being overly responsible and putting responsibilities (real or imagined) before having fun. It doesn’t help being married to an overly responsible husband and having an overly responsible best friend. Who is there to drag me off task? Now I have that responsibility on top of everything else!

I could give dozens of excuses as to why I do it, put responsibilities before play, but in the end they are just excuses. In the end, I’m an adult and I can do whatever the heck I want (within reason). Granted, too much play has its repercussions too, but I think I could achieve a healthier balance, if I were to be honest, which I am. Plus, my doctor wants me too, and she gave a pretty sound medical argument as to why I should goof off, I mean play, more.

Okay, I’m off topic. Enough is enough, though, no more babying myself. A year out of treatment and I am still wafting through a 30-minute beginner 2 yoga class (Down Dog yoga app – awesome!), because I don’t want to overdo it. Screw that! In the spirit of “enough is enough,” I dialed it up to a 45 minute Intermediate 1 class and it felt great! I did the same the next day, and the next, and guess what, I’m still standing. The world didn’t stop. I may have sweat a little, but nothing to get excited about. In the end, what probably made me more lackluster than anything else was those darn beginner yoga classes!

I love yoga. It is freedom, poetry for the body, a dance of the spirit. Bridling that expression, forcing it into a box that was too small for it, well, maybe that wasn’t the smartest. Lesson learned.

Shoes on the road

I was driving down I4 Sunday (really it could have been any day) and saw a sneaker on the side of the road. I imagined it tumbling along, heel over toe, laces akimbo, until it slowed and finally came to a ragged stop on its side, its tongue lolling from the ride. But how did it get there? How did one sneaker break free from its mate and find itself here, all alone, on this road?

Maybe the two of them were tossed in the bed of a pickup truck for the ride home, too rank from whatever activity they had engaged in to share the cab. With enough speed, any bump could have sent it sailing, forever parting the duo.

Or maybe some feisty teens (or adults for that matter) in a fit of passion, anger or over-exuberant high jinx merely ripped it off the foot of a car mate and sent it sailing out the window. The possibilities are endless given a well fueled imagination. But still, why one sneaker?

And so it is with the myriad of things that litter the side of the road, which makes me wonder, do I have a similar scenario on the side of my road? Is my life path strewn with objects and events that have skidded off unnoticed, left forgotten on the side of the road?

It is disconcerting that there may be unaccounted for experiences lying about, never having reached their mark or lived up to their full potential. Would they have mattered? Would they have been the butterfly wing that dramatically changed my life, or would they have merely folded in with all the life experiences that stayed on the trail to get me exactly where I am today?

I would like to think that they would have mattered, but maybe the unromantic truth is that they were simply jostled aside by something more important, something that was destined to hold more weight, to be more critical to the outcome.

Still, whenever I see a solitary sneaker I will wonder what life would have been like if it hadn’t lost its mate.

Why I’m lonely too

I recently read an article in the AARP Bulletin (March 2019, Volume 60, No. 2) (and yes, I read the AARP Bulletin, or at least skim the articles) that adults have three life stages when they are most vulnerable to loneliness – our late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s. They don’t mention why these age milestones trigger loneliness in people, Americans in particular, but I’ll take a guess that they have something to do with thought-I-would-have-accomplished-more-by-now, not-where-I-thought-I-would-be-at-this-point-in-my-life, and not-what-I-expected-my-life-to-be-like. There is a common thread that runs through these assessments, a common puppet master that yanks our strings again and again. Its name is Expectation.

Ah, yes, expectations unmet, I know thee well. Yes, even I have lived my life under the specter of misguided goals and unreasonable milestones. What are they really, these self-imposed benchmarks through life, except for socially approved attempts at self-validation and grasps for kudos. I think about this, wrestle with it really, this need I have, that we have as humans, to seek approval from one another, even deem ourselves better than one another. I would like to say it is trained into us as children, the desire to get the best grade, get picked first (or at least not last) for a team, to be noticed, by him, or her, or anyone really, as someone worth knowing, but it starts earlier than that though, with squabbles in playpens and on playgrounds for what is “ours” and its inevitable conversion to “mine.”

I get it, really I do, this need to excel, but why don’t we make the leap that it is better to excel as a group? That it is better to share than to have? Why don’t we realize that these singular goals of grandeur come at a price far greater than ourselves? They are the breeding ground of loneliness, fertilizer for greater-than and less-than and the birth place of the great divide. They pit us against everyone around us and in our search for singularity we end up, well, alone.

I have for most of my life railed against parental expectations only to be trapped by expectations of my own making. Expectation is a grand puppet master and he has a string to pluck for every path I can imagine, so maybe loneliness does not come from our expectations, but our relationship with our self.

I would like to say I was happy in my late 20s (I cried inconsolably on my 25th birthday), but here I am in my late 50s and loneliness is once again looking for a toehold. I don’t see what I have to be lonely about. I have a wonderful husband, a delightful cat, wonderful extended family on both sides of the marital equation, and friends of all kinds (some I haven’t even met yet!). I really don’t have anything to be lonely about, except for maybe an expectation or two. And that’s the rub, right? Our expectations versus our reality. Well, take it from someone who spends a lot of time with her head in the clouds imagining fantasy worlds of all kinds, when it comes to the day to day, reality works better. Expectation free, grateful-for-today reality.

Reminders of time gone by

I could have died. It doesn’t get more real, more in your face than that.

I don’t think about that very much. What would be the point? Lately, though, I seem to have constant reminders pointing me toward some unfinished business that I never even knew existed. It seems that when one is trying ones best to live, one must also give death its due.

I believe it is the Buddhists that believe that the best way to appreciate life is to meditate on your death. I have, quite uncharacteristically, not researched or looked into what that means or entails. It’s not that I’m not interested, I would be, could be, under different circumstances. It’s just too soon, too fresh … I could have died.

For you newbies, I am referring to my adventure with breast cancer, and more specifically, a bout I had with the common cold during chemotherapy. It frightened me, terrified me really, but I suspect that’s the beauty of it. Something so simple, so ordinary, can take our breath away, literally and figuratively, while our attention is focused elsewhere on seemingly more menacing matters. Frightening really, yet elegant all the same.

Lately the news seems rife with people succumbing to cancer. I’ve passed the phase where only breast cancer deaths catch my eye, now all cancer deaths chip away at my resolve, my fantasy that there is solid ground, no matter how distant, on the other side of this mire I have waded into. Right now, I detest the unknown, which is ludicrous in itself because all of life is an unknown. There is virtually no assurance of any continuance of existence, which brings me full circle to my point. I could have died.

Its silly really, since there are probably dozens of ‘could have died’ moments that have peppered my life without a second thought. I have a drivers license, so I’m sure there are some moments lurking there. I rode horses as a teenager and probably entrusted myself to a horse or two (or three) that wasn’t as stable or kind as he or she could have been, yet I’m still here. Swims in the ocean (shark!), plane, train and automobile trips, pre-dawn walks along sidewalk-less roads, life in general. There are dozens of airborne and self-inflicted illnesses that can befall a person, robbing you of tomorrow without a second thought, yet I ponder only the one.

In reality, I was far from death. Imagination amok, I was more frightened of the prospect of inching toward death than actually dying. I see death as somewhat of a one-way process, a road which embarked on does not often offer exits or a retracing of steps. At least that’s how I see it. Is it better to rail against the process, or march with dignity, head held high, and embrace the journey as the once-in-a-lifetime experience it is? I suppose that depends on the point on your lifeline that you happen to be jumping off at. Personally, I think I would prefer to fall right off the end of my palm, but that’s me.

Life on the path less taken

What life path did you choose? Mine, it is the path less taken, the harder trek through overgrown trails splattered with copious amounts of extra muck. The one that friends and family warned me about, scolded me about and shook their heads about when I chose it anyway. It is the one that has alternately been watered with tears to a soggy mess and baked with joy to a delightful glow. Sound familiar, maybe like your path? I think, looking back, these so-called “paths less taken” are everyone’s paths, just most of us didn’t step onto them voluntarily.

In the trek through my formidable years, I experienced being painfully shy then workably social, finally settling comfortably into just being me. I have (strong) opinions and try to keep the more contentious ones to myself, sharing them only when asked or venting to an inner circle of immediate family and close friends. More so, I prefer to just smile at the antics of life and hope that there is some bigger meaning and/or life lesson that will come from it all. Ergo, the need for yoga and meditation.

Meditation helps me make sense of things, helps me stop asking questions without listening for answers. Think about it, all the questions you have, that you ask, that you wrestle around in your brain and then toss into the wind, how much time do you invest in listening for an answer? Whatever your religious or spiritual persuasion, the asking is one thing, but the time spent in silent contemplation just listening for an answer, that is is the good stuff! 

Oddly, I get a lot of answers, and insights, when I listen. I find the insights to be more valuable than the answers, mostly because an answer puts one question to bed, whereas an insight opens up a world of possibilities. One of my better insights – don’t ask questions I already know the answer to. For instance, “why me.” The answer is and always will be, “why not me.” If I dig a little deeper, life is never about why something does or does not happen to you, or for you, it is always about what you do with exactly what you have. We all are exactly where we are supposed to be in our respective lives. Where we tend to go awry is not appreciating what we have going for us and celebrating it with giddy abandon.

When I lived in Connecticut, I lived in the most amazing little house overlooking a river. From the day I moved in, I knew I wouldn’t be there forever, so I enjoyed the heck out of that house each and every day. From the deer that crossed the yard to drink from the river to the hawks and foxes that watched me on my daily walk, it was magical, like living in a fairy tale. And on a timer. Eventually, time was up and I moved to Florida.

I don’t regret leaving my woodland oasis. It was time to head for Florida, where I was destined to meet my husband. Sure, I could have stayed there, perched on the edge of heaven, forever, I suppose, but I didn’t. I listened. If you think about it, really think about it, you hear it too, that insistent something encouraging you along. It can feel like anything really, a tug at the gut, a whisper tangled in the breeze, intuition, your conscience, (sorry, no voices), these are guides showing us the way, and it is up to us to pay heed, or not.

So what happens if we miss the signs, ignore our instincts, write off our gut feelings to hunger pangs or indigestion? Then we follow a different path, one of many paths, but it will still get us where we need to go. In the end, all the paths are the same. The experiences are different, sometimes harder, sometimes easier, but our paths all go one way, from birth to death. In the end, it will always be what we do with the path we are on that makes for one heck of a ride.

There is more to your feet than you could ever imagine

Consider your feet. Most of us don’t give them a second thought except when they hurt or don’t fit into that perfectly adorable shoe that you can never find in your size. We paint our toes to make them look prettier and are never quite satisfied with the smoothness of our heels, although we never quite consider how they got that way. Yes, our feet. Priceless, irreplaceable, under appreciated, this is about your feet, because there is more to your feet than you could ever imagine.

I practice yoga so I am all about my feet. They are the foundation of my ability to stand upright, making thousands of tiny adjustments every minute to ensure I stay that way. I don’t notice it, I am so used to them doing their job I just let them be so they can get on with it. I do appreciate them immensely, though. They keep me from toppling over. If you are someone who texts, talks or surfs while you walk, you should appreciate your feet even more. They are flying blind while you are engrossed in your device, keeping you out of danger as best they can until you check in again.

If you want to feel how much work your feet do, try standing on one foot. First take off your shoes and socks. Your feet work better when they are not boxed in. Stand up straight, the crown of your head reaching tall to the sky, eyes fixed on a point in the distance, and fix one foot firmly to the floor. Feel the floor under your heel and the ball of your foot. Feel your foot expand against the floor and each toe stretch out to help you balance. I love that feeling. It’s as if my foot is saying, “I’m ready when you are.” Your foot feels solid, strong, ready to go to work, right? Now turn the other foot slightly out, bend your knee and rest the sole of your foot against your calf. If you are brave, bend your knee more and press the sole of your foot against your inner thigh. (Never against the inside of your knee, always go higher or go lower.) Bend your elbows and press your hands together in front of your chest. You are officially in Tree Pose.

Can you feel it? Without the help of its mate, your standing foot has more work to do. Let it do its thing. Let it adjust and shift, moving to keep you upright. Have you ever watched someone balance something on their nose or forehead? How they shift around to keep it balanced there? That is sort of what your foot is doing, making thousands of tiny adjustments to keep you balanced.

If you have trouble balancing on your own, stand next to a wall and use your hand for balance. As you get used to it, practice taking your hand off the wall.

Most of us rely on our shoes to do what our feet were born to do. I go barefoot a lot. I love the feeling of my feet on the ground. It’s like I have another sense that tells me what is going on below me while my head tells me what is going on up high. If you have ever walked on a beach you know what I am talking about. The hot, dry sand gives way to the firm, wet sand. The cool (or warm) salty ocean licks at your toes, leaving a whipped cream froth behind. It’s a sensory treat for the feet!

This barely scratches the surface of all that goes on with those little noticed darlings that cart us around all day. Our feet are miraculous. Next time you have yours out, sans socks and shoes, give them a little stretch. Point your toe, flex it toward you, roll your ankle, just move them around and revel in them. Love them; they are yours and yours alone.

Wrestling the sunny with the sad

I apologize for what turned into a longer-than-expected hiatus from blogging. I had really just intended to take a week or two off, to find a new direction of sorts. Now here I am, three months later, still wrestling the sunny with the sad, and feeling no farther along than when I started.

I had started this blog to share my cancer journey with friends and family, which turned into the added bonus of being a cathartic adventure of the soul. I found it much easier to explore each stop on my treatment journey in writing, and in the process maybe helping someone else as they went through their own journey, be it cancer or anything else. I find humor when I write, or rather, humor finds me. There is a delightfulness about my fingers; they cannot write about darkness without reveling in the glory of the silvery lining accompanying it. It is quite possibly a failing of mine, but I think Darwin would approve.

So here I am, three months later, still bouncing around trying to navigate post-cancer life. The reality is, people are generally kinder when frailty enters the picture. It is likely because they see themselves, a sort of ghost-of-Christmas-future moment, and so they become the person they would want someone to be for them. You get cancer and everyone around you unpacks their caring and concern and gets in line to offer their top shelf emotional modality. And then it ends. Either you end, which is not ideal, or your treatment ends, you get an “all clear” stamp of approval, and are sent back to your life to carry on, and so does everyone else.

There is a silver lining here, I promise. It’s the season of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and Tiny Tim and Red Rider Bee-bee guns, when we greet strangers with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hanukkah” and wish them well for no reason other than you are both traveling on intersecting paths and what the heck, it’s the holidays! Then it ends. (Noticing a theme here?) And we wonder why that feeling can’t last all year round, the glow of warm wishes and cheery thoughts. And so I wonder too, why the care and concern we express for one another when a crisis rears it’s gnarly head doesn’t last, why we don’t reach out more often, stay in touch, be better friends, siblings, parents and children, all the time.

I am as guilty as the next guy (or gal), and have an unattractive history of shirking family time in lieu of meaningless adventures that seemed irresistible at the time. Cancer was my wake-up call, my priceless lesson, my gem.

Life is now. Be present, feel it, love every moment of it, the happy and the sad, with gusto.