Letting go of fear

I had my six-month follow up visit with my radiation oncologist last week. Its hard to believe that it has been six months since my last radiation treatment, which means it has been ten months since my last chemotherapy treatment. I got the “all clear” yesterday, but it felt hollow. The follow up for double mastectomy patients seems too simplistic, too fraught with the potential for error. Really, all he did was ask me how I felt and then palpate (fancy word for knead and poke) at my chest and underarm, looking for irregularities, sore spots, anything that could mean something nefarious. It’s hard to tell, at least for me, although he seemed very sure, that its all clear.

My left underarm is a mass of dense scar tissue, which at any given moment is in various stages of being sore (due to my vigorous stretching) and being lumpy (due to it trying to bind up again). I do my own self-check every couple of weeks, but all I feel is dense, lumpy tissue. My oncologist, Dr. Rostorfer, gave me a tutorial on what scar tissue feels like the last time I saw him. I would point out what I thought felt like possible lumps in the dense tissue and he would shoot it down, telling me its just scarring, that it felt perfectly normal. Not ideal by any means, but it helped. Now I no longer get a clenching in my stomach when I knead at my scarring. The truth is, it all feels the same, like a shifting, fibrous area of healing-tearing-then-healing scar tissue. Perfectly normal, and so, all clear.

The most frightening part of a breast cancer diagnosis, and I suspect any cancer diagnosis, is the unknown. You spend months (at least I did) getting tested to narrow down  the scope of the cancer, all with no definitive answers. Then you spend months in treatment (chemotherapy in my case) hoping the cancer will respond, with no definitive answers. Then you have surgery, where you get some answers, but as it was in my case, the caveat of door number three, behind which there are more questions than answers. Then more treatment (radiation), after which you are put on a wait-check-and-see protocol to make sure nothing appears again. So now, after the frightening part of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment has subsided and is a thing of the past and the happy-go-lucky giddiness of treatment-free days is waving it’s hand frantically in the air for a turn, the new frightening thing about breast cancer is waiting to see if it comes back.

To me, fear is like playing a rigged game of Jumanji. No matter what you do, your situation is destined to keep getting worse. I say, let it go. Fear can be paralytic, stymieing your every move until your world gets smaller and smaller and all the pleasure is sucked out of life.  Yes, sometimes bad things happen, but a lot more often they don’t. For every horrible end result I can think of (and trust me, I can think of A LOT), there are exponentially more good outcomes to the same scenario. In the end, you just have to trust that it is not your time yet; you just have to let it all go.

And so it is with breast cancer follow up. For someone who has lived her life being afraid of everything and trying to mitigate and control the outcome of every scenario (its safer that way), that was one tough lesson. I spent the first 55 years of my life being afraid of what horrible thing could befall me in the course of everyday activities, and yet here I sit, staring in the lion’s mouth, day-in-and-day out, and I’m not afraid at all. When I look back at the lifetime I spent not doing things because of the specter of fear that hovered over me, tapping me on the shoulder to point out all the darkest possibilities of life that could befall me, I shake my head at the pointlessness of it all.

Yes, that’s right, the pointlessness of it. Whenever we act out of fear, the outcome is pointless. There was a time when fear served its purpose, when it kept us from becoming dinner for something higher on the food chain, but no more. Now, with nothing better to do with our fear response, we make stuff up to give it something to do, escalating every day innocuous events into live or die situations. In the end, anything and everything could potentially cause your untimely demise, but most likely won’t. It’s just the way it goes. But, I guarantee you that if you spend all your time not doing things because they might kill you, then eventually something else will. Personally, from where I currently sit, a long life spent denying myself is a far worse fate than a potentially shorter one spent with a wicked grin on my face and satisfaction in my soul.

Before you queue up for bungee jumping or spelunking, not every soul is satisfied by the same adventures. Adventures don’t have to be physically dangerous in nature. Emotionally risks can be equally as terrifying. Whatever it is you have always wanted to do and followed up the thought with “I can’t,” that’s your ticket to paradise. In the end, you may not even enjoy it, but the point is you tried, and that, my friends, is where the freedom, and the fun, is.

 

A haircut like that

Lately, I keep hearing reference to “I had a haircut like that once.” The haircut that doesn’t need scissors; the one where your hair just falls out in clumps, then sticks to you as though hanging on for dear life. It doesn’t want to go, really it doesn’t, but its roots have failed, so each strand ups its static-electric game in a vain attempt to latch on to some other part of you, delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. I remember getting in the shower and running my fingers through my hair. Silly me, I thought I could just rinse out the loose strands. Large clumps of hair came away, clinging to my fingers. It was like petting my cat in the spring, or for you dog lovers, like trying to brush the winter coat out of a Husky or Samoyed. The hair just kept coming and coming. And it sticks to you, for all its worth, in one last ditch effort to avoid becoming the lining of a bird’s or squirrel’s nest, or worse, of fulfilling its dust-to-dust circle of life march much sooner than intended. Its really hard to wash hair off yourself when it keeps falling out. You end up a human chia-pet, but with hair. Those were good times. Really, they were. I can say that because it never occurred to me that my hair would not grow back.

It should, you know, grow back (if you are wondering). I miss my post-chemo curly fuzz. I felt like a baby chick. My husband couldn’t resist rubbing my downy-soft head, nor could I. Now it is back to normal; thick, soft in a coarse kind of way, peppered with gray (less than before chemo, so thanks for that), and now streaked with teal and purple (not thanks to chemo, thanks to Jeffrey).

I saw a woman at the grocery store yesterday with “a haircut like that.” I stopped to chat, opening by asking how she was doing. She looked puzzled, so I offered, “I had a haircut like that once.” Those are powerful words, a pass-code to a not-so-secret club. She softened and we chatted about treatments we had, losing our hair and getting it back, and eyebrows. Her hair is coming back and her head itches (your head itches when your hair falls out and itches when it grows back in). She is sad that it is coming in a little grayer, but she is in the chemo-fuzz faze. Maybe it will get darker when her real hair comes back. She was afraid it wouldn’t grow back at all, so she has that. Her eyebrows are coming in thicker than they were before, so she has that too. Then we touched on hospitals and she changed. I don’t recall where she said she was treated (it was local, but nowhere I recognized), but she suddenly looked bullied and worn out. She wished she had gotten a second opinion before treatment, but she was frightened and just wanted it over with. I can understand that. That had been my first instinct too. I just wanted the tumor out. Thank God for doctors with really, really bad bedside manner or I might have gone with the flow too. She also had reconstruction done, which she is now second guessing. It is a long healing process and she’s is likely not done with it physically, but she seemed really over it mentally and emotionally. The longer the conversation went on, the sadder she became. That was not my intention and I couldn’t see any way to make her feel better, so I wished her well and we both moved on.

As I walked away, I almost felt guilty for my year of pampering and happy-with-my-choices attitude. Almost, but not quite, because it made me realize how important one voice can be. For me, it was my mother’s voice. My mother always got a second opinion if she didn’t like the answer the doctor gave her; she still does. Heck, she gets another opinion on just about everything. It served me well. For me, it isn’t exactly about getting another opinion; it is about finding a doctor, or mechanic, or teacher, or anyone that is going to provide a service for me, that resonates with me, and I can only do that by getting a second, or third, opinion when the first ones leaves me confused, sad or both.

We all deserve to interact with providers who can explain things in a way that we understand, that will take the time to patiently walk us through things until we are comfortable and ready to proceed. I am blessed to have found a team of doctor’s that understood me and what my goals were. It was no accident, I called the new patient desk at Orlando Health and told them about who I am, and they matched me with a doctor that resonated with my personality. Still, it was not an easy process. I met with an oncologist, Dr. Regan Rostorfer, who I adore. Then I met with a surgeon, radiation oncologist and plastic surgeon. Only the surgeon made the cut – Dr. Jeffrey Smith. The other two I continued to interview for. The plastic surgeon became moot, as I elected not to have reconstruction, but I still met with a wonderful plastic surgeon in Winter Park who explained in depth every reconstructive procedure, which was instrumental in my decision to forgo reconstructive surgery. I eventually found an awesome radiation oncologist, Dr. Tomas Dvorak, who explained the nuances of the various types of radiation treatment, how they work, the possible side effects and possible impact to each layer of tissue in its path. It was fascinating and encouraging, and gave me the piece of mind I needed to make a decision and move ahead with a positive, hopeful attitude.

I am grateful for the woman in the grocery store. She reminded me of the gift of choice. We all have it. It is difficult to choose service providers, but I see first meetings as interviews. They get to meet me; I get to meet them. Then they get to examine the problem and tell me what they think, and that part is pretty much pass fail. If I walk away shell shocked or uncomfortable, they have failed and I move on. Even the worst of news can be done with grace and someone can walk away feeling okay. This applies to everything we do. I am baffled by the stories I hear about folks who get their car fixed by mechanics they don’t trust and are convinced they are being deceived. Or people who don’t like their doctors, yet they go to them year after year. Choices, people, you have choices!

The woman in the grocery store also reminded me of the choices I have ahead of me. As  the course of my breast cancer changes from treatment to follow-up visits, so shall the course of this blog. My humorous anecdotes about chemotherapy and radiation are a thing of the past. No more blow-by-blow accounts of mastectomies or port surgeries. What stretches ahead are (hopefully) very mundane follow up visits. Five years of them, to be exact. First on the agenda is a bone-density scan next week. Stay tuned for that, I’m sure it will be a hoot and a half!

By the way, thanks to all of you for following and sharing my blog. Writing this blog was cathartic for me these past fifteen months, and that so many people made the choice to read and share it means a lot.

A patient observer

Two slices of raisin bread, toasted, with some fruit on the side. Honeydew melon these days, it changes with the seasons. As I buttered my toast this morning, it came to me that all during chemotherapy I made my own raisin bread. Now I buy it at the store – Dave’s Killer Raisin Bread. It also occurred to me that there was a time, pre-cancer, when I would have expended a good deal of energy chastising myself for turning to store-bought bread in lieu of baking my own. Now, I just notice. I notice the change in my routine like I notice the change in the clouds, as a patient observer. There is no judgement, no discontent, no self-punishment. I have meditation to thank for that.

I have a cold. I’ve tried to wrap my head around some sort of meaning behind it, but there doesn’t seem to be any. It’s just a cold. Quite different from the last cold I had. It was a little over a year ago, Thanksgiving 2016 to be exact. I remember it clearly because I was in the middle of my first phase of chemo, the part that kills off your white blood cells along with everything else, and I had caught a cold. It frightened me, because in my mind the common cold I had could kill me. That is the cancer horror story I had managed to find and read, where someone finishes their chemo, is cancer free and is taken down by a cold. Drat. It was the only word that came to mind. Drat.

This cold is quite different. I have a fully functioning immune system and death is not at the table. It’s just a cold, or maybe a mild flu, and I’m just observing. The aches and pains that come with a cold, the runny nose and stuffy head. If all else fails, a fever will set in and cook the germs where they hide. It’s fascinating really, the body’s elegant response to drive off invaders. I don’t interfere; I just let my body do its thing. No Tylenol or Nyquil or Vicks VapoRub or heating pads, just my good old-fashioned immune system, Vitamin C Bio Fizz and chicken. I eat what I crave and it seems this cold calls for chicken. How do I know? I listen to my body. Meditation will do that for you.

So what does it mean, to be an observer? To me, it means to take a step back and take in the whole picture, rather than be invested in the fray. I try to be in the moment, not of the moment. For example, being in traffic, or simply driving with other people on the road, is a challenge for many people. Other drivers go too fast or too slow, change lanes erratically, run yellow (and red) lights, and on and on and on. The bottom line – they exist. How dare they! I say, so what? If I’m in the slow lane doing my thing and someone hurtles by me one lane over, why should I care? Most likely it is not because of my deep concern for their welfare and that they might get a ticket. No, usually it is because they have violated some imaginary rule I created and so I experience a feeling of being personally wronged. Crazy, right? Really, there should be absolutely no reason why I react at all, why any of us do, yet we do. We can’t help ourselves. And so I meditate.

Driving the three hours to my mother’s house last Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised by my lack of interest in or reaction to the antics of other drivers. I just let them do their thing and I did mine. And oddly enough, without the gyrations of jockeying for position and lane changing and such, I arrived in two and a half hours instead of three.

I’m baffled by that part. I didn’t go any faster than normal; I just drove in the slow lane and minded my own business. Maybe it’s some sort of cosmic reward, positive reinforcement for good behavior. It does make some sense, because when I used to worry about being late for things, I usually was. Now, I give myself the appropriate amount of travel time and, traffic or not, I always make it on time, even when bumper-to-bumper traffic threatens to derail me. I just take a deep breath, let it all go and trust that it will all work out as it should, and it does.

Funny thing about that, if you trust that everything will work out as it should, it always will. I mean how else could anything possible work out, except as it is meant to? Meditation doesn’t hurt, either.

 

Life’s like that

Last Saturday, I pulled all my dresses out of the closet and put them on, one by one, to see how they fit my new physique. Let’s face it, my torso is crafted somewhat differently now. A double mastectomy will do that for you. I was somewhat surprised to find that dresses I never thought would be passable fit great and some that I thought for sure would be keepers are headed for the thrift store. Life’s like that, full of little surprises.

Me being me, I can never just let something like that go. It intrigued me, the various ways that exercise could have played out. It is a very different scenario to shop in a store for clothes when you have no breasts than to try on your own dresses, one at a time, dresses that pre-surgery looked fabulous (why else would I have bought them?) and now have the potential to hammer home the obvious, again and again and again. Yet nothing happened. No mood swing into the Netherlands, no reflection staring back encouraging self-doubt; just an incongruous happiness and feeling of freedom.

I am still baffled that not having breasts doesn’t bother me. There I was, trying on dress after dress, and all I could think about was that they looked better now than when the girls were trapped in there longing for freedom. The dresses that didn’t work I considered taking to a seamstress to take in the chest area, but decided I didn’t like them enough to make the investment.

Still, fit or not, it turned out to be great fun shopping in my own closet, each familiar dress unveiled as a potential new look and actually turning out to be just that, a brand new look for me. As a bonus, dresses I hadn’t worn in years, because I didn’t have the right bra, were no longer a problem. No more bra straps showing, no more side body flesh smooshed up into unnatural contours that none of us has when were not trussed up in a brassiere. Now, everything sits as it should, no fuss or muss. Clothes fit or they don’t, without consideration for the correct holsters for the ladies. No cramming or squashing or squeezing. Me and the dress, that’s it.

The women out there know what I’m talking about. I’ve never met a bra I really liked, and when you do finally find one that fits, it is guaranteed to wear out in three-to-four months and you’ll need a new one. By that time, the company that makes it will either have discontinued it or made enough changes to it that it’s unrecognizable and unwearable. Sure, we all flip longingly through the Victoria Secret catalogs, but my profession does not include sitting still in my underwear for a camera with most of my breast strategically on display, so let’s be realistic on that front. If you want what she’s wearing, be prepared to be sporting some serious cleavage. It is a great look for date night with your spouse, but not so great a look for the office.

Can you tell I love the new me? Granted, life threw lemons at me so I’m making gallons of lemonade, but consider it. What would life be like without the trappings of convention? Without the requirement of a breast code that ensures we fit into the social circle we have been thrown into? Me, I swim along with everyone else without a sideways glance. I feel like I’m the lucky winner of some sort of free breast pass. It’s kind of cool, if I do say so myself.

Okay, before I sign off, I want to remind everyone, attitude is everything. I think my free pass come from the fact that I have given myself a free pass. I neither call attention to nor detract from the changes in my physique. Honestly, I don’t give them a second thought. I am wearing the same wardrobe pre- and post-mastectomy with the exception of a bag of bras I couldn’t donate to Good Will fast enough. My clothes are an expression of the joy I feel to be blessed to hitch a ride in this body for this life. Are yours?

 

An angel’s kiss

I’m not going to lament the sudden drop in temperature that reminds me that Central Florida is not like its perpetually sun-baked sister to the south. In reality, it is this annual reminder that the rest of the United States has seasons that attracts me to this region. Now, before real confusion sets in, a reminder that seasons exist is not a claim to actually have seasons. For instance, Monday morning it was 38 degrees; by noon it was 60. A few days later it was back in the 70s and next week we will be closing in on 80 degrees, relegating cool weather to nothing more than a wistful hope.

To enjoy the peek-a-boo cool weather, you have to act fast. Monday night I lit a fire in the fireplace and entertained a fantasy that a white Christmas could be possible; lo and behold, the next morning the front lawn was blanketed with a white-ish sheen, courtesy of frost. That’s as close as I’m going to get, barring some behind-the-scenes negotiation between the Heat Miser and his brother, the Snow Miser. Snow and frost aside, what I love about this time of year is that undefinable something that clings to the air and makes me feel like anything is possible. Yes, that’s right, that sappy, schmaltzy Hallmark Christmas movie-esque feel that everyday occurrences are indeed miracles unto themselves and everything is just as it should be.

I have been struggling lately with the push-me-pull-you tango going on between work me and take-care-of-myself me. After my cancer diagnosis, I spent a lot of time soul searching, which resulted in a concerted effort to disentangle myself from the constraints of the “norm” so I could create a safe haven of normalcy for myself within which to heal. That may seem incongruous, to reject the “norm” to create normalcy, but for me, an existence that includes a 24/7 bombardment of news, emails, texts and phone calls is anything but normal. I’m not going say its not normal for anybody, because there is an entire generation growing up that doesn’t know anything different. They will have to navigate their own idea of normalcy. For me, information overload is anything but normal, which is why I opted to pull the proverbial plug and wipe the slate clean so I could fashion an existence for myself that nurtured my soul, not nagged it. Now, post treatment, as I ease back into the rapids of regular life, I find the mud of the “norm” sucking at my boots again, threatening to drag me into the current to swim with the rest of the salmon. And then I was kissed by an angel.

Have you ever been kissed on the forehead by an angel? I was, last night. It’s the strangest thing, to have ethereal lips press ever so softly against your forehead, the faintest wisps of gossamer hair brushing your cheek as she (or he) leans over to deliver their blessing. “Everything is as it should be,” washes over you, definitive and undeniable. Yes, everything is exactly as it should be.

And so there you have it. Life is a process, a slow steady march on a turning, twisting, winding road. Each perfect point in time on that road has no judgement, no irreverence, because it knows how perfect, how unique it is, while at the same time remains humbled by the endless points of time just like it that are equally as perfect and unique. My hope is to one day be able to revel in each point in time in each day I am blessed by, to see every moment as the gift it is and each experience as a miraculous thread that connects me to the universe, full of hope and promise and opportunity. First, though, I have to deal with the mud sucking at my boots. Apparently, it too is exactly as it should be.

 

 

Yup, I’m still insane

I’ve been wrestling with this feeling for the past few days, this gritty lump that’s stuck in my craw and refuses to dislodge. I’ve meditated on it, yoga-ed on it, thought on it, frowned on it, yet there it sits, stuck there. Then, driving to work yesterday, it hit me, I’m still insane. Yup, genuinely certifiable. I meet the criteria. I’ve heard it scores of times over the years; you probably have too, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yet here I am, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, and apparently now it’s stuck in my craw.

That’s what I get for thinking I’ve grown; too big for my britches is about all I’ve accomplished. If you want to get the universe’s attention, turn your back, just for a second, and it will swat your bottom with a reality check faster than you can glance over your shoulder to see what’s coming. So how did I get here, this escalating tete a tete with the cosmos? Simple really, I let the good opinion of other people get a toehold and worm in.

I like that phrase – the good opinion of other people. I heard Dr. Wayne Dyer say it in a lecture probably 30 years ago and it stuck with me. The gist is that other people’s opinions are just that, their opinions. Ask 100 people what they think about something, anything really, and you will get 100 different opinions. That’s right, opinions. They are the good opinions of other people. They are perfectly valid opinions, and I will go one step further and say they are also perfectly valid choices, for those people, but maybe not for me, or for you. What is right for me is what I think, what I like, and what, in the end, makes me happy, as it is for you. And here, my friends, is where I went awry, how I got into this mess with grit stuck in my craw. I let someone else’s opinion cloud over my own.

To be clear here, sharing opinions is great, but like anything, we can take it too far. For instance, do you predicate your opinion of something, or someone, on what your friends, family or coworkers think? I call that “opinion gathering,” when you need to validate your own opinion before putting your own stamp of approval on it. The basic flaw with opinion gathering is that, at its core, it means you don’t think your own opinion is good enough.  How can that be? It’s only good enough if it’s been validated? (Pause and let that sink in.) It may feel safer to base your decisions on the consensus of your besties, but how on earth, my friend, do you get to be you under the weight of all those opinions? Sure, it’s nice when someone weighs in that the bohemian look you were going for is really more early-American hobo, but in the end, the choice on whether to sally forth or alter course is still up to you, because all of it is just their opinion.

Okay, that was heavy. Back to me. So here I am, post-chemo, mastectomy and surgery, navigating the landscape of never-gonna-be-the-same and who-am-I-now, so I thought I’d have a little fun. Over Thanksgiving I had my toenails and fingernails painted purple with white polka dots. Why not, right? It’s been a long time since I had nails that weren’t threatening to detach from my fingers at the slightest provocation, so now that they are healthy and strong again, I decided to celebrate with gusto. It’s sort of a throwback to when I was young and bold, when I did things for fun with a devil-may-care attitude and didn’t give a hoot about offered opinions. And you know what? It felt great!  Now, as my fingers dance across the keyboard, all I have to do is glance down to be reminded of the playfulness that is always there inside me just waiting for a chance to express itself, which brings me to the next bit.

With Christmas closing in, I’ve been thinking about a blog post I did back on April 13, 2017, Flat Blue Sky, in which I daydreamed about a time when my hair had grown back and what sort of fun thing I could do with it to herald the second coming of my locks. I finally put that on the front burner and had some highlights done. Teal and purple; I love it!

And that should be all that matters, shouldn’t it? That I love it? Then came the grit.

I won’t say who delivered the grit, because who doesn’t matter. Let’s face it, there will always be people in our lives whose opinion will strike a chord. For me, the delicate area of self-expression that is always trying to castoff the grey trappings of life and splatter them with color is most vulnerable, for you maybe it is something else. Try as I might, some people’s validation counts. Not in a it-will-change-my-opinion sort of way, but in a no-grit-in-my-craw sort of way. I feel like they didn’t get the memo that there is a time to have an opinion and a time to just be happy for your friend (or family member, or whoever it is). So, since it seems I can’t make their opinion not matter (yes, there is a time to admit defeat), I can spin the dial and change my own attitude about it all. A small (or large, depending on your grit level) change in perspective and voila! The annoying irritation is now a gift. Remember, without an irritant there is no opportunity, which is what I have now, an opportunity to break the chains of insanity, to change the narrative, to do something different.

Then again, that’s just my opinion.

Emotional coal

Yesterday, in a post-Thanksgiving turkey-glazed-haze, I was mentally thumbing through the past year, the ups and downs and sideways moments that had come and gone and shaped my experience with breast cancer. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about, right? Giving thanks for the blessings of the past year? Maybe it was the mashed potatoes talking, maybe it was the book on Kabbalah I am reading, but in that moment, the true gifts of the past year stepped forward and took a bow. I was not surprised by them. Honestly, I was more surprised that it took me this long to recognize them. You see, life’s true gifts are not always the comfortable moments in life. The most meaningful gifts are more often the ones that make us squirm, the difficult, sometimes soul-crushing moments that test our mettle, and give us perspective.

For instance, for me chemo was a wonderful adventure. I know, nuts, right? Once I made the choice to have chemo, there was no use griping about it, so I made the best of it and decided to find the nuggets of gold it had to offer. So I set aside the fact that poison was dripping into my vein, and of course the post chemo-day bodily havoc that would follow, and focused on the people and the pampering. I thought, at the time, that all the really nice nurses were the gift, with their lovely stories told while I snuggled under warm blankets, happily munching on warm cookies. I trusted them. I was happy and calm. They were a gift, each and every one of them, but they were not THE gift. The true gift was the one nurse that rubbed me, and my husband, Ken, the wrong way. I can’t recall her name, but she presided over my one unhappy, uncomfortable, anxiety-filled infusion. She rattled me, my cage and my perspective. The reality was, and is, chemo nurses are a crap shoot. For me, each week I had a new smiling face cruise-directing my treatment. My experience was in his or her hands. This one nurse, while I’m sure she meant well, she was the true “gift.” She, unbeknownst to her, taught me that warm, comfortable infusions nestled in the bosom of trust and calm are a gift. She, my friends, was my black coal of perspective.

It is easy to be grateful for the happy moments in life, the smiles that light our way, the laughter that tickles our ear, but I say we should also be grateful for the less amazing events. The losses that leave a void aching to be filled, the tears shed to wash away the pain etched on our cheeks, the anger that bubbles over for injustices, real and perceived. I am of the opinion, as are a long list of philosophers and gurus, that without sorrow we cannot know true joy, without lack we cannot appreciate abundance, and without pain we cannot truly appreciate pleasure. Without their counterparts, emotions ring hollow. They become bells with lackluster tones, heralding good fortune that no one bothers to notice anymore due to its unerring regularity. How much more melodious life would be if we listened with zeal and abandon to all the tones of the emotional scale, the ominous as well as the lilting, with equal openness and attention, embracing each in their turn for the range they bring and the perspective they offer.

I don’t expect anyone to enjoy sad, frustrating or anger-filled moments; I certainly don’t. I do recognize what they bring to my life, and I do recognize that once I have identified them I can work on changing them. Our emotions, like notes on a scale, are our own to play, as we wish. But I am getting off track. That my friends, is for another week … For now, suffice it to say that a little emotional coal may not be the gift you had hoped for, but in time you will find it to be the best gift you ever received.

Attitude is everything

Attitude is everything. I come back to it again and again, in my meditation, in my spiritual reading, in my daily life. I will even go so far as to say that attitude is all that separates me, and you, from a good day and a crappy day. The moment I roll out of bed in the morning, I make the decision that today will rock or today will rot. We all do. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are doing it, charting our own paths to bliss or disaster, yet we are, and we do.

I think if we all knew how much weight our outlook brought to the table each day, we would give ours a little more attention.  For me, in the past, I wore whatever mood jumped to the forefront when I got out of bed. A couple of aches and pains, I put on my cranky pants; too many deadlines piling up, maybe a Scrooge frown; bumper to  bumper traffic on the way to work, I’m definitely giving Gru (Despicable Me) a run for his money. These are all choices, conscious choices. I can just as easily shake off the aches and pains and be grateful for the body I have, knowing full well that, just like every day, a little movement will limber things up and I’ll be fine. Too many deadlines, no big deal. It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. I have thirty years of unmissed deadlines under my belt, this time will likely be no different. The same goes for traffic. Some days there is more, some days there is less, but traffic always is, so another option is to kick back with my favorite radio station (right now it’s the two holiday channels on Sirius radio – 3 and 70), and enjoy the impromptu leisurely ride.

Choices, people, we have choices! A funny thing happened when I started making different ones.

It started when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since I was neck deep in a life changing event, I did some emotional housecleaning to declutter and destress. It wasn’t that hard. Day to day things get really, really small when you have breast cancer. Deadlines? Off the radar; I had chemo to survive. Traffic? Whatever, I was just thrilled to still  be part of the flow. Aches and pains? They were a fact of life. I woke up, I was alive, in my book it was the best day ever! Attitude, it was everything, and interestingly enough, that perspective has given me amazing insight into my current waning attitude.

So here I am, nine months post-chemo, eight months post-mastectomy and four months post-radiation, and my attitude, quite honestly, has begun to suck (harsh, maybe, but the occasional self-slap in the face can do wonders to get my head out of my ego). The aches and pains have begun to matter again, deadlines light a fuse and traffic, don’t get me started on the traffic. Some days I look in the mirror and I can swear I see Gru wearing cranky pants and a Scrooge cap. What happened? My attitude changed. I’m no longer in life-or-death mode and regular life has reinstated itself to its prior level of inflated self-importance. Fortunately for me, I still have perspective.

My perspective is that it’s just as easy to live life without the drama and hokum. Life can have deadlines and traffic and aches and pains without cranky pants and Gru and Scrooge. Mundane daily events are not inherently any better or any worse than any other events, we make them that way with … you guessed it, our attitudes! A little tweak, or attitude adjustment, as it were, and these events take on a whole new light.

So how does one adjust one’s attitude? Me, I meditate every day. I find 10 to 12 minutes of meditation when I wake up in the morning is the perfect elixir to start the day. With meditation, I can work out the mental and emotional kinks that tend to percolate overnight, the ones that turn every event into the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and start the day with a clean slate.

Over the past 18 months, I have found that when I meditate consistently, meaning every day, my interactions with people are better, I am more patient, work is less stressful, even my cat spends more time with me. When I don’t meditate, my attitude starts to nose dive and any number of moods can march out the door in the morning. For a mere 10 minutes a day, I can enjoy the day rather than begrudge the day.

For me, it’s a no-brainer. I like being unruffled, unstressed, relaxed (working on zen) me.

Give yourself the gift of ten minutes. Sit, close your eyes, inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and let the magic begin.

For those that prefer to move, take a walk in nature, alone, a casual stroll, not a power walk, and absorb your surroundings. Listen to the sounds, smell the scents, look at the trees and plants and sky, and absorb the calm around you.

Start today.

 

Just for Today

Just for today. It’s a powerful statement. It makes me feel like I can do this, do anything, just for today. Tomorrow is another day and I will deal with that when it comes, but today, just for today, I can deal with this, whatever this is, that today will bring me.

When I was a child, my mother used to coax me through unpleasant situations with the saying, “this too shall pass.” It worked. I could muddle through anything focused on the future, on a time when the unpleasantness would be behind me and life was rosy again. I carried this mantra into my adult years, propping myself up with it when the hopeful golden patina of the day gave way to a dowdy dull gray. In the end, it served its purpose; time moved on, the day ended, and with it any unsettling chill faded into a whisper of memory. Somehow, I feel like I may have missed something, missed the point. In the end, if I am waiting for something to be over, if I am focused,  however briefly, on tomorrow, the angst of the present moment glossed over, endured rather than engaged, then nothing is learned. Eyes on the horizon, the wonders of the sea at your feet are missed. Eyes on tomorrow, today really never happens at all.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2016, I made a conscious decision to live in the present. In my mind, my life depended on it, and in reality, it quite literally did. Every test result was a fork in the road; every decision committed me to a path. I firmly rooted myself in every moment of my treatment. I felt every prick, poke and stab, physically and emotionally, examining them with more fervor than an entomologist does a rare bug. When I committed to chemotherapy, it was not a simple choice. It was researched and well thought out, not just the pros and cons of treatment on the cancer, but the aftereffects on my life. The same with surgery. Yes, it was about removing the cancer, but it was also about preserving the function of my body. All through my breast cancer treatment, be it chemotherapy or surgery or radiation, I lived in the present. I may not have liked what was happening, but I was committed to the process, committed to the moment, committed to  my life. For me, breast cancer will always be one of the most rewarding adventures of my life. That said, whatever lessons were to be learned, I definitely wanted to learn them the first time. No do-overs for this adventure.

I learned a lot in the sixteen months from breast cancer diagnosis to, well, now. I learned that:

–  life is scary, but not so scary that a couple of deep breaths and a hand to hold can’t conquer.

My husband is my rock. His hand in mine is all I need to get through just about anything. He is not just my husband, though, he is my twin flame (think soulmate, but better!). I trust him to be there. A lot going on in that seemingly innocuous sentence – I trust him, and be there. Find someone, anyone, you trust and who will be there, and you can do pretty much anything.

– you don’t find friends, they find you.

I met a lot of great people while I was in treatment. They found me, supported me, seemed to effortlessly know when to come forward and shrink back. Cancer treatment is a long, arduous journey. In many regards, we go through it alone, but if we take a leap of faith, the universe will sprinkle in exactly who we need when we need them.

– Cancer is as much about giving as it is about letting people give to you.

I learned how to be present for others from cancer, really present. To look past the facades of gaunt frames and tubes and see the bright shine in people’s eyes that said, “I’m in here, and I’m alive!”

– life happens in the moments you aren’t paying attention to.

That’s a fancy way of saying, life happens each and every second of each and every day. Live in those moments. Don’t waste them planning for life to happen, because it’s happening right now!

Lately, I have been trying too hard to be normal, to recapture who I was before breast cancer. I should read my own blog posts. Today is glorious! The air is crisp and the faint scent of burning leaves is drifting on vague currents of air. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine fall, real fall, with orange and red and yellow leaves and the hope of snow. And if I open them, it is fall in Florida, and it is a glorious, glorious moment to be in.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

When I think about cancer, my mind goes into overdrive, ricocheting about in an effort to make sense of it. First it goes clinical, sterilizing the phenomenon into its most basic scientific facts. Science is cold, impartial, a potentially safe place to examine something that can kill you. Technically speaking, cancer is, at its core, damaged cells (nothing scary there) that are dividing unchecked (okay, just got scary). These cells no longer take direction from the body and divide on their own, doing as they please with no concern for the form they inhabit (closing in on terrifying). They have, in layman’s terms, gone rogue. They are a part of us, but we no longer have any control. They have evolved from synergistic members of the team to inhospitable parasites with no thought but for their own agenda. Cancer is the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll. And like Mr. Hyde, cancer is terrifying.

Maybe it is the whole out-of-control thing coupled with the no-reason-why thing and the no-definitive-treatment thing. Really, how can any treatment be a sure thing when there is no conclusive understanding or grasp of the cause? You can treat symptoms all day long, but unless you get to the root cause of something, you haven’t cured a darn thing. Sure, there are theories as to why cancer grows, but for every person it is different, and what likely caused cancer to grow in one person does nothing in another under the same conditions. To me, these are scientific estimates of likelihood, more-likely-than-not scenarios and measured surmises of possibilities researchers hold to be true, until they find out they are not. Don’t get me wrong, for the record, I am grateful for the work of scientists all over the world who are looking for answers, I just take it with a grain of salt. In the end, they are trying to draw a straight line while riding on a merry-go-round. To me, and this is my opinion so take it with a grain of salt too, looking for the cure for symptoms doesn’t address the cause. It’s like plugging holes in a leaky dam with no concern for the water level that is causing the dam to spring leaks. That said, when the dam springs enough leaks, you really do have to address the leaks, which is where we likely are with cancer today, plugging leaks as fast as they spring up while trying to come up with a reason why they happen in the first place.

Like I said, my mind has a tendency to ricochet about. Once I’ve beaten the heck out of cancer clinically, I go fantastical. It is how I understand things best, to personify seemingly identity-less nemeses and give them personalities and a voice. It only seems fair, that once I’ve listened to what science has to say I also listen to what the subject has to say. If we listen closely, everything has a story, sometimes hopeful, sometimes cautionary, so to me, it would behoove me to listen closely to what my breast cancer has to say. I don’t want to miss the message the first time. Whatever it is, I don’t need it repeated.

Louise L. Hay wrote an interesting reference guide to the inner voices of our ailments called Heal Your Body A-Z. In it, she talks about cancer in general as stemming from a deep hurt, a long-standing resentment, or a deep secret or grief that eats away at the self.  Add breast issues to the mix and she points to a refusal to nourish the self, putting everyone else first, over-mothering, over-protection, an overbearing attitude. When I read that, it was like looking in a mirror. I felt like Dr. Jekyll must have when he got his first glimpse of Mr. Hyde. Kind of dark, I  know, but if you would rather go the Disney princess route, then let’s just say that this shoe fit better than Cinderella’s. As a rule of thumb, I find that if a concept leaves me feeling gut-punched with an ‘oh crap’ chaser, than it’s likely that I’m on to something.

We all have baggage from our past. That’s really just a cliche way of saying that I have experiences that didn’t sit well, so I packed them away so I wouldn’t have to think about them anymore.  Quite often, these experiences happen when we are younger, or at a point in our lives when we didn’t have the tools to process or understand them. Life events are much scarier when we are children, when everything seems bigger than life. The good news is I am an adult now. I can unpack those old events, revisit them from the safety of adulthood and decide whether they really were as horrible as I thought they were. I usually find they are not. I also find that none of my baggage is my mother’s fault, my father’s fault or anyone else’s fault. It is mine and mine alone, and, ironically, it made me who I am today (bet you didn’t see that coming.) Like it or not, it is the trials we face in life that mold us. They make us strong, give us the moxie to face down, say, cancer, and survive. They are also life’s tests. Get them wrong and we get to redo them, over and over and over, until we do something different, until we get it right.

Breast cancer really does have a loud, booming voice. The gist of the message is, keep doing what you are doing, I dare you.