And That’s A Wrap….(pretty please, fingers crossed..)

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This December will mark one year since I finished active treatment for breast cancer. But for those who have gone down this road, you know that the icing is always a few feet away from the top of the cake. I hope that the end of the year will be only the beginning…the beginning of many Merry Christmases not spent in the shadow of fear…the beginning of conquering demons one by one to make room for happiness…the beginning of a new but different life, one that is authentic and not based on “shoulds” and “laters”.

To that end, I finally decided last week to quit my job all the way. I made a half-hearted attempt at it a month earlier, promising to work as needed, keeping one foot in the door, not burning any bridges, blah…blah…blah. Well, I can see those suckers ablaze in the distance now. And you know what? The most profound sense of peace came over me the day after I did it. It’s as if I had been walking with a splinter in my foot for years, trying to ignore it; eventually, I learned to live with the annoyance. I think I’ll look back on this someday and wonder why the hell I wasted so much time doing something I hated.

Right now, I’m adrift in a way. I’m adhering to the Chinese proverb: “Be like water.” Water doesn’t try to be what it isn’t or force itself into a certain shape. It flows where an opening exists and takes whatever journey it is meant to take. Of course, water doesn’t have bills to pay or children to appease, so there’s that…I can only afford to be water for a few months. But I’m really enjoying this time; I feel a stillness inside that has been absent for so long. I dance with my daughter in the kitchen and sit in my pajamas all day when I want to.

The last piece of my breast cancer odyssey will be complete December 1, when I get my “tats”. There is a lady here in Asheville who does areola/nipple tattooing for free for breast cancer survivors. She does this to honor her mother who died of lymphoma, and it is really a special gift.

I toyed with the idea of getting flowers and vines or some deep words of wisdom to cover the scars, but in the end, I’m a fairly traditional girl. I think that most breast cancer survivors just want their bodies to look somewhat like they did before things went wrong, kind of like a reboot. I’ll be perfectly content to have regular breasts with regular areolas and nipples. They’re not ever going to be the same as they were, but I’m grateful to have them. And they’re not too shabby…

Of course, there will be fairly frequent check-ups for the next year or so. Everyone asks me what the doctors do to see if the cancer has returned. When I answer “nothing”, people look a little uncomfortable and surprised. Unless there is metastatic disease at diagnosis, there’s really nothing to “monitor”. There are blood tests for tumor markers, but these can be elevated for other reasons, so they aren’t regularly done. As a matter of fact, my tumor marker (CA 29-9) was in the normal range with Stage 3 disease. So much for that.

So what do we look for? Mainly symptoms. The most common signs of cancer recurrence are: shortness of breath, constant headaches, unexplained weight loss, and unusual pain. Naturally, survivors are always hyper vigilant when anything out of the ordinary occurs. “Could this be it?” “Why does my back hurt?”

For now, I’m happy to be alive and in good health. I’m toying with the idea of running another half marathon in February. I’m going to start the training and just see how it goes, one day at a time. I don’t want to stress out my healing body. And if I’m being totally honest, that little voice inside is saying this is probably not a great idea just yet. I’m working hard to honor that voice when it speaks. Maybe we can negotiate…

The Butterfly Effect

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This little fellow has been visiting my flower boxes on the porch for the past few days and was kind enough to pose for a close-up. It’s the strangest thing, but I seem to be having almost surreal encounters with butterflies these days.

Take last week, for instance. I went out for a jog on the path behind my house, which backs up to a nature preserve. As I was running along a straight section, under a canopy of trees, a butterfly appeared beside me. I didn’t think much of it, but he continued along the path, staying right next to me. Occasionally, he would fly ahead and I would think that was the end of it. But then he would make a big circle and come back to me, keeping me company.

This went on for at least a quarter of a mile, until he finally tired of the game and moved along. For a brief moment, he was a companion, almost like a faithful dog. I’ve never seen a butterfly behave that way before. I felt protected in a sense, like I had a guardian angel.

I’m not usually one to go in for mystical, crystal-healing karma trips, but I’ve had the thought several times that my son has been reincarnated as a butterfly. I can’t explain why or back this up with anything logical, of course, but I just get a feeling when these things happen that he’s trying to let me know he is still with me and that he’s checking in.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Scene 2


 

 

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What could be more natural than a Spartan running down the boardwalk in Wilmington, NC? In Asheville, this wouldn’t even turn heads. Actually, there was a logical reason (I suppose) behind the costume. You see, this was the marathon portion of an Ironman Triathlon.

In true Greek spirit, this guy re-enacted the heroic tale of Pheidippides, the fleet-footed warrior who is fabled to have run 25 miles to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. Of course, we didn’t have the heart to tell him that Pheidippides dropped dead right after.

What is an Ironman, you ask? It isn’t for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. The full Ironman distance consists of the following:

2.4 mile swim (in the Atlantic ocean for this race)

112 mile bike ride

26.2 mile run

My brother did this race in 2012 in a little over 13 hours, so he still holds the family record for athletic prowess.

If you’ve never witnessed this event, I strongly encourage you to get out and watch one. The atmosphere is electric, as hundreds of excited spectators mingle against a colorful backdrop of music, food and street vendors.

You can feel the nervous tension of the athletes at the starting line, like thoroughbreds twitching behind the gates at the Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and the adrenaline stayed with me long after.

Do I sense a new goal starting to take shape??? My heart says “Yes, yes!” but the little men with spears under my chest where my tissue expanders are say “Later, later (maybe)!!”

Hair’s To A Better Year

20140216_163504Here I am in all my 2014 glory. Post-chemo, post-radiation, post-double mastectomy. My hair has come back in silvery gray with a lot more curl than it used to have. But you’ll never hear me complain. Any hair is good  hair. I’m not sure if I’m going to be staying gray for much longer. I get a lot of compliments on the color, but I’m just feeling a tad too young to be permanently gray.

This picture was taken yesterday after I completed my first race since enduring 9 months of breast cancer treatment. It’s called the Frostbite 5K, and it was also the first race I ever attempted, in 2011. My time in that race was 32:25, and I was very excited, as that was much faster than my practice runs had been.

Yesterday, I had a bad cold and cough and struggled to breathe well. I only found out last week that they had changed the course of this race to include more than a mile up a steep mountain road. I thought about backing out and waiting for the next 5K to come around, but I wouldn’t let myself give up that easily. I felt the absurdity of the situation and did it anyway. If worse came to worse, I could walk part of the way.

So how did my great adventure turn out? I’m proud to say that I beat that original time by 8 seconds, 32:17, in spite of the steep climb and the snot rags in my waistband. I placed 4th in my age group. Not bad for a puny, post-cancer girl! So am I satisfied now to hang up my running shoes and be happy in the knowledge that I can still run a race after all that’s happened? Really? You know me better than that. I left the venue thinking, “Now all I have to do is shave 90 seconds off that time and I can win a medal.” Game on.

Full Circle

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There I was, February of 2011, having just completed my first 5k, the Frostbite. I was giddy with excitement, like a schoolgirl with a big secret. The secret was that I could really do this. I could really run with the big dogs and, while I certainly didn’t finish first, I didn’t finish in the back either, which had been my biggest fear in competing. Now, with a solid performance under my belt, I was “officially” a runner. I would go on to bigger and better challenges, and also to insidious challenges that would nearly level me.

It was almost exactly 2 years after this happy day that I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. I had completely changed my lifestyle. I was eating a healthy diet and probably in the best shape of my life. I almost laughed when they tried to give me the results of the biopsy. I thought they were making it up or perhaps had been looking at the wrong chart. It’s funny how healthy you feel when you’re blissfully unaware of the truth. I was running 15-20 miles per week and had just come from the gym to the mammography clinic. And they were seriously trying to tell me that I was in the clutches of a monster, living on borrowed time?

Well, the news eventually did sink in, and I realized that I hadn’t been feeling quite as well or as robust as in the early days of running. The long Sunday runs were taking it out of me. Sometimes I would have to come home and just collapse on the couch, asking for help with bathing my youngest and getting dinner on the table. I just chalked it up to stress and trying to keep too many balls in the air. But deep inside, I knew. I knew that something was off; I was trying to keep it in my denial box. That box tends to stay pretty full.

And so last year I began an odyssey. Not a journey of my own choosing, but one that I endured kicking and screaming the entire way. I was poked, prodded, poisoned, and irradiated. Every outward sign of my identity as a woman was stolen…my hair, my breasts, my hormonal rhythm. I was, for all intents and purposes, chemically castrated. Cancer is certainly not for the faint of heart.

After all was said and done, I came through the other side alive. Forever changed, perhaps a bit more cynical about the promise of the future, but just as stubborn as ever. Now I’m taking back control of my life, and a big part of that will be my return to racing. Today, I will participate in the Frostbite 5k once again. I’m sick as a dog and feel as if I have an elephant sitting on my chest, but I won’t be denied. This is my year to tell cancer, “Take that, you son of a bitch! You may kill me one day, but you will not own me.” Only, I ‘m going to say it really quiet, in case he’s listening. Cancer is very vindictive.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know how I did and give you the first glimpse of the new me. Stay tuned.