THE DANCE

I’ve been doing a rumba for the last 6 years, being drawn in by the seductive rhythms and passionate low pleading of the song. Each time I’ve turned my face away, hand outstretched, yearning to find my own steps, I’ve been forcefully embraced by a silent partner and led back into the choreography which was chosen long ago.

This metaphor could describe many of the layers I’m peeling away from a life which no longer feels authentic. The process is slow…not like ripping off a bandaid, more like wiping the grime off of a window that has been dirty and nagging for years, but has been overlooked for more pressing tasks.

I graduated from chiropractic school in late 2006 and received my license to practice in 2008 after rigorous national and state exams. Since that time, I have seen probably less than 50 different patients. After some initial excitement of setting up a home office and getting all of my ducks in a row, I’ve just never been “ready” to take the plunge and start trying to attract clients. Granted, there have been some really major stumbling blocks in my life during those years, but I almost feel like I’ve used them as an excuse not to practice.

If I’m being honest, the questions began the first time I toured the chiropractic school. Before I started, I was in a graduate program to teach science, but teaching high school was not turning out to be a very attractive proposition. A classmate of mine, who was a chiropractor herself, told me about her work. It paid well, the hours were decent, and there was an opportunity to help a lot of people using my science background.

It alI sounded very promising, and I decided to check out the school.  As I peered in the technique classrooms, some of the students had others lying on benches, practicing moves that were very foreign and strange-looking to me. My stomach tightened a bit. I couldn’t really see myself there. I ignored that feeling, as I had done so many times, and feigned enthusiasm.  In no time at all, I was enrolled and large promissory notes were signed.

I soon met another skeptic with a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor. Several times each semester, we would sit in the gazebo in the middle of campus, making fun of the chiropractic zealots and questioning whether this was the semester we should drop out and find another career or transfer to a less cultist school.

Once we got about halfway through the program, leaving became less and less realistic. We were in too far, both financially and academically. (Few people realize that chiropractors take all of the same courses as med students; they just have shorter “residencies”.) I also had a pride issue at stake. My brother had bet me at the outset that I wouldn’t finish the program. I proved him wrong. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was a win.

Since graduation, I’ve had numerous opportunities to go in with other doctors or rent my own space. I’ve even signed a lease and backed out of the deal. Something just keeps telling me not to commit. I love the idea of helping people and having my own space, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t love chiropractic. I find myself almost giddy when people cancel appointments. Don’t get me wrong, I find tremendous value in chiropractic, and I am an avid patient. I just don’t want to do it to others all day long.

This is probably the first time I have laid my feelings bare to such an extent, even to myself. It’s not easy to say. I have almost $300,000 in student loan debt, which is far more than my mortgage. I feel like I should suck it up and just make the money. But I can’t. Living through cancer has made it impossible to keep doing things I don’t want to do. The “shoulds” are slowly losing the power they have held over me for my entire life.

I don’t know what I”ll do from here, and that’s more than a little scary. My passion is nutrition. I would love to help people get well with lifestyle changes and natural remedies as much as possible, but I’m not sure I can deal with the public day in and day out. I need a lot of time for introspection, or I tend to get overwhelmed. Teaching might be the ultimate solution, maybe with a practice on the side.

I have a lot of good skills that I must now figure out how to weave into a cohesive fabric of occupational fulfillment while somehow still paying the bills Am I being unrealistic, asking for too much, going crazy? Maybe…probably…but I can’t continue to be an impostor in my own life. For better or worse, this is the new me. And I’m learning to like her.

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The Winds of Change Are Blowing…

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Those of you who have followed me for any length of time know that I have been on the fence about many things in my life….ad nauseum. Today, I took one small, brave step toward the future, a future that I hope will bring a greater sense of peace and authenticity in my life, something that has been missing for far too long.

I finished chiropractic school in Fall of 2006. I accepted a position in the local hospital laboratory while I was waiting to my national board exams, as I already had an undergraduate degree in that field. Shortly after I took the job, I found out that I was pregnant with my youngest child, who is now 6. I was thrilled! Oh well, change of plans. I decided to work in the lab for 2 years or so and save money to open a practice.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. Over the next several years, my life began to unravel. In 2007, my husband was injured at work, and we ended up losing our home and having to declare bankruptcy. The following Spring, we lost our oldest son unexpectedly, four days after we celebrated the birth of our daughter. Needless to say, I stayed at my job.

I despised working in the lab. It was a regulatory job filled with nit-picking rules and mind-numbing details. I equated myself to a well-paid hall monitor. I flirted with the idea of doing something with the chiropractic degree several times, but I could never quite find the strength and energy to make the change. And saving money was a pipe dream with three kids at home. Two years dragged into five.

So many times I promised myself that I would quit suffocating my dreams and find my purpose in life, but I lied. I plodded along, one foot in front of the other, the good responsible girl to the end. Meanwhile, my body rebelled against the repressed anger and resignation, and I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in March of 2013. I fully believe that my job was a contributing factor in my disease.

To most people, my job would seem like a cakewalk. I only work 3 days per week, 8:30-5. I don’t do strenuous manual labor or have to deal with extreme weather conditions. I don’t work most weekends or holidays. Just saying these things to myself has kept me there for over 7 years. “What kind of spoiled brat leaves a job like that?” But I have slowly died inside over those years, and part of me has given up hope of ever finding what I’m meant to offer this world.

I know you’re probably thinking that I have finally taken a chiropractic job. Nope. I have no prospects, no grand plans. I simply walked into my boss’ office this afternoon and told her that I need to make some changes at the end of September. I will no longer be doing my 3 day gig. I can’t..do…it..anymore. I offered to stay on in a PRN, as-needed capacity, where I can say “yes” or “no” on any given day and take a break whenever it suits me, for a week, or six.

I have known this woman off and on for nearly 20 years. She started out working in the lab like me. We have been friends. although more distant lately. What was her response? Did she immediately act surprised, the disappointment showing on her face? No. Our conversation lasted all of five minutes. She simply said “Ok. I’ll take a look at it and let you know.” So, I suppose she has to do her thing and I have to do mine.

I guess I’m crazy, because we certainly can’t afford to live comfortably without my income. There will no doubt be sacrifices until I line something else up. But I need this time. I need to sit back and take stock of the last 18 months of treatment and regroup, play in the garden, and enjoy the last vestiges of summer warmth. Many days, I’m not even sure that I really want to be a chiropractor anymore. All I know is that it’s time to start listening to that inner voice and heed the lessons that breast cancer taught me. Life is too short to be unhappy.

Time of Death: 0820

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That’s when she took her last gasp, never to be seen by this world again. Now she sits on a dusty, forgotten shelf in the back of a lab somewhere, among a countless sea of others. “Unremarkable,” that’s how they labeled her. I know she had never been a star or even particularly fabulous in her own right, but “unremarkable”? Such an undignified ending.

I’m talking about my non-cancerous right breast, of course. I had a doctor’s appointment today to have the stitches removed from my tissue expander incisions. Before I left, the doctor asked if I could provide a copy of my surgical pathology report from my double mastectomy one year ago this month. He wanted to get an idea of the size of my  pre-cancer breasts to better gague how big my new implants should be.

“They were about a B-. I can tell you right now that we’re going bigger than that”, I offered with a grin. Although my 6 year-old insists that she wants my chest to look “just like it did before”, I explained delicately that after everything Mommy has been through, she was definitely going for better than “before”. There has to be a great prize at the bottom of this shitty cracker jack box. Worst cracker jacks I ever ate!

When I got home, I dug through my now “War and Peace” tome of medical records and located the “Surgical Pathology Report”. Of course I had to read it in detail before I faxed it. There it was, right in the second paragraph, “Right breast ischemic time 0820”, the beginning of the two and a half hour surgery.  It made me kind of sad to look at it. They took her off of life support, and something in both of us died that day.

The report went on to include all kinds of ugly words, “tumor mass”, “multifocal invasive carcinoma”, “extensive ductal carcinoma in situ”, METASTATIC carcinoma to eight of sixteen lymph nodes”. I had put all of this away so neatly in my denial box over the past year, it was unsettling to dig it up and revisit it. I’m sure I was protecting myself. Had I really let the weight of these words hit me last year, I might have crumbled. Instead, I put on my armor and geared up for the fight of my life.

Now that there is a lull in the battle, I’m allowing myself to come to terms with the seriousness of my diagnosis. It feels a little surreal, like I’m reading someone else’s medical records and shuddering at the words on the page. That can’t be me. But it is. So I stop for just a moment, feeling the tears in my eyes and the lump in my throat, and I honor what was lost. It was so much more than just a mane of blonde hair or a pair of breasts. It was a kind of innocence, a certainty that each morning I will wake up and my world will be ok. That’s what breast cancer steals from us.

 

 

 

Why Not Living Might Kill You

PUN OF THE DAY: I WONDERED WHY THE BALL KEPT GETTING BIGGER AND BIGGER, AND THEN IT HIT ME…

Today marks the one year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis.  On March 20th last year, I anxiously awaited my biopsy results, sore and bruised from the whirlwind of procedures I had endured the day before. My little delusions fell one by one like dominoes throughout the day. Maybe it’s not cancer. Wrong. Well, ok, maybe it’s not invasive. It is. Ok, maybe it’s not in the lymph nodes, just in the breast. Sorry. I remember when the walls finally came tumbling down and I had to call it a day. Even the most hardcore optimist has to face reality at some point.

Four months of chemotherapy and 28 radiation treatments later, I’m here, still standing, and still running. Physically, I’ve fared better than many. I have no obvious residual effects from the myriad of drugs and poisons injected into my body, other than a touch of menopause which may or may not be permanent.

I have written many times during the course of this year about the emotions that surface when one faces a serious health crisis. In some ways, breast cancer has been a good thing. It has taught me to never take anything for granted. Not time, not memories, and especially not those whom I love most in this world. It has stripped away the vanity that I used to hide behind and forced me to find more authentic ways of dealing with the world. And it has caused me to dig deeper and find more courage than I ever thought possible. Nothing will test your mettle like going out for the first time with the faintest covering of white peach fuzz barely covering a shiny, bald head.

Some people who blog about cancer talk about having lost their way and given up their identities, especially the women. I believe that there is a lot of truth in the idea that cancer is the result of stuffing down emotions and desires, of sacrificing the self in service of others. Of losing passion and giving up dreams. Eventually, the mind rebels against the oppression and demands attention, which is manifested in the body.

In that spirit, I would like you to watch the TED talk above. It’s ostensibly about failing to find passion in your career, but it hit me in the solar plexus as I listened to it. It’s really about listening to your dreams and never settling for an average life. The speaker is wonderful. He’s funny, insightful, and riveting. You’ll be reeled in after the first few seconds.

For myself, I hope and I pray that this is the first of many anniversaries to come.

Unfinished Grief and Haunted Dreams

Have you ever had one of those dreams about someone you’ve lost? You know, the kind of dream that is so real you can feel the person’s skin against yours and breathe in his scent as you embrace him from the depths of your soul? I would like to believe that our loved ones come .back to us from time to time and give us the gift of their presence, if only for a few fleeting seconds while we sleep.

I had one of those dreams last night. They always take me by surprise and turn my gut inside out with raw emotion. They are both comforting and profoundly disturbing because they stir up the pain that has been dormant and make it very real once again. Yet, I treasure them because they are the closest thing to having my son in the same room with me that I have these days.

The dream was nothing really, some snippet of frames in my mind pasted together in no particular order. But the scene I remember was of waiting for a car to pick me up on a street corner. As the car approached, I saw that my ex-husband, James’ father, was driving. My current husband was in the back seat next to another random man, and James sat in the third spot. James would have been 26 this past October, but this is the little guy who was in the car:

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He was probably 4 years old in this picture, not much younger than my youngest now. As I opened the door to get in the car, he scrambled over to my husband’s lap to make room. I shut the door and we started moving. In a moment, I held out my arms to him and said “Come sit on Mommy’s lap.” He climbed up with his little back against my chest and I wrapped my arms around him and smelled the sweetness of his hair. He was there with me for that brief moment.

I began to sob in the car, holding my baby, because a part of me knew that it was all a dream and would be taken away again shortly. It’s odd how we know that we are dreaming in that strange twilight place between sleep and wakefulness. We hold on to those last few moments, wishing that we could stay longer. But it always ends.

This morning I am very grateful for the nighttime hug, but very sad. I don’t know when the mourning really ever goes away, or if it does. It will be 6 years this March since I lost James, and most of the time I think I’m ok with it. I carry on with life and laugh and enjoy myself. But then it comes back unexpectedly and hits me on the head like a sledgehammer, and it may as well have been yesterday. At these moments, I know that my journey with grief is still very much in progress.

As any parent who has lost a child will attest, I have regrets. I don’t remember the details quite as clearly as I would like, and I beat myself up for things I could have done better. I was 20 when James was born, and I was very excited to have him. But, I was barely more than a child myself, and I couldn’t escape being somewhat self-absorbed at times. I loved him dearly, but my own needs took precedence occasionally. It was a lot for a young girl to take on.

He was a very intelligent and intense child, and it got to be overwhelming sometimes. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s sofa with James climbing on me. I set him over to the side; I just needed some space for five minutes. Mima said to me “Can’t you see how much he loves you?” I replied, “I know he does, but I need a break.” I was his world, his entertainment, his teacher, his jungle gym…and I was just tired. i needed to have fun and do things that college-age kids do. And then I would feel guilty.

One particular scene that is forever etched on my brain is of the two of us in the car. James was 3, and I had just met my current husband. I was smitten and anxious to develop this blossoming relationship, but it was very difficult to get out with a small child. We had made plans to go out one night, and I had arranged a babysitter. James was a little under the weather with a cold. As we drove to the babysitter’s house, I was filled with excitement about the date, and then James turned to me with pleading eyes. “Mommy, I don’t feel good. Please don’t drop me off.”

In that moment, with the mind of a love-struck 20 year-old, I made the decision to go ahead with my plans. I told him that he would be fine and could take a nap at the sitter’s house, and off I went. I have relived that scene a thousand times since he died, wishing I could have that moment back, along with several others. If I had loved him better, would he still be alive? If I had stayed with his father, would that have made the difference?

Logically, of course, I know that our kids’ lives are beyond our control after a certain point, but emotionally, those scars run deep. I was a good mom, and I tried very hard. But in the end there are no do-overs. And in the stillness of the night, when he comes back to visit me, I would give anything to have him climb on my lap again so I could tell him what a perfect, sweet, beautiful boy he was and how lucky I was to have known him.

Livin’ It Up “Cancer-Free”

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY:

It’s been a whirlwind week in the land of the “cancer-free”. I have celebrated grand new beginnings and bittersweet endings. I’ve been wined and dined and entertained. I’ve put up a tree with twinkling colored lights and adorned the house with the festive colors and scents of Christmas. Here’s a peek at what transpired…

First, I finished radiation last Wednesday. After 28 sessions of daily nuclear warfare, I got a Certificate of Completion signed by all the staff at the radiation center, and Dr. Rad came out of an appointment with another patient to give me a hug. This was in stark contrast to the complete lack of acknowledgement I received at the oncology office for finishing chemo. Not a word. I will really miss these wonderful, caring people.

I actually had very mixed emotions when I left my final appointment. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be done with treatment. Yet, a kind of sadness washed over me. I felt as though I’ve been treading water non-stop for 9 months, and the entire focus of my life has been staying strong and surviving. That final appointment was like I had finally been rescued and could collapse and let it all go. And let it all sink in. I tend to downplay the effect all this has had on me, but it has been a lot to endure. And, in that moment, I had to pause to grieve for what I’ve lost.

Here is a picture of my skin post-radiation. It looks a lot worse than it is; I’ve really only had some minor tenderness and itching as it heals. The new skin is coming through as the top layer sloughs off. I’ve put lotion on religiously, and I think it has paid off. My skin feels soft and smooth. I also want to stress the importance of stretching the irradiated area as much as possible to keep the scar tissue from taking hold underneath. It can get quite tight if it isn’t exercised.

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On Thursday, I went to the very posh and eclectic Red Stag Grill at the Bohemian Hotel in downtown Asheville with two friends, one of whom just had major surgery. I thought I was just tagging along to visit her and catch up, but she surprised me by turning it into a celebration lunch for the end of treatment. It was a wonderful treat. The restaurant has the feel of a formal hunting lodge, with dark woods and rich leather seats. The chandeliers appear to be made of antlers, which you’ll see in the picture below. I half expected to see Teddy Roosevelt come through the door and belly up to the bar.

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Friday brought a new beginning. I took the plunge and signed a lease for my chiropractic office space! Ironically, that is the name of my practice, New Beginnings Family Chiropractic. I chose that name years ago, having no idea what it would come to mean in my future. I’m very nervous and very excited. I want to offer holistic health care focusing on nutrition and supplementation in addition to chiropractic. I would really love to help people through the cancer journey and beyond.  I might fall flat on my face, but I owe it to myself to give it a shot. I now have a shiny set of gold office keys on my keychain.

Saturday night was spent at a large Christmas party at the home of a new friend. There was every kind of chip, dip, fruit, carved meat and appetizer you can imagine, and an open bar. The house was beautifully decorated for the holidays and had a very warm, inviting feel. There were several local bands who took turns playing informal gigs in the living room. The music ranged from Bluegrass to the Beatles to Christmas carols. What a perfect evening, sitting in a comfy chair with a glass of wine while being serenaded by candlelight.

Finally, today we took the kids to our local Farmer’s Market to pick out a Christmas tree. We’ve been getting our tree from the same family for almost 20 years, and they recognize us when we pull up. The patriarch of the family has aged quite a bit and has mostly turned the hard labor of the tree farming over to his sons now. He was in very poor health a couple of seasons ago, so we always breathe a sigh of relief when we see that he’s still around. Below is a shot of us together about four years ago.

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Tomorrow, it’s back to the grind at work. I’m looking forward to that like an impacted wisdom tooth. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 5 days, more so than I have in a long time. I stopped to smell those roses, and I felt content, and at peace.

I put “cancer-free” in quotation marks because that is an illusion. None of us is ever truly “free” of cancer. There are always micro-clusters of cancerous cell floating around in us, waiting for our immune systems to fall asleep at the wheel. Now that I’m “cancer-free”, the real work begins. I have to figure out why cancer set up shop in my body and how to keep that from happening again. All of these treatments have slowed the cancer down enough for me to have a fighting chance, now let’s get busy fighting!

Does Breast Cancer Change The Holidays?

English: A Christmas Tree at Home

The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is my absolute favorite time of year. I feel the giddy anticipation of a wide-eyed child as I take in the aroma of my fresh-cut Frasier fir and watch the mesmerizing dance of a hundreds of twinkling colored lights. Why is it, then, that I just can’t seem to get in the spirit this year?

I seem to have hit a minor rough patch on the holiday road. I know that part of it is the sadness I always feel when my brother and his family pull out of the driveway after our annual Thanksgiving visit to head home to Florida. As I get older, I really feel the pain of separation more. There are some things that only those who’ve known you forever can comprehend. Inside jokes, family dirt, and a truly warped sense of humor that not even a spouse can relate to. I’m in my happy place when my brother is with me.

Usually, though, I perk right up when I realize that the festivities of Christmas are right around the corner. I have enough distraction with the decorating and the shopping to forget any momentary sadness I feel when the relatives leave. Right now, though, I just have kind of an odd sense of emptiness. Perhaps the events of this past year have made me unable to appreciate the superficial things like I used to. Family has become everything, and I feel their absence acutely.

I’ve been making plans these past few weeks. As some of you know, I’ve been toying with the idea of finally opening a chiropractic office. As I sit and look at my 5 year-old daughter tonight, I have major second thoughts. She is so little and so precious, and these days will fly by. Before I know it, she’ll be wanting to spend all her time with friends and snuggling with mom will be ancient history.

There’s a big part of me saying that I need to slow down and savor these moments on so many levels. It seems that I’m always running in my life. Running late, running toward the next goal, running to an appointment. I’m constantly behind and feeling pressured to do it all. I never just stop to enjoy the moment and truly live in the present tense.

Nobody is guaranteed a long life, but those of us who have survived cancer must learn to see time as a gift. I may live another 40 years or I may live 5. There is no crystal ball to tell me, and I’m not sure I’d want to know anyway. I do know that if I had only 5 years left, I wouldn’t look back and wish I had spent more time starting a business or attracting new clients. I would wish that I had listened to that little nagging voice telling me to run outside in the sun barefoot and bake gingerbread men and play dress-up with a little girl who will savor those memories for a lifetime.