Quiet Joy, Self-Care, and Cancer

Trumpets proclaim joy in jubilant fanfares. Confetti cannons explode. Applause, laughter, and cheerful shouts all accompany joy.

Joy is important. I want to feel as much of it as I can.

I love carols like Joy to the World and Go Tell It On the Mountain especially when I’m singing them along with a large crowd in church. I won’t be doing that this year. I’ll have home sing-a-longs on my own. I’ll even make up words when I can’t remember all the lyrics.

For all the joyful noise that rightfully has its place in our lives, I make the time to revel in the joyfulness of quiet. I also find joy in the peacefulness of the season. The quieter songs fill me just as full as the louder ones. Probably fuller. I even remember the words most of the time.

One of my favorite hymns of Advent is My Soul in Stillness Waits. It repeats these words several times:

For you Oh Lord, my soul in stillness waits,
truly my hope is in you.

It’s a song of waiting, of hope, and of light. The melody is smooth and repetitive, like the back and forth of a soothing lullaby. Sometimes I envision my church decorated with green boughs and lit trees on the altar. That’s usually where I am when it’s sung. Sometimes I think of a starry night sky with that one distinctive star aligning perfectly in the Bethlehem sky with a manger below. I’m beyond excited to view Jupiter and Saturn align this year on December 21st as a “Christmas Star” and will gaze eagerly towards the southwestern skies.

Jesus was born away in a manger, far from crowds, in the quiet. Sure, the cattle were lowing, but the baby didn’t fuss. The stars looked down on baby Jesus while he slept. You might even call it a very silent, holy night. Away in a Manger and Silent Night are two other favorite carols of mine. My mom loved Silent Night, too.

My dad loved The Little Drummer Boy, a song of a poor boy whose gift was his song. Drums would normally be loud and thunderous. Here they are sweet and soft. Pa-rum pum pum pum. The song is so simple and peaceful.

Joy doesn’t need to be loud. It can be, but joyful stillness can move our souls powerfully without creating a big stir. Jesus wasn’t running around with jingle bells.

The Christmas season is much too terribly rushed by my standards. There is such a buildup that starts as soon as Halloween ends. Christmas comes, and then – poof – it’s gone. Spending part my day doing quiet things like reading, listening to music, taking a walk outside, wearing comfy pajamas, sitting by a warm fire, and eating a few favorite foods whenever I feel like it all sound lovely to me. These things bring me joy. I get joy from the time spent with others but don’t get much out of working all day, listening to music blare carols nonstop, running myself ragged cooking, or trying to spend every single moment with others. I usually find I am too fatigued by the time I get home to enjoy much on my own in the evening. Christmas is over, I’m exhausted, and I didn’t honor some of my needs. I find many components of the holidays to be stressful when my self-care is neglected. When I have time on my own, I’m very content to be also be with others.

Here is my list of easy joyfully quiet activities:

  1. Watching snow fall or admiring an untouched snowfall
  2. Gazing at the Christmas tree until you fall asleep
  3. Playing carols on the piano or listening to music
  4. Snuggling in front of a fireplace
  5. Taking a walk in the woods and just listening to sounds
  6. Spending part of your evening without electricity and instead using only candles
  7. Bird watching
  8. Building a snowman / Making snow angels
  9. Watching a favorite Christmas program or movie
  10. A quiet morning or evening walk

An evening with candles will soften everything else around you that night. Perspectives will shift. A quiet morning walk to perhaps take in the sunrise makes you feel like it’s for you alone. Walking in the evening to look at Christmas lights is a quiet way to take in neighborhood displays. I like combining a few of these at a time. Gazing at my tree while listening to music in front of a fire is a favorite thing to do.

Joy is healing. Doing things I don’t find joyful is not. Cancer has plenty of unjoyful moments. It is imperative that I put some boundaries in place to protect joy and healing during the holiday season. It’s more than okay to turn down invitations or change plans. It’s perfectly fine to have some time on my own. It’s definitely okay to do whatever I need and not justify your reasons.

This year it’s easier compared to others because I’ll be celebrating a pandemic Christmas and it will be all on my own. I’ll get to experience opening gifts under my tree this year on Christmas morning for the first time ever. To make the most of these circumstances, I’ve wrapped several items I’ve gotten for myself as Christmas gifts. I am more excited about this than I expected. I’d love to be with my family, but I know I won’t have this chance again. I’m going to do my best to enjoy a lovely day.

None of this is meant to be negative. Rather, it is motivated by compassion and the need for self-care. Showing yourself love and support is extremely positive. Self-care is vital to our lives whether we live with cancer, something else, or are in perfect health. It’s been hard for me to learn this lesson as a people pleaser. I have learned a lot about how to put myself first. I’ll keep learning.

If others are unable to see my joy, whose joy is that really about?

I know there will be plenty of exuberant joys with Christmas this year. There always are. That hasn’t changed as I keep living with metastatic cancer. There will be exuberant joys even this year when so many plans have changed and many, including myself, will be on our own. Enjoy all the quiet joys, stillness, and peacefulness coming your way that Christmas brings this year. Maybe it’s the hush of a blanket of snow when you look out a window. Maybe it’s staring at the Christmas tree and being lost in memories. Maybe it’s playing a few carols on the piano and singing along. Whatever they may be, enjoy them.

Always.

Holly Hobby and Tennis Balls

‘Tis the season for gift giving.

I grew up in a family that was a bit over the top with the number of presents that my parents gave to their children. Discovering the floor covered with gifts under the tree on Christmas morning was such joy. There were toys as a child, then lots of clothes as a teen, and then more grownup gifts in adulthood.

My Holly Hobby doll was a favorite Christmas present. Santa brought her all the way from the North Pole one year. She played outside with me and still has a smudge on her right hand from some adventure. She even came on a couple of family vacations. We survived traveling cross country together long before the days of seat belt legislation. I remember riding in the front seat sitting on my mom’s lap while holding Holly Hobby on mine. That car had no central air conditioning. Sometimes my mom held both her daughters and our dolls at the same time despite a perfectly good back seat. Holly Hobby is still with me and lives on one of the beds in a guest room with the Bucky Badger I got another year from Santa. I know it would be nice if someone played with them again, but I decided long ago they both were staying with me. I’ve always been too sentimental.

Jewelry made excellent gifts as I grew older. Pearls and gemstones are treasured gifts that are more meaningful to me today than when I got them. I think I need to wear these more often to dress up my yoga pants and more relaxed attire.

Gifts of lesser monetary value carry meaning, too. My dad was especially vocal about how he liked tennis balls that I received one year as one of my birthday gifts. It has become a running joke with a friend of mine years later. I liked the tennis balls, too.

Christmas will be different this year because of the pandemic. Gifts will likely be exchanged and opened by myself at home with some type of video connection. A cold garage idea was floated but I am not excited about that option. Home by the hearth works for me.

Holidays can be hard.

It was simpler when Holly Hobby or tennis balls was all it took to make me smile. I could give my dad an Old Spice soap on a rope and my mom a knick-knack decoration and all was well in our worlds.

There truly is very little I need in terms of material goods. I am fortunate to be able to buy what I need. It ensures I get what I want without waiting. Amazon Prime hasn’t helped. Giving myself gifts and treats are an important part of my self-care. Can I share a secret? Having just shared I don’t feel I’m too materialistic, I’m going to wrap my gifts to myself this year and put them under my tree.

To me, from me.

An unprecedented year calls for some new moves of my own.

Experiences and time together are more valuable gifts to me. I still want to get to Sedona. I’d like to eat inside restaurants. I would love to have friends gather in my home. I would just like to see friends in person. Anywhere. The biggest factor is what my life looks like after there’s a vaccine for COVID-19. I’d rather hang out with my friends than have some big extravaganza event that is stressful. Some may enjoy extravaganzas. Not my cup of tea. I’d enjoy that cup of tea in a relaxed setting much more.

I have the gifts of family, friends, and a beautiful home where I feel safe. I receive top notch health care. I am kind and have a good sense of humor. These are all priceless gifts. Call it the holiday spirit, but my life is good. Cancer is not good, but my life is good.

What makes good gifts for someone with cancer?

A permanent cancer zapper would be perfect.

Good gifts should match a person’s interests. It doesn’t hurt to ask if something is needed or what might be appreciated. Please skip the pink crap, cancer ornaments, or things that take up a lot of space. Food may be welcome, but some of us have dietary restrictions we are trying to follow or may not tolerate spicy foods. I remember a couple home cooked meals I received as part of meal trains when going through initial chemo in 2012 that were exactly what I needed. Gift cards for takeout or delivery are thoughtful. Books are great if you know what kind of writing or favorite authors someone likes to read.

Experiences are the type of gifts that mean a lot to me. Tickets to a show. Listening to a concert. An afternoon history lecture. A gift certificate for a massage. Hiking someplace I’ve never been. All of these aren’t possible during a pandemic. Hiking is possible but I am hesitant to venture somewhere less traveled on my own where I could get lost. I’ve gotten lost twice before on hikes. I’m not looking for a stressful adventure. Some familiarity is welcome during crazy times.

One former colleague I have known for years does something incredible for gifts. She and the adults in her family don’t exchange presents but pitch in together and make a substantial donation to a charity they agree upon. Last year it was my fundraiser for metastatic breast cancer research. It blew me away but is a gift idea that has stuck with me.

If this idea appeals to you, here are a few possibilities that do research or support cancer research:

More For Stage IV

One Woman Many Lakes

Mary Gooze is a friend of mine. She is the one amazing woman behind One Woman Many Lakes and creator of the More For Stage IV Fund. Both links above will lead you to the same site to donate. Incidentally, Mary is planning to raise $70,000 for the Stage IV fund for her 70th birthday in June of 2021. She has a separate fundraising page set up to track those donations you can find here.

As always, thoroughly research how money you donate is used and how much is allocated for research. For full disclosure, I am partial to research happening at Carbone Cancer Center if you couldn’t tell from the multiple times I’ve shared their link.  I know there are many reputable research facilities making worthy strides in research. Here are a few others that I have heard good things about outside of Wisconsin. I always look for pull down tabs for metastatic breast cancer research or a way to direct a donation for research to a specific cancer type such as childhood, lung, colon, prostate, etc.

Metavivor

Breast Cancer Research Foundation

Mayo Clinic

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

A donation to research is a great gift any time of year.

Holly Hobby, tennis balls, and even jewelry aren’t bad either.

Happy gift giving to you as you go about making the world a bit brighter this season.

Election 2020 Reflection

Spoiler Alert: I voted for Joe Biden.

November 7, 2020 was an amazingly-wonderful-super-awesome-good-day for America. Yes, that’s how it’s written. I only added the hyphens to make it more readable.

I write this more for myself as a way to preserve my thoughts. It’s a mixture of facts and feelings. I want to remember what I’m feeling and thinking. My opinions are pretty clear. Stop reading now if you are disappointed in the election results. I hope you will read on because a Biden presidency can have positive effects for the cancer community.

Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. Kamala Harris will be the first woman vice president. The race was finally called on Saturday around 10:30 AM (CT) from the national election that was held on Tuesday, November 3rd

The election this year was extremely difficult. No one was sure how long it would take to get results and what would happen after those results became final. Millions voted by mail due to concerns about going to polling places during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were some concerns of violence. There were many attempts of voter suppression in cities that were likely to have a high turnout for Biden. The number of polling sites was reduced out of concerns of virus transmission but interestingly largely in areas that were likely to vote for Biden. I believe that is the real reason. U.S. mailboxes were removed. Votes did not get delivered in time because of illegal activities (in my opinion) by the Trump appointed U.S. postmaster general, Louis DeJoy.

Trump won’t concede. He’s filed lawsuits claiming election fraud. He claims the election was stolen from him. His claims are baseless. There is absolutely no evidence of fraud. Many GOP dominated legislatures wouldn’t let the massive number of mail-in ballots be counted early. Wisconsin was one such state that couldn’t get a head start on counting the number of returned mail-in ballots. There always have been allowances for mail-in ballots to be counted after the election. A high percentage of these ballots were rightly predicted to have been cast for Biden. Trump didn’t want them counted because he said they were late and illegal. Au contraire – they’re legal and cast very early. It is insane that people protested in some states to stop counting votes. Voting is literally what defines a democracy. Pennsylvania pushed Biden over the 270 electoral college threshold he needed to be declared the winner.

Thankfully, Wisconsin voted blue. Ten electoral votes for the Biden column. Truthfully, I struggle to understand how anyone voted for Trump. He wasn’t honest. He ruled like a dictator-child. Presidents aren’t meant to rule like a king or dictator. I heard Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) comment on a news program that the election was a referendum of a person and not of conservative principles. His point was conservative principles still exist and that is why republican candidates still did well in states that rejected Trump. He makes a good point. I don’t agree with the examples he cited on the environment, energy, and taxes, but I do see his point. I know I have a friend or two, plus some family members, who likely didn’t vote for Biden. Romney’s comment helps me understand them a bit better, not a lot, but a bit. I find it too hard to overlook Trump’s lack of human decency.

Biden won. Trump lost. The election is over. Finally. We must move forward.

Votes are still being tallied because every vote must be counted. Here are the election results from The Associated Press as of the night of November 8th:

Joe Biden with 75,253,350 votes.  50.7%

Donald Trump with 70,831,493 votes. 47.7%

The people have spoken.

Biden has received the most votes of any presidential candidate in U.S. history. He tried to be president twice before but didn’t receive the democratic nomination. He got it the third time and has won. Maybe he lost those other two times because this is when we need him the most in our country. Our country needs unity and many believe he can bring people together.

Kamala Harris will be the first woman vice president. It’s about time. Little girls are allowed to dream big. Big girls, too. What an incredibly strong role model. She is Black, Indian-American, and has made so many historic firsts in her life. It’s been a hundred years since women won the right to vote. Kamala Harris chose to wear white to recognize that work of suffragists in her acceptance speech. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last,” is one of many shining lines from her speech. America is changing for the better.

What does this mean for cancer? Both Biden and Harris are passionate about cancer research. The soon to be Madam VP’s mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a cancer research scientist. President elect Biden’s eldest son Beau died from an aggressive brain tumor known as a glioblastoma multiforme. Cancer doesn’t care who you are or your political affiliation. But it does matter who holds office and it could be transformative to cancer research. A Biden administration is good for the cancer community. Biden and Harris have the potential to prioritize funding and support for cancer research. Both of them will be hearing from me.

The country is still deeply divided. There is racism. There is hate. There are science deniers. There is a lot of entitlement and privilege. People won’t wear masks. Many say they aren’t willing to get a vaccine when available. A lot needs to change.

And yet, I’m hopeful.

I went to one of my favorite places, the UW Arboretum to celebrate the election outcome. There was a middle-aged white man standing on the corner of Mineral Point Road and Segoe Road holding a cardboard Dump Trump sign above his head. I wondered why he’d chosen that message and not one that was more pro Biden or democracy oriented, but I honked gleefully and gave a thumbs up as I waited at the traffic light. The car next to me then honked, too. I’m sure I could find revelers around the Capitol Square if I went there, but I wasn’t looking for large parties or protests.

Across the nation, people celebrated. It resembled a nation-wide block party. Thousands gathered in front of the White House singing and partying. They wore masks, as they should, but it was still a serious risk. They weighed the risk and decided the reward outweighed the risk. They belted out YMCA (so funny this has emerged as a victory song) and Sweet Caroline. Celebrations erupted from coast to coast. Many flooded the streets spontaneously. I saw one video where a crowd danced at a gas station. People looked so unapologetically joyful. New Yorkers banged pots and pans from their windows. Supporters danced and sang in the streets of Philly. I held my own dance party in my family room. I haven’t seen my country this happy for over four years. I am overjoyed.

The world rejoiced. Cathedral bells rang in Paris, France. There were fireworks in London. It says a lot if other countries are excited. I was happy when Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern were elected to lead Germany and New Zealand, but there were no fireworks or street parties in the U.S. that I know of when that happened. No mass euphoria.

Inauguration Day is January 20, 2021. When Trump was inaugurated, I dubbed January 20, 2017, as a Day of Integrity. It was the one-year anniversary that marked the passing of a friend’s father. I suggested not watching TV coverage that day and watching videos of both of our fathers instead to celebrate our dads. They were good men – men who were loved, men with integrity, and men who are still missed. Our Day of Integrity was a good day. Loving memories replaced some of the sadness. Integrity in the nation will be restored on January 20, 2021. I will watch with pride.

The Wishing Tree

We all love a good wish. We wish on stars and recite time honored rhymes while doing so to make it extra official. We throw pennies in fountains and down wishing wells. Every year we blow out birthday candles as we make a wish. We wish people a happy birthday and send our best wishes in cards and correspondences. We wish people good luck. Leprechauns and genies grant us three wishes. So I hear – I have yet to encounter any. The wishbone is greatly sought after a Thanksgiving Day meal. People wish on eyelashes, a full moon, acorns, falling leaves, and feathers. The wishing culture is alive and well. I’d like to think this is because we are hopeful rather than dissatisfied.

We also wish on trees.

The Riley Wishing Tree is a phenomenon that popped up along the Military Ridge State Trail. Area middle schoolers started it as an art project in the middle of summer and it’s still going strong. Hundreds have anonymously posted their wishes on an enormous cottonwood tree to be shared and read. A plastic box filled with tags and markers is kept on a round table near the tree. The tree provides hope, inspiration, and a sense of community. It is a beautiful and powerful image to behold.

I headed out to the wishing tree with my friend Kristin on an afternoon late in October. We’ve biked on this trail before and enjoy the farms, woods, wetlands, and prairies provided for scenery. Our sole destination for this visit was to take in all the wishing tree had to offer. Discovering new ways to enjoy an old activity is delightful. We drove separately, parked close by, and approached the tree on foot. Future bike rides will evoke memories of the wishing tree long after the wishes have been removed. Maybe one of us wished for more rides.

The wishing tags are remarkably waterproof. I had suspected that over time the wishes would be blurred from rain and time out in the elements. The legibility of wishes has held up over time. I find it unexplainable. I’ve always been one to think unbelievable things are possible. Just maybe this wishing tree was magical.

What types of things did people wish for? There were lots of wishes for good health. Cures for cancer, a vaccine for COVID-19, and healthy children were repeat wishes. Wishes for peace and a better world circled the tree multiple times. Many wished for people to give trees the attention that is given to screens and computers. There were wishes to carry on Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s legacy, equality, Black Lives Matter, and the outcome of the presidential election. It appeared the tree had distinct political leanings, but it’s more likely that the tree gets visited by those who want to make the world a better place. I didn’t see one single wish for more greed and fear in the world.

Kristin and I began reading some wishes aloud. It was another way to honor the wishes. One woman wished her husband would have more compassion for other people. We both wanted to know the backstory for that wish. One tag simply stated the writer would someday marry Amanda. That’s darn romantic. I hope long into the future the couple tells their grandchildren about the time Grandpa wished on a tree to marry Grandma. Wishes penned in children’s writing hoped for pets. One wished for no allergies so the writer could have a dog. Some kids wished for fun bike rides. All were moments in time captured by individuals meant to project into the future. There was something sacred about reading wish after wish. It was a moving experience that left me feeling more connected to nature and humanity.

To put hopes and dreams out in public is empowering. Wishing can help us identify what our hearts are yearning after. Wishing can help motivate us and lead us to take action. Wishing can be the first step in making it so.

Prior to arriving at the tree, I decided I would phrase my wishes as intentions. Phrasing an intention with “I AM” where I already have what I’m seeking would give that intention more energy than a wish. Already having something is more powerful than wanting, needing, hoping, dreaming, and wishing. Yet, reading all the wishes in the presence of this magnificent tree seemed to give them extra power. I wrote some thoughts expressed as intentions and some as wishes. It’s good to cover all bases.

Wishing is universal. Folktales have themes of wishing carefully. Some are cautionary tales that we need to be careful what we wish for or not to wish foolishly. A few have even been written about wishing trees. Many cultures have traditions involving wishing. Another friend shared with me that the wishing tree reminded her of traditional wishing kiosks at temples in Japan where wishes are made at the start of a new year.

I have lots of wishes. You could probably guess a few of them and be right. I will actively work to turn those I have any control over into real life realities. Wishes with actionable steps transform wishes into achieved goals. Maybe they were goals in the first place. Seeds of ideas take root somewhere just like a seed did that grew into the wishing tree.

Wishes are tender expressions of our hearts. We wish for love and kindness. We wish the best for ourselves and wish others the best. I know people who hug trees. I am one such person. To me, the wishes hug this special tree like a person could. Our invisible arms are wrapped around it and one another. We hold ourselves up as we hold up one another. And we keep wishing.

Math, English, and Cancer

During the summer of COVID-19, I commented on a riddle posted by a friend on Facebook. I answered correctly and reposted it as part of the deal. Things got crazy after that with the many answers I received. Psychology papers could be written on behaviors from analyzing the way people responded. I found these reactions more fascinating than the answers people gave.

Here’s the what I posted:

Why did I participate? I rarely partake in social media challenges and group activities that involve my committing to share with others. I try to stick with content that involves me directly or issues that are important to me. So, why this one? It was fun. I read the problem carefully and figured out the tricky parts and was pretty sure my answer was right. I like being right as much as the next person. It was also something to do that I hadn’t done before. I have found myself bored at times during the pandemic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am not here to fault those who were incorrect. Notice I’m not sharing the answer as it’s not important. I am not going to respond to guesses left as replies. You can check Facebook if you need to know the answer. My focus is on human nature. I am not a psychologist. My only qualifications in offering my opinions are as someone who has observed a lot of people informally as we all have.

These opinions are mine:

Q: Why did some comment once, accept they were incorrect, and move on?

A: They thought about it and then forgot about it. They just weren’t into it. They had other interests.

Q: Why did some answer multiple times?

A: They were into it and couldn’t let it go until they knew the answer or died trying. Both resilience and insanity cover these folks. Naturally, anyone who both reads my blog and answered several times has categorized their behavior as determined and resilient.

Q: Why did some comment privately and not post their answer to be seen by others?

A: Privacy is a treasured commodity these days. Some people are more private and don’t like posting publicly.

Q: Why did some who were correct write their answer in the form of a question whereas so many who were wrong committed to their answer decisively?

A: Perhaps these folks were humble and modest. Perhaps they saw the long list of incorrect answers and felt a wave of insecurity. What struck me as curious was not one of the wrong answers had a question mark after it. It was only a few of the correct ones that answered using a question mark.

Q: Why did some bring in other people who critiqued the language of the question when their initial answer was incorrect?

A: Tone is hard to detect sometimes in writing, especially in texts or quickly written comments. I couldn’t tell for sure if one person was insulted or not that her response and reasoning were deemed incorrect. Her fellow supporter backed her up and I thought they were planning to take it to whatever higher court they could find. I discovered she was even having conversations about it on her own timeline. I hope this means that she is passionate about puzzles. She would have made a good lawyer. Maybe a detective.

My opinion is some people made the question far too hard and introduced variables that didn’t exist. There were no lions hunting that day. Everything happened in linear time and in the same general setting. But hey, it is 2020, and I suppose a parallel universe exists for riddles. One friend I taught with asked me when I was going to share the right answer. I wasn’t planning on it per how I interpreted the directions. Only those who got the right answer would know so they could have the honor of posting. I decided to go ahead and post it simply because I felt bad repeatedly telling a couple people they were wrong. A bolt of lightning wasn’t going to strike me for going against the rules. It wasn’t a big deal. One childhood friend commented afterward that there had been family debates and involvement from neighbors. I guess that means I’m not the only one who has experienced some periods of boredom with life as we know it these days.

Again, I find it all fascinating. Rarely have I posted anything with as much interest and interaction. Posts about cancer haven’t received the same attention and level of response. Honestly, that frustrates me because this riddle doesn’t matter one bit. Cancer sure matters but too many keep scrolling past those posts because they aren’t “fun” posts.

Math is concrete. Even if there are equations with imaginary numbers and unknowns, answers are still derived. I love math. I no longer have the quadratic formula memorized, but it was used regularly in younger days. As a teacher, I loved teaching that there were multiple ways to arrive at the same answer. We learn to do a long math problem methodically and break it down into parts. We go back and find our mistake if something doesn’t add up.

English and words can be up for more interpretation. There can be ambiguity. Some words have subtle differences. As readers, some of us are more apt to read something quickly and miss needed information. The thing is we often don’t know we missed something and we don’t go back and reread. I miss information. I missed information in a novel my book club read that was provided in the first chapter. Hence, I was sure this big event was going to happen in every chapter that the author let readers know was going to happen toward the end of the book. I didn’t catch it.

So, I wonder . . .  is cancer more like math or English?

There are some absolutes like with math. Math is used in formulating treatment drugs and prescribing the needed amount. Tumors are measured in terms of millimeters and centimeters. Statistics are applied to the probability of very early stage cancers not returning after treatment. Drugs for metastatic cancers come with an average number of months without disease progression. Studies and trials contain graphs upon graphs of data. There is math involved with my oncologists, nurses, and the pharmacists that I know nothing about. There are a lot of numbers in cancer. Mathematical oncology applies computational models to help understand cancer development, growth, and reaction to treatment. I do not pretend to understand but seriously question if it may be used to prevent a patient from trying a treatment because the math doesn’t support it. It would be the worse case scenario of someone being reduced to a number and not a person with other important factors influencing a treatment decision.

Cancer can also be like the English language (or any language). Anyone who has had cancer or lives with cancer has a unique story to tell. My story is different from yours. There may be similarities, but we’re each our own storyteller using our own lexicons to share our stories. Our myriad stories convey hope, sadness, love, fear, joy, and anger. We speak and write of the factual details of cancer. Whether spoken or written, our words express anxieties that come with scans and office visits. Stories are emotional. Life is quite a story.

A cancer story isn’t understood by everyone. I understand not everyone understands what the word metastatic means. Reporters should if they are covering a story concerning it. They need to know it can’t be cured. Nurses need to know. There are different interpretations on what chronic means when referring to cancer. Just to be clear, Stage IV cancer isn’t chronic. Chronic means you have a manageable disease where you can still reach a normal life expectancy. We aren’t there yet. I want it to be chronic as much as anyone. Is it correct to refer to someone who is metastatic as a survivor, thriver, lifer, or another term? It gets complicated because individuals prefer what they prefer. Words can push buttons. Words that push mine are journey, cancerversary, and words describing cancer as a battle. For example, people don’t lose their battle. Saying that implies they are losers because they died. Utterly wrong. They died and it’s awful.

Then there’s the human nature element. Some of us may be more vocal whereas others want to comment privately. Some got it figured out on the first try and some kept trying over and over and over again. There are those who will advocate assertively until the right person shares their interpretation of data. Some of us will keep trying. If one solution doesn’t work, we will keep hammering away at it. We all have different ways of approaching a cancer experience just as there were different ways to approach a number story. We are all different. We are alike in wanting an answer.

Unfortunately, cancer is still a riddle. One that needs a definite answer.

What I Did Last Summer

Spring was lost.

Summer was lost.

Uneventful days passed.

Life inched by like a snail going nowhere.

COVID has consumed six months now.

Six months gone.

Mostly alone.

Gone forever.

And yet I look at the good.

I can’t help it.

Good is always around.

Also forever.

One place I found it was in flowers.

Repetitive days of solitude

And safeness

Drew me to nature.

My camera my paintbrush.

Flowers my canvas.

So many patterns and colors

From 6 inches away.

Wonder

Beauty

Life

Joy

Summer was not lost after all.

A world covered in flowers is not only beautiful but a reassuring constant.

These thoughts formed as I thought about what I did over summer. There were a couple momentous events that I celebrated because birthdays and related plans still happen in pandemics. Most days were quiet. There was a lot of sameness and not much to shout about. I viewed medical appointments as chances to socialize a bit. My trips to the grocery store twice a month held high excitement.

My photos visually reflect what I did last summer whether I puttered about my back yard, paused to take a photo while walking in the neighborhood, or found myself in a favorite nature setting.

Patterns and colors in flowers captivated me this summer.
Everything about this makes me feel happy. The bright vibrant color. The layered petals. The petals slowly unfurling and still emerging from the center. It is a world in itself.
Floating flower art feels very zen.
Blues and purples are a soothing combination.
These colors remind me of a sunset. I marveled at several of these and found all were slightly different, just like every sunset.
This succulent reminded me of glazed pottery. I’m pretty sure it follows a Fibonacci sequence.
Bee balm attracts so much life. Watching its visitors has brought many happy moments to my summer.
Every flower has a story. I am one flower sharing mine.

Morning Yoga

I want to stay as healthy as possible so I can do the things I want. It’s been harder lately as I’ve experienced some side effects in my feet and hands that make moving not fun. I believe they will improve. I believe I have some control. Who knows if I do or not, but I like to believe I do.

Belief is powerful.

We become what we believe. Beliefs become our words and actions. Keep in mind I don’t believe I brought on a cancer diagnosis by my thoughts or actions. No blaming myself. Belief is part of my personal treatment wheelhouse. I believe I can maintain my health. Staying active is the action to match that belief.

My oncologist told me not to alter what I was doing as a means of preventing some of these uncomfortable and at time painful side effects. I’m not sure she fully understands how intense I am. I don’t look super athletic. I’m not. Yet, I push. I sweat. I make decisions I question once I’m well past the point of no return. I woke up the morning after my first cycle of Doxil and felt so good I walked four miles in the heat. I wake up extra early on the days of my treatments so I can get a good workout done before I go and spend the bulk of my day at the hospital. I exercise even on my down days. I choose easier work, but I still choose something. She repeated her advice not to limit my activities the day I went in for my second cycle.

With her guidance in mind, I’m still keeping up my activities, but I’ve taken it a little easier for several days after treatment and integrated more yoga into my routine. The chemo care sheet says not to create extra friction on hands and feet for up to a week after each treatment. I see yoga as a way to work on core strength and flexibility while also quieting my mind. Yoga can grow my inner strength in addition to my outer strength.

Usually, I don’t stick with it very long. I feel tired after thirty minutes and not incredibly successful. I would improve if I practiced poses more as part of my practice.

I never did yoga outdoors until one glorious morning. I didn’t think I’d like it. I felt too self-conscious. Heat and bugs would bother me. But I went for it and loved it.

No heat and no bugs made my yoga time feel more refreshing.

I love that I still have new things at this point in my life.

I’ve been rising early on Sunday mornings, even earlier than on weekdays. On this particular day, the forecast was to reach the upper 80s. Hot weather is not my cup of tea. I wanted to get my workout done before it got too hot and definitely while my patio space was still in the shade.

Thoughts of the back yard I created wandered through my mind as I practiced. I admired my red bee balm knowing I was responsible for planting it. A hummingbird visited while I was out. I see them often enough due to the flowers in my garden. I always take it as a good sign when I see them. Cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, and robins filled the air with their singing. Dew glistened in multicolored glints off the green grass. The outdoor air felt good on my skin. My senses took in my environment.

Other than myself, there were no people and no people sounds. I was alone in this piece of paradise for a few moments. I felt total oneness with my surroundings. I noticed close to a dozen different shades of green.

There was an insane level of power and peace at the same time.

I held poses much longer than I usually do in my wellness area in my basement. My commitment was to do what felt good and not commit to a set time. I did everything I wanted and practiced a little over an hour.

It was a time I could consciously focus on my breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Cloud watching was included as some breath work. Lying flat on my back and staring upward was a good rest from some hip extension work. I love watching the sky. Cirrus clouds brushed the sky. I looked for animals as shapes drifted by slowly. Somewhere in my childhood was likely the last time I took the time to see the sky from this perspective. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

When I finished, I walked in the grass barefoot. It was more needed sensory work. I am someone who has always liked something on my feet. I’ve never been a barefoot kind of gal. The dew kissed grass was too much for my toes to resist. I walked slowly and each step became part of a reflective meditation.

Maybe I used my hands and feet more than I should have. Shoulding is a horrible business. I was told I could operate business as usual. So far, my feet seem to be faring better than my hands. My palms look shiny and waxy. They are a bit red in between my fingers and have peeled very minimally. I did them in a couple weeks ago wringing out water from towels when my air conditioner broke and my furnace leaked. I cleaned it up because that’s what needed to happen. In addition to the cost of a new air conditioner, it cost me my hands. Every crease where there are joints on my fingers are red, stiff, inflamed, and painful. I’ve been using a ton of lotion on my soles and palms. Days of not adding extra stress to them have helped more than anything. It took about ten days for my hands to heal so they don’t hurt. The joints still feel leathery, look different, and flare up after treatment or when I overdo it. I will continue to practice good self-care.

Until next time – Namaste.

Ice Cream Memories

Good memories are sweet like ice cream.

My ice cream specific memories from past vacations are vivid enough to eat.

Dippy’s is a small ice cream shop in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, offering about 20 flavors daily. It’s a simple whitewashed building for to go service. There is a small porch outside with patio seating for relaxing and looking at the flowers and passersby. An old-fashioned red popcorn machine is positioned just outside the door for those preferring kettle corn reminiscent of movie theater popcorn drenched in butter flavoring with lots of yellow food coloring.

Dippy’s was a place to take a break from all the other relaxing being done on vacation. It was a good mid-afternoon or early evening treat. The fact that it was a few mere steps from the corner hotel where I stayed didn’t hurt.

There is something about an ice cream store that makes me feel like a kid again. I thought this was as true for my mom as it was for me. She would sit in front of the store in one of the wrought iron chairs wearing her shorts that came to her knees with a smile from ear to ear. She possessed something childlike even though she was into her seventies.

She always apologized that she couldn’t share her butter pecan or turtle ice cream because of my tree nut allergy. It didn’t bother me for the same reason I never offered to share my ice cream with her. All free sampling was done inside at the counter.

Rules are rules.

My grandma enjoyed ice cream into her nineties. Grandma would have a bowl of ice cream often during the evening on the farm. One thing I’m completely convinced about is the existence of an ice cream gene and that I got it.

Both my maternal grandmother and mother died from metastatic cancer. My grandma was diagnosed with liver cancer. She didn’t go through gads of scans to see if it spread and chose not to do treatment. She was 96 years old and only lasted a few months after the news, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe she had metastatic disease. Anyway, genetic testing has revealed zilch in terms of the metastatic breast cancer in my body being inherited. I wonder if research hasn’t yet discovered the link.

Back to happy memories of ice cream because those memories make me feel happy. They take me back to a simpler time that was relaxed and unrushed. A bit of that feeling is captured whenever I enjoy a scoop or two. Sometimes those memories take me back to as recent as last week and other times much further.

Some memories take me back to summer nights in early childhood. People sat outside after supper just to relax. My sister and I would sit on the front step of the house in the humidity enjoying a bowl of ice cream before our bedtime stories.

In my childhood, I was a chocolate or vanilla person. Discovering mint chocolate chip made me feel pretty sophisticated. I still love mint chocolate chip, but favorite flavors also include cookie dough, coffee, and chocolate peanut butter.

Chocolate peanut butter was recently enjoyed on a lovely summer day.

I love moments of simplicity. I’ll take every single one I can get living with metastatic breast cancer. Memories that make me smile are delicious. That’s true whether I’m sitting on the front stoop as a child, outside at Dippy’s, or sitting along the waterfront outside Wilson’s Restaurant  in Door County slowly working on a double scoop while watching the sun dip below the water. It holds true if I’m home enjoying a dish.

Even Snoop Dogg knows ice cream is a good thing. Only Snoop knows his plans for the future, but maybe he was serious when he said, “When I’m no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.”

He would get no complaints from me.

Is all this just about ice cream? Yes and no. Sometimes ice cream is just ice cream. Ice cream is surely one of the better things in this world. You’re never too young or too old for it. There is a flavor for everyone. It’s a simple pleasure.

It also can be a metaphor for life.

Ice cream melts quickly.

Enjoy it before it’s gone.

Giant’s Ladder

Trust must fill the place vacated by the absence of fear.

Since I’m not traveling over the summer due to COVID-19, I am reminiscing about former vacations. My memories take me again back to Miraval.

Giant’s Ladder was another challenge activity in my Arizona getaway. It was described as integrating trust, balance, and cooperation as you climbed a giant ladder that was forty feet high. Participants were also told it was the most physically demanding of the challenge activities offered. It sure was. The eight rungs of the ladder were spaced anywhere from four to six feet apart. In my opinion, most of them were more on the six feet apart end of things. Only the first level was truly manageable. At least for me.

I partnered up with a woman who also traveled alone who had a background in education. Mallory was in the music department at Northwestern University. You could do the activity alone, and apparently there had been people who got to the top on their own, but I don’t see how that could happen. My perspective was lacking in this area. I definitely needed a partner in order to make the smallest of progress on the ladder.

The two of us did an outstanding job of communicating, working as a team, and problem solving. I wasn’t worried about not trusting her, or falling, or balance either. The harness was so secure. The team who belayed the climbers from solid ground below always were poised and ready the entire time to release rope and pick up slack.

I was safer than gold in Fort Knox.

Feeling safe is a huge component of trust.

Without safety, there is fear. I think back to a few moments in my life where I have felt physically unsafe. Fortunately, there have been few of these, but accompanying each has been a terrorizing fear. When I feel safe, I also feel confident whether I am in control of events or not. When I feel safe, there is a prevailing calmness within. When I feel safe, I trust. Safety, confidence, and calmness all attribute to trusting people, situations, and life. In the Giant’s Ladder, I felt safe, confident, and calm. I trusted my partner and the people below who belayed.

The hard part of the challenge was the pure physicality of it. My upper arms got bruised badly, multiple times. The backs of my knees took a beating. I looked very battered the next day. I only made it up about two rungs in the hour that was allotted. Getting to the top would have brought about more lessons in confidence and conquering obstacles. It was the goal, but learning still happened with my limited progress.

People are always there to support me.

People are ready to catch me when I fall.

We all need support. We all fall.

Part of trust is also letting go. You can reread last week’s post on letting go here. Letting go is the bridge between fear and trust. I see this bridge as one of those bridges high above a chasm that sways perilously as I trod carefully across it. Wooden boards are missing underfoot. Rope supports don’t provide much security to my white knuckled hands. The distance to the other side, from fear to trust, is a great divide. But step by step, I scarcely breathe as one foot steps in front of the other. I have to let go to get to the other side.

Metastatic cancer definitely makes me feel unsafe. There have been times where I’ve felt utterly out of control. It takes a lot of reminders that these feelings are just feelings, they are not who I am, and that they will pass. Somewhere there is meaning in all I’ve experienced.

I still have much work to do.

Let It Go

Let fear go.

Fear has been on my mind a lot lately.

Fear prevents people from living.

It prevents people from making changes. It prevents people from accepting the changes that happen more gracefully.

Years back in 2008, I vacationed at Miraval Resort in Tucson, Arizona. Miraval is about an hour outside of Tucson, located in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in the Sonoran Desert. The philosophy at Miraval is one of life in balance. One of my experiences there illustrates facing and engaging fear effectively.

I chose Miraval in order to relax somewhere warm over my spring break. In addition to the spa amenities, challenge activities were offered every day. Part of the Miraval experience was about going out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. I signed up for something called Swing and a Prayer.

In Swing and a Prayer, a person is attached to two cables, hoisted up around 35 feet or higher, and then released from one cable and left to swing as if on a giant pendulum. This definitely took me outside my comfort zone. At this point in my life, I considered myself a fairly confident person who felt like I could achieve goals I set out to do. Yet, numerous insecurities had popped up in life as they do. Swing and A Prayer was to help me learn to approach life more fearlessly. Then I could transfer what I learned to other parts of my life.

Nine participants including the instructor set out for the challenge one morning before it got too hot. Everyone wore a harness. There were two cables. One was the pendulum cable. The other one you released so you could swing. The instructor secured someone to the cables. We worked as a team with the ropes to slowly hoist the person upward tug of war style, hand over hand, until the swinger was at maximum height. Think of being at the top of a telephone pole. At that point, the instructor held onto the rope until the swinger from above let go of their end to commence the swinging. A lot of synchronization and teamwork was involved.

Yes, you read that last part right. The swinger had to actively let go, release their tightly held grip, in order to swing. It wasn’t some automatic release like on a thrill ride.

It was a conscious, deliberate action.

The mental and spiritual parts of the challenge were about facing the unknown and letting go. Both are such strong metaphors for life. We fear too many things and usually the fear itself is far worse than the experience. People spend too much time in their comfort zones. Every day of life is unknown. Face the unknown. Be good with it and go with the flow.

Letting go is perhaps the strongest lesson from Swing and a Prayer. The higher I was raised, the harder it was for me to physically hold on to my part of the rope. I could feel and see my hand slipping bit by bit. Chalk it up to no upper body strength and sweaty hands. It was more work to hold on to the rope than to let it go. So it is with many of the tensions, difficulties, and stresses in our lives that we hold when we really need to let go. Don’t think. Just let go.

Let it go.

Face the unknown.

Be in the moment.

When I let go of the rope, I experienced total stillness. There was a second between letting go and starting to swing that felt stretched out and absolutely quiet. I felt suspended in air. There was such stillness. I felt so calm. This is what it is to be in the moment.

Next came the swing. It was smooth and flowing. The first swing outward and then back to my starting point were the most exhilarating. I felt like I was flying and is probably the closest I’ll ever come. The sound of air rushing by filled my ears with a whirring sound. And yes, I screamed. It wasn’t a fearful scream, but more of a beautifully long “Whooooo – whooooo.”

I want to remember that feeling of release and stillness. How good it would be to release worries, fears, stress, sadness, anger, and anything else that I shouldn’t hold anymore. All of this happened before my diagnosis. Life is different now than in 2008, a lot different, but releasing energies that no longer serve me is still as important now as it was yesterday and will be in the future. They are hard to release. They are hard to hold.

I want to remember it was more work hanging on than in letting go.

Something written by Reverend Safire Rose beautifully captures these feelings. A good friend sent it to me several years ago and it is the perfect way to finish today’s post.

She Let Go

By Reverend Safire Rose


She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear. She let go of the judgments. She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head. She let go of the committee of indecision within her. She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go. She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go. She let go of all the memories that held her back. She let go of all the anxiety that kept her form moving forward. She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.