Lost in Vermont

My family took wonderful vacations together. Many spring breaks were spent at Disney World and on beaches. We enjoyed national parks in summer. I saw a lot of the country from the back seat of the family car. Long days, close quarters, and nothing but family from sea to shining sea. I loved those car rides.

One summer we went to Vermont. Dad had a meeting in Burlington. The rest of us always went along to the summer dairy conventions that were held in a different city every summer. There were activities planned while he was in meetings all day. When the convention was over, we loaded up the car and stopped somewhere along the way to extend the vacation.

Stowe was our next stop on the Vermont trip. Stowe is unbelievably scenic and quaint. It’s known for skiing. There is a tennis academy. The Von Trapp Family (the Sound of Music Von Trapps) settled in Stowe when they escaped Europe because the hills reminded them of Austria. They re-established themselves and built a family lodge that is now a luxury resort.

My sister was always the big shopper in the family. Into all the gift shops and boutiques we would traipse. One after the other, not skipping a one. Rarely was anything bought. Small souvenirs. I was into collecting teddy bear stuffed animals back in the day and had already purchased one in Burlington. I think this trip was where I got my taste for maple candies. I found shopping tiring and slow. She found it exhilarating. This hasn’t changed much. I’m done after about an hour of the touristy shops when we vacation together whereas she can go all day. I now drive separately and have more flexibility with present day trips together.

Back to shopping in Stowe. Like me, Dad didn’t have the shopping gene either. He was chief bench sitter. He’d scope out a bench along the main strip quickly and relax while the girls went shopping. Wise man, my dad. On this occasion, my mom and sister were taking forever in a store and I was done. I didn’t want to go in any more stores. I was at the age where I was exercising a little more independence. I announced I would go back and to the bench and hang out with my dad. Off I went.

He wasn’t there.

No problem. I hurried back to the last shop where I had left my mom and sister.

They weren’t there.

Bit of a problem. I darted into the next store thinking they’d be there, but they were not. I tried a couple more. I got a little more terrified in each shop I couldn’t find them. It’s tough to remain calm and think straight when you’re scared. Remember this point.

I was lost in Vermont and felt on my own and very alone.

I was scared but could figure it out. Instead of racing from store to store where they were not, I timidly started walking back to the last place where I saw them. My eyes combed the street for any sign of my family. I think I finally just stopped walking and stood out of the way on the sidewalk hoping to see one of them. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was a plan, and eventually it worked.

I was lost for about five or ten minutes. Long unknowing minutes to me. I was safe again. My parents didn’t seem worried – at all – and that itself felt odd. We were out of state for Pete’s sake. A little comfort and concern was all I wanted. Why did my dad leave his post? Where had they all been? Didn’t anyone care about me? I can tell you that I stayed pretty close to the parental units for the rest of the trip. They needed to know where I was at all times.

Lessons Learned

It’s one of the first memories I have of feeling scared in real life. It was very different from a scary story or hiding when the wicked witch appeared in Oz. Being lost was real. Feeling alone and possibly left in a strange state didn’t fill my heart with the sound of music.

I was growing up. This brush with difficulty would be one of many as I worked through growing pains, learning as I went through each experience. I’m pretty aware of my surroundings. I notice landmarks, curves in the road, little things that stand out to me. I wonder if I started to see these things after this experience in case I ever got lost again and I needed to retrace my steps. Maybe I would have developed this skill set anyway. I don’t plan to find myself lost in the wilderness or really anywhere without my cell phone.

The whole thing could have been prevented if cell phones had been developed decades earlier.

I have learned to do a lot on my own. The little girl in Stowe grew up and traveled to European countries on her own. She lived in one for a year. She’s taken vacations by herself because it was preferable to not doing something she wanted that she knew she could get done. I know how to travel by myself. There’s some freedom to flying solo. It’s also great to have travel companions. I usually don’t and decided years ago I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Cancer Connection

Cancer has left me in the familiar territory of feeling lost far too often. It’s still tough to remain calm and think straight when I’m scared. Daddy and Mommy can’t make it all better. Parents make things better – they just do. I’m not sure what specifically they would do for me if they were still living, but I know they would make a lot of the cancer crap more bearable. My mom was with me for my first year. Often, I would just lay my head in her lap and feel safe as she laid her hand on my shoulder. How I wish for my mother’s comfort. I’ve been missing my parents a lot. I lost mine rather early in the grand scheme of life.

With cancer, I feel on my own just like I did for those brief moments in Stowe. I flounder about and keep looking for something without much success. I can’t dart into every shop and hope to find what I need. I can’t just stand and wait to be found. Treatment choices need to be weighed carefully. I may need to seek out new trials or even other clinics. I can’t see confidently past the next few months. It’s a hard way to live. I feel out of control and on my own more than ever. Eventually, being lost leads somewhere. A person finds their way back to where they need to be. Maybe they even discover something pleasant along the way. That isn’t how metastatic cancer works. The lines on a map, directions to follow, and new destinations are unclear, scary, and I wind up someplace I don’t want to be where I can’t find my way.

Finding a way can be awfully hard.

Fearless Girl

The Fearless Girl is a bronze statue created by Kristen Visbal. The statue has come to symbolize progress and equity for women. The reason for her existence is much less inspiring. A large asset management company known as State Street Global Advisors commissioned it to advertise an index fund. Sure, it also promoted female empowerment and aligned well with International Women’s Day, but the initial motivation of the asset company makes its origins more of an advertising stunt. It was conveniently installed directly opposite of the famous Charging Bull statue of Wall Street which added drama in more ways than expected. Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor of the bull statue, complained about the deliberate placement of the girl statue, and she was eventually moved to a different spot in front of the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan.

My opinion is her new location is better because all the focus is on her. There is nothing to detract away from her. Those who see her can connect with personal stories and interpretations about what she stands against fearlessly. It makes her more fearless in my eyes.

Image credit: pixabay.com

I believe Fearless Girl represents many favorable qualities. She embodies a confidence and indomitable will. There is something unmovable about her other than her 250 pound weight. It’s her stance with her hands on her hips and the determined look in her eyes. Although small, she is an image of strength and might. Can we all be her? I think the answer is we can.

Images of confidence, determination, and strength are important for me as I go about living with cancer. I muster up courage for office visits. I know what I have on my agenda. I attempt to hold my head high as I go about trying to pull off a persona of confidence, determination, and strength even though I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know if my inner and outer vibes match. I try and keep trying.

Granite is my chosen word for 2021. It came from an unexpected ending to a poem I wrote. It’s known as a hard, igneous rock. Granite is made up mainly of quartz, mica, and feldspar. Symbolically, it’s associated with strength, abundance, and protection. Because of its durability, granite has a long lifespan. Therefore, granite also represents longevity. It’s a good word for me this year to picture myself as a strong rock that will withstand wear and tear. I am durable. Like granite, I have longevity. I want longevity on my side. My image of granite strikes me as fearless.

What does it mean to be fearless with cancer?

I’m not sure. Fear is a normal and expected part of it. I don’t believe those who say they aren’t or weren’t afraid. Knowledge makes me less fearful, but I still feel fear. Being scared is okay. For me, being scared makes me more fearless. People call me strong or brave. All I’m doing is walking through the fear. It pops up even with non cancery things. I face it. Whereas I doubt I can eliminate it entirely, I know how to lessen it.

Tests and scans provide information and direction. Knowledge, information, and my feelings support me as a patient. I need the tests to plan for treatment. My mom didn’t want lots of tests when she had cancer. It presented even more unknowns and made it a lot harder to treat a cancer that returned metastasized. I believe my mom was fearless in her own way. It’s too emotional for me to put words to how I believe she faced her diagnosis. She didn’t talk much about what was happening. It was so emotionally and then physically painful for her. I’m sure my status factored into it. All I have are my observations and own feelings. My point is everyone works with fear.

Support makes me more fearless. I feel less alone when I share how I feel with people I trust. I feel less alone when others let me know they’ve been through something similar and feel similar feelings. My true friends are the best. Phone calls, emails, texts, and messages are treasured means of connections in this COVID world. Checking in and listening are huge comforts to me. We all need such support. As a writer, my voice has more power through my words. Blogging is a platform where I can reach out and share what’s on my mind. I appreciate the support I receive through those who read my work.

Being fearless as a patient means I ask questions. I research and learn. I speak up and say what I need, what works and what doesn’t. I am a part of my team and participate in decisions. I know I’ve weighed decisions thoroughly and made them in my best interests. My body goes through a lot. A wide range of emotions are felt. My voice gets heard. I can get upset and often have tears, but this is one of the ways I walk through fear. Tears do not make me a weaker person or less abled patient. They get me somewhere I need to be.

Living the way I want to live makes me fearless. Many of my plans have changed. Somewhere I learned not depend on others in order for me to do what I wanted. Independence has served me well seeing as I’m on my own living with cancer. I am thankful for my successful teaching career and the ability to support myself. So much is taken away with metastatic breast cancer. I certainly have given things up. I am grateful I am able to be independent, have a home I love where I feel safe, and the ability to set and achieve a few goals. I want to be seen, make a difference, and feel connected. I refuse to hide and wait for the next problem to present itself. I don’t want pity or to be told how I should be living based on what others have done. I am well aware that events in my life aren’t always pretty. It seems I struggle more than I’d like with what I think should be a lot easier. I believe we all have these moments. It’s how we handle them that can define ourselves as fearless or fearful.

Cancer is an invisible fear that shows up in visible ways. It creeps slowly at first when life hasn’t changed much. Then you qualify for disability and your health takes precedence over your career. There are medicines and side effects. There are many private tears and fake smiles. There are uncertainties and fear itself. There isn’t a day it isn’t there in some form. I stand as fearlessly as I can against the fear, scans, progression, and dwindling options, while always hoping for a cure. I stand with others against losing 119 a day in the U.S. These are our friends, relatives, coworkers, and others we’ve come to know dearly along the way through our shared misery.

I have a DOVE chocolate wrapper on my refrigerator with an inside message that reads to be fearlessly authentic. A wonderful thing happens with aging – you learn to be truer to yourself. I was more confident in my 30s than my 20s, my 40s than my 30s, and I would expect the same to be true in my 50s. We figure more out with each year. I’ve become more expressive of my opinions. I’m not willing to tolerate certain opinions or behaviors of others that violate my values. I am in a place in my life where I do what I want if nothing is standing in my way. I remove obstacles when possible. In terms of blogging, I write about what I want. It isn’t always about cancer, but usually there is a connection tying the piece together. I read a number of blogs and do too much comparing of others to mine in terms of definitions of success. If I were to change mine, I’d have to compromise my authenticity here, and I’m not willing to change me or my craft to fit in falsely somewhere else. There may be some cosmetic changes but the real me is at the core of the writing.

I never have been one to change to fit in. Most of the time I don’t think I fit in very well. It has become less important the older I get. Cancer has opened my eyes to myself even more. I’m authentic to myself and know who I am. Introverted and private with most, but I know my inner workings well and how I move best through the world. I know what traits I value. I try to demonstrate those and surround myself with like company. My personality and abilities as a teacher shined in the classroom. I believe I still teach by example. My efforts in fundraising, advocacy, and any cause I find important showcase my beliefs. Writing and photography presently reflect my authentic self. I am far from perfect. My imperfections may be some of the most authentic parts about me. In these ways, I embody my fearless girl authentically.

How are you fearless?

How are you fearlessly authentic?

What goes into being a fearless patient?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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.

Engage Fear

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

What is the thing I think I cannot do? It was ages ago when I first came across this quote. I was still teaching and I thought it might mean teaching again in the same capacity as years past. The shipped has sailed on that option. I am not in the classroom, but I still can teach in other ways.

A multitude of things exist that I think I cannot do. It used to be bike rides. I have enjoyed some long bike rides for the past few years. I returned to a favorite bluff that proved too much for me one day and hiked it to prove to myself I could do it. Taking a vacation by myself is another example. I planned a trip to Alabama in February of last year. It was a glorious experience in discovery and independence.

If I did nothing when faced with things I think I cannot do and stayed in fear, then I would be immobilized. Doing nothing is no way to live.

All of my choices matter so much more now. Treatment choices have results. They always have, but bumpier roads have an effect on how I interpret those results. Some things can’t be undone as easily as choices and decisions from my younger years. Like a deer frozen in the headlights, fear keeps me from moving and making decisions.

Everyone must get past fear. When I don’t care about consequences, I believe that I just may be able to do everything I want in terms of living. I feel much more like the old me. Over the past year, I’ve done things I didn’t know I had in me. I spearheaded a yearlong fundraiser for metastatic breast cancer research. It has renewed my spirits and stoked a fire within me. I put some plans into motion at the beginning of this year because I moved past fear. I planned a vacation to Sedona with a good friend. We booked the trip. COVID-19 kept us home as it did for many.

Engaging fear is like golfing in a lightning storm. No one wants to get struck by lightning. Lightning destroys, starts fires, and kills. All these are scary things. But not golfing is also frightening when it’s the only path to a better everything. Golfing in a storm metaphorically may be the only choice.

My odds of being hit by lightning are 1 in 700,000. I had a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer. Odds aside, I engage with my fears.

Our fears are not there to scare us. They show us what is important.

Teaching is important to me and I will teach through my writing and my actions. We all teach one another through our actions. Blogging allows me to use my voice. It is important to me to ask scary questions and advocate for myself at oncology appointments because knowledge is better than not knowing. I need to understand as much as I can.

Engaging fear makes fear less fearful. I never thought I would connect engaging fear with negating fear. I resolve to move forward one fear at a time. Doing this is a true testament to strength, courage, and confidence.

How does the fear engaging process work? Associated thoughts a person has about a fear need to change with the actions caused by them. Feelings then change as a result. For example, I am somewhat afraid of severe weather. Tornado warnings as a child in the middle of the night involved uncomfortable basement conditions, flashlights when the electricity went out, and the battery powered radio. There were no weather radios, nor had the age of technology hit where you could track storms on your own and know if a bad storm was in your path and its approximate time of arrival. There were no cell phones or constant internet access. We didn’t even have a telephone in the basement. Yet, there was a sound rule: If the siren was heard or the TV had the tornado warning symbol, down went the family into the basement. It was a good rule.

Nowadays I am on my own. My thoughts associated with severe weather have changed, and therefore so have my actions. I have a weather radio. It is programmed to sound the alarm for tornado warnings. Storms wake me up anyway. There have been numerous occasions where I have trekked downstairs with my iPad and iPhone (along with shoes, jacket, car keys, etc.) in hand to watch TV for a bit when the light on the weather radio hasn’t flashed because that’s what I needed to do to feel safe. There’s a defining distinction – I felt safer rather than fearful.

Facing a fear always makes the fear lose power. I have a good plan for severe weather. The threat of a destructive storm or tornado is real and out of my control. My response to the danger is within my control. I am pretty calm about these types of storms now and luckily have never been in anything so devastating as to be a major life event.

My anxieties, on the other hand, have damaged me over the years. Anxiety is all about perceived danger. Perceived, not real. The worry I’ve created internally and externally about losing aspects of my life due to potential turns in my health has not been healthy. It doesn’t resonate with my usual mindset. The stress response that goes with anxiety is unwelcome. Changing the associated thoughts and actions I have toward these anxieties is key. I do much better when I outwardly talk back to my fears and anxieties and tell them to GO AWAY, followed by a sentence of what I AM going to do rather than what the fear or anxiety is going to do.

Another good example of engaging fear is centered on the vacation I had planned to Sedona. Due to COVID-19, the trip was quickly unbooked. I have a big underlying health condition. I engaged with my fear. I made pro and con lists. My friend who was going with me works in health care. We talked through the situation over a pizza and decided together we couldn’t do it. The whole thing was canceled right then and there. Sad? Yes. But I felt an overwhelming wave of relief because it was the right decision. By the next weekend, recommendations were being made not to travel anywhere. I am unbelievably happy that I wrestled with my feelings and did what I knew I had to do to stay safe.

I have made enormous strides in engaging fear. I still have fears. I think I always will because I plan to keep growing and new unknowns will continue to surface. I am up against some scary unknowns these days. I feel like I’ve lost. Lost the ability to choose. Lost control. Lost my voice. Lost some trust. Lost again. Losses and potential losses increase my fears. I’ve been engaging with fear multiple times daily. Life is giving me more ways to lose. I feel, I engage, and I try to move through it. I’m having a hard time. I am waiting for the fears I’m feeling to be negated. I am waiting for them to feel less powerful.

Well, I’m finishing this post in a different place than I planned. The hope I usually have is hiding. I’m golfing in that lightning storm and I don’t like it. I am wet, cold, and a bad golfer. But I’ll hold fiercely to my 9-iron and I’m prepared to whack anyone with it who gets in my way. Eleanor Roosevelt may not have thought very highly of this behavior. Oh, well. Engaging fear isn’t meant to be pretty.

Face Fear

What I’ve learned about fear over and over again is that the anxious anticipation of something is always worse than the event itself. There have been conversations I have dreaded and events I was sure would result in my getting the short end of the stick. The events happened and life went on.

One of these events was returning to chemotherapy back in the summer of 2016. I wanted to avoid this option like I want to avoid a bad cold, negative people, and raw seafood. It was my second experience with chemo – an unwanted sequel to that of years earlier. Eribulin was the name of the chemotherapy drug to be used. It is a cell cycle specific drug that attacks something called the microtube structures within cells. These microtube structures help a cell divide and reproduce. Stopping the microtube structures from functioning results in cell death. Goodbye cancer cells. Normal cells grow back.

I was terrified of effects like I had had when I had chemo back in 2012. I threw up so much after the first infusion back then that I needed to go to the hospital for fluids. I contracted fungal pneumonia and the shingles a couple of months later that landed me in the hospital. I gained a lot of weight due to steroids to battle nausea. I was lethargic and my mind was in a fog for months after the treatments ended. I knew what going through chemo was like and it was something I really didn’t want to repeat.

But it was my best option.

The day came to receive the first dose of eribulin on July 26, 2016. No throwing up, no nausea, no lethargy, no weight gain. I lost my hair again and was without it for over three years because of this drug and the drugs that followed. That reality and my feelings associated with it were difficult to navigate again. Otherwise, I felt unbelievably good. I had energy and could focus on activities that I enjoyed.

The weirdest thing happened once I faced my fears of having chemotherapy again and started treatment. Without the fear, profound moments of immense peace, joy, and intention took hold of me. The depression I had struggled with lifted when I went off the oral chemo pills I had been taking. I wasn’t teaching at his point in time, but I didn’t feel depressed. In fact, eribulin was a new lease on life. Every day off work was a day closer to coming back. I didn’t realize at the time it was the end of my career. My feet didn’t hurt with every step. I could walk again. I could hike.

Fear is almost always worse than the event itself. The fear I held about doing more traditional treatment again was worse than the reality. The eribulin wasn’t difficult to receive or tolerate. It was pushed through a syringe over two to five minutes. I didn’t feel a debilitating loss of energy and almost no nausea. For the first couple of months, I found I actually had lots of energy and felt wonderfully healthy (aside from needing chemotherapy in the first place). Low white blood counts were an issue, but that was a common problem encountered with many cancer treatments.

There are new fears. It’s a repetitive cycle every time I start a new treatment. What side effects will I experience? Will this treatment work? Lots of “what ifs.”

I have a lot of fears of treatments not working.

Fears of not having options.

Fears of my team not caring enough.

Fears of getting worse and losing my independence.

Fears of lots of things that make me cry and those thoughts make me feel unsafe and very alone.

And then there are the fears that my lovely hairstyle will always look like I’ve electrocuted myself. It has calmed somewhat over time. That one makes me smile and brings me back to where things are okay. My curls remind me I have no control and the straight and narrow never was my path. I’m unruly like the clouds in the sky. My hair feels comforting.

I face fear every day as someone living with metastatic breast cancer. The fear of having MBC has become so commonplace that I know it’s there, but I try not to think about it and I give it the least amount of space possible if I have to think about it at all. I face it down and get on with my day. I face fear like I face the mirror in the morning. Some days it takes more work.

Every so often I sit with it. We talk. Mostly I feel. Then I’m done. Until it resurfaces.

Fear has been on my mind more than usual lately. There are more unknowns. My biggest fears revolve around cruel consequences if my treatment is affected because of COVID-19. These unknowns could severely impact my other unknowns. I’ve hunkered down as much as I can and it still might not be enough. I began this post writing that the anticipation of an event is worse than the event itself. This virus may be the one scenario where that isn’t true. I don’t know. It will continue to play out over time where one domino affects another, even if the dominoes at first seem unrelated. Facing fear does not mean to act willfully stupid. It doesn’t mean you roll the dice and take your chances. Facing fear means being informed and having a plan. Right now that plan involves choosing the most protective option in all my decisions. I will continue to face the fear in my life by making smart, well thought out decisions. I will be grateful in my belief I am staying safe. I must believe hope is more pwerful than fear. And it is.

What Coronavirus Means to Me

I never thought I’d see a pandemic happen. It’s 2020. We live in a world where medicine, technology, and people working together are supposed to prevent something like this from happening, certainly from spreading.

But here we are.

I also thought I wouldn’t write about this topic. But it is everywhere I go – or don’t go to reflect life more realistically.

News changes rapidly. I wrote this post on a Friday to post on Sunday at its usual time. I hate to wonder what might change in the interim.

I have a much higher chance of dying from coronavirus than a healthy individual should I get it – a 79% chance to be exact – because of cancer. I would be one of the ones not given a ventilator if I needed one and there is a shortage because of others who would have a stronger chance of surviving. A ventilator shortage is something I don’t want to think about for anyone.

I am one of many. I know people who have respiratory issues, diabetes, heart conditions, and others with cancer. I have friends who are worried about their children with health conditions. I know this affects more than just me.

It affects ALL of us.

I should be freaking out. I am fearful, yes, but fear is present in my life anyway. I minimize that fear where and when I can. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I am surprised that I am as calm as I am.

My treatment took place as planned last week. The hospital had an excellent plan in place that I could see at every level of my visit ranging from the parking structure to my treatment. I hope my health continues to be as high of a priority in the future as it is now for the doctors and staff who care for me. I do have worries how my life living with cancer might be affected. I am concerned there may be delays or unplanned breaks in my treatment and changes in my protocol out of what is deemed by an institution as best for me. That may be an entire post on its own.

Living with metastatic breast cancer has made me better prepared for this than I thought it would. I am high risk.  As the virus continues to unfold, this is what I’ve discovered about myself.

I am good at social distancing.

Isolating myself isn’t really new for me. I have stayed home from activities before because I might catch a cold or the flu. I have canceled plans with friends to be safe. I haven’t hugged people, high fived, or shaken hands. Visitors have used separate hand towels. I moved off the sidewalk to the street when I encountered others on a walk the other day. I offered a friendly wave but no explanation to these strangers. It’s better for me to be safe than sorry and I will keep my distance. Literally.

I am prepared if I get sick suddenly.

Or as prepared as I can be. I may be more prepared than the average person, but I am not sure that’s true in these crazy times. I already had several days of non-perishable and easy to prepare foods stocked if I were to catch something from someone or if I were not feeling well due to cancer. I shopped early on and stocked up on cold medicines, cough drops, lots of choices for multi-symptom relief for diarrhea and stomach discomfort. I always have more toilet paper than one person probably needs. I know my current side effects. I know my needs.

The news changed about a month ago to when – not if – the U.S. would be hit with coronavirus. I made more plans for what I needed and have plenty of food to last me and other supplies. It took several trips to find hand sanitizer, but I eventually found some. I completed my first online grocery list and will do curbside pickup later this week. I still think there are advantages to choosing my own groceries, but I’ll see how online ordering goes and will decide later what to do another time. I likely will make an early morning trip here and there for milk and eggs, but I have powdered milk and a frozen quiche if the situation worsens and I can’t. Some panic oozed into a couple purchases. I guess I am okay with a degree of panic in unknown situations that change day to day. I have a solid plan for the time being and I am a good planner. On to point number three . . .

I plan my life around side effects.

Based on past treatments, I knew when I could schedule something fun or do necessary errands on days when I wasn’t hit with side effects. Fatigue and nausea could be predicted. Low white blood counts could be predicted. Insomnia and days of hot flashes and the chills all could be predicted.

My plans now revolve around oncology appointments and treatments. Keeping those are a top priority. I will move mountains to stick to my treatment schedule. Every other event or activity I’ve planned has been canceled. Not my treatments.

I am good at occupying time on my own. My home activities include:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Making cards
  • Exercising
  • Meditating
  • Writing thank you notes
  • Talking on the phone
  • Playing piano
  • Finger painting (have the paints but haven’t done yet)
  • Touch up painting on walls and trim (always low on my list)
  • Decluttering and Organizing (sadly also rather low on my list)
  • Watching TV and movies
  • Puzzles
  • Walking outside by myself if weather permits
  • Hanging out in my sauna
  • Practicing Reiki
  • I even have a microphone and a very small sound system where I can change the voice effect (harmonizing, choir, echo, robot) when I feel like singing at home where no one will hear me.

I have control over what I do and where I go.

I have had lots of practice at this. I have gone days, even a week here and there without seeing people or having face to face conversations due to my health or the health of others. I have made decisions to cancel plans that I haven’t wanted to cancel but it’s been in my best interest to do so. All my practice has made me good at it. I know how to stay as safe as possible during a crisis like this. It sucks but is the right move for me.

It’s the right move for all of us.

Temporary changes will have long term benefits.

It only takes one to infect many.

Stay home.

Don’t travel.

Go for a drive or walk outdoors on your own.

Don’t be a carrier or feel you’ll be okay if you get it because you’re healthy. The elderly and those with preexisting health conditions are not expendable. We matter. We are loved.

You matter.

For the love of God . . . cough and sneeze into your elbow.

Wash your hands or hand sanitize after blowing your nose.

We need to work together by staying apart.

What does coronavirus mean to you?

Taking Risks and Ospreys

Two years ago, I saw an osprey on a warm summer day. It landed squarely on a small tree right in front of a window in my family room. There couldn’t have been more than six feet between us. It should not have been there at all because these birds like water areas filled with fish. A small pond is located a stone’s throw from my home, but I have never seen anyone fish there. Yet, there on a very obvious branch perched an osprey for me to see it. It got my attention. Right away, I knew it wasn’t a red-tailed hawk or a peregrine falcon. I had no clue what it was, but it edged closer to my window for me to observe for around twenty beautiful seconds. We stared at one another. Moments later it spread its wings and flew away. I grabbed my bird book and took to the internet to find out what I saw and what the sighting meant.

osprey-pixabay4059786_640
Image credit: pixabay.com

I learned ospreys submerge their entire head underwater when preying on fish. They symbolize that you can be very much out of your comfort zone (or usual environment) . . . and survive. These birds teach us to take risks, not be frightened to take risks, even if opportunities seem out of reach. Although all birds are messengers, ospreys bring awareness that an important message is on its way.

They remind us:

YOU are ready.

YOU are skilled.

YOU are fearless.

The rest is up to us.

Like the osprey, I have been very much out of my comfort zone and survived.

I have survived many things. I have survived chickenpox, many flu viruses, and other illnesses. I have survived bullying. I have survived airports and air travel. I have survived chemo and a myriad of other treatments and side effects. I have survived tornado warnings and personal emotional storms. I have survived the pain and grief that follows the passing of loved ones. I have survived many challenging students in the classroom, and they have also survived me. Surviving cancer is just one thing I’m living with and doing my best to survive. I am so many things, as we all are. Being a survivor is just one part of me. I’ve changed, but I call myself a survivor because I am still here.

Taking risks is part of living a fulfilling life. Some look at risks as adventures. Some thrive on danger. Some choices in life don’t seem to be choices, but rather the only choice you could make at any given time. I felt like this when choosing my first round of chemotherapy. I felt it again each time I needed to move on to another treatment regiment. It seemed I didn’t have much choice because the alternative was an outcome that wouldn’t work well for me. I feel like the past seven years have been an exercise in risk. Each treatment is a risk.

I’m risking my life in order to stay alive.

It’s hard. I get tired. And yet, I know I’m worth the risks I take. I want to be healthy and happy.

There is something missing. I’m so focused on staying well that I don’t have much time for anything else. The risks of sky diving or strolling by my lonesome through prime lion habitat don’t appeal to me. Developing a gambling addiction also isn’t the kind of risk I want.

On the one hand, I’m torn between not wanting to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone who may put my health at risk. Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children for flu or preventable diseases could have life-threatening consequences for me. I must be over cautious. I can’t afford to take much risk in regards to my health. I am always going to base health decisions on scenarios with the lowest risk aligned with the greatest outcomes. Nothing is a sure thing. It all carries risk.

We all take risks in hopes of gaining a desired result.

But there’s the other hand. I don’t want to pass up chances to go out and have fun! I don’t want to put self-imposed limits on myself because I am unsure what I’m capable of achieving. I want to live with passion and purpose, to continue to learn and to lead, to change and to grow for the better.

There is some element of calculated risk in every choice we make. Some have bigger impacts than others. There are people who interpret risk as an opportunity, and others who see it as an assured failure. These are not the same people.

Taking risks has benefits. The most obvious, of course, is being rewarded with your goal. People who take risks are said to be more adaptable and they try more new things. They do not see failure as failure. Failure is an opportunity. They learn from these opportunities and bounce back more quickly compared to those who view unsuccessful risks as failures.

Risk-taking involves moving past fear in pursuit of what you want.

Fear prevents you from taking chances. Fear keeps you stuck. Life continues to happen if you choose to stay stuck – that’s still a choice. Taking a risk involves ignoring possible judgments from others. It may mean standing on your own, pushing past self-imposed boundaries, and doing something outside of your comfort zone. I don’t think it’s so much of a “no pain, no gain” philosophy. It’s more of an “if you always go with the flow, you never grow” mentality.

How might someone incorporate a little more risk into his or her life?

Pick a few from the list or come up with your own:

  • Explore a new town.
  • Ask for what you need.
  • Sign up for a ropes course.
  • Give someone new a chance.
  • Take a class to develop an interest.
  • Order something different at your usual restaurant.
  • Write or talk about emotions you find hard to process.
  • Ask more questions at your next medical appointment.
  • Respectfully disagree if you are misrepresented on an issue.
  • Share an honest opinion in a place where your view may not popular.
  • Make an appointment with a therapist if you know you need extra support.
  • Risk being rejected, turned down, the possibility of failure, or hearing NO.
  • There’s always sky diving if that’s really something you need to do.

Sometimes the biggest risk we take is not taking one.

Back to the osprey.

My head is submerged most of the time as I keep exposing my body to ongoing treatment. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone. The outcome has surprised me. It is one more thing I have come to accept. The big risk with treatment is it may stop working. That risk is worth it to stay healthy. I’ve learned I can take these risks even when they frighten me down to my bones.

The opportunities I have to be healthy are not out of reach.

It is why I keep my head submerged.

A Moment in Amsterdam: Fear Alley and Stress

Alleys are narrow. I envision them as dark, lonely places, filled with scary things and unpleasant smells. Forgotten garbage litters the ground. Feral cats and large rats compete for scraps. Alleys potentially are filled with scary people who I’d like to avoid meeting. I wouldn’t be excited about the cats or rats either. They are not safe spaces. No one hangs out in an alley because it’s relaxing.

Back in my youth, I was much more adventurous. I found myself exploring Amsterdam for a few days on my own. I loved it there. The colors of flowers from the numerous flower markets were intense. I took canal rides to tour the city. I lost myself in a VanGogh museum. I relaxed in a beer garden and wrote postcards. The Anne Frank House where Anne hid from the Nazis for two years was transformative. The tourist in me took in everything possible. I may have mentioned in an earlier post that I make an excellent tourist. I even let a stranger buy me a drink and joined his family for dinner one night.

Amsterdam is also known for its nefarious red-light district. I figured it was fine to see during the day. My plan was to turn around if I felt it wasn’t safe. It was an easy walk to that area. I felt plenty safe but was very much out of my element. Gradually, I became aware I was one of the only women in the area not “working.” Women didn’t seem to be outdoors at all. I could not imagine what the area was like in the dark of night. It was time to turn around, however, I did not relish backtracking through what I had seen.

I spied an alley to my left. At the end of the alley rose a tall church steeple. Surely, I would be in a better environment if I took this shortcut. I couldn’t see anyone lurking about there. It was a short distance. It couldn’t be too bad. Weighing my options, I decided to do it. Was it a good idea? Yes and no. I had to use my hands to shield my eyes from windows on both sides that featured more things I didn’t want to see. I walked with a determined pace that was almost a run. I emerged from the dark alley back into the open sunshine and was thrilled to discover the church steeple I had seen was now a building that sold Christmas decorations. Perfect. I found a different route back to my room.

Where am I going with this?

Sometimes walking down a narrow, dark alley may be the only way to find the light again.

From time to time, something scary has to be experienced in order to get to a better place. The scary thing can be unplanned, unavoidable, and unravel life. Fear can stop us from pursuing or reaching our goals. Fear can stop any meaningful movement forward. Fear can keep us unwell.

I have had a lot of practice with fear as someone living with cancer. There has been information to process and digest. Decisions have been made. Many appointments, tests, and results have been faced that I would rather not have had to deal with at all. The process has repeated over and over with revised information, more decisions, and so many more appointments. Life has been filled with uncertainty in the same way as not knowing what may be lurking and waiting in an alley. It seems I’m always adjusting and adapting. I face all these hurdles because not facing them is more fearful than facing them. The distance has been much longer than what I walked in the alley in Amsterdam.

Functioning well in what I call Fear Alley for the long run is too hard. Bodies in a constant state of stress do not recover. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Living in a state of chronic stress where cortisol levels are always elevated affects health negatively. Living in fear is like being in survival mode all the time. It’s high stress. Your body, your mind, your soul can’t recover when in a constant state of fear. Those things are sacrificed so the fear can survive.

Chronic stress is the metaphorical mugger lurking in Fear Alley. Stress can contribute to health conditions such as obesity, ulcers, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, and hair loss. A negative relationship exists between stress and the immune system, affecting the way certain cells find and attack cancer cells. Our natural killer cells don’t work as well in a stressed environment. The immune system works better when unstressed. Stress is very handy to have around in fight or flight situations, but surviving in a heightened state of prolonged fight or flight for months and years is going to cause more problems in the long run that will cause a vicious cycle of ongoing stress. Those living with cancer have better outcomes when stress levels are lower. To remain in some type of warrior state where I feel like I am in a constant battle keeps me in a state of stress. I won’t do it. I can’t. It makes my heart hurt. My body physically shakes. Muscles in my gut tighten as if anticipating a punch. The fear and worry spike my anxiety levels.

What if we believed in hope instead?

What if fear and stress were left behind in the alley and images of the alley just faded away forever? You would be left standing in the sun, absorbing warmth, light, and hope into every cell of your being. Your body would have an opportunity to relax and thrive. You’d sleep more soundly and feel assured that things were going to work out. Thoughts and ideas would connect easily in your mind. You’d feel something in your soul that just felt right. This sounds really good to me! For me, less stress means I’m much calmer and more relaxed. My heart doesn’t race. I don’t shake. My stomach is happier. So am I.

Absorbing warmth and hope into every cell means leaving stress behind. How does this happen? Meditate. A few breaths make a difference. Start with inhaling fully for three or four counts and then slowly exhale for the same number. Repeat this four or five times. It’s a mini-break and gives your body an opportunity to reset. Go for a ten-minute walk if there’s time. You’ll combine deep breathing and get a few minutes of exercise. Other ways you can lower stress are to spend a few minutes writing in your gratitude journal, think of something to make you laugh, or make a quick phone call to a friend. Use affirmations to set the positive, hopeful, no stress mindset that you seek.

Hope isn’t found at the end of a dark alley. It’s found in all the little moments where a thought makes you smile, you spend time doing something that brings you joy, or you take that ten-minute walk. All those moments add up. Hope is found in the heart. Ultimately, this means hope could even be found as you walk through what is fearful. Somehow. Maybe it’s just a small molecule of hope, but it grows as you inch toward the end of the alley. Hope is always within.

Don’t let fear crush hope.

Hope makes living with cancer so much easier than trying to live with it from a place of fear. It’s like permanently living in the Amsterdam flower market or having the Van Gogh museum completely to yourself. Every part of your life feels better with hope. There may be alleys to walk through that are unavoidable. I wouldn’t recommend strolling down any just for the experience. Hope is obtainable without an alley walk. I’d like to think hope is also unavoidable.

We all need to hold on to hope and not let go.

We all deserve the sunny parts of Amsterdam.

All the time.

 

Consider responding:

  • When can fear be the only path to lead you to something better?
  • How can you approach fearful places differently and come from a place of hope?