Finding A Way – Living with Cancer while Living Well – officially is one year old. I am amazed at how much I’ve written and have grown as a writer. It is a good time to review the year and make goals for moving forward.
In the beginning, I wrote about what I searched for in order to be my best. I sought to find ways to increase my strength and stamina. I wanted to stay motivated and never give up my belief that I am healthy. I planned to lead and live by example. I’ve always searched for purpose and meaning in my life.
I am interested in finding joy, positivity, strength, and hope. Finding A Way involves living with cancer while living well. I wanted to achieve this for myself but also hoped that by writing some of my thoughts and story that I would be able to help others find their way. My intention has always been that anyone reading could come away with something to apply to his or her life whether that person had cancer or not.
Strength and hope are two themes I’ve spent a lot of time on. I suspect they will continue to be common themes for posts. Other themes I plan to explore more deeply are identity, fear, trust, perspectives, and change. I enjoy exploring topics through story, metaphors, and when using narrative lends itself to showing these concepts in action. Using these elements provide a visual hook for me and tends to solidify meaning. I remember things better when I have a story attached or have made a personal connection.
Health and exercise have been and will continue to be repetitive threads in my posts.
Frustrations (and perhaps positive experiences) of my interactions with the medical world as I navigate it from my position as a patient may become more common.
I plan to continue posting positive quotes on Wednesdays to add a bright spot into people’s weeks.
My most viewed post was Stage V and Kardashian Power. I have never watched the reality show or follow them in the news. My intention to live and lead by example and change perceptions, definitions, and conversations around metastatic cancer is still a main goal of mine. I know what the statistics say regarding metastatic breast cancer but I still choose to live with a mindset that has moved past the confining medical constraints and live in expectation with my own. I continue to be surprised at what appeals to people. I find it absolutely hysterical that my most liked post was Exercise and Nutrition. At last count, it had 31 likes. I’m so not an expert.
I don’t feel like I’m an expert in anything. I just write about my feelings and how I’m trying to live well with cancer.
I’ve looked over my posts and have identified some of my favorites. I have many! These are listed below and you may click on any of them if you’d like to look back and reminisce. If you are a new reader, I hope they provide insight into what I write about, how I think, and that you enjoy them. I may repost some of these that I want to highlight again. They are still relevant. There is no need to reinvent the wheel if the wheel I’ve created still rolls well.
I plan to continue to write about my life. I invite you to follow along as a subscriber on WordPress by clicking on the gray or blue “Follow” button, or become an email subscriber and receive an email notification whenever I post something new. Please also remember to like a post if you enjoyed it. Comments are always welcomed. I encourage you to leave one. The prompts I provide at the end of some posts are only a guide.
I appreciate you all as readers and taking the time to read my words. Your emotional support means a lot to me. I wish each of you the very best on your search to find a way, as I keep searching for mine.
Find a way.
What have been favorite posts you’ve enjoyed as a reader?
What topics or themes would you like to read about in the future?
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.
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.
Summer arrived right on time. Last weekend brought a picture perfect day. Little clouds scattered themselves across the blue sky. Green leaves danced on tree branches, delighted with the sunshine. Green grass swayed in the warm breeze. Frogs on the ground sang to one another but still went unseen. Birds called out to each other from branches with their song. Everything was fully alive again.
I went for a hike in Pheasant Branch Conservancy.
I enjoy hiking there for many reasons. Sometimes I enjoy the shade and protection of the trees in woodland areas. When phlox blooms, it can almost completely cover some places in shades of purple and white glory. Other parts are wide-open prairie. The watershed is of particular interest to people and wildlife alike. The area even has geothermal springs.
I love the hill the most. It offers unparalleled views of the watershed as well as of the Capitol building in the distance. It’s never crowded. After the climb and I’m on top looking out at the conservancy wetlands, I take a well-deserved rest for a few moments. I’ve even done warrior pose on the lookout platform to remind myself of my strength and celebrate my accomplishment.
The path leading to the top had been closed earlier in spring because it was too wet to have people hiking it. My understanding was there was a mix of safety concerns for walkers and also concerns to protect the trail from damage caused by people stomping all over it before it had hardened from the spring thaw.
My hike last weekend held challenges for me. I didn’t know if the hill path was going to be accessible or not, so I parked my car farther away so I could do a long quality walk if it wasn’t open. My hike wound up being a little longer than I wanted and I got hotter than I hoped. I don’t function well when I overheat. I was warm from the start but I refused to wimp out on the first truly warm day when there would be months of summer heat ahead of me. I enthusiastically convinced myself this was conditioning and I could do it.
I could do it, albeit not very enthusiastically or convincingly.
I discovered the hill path was open and thought I could manage it. I wanted to make it to the top. It’s never been terribly steep or long. However, my walk was plenty long already not including the hill. The ground was still muddy from recent rain in a few spots. There always are uneven parts and I need to watch my footing. I had about five minutes or less left to reach the top when I decided I should turn around and make sure I had ample energy to get back to my car. A tinge of disappointment tugged at my heart, but I know my body well. It was time to head back. I knew I would come back soon.
On my trek down, I met a man going up. He was about my age, give or take a few years. He hiked on crutches. He wore a boot on his left foot like you’d see on someone who had had surgery or had injured his foot. A smile on his face exuded cheer.
I didn’t need to see this man. Or maybe I did.
Crutch Man was obviously fit and strong. I was amazed by how steady he appeared. The nearest parking lot was already a good distance away to have traveled on crutches. Here he was taking on a climb. I marveled at his confidence. I wanted the kind of will power he possessed. It appeared like this hill was no big deal to him. It was too big of a deal for me to push myself with two strong legs and on two feet. The image of him accomplishing something that I wasn’t doing stuck with me for the rest of my walk. It stuck around for the rest of the day.
I felt I had invisible crutches.
How did he manage? What kind of mindset did he have? How could I get it? What was the lesson for me to learn?
Crutch Man, if you’re by chance reading this, I’d love to talk and ask you these questions directly.
What’s easy for one person is challenging for another and vice versa. I imagine I do (or have done) things that others can’t fathom. Teaching a room full of second graders could fall into that category. Living well with cancer could be another. I deal with a lot of medical stuff. I travel on my own. I support myself. We all have something.
Crutches are there to support you while you need help, not keep you less mobile indefinitely. Someone wouldn’t use physical crutches longer than what was needed. Invisible crutches are often used longer than necessary. They are comfortable and safe. They can’t be seen so the owner may not fully realize they are even using them. They are that little voice that nags we better not do “x” for any number of excuses but most of all because then there would be no use for the crutches anymore.
What are other names for invisible crutches people have that are harmful rather than helpful?
There is fear of being hurt, physically or emotionally. There is fear of rejection. Fear of failure is a big one. Failures only keep us from success if we don’t try again. Fear of change is another possibility.
Getting rid of this invisible crutch lets you live more boldly. What if you don’t meet a goal on the first try? So what? I see two possibilities. You try again or move on. What if everything does go as hoped? Wonderful! Do not fear success. Abandon worries and enjoy your moment in the sun.
Comparison is an invisible crutch if you compare yourself unfavorably to a colleague at work, another’s diagnosis, progress, another relationship, or some type of success that you haven’t experienced. There seldom is enough information to make a valid comparison. Why do we do this? I know I’m not the only one. Getting to the top of the hill may have been a goal of Crutch Man’s for some time. Perhaps he had been chunking together small successes for months. Maybe he is part bionic. I have no idea. I don’t know his story. The story I initially told myself was he was better than me and I must be a loser. He very well could have been more capable than me at that moment, but I am definitely NOT a loser.
I know I can hike the hill. I just can’t hike the hill, include a long walk, and do a little gardening all on one hot day (which is what I tried). People are always comparing themselves to others with results that usually find they don’t measure up. I need to stop. Who’s with me? The only thing I need to compare myself to is my own progress. Even then it’s silly because comparing myself to the “me” of my past doesn’t help with the “me” of my present.
Live in the now and forget about comparing.
Limiting beliefs and negative self-talk get you nowhere. They may cause regression. If you think you can’t do something, you probably can’t. If you think small, you may be successful but you might not fulfill your potential.
If you think you can, you may very well succeed. If not, you will learn something that will help you move toward your goal. A positive mindset propels you toward success. An “I can” attitude goes a long way, even if you aren’t entirely sure. How I see myself as a success or failure is part of my identity. I choose to see myself as a winner.
A few of those limiting beliefs may be opinions others have thrust upon you. I have gotten a lot better at not listening to these, but one creeps in every once in a while. Then it’s harder to give it the boot. I was told earlier this week I couldn’t do something. I did it.
Focus on those around you who are supportive. These helpers are not crutches. They are the ones who teach you to fish rather than give you fish. They teach you how to do something rather than do it for you. They encourage instead of criticize. They pick you up, dust you off after you fall, and tell you to keep trying.
Sometimes an invisible crutch is that everything is just fine. Nothing needs to change. Why push to hike a hill when flatlands are much easier? Why make life harder? Life is plenty hard already.
True, but without the hill, I don’t get the panoramic view. I don’t get to be where Native Americans chose as a location for burial grounds long ago. I don’t get the feeling of satisfaction I get from many things when I don’t do the work. Being at the top is worth the effort. The view is worth the work.
Crutch Man wasn’t there to show me up and make me feel sad about turning back early. I may not have encountered him at all had I kept going and looped around the top of the hill before heading back down.
I was supposed to see him.
He reminded me I am stronger than I think I am.
Sometimes I forget.
He was there to show me if he could do it, so could I.
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.
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?