February 4th is known as World Cancer Day and just happened to coincide with the first day of a trip I took to Point Clear, Alabama. I was headed to the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa to celebrate my retirement. It was a perfect time to get away from winter, from people, and from cancer as much as it’s possible to get away from it when it travels with me. The resort had everything I needed on site in an idyllic setting.
Point Clear is far down south in Alabama and across the bay from Mobile. The resort was built back in 1847 for wealthy families. It was also used as a base hospital during the Civil War for Confederate soldiers. Point Clear’s location on Mobile Bay made it a valuable port. There have been a couple fires and subsequent renovations to expand and retain its old southern charm.
The shuttle ride in from the airport consisted of a lot of discussion concerning if there were alligators on the resort property and how safe I’d be walking about on my own. Yes, there were alligators in the area. No, no one had ever had a problem with one on the resort. They really weren’t commonly seen. Did I know that alligators were fairly passive and weren’t going to go out of their way to get me?
No, I did not.
You literally had to already be on top of them or they would need to feel cornered to provoke an attack. If an alligator was twenty or thirty yards away and saw you, it was not going to make the effort. It may not even be hungry. Crocodiles were more aggressive. Even so, no thanks. If I were to encounter one, and say be up close and personal where I’d be wrestling it, I would need to poke it in its eyes and it would instantly release me.
Instantly. Never mind my severed arm or leg.
As an alternative (choice is always good), I could just grab hold of its tail and flip it over onto its back and it would fall straight to sleep and be in a hibernation state.
None of this reassured me. I wondered how the gator unflipped itself because eventually it would wake up. I was told it couldn’t do that and it was the end for the alligator in as many words.
Another driver on a different day told me alligators were more curious about people than anything else. Curious? I think squirrels and chipmunks are curious. I do not care to see an alligator in its natural habitat.
Again, no thanks.
It became clear to me on my first night that people just spoke differently to one another here that went beyond the accent. Chalk it up to southern manners and the hospitality industry. My name was either Miss Kristie or Ma’am. It felt a little funny, but I could handle it for a few days. I entertained telling people my name was Missy just to see if I’d be called Miss Missy, but I knew I couldn’t do it with a straight face.
Past vacations with my family were very touristy. We made excellent tourists. What could we see? What tours were available? There wasn’t much down time. We were on the go from morning well into the night. We saw many things and went to a lot of places. At the end of a trip, we rated everything we did from our favorite to least enjoyed activity. Even now days, there is usually far too much discussion and planning based around restaurants and eating.
It was really good for me to go to Alabama on my own. It marks my 50th state. I am a person who has been on the go for most of my life.
In Alabama, I had every day for down time. I struggle with that because the idea of doing nothing as something is a different kind of vacation for me.
I thought about arranging transportation so I could tour the USS Alabama WWII battleship because I enjoy history. There was a boat tour I was interested in to see birds and other wildlife safely. Kayak tours were available. Those piqued my interest. Then I remembered the gators and didn’t want to be at eye level with them, even if I’d have better positioning to jab them in their eyes.
I started to feel down that I had come such a long way and wasn’t going to do much. Then I remembered why I came in the first place – it was to take it easy and relax. I did not come to run myself ragged and see how much I could get done in a day.
Point Clear was the perfect place for my destination, named because of its super visibility. I had great clarity on why I came, what I wanted to accomplish, and how I wanted to feel.
My agenda for each day read as follows: Do Whatever I Wanted.
I didn’t want to be scheduled. I wanted to get up when I woke up, eat when I was hungry, take a long walk every day, work out in the fitness center, maybe swim, and spend time reading. I looked forward to enjoying the warmer weather and change of scenery. I hoped to write a bit every day and gather up new ideas from being in a different location. Doing nothing as something was really a pretty full day.
Porch swings dotted the brick path that bordered the shore and looked outward to the water. Hammocks waited for company. Rocking chairs made themselves at home on the patio to my room. Wicker furniture circled bonfire pits inviting guests to kick back, watch sunsets, and relax at night under the stars. Those were all signs, some pretty darn good ones if you ask me, that the pace in Point Clear was supposed to be slower and more relaxed.
There was a shuttle to Fairhope each day. One day I ventured in because I liked the name of the town (big surprise) and noticed the tulips and daffodils were out when I passed through coming from the airport. Since tulips are often one of the first spring flowers to bloom, they are associated with rebirths. Daffodils also symbolize rebirths and new beginnings. How perfect to see so many in a quaint town with hope as part of its name. This vacation signaled a new beginning for me – a lifestyle of staying active and embracing opportunities to relax.
I walked around a bit, popped into a few shops, and visited the history museum. Much to my surprise, it was in one of the boutique shops that I encountered my one and only alligator. She looked sassy and not the least aggressive, but I left her where I found her.
Taking time for self-care is essential for me as I live with cancer and live well. No doctors this week. No appointments. No need to share with anyone. There would be no one judging how I looked or analyzing my every word or action. It’s as if I could be completely normal for a few days. As far as anyone knew, I was normal. That was my story and I was sticking with it.
Normal. What a wonderful feeling. Getting away from it all was awesome. It was definitely a perk of being on my own that I didn’t have to factor in someone else’s life.
Forgetting. Being normal.
I know there are all sorts of normal. Normal for me is abnormal for others. I want the normal of being healthy. I want the normal of waking up with energy and not having to conserve it so I can do something I really want to do later. I want the normal of being able to plan my life with certainty and not wonder about dark things like alligators and such.
Others may have their own inner struggles with what normal looks like and feels like for them. Everybody has some insecurity whether it’s related to health, personal relationships, work relationships or performance. Some aspect of a person’s life is hard and just doesn’t feel normal. Some people are awfully good at looking like they have it all together. A normal life (problem free) is not possible for anyone.
At this point, I also realize I’ve come face to face with the dreaded alligator just about every day, and that every day I flip it by its flippin’ tail after poking its eyes for good measure. It’s my attempt to keep living well with strength and purpose. I make my own rules for forgetting what I want to forget and being normal.
Forgetting is a luxury. Being normal is relative. I’ll take what I can get.
What I got in Point Clear was a place where no one knew I have cancer. Discovering that clarity was a tremendous gift. I felt happy. Capturing this feeling requires that I stick with my story of being normal when at home. I can stick with it because I can live that story. It involves forgetting the parts of my life that are challenging in terms of my health.
It demands that I keep flipping that alligator whenever it dares to snap its ugly snout at me.
See you later, alligator.
Today I begin something new. My plan is to post a quote each Wednesday that has helped me think about some aspect of life. I hope these quotes can do the same for you and that you enjoy them. They will be short and sweet, yet hopefully meaningful.
I still plan to write a longer blog post for each Sunday. Be well!
You can’t unring a bell.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is very much the same. You can’t go back to the way things were even after surgeries, radiation, and treatment are finished, even if you are assured the cancer is gone. The fact remains that you had it. Everything you went through has inherently changed you in some way.
Others may not see it. Physical appearance doesn’t change drastically for many. Family and friends may tell you that you look the same to them. You are still the same you. It’s intended to be reassuring. There is some truth there. (I find it annoying.) To say you look the same on the outside and imply that you are the same on the inside is what some people mean. That is not fair, nor their call. I know of one marriage that ended because a friend’s husband didn’t understand his wife was still dealing with a lot of difficult emotions. She told him, but she looked “just fine” and everything was “done” and needed to get back to “normal” so he couldn’t understand why everything else wasn’t therefore fine by default. Certainly, there could have been other factors to this marriage ending. I know of another marriage that ended because the husband understood there were changes on the inside as well as on the outside, and he wasn’t attracted to the outside any more. What a guy! There could have been other reasons behind this marriage ending, too, but it seems like cancer became the impetus.
Then again others may see it all too well. Somehow a person who has suffered and is somehow different in a good way may be too much for others to accept. They would be very happy to go back to how things used to be in order to feed what they need. This is where disapproval, insults, and being told that YOU have done something wrong come into play as attempts to keep you in a place that works for them. These relationships should end. There is no room for toxic people in a life that has seen its share of toxicity. I personally deal with toxic drugs almost every week in my efforts to stay well. I can’t deal with toxic people or negativity. Whether finished with treatment, currently in treatment, or in ongoing treatment, do not choose to tolerate toxic negativity from any person. Enough. January is a good time to start fresh.
Maybe you feel not much has changed on the outside or the inside. My position is inside changes took place because you grew from what you experienced. Change accompanies growth. Those who don’t like change don’t have as much opportunity for growth. I used to be one of these people and it’s still hard for me. Change is uncertain and often I don’t understand why some things need to change. I’m trying to understand that changes are there to teach me something and I am working to be open to changes. Changes can be new beginnings. January is a good time for these, too. New beginnings after diagnosis and treatment may be a new job, home, or relationship. Maybe you look at life differently, and have reexamined your belief systems or time commitments.
One constant remains: You can never not have had cancer once you’ve had it. That bell was rung.
I’m tired of its clanging and repetition.
I believe you can ring other bells louder so the sounds drown out other bells.
Ring the bell of resiliency.
We are all capable of more than we know. Resilience is another one of those intangible factors that makes people rise up time and time again after tough times. Yes, problems are inevitable. How a person deals with them is what matters. Being resilient means you find a way to continue to thrive even when there are problems. Taking care of yourself is part of being resilient. Physical and emotional self-care are non-negotiable. Exercise, eat well, meditate, find joy. When your outer and inner self are strong, it means another layer of resolve has been added to resiliency that problems cannot break through, whether the problems present themselves as people, situations, or things.
Ring the bell of joy.
Do more of what you love. Have that cookie. Take a day off and do something fun, frivolous, and completely fantastic. No need to justify, or explain, or defend it. For me, I choose to walk trails and be among trees. I sit on my sun porch and listen to birds. I laugh at movies I’ve seen too many times. I call friends or get together with them. I enjoy exercising (usually) and enjoy it even more when I’m done and reaping the benefits.
Have another cookie.
Yes, I know I mentioned that one twice.
Ring the bell of gratitude.
I believe there is a richness and depth in appreciation that gives life both more purpose and meaning. That thing where you think of five things to be grateful for at the end of each day works. Feeling gratitude is easier when you feel healthy. What about when you aren’t feeling well at all? Knowing myself as I do, I know my emotional and physical health does impact what I’m capable of feeling in the gratitude realm. The other night I had one of these moments. It was about twenty-four hours post treatment and I was flushed and hot from the neck up while the rest of me had the chills. I was low energy and felt a little sick. But I knew if I could get to bed and fall asleep that it would pass and tomorrow would be better. That was about all the gratitude I could muster. My point is it was enough. We are human and do the best we can on any given day. That is the space we all share where health status doesn’t matter.
Ring the bell of knowing yourself.
Take whatever time you need. It isn’t selfish to take time for yourself and know what you think. It isn’t selfish to do what is best for you. Live your beliefs. Others don’t have to like them or agree with them. You do. I thought I knew myself pretty darn well before the cancer diagnosis, but it sure caused me to be more deliberate with how I live. I am more sure of myself now than ever, even though I continue to be a magnificent work in progress.
Ring the bell of standing strong.
You may have to keep ringing a lot of bells longer than you had planned until the unwanted bells stop ringing. Keep at it. You’re stronger than naysayers. Statistics do not know you. You’re more than a number. I get tired of bell ringing, but remember that the sounds create important tones and vibrations. These bells make beautiful music.
Nope, you can’t unring a bell. You can’t let anyone else ring it for you either. Ring all the bells you need to ring until you hear a song fit for a carillon tower. Your song.
What bells would you like to stop ringing in the new year?
What bells would you like to hear ring more?
At first, I thought I was really reaching to connect things together in my life. Setting and achieving physical goals kept me focused on moving forward. Some sort of emotional “ah-ha” always manifested itself through these physical goals that were in process. My evidence is below.
Last summer, I wanted to complete a hike that required climbing an exhausting staircase made from rocks. The last time I completed it was in the summer of 2016. My body had been through so much two years ago and even more since then. But this is what I wanted to do and felt I could achieve. I began training in spring. Stair climbing became part of my workout routine. I increased time from ten minutes, to fifteen, and to twenty minutes in my house, going from my basement to second story, over and over again. It wasn’t terribly exciting, but it did what it was supposed to do and was a super workout. I knew both my strength and endurance had grown. I accomplished my hike (on a triumphant second try) and checked it off my list.
Work was going well in my weekly sessions with my fitness coach (permission given to shout out to Forest Coaching and Studios ). I also had made the difficult decision that it was in the best interests for my health to retire from teaching second grade. Necessary emails had been sent to my superintendent, my principal, my teaching team, and finally the staff at school. Describing those emails as tough for me to write is an understatement, but they were part of the plan to move forward with continued better health and my life. So, I was retelling all this to my coach while I practiced huge steps up and down from big blocks. It was all work going toward the successful hike. They were not average size steps. She commented on my retirement emails saying, “That’s a really big step.” Yes, it was. Then it hit me as I towered over her on top of one of these blocks that physically these were really giant steps and it all was a metaphor for what I was going through in my decision process.
My hike was something I had to do. I thought it was just about proving that I could do it. It did test my physical abilities and my will. Initially, it was planned as a birthday activity. It also became a celebration of a career that had successes, challenges, and finally closure.
Building strength is a continued physical goal. Again through the support of my awesome fitness coach, I had progressed from lifting eight pounds to 65 pounds over the course of six months. Whooo-hoooo! Now November, I hadn’t lifted that much since summer. I worked on it again a couple of weeks ago. My first rep was tough. The blasted weight didn’t want to be lifted. I was frustrated. I remained immobile in my lifting position and commented on what was pretty obvious.
“This is heavy.”
Then I dug into the lift. I slowly straightened.
“But . . . I . . . am . . . stronger.”
I stood strong and tall, victorious over the challenge. I almost cried, but I achieved it, and completed all my reps, with great satisfaction. Here is another strong metaphor for the emotional strength I’ve strived to build over time in terms of decisions, plans, and support I have needed to give myself. Knowing I am physically capable reinforces that I am emotionally and mentally competent to take on everything I do. I make the choices that are best for me. I am the only person who can be me. No one else knows exactly what’s it’s like. I get to decide. I can accept it if others aren’t with me. I don’t like it, but I can accept it. I am strong. I am enough.
I am more than enough.
A couple of years back, I could walk an hour fairly easily. Due to side effects being on a certain chemotherapy drug long-term, walking deteriorated bit by bit due to neuropathy and then muscle issues caused by neuropathy. I didn’t have much stamina. Again I had to start slowly from the bottom. First, I walked twenty minutes on the treadmill. Gradually, I built that up to thirty minutes, and then forty minutes. When spring came I figured I was ready for outdoor walking. Eventually, I’ve built back up to a 60 minute walk. I feel my physical stamina and endurance mirrors where I am emotionally because I am so in this life for the long haul. I have more to do and need stamina and endurance to achieve all my goals. Just like with my physical strength, I feel my physical stamina positively spurs on my emotional determination every day.
Now, I am working on jumping. I do not know how long I have not been able to jump. At the very least, it is correlated to the time when I was not able to climb or walk very well. I don’t remember really trying to jump for the sake of jumping before then. My “Jump Around” bits at Camp Randall Stadium on Badger Saturdays were always movin’ and groovin’, but not very jumpin’. Recently, much to my dismay, I discovered I could scarcely muster up a hop. I felt really old! Now, I can manage a high enough forward jump to clear a super small hurdle. It still bugs me. Surely, higher and farther jumps will be the next thing on the list to conquer. Interestingly, jumping too has an effect that’s mirrored in my non-physical life. I have been visualizing more writing endeavors for myself (like blogging, finding representation for a book I want to publish, establishing a platform). I must make a leap of faith. Learning how to physically jump again has been the hardest for me, perhaps because its mirrored counterpart is equally as hard for me. Well, blogging has become a reality for me, and that bodes well for my other writing goals. I will keep jumping in leaps and bounds.
None of these are coincidences. I don’t believe in those. My physical pursuits have incredible meaning for what I am working on personally. Cancer impacts both, but it doesn’t define either. I hope you can see symbiotic mirroring in your life. I’d love to hear from you if you have stories to share.
Some choices are a lot easier to make than others. Choosing the length of a walk on a given day is an easy choice. Ordering a favorite meal at a restaurant is easy. Snuggling up with a good book is an easy choice. Sleeping in is a no brainer.
Other choices are harder. We all face tougher decisions about many things ranging from work, finances, home, relationships, marriage, parenting, and health to name a few.
Giving myself a chance is often the hardest. I can be my own worst critic. It’s easy to support others, and yet I doubt myself with the exact same task I am so confident others can achieve. Sometimes I perceive a physical drawback; other times it’s a mental obstacle of self-doubt, inner criticism, and negative self-talk. The mental obstacle always is present, causing me to question a physical choice. Just as I do physical strength training, I can strengthen my mind.
How do I maintain a strong mind?
I can’t do (insert difficult activity here). Well, what if I could? What would it look like? How would I get there? Why do I think so definitively that I can’t? When my fitness coach asks me for two or three more reps during a workout, I respond that I can do three more and I do. This wasn’t always the case. When I think of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t do something, I have to stop myself and come up with reasons why I should absolutely and unequivocally do it. It isn’t that I have to do something, but rather that I get to do something. Positive self-talk and compassion sends negative thoughts on their way.
If I don’t believe in myself, I’ve already greatly limited my chances to succeed. There are times when it feels like I am the only one believing in me. Being stubborn is usually a great strength of mine that I need to recognize and work to my advantage. I must tell myself that I can and reframe things in the affirmative.
Planning is a huge reason for many of my successes. I am a planner. When I have a plan, success is more likely. Plans used to always work for me. Then cancer threw a wrench into some of those plans and success took a lot more work. Success had to be redefined. I needed a lot more contingency plans and attention to so many details that at times all it seemed I did was planning and plans were never put in motion. Plans so often changed. Then I transitioned into a “plan and adjust phase” where I wouldn’t take it as an automatic failure if Plan A didn’t work out. I would adjust a bit and call Plan B a learning opportunity. I would just keep chipping away at whatever until I found a way to succeed. This still works well for me, although I often feel like I have to work a lot harder to pull off something physical than someone who looks like they’re achieving it effortlessly.
Looks like. I have no idea what effort someone may be making physically or mentally. It also rings true that others do not understand how hard I’m working. We are all the same that way.
As an aside, I would like to state that when my plans change, it isn’t something I want to happen. I want to keep plans, but can’t always make it work. Please don’t take it personally. I’m already too hard on myself when I have to cancel or turn something down in anticipation of side effects I know are coming. I’m working on finding more soft spaces within myself.
Breathing resets my body and gives my mind a reset as well. Maybe it’s just thirty seconds of good, deep, diaphragmatic belly breaths. It’s all I need to remind myself that I am the boss of me, that I am strong, and that I can do it. Meditation has proven health benefits in that it reduces stress, blood pressure, and has sleep benefits. Even a deep sigh with an extra long exhale can trigger the automatic nervous system from being over stimulated to being more balanced.
Music also helps me, whether I need something relaxing and classic, or I’m in the mood for more current hits. Do country roads take you home? Is it all rock and roll to you? Does Bach have your back? Fine, fine, I’ll stop (in the name of love). The point is to have music available that you love and that suits what you need. Music expresses emotions and works with parts of the brain in ways that words alone do not.
Movement resets both my mind and body. Sometimes I think exercise really does more for me emotionally than physically. Even though there is a chill in the air, the cold, fresh air makes me feel alive. Not too long ago, I took a walk in one of my favorite places on a very windy day. A slight mist became heavier. I didn’t care. In fact, I absolutely loved it and knew it was exactly where I needed to be. There’s also a correlation to walking faster which helps keep my heart happy. Although it sounds counterintuitive, moving around lessens fatigue. It may feel like the last thing I want to do. Exercise helps clear mental fog and I feel better overall when I’ve finished.
Having cancer compounds negative chatter all the more. It can step in instantly when something doesn’t work out and tries really hard to stop me. There is no room for that kind of chatter if I am to maintain my strong mind. And I am. I just need to keep giving myself the chance I know I deserve.
And so do you. We are all the same that way, too.
BEING STRONG is one of my repetitive themes. I think about it, talk about it, and write about it.
I do it.
I used to think of being strong in purely the literal sense – muscular, powerful, and indestructible. Rarely, if ever, do I achieve this type of strength. In time, my definition broadened to a mental strength able to withstand hardships and adversity. Both of those definitions still hold true for me, but strength takes on a personal definition when you define it as an integral part of yourself as a cancer survivor. What does it mean to be strong as someone living with cancer?
Being physically strong helps build your own private army inside to combat disease. A strong body makes it harder for disease to take hold. A strong body usually means a strong immune system. And it feels good! Build strength and stamina as you are able. Walking, cardio, and weight training all build stamina and strength. Pick an activity you enjoy. Physical strength does so much more than build muscle. Being physically strong also boosts your confidence and will.
Stand Tall and Mean It
Posture is great and exerts your confidence. I was surprised to discover I grew an inch in the past year. The reverse is more what I’d expect. I attribute the miracle inch to working out more, stretching my spine, and not carrying myself slightly hunched over with the fear of what might happen next. I’ve learned a lot about how to stand tall physically and emotionally. Right now, I want to emphasize the more figurative meaning. Be more than okay with the choices you make. You get to decide. You are in control. There are many days it feels like you aren’t in control, but you are so much more than a bad day or days. Trust yourself to make the choices that are right for you. No one else has to understand it. Stand tall and mean it. I find myself regularly surprised at how good I feel when I think of myself as ten feet tall on the inside. RISE UP!
You Are Strong Enough
No matter what situation you find yourself in, you are strong enough. I love the pep talks I give myself. It’s really important you know how you feel about how you plan to live because you will have many opportunities to speak your intentions. Not everyone will support these. Too bad for them. Some may even insist you can’t do something. You certainly are stronger than someone else’s opinion of your inner strength. You are stronger than you know. Think of all the unknowns, challenges, and disappointments you’ve gotten through in life. Don’t doubt that you are strong enough to handle what comes your way. You are amazingly strong.
Tears As Strength
I have always been a crier. It has taken years for me to grow into my tears and understand they are a strength and not a weakness. I am comfortable with my feelings. I am vulnerable enough to let them come. And I have an ugly cry, just saying. Crying it out releases emotions that need to be sent away. Everyone is different. Some of us are more sensitive than others. Crying works really, really well for me. LET TEARS BE PART OF YOUR STRONG STORM.
What does being strong mean to you? Being a strong cancer survivor means I can define strength however it works for me. I can push myself a little harder and farther physically. I can tell negativity to take a hike. I can be tough enough to take breaks and rest. I can have a good cry when needed. However I choose to define strength, I know I am more than strong enough. We all are.