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.

Fundraiser Reflections

My Nifty 50 fundraising efforts have come to an end. I realize I have blogged often about this over the past ten months. This is it . . . very definitely maybe. Yet, it’s been a very successful part of my life. Success is important in the life of someone living with metastatic breast cancer. Success needs to be celebrated. I know I’m tooting my own horn a bit with this post. It is strange territory as I consider myself quite modest. I often look back on completed tasks to reflect on what I’ve learned and reasons why I think something worked. The “reasons why I think something worked part” may be of particular interest to anyone reading who has an interest in fundraising.

My goal was $50,000. The current total is $60,050.

Not too shabby for a fundraising rookie.

Here are a few of my reflections on the process and reasons why I think it worked.

Connections

I was fortunate to connect with the right people who could help support my vision. I worked regularly with two contacts at the UW Foundation who supported my goal. I know these connections wanted me to succeed. My success raised needed funds. Using a MyCarbone personalized fundraising page gave me a platform where I could reach many.

I also spoke often with Rob and Mary Gooze who founded the More for Stage IV Fund through UW Carbone. I learned a lot from their experiences. Their support was phenomenal. They have been in the fundraising world for over six years. Everything they do is polished and professional. Both always pointed me in the right direction whenever I needed to run something by them.

Connecting with the right people and using a platform that many have access to are huge supports when trying to raise money and reach people. News stories on TV helped a lot with outreach, too. Successful fundraising must reach past family and friends. Bigger and bigger circles mean more and more people are hearing about the need for more funding and research for metastatic breast cancer.

Bigger Than Myself

What I accomplished was bigger than myself. And I did it from scratch. There are those in the world who operate from a lens of only how events affect them as individuals. I wasn’t asking to fund a vacation or go on a shopping spree. It wasn’t about me. I worked for the greater good. One reason why I think so many embraced my goal was that it affected so many people. Research affects all of us. 42,690 women and men will die from MBC this year – that’s almost 117 a day. I am fully aware it takes years for an effective drug to go from research trial to FDA approval. My hope is research funded in part from Nifty 50 will benefit many men and women down the road. I’m hoping to benefit from all scientific developments available to me that the near future has to offer. Treatments that are available thanks to someone else’s fundraising for more research.

Coming Together

This project gave people an opportunity to join something where they could be part of something that grew. It feels good right now to be part of something where you can support it and feel like you made a difference. I know I made an impact. Events that were held brought people in the community together. I hope I changed perceptions on breast cancer research and people understand that MBC gets a pretty small sliver of funds designated for breast cancer. I know I got people talking in my neighborhood. I heard from old childhood friends, classmates and friends from my graduating class in high school, lots of friends and colleagues from more recent teaching days. I heard from former neighbors who had moved out of state. I also heard from many people I don’t know and probably never will meet. I read story upon story in comments from those grieving and honoring loved ones who felt compelled to share a part of their story. Nurses from both the cancer clinic and cancer center chipped in and offered me encouragement and their thanks. I am in awe of all of these humans who are amazing on their own and part of a wondrous whole.

Support

The support I felt personally from those messages written on my page lifted me more than I can say. I cried a lot reading those. Some encouragement was loud, some support was quiet, and some was anonymous, but all of it kept me going forward. The outpouring of support made me feel like my actions mattered. I felt people heard me. It made me feel a bit like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life when the whole town showers him with support. I’m no George Bailey, but I felt how I imagine he did at the end of the movie.

Planned Like a Teacher

I approached my fundraiser like a teacher. Teachers make something out of nothing all the time. We call it a school year. And we do it repeatedly. I mapped out ideas and strived for an event or focal point each month. Plans often were revised much in the same way as lesson plans got modified. Nifty 50 gave me a very strong sense of power and purpose, much like teaching did. Nifty 50 made me tired and at times a little stressed, much like teaching did. Kindness was a cornerstone of my classroom. Gratitude still matters in everything. I’ve sent thank you letters to all donors (except for the anonymous ones) featuring photos and highlights of events throughout the year. I wrote personalized notes at the bottom of each. There was a beginning and end date to Nifty 50 just like a school year. Summer provided rejuvenation in between school years. I was always excited to go back in fall and do it all over again from beginning to end. Herein is a problem and some unsettled feelings for me. There is no next fundraiser. I am just done and don’t quite know what to do with myself. Where is my purpose now? I don’t know. I need a bit of a rest and need to focus on me for a bit.

Monumental Achievement

I did it. Me. I don’t typically bite off this much.

And I did it while living with metastatic breast cancer.

AND I completed my efforts during COVID-19.

Sometimes I am the person I’m trying to convince that I can still accomplish quite a bit. Having purpose and goals gives me focus and a place to direct my energy. I hope people remember well after my fundraiser has faded away that ideas that might seem out of reach are possible. It was called ambitious at the beginning by some. Lofty was another word I heard it described as recently. Hmmm . . . I still have to talk to one of my friends about calling it lofty. Ambitious and lofty aren’t necessarily negative terms, but in my mind those words have always been connected more to unobtainable goals rather than determination. I’ve always aimed high. I wanted this to happen. I had quite a bit of control in getting it to happen. I planned events. There was publicity. I stayed persistent and kept hammering away at what I wanted from different angles. A lot of my time and efforts were devoted to this work. I surrounded myself with effective people who knew more about fundraising than I did. I asked a lot of questions to find out what I didn’t know and what I needed to do to get something to happen. I heard NO perhaps more often than I heard YES. Every YES was vital. I even turned a NO here and there into a YES with some reframing.

I have done many things in life. This undoubtedly was something I didn’t expect I would do. I’m proud of what I accomplished. I hope people see that one person can create a spark that creates a fire. We are better when we work together.

I end by referencing the movie Field of Dreams. Ray (played by Kevin Costner) heard a whisper in his cornfield. He heard the now famous phrase, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray believed. He built it. Then Shoeless Joe Jackson came along with many others. My word for 2020 is BELIEVE. I believed I could achieve my goal. I built it. People came. I think it’s the belief in something that is sometimes the biggest reason why something works.

Keep believing.

Top Ten MBC Supports

While I was out walking the other day, I passed the home of a student I had taught a few years back. I’m still friendly with the student’s mother and she was out working in her yard. Our paths have crossed more over the last few months. We have some similar interests and both like supporting our community. On this particular day, she shared that a cousin out in New York City had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Active. Mid-thirties. A new mother. It’s unbelievably hard to process at any time in a person’s life, but I understood it was hitting her really hard during COVID-19 in a geographic area that has seen astronomically high numbers of cases and deaths from the virus. I am calling her Marcie which is not her real name.

I know what’s like to be going through active treatment during a pandemic in Wisconsin. My lens is what I experience and what I see through network news. I don’t know exactly what life is like for Marcie, but I empathize. I know far too well what it’s like to have life repeatedly turned upside down. My friend asked if there was anything I could share with her that she could pass on to someone newly diagnosed with stage iv breast cancer. We talked a bit longer and I said I would message her a couple of ideas.

I found I couldn’t limit it two or three tips as I thought about what to send. There are many things I’ve done over the years. Some pieces fit into my life better than others. Everyone has their own list of what works for them. I thought about what worked for me, what still works for me, and came up with a top ten list that I sent my friend. Marcie and I are now in communication. I share my list as today’s post.

Top Ten MBC Supports

  1. Take a health journal with you to appointments. Use it to note vitals, take notes, keep a list of questions, document side effects, file test results, etc. I am on my third binder. My notes helped me understand appointments better, remember them, and sometimes I needed them if my oncologist said something that I found contradicted something earlier. A health journal provides a source of accountability.
  2. Consider buying Radical Remission by Kelley Turner. This is the top book I’d recommend from all the cancer ones I have read. I heard she also has a podcast. I haven’t listened to the podcast. I am cheating a bit with this point because it contains much of the advice you would suspect to hear on nutrition, stress, and more. It examines 9 factors that long term survivors have in common.
  3. Belleruth Nepartsek has a guided imagery CD that I downloaded early on in my diagnosis. It was called “Fight Cancer.” I listened to a guided imagery segment and an affirmation segment daily. I am sure she has several guided imageries. The one I like involves a real or imagined place outdoors where you are surrounded by supporters that you know or may not know. It was often in the afternoon when I felt fatigued and I would fall asleep as I listened. I still listen to it every so often. I find it empowering.
  4. Comfort foods are good. When you feel sick, you need to eat what keeps the vomit demons at bay.
  5. Exercise as you are able. Even if you don’t feel like it. Try to do a little walking every day to keep moving. I wasn’t always good at this. Now, it is a priority every day.
  6. I found essential oils helped with anxiety and nausea. They are not to be ingested. Just inhale. Lavender, peppermint, and spearmint work well for anxiety and nausea.
  7. You may have to set boundaries with others on what you need and don’t need. It’s okay to say no thank you. Don’t feel pressure to accept invitations or share information just because someone asks insensitive, none of their business questions.
  8. Some people you may not know very well will rise up and sincerely support you. Let them in. Keep in mind those boundaries. Some people you’ve known for years, perhaps some family members and close friends, may disappear because they honestly can’t handle your situation. Let them go.
  9. Advocate for yourself. Ask questions. Be persistent. Be knowledgeable. These qualities make you an assertive and strong patient – not annoying or difficult. Look into your rights as a patient. Know your rights.
  10. Ignore statistics whenever possible. You are not a number. I was given literature to read before initial treatment even started. I could see it contained percentages on survival rates . . . and I threw it out unread.

Bonus Support

I forgot maybe one of the most important things I’ve internalized . . . DON’T GIVE UP. There is a lot of research happening on the metastatic breast cancer front. Ask about it. Research the research on your own. One of the best things I did was some special genetic testing through FOUNDATION ONE that identified some new mutations in cells. Mutations that can be targeted.

Don’t give up. Keep searching to find a way.

Always.

Giving

Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

Giving is a common theme this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas both remind us to show thanks for the gifts in our lives. Giving is just as meaningful as receiving, perhaps even more so.

Material gifts are one of the first things that many think of when they think of giving. Advertisements of cars tied with giant red bows, glittery diamonds in tiny boxes, and shelves filled with toys or home appliances bombard us nonstop this time of year. These types of gifts cost money regardless of how good of a deal is offered. There is nothing wrong with gifts that cost money.

Giving doesn’t have to cost a lot. I want to focus on these simple and meaningful ways to give. Small gestures can be highly fulfilling. Buying someone a cup of coffee or a cookie works. Bake muffins for an elderly neighbor. Buy mints and leave them anonymously on co-workers’ desks.

Giving doesn’t have to cost anything. Passing along books to the corner little free library gives someone else a book you enjoyed. Bagging up clothes for clothing drives recycles clothes you’ve outgrown and is a great way to declutter. Rake leaves or shovel for someone. Send your child’s teacher a thank you email. If your child is grown, send a thank you to a former teacher. No kids? Find a teacher and thank them anyway.

Some of the gifts I’ve kept as a teacher have been notes and pictures given to me by my students. I’ve kept a few letters from parents, too. They haven’t cost a cent but have high value for me. Cards are special in today’s world of emails and texts. I love getting cards. I equally love sending them. Letting someone know you’re thinking about them is a great gift.

Here are a few other ways to give that are free:

Be emotionally available. Make the time to listen. Don’t try to fix anything. Being supportive is listening – not fixing, micromanaging, or criticizing. Don’t switch the conversation back to you and your life. Just listen. Listening and being emotionally available are gifts to someone.

Time is a gift. Carving out those moments for a standing phone call or favorite activities is time well spent. I love to walk and talk. Nature, exercise, and good company are seldom beat. And yes, I want more time. I have lots I still need to do. The time I’ve been given is priceless. I still want more and always will. Not having time is unfair. I don’t want to waste mine.

After that, it’s time for a joke. Laughter is another type of gift. Here goes: Why did the police arrest the turkey? They suspected fowl play. Continue reading when you’ve stopped laughing (or groaning).

Other ways to give are through volunteering, random acts of kindness, and caring for the environment. I often wonder what would happen if we placed little notes on people’s desks, in mailboxes, in children’s rooms that simply read, “I noticed what you did earlier. Thank you.” Maybe you saw them do nothing, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. Chances are the person would have done one kind thing they could identify. I bet it would make people feel pretty good and have a ripple effect.

A sincere and specific compliment goes a long way. People can sense when someone isn’t being honest. It drives me nuts when someone rattles off what is supposed to be a compliment but doesn’t even look me in the eyes. Nonverbal cues matter. It’s okay if a compliment isn’t reciprocated. You aren’t giving one just to get one. People who don’t receive compliments hopefully still are deserving of them and need to hear them the most. Overworked nurses, grocery checkers, coffee baristas, the person at the drive-through all are people with feelings who may be having a bad day. One kind word, smile, or compliment can turn someone’s day around.

Giving of yourself, your time and your talents, is one of the greatest gifts a person has to give. Teaching has been one of the largest gifts I have had to give in my life. I’d like to think my words are another gift. Cancer has NOT been a gift, let me be absolutely clear on that point. I won’t deny I have been driven to change things that I likely wouldn’t be doing if I wasn’t living with metastatic breast cancer. I am working to make a difference so others like me receive more empathy from providers, patients remain the focus of health care, and that research for metastatic breast cancer receives more funding so that more treatment options are available and more effective for patients. It is a lasting gift I can make possible for others that provides hope.

Many choose to give this time of year through charitable donations. Charitable giving has merit. GIVING TUESDAY IS TUESDAY. There are many worthy charities. Here is my reminder to always ask HOW donated money is being used. Does it go to research? Supporting patients? Programs? Promotional products? Administrative costs? Does the charity support or oppose other causes and beliefs you deem important? If you give money, you have a right to know where it goes. Follow it. If interested, you can give here to UW Carbone where 100% of donations go toward research directed to metastatic breast cancer. Scroll to the bottom of my page to see a video message from me.

Finally, remember to give yourself what you need. I treat myself often because it makes me feel good. It also ensures I get what I want. Care for yourself well. I am no stranger to giving myself what I feel are well-deserved gifts. I take good care of myself in that respect. I will take trips, get massages, buy jewelry, and treat myself to good food. I give myself opportunities to exercise because being as healthy as possible is another gift that no one can give me other than me.

Gifts need to be directed toward something good.

I try to do that.

Winston Churchill’s words ring true today. Giving is how we make a life. I will keep finding a way to make my life by what I give.

Find a way to give. Always.

Cross the Line

There are many times in life where people are just trying to get through the day. I am not up for attempting to change the world or my little part of it when I have one of these days. On other days I can be quite formidable. It was on one of these more rebellious days I heard a good old Johnny Cash classic come across the radio – Walk the Line. Do we do what Johnny Cash advises in this song and stay in middle ground area to play it safe? There are advantages to not creating a fuss and staying socially accepted. Respecting boundaries is huge with me. I am not looking to cross any clear boundaries that have been made or have mine crossed. It’s tough for me to hold others to some I have made, but I have gotten better. I can say NO and mean it. Boundaries are meant to mark the limits of an area, to keep us safe, to enable us to play by the same rules.

But there are times you don’t get the notice you deserve if you walk the line all the time. Being a cancer patient is no time to walk the line. Cancer patients must dare to cross it. We must make a fuss because it’s our health that is on the line. Cross it, blur it, erase it, and boldly step into territory where you ask for what you need. New limits may need to be marked and a new set of rules written. These are a few of the times when I think it’s appropriate to advocate for yourself and dare to cross the line:

Cross the line when someone tries to make you feel “less than” because you have cancer, or that you’ve done something wrong because of it, or that if you just did this or that it would go away, or that you aren’t thinking clearly, or that you just aren’t good enough. None of these things are true. There are many pesky questions. These comments are a reflection of the person giving them. Just because I’m thinking about something differently doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it clearly. It’s insulting to infer my mind is affected because I’m making decisions that don’t jive with decisions someone else would like me to make. I won’t be gaslighted. I believe some comments that fall into this category are made in an attempt to feign that the person speaking them cares or to somehow make themselves look good. MAYBE they are sincerely trying to be helpful, but I don’t get it. You can’t lift yourself up by putting someone else down. Call these folks out while you’re at it. Possible responses may include:

  • Why are you asking?
  • Where did you hear that?
  • That’s not true. (I’m not interested in debating it.)
  • I disagree.
  • Let me answer your question as it pertains to me.
  • I choose not to discuss my health.
  • Choose more of an impolite response of your own choosing.

Cross the line when you feel your treatment plan may not be giving you its best. Patients never fail treatments. Treatments fail them. It’s more than okay to ask questions. Secondary cancer does not equate to substandard or second-rate care. We are not any less deserving than early-stage patients. Treatments need to be given in the spirit of the best possible outcomes as they are for everyone else. Sadness, pain, and suffering are all real feelings that don’t discriminate based on stage or prognosis. We should not have to ask for compassionate care or if something more effective may be available, but if these things aren’t there, cross the line. Keep asking if new treatments are available. You might not know if you don’t ask. Doctors may not know you’re interested in other options if you don’t speak up. Doctors may need nudging. Lots of nudging.

Cross the line if you do or don’t want to do something. This could be socially or medically, especially if you have questions about plans directly involving you. Remember it’s okay to change your mind. Everyone can change their mind and it doesn’t mean things have taken a turn for the worse. Everyone’s interests change and evolve over time. You can have energy one moment and none the next. You have a right to talk more about your treatment if concerns and questions have cropped up after agreeing to or starting something new. You are not being difficult. You are being an informed and empowered patient, a good patient in my opinion.

Cross the line when someone talks about someone who has died from cancer and then tacks on in a hushed voice that he or she was Stage IV. I mean no disrespect – but withstanding complications of surgeries or infections – of course they were Stage IV. It isn’t exactly a newsflash. I know I’m sensitive to those words. It always strikes me as somewhat insensitive and unkind to whoever died. Why does it need to a qualified by a stage label? Someone still died. Yes, life changes with a metastatic cancer diagnosis. I feel the time has passed, long passed, for people to whisper the words “Stage IV” after someone’s name. I’d feel better if they expressed more anger and outrage, asking instead WHY or HOW in this day and age hasn’t more research been directed to lower the number of deaths from metastatic breast cancer. THE NUMBER OF DEATHS HAS NOT GONE DOWN SINCE 1995!! I haven’t figured out a way to effectively address this growing annoyance I have with the whispers. Perhaps my first step is to find out why it matters to them to include the information of a Stage IV label with a lowered voice before I go on the defensive. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting their intent based upon the lens from which I hear it. I could then go on to explain how I’m living strong with a Stage V mindset.

I appreciate that people care about me. Most of the people in my life are not intrusive. Those folks get the boot. I have reached a point though that when I encounter someone who is either speaking about me or for me by way of assumptions or falsehoods that I won’t let it pass and be quiet. Perceptions about secondary cancer must keep changing. I felt such a wave of relief and support from a friend I had lunch with a month ago who listened with empathy as I shared how I felt about comments I heard about those with Stage IV. She said she knew LOTS of people who were living years past the five-year survival mark. She should know people like me because she’s a director of development with ties to events and donors at the hospital where I receive treatment. I know there are more people like me who are living by example and changing the perceptions, definitions, and conversations around metastatic cancer.

I am done walking the line.

Support and Friendship

I love cards. I love making cards, sending cards, and getting cards. In the age of texts, emails, and communication through social media, receiving a bona fide card in the mail is rare. A few friends and I send cards to each other regularly. Mind you this officially makes us old school (but not old). Maybe a special occasion is being marked. Quite often sending the card is what makes the occasion special. We just do it. It’s one way we celebrate our friendship and show we are there for one another.

Emily sends me cards often. We met through fate as roommates our freshman year in college. We bonded over many things, but I can’t imagine having the relationship I have with her with any of the other young women who were randomly thrown together to share a room the size of an oversized closet. I am so grateful she is still one of my closest friends today. The last card she sent me was on my survivorversary to mark seven years since my diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Somehow she always finds the perfect card. She writes words heavy in meaning and hope.

The most recent card she sent me had a photo of a robin featured on the front that splashed about in a birdbath even though it was caught in the rain. The caption on the front even referenced the bird always managed to “find a way.” The words jumped out at me since that is a personal mantra of mine as well as words of inspiration for the title of my blog. The message on the inside of the card concluded with the thought that the robin kept singing through the rain.

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Card created by Cardthartic.

Emily’s personal words were supportive and encouraging. She connected the theme in the card by writing she was proud of my “strength and song through the past seven years of rain.” I’ve tried. I’ve been the robin. I’ve walked through a lot of rain. I’ve been the rain, too. I’ve also warmed myself in long periods of sunshine.

I received the card on my actual survivorversary. It coincided with the day I saw my first robins returning from winter. Symbolism is rarely lost on me. I look for signs. There is a lengthy list of positive qualities that robins possess in the world of symbolism, too many to elaborate on here. For the sake of brevity, robins symbolize renewal and rebirth since they are a spring bird. I’ve read that their beautiful song will bring joy and happiness to a person’s life. I am ready for it. I love that more robins than I could count settled all over my yard on a day that already held significance for me. More strength and song.

Strength and song as a combined force brings beauty and softness to strength. It mixes power and muscle to song. I close my eyes and feel hope when I repeat the words over and over in my mind. Strength and song, strength and song, strength and song. Strength as hope. Song as hope. Both lift me up. They make a good team.

Kristin is another dear friend and sender of some of my favorite cards. She is not just a source of hope for me but also a source of strength and song. I can always be myself and share what’s on my mind whether I am a robin singing or drenched and cold from the rain. We value the same things like gratitude, kindness, helping others, good health, equality, and the environment. We’ve shown up for one another over years of friendship.

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A Green-Inspired card

The support she offers me through a few sentences in cards is immeasurable. She writes of joy and comfort, support and positivity, tears and fears, gratitude, friendship, and humor. Surrounding myself with like-minded individuals is important not just from a perspective of maintaining a healthy and hopeful mindset, but in achieving and sustaining happiness. I am so fortunate to have made a lifelong friend from adolescence and still have such a strong friendship almost forty years later.

I recently received a letter from the University of Wisconsin Foundation that both Emily and Kristin made tribute gifts in my name to the Stage IV Needs More Fund. Both of these friends know of one another through me, but they are not close geographically and do not communicate to my knowledge. Yet, they made a charitable donation at the same time to honor my personal milestone as a survivor. Kristin told me I made good points through my blog that more research is needed for later stage cancers. Their gifts are more than tribute gifts for a cause I often promote. It is a gift that shows two incredibly strong friendships of strength and song. Powerful forces work in mysterious ways.

Emily informed me that Rob and Mary Gooze, who established and oversee the Stage IV Needs More Fund through their work and advocacy, included a hand written thank you as part of their acknowledgement for her gift. A hand written note fits well into the theme for this post. Rob and Mary are incredibly warm people. They took the time to show they were truly grateful for a donation. Cards and hand written notes make a difference.

No one goes out to make a friend with the reasoning that it’s a healthy choice, however, there is a connection between friendships and health. Time spent with the right friends raises levels of happiness and lowers stress. We have a stronger sense of purpose and belonging with friends. Friends are there to provide support through tough times. Friends stand by one another. Studies show that having many friends as you age may even help you live longer. Friendships are pretty powerful forces themselves.

My life is wonderful in part because I have amazing friends.

I almost titled this post Strength and Song instead of Support and Friendship. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and to the point. A synonymous relationship definitely exists in equating the words strength and support. Song and friendship may be a bit more of a stretch, but they have similarities, too. The best friendships keep the beat, develop variations of the same melody, and harmonize with perfect tones. I will always think the words strength and song carry new meanings from this point forward.

Friendship is a priceless gift. My friends are family. Unfortunately, there have been friends who drifted away when I received my cancer diagnosis. They don’t have the strength or song that I need. They don’t know how to show up for me or they don’t want to show up for me. Other people (note the avoidance of the word friends) have shown up in toxic ways and I have chosen to distance myself from them. I have changed, too. I’ve made mistakes, but hope I’m a better friend today than I’ve been in the past. Positivity, support, and hope are qualities I’ve always valued in my friends. I choose to surround myself with friends who have these. My closest friends sing through the rain just like I do. We share one another’s victories and tough times.

Strong friendships that last though the years are built through support, trust, and empathy. Laughing is a must. Tears are not shunned. Having fun and common interests helps. Interests that change and evolve over time may contribute to some friendships that lose their intensity. My good friends and I have always found a way to support one another and stay connected even as our lives changed over the years. We all need friends to celebrate with, cry with, and confide in, no matter what is happening in our lives. I want to stay close to friends who feel like warm sunshine on those rainy days. My friendships that continue to grow are nurtured through connection. Connection makes room for trust, empathy, and hope through strength and song.

Thank you, all my friends, for being my strength and song.

Consider responding:

  • How are friendships important in your life?
  • Do you still send cards in the mail? What is behind your decision?
  • What does strength and song mean to you?

Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

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Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?