Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The healing power of sharing my cancer story compelled me to found WWGN. I'm an inspirational speaker, contributor at CURE and Positively Positive, Huffington Post blogger, support volunteer with Cancer Hope Network, member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, patient educator with Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer.
I ended up in the ER the other night with my son. I was supposed to be somewhere else that night, but these are the moments that remind us how little control we really have over life. We were there for several hours and, in the end, everything was fine. But the sitting, waiting and worrying crept up on me again like an old nemesis.
I keep bumping into that wall – the fear of not knowing and having to wait for answers. It didn’t help to be sitting in a hospital room, the site of so many bad memories. It was just a few hours, but a significant microcosmic reminder of what I went through from September, 2008, throughout 2009 – the year plus from hell. It’s funny how it brings it all back and all you can do is try to rationalize how it’s not the same. But, emotionally, of course, it’s exactly the same. How can I not recognize that threat of something bad brewing while I sit here desperately trying not to panic?
I attempt to calm myself by focusing on the here and now. By being present and not wandering off too far into what was, I can try to take it one moment at a time. I also remind myself that I never had complete control, life has always been messy. In fact, after my first child, Emma, was born, I started referring to my new mother life as a "beautiful mess." This memory helps put cancer in perspective - it's certainly one of the more dramatic examples of life having its own trajectory, but it's hardly the only example.
So, I am reminded again of Woody Allen’s quote, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” My plans are to keep going, attempting to be aware and accepting of what is, and despite my emotional memories, to keep myself as focused as I can on the here and now. I am hearing a definite guffaw from above.
Several weeks after I had my mastectomy at Overlook Hospital, I received a very real gift which took me by surprise. I was in the Cancer Center to meet with Kristen Scarlett, my oncology therapist, when Sarah Mandel asked me if I had received my “bling” during my hospital stay. No, I hadn’t, but it sounded interesting……
The three of us went into her office and she produced a collection of sterling silver cubic zirconium rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. I was happily told I could have my pick of an item. The three of us had fun rummaging through all of the possibilities - it was a real girls moment. I picked out a beautiful ring with a modern three “stone” design.
I learned that the “bling” came from the Operation Bling Foundation, which was founded by Chris Ferdinand of Ferdinand Jewelers in New Providence, NJ. Chris began the foundation with her husband, Bill, as the result of a visit they made to a friend who was in the hospital battling ovarian cancer. The friend, who was also a client, complained that she missed her “bling” while in the hospital. The next day Chris brought her friend a gift: a sterling silver cubic zirconium ring. Her friend was so touched, she cried. From that pure act of kindness came the inspiration for Operation Bling Foundation, whose mission is to“give sparkling jewels to cancer patients during their hospital stay, bringing them cheer and pleasure.”
I walked out of that hospital feeling so supported and blessed. Not because I was given a beautiful piece of jewelry, but because of all the emotional support I received from Kristen, Sarah and people I didn't even know at Operation Bling. I looked down at that ring on my finger and I saw a perfect symbol of that support. The first stone symbolized my family, the second my friends, and the third, all the amazing people like Kristen, Sarah and Chris Ferdinand who came into my life solely due to my cancer experience.
I just picked that ring because it was pretty, but its true value as a symbol of the gifts I was receiving made itself clear soon after I put it on my hand. I had to admit that, right there beside all the losses, were some very real gifts just waiting to be recognized. I hope you had an experience like that. If so, let me know how the gift of emotional support helped you during your cancer experience.
I found yoga because of cancer. As I wrote in my first blog post, I operated my pre-cancer life under the assumption that the answer to every question was “No.” As such, it took me a lot to get to “Yes” and venture out. Plus, I’ve done my share of aerobic classes in which I felt spastic and completely lost. Who wanted to submit to that again?
Of course, my two cancer surgeries took a major toll on my body. I guess I was desperate to do something to improve my body image. Three months after my second surgery, we joined the local Y and I started using the weight room, something I had never done before in my life. I was committed and went regularly, but I could feel my interest waning fast. So, I tried a Pilates class.
The class was crowded and I was lying on my mat in the middle of the floor. I was doing okay until the instructor told us to lie on our backs and raise our feet off the ground. My feet wouldn’t budge. Not an inch, not a half inch. Not to make excuses, but I had a TRAM flap procedure as part of my reconstructive surgery. I was down to one transverse rectus abdominis muscle where there used to be two. Plus, I was totally out of shape.
Of course, that’s the intellectual response. I actually responded with shame and total abject grief. I was shocked to find yet another cancer loss - the ability to do something so seemingly simple. I wanted to run out of the room weeping, but I would have trampled other women who could lift their feet off the floor.
So much for Pilates. I know it works for others, but it just wasn't for me. I thought about doing yoga some time ago, but of course didn’t follow up. I found a class called “Stress Management Yoga,” which I felt safe walking into as a total beginner. Before the class started the teacher welcomed me, letting me know that yoga was noncompetitive and that wherever I was in my abilities was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment. I followed along as best I could and it was love at first down dog.
It’s been a year and I now do yoga every day, Monday through Friday. Just the other day, out of nowhere it seemed, I attempted the boat pose and my feet miraculously went straight up in the air. I had tried it before and couldn’t do it, so I was stunned. I’ve come a long way from that Pilates class and yoga has helped bring me here. It’s been good for my body and my spirit.
Yoga reminds me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be today, and, so it seems, are my feet.
As an interior decorator, I subscribe to a lot of shelter magazines. One of my favorites and the one I’ve subscribed to the longest (it’s been a few decades) is Country Living magazine. In the March 2011 issue, I came across an article about painter Kolene Spicher, who has a husband, three sons, a successful business, and ovarian cancer.
The Spicher home is a beautiful symphony of collectibles, family heirlooms, and handmade pieces. Kolene spends most of her time painting in her home studio, which looks out on the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania. Although her business produces art for catalogs like Pottery Barn and Ballard Designs, she simplifies her days so as not to exhaust herself. She credits her illness, which she’s had for most of her adult life, with amplifying “her desire to surround herself with beauty, in her work and in her home.”
As I read an article I thought was just about another well decorated house, I was surprised to feel Kolene's story resonate with my own. Ovarian cancer has obviously affected her in limiting ways – affecting her ability to travel and live a healthy, disease-free life. Yet, she also credits it with real positives. As she states in the magazine article, “It really is the simple things-roasting marshmallows with the kids, watching TV with Mark-that bring me happiness.”
I don’t know Kolene and I don’t know what it’s like to have ovarian cancer, but I related to her obvious appreciation of her cancer gifts. I don’t think for a second that positive thinking alone gets you through cancer. But I do know that my emotional health took an immediate upswing the minute I realized it wasn't all about the losses. I guess it’s about finding balance when you’re on very shaky ground.
I am struggling with my first blog post. Mostly because I never in a million years thought I would write one. I am a very open person when I get to know and trust you, but we’re not exactly at that point, are we? But, if you’re like me and have gone through all those life changing moments that cancer heaps upon you, you know cancer has a way of shaking you up and leaving you altered.
So, I think I have to start with the concept of saying “yes” to yourself. When I was a kid I remember asking for permission and most times being told “no” before I even finished the sentence. I’m sure nurture enhanced nature, because I became a championship level “no” person. Every idea I’ve ever had came with my standard long list of cons. Of course, cancer isn’t an idea, it’s a reality - and reality has a way of smacking you in the face.
A lot of people say that cancer taught them to live life more fully, because they learned every day is precious. I get that, but I don’t really come at it from that angle. I was blessed to know early on in my cancer experience that I was not going to die. I did misinterpret that good luck to mean that my experience wasn’t going to be a big deal, which meant I had no right to get that upset about it. Of course, that assumption left me unprepared for the emotional toll cancer made me pay. But I went through it all and I eventually learned from cancer how strong I am. So maybe I can say “yes” without fear of failure, and probably fear of success. If I can handle cancer, I can handle anything.
I am grateful for the opportunity to learn to say “yes” more easily than I used to. The creation of Where We Go Now is a direct result of learning to say "yes" and letting an idea breathe and grow – to see how far you can take it – or maybe how far it can take you. It’s an exciting and new experience for me and one which I am learning every day to just let happen.
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