Four years

Four years may not seem like much. I mean, really, what is it? A student may finish high school or college. A baby has grown to toddler and learned to sit up, crawl, stand, talk, walk, run, laugh, reason and test their parents. The parents are seeing their baby disappear as a child emerges. Four years may not seem like much, but to them, this is significant.

To a cancer survivor, four years is a miracle, a blessing, a prayer answered. To a cancer survivor, four years is hope fulfilled.

On April 19, I marked four years since I heard the horrible words, metastatic melanoma. Had I known more about melanoma at the time, I would have been petrified, but as it was, the word metastatic sent enough terror through me. Spreading. My mind wondered, where, how far?

I remember the days before surgery. As I exercised, I did pushups and with every pushup, I willed the cancer cells away. I shouted at them. Told them, “You will not get away with this. Get back to this one tumor and don’t think of going anywhere else.”

I’ll never know if that worked, but only one of 26 lymph nodes had cancer. And that one lymph node was a beast, wrangling in all those unruly melanoma cells. I hope all my other lymph nodes took note, in case I ever need to call on them again.

But I have four years behind me. Four years and I have no evidence of disease (NED). We all have grown very fond of NED in my family.

Even more so than that, at four years, there is a sense of the pre-melanoma me returning, measured mostly by my physical ability.

I am without a doubt, stronger than four years ago, and I continue to gain strength. I am getting faster, despite age and other setbacks. And my confidence has returned. There still may be occassional bouts of anxiety, wondering if I can handle something before me, but those instances come fewer and farther between.

My four year cancer-versary was marked in other notable ways – in new beginnings.

At the end of March, I took a new position within our company, a promotion, to associate editor for the Wiscosin State Farmer.  It was an answer to a question I’ve had since my diagnosis. How do I continue to work and manage stress? Someone asked me today about the job change and I told them, I feel like I have my life back. Watch for a future post with more about that.

To me, however, a more significant new beginning was the start, this week, of the Livestrong at the YMCA classes I will be teaching.

I would not be teaching this class if it were not for melanoma. Strange, but true.

There are so many things I would not have done in the past for years, had it not been for melanoma rearing its ugly head. And I don’t regret any of them.

Actually, I embrace everything melanoma has brought to my life – the countless conversations with people about cancer, the opportunity to advance research by participating in a clinical trial (in essence to help someone else), the chance to talk to seventh graders every spring about sun safety and skin cancer, the opportunity to lead Beat Cancer Boot Camps and make cancer survivors stronger, to lead group fitness classes at the Mukwonago YMCA, meet a fabulous bunch of people and help them lead a more functional life. Mostly, the moments I lived completely, embracing every ounce of whatever that moment had to give.

Even the suffering, the pain, the setbacks. I embrace them all (although I have to remind myself of this at times) because overcoming these, gives twice the meaning to life. If life were easy, there would be no joy, but joy comes in overcoming insurmountable obstacles.

My cancer journey has lead me to places I’d never imagine. Never. Would I trade the uncertainty that accompanies every skin check, every lump, every scan? Probably, but I’ve travelled roads I could not imagine. I’ve touched lives I hadn’t even known. I feel like I’ve truly made a difference, in my own small way, and isn’t that why we are here?

Four years may not seem like much, but it has been more than a lifetime to me. Not to steal lyrics, but I’ve loved deeper, I spoke sweeter, I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying, because I learned to live like I was dying. That alone has been worth the journey and I don’t want to lose that lesson, because I would like to multiply four many times over.

So, as I begin my journey this week of helping other cancer patients gain a more functional, satisfying life, I look back on the lessons cancer gave me in the past four years and give a little salute. Without this experience, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I don’t regret that one bit.

Four years may not seem like much. It seems like everything.

 

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For the record, or not

About a month ago I ran a 5K PR (personal record), beating a time from 2012 – before melanoma. Ever since my melanoma diagnosis in April 2013 I had been trying to get back to pre-cancer form and I did it – for about a day.

Despite any common sense, I followed that race with a long run the next day since I was preparing for a half-marathon in a month and it was the only day in my schedule for a long run. Bad idea. So bad I paid for it for the next month, putting in question if I could even run 13.1 miles.

I bounced back and forth between strengthening and stretching, ice and heat, trying to find the combination that would quiet the pain in my right leg, knee and calf.

A week before the race, I tried to run 11 miles. It didn’t go well, I blamed it on the dog and I spent the rest of the week wondering if I should downgrade to a 5K on race day. However, I don’t give in easily, not to myself, not to pain, not to physical limitations. Maybe to my grandkids, but that’s another story.

Here’s where the grace of God comes into play.

In my online feed, a video popped up from The Run Experience on Achilles running injuries. That video was the difference between me running 13.1 miles or not. I rolled out my calf and shin (intense stuff) like the video showed and noticed a remarkable difference. Enough difference to allow me to confidently go for 13.1 and not downgrade on race day.

I credit the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive” for keeping me loose to the end, placing me third in my age group (surprise! but there were only seven of us) and most importantly, running my third fastest half-marathon time.

Granted, everything flared up again the week after the half, but I have purposely been easing my way back to running, trying to let my body heal so it’s ready for the next half in another month.

I measure my battle against melanoma through physical successes, always aiming for pre-melanoma times, back when I ran with little thought of the precious gift of movement and health. I never take into consideration aging unless it bumps me into a slower age group. I am always measuring myself against the me I remember before melanoma pulled on the reins and yanked the bit out of my mouth.

The thing is, I am now stronger and more fit in many ways than I was before melanoma, however, it’s the time on the clock at the end of the race that matters most, because that means I’ve truly won. I’ve won against time, age, treatments, neuropathy, bulging discs, spinal stenosis, and mostly, melanoma.

I still don’t run the way I wish I could, but I am getting faster. And I’m still running.

My first return to distance racing, I ran a half marathon with my daughter, Stephanie. It was her first half and I beat her by a good chunk of time. She kept running and getting faster with each race. The last race we ran together before my diagnosis, she beat me and it was the fastest pace I’d run in years. A month later I heard the words metastatic melanoma.

She logged her tenth half marathon this month. She keeps getting better with every race and is training for a full marathon this year. We finish in the top of our prospective age groups, with hers being much faster and bigger than mine. But ever since that first race together, as she improved and surpassed me, she’s always told me that she picked up the baton and litterally ran with it when I couldn’t any more.

It’s ironic. My passion has become her fire, has melded us together and provided countless memorable moments to cherish.

Should I measure myself by the time on the clock as I cross the finish line or by each step that has provided memories and fitness to keep me active and vital for my family? Either way, I’m not going to stop running or trying.