It’s all worth it – now shine

If the 30+ minute conversation I had with a lady tonight was the reason I got metastatic melanoma, it was worth everything I’ve gone through.

The lady I talked with tonight has had several cancer diagnoses and was told her cancer is terminal. She’s already lived beyond what they first told her and she’s not sad about the prognosis, but as we talked, I watched hope light in her face.

She shared her story. I shared mine. She told me she wished she had started a fitness journey with her first diagnosis years ago. (She’s part of the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program. Great program!) She doesn’t like the weight she’s at now, but is going through treatment and doctors tell her to not worry about her weight.

I told her what I did after my diagnosis – taking control of the things I could that might help in this battle – diet, exercise, rest, stress. I told her focus on being active and eating healthy and everything else will fall into place.

It’s true. Being active helps us sleep better, helps us function easier, helps us feel better overall. And even if her time is limited as the doctors say, isn’t making each day the best, most enjoyable day it can be, worthwhile?

I looked at her and I saw someone who could prove them wrong. That’s what I encouraged her to do – prove every doctor wrong. In the process she will make each day the best it can be, and that’s the most we can ask out of life.

Even before I talked with her alone at the end of class, I watched how the group of 11 hung on every word I said – because I have walked the walk they are taking now. And I’m still walking, still running, still exercising, still not giving up. Even as our time for the night was over, they seemed to want to listen and I wanted to fill that cup as best I could. As I watched their gazes hang on me, I couldn’t help but want to fuel their desire to beat this horrible disease.

There was the young father with colon cancer. His gaze never seemed to leave my face. Inside, I knew what he was feeling. He has young children. It doesn’t take much to understand that.

There is the woman with breast cancer that just had the lymphedema relieved by her physical therapist and has better range of motion and has seen the swelling go down in her arm so she doesn’t have to wear a compression sleeve.

There is the women whose balance is off and marvels at how I can stand on one leg.

I challenge all of them to keep trying and some day, they too, will succeed.

Success for them may come in many levels – walking the stairs with ease, doing daily functional activities without getting tired, running a 5K faster, proving every doctor wrong.

Never have I believed in people more than the cancer patients I come into contact with through my different fitness groups. Because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

As I talked with this lady tonight, she said that for a while, she had drive, motivation, to go out and do things – it almost sounded like a bucket list type of drive – but recently, that drive had diminished. Everything she really wanted to do before she died was too expensive. I reminded her there is untold value to small things in life.

These are the types of conversations cancer patients can have with each other, because we know what it is like. We are walking the walk.

You see, God seems to have this weird way of placing us where we need to be, but if we chose our own path, we’d never reach our full potential. I know I wouldn’t have.

Given the choice I wouldn’t have said, “Oh yeah, give me one dose of melanoma – make it metastatic in the lymph nodes while you’re at it.” Who the hell would ever ask for that because I clearly remember the dread that coursed through my body when I heard those words.

But God knew better. He knew I would be here, in front of this LIVESTRONG group, in front of the Beat Cancer Boot Camp group, in front of every fitness class I teach. I wouldn’t be here if I never had cancer. I couldn’t be a role model. I couldn’t be an inspiration. Not that I think I am, but it kind of seems to happen that way.

As I wipe a tear from my eye, I wipe away the irony that life reaches its highest potential when you are challenged the most – like a diamond.

So to all cancer patients I say – Shine! To anyone going through adversity of any kind – Shine!

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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.

 

Boot camp

I never thought I would like, let alone own camo clothing, That is until boot camp. Up until then, I wouldn’t have owned anything camo had it not been for my oldest son’s wedding when all the girls wore camo tanks to get their hair done.

After one of the leaders for Beat Cancer Boot Camp – Wisconsin hurt his knee, I started leading sessions in his abscence…and bought camo paratrooper pants (very comfortable I admit) in the process.

I stumbled across BCBC while going through physical therapy after surgery to remove lymph nodes for metastatic melanoma in 2013. My therapist, Colleen, was (is) amazing, and she brought BCBC to Wisconsin a few years ago. It was the flier in the ProHealth physical therapy office that caught my attention.

Years before I was diagnosed, I had been covering an event (I’m a photographic journalist) where I saw something about a cancer boot camp. I remember thinking, “Boot camp would be so cool,” but I didn’t ‘qualify’ as I had no cancer. Be careful what you wish for.

As a runner, I joined BCBC to stay strong and become stronger, since melanoma and Yervoy were knocking me down a few pegs on the fitness ladder. What I found was a support network, a community that empowers cancer patients to become strong, that supports each other, that allows us to talk freely about our journeys (if we want and usually during coffee after Saturday morning sessions) because everyone there understands what the other is going through.

The beauty of BCBC is that every exercise is offered at different levels, depending on where each person is at in their cancer journey, yet the regime is based on Navy SEAL training. While most of the participants are cancer patients, along with a few cancer therapists; BCBC is open to family and friends of cancer patients.

When I started BCBC, I was going through Yervoy treatment in a clinical trial. While the side effects with Yervoy are not as severe as some other treatments, inflammation is right at the top as one of the biggest challenges I faced, magnifying muscle pain to an intense burning sensation.

During that time, I could barely jump or run without pain or much discomfort, yet I refused to sit idly by and wait for treatment to end. Incorporating some of the boot camp exercises into my daily workouts, I became stronger and probably more overall fit than I had been before my melanoma diagnosis.

As the BCBC slogan says, it’s “for strength, for health, for life.” I am no longer exercising to complete a certain distance during each run. I am exercising to add miles to my life. I am exercising to gain overall fitness, not just running fitness. I am exercising for a strong heart and a stronger head, knowing every ounce of muscle gained, is that much more for fighting cancer.

Moving away from my last treatment in July 2014, inflammation continues to decrease, allowing me to participate more fully in each session. When asked to lead some sessions, I’ve gained a new perspective standing in front of the group.

I see the different levels. I see the different struggles. I want participants to know it wasn’t that long ago, I struggled too. I hurt, sometimes even cried in pain. I pushed on. I want each participant to see that they have the potential to do the same. I want each person to know that the best version of themselves is one push up, one plank, one crunch away and you can build on that each day, each week.

BCBC troops are brave, bold and will do more than survive. With boot camp, we will thrive. And proudly wear camo.