Minding life

Recently, I took a two-day training in the fundamentals of tai chi. While I never realized how exhausting and sore one can become through such a slow, meditative practice, it also made me realize how much I had started rushing through life again.

One part of that training required everyone to eat lunch mindfully – no talking, no devices, no reading. Only you, your thoughts and your food.

After I was diagnosed with melanoma that was how I ate my meals. Mindfully. I sat with the intent of enjoying the food in front of me and little else. Occasionally I might page through a magazine or book, but my sole purpose was to be present in the moment of each bite.

Then work and life gradually flooded back over me and I started working through lunch, eating while I finished a story or got ready for the next task at hand. Dinner became a rush of food stuffed between events or tasks. Even breakfast was gobbled down while getting ready for work.

What had happened?

I looked back at those days after my diagnosis and surgery when everything in life jumped out in living Technicolor.

As I struggled to find balance with the new fatigue treatment handed me, my mantra was, “it is what it is” and I got to things when my energy allowed. I wasn’t worried about balancing ten spinning plates at once like I used to before diagnosis. One spinning plate kept me mesmerized – and it was fine.

But suddenly, I had multiple plates spinning again, some faster than others, and I didn’t want any to fall to the ground and crash.

The tai chi instructor kept telling us we weren’t relaxed enough – you can never be too relaxed, she chided. Maybe that’s why I was exhausted after each day. Instead of relaxing and being mindful of each movement, I was trying to gain control, only to realize, it’s not mine to gain.

If I could control my life, I never would have gotten melanoma. True, I had control of aspects earlier in life that could have prevented my diagnosis, but then I wouldn’t be talking to seventh graders in a few days about the importance of sun safety. If I could control my life the way I thought it should be run, heaven knows where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Part of being mindful to me is seeing and accepting subtle signs along the way. Those subtle signs led me to Beat Cancer Boot Camp, which led me to be a group fitness instructor, which led me to the YMCA, which led me to the tai chi class and many other things.

All those things have become part of the plates currently spinning in my life, along with family and my full-time job.

As I watch those plates spin, I have to be mindful of their rhythm and the energy needed to keep each in orbit. Within that rhythm, I’m sure there is space to sit and eat quietly, mindfully, restfully. I’m sure there is space to watch the robin sing outside my door each day, see the hummingbird dart back and forth for food and wait for the dragonflies to fill the sky.

Mindfullness requires breathing, following the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen with each breath. Letting that rhythm fill you, calm you. It’s the only way I have found to come close to the relaxed state needed for tai chi, needed to reduce stress, to survive.

While I am only a beginner in tai chi, I knew mindfullness when I was the sickest I’d ever been in my life. Why did I forget how amazing it felt to be alive when I was terrified of dying?

Tai chi involves achieving a relaxed state of awareness. My muscles haven’t forgotten how sore they were after those two days of training. However, as my leg muscles continue to heal, that big muscle in my head, lingers on the lost art of mindfulness and longs to find that relaxed state of awareness.

 

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.

 

Running through melanoma … and lots of other crap

The snow started falling when we were in the beginning miles of the half marathon on Dec. 4. It was the “Last Call” half, the last chance to PR (set a personal record), last chance to give it your all, last chance to prove yourself as a runner. My goal was simple. Run and finish with no pain.

Pain and long distance running are close friends, but in the past three years, since I was diagnosed with melanoma and went through immunotherapy treatment, pain took on a new meaning. I ran through neuropathy, torn hamstrings (both), IT band issues and most recently issues connected to age rather than cancer – a bulging disc and spinal stenosis. I recovered from a stapedectomy and ran. I wasn’t about to let back issues sideline me, even when I spent the month of June in pain that made it impossible to sit or drive. After a full spine CT (a painful, horrible thing) ruled out melanoma, I was left to deal with the effects of living and aging.

I chose the route of physical therapy. While I am an active, strong person, obviously, something was still out of line, namely, my back. Numerous strengthening exercises, coupled with muscle release, and dry needling got me to the start line with a fair amount of confidence. I didn’t wear a watch, judging my pace solely on how I felt, on how my form was holding up.

In the first half of the race, a lady came up on my shoulder and we started talking, since our paces were similar. I told her my goal was to finish with no pain and briefly gave her my story to this point.

Everyone out there was running to beat their own demons. Everyone had their own story. There was the guy who ran past me wearing pajama pants and a backpack. There was the lady who ran with a walker in front of her. She would walk fast for a period of time then run, until she had to slow down again. There was the girl running her first half marathon ever. When she finished it was the farthest she’d ever run. There was the lady who pulled up next to me and struck up a conversation. She had a heart condition and had to watch her heart rate and her breathing, yet she was running 13.1 miles.

For those who have never run long distance, it is a mental/physical game involving many miles of training, diet, rest, carbohydrate loading, and then the mental game as you hit those last miles and your legs begin to feel like lead. The last three to four miles can be a challenge. Your legs say slow down and walk, your brain says, you can’t give up. I was fighting against pain that has plagued me for the past several years, making me wonder if would ever run a half again.

By the last half of the race, snow was beginning to accumulate. Bridges became slippery, but the snow sticking to branches provided a surreal environment and the flakes clung to eyelashes, glasses and hair. Last year, the last half of this same race was a combination of running and walking because of pain. I finished, but I paid a price.

This year, as I passed the same spots where I had to walk last year, I reminded myself to relax and keep lifting my knees and the rest would happen on its own. In the final stretch, I didn’t think I had anything left to give, yet, I managed to increase my speed, pushing to a strong finish. A finish nine minutes faster than last year. A finish faster than I’d run since the fall I was diagnosed with melanoma and started treatment. The third fastest finish since I’d started running half marathons in 2012. And with no pain, or at least very little. As I said, pain and distance running are companions on the journey.

It was the breakthrough I’d been hoping for since melanoma treatment took me down a different road and other injuries added to the detours. It was the breakthrough I’d hoped for to prove that cancer can’t win. That age doesn’t matter if you keep trying and stay strong. That the race will always go to the one who keeps running.

I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point without my physical therapists, Colleen, Jesse and Nate. I took pieces of everything they each taught me through the years and kept building. I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point without the determination planted in me by my parents and the work ethic they’ve instilled. I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point if I didn’t feel I need to be a role model to so many people, and I couldn’t let them down.

Every runner has his or her story. Every runner is running through some kind of crap in their life, yet they run. They run because of the crap. They run to survive the crap. They run to overcome the crap.

Finally, I feel like I might be on the other side of that pile.

 

Measure of a year – or three – with melanoma

How do you measure a year, or three, in the life of a cancer survivor? 1,576,800 minutes is more accurately measured in daylight, in sunsets, in smiles, in laughter, much like the song, Seasons of Love (from the musical Rent), states. In memories, in moments captured forever for fear of never getting those moments again.

In truths learned (the harshest delivered exactly three years ago), in tears cried (there were many in those first weeks), in bridges burned (life would never be the same), but mostly life since my diagnosis of metastatic melanoma has been measured in love, endless, overflowing love.

As much as I wish I could see my future filled with the annoyance of complications from aging, I worry more about the chance of recurrence, wondering if a cough or lump should be checked. But the one thing melanoma has given my family and I is an unparalleled bond that would not have been welded if we didn’t stand before the black doors of melanoma.

April 19 will forever be an emotional day for me. I can’t seem to get through this day without a certain amount of sadness and a large amount of emotion. Three years out, when I toast to three years of beating the beast, I still see tears in the eyes of those who mean the most to me.

I remember the looks on the faces of my children that day three years ago, the comments and later messages shared. They knew the worst was possible. They knew they might have to carry on without me.

Going back to the song (Seasons of Love), it’s time to sing out – tomorrow I start a new venture in my life as a group fitness instructor, which strangely enough, resulted from my melanoma diagnosis (see previous post).

Our story never ends (as the songs claims) unless we allow that to happen. Our story continues on through everything we do in our lives and every person we touch, change and help along the way.

Share love, give love, spread love – cancer doesn’t stop that from happening. Sometimes, many times, it causes love to blossom.

Melanoma has changed me in many ways in the past three years. It has changed my family and my friends. It has shown us truly how to measure our lives, our years, in love.

Melanoma has brought me treasures and pains. As much as it has challenged my life, it has improved my life. Moments are more precious. Little things like a child’s laughter, a hawk in the sky, a rainbow, a dragonfly, take on enormous value. A moment visiting with a friend is more priceless than an extravagant vacation.

Three years after my melanoma diagnosis seems like a lifetime, yet it’s infantile. It feels like I’ve been through much – costochondritis, diverticulitis, three rounds of physical therapy, an ear surgery, and more muscle issues than I can count – yet it is so little in a fight against cancer.

Melanoma has tought me many things. Mostly it taught me to measure my life in love.

 

Seasons of Love (from Rent)

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnight, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love (love)
Seasons of love (love)

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died

It’s time now to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

Remember the love
(Oh, you got to, you got to remember the love)
Remember the love
(You know that love is a gift from up above)
Remember the love
(Share love, give love, spread love)
Measure in love
(Measure, measure your life in love)

Seasons of love (love)
Seasons of love (love)
(Measure your life, measure your life in love)

 

 

Looking back

It’s been two months since my last post. I didn’t post about the burning, searing, pain in my leg that made me feel like I could collapse at any minute. I didn’t post about the hearing test that showed success from my February ear surgery. Those are yet to come I guess.

Today I look back at a whirlwind weekend, one which a year ago would have sent me to bed for a few hours. Yet, I feel well. Tired, but well. Today I look back at the memories of my son’s wedding a year ago, just a few months out from my last treatment of ipilimumab.

I remember how much I hurt by the time we got to the reception, how tired I was and how desperately I wanted to lie down on a soft bed. I almost left at one point to go back to the hotel, but stayed when I realized my family still needed me, my son still needed me, mostly, at that moment, I felt my daughter-in-law needed me there. I stayed and shot an extremely out-of-focus, badly lighted video of the last stragglers, drunkenly singing one final song. The quality stunk. The memory, however, is priceless.

As I watched that video again, a year later, I realized what I would have missed, if I had conceded to my discomfort. I would have missed a moment that will never happen again.

Cancer does that. Takes those moments and sears them into your heart, telling you – don’t take this for granted. Yet, the further out you get from diagnosis, the more you push this aside, thinking, I’m cancer free, feeling good, moments like this will come again, they will wait. Yet, they don’t.

It’s been two and a half years since my metastatic melanoma diagnosis. One year, two months since the end of treatment. My energy is coming back. In a way that scares me, thinking I won’t take the rest I need to ward off any recurrence. Thinking I’m invincible, I’ve got melanoma beat.

Yet, burning leg pain sent thoughts of metastasize through my head, requiring an MRI to prove the cancer had not spread. Physical therapy was the best solution. Thankfully it is working very well.

I’m tired after our whirlwind weekend, yet would not trade a moment of it for the memories it brought – seeing my youngest son after too long, my parents and my three grandchildren, my daughter enjoying her god-daughter, my son and his wife celebrating one year of marriage, pushing through yet one more project in the updating of our house.

Looking back a year, I realize how far I’ve come. Looking ahead, I realize how much more lies waiting.

Rest might be a good option tonight, for my family needs me tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, for as long as I can go. There are moments that won’t wait. I want to be there to embrace and capture each one.

Circle of life

The Lion King has always been one of my favorite movies. It points out many life lessons. However, I never anticipated living out that circle of life in one emotional week.

In one week’s time, my first granddaughter (third grandchild) was born, my 100-year-old grandmother passed away, I celebrated one year since my last treatment for melanoma, and the week topped off with my father-in-law requiring surgery and ending up in ICU with a tube in his throat to help him breath. The grandeur and miracle of birth, followed less than three days later by the passing of a century of life, sprinkled with a reminder of the life-threatening instances which make life priceless and precious.

While my granddaughter is named after my mother-in-law who died seven years ago, how can it be that my grandmother, whose health has been failing for years, peacefully passes days after her fourth great, great-grandchild is born?

A century of our family slips away as a new generation begins. The circle of life. My granddaughter will never know her namesake, nor the matriarch who formed our family’s maternal branch, but both will be with her in every tradition we share, every token passed down, every memory retold, until she finds her place on the path unwinding.

As the song by Elton John tells us, the circle of life “moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love.”

My granddaughter, and two older grandsons, provide the hope through the despair of death and illness. I found out grandson number two was on the way shortly after my diagnosis in 2013. As I toasted a year since my last treatment this week, it seems long ago that I finished the last round of immunotherapy, yet, in cancer terms, a year out from treatment, two years out from diagnosis, is not that long, thus the continued need for hope and faith.

My father-in-law’s hospitalization reminded me of that as I watched him unable to speak to the room of people gathered at the foot of his bed. They talked about baseball and pouring concrete, yet he drifted in and out of sleep, only able to glance about the room and nod if a yes or no question was thrown at him. I wondered how I would feel if that were me in the bed. And, quite honestly, I wasn’t so sure such a crowd would be soothing, despite best intentions.

The whole week sent us on an emotional roller coaster with exhilarating ascents, plummeting descents and slow, painful, creeping climbs, which we are still climbing, as the fate of my father-in-law waits for doctors in the next few days.

Weeks like this are the rude reminders of the fragility of life, “on the path unwinding, the circle of life.” A reminder that there is more to see, more to do, more to take in, more to find than can ever be seen, done, taken in or found, but the sun rises high… and it sets, every day of every challenging week of every tiresome month, of every year, on the path unwinding.

We have little control on that path unwinding. We simply follow it with the rising and setting of the sun, marveling at each sunrise and sunset, just as one generation rises and another sets in the circle of life.

Nervous opportunity

Tomorrow I will spend more than half the day talking to seventh graders about skin cancer, melanoma and sun protection. I’m a bit nervous.

I’ve spoken in front of many crowds, enough to not be swallowed in fear like I was with my first forensics speech in high school where I nearly passed out. No, I’m a bit nervous for a different reason.

For two years, I’ve wanted this opportunity, to talk to youth, make them aware, tell them what I wish I had heard when I was younger. Not that I would have listened. That’s what makes me nervous.

I want to get it right. I want to reach them so they want to listen, so they walk away with at least one piece of knowledge that perhaps they will share with one or two other people, multiplying the impact.

I’m nervous because middle school is a fickle time when hormones are stronger than reason, and who wants to listen to an old lady nag on about something that will never touch invincible youth. Except it will. Except it has.

In a way, I’m lucky. I got melanoma when I was “old” in the eyes of a seventh grader. Not so old from the eyes of a 57-year-old with grand babies needing loving and hugs and long talks over popcorn and a movie.

I’m lucky because remarkable strides are being made in melanoma research, giving me a better chance of beating the odds. I’m lucky, because I have lived the 30 some years that some younger melanoma patients will never experience. I’m lucky because I’m strong, because I’m fit.

I’m lucky because I get this chance to maybe make a difference. That’s what makes me nervous.

I’ve researched. I’ve been researching since I was diagnosed. Now it’s just a matter of putting it in order, getting the facts out there that will make seventh graders take notice.

I’m a bit nervous. It might take me til the last hour to get it the way I really want it, but even in that imperfection, I hope speaking from my heart touches theirs.