Saturday, December 31, 2011

The time has come for my usual end of the year journal entry. I usually write this in my leather bound book, but this year, I will blog it instead. It has been an unusual year of ups and downs for me and my family. In many ways it has been life changing and eye-opening. We are now sitting on the last step, looking down a very long staircase of shock, worry, sadness, grief, and the ultimate discovery of strength, forbearance, and love.

The lower steps started out shaky, creaky and hesitant, and the upper steps emerged strong, steady and even. We will take the final step this year knowing we can get through situations we never dreamed we could endure, and in the process we have found a depth of character and a wealth of family love and support we didn't know we were capable of.

It wasn't just my ordeal with early stage breast cancer that defined this year for us. It started out with my grandson Cole and the discovery that he had a tumor-like area in his tibia. The discovery was made quite by accident when he had to have an x-ray on his other leg. He and his physical therapist had a fall in the pool that required an x-ray. As it turned out it was a lucky thing he had that x-ray, because it pointed out a weak area in his other leg, where bone wasn't forming properly. That discovery had us all very worried and heartbroken at the prospect that his not being able to walk on that leg, would mean his muscles would atrophy and he might lose his already precious ability to walk.

Thank God for the excellent medical care he received, and that he has the pluck and courage he has. His bone is holding strong after his surgery and he is indeed still walking with the help of his walker. He is a strong little man and he has inspired all of us with his positive attitude and his unquestioning drive to move forward to do everything he needs to do every day. It is hard to believe that we as adults have learned so much from someone so young and so innocent. We have all gained from this experience, although it didn't look to be anything positive at all at first.

That ordeal sparked the decision by my daughter and son in law to build their new house at the farm. It is a beautiful house with wide hallways, open rooms, and an elevator for Cole to move about the house at will. It was designed in large part by my son in law, who has a knack for visualizing these things, and the business savvy to make them happen. I admire him so much for his level headed financial acumen and his intense love for his family. My daughter is the other side of that equation. She is a master researcher and she spends endless hours determining the best course of treatment and care for both of her kids. Even while she is working so hard to do that, she finds time to be an excellent cook, photographer and interior decorator. Her new home is tranquil and beautiful, all due to her artistic eye. It has been a big year on the farm, and we celebrated that with the best ever Christmas celebration in the new house. We all had a wonderful time.

As for me, the call I got the Friday before Mother's Day made my world stop and shift - in the time it took to have a five minute telephone conversation. The words - you have cancer - are the words no one wants to hear. I never thought I would hear them. I have always worked very hard to live a healthy lifestyle and have never done things to excess. I have enjoyed good health my entire life, and I hadn't bargained for that news at all. My husband was equally shocked, but was there with a strong shoulder to cry on. He endured his own battle with cancer in 1980, and we both thought we had seen the last of the big C in our lifetimes. As luck would have it, the aging body has other ideas about things like that.

I could look back on all of those events and think they were the worst things that ever happened to us, or I could look at them as a time when I discovered a lot of things about myself and those I love. I found out I am strong enough to endure whatever I have to in this life, and that I can get through a surgery. I had never had one before, so it was all foreign territory to me. I also found out I have the best family a woman could ask for, and their support and love buoyed me up through the entire treatment process and recovery afterward. I never felt so much love and it gave me strength. God, how it strengthened me!

I am a very lucky woman in so many ways. I am fortunate to have caught this thing as early as I did, and for the great medical care I received. I am blessed to have my precious family and friends. People can badmouth Facebook as much as they want, but there wasn't a day that passed, when I didn't get lifted by messages of concern and support from my friends on my home page. It kept me going, while I was gathering strength for my journey. I will never forget that love and support when I needed it most.

As if all of those events weren't enough, my dear father, whom I love so much, went through some very serious medical problems this past summer. We came very close to losing him, but being the fighter he is, he came back not once, but three times, from some terribly serious conditions. He is an inspiration on the other end of the family age spectrum - of strength, resolve and strong faith when it comes to overcoming obstacles. He has faced so many medical challenges in his life that he teases about being a cat with more than nine lives. I think he is onto something there.

So now comes the time to make resolutions for the New Year. I resolve to live the coming year without limitation. My new awareness of the frailty of life as we know it, has spurred me to decide this is the year to move my life in the direction I've always hoped it would go. My writing is taking on a new significance and I don't intend to spend one minute regretting what I haven't done. It starts for me now! Anyone care to join me?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I had my six month follow up appointment with my surgeon yesterday. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy going back to the cancer center. I was rattled to the core. It seems in the past couple of months, I have been able to think of other things besides the "C" word now and again, and it has been nice. Walking back in there brought back raw fear as if it were just yesterday when I was diagnosed.

I kept talking to myself about the fact that the surgery is over, the radiation is over, and now it is just surveillance. My rational mind knew that, but it wasn't informing the small quivering child within. It decided to keep it on a level that couldn't be reached for awhile. As I drove over to the center, I marveled at my ability to shake and shiver and still drive quite well. I hadn't forgotten the way in the past few months. I had however, gotten a new smaller car, so the drive was a bit more fun. The new car is more sporty and not so grandmotherly. Maybe that was the result of some latent need to feel young and carefree?

As I arrived, I pulled right into the valet parking lane, and turned my fob over like an old pro. I managed to hold the door and the elevator for a woman with a walker. She and I visited on the way up, and I welcomed her warmth and good humor. When I approached the registration desk, they were ready with the dreaded hospital bracelet and page of stickers. I knew the routine. I also knew the volunteers would soon be offering me a cup of tea or whatever I wanted to drink. They are so soothing and caring. It helps.

I waited to be called in, and noted when I had to get on the scale that I had worn my heaviest pair of shoes and a sweater. I was hoping to be down at least ten more pounds by my six month follow up. Not the case. I didn't even ask what my blood pressure was, as the nurse took it. I didn't want to know. I had no problems to report. I was a little worried about an area of hard tissue under my incision, but I would address that with my doctor.

I didn't have to wait long for her to arrive. I had opted to slouch in the chair to wait for her instead of sitting on the backless exam table. I was doing my best slouch, when I heard her knock at the door. She entered the room wearing a stylish herringbone wool jacket instead of her usual white coat. That put me at ease instantly. She also had a smile on her face and she looked into my eyes as we spoke.

Our previous encounters before my surgery and just afterward were neither warm or cordial. I thought it was her demeanor, but now I wonder if it was mine, or maybe a combination of a very concerned professional who wanted to do her best job, and a very scared patient. Nonetheless, we had a very nice visit.

She examined me thoroughly on both sides from every angle and told me that she found absolutely no areas of concern. She had the results of my recent labs and she was pleased I was taking vitamin D and was on track with my thyroid medications. We talked a bit more about my plans for follow up with my medical oncologist (I have been dreading that one too).

I was surprised that from this point on, I would only be seeing her at the same time I get my yearly mammogram. It reassured me that I wouldn't have to be monitored as closely as I feared I might.

I don't know if I will ever get used to the idea that I have had breast cancer, but I feel more accepting of it now. I don't wake up every morning in a cold sweat with my heart pumping hard and fast. Some days I can even sleep in. I will never take my health for granted again. I will do what I need to, in order to keep on top of things. I even have a colonoscopy scheduled, and I am not really sweating it. I guess we could call that progress!

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day! This is a day I have both enjoyed and taken for granted for a very long time. When I was a kid, my family usually had a picnic at a local park called Sully's Hill. My mother and grandmother used to fry chicken, make potato salad and pack a wonderful picnic lunch. We kids would run wild through the park, just basically raising hell and being maniacs. There was a huge hill to climb, which overlooked the whole area. We made our way up that hill, and after reaching the top, all six of us would take off running down as fast as our legs would carry us. At the end was a fence made of cut timbers. I don't know how we avoided smashing into that fence as we reached the bottom, because the hill was steep and one could pick up a good head of steam before reaching the bottom. Our guardian angels must have been working overtime in those days.

The day usually ended with a drive through the natural habitat trail. It was dotted with prairie dogs, elk, deer, and the best reward of all - a herd of buffalo. It was an awesome experience to slowly navigate between those big creatures, and my heart would beat a little faster, wondering if something might make them stampede. If they decided to do that, I was sure our little Rambler would have been smashed like a tin can - with us in it.

As the evening turned to night, we often found ourselves at my grandmother's house. She and my grandfather lived directly across the street from the park where the fireworks were lit. She had all of the chairs set up outside her screen porch and a thing she called a smudge pot going. From what I could tell, the smudge pot was a metal pail of burning embers to which she would add handfuls of green grass from time to time. It would smoke something awful, and she claimed that would keep the mosquitos away. It seemed to work. We felt very lucky to have a good, cozy vantage point for the fireworks, and a smudge pot to keep us from being eaten alive by those virulent North Dakota mosquitos. To this day, I don't know anywhere, except Canada, where the mosquitos are so thick and overpowering. I am too much of a wimp to chance the mosquito gauntlet these days, although I have to admit those pesky bugs seem to leave me alone for the most part. I always say it is the Native blood I inherited from my father's side of the family.

This year finds me staying at a lake cabin in the northwoods. I am feeling especially grateful for the ability to enjoy a holiday with my family. Almost a month ago, I was facing the first surgery of my life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer and facing a lumpectomy. I was terrified of the diagnosis and the idea of surgery. The news hit me with the realization that my life would never be the same again. My husband and sister spent hours reassuring me I was going to get through the surgery just fine, but I wasn't convinced. I had always been the healthy one in the family - the kid who never caught the flu or the cold that was ravaging the other kids. That turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

I never got used to being messed with from a medical point of view. I didn't have to face many needles, medicines or doctors. I had routine check-ups, but not often. When I did, everything always came back perfect. Suddenly, I was having to trust being put out with a general anesthetic and letting my surgeon cut into my body and remove things. The things she was removing, were a small breast lump, about an inch long and a few lymph nodes for testing. I tried to tell myself it really wasn't a big deal and I would heal quickly. I have always been a quick healer.

The surgery went well, and I did heal quickly, however I was not ready for the underarm pain the small incision there created. I was bruised, dyed blue in strange places and generally on high alert for a few weeks. I had to hurry and heal however, because we had a trip to Florida planned with our daughter and her family. I was determined not to let this damned cancer thing define me or limit my life. The healing happened and the trip to Florida went off without a hitch.

The week after my return, I was scheduled to meet both my medical oncologist and my radiology oncologist. The idea of oncologist just caught me up cold. I fretted over the first appointment - not sure what I was going to be told. To my huge relief, my doctor turned out to be a woman a few years my senior who was both compassionate and reassuring. It made my second appointment easier to face. My second doctor was a younger woman - 40ish - smart, articulate and caring. I feel so grateful to have those women along with my surgeon, another brilliant young woman overseeing my care. I am feeling trust for the first time in my life, when it comes to my physical well being.

Today, the blue of the sky, the smell of the lake, the call of the loon and the eagle soaring overhead bring me back to my native roots. I am seeing signs everywhere that all is well and will continue to be that way. I feel free in so many ways now. There is the Fourth of July holiday that I am privileged to be healthy enough to enjoy and there is the freedom from the "C" word. It has been removed from my body. Life will never again be the same for me, but there is nothing that says it can't be better!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

For some reason I have taken a rather long hiatus from blogging. I guess it just lost its appeal for some reason. At first it was so much fun and I had a lot to say, but for a period of time my writing muscle became weak and began to atrophy. I am feeling a resurgence of my passion, however. Maybe it is the first of the year, and the resolution thing.

I was musing this morning about the Kindle we bought my mother for Christmas. I was wondering if she would ever buy more than one book on it. She is an avid reader, and her bookshelves are piled high. I thought the Kindle would alleviate the huge overstuffed bookshelves in her townhouse. As I was thinking about it, the phone rang and it was her on the line. She was in fact trying to figure out how to navigate her Kindle. I am encouraged that she is not giving up easily.

My other concern was the watch that we gave my father. We felt he deserved a really nice watch, but I had reservations that even at his age, he would feel he should save it to wear only for dress occasions. I voiced that to my mother this morning and she told me that he had just told her that he was indeed going to save it to wear for special occasions. I told her to tell him that at his age, every day was a special occasion and that he needs to wear the watch.

The gifts I received this year, have added to my quality of life, and I am grateful for them. I have a coffee brewer that allows me to make a mean cup of mocha in the morning, a pillow that gives me a better night's sleep, and a few kitchen gadgets that have renewed my interest in cooking. That is always a good thing. We have a special bottle of wine that we are looking forward to tasting with some very special cheese as well.

Since we went on a huge weight loss kick several years ago, I have lost my love of cooking and eating. You would never know that by looking at my plump little frame, but I am one of those people who could eat nothing and not lose a pound. My thyroid petered out years ago, and as a result, I fight the weight constantly. My challenge this year is to cook tasty food with less fat and calories. That, and exercising often with the Wii that my husband gifted me with. So far, I am able to figure out these electronic toys, and they have made life richer.

However, another goal I have for the year is to limit my time surfing the net and also to make real connections with those I love, instead of relying on the quick blurbs on the internet to stay connected. There is a balance that has to be found between being too involved in my children's lives and being too distant. I think in the past couple of years, I have been less on the telephone and more on email, which can lead to some real misunderstanding at times. Actually Skype has been wonderful when you can't be there. There is nothing better than seeing those grandkid's faces and watching them being cute and funny when I can't actually be there to give and get hugs.

We've had some challenges with health issues this year. We are staying optimistic about those and focusing on the positive. We all go through this things, and as I see it we can be miserable doing it, or we can pluck as much joy as we can out of every day and not borrow trouble.

I have a huge respect my children and their spouses who have little people with real health challenges. I am not sure if, when I was their age, I would have been as level headed and calm as they are in working through those things. Their children are well balanced and grounded, and living life to the fullest every day. As a mother and grandmother, that makes me very proud and grateful.

Well, those are some January musings. It is lovely to be writing again. More soon. It feels great to be putting fingers to keyboard again. Happy New Year!