Teal Magnolias

I know the undeniable strength of community.  I know it in terms of what it takes to be a successful teacher, student, cancer patient; It takes the courage of others when my own courage falters. When I can,  I offer my support back.  I have cried on the shoulders of giants and I have dried many tears rained upon my own shoulders.  My family and friends were, and continue to be, my life-lines when my diminished immune system kept me in isolation.  There is no denying that I have an indefatigable community backing my walk with ovarian cancer.  And the evidence has become quite clear as September 9, 2018 approaches. This date – is my very first “Walk of Hope” for Ovarian Cancer.

I’ve never been much of a fund raiser, but this year I thought I may dabble in it a bit.  From the moment I dipped my toe into the waters of change, however, I was a convert.  I recognized that my journey with ovarian cancer is not unique; There are many other women whose lives have been turned upside down with this disease.  Like me, the majority of these women were diagnosed when the disease had spread extensively throughout their bodies:  Stage Four.

There is no screen test for ovarian cancer and more often than not, the cancer grows undetected.  It is sometimes found by happenstance when something else goes wrong and the cancer is accidentally discovered.  And that is the best case scenario.  In my case, I didn’t know why my side hurt so much when I coughed, or when I sneezed.  I dismissed the pain as menopause.  I dismissed my bloated middle as menopause.  I dismissed my fatigue as stress.  I simply – dismissed the symptoms which masked themselves as “something else” which was innocuous.  This story – is far too common.  I hear the words, “I dismissed my symptoms” far too often during my volunteer shift in the chemo-suite.

I have had great success to date with a drug which was specifically designed for individuals with the BRCA II gene – the only thing that Angelina Jolie and I share, sadly.  The drug is known as Lynparza, developed by Asta Zenica.  And so far – it is holding my cancer at bay.  It will be two years this September.  I am hopeful.  But I am realistic.  And reality hit me hard yesterday when I met a woman who was on her third bout of ovarian cancer – after Lynparza failed to work for her.  It is my understanding her kidneys were not coping well with the drug.  Of course, it is a toxin so something at some point is bound to give out – whether that be kidneys or liver or… what ever else.  For now – I am holding – trying to take good care of my body so that the toxin can do its job and then “move on”.  What was remarkable about the woman I met, though, was that her spirit was still strong.  She was still fighting.  She was resigned to the fight – not knowing the outcome, but having faith in her doctors and the chemo.

I’m not sure I have that sort of grit?  One has to reach down and dig really deep to muster the courage to face chemo … again.  The seventeenth chemo was tough for me. I wonder how I would face an eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth?  I wonder how I would feel about losing my hair all over again?  Feeling toxic all over again?  Having to isolate myself all over again?

This is why I am walking on the 9th.  I don’t really want to have to go down that road of knowing the answers to those questions.  I am spoiled by my current quality of life – even though I am a slave to my fatigue.  No biggie.  I taste like a normal human being.  My sense of smell is that of a normal being.  I am not clouded in my thinking (although my memory sucks).  I can carry on a meaningful conversation and organize my daily routines.  I want to continue to live this way.  I want to be the one “helping” others to recovery from their chemo and ideally – their cancer.  So – I will walk.

The Walk of Hope is the only annual national event dedicated to supporting ovarian cancer education, support and research. Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope (Barrie) is being held on September 9, 2018 on Barrie’s lakeshore, starting at the Southshore Centre.  Click on this link to read my full story or to find the “donation” button.  The name of my community?  Teal Magnolias.  What else would we be called?

 

 

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Posted in ovarian cancer, Uncategorized, Walk of Hope | 9 Comments

A New Day Had Dawned

The day was about to begin.  There was a sense of mystique about that notion.  Beginnings were always exciting to her – more than “being in the middle of’s”  or “ending up as”.  Dawn, no matter whether rainy dawns or sunny dawns, no matter snowy or foggy, dawn was always special.  It had been her mother’s favorite time of day.  It was during that time when she connected with her mother.  Quietly.  Intimately.  Without anyone else even knowing.  It was an awakening of sorts as she was finally able to reconcile her mother’s spirit which lived within.  The trees seemed greener.  The wind seemed kinder.  The birds’ songs seemed more chipper.

Looking out her bedroom window, she could see that today was going to bring rain.  That was okay.  She loved the rain.  Rain brought calm.  Calm brought reflection.  It was a time to gather thoughts, organize memories and make sense of her world.  There had been so much happening in her life that her sense of priority had become muddled.  There was much ado about everything.  She needed someone to set her straight – to inukshuk her world per se.  Her mom did that for her for years – then Thelma.  Now?  Now she had to turn inward to find the guiding spirits.  She needed to listen closely to the voices of the past and to hear their sage advise.  Rainy days provided more reliable conduits for mentors of her past.

“Be still.  Listen.  Float.” she repeated to herself.

But she was  distracted.  There was a hum in the air that gummed up her hearing.  She just couldn’t seem to get a clarity.  Even through the morning rain.

She looked away from the window.  There was laundry to do.  There were beds to be made.  There were bills to pay.  The routines of life seemed to drown out the pleasure of her dawn divinities.  The walls of her room had been painted so many years ago and she was painfully aware the colour needed to be updated.  The green of the 90’s had been slapped on the wall as an emergency cover-up for the orange – bedroom makeover the previous owners had indulged.  Bit of orange poked through out of the green in spots.  They had been staring at her for the last decade.  And she had been staring back.  This stand-off happened when she lay in her bed, thinking how that stucco on the ceiling would influence the resale of the home.  She didn’t mind stucco – but she had watched enough home decorating shows to know that it was “out of style”.  The orange paint inevitably won the staring contest as she blinked and looked away every time.  She knew though, that one day, that paint would lose and a carefully selected shade of grey would put the orange beast to sleep once and for all!

It was nearly ten minutes later when she snapped out of the decorating battle she had waged in her own head.  She bent down and picked up the laundry basket – then walked out of the room and into her morning.  Dawn had ended – the mystique was gone.  The day faced her head on.  Down the stairs she went.  She was careful to step over the dog who lay at the foot of the stairs in an awkward sprawl which encompassed the base of the stairs and the bottom step.  This was a good place for Jazz, the dog, to claim.  She was not permitted upstairs – from the time she was a puppy.  One of the children had a rather severe allergy to dogs and to have Jazz upstairs would have resulted in distress.  Of course the obvious solution would have been to simply not get the dog in the first place.  A pleading child, which then became the chorus of three children and a husband trumped logic – and poof – the dog became the new addition to the family.

The washing machine was full of clean, wet clothes already.  The dryer too – was full of dry clothes.  It was as though the machines had done their job, but the master of ceremonies had departed and left the machines to perform the closing act all on their own.  Of course, this was not to happen and so “she”, the supply emcee – stepped up to the plate to remove the dry clothes into a hamper and transfer the wet clothes to the dryer so that this new load of laundry could begin it’s own first act.  Wash.  Dry.  Fold.  Remove.  Wash. Dry. Fold. Remove.  Wash. Dry… sigh.  There had to be more to the day.

And there was.  Just down the hall – waiting for her in the kitchen sink – the dishes were calling her name.

She looked out the window once more.  The sky was grey.  It sucked her in.  She flew up towards the misty Heavens and soared with the gulls who played in the currents.  They swooped, dove, hung suspended on an updraft, carried by the winds.

“Mom!”

Crash.  An emergency landing to reality brought her back down.  “Canadian Tire wants to know if I can go into work tomorrow!”

And the world of work was about to begin for child #3!

The morning had already thrown her a curve ball.  How to juggle this new schedule?  How to balance her world?  How would she manage to fit this one extra piece of the family puzzle together?

“That’s awesome, David”, she exclaimed.  “Sounds great!”

David ran back up the stairs with a bounce in his step.  It was a big deal to begin working.  He had stuck with his efforts to get that job for more than a month.  After six visits to see the manager, he had finally been afforded the opportunity for an interview – and then – a job offer.  Steel toed boots:  $100.  Work pants:  $50.   Hair cut:  $30.  It was expensive to get a job.

Her mom would have been proud of David.  She knew how her mother would have reacted with delight!  She had already, most profoundly, most emphatically proclaimed her adoration of David when he was a toddler.  She giggled as he took her order, when he played “restaurant”.  It was always the same order.  “I’ll have a nice, juicy steak with a hot baked potato and sour cream, please.  And make sure you don’t over-cook the steak.” And away he went to her kitchen to prepare the fantastic meal.  It always arrived quickly back from the kitchen and was “cooked to perfection.”  A quick kiss to her fingers was sent through the air to indicate her great content … to then repeat the entire process several more times before David grew tired of the game.

She drew closed the sliding glass door.  The wind, for the first time in what seemed months, was cold.  It was a relief.  She hated the heat.  Now, the cold was just a bit too much to take all at once.  She reconsidered and opened the door just a crack – just enough to enjoy the refreshing coolness but not enough to throw the family into the deep freeze.

The song of the dishes grew louder.  She turned to listen.  They weren’t going to wash themselves.

The day had definitely begun.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

My Own Hundred Acre Woods

Watching Christopher Robin with my youngest child, David, rendered me rather nostalgic and I took a rather blissful walk down my own memory lane to enter a 100 Acre Wood of my Own.

I grew up in the middle of pretty much  no where.  There were 80 acres of no where.  At least – it was no where when I was growing up.  Now, of course, towns have expanded their girth and inflated to include grocery stores, liquor stores, and paved roads.  But – when I was growing up – there were no real conveniences in our proximity.  The odd car would venture down our dirt road, but it would not pass without commentary.

“Who is that?”  my Dad may inquire.

“Oh, that is Dr. Shannon”, or “Looks like the Ivys may have a new car”, my Mom would add.

No car went unnoticed.  Several “odd” ones may turn around in our driveway when they noted the street was not really the one they had anticipated it to be – it was the wrong way on a long dirt road.  And in winter, the road was not maintained.  Travelling too far would lead to a mound of snow and blowing drifts.  Followed by nothing, leading to no where.

Nothing and nowhere was a good place to be for me as a child.  It is primarily this line in Christopher Robin which triggered my own memory:  “Doing nothing can lead to a lot of something”.  Or something like that.  I had no siblings at home to play with, nor were there neighbours and so my time was spend with my parents, my horses, or Mother Nature.  She (Mother Nature) would dictate my activities.  When it was cold and icy, I would skate right on the road which had iced over.  The ice was seldom challenged by any machine applying salt or sand.  Remember, the road was a dead end?  I would throw on my skates – not knowing how far I would go – not knowing what rocks would suddenly pop out in front of me – not knowing when I would return.  I just went.  In summer, I would collect seeds and pretend I was a chef.  The seeds, I would collect in a bowl and stir the mixture until it looked “divine”.  Of course – they were inedible but that didn’t really matter.  Doing dishes was easy – the mixtures would be tossed out of the bowl and float down to the bare dirt which covered the forest floor.  Normally – the kitchen “du jour” was in my tree-house deep in the woods by the cabin.  A lot of life happened in that tree-house.  It was a safe place to be – unless you fell out of it which did happen on occasion.

Mother Nature kept me busy.  And when I think to my childhood, I am flooded with memories of the woods where she lived.  They were ethereal.  On days, the sun would shine through the trees to the saplings below as though bathing them in a bath of gold.  These places – of which I knew almost every one of them – were satellites of Heaven.  And I knew if I went to one of them and sat very still – I would be able to visit with my Grandpa who had passed away when I was nine.  Our visits were very quiet.  And they were very secret.  I didn’t expect that anyone would understand or experience my encounter of the divine the same way.  Funny how I still remember in vivid detail just exactly what those “spots” looked like.  They seemed to be unchanging.  I think I would still be able to find them even today.  The greens, the golds, the sun.  They still wrap themselves around my thoughts today and comfort me.  They shield me from life’s storms and offer me comfort when I am alone.  This memory is one that I cherish the most – just Grandpa, Mother Nature and me.

I am still mesmerized by the forest, even today.  To walk Jazz, my dog, in the woods is much like taking a bath after a long, hard day of work.  I will simply stand in the middle of the forest and breathe.  Every breath is full of purpose.  Every inhale cleanses my soul.  They give me the gift of life and, in turn, I offer them my breath.  It is symbiotic when I am there – doing nothing but breathing.  And dreaming.  And remembering the feeling of being a child once again.  There is an earthy smell emanating from the ground.  The cool breeze touches my cheeks.  My memories dance in my mind and I know that if I let them free – they will take me to a time when life was simple and easy.  At least – it was for me.  At least – that’s what I thought.  There was an innocence to my childhood that is almost illusive to me today.  I think if I concentrate on it too much it will be tainted by the judgement life has given me as a adult.  If only my judgement could be lifted, my childhood would be set free to join my adult self and let me play in the wonder I once experienced.  If I am still and quiet for long enough – I can remember the joy, the play, the security I enjoyed.  The trees, the song of the wind, and the warmth of the sun walk me down my more enjoyable childhood story.

It is in the woods where I cast of the layers of troubles I carry with me daily.  I am relieved of the weight of routine, bill-paying, worry, decisions… challenges.  I am liberated from the what-ifs of cancer, travel, work… struggle.  It is in the woods where nothing leads to something.  And something can lead to many things.

So – thank you Christopher Robin – once again, for reminding me of the joy I can still find in the childhood I had in my own 100 Acre Wood.

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There’s your sign

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to get my brain spinning on an idea or a concept.  Other times – it’s like there is no room at the neuronal inn; Guest concepts may walk through the corridor of thought and find the place jam packed full of baggage and so, they have no other option than to turn around and walk out.

I am getting much better at predicting when I will be receptive to thinking and when I’ve reach capacity, though.  There are a myriad of circumstances that have become “benchmarks” for me – signs per se  – that caution me to speed up, slow down, or even completely stop.   I learned today that it may be that I am starting to self-regulate.

Self regulation is something of a novelty to me.  When I was teaching, and before cancer, I was, as others would have called me, “the energizer bunny”.  I knew no limits.  I could fly by the seat of my pants and turn a lesson around on a dime if need be.  I had ideas that grew wings and flew uncontrollably around others that they would often be damaged or bruised by the force of the collision.  No limits.  No boundaries.  And then, I would crash.  Inevitably, by March Break, I would be sick with a cold, the flu, whatever ailment was hovering.  I had no idea how to find the work/ life balance.  It was all or nothing.

Then – boom!  Cancer hit.  Hell hath no fury like a woman’s ovary that is ripe with cancer.  Or something like that.  The cancer was even more energized than I was.  And the chemo knocked me on my ass in an effort to do the same to the cancer.  I went from bunny to tortoise in one fell swoop.  My life was flipped upside down and I had no idea how to manage it.  What was even more interesting was the roller-coaster ride of emotions and energy brought to me, courtesy of the steroids I took to control nausea and vomiting.  I remember having the energy to re-upholster a dining room suite.  And then renovate a town house to be ready for sale.  Then four days later – not being able to get out of bed to motivate myself to walk.  I had no idea what my new limits were – or where they would be headed.  And nor did my family – with me or even themselves.

I have discovered over the past month or so when I have been volunteering at the chemo suite at Royal Victoria Hospital… my limits.  First – let me explain that I absolutely LOVE this volunteer work.  I have met so many absolutely amazing people who demonstrate the grit of human resilience.  I am inspired by them and buoyed by them.  And I can only take so much of it till my bucket is over-flowing – usually this is within two hours.  And that’s it for the day – two hours of volunteer work and then I go into hibernation for the day.  Volunteer Tuesdays have become “Take-out Tuesdays”.  I can’t cook.  I can’t talk.  I can barely walk.  I have reached my capacity.  This is all good.  I have finally learned my limits and am beginning to respect them.

I wonder?   Had anyone told me when I was in the chemo-suite as a patient that I would learn my limits if I would have listened.  Hard to say.  I know that this is a message I am continually offering to patients.  “Take it easy.  Respect the fatigue.  Listen to your body”, are the tidbits of wisdom I try to share with them.  I think anyone that has been affected by cancer and received chemo or radiation for that matter, has learned a new respect for fatigue.  Still, it is with a heavy heart that most of us accept our new norm.  We have had to give up so much already and fought so hard to win a battle without knowing our own arsenal or game-plan, that accepting we will forever be changed somehow, is a big pills to swallow.

Learning to respect my limits has helped not only me – but those around me.  I’m getting it.  I accept that I have limits.  I still want to push the boundaries and learn that I’m not super-human after all when the results of the push are me being irritable, short-fused, and/or developing a massive head ache.

It will take time.  I will learn.  I will accept.  I think learning to regulate myself better is also a part of aging and what my parents learned as they lost their energy over time.  Accepting my own limitations has helped me to understand the importance of saying “no” to invitations when I need to rest.  Saying “no” is okay.  People get it.  Friends get it.  Family gets it. I just need to pay attention to the signs that caution me to slow down, take it easy, you’ve done as much as you can for today.  Tomorrow – is a new day.

 

Posted in challenges, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

13:55

One at a time
With a breather between
I take my pills
And inside I scream

One by one
I swallow with care
I take my pills
And I still have hair

Third one down
With a gag or two
I’m not a pill taker
But without I’m screw (ed)

One more is gone
With three to go
I Crush some Candy
With really nothing to show

Five gets stuck
And waits around
Until the sixth
Comes stumbling down

This is the last
Until later tonight
I’ve done my job
Time for my pills to fight

Who would have thought
That 13 pills a day
Would be the greatest gift
For my 55th birthday?

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

A Victory Whoop!

I want to write my story
With pages full of words
That tell the tales of all my dreams
Such were stories never heard

A mystery and a drama
A thriller read by all
A tale to find in the fiction aisle
A good drama to enthrall

My pen is poised and ready
The paper crisp and bare
I look up to see her watching –
She is watching from her chair

She wants to see me writing
She wants the words to flow
And take me far away from here
To where I need to go

I smile when I look at her
She knows me oh so well
She reads the story inside my head
No words I need to tell

The tale seems dark and scary now
It’s difficult to read
We do not know just where I’ll go
To finally be freed –

Free from this script where I am held
A captive so it seems
A great escape is what I need
I see it in my dreams

I’ll fight so hard to pen my fate
And liberate my soul
I promise, Mom, I’ll do my best
To get back some control

I move the pen and craft a phrase
And then a little verse
The story starts, the plot unfolds
Stage Left – please enter in the nurse

A momentary lapse of time
It stands outside the door
And holds it breathe the seconds halt
For we are now at war

I’m still unclear my battle lines
Who is friend or foe
I’ll write a script to prophesize
Who draws the final blow –

My story starts, I am prepared
The actors become clear
There are so many by my side
Who hold to me so dear

My faith, my trust, my mind, and hope
Like waves upon the sand
Wash out the scene which lead me here
And reveal a golden land

I hold Mom tight, I squeeze her tight
She has nothing more to fear
I put my life in my warrior’s hands
And keep my mission clear

Because…

I want to write my story
With pages ripe with words
The tales of all my dreams continue on –
My victorious whoop is heard!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Out of the Darkness

“Only after you are broken, can you know what you are made of”

How did the Thailand Wild Boars soccer team survive for 17 long days in a damp, dark cave.  They had no idea whether they would be saved.  They had no idea how long it would be until someone noticed they were even missing.  How is it that they did not just throw in the towel?

Grit?

Resilience?

Faith?

Team spirit?

It would seem that many are attributing their survival before their rescue to their coach.  A former monk, he taught the boys how to meditate.  Not only did this help to lower their need for oxygen – in an atmosphere that was oxygen deprived, but it also helped them to remain mentally calm.  Reports suggest they were meditating when the British scuba diver(s) found the boys.

The boys could not swim, they could not dive.  The path in front of them was down-right perilous.  The cave was pitch black.  The waters were turbulent and resembled coffee with cream.  The team was weak from lack of food, water, and potential infections.  If that doesn’t constitute a break, I’m not sure what does.

“Stacey, do you relate to this story at all?” asked my friend Sandra of me this morning?  “Did you feel like you were in a cave when you were first diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer?” Now, there was an interested parallel in which I could sink my teeth.

That was a good question.  But I had a pretty quick answer.  “Yes. yes, I do relate.”  My diagnosis threw me into a cave of sorts.  I was lost, in the dark.   I didn’t know when or where help would arrive.  I was cold, numb.  I did almost everything I wasn’t supposed to do:  panic, read about my illness on the internet…. you know the story.  I couldn’t believe the world slept while I was wide awake in the middle of the night.  I was dying.  How could people sleep?  I felt almost trapped in my own body – all I wanted was for someone to cut the cancer out of me!  I had to learn patience.  I had to learn to not panic.  I had to learn to accept my reality without losing hope.  Yes – I could related to those boys.

My oncologist, my surgeon, my family and friends taught me how to meditate per se.  I received medical care swiftly and, although, there were no guarantees, I felt that I had partners in my health care and that these partners were much more capable of saving me at that moment than I was of saving myself.  I had no choice but to turn my life over to them.  Like the cave divers, however, my doctors were sort of navigating in an arena where there were no clear answers.  They could not guarantee they could save me – and time was ticking.  I went through chemo – surgery – more chemo.  Then more chemo.  I lost my hair three times.  When it seemed the chemo could no longer shrink my tumors, I met with doctors from Toronto General who told me about two more options:  immunotherapy and a freshly approved drug:  Lynparza (Olaparib).  Either choice was risky as neither one was really clear in terms of whether it would “save” me/ prolong my life.  Both were “shot in the dark” solutions.

I chose.  My family and I chose.  My doctors and I chose.  We chose to go the Lynparza route.

Like the boys being extracted out of the cave, my treatment too was perilous.  It was scary.  I counted on the advice and expertise of others.  I gave myself to medicine.

I was “rescued”.  To date, I have been in a drug-induced remission.  I have my doctors, the medical community, and my family and friends to thank for that.  They are my heroes.  They may not have made it to the international news – but they most certainly have made the same impact to me as the divers made to the Wild Boars Soccer Team.  I am alive today because of them – and because I believed in a solution.  I had faith in the process.  And there was some mighty Divine Intervention that had to have happened.  In my opinion.

I have lived for nearly four years now with a previously “fatal” form of cancer.  I am at peace with it.  I have not resigned myself to it – but I have become stronger because of it.  It took a lot of counselling and therapy to help me deal with my “new” reality, with the fears associated with having cancer, and with the memories of the trauma.  The mental healing was, quite truthfully, more challenging than the physical healing.  And I would anticipate the soccer team may require the same course of therapy to help them to emotionally deal with their ordeal as well.  Their journey of recovery has only just begun.

Yes.  I can relate.

I cannot presume to compare our journeys, but I feel I can walk a mile – have walked a mile – in their shoes.  I am confident that, with the proper help, with prayer, and with patience and support from others, they will see they are made of tough stuff.  I can only imagine what they will go on to achieve for themselves and, perhaps, for others.

Thank God for this very happy ending for the team – that in truth – is their beginning.

And I thank God for mine.

Posted in cancer, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

In The Whispers of the Wind

(Thanks for the inspiration, Colleen Brown (https://bikecolleenbrown.wordpress.com/2018/07/09/i-listen-for-the-whisper/)

If I sit still enough
If I sit long enough and
If I am quiet enough –
I hear the voices…

They are whispers of the past.  They are promises of today and dreams for the future.

In the calm. In the quiet.  In the moment.  I rest my mind to focus on the here and now.

The doctor speaks.  Her words are unclear.  My immediate future is about to set its course through her words, “You are good for another three weeks, Stacey”, or “You need further treatment”.

My mind races.  My nerves fray.  I wait.  One more hour.  For the verdict on my immediate future.

It never changes.  I’m always walking on eggshells.  What will my blood work reveal?  Will I be able to manage?

The wind sends whispers.
I need to listen.
Feel them on my face.
Inhale the ethereal message.

Have hope.  Have courage.  All in due time, Stacey, all in due time.

So

I sit still
I prepare
I wait
And listen for the message.

Posted in acceptance, appreciation, cancer, fear, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

First Steps

I remember my first steps.  I was afraid.  I wasn’t sure how far I would be able to walk, whether my stitches would hold up under the weight of my body, whether I would trip and fall… Kevin was beside me all the way.  And that made all the difference.

Having cancer takes its toll on the body.  Everyone knows that.  Over the past few years, I have learned when I can and cannot do.  I have learned what aches and pains are normal.  I have learned what lumps and bumps are scar tissue and non-threatening and which bumps need to be addressed.  Anyone who has had cancer, and likely any other life-threatening disease or injury, must learn their own body.   I get tired and weary.  I find it difficult / challenging/ impossible at times, to travel long distances.  The flight to Abu Dhabi nearly did me in!  (Worth it though) Sometimes simply lying down helps.  Sometimes I need to sleep.  Sometimes sleeping helps and other times it hinders.  The weight gain simply pisses me off.  My waist will never recover.  I have to accept that.  I need to accept that.  I need to put every physical consequence into perspective.  In spite of the fact that my body has changed, aged, sagged, and sometimes now drags – I remember I am alive.  One step at a time.

The other challenge – which I knew I would face but didn’t realize would take precedence over physical healing – was the emotional and mental healing.  I have grieved the loss of friends, family, both of my parents.  I am no stranger to the grieving process.  I never imagined, however, that I would grieve the loss of my health.  Additionally, I didn’t realize that PTSD would kick in.  While the physical healing (thank God I was able to heal) was difficult – the emotional was, and continues to be at times, nearly insurmountable.  I could not heal emotionally on my own.  I sought professional help.  And I found it.  I did not want to burden my friends and my family with my darkest thoughts – which were pretty dark in the beginning.  But, somehow, paying someone to listen to me was okay.  This someone became pretty special to me – my therapist, Kelly, was amazing.  She helped me walk my “first steps” towards emotional recovery – one step at a time.

Once I had managed to walk down the hallway at Toronto General Hospital, I was encouraged to walk more.  The painkillers helped me.  The nurses, I remember, kept telling me, “Don’t be a hero, Stacey!  Use the pain meds when you need them.  You will heal better because you will do more when you don’t have pain.” I was leery.  I did not want drugs to interfere with my healing.  The nurses were right.  It seemed as time went on – the nurses were more and more right.  Of course, I had to be convinced of this – honestly, what did I know?  Nothing.  They had seen hundreds, thousands of patients healing and knew far better.  I used the pain killers.  I made it around the nursing stations several laps.  Then more laps.  And then more.

My discharge to home scared the hell out of me.  How would I even manage the seat belt?  What if my stitches ripped open?  I had, if I remember correctly, over 50 stitches.  But – I made it.  Kevin reclined the seat for me and buckled me up – he was careful to not hit too many bumps on the way home.  Step by step – we made it!

Hitting the bed at home was amazing.  There is nothing like returning to your own bed to heal.  The difference was, I couldn’t use my stomach muscles to help me.  The nurses had taught me to swing my legs over the edge of the bed and use my arms to push myself up.  “But keep working at it!” they advised me.  Of course, it was the reverse when I came to lie back down.  Kinda tricky – I remember laughing.  I guess a nervous response.  I was a back-sleeper for a while.  A long while.  Of course.  But eventually, my muscles recovered.  I did sit ups very carefully.  Since my diaphragm had been cut and stitched as well, I had to stretch it through breathing exercises too.  The devise was a tube into which I had to blow and try to float the little ping-pong balls to the top.  Tough at first.  But just like walking and sitting up, breathing became easier – one step at a time.

Recovery was all about baby steps.  I was a child, all over again, taking my first steps.  I was nervous, hesitant, and curious all at once.  I needed help.  I didn’t want help.  I took help.  I craved my independence.  I embraced the challenge.  I rejoiced at my success.  I was impatient with my successes.  I took support.  I yearned for the praise and encouragement of others.  They supported me.  They continue to support me.  In so many ways, I feel I am still taking my first steps.  Helping others to take their first steps towards recovery – are my first steps too.  Helping others to navigate their disease and their new lives – feels like I am navigating a new life too.  My baby steps continue.  I am still recovering.

I suppose we all take first steps every day.  Every day is a new beginning.  There are new challenges, new opportunities, new conquests.  New firsts.  Having cancer opened my eyes to seeing the newness of life, the fresh starts… the joy of walking.  Although I will continue to walk the rest of my days with ovarian cancer, it no longer scares me as a partner.  I have developed a healthier (kinda of an oxymoron) relationship with my cancer.  There will be ups and downs, of this I am certain.  But – we will take it one day at a time.

One step at a time is the best way to take our first steps.  And never alone.

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Yes, I Am Alive

“Stacey?” I heard the woman call out to me.  “You are still alive?!” she exclaimed.

I glanced to the right, over the kale and strawberry plants sitting on the check-out counter of the Zhers outdoor garden centre, and landed my gaze on a woman who looked vaguely unfamiliar.  I stared.  I didn’t mean to stare.  But I had no clue who this woman was – who clearly knew me – and knew my cancer story.

“Yes I am!” I replied – not knowing really what to say.  “I am so sorry – I have no memory – who are you?”

The woman identified herself.  She was a former student whom I had taught.  I had also taught her daughter.

“My daughter was devastated when she heard you had cancer.  She told me you had a year to live.  She was so upset.  I told her to have faith and that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be you.  And look!  I was right!”

I wish I had had that woman’s faith three and a half years ago.

It was a most unusual setting for an unusual encounter – which triggered a flood of memories and a wave a self-reflection which has lead me to this particular morning.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything.  I guess it is because I haven’t felt that I had anything new to say.  I’ve had no great revelations.  No insights.  No real struggles – no real accomplishments.  But the truth of the matter is – I’ve been living.  And living has meant being out there.  Not here.  And life has been flying by.

This revelation came to me yesterday during my walk with Jazz, my dog.  I had just entered into the Bear Creek Wetland when I was gleefully awakened by the sights and smells of summer.  I came out of my head and into the “now”.  I became present in the day – in my life – in that moment.  The green of the fresh growth along the path was crisp and fresh.  The heat of the summer sun warmed the unripened raspberry bushes enough that their scent drifted only slightly away from the plant and permitted me to inhale it’s fragrant promise of fruit-to-come.  There were promises everywhere:  in the sun streaked woods, the shadowed nooks and crannies, and in the morning breeze.  I felt alive.  I touched the morning at the same time I touched the noon.  I lived in the memories of my childhood as I walked in today’s shoes.  Everything was complete and I was a part of it.

I am still alive.  I am.  I can hardly believe it sometimes.  It has been a long journey through these past three and a half years living through, then with, then through, and once again and forever – with cancer.  To think I knew I would die – to now when I think I will live – is a thought that never once occurred to me to be possible.  Life is funny.  It really has no story until it is lived.  And then, if it is not enjoyed, then it has no purpose.  And my life – if nothing else – I believe has had great purpose.

A bucket list? Someone asked me recently if I had a bucket list.  I do.  All my adult life I was busy giving myself to others.  I was happy to do so.  My teaching gave me great meaning and purpose.  It was my way of helping others who, I believed, had no one to offer them a hand “up” and out of their circumstances.  I gave and gave and gave.  And I wanted to give more.  I still do.  But funny how Mother Nature/ Life/ God/ Whatever force it is – simply has a different plan.  Thank God.  Thank God because here I am with the ability to give now to my family.  My life as a teacher in a school is over, but my life as a wife and a Mom is just beginning.  My bucket list:  my family.  I want to “be here” for them.  And I can be – as long as I continue to take my pills (my oral chemo-therapy), I take care of my health, and I have faith that I am where I most need to be.

I have my limitations.  I am not as young as I once was.  I am not as nimble, fit, or sound as I once was.  I am stretching.  I spend time stretching my soul, my mind, and sometimes even my body.  Unlike being stretched thin before I was taken from my work as a teacher, I am now simply doing more of a reach.  There is a big difference.

I have learned to live.  I have slowed down and paused.  I have so much more insight on people, what motivates them, what motivates me.  I know when to back down from a fight.  I know when to step up to fight.  For the most part, at least.  Life is too short to spend time in conflict.  A life well lived is a life that is loved.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought there was no room in the world for me anymore.  I lay awake at night wondering how the world could simply go on – sleep – wake – while I was dying.  I was mad.  I was scared.  I was so very scared.  What would it be like to die ?  What would my death look like?  All of these thoughts ran through my head – while the world outside my window slept.

As the days, months, and years have passed, I still remark on that feeling right after my diagnosis.  I look from the same vantage point in my room – at the same tree outside my window, at the same dresser in my room, through the same eyes.  Now, my lens has changed.  I have a more focused vision – I have a different perspective.  My experiences have given me more of a life net that I would never have developed without a cancer diagnosis.

Fighting cancer is a battle that is not understood until one is in the ring.

It is not a battle that ought to be fought alone – so many individuals lives are impacted by the fight.  They are not always willing participants. Some are dragged in by circumstance/ geography.  Some volunteer to get dirt on themselves and are forever changed by the experience.

Yes.  I am alive.  And so are my kale and strawberry plants!

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