The Season of Grief, Gratitude & Compassion

87WSyMSm

As featured on curetoday.com

The last few years fall has been a season of challenge for me. In 2014 I was recovering from a distal pancreatectomy and splenectomy after my pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor diagnosis. In 2015 I was recovering from a liver resection, months of chemotherapy and a serious case of PTSD. In 2016 I had a surprise surgery due to a bowel obstruction, a complication from my previous abdominal surgeries. And this year, I am undergoing an experimental treatment, but overall, doing well and grateful to not be watching leaves change through a hospital window.

I admit I tiptoed into autumn holding my breath with optimism I would exit without a traumatic event. While there are still a few days of the season left, I, personally have been spared, but others have not been so lucky, creating a new kind of trauma.

Between September and today, there were four people in my circle who died from cancer. They were all young and all women, making their deaths too close to home. One was a young mother I met in a luncheon in New York City who had a very similar case to mine. We exchanged emails regularly and I got scared when the messages stopped coming only to find my fears realized when I logged onto Facebook after a hiatus to see she had passed away. Another was Beth Caldwell, who died from neuroendocrine breast cancer. I only knew her from social media, where she was revered for changing the advocacy game. And most recently, a friend of friend, who died from pancreatic cancer.

Another one of these new angels was a fellow Cure Magazine contributor, Jen Sotham. I also never met her, but enjoyed reading her blog and being Twitter friends. I always thought she sounded pretty cool and someone I’d be friends with in real life even if we both didn’t have cancer. When I read her last blog, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, I could not help but smile and be sad at the same time because she did it – she won. She didn’t die while still living and she didn’t let the disease break her to the point of bitterness. In fact, Jen got to say goodbye, in a pretty cool way.

Unfortunately, cancer wasn’t the only grim reaper to make an appearance this fall. There was a tragic death of a friend of a friend whose family was already grieving a huge loss. Also, my husband came home one day with terrible news of a colleague that passed away, from a massive heart attack leaving a wife and two daughters. He simply left in the morning to go hunting and didn’t come back. I think of both these families and am heartbroken to think they are left replaying last, perhaps mundane, meaningless conversations and without “I love yous” or important words said. It definitely makes me ask, where is the justice?

With each death I lit a candle and sat for a quiet few minutes processing my feelings. Of course there was sadness, but more than anything there was appreciation for my own life and the people close to me. I feel gratitude for still being here, having an excellent quality of life and for the warning cancer gives.

These losses also have me treading into the holiday season with renewed compassion as I encounter angry traffic, tired crowds and over booked schedules. Knowing the chances are high that the person in front of me experienced loss and hardship this year. I find myself pausing, slowing down and truly appreciating, like never before, the intangible gifts of life, family, friends and my fellow-man. My only wish this year is the same realizations for everyone (hopefully without experiencing death and cancer). And may we all take a moment to light a candle for those empty spaces in our life and the lives of others.

For some inspiration, watch the Jen Sotham’s TEDx talk here, which she gave days before passing away:

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8 Tips from a Professional Surgery Recoverer

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As featured on curetoday.com

I’m becoming a professional surgery recoverer. It seems like for the last three autumns, I’ve had surgery and spend the season looking at the leaves change through a hospital window or on my slow, prescribed daily walks. I recently read in each person’s life, they will start over many times and I believe whoever came up with this probably had several surgeries.

In my previous life before cancer, I was a marathoner, triathlete and was always trying to push myself to the next level. Going from running 26.2 miles to not being able to walk down a hallway has been a humbling experience.

In September 2014, I had a distal pancreatomy and splenectomy to remove a tumor on my pancreas. In October 2015, I had a liver resection and cholecystectomy to remove tumors in my liver. Then this October was the surprise surgery – a bowel obstruction, which is considered a complication from my liver operation. Something about the body not liking open spaces and my small intestine moving into that space.

Strangely and fortunately, my body seems to recover quite well from these surgeries. Youth and being physically fit are on my side, but I believe more so, it’s the determination and figurative steps I take after each procedure. So, here are a few tips from a professional recoverer on abdominal surgery.

  1. Ask a thousand preoperative questions. What can I expect from my incision? What kind of physical difficulties do patients experience? What should I expect when I wake up? Will there be drains, IVs, tubes? What will we do to manage pain? Will I be closed up with staples or glue? In my experience, surgeries are so routine for surgeons they don’t realize we don’t know these things. Waking up with an unexpected tube up your nose or a larger incision than you thought can be upsetting. Therefore, ask every question that comes to mind. I’ve found connecting with others who have been through the surgery to gather questions can be helpful too.
  2. Lean on your nurses. Can we just take a moment to recognize the awesomeness of nurses? They are the foot soldiers and we and doctors could not do it without them. Most nurses will go to bat for you. If something isn’t working, ask them to advocate to the doctors on your behalf or ask what they recommend. After my first surgery, a nurse recommended a trapeze when I expressed how hard it was getting in and out of bed after having my abdominal muscles cut through.
  3. Walk…..a lot. This is a tough one, but critical on getting yourself discharged. Set some goals. The day after surgery my goal was to walk to the end of the hall and back three times throughout the day. I only made it twice, but the next day I did it four times. I’ve found activity trackers are helpful. I’d set an alarm and try to do a bit more each day. Also, walking is useful in getting your digestive system moving when it’s been put to sleep by pain meds, anaesthesia, surgery and the change in diet.
  4. At Home.  Being confined to a hospital room makes me crazy.  I know I’m not alone when I say how wonderful it is to get home after a stay.  However,  coming home presents a new set of challenges. After getting used to a moveable hospital bed, my stationary bed was tricky. I actually found the couch to be more comfortable. Some people find it easier to sleep in a recliner or gravity chair. Also, if you’ve been sent home with drains, my thoughts are with you. They are annoying. I always safety pinned them to my shirt. Recently, a friend and breast cancer survivor shared a zip up hoody with interior drain pockets. What a revolutionary idea. If something is bothering you at home, don’t just accept it, a quick Google search or call to a nurse could change your world.
  5. Keep walking….a lot.  Your walks are not over now you’ve left the hospital. In fact, this is where you really need to increase your daily steps, endurance and strength now you’re no longer confined to a hallway. Again, the activity tracker is great. The day I came home from the hospital, my goal was to do 1,000 steps. The next day, I went to 1,500. Some days it would take me several outings. A month from surgery, I finally made it to 10,000 steps. Now, I’m working on increasing my endurance by walking for longer stretches of time.
  6. Don’t ignore the mental and emotional.  This is also a hard one. After every procedure, I find myself struggling to regain my ingrained positive attitude. I’ve come to realize a pattern of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after I come home from a surgery. Recognizing this, I’m sure to combat it with extra sessions with my therapist, making plans with friends and planning daily trips out of the house. It’s easy to stay in a mental slump when you’re alone and confined all day, so as painful as it might be, just do don’t do it.
  7. Go to physical therapy. I feel doctors don’t recommend this enough. I went to PT after my first surgery and recovered fast. With my second, I decided to forgo physical therapy. Months post op, I wasn’t as strong and my endurance was nonexistent. I finally submitted to PT and within a few weeks I was back on track. This go around, I cringe at the idea of spending so much time at the therapist’s office, but know it’s the way back. This is also the safest way to regain strength. Attempting on your own could result in hurting yourself with a hernia and what you don’t need after surgery is another surgery. Thanks to physical therapy, 6 months after I completed treatment, I hiked 250 miles across Spain with a backpack. If that’s not a testimonial, I don’t know what is.
  8. Practice gratitude, patience and mindfulness. No matter how major or minor the operation, I notice how much quicker I recover when I give myself a break.  I do this by mentally listing ten things I’m grateful for each day.

So, here I am, a couple months post-op and doing pretty good. I walk for an hour everyday and start physical therapy in the new year. After I get the green light from my therapist, I plan to work my way back up to daily yoga and sign up for a half marathon in the spring. There are survivors out there defying the odds by running marathons, completing ironmans, climbing mountains and biking across countries. These acts inspire people and are proof our bodies are capable of much more than we can even imagine. I’d rather strive to be these people than submit to cancers quest to stop me.

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This Too Shall Pass: Healing After Cancer

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As featured on curetoday.com

heal-winter-2016

Featured in Heal Magazine, Winter 2016

As I approach mile 10, the discomfort sets in. I’m surprised I made it this far without any pain, considering I didn’t prepare as I normally do. I found it very difficult to get up on a Saturday and run my tried-and-true training plan with a cancerous, symptomatic, metastatic, pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

Weeks before, I contemplated not doing the half marathon, but I could not let cancer take away my joy of competing after it had already robbed me of so much. So, out of pure defiance, here I am. My hips and hamstrings are tight, but what’s causing me the most discomfort is my stomach. Just past the mile marker, I reluctantly stop at a Porta Potty. In my previous life, I would never do this because it would affect my finishing time. I would have convinced myself three miles of discomfort was a blip in the grand scheme of life. I exit the bathroom, start running through the pain, tightness and soreness and I hear in my head wise words a dear friend says often: This too shall pass.

Days later, I find myself, once again, in an unrecognizable life. Saturday: half marathon. Sunday: MRI. On Tuesday, I was told I needed to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. On Wednesday, I lost my job. A year ago, I was physically stronger than any woman I knew my age, had a wonderful, lucrative job and was the epitome of health. Now, I find myself asking if this is real life countless times. “God only gives us what we can handle,” right? Well, God has greatly overestimated me because all of this — I can not handle. Not just the rug, but the entire floor has been pulled from under my feet. I wondered if this was the new normal or if this too shall pass. It’s my favorite season of summer, but the days have turned into the least favorite of my life. The disease has gotten ahead of the treatments and I’m scared to get out of bed each day. A good day is when I don’t spend several hours with nausea so severe I have to call my husband to take me to the hospital for fluids and intravenous meds. I’ve become a permanent fixture at the cancer center. Staff members greet me by name with a look of pity and a sick bag. My family, friends and I are shocked to see a beautiful, vain, active, social butterfly disintegrate into an reclusive, bald, shell of a person who wears pajamas and no make-up. They respond with cliche phrases such as, “Stay strong” and “You’re going to beat this.”

While I know these words are intended to comfort and encourage me, they only make my blood boil. As if I had a choice to be strong. As if beating it was my decision. I pretend to stay positive because I know the other option does not serve me and would make my supporters assume I have given up. Though there were many moments I wanted to quit, I desperately prayed to God instead — with every cell in my body — for these days to pass.

Getting out of the hospital bed after abdominal surgery is a process and an art. This being my second time around, I knew what to expect and how I should maneuver. Being cut in half was nothing compared to what I had already endured. Plus, the physical pain is minimized because it was preceded with the world’s most beautiful words, “We got all the cancer.”

I happily push the button to move the bed as upright as possible. Pull myself up using the trapeze. Lower the bed down. Sit up. At a snail’s pace, swing my left leg left. Gently rest it on the floor. Repeat with the right leg. Get my bearings. Grab my husband’s hands. Use my marathoner legs to stand up. Resist the urge to cough. Stand for a few seconds to gather my breath. Inch the right foot forward and then the left. Could it be that this season was finally passing?

I look up at the sky and see every existing color over the next twenty minutes. It makes me feel so small, but part of something so big at the same time, and I realize it’s because I am. It is the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever experienced and tears drop from my eyes. I pass a woman unloading groceries from the trunk of her car. She’s completely oblivious to me and the pinks, blues, purples, oranges and yellows taking shape above her head. I feel both sad for and envious of her unawareness because the beauty of this moment is something only available to someone who has stared its fragility in face. I know I am blessed and cursed for my new eyes which have given me an aerial perspective of life’s most precious moments. I pray to God that these feelings, these thoughts and this awareness will not pass.

Read this on curetoday.com: This too shall pass: healing after cancer.

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