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I Wear Lipstick to Chemo


Ok, let me get you caught up. I last blogged about my tumor marker rising and concern that this meant my ovarian cancer returning. All those in “the know” believed this to be true. A PET scan revealed a single lymph node underneath my left clavicle deep below my chest wall. Well, that’s not what anyone was expecting. The plan quickly shifted from making a plan to treat recurrent ovarian cancer to biopsying this node. To everyone’s surprise it turned out to be triple negative breast cancer.  I started treatment on April 17th. The protocol includes 16 cycles of chemo over 20 weeks, followed by surgery, followed by radiation. With five weeks under my belt, I’ve committed to go through treatment with the biggest fake-it-til-you-make approach ever attempted.

I WEAR LIPSTICK TO CHEMO

Chemotherapy takes a toll on the body. I am grateful for the power and effectiveness of these medicines in killing cancer cells. Yet, there is a lot of collateral damage along the way. I will never forget how my body transformed from 125 lbs of fitness to 98 lbs of weakness. I hardly recognized myself: bald, pale, skinny. I avoided mirrors. This time around, I’m rocking the bald look. No hats or wigs to hide behind. I’m walking with confidence, head held high. Do I catch people staring? Yes and I love it. I’m drawing on my inner bad-ass (which I never knew I had). My motto? If I can’t wear big hair, I’m going to wear big earrings!

Ovarian and breast cancer has tried to rob me of what our culture traditionally defines as feminine. I no longer have a uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix and breasts. Chemotherapy has taken my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes. Being stripped of these hallmark female features has forced me to get in touch with how I identify with being a woman. Cancer and cancer treatment have not taken my true sense of self. I will not stop believing that anything is possible, that people are inherently good, and that nature heals the soul. With nothing to hide behind, it’s become more clear than ever that female beauty is an inside job. I’m grateful to have truly learned this lesson. 

And, I’m going to continue to wear lipstick to chemo.

Run the Mile You’re In: Living in Spite of Cancer

Looks like I have cancer, again. My response?  Training for a half-marathon. I’m shooting for the Steamboat Half-Marathon which is June 4th. I’m well aware that I’m setting the bar high given the fact a PET Scan revealed that I have a suspicious lymph node near my left clavicle. My consult with a breast surgeon to explore removing it is not until March 28th. The surgery will follow. Chemo? Radiation? Probably on the horizon. Just not sure of the timing of treatment. In the meantime, I will run because running reminds me that I’m alive.

Today’s Post-Run Photo: 6 Miles and Happily Sweaty

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Sweating, breathing hard, and burning muscles are all a tribute to the wonders of the human body. I lost sight of this during my first go around with cancer. The treatment left me weak and incapable of exercise. For the first time in my life, I felt like my body was dying. From the moment I finished that last round of chemotherapy, I committed to reclaim my health. It’s been a long and slow process and worth every challenging step along the way. As a matter of fact, I’m so fortunate to be able to “suffer” through exercise.  I get to do this. Three years ago, it wasn’t an option.

Before cancer, I trained for events keeping my eye on the prize: the finish line. After cancer, I train for the sake of training, knowing that I may not get to the finish line. It’s about the journey, right? Damn right. A client of mine shared a story of a recent half-marathon she completed. While she was in mile three of the 13.1 mile course, she noticed someone holding a sign. It stated “Run the Mile You’re In”. We both commented on the perfect poignance of that statement. I’ve adopted it as my life mantra. “Run the Mile You’re In”.

So, for the next few weeks, I will be documenting my weekly long runs and my parallel cancer process. I may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me.

To Give Thanks

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It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I haven’t posted in this blog since my dog, Ginger, was being worked up for a deadly cancer, hemangiosarcoma. I wrote about my deep love for her and my not wanting to “let go”. I’m happy to report the tumor in her spleen was benign! We came out of this game of Russian Roulette with only a scare. I am beyond thankful.

I haven’t written about anything cancer for the past six month because my cancer has been in remission. I’ve been busy living. Since my diagnosis and year and a half of treatment, I’ve gained back my 25 pounds, my hair is shoulder-length, I’ve ridden my bike up Independence Pass and Deadhorse Point. I’ve cycled the Tour of Moon, the Tour de Steamboat and the Moab Skinny Tire Festival. I recently started training for a half-marathon. I dove back into work headfirst. I love being a therapist and teacher and a volunteer. After being diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer almost three years ago, I realized how much I love being alive. In fact, you could say I have a love affair with being alive.

I had my three-month follow-up visit recently. My tumor marker is rising. The most likely explanation is that my cancer is recurring. There is a small chance it is not. I go back for another check up in 3 weeks. I’m crushed. The thought of letting go of my love affair with being alive weighs heavy on my heart. Every day has been Thanksgiving since the day I was diagnosed with cancer. I am thankful for mornings and Mondays. I am thankful for windy days and snowy walks. I am most thankful for life’s surprises. Life is beautifully unpredictable. I will miss this the most.

I don’t know what’s around the next corner. I try not to anticipate what I do not yet know. In the meantime. I am thankful for you.

Why I am a Lover, Not a Fighter

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I woke up to the news that David Bowie has died. Like many, I am shocked and deeply saddened.It’s reported that he died “after an 18 month battle with cancer.” There’s that War metaphor again. What other illness do we apply this analogy? It’s rare to hear that someone is battling heart disease or diabetes or alzheimer’s. I believe this metaphor started when President Nixon declared the War on Cancer in 1971.

When it comes to cancer, I am a Lover not a Fighter. Don’t get me wrong. I want nothing more than a cure for all cancers. It’s just that I don’t like what the battle analogy implies for those of us diagnosed with the disease. If I die from cancer, have I lost the fight? Maybe  I am as sore loser. Maybe not. Maybe I just don’t like fighting. It’s exhausting. I’d rather focus on living and loving life.

I’ll keep this blog entry short today. David Bowie and all those who have passed after being diagnosed with cancer are on my mind. You have not lost the fight. You are still alive in my heart.

With Love,

Leah

Two Years Ago Today

4 months post surgery
4 months post surgery scar.

Two years ago today, I endured a 7 plus hour long surgery to remove ovarian cancer. At that time, I had no idea the extent to which it had engulfed by innards. I still have the scar, though two years later, it has faded with the passage of time. I spent Christmas in the hospital. So, this time of year brings up a flood of emotions and not all bad. While I am beyond grateful to have survived the surgery and 16 months of chemotherapy, I also struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (aka PTSD). The shorter days, the colder temperatures, the falling snow, the Christmas carols all remind me of what happened two years ago. I have nightmares and anxiety. I deal with what seems like a perpetual state of bracing myself for being attacked: literally, figuratively and metaphorically. I know this is normal. I am Emotionally scarred.

I am not alone in sharing this experience. Ask anyone who has experienced cancer. To some extent, they too, have emotional scars. Scars are a permanent reminder of what we have experienced: a sort of Life’s Record. The scars we can see have stories to tell. And, so do the scars we cannot see. I worry that our internal scars, by their very nature, are ignored. Because we cannot see them, we deny their very existence.

I must admit that lately I have been trying to ignore what I have been through. It’s anniversaries, like today, that remind me. Today is a day that I could have only hoped for two years ago. I am alive. And, more than just alive, I am healing from the inside out. The emotional wounds take more tender loving care to heal.The process cannot be rushed.

I practice patience and loving kindness towards myself and others during these difficult moments. And, mostly, I forgive myself for thinking that it shouldn’t hurt this much. Sitting with pain is something I don’t seek. I seek the courage to sit with pain and to honor my invisible emotional scars.

Look for the Unexpected

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During my “Ginger Walk” this morning, I noticed. That’s all. I noticed. I’ve been practicing the act of noticing. Another way to say this is “Living in the Moment”. I move in and out of paying attention. Having gone through cancer treatment and a forced slowing down, I’ve gotten much better at doing this although it’s interesting how quickly I forget. So, this morning I walked with this intention and this is what I found.

I found an unexpected connection. I first saw the dog, then it’s human. I asked Ginger to “sit stay”. He called out to me, “he’s friendly!” so I told Ginger to “go say hi”. Ginger liked him right away. While the dogs were getting to know each other in the way that dogs do, we humans got to know each other. He proudly shared with me his dog’s story; how Dusty got his name, that he is a wolf hybrid, and that he is a certified service dog (he opened his wallet and flashed Dusty’s ID). Dusty is trained to warn him if his blood glucose is falling as he is a diabetic. He has a serious heart condition. He survived bypass surgery. He smiled as he spoke. He pointed out the beauty of the cottonwood seedlings taking root and the tall, lush grasses lining the river and the pond. He said he hopes to make it 63 as his father and uncles had died by that age. He said he walks four to five miles on the days he feels good and two miles on the days he doesn’t feel so good. He called his walks “taking my medicine”. He was clearly grateful. Ginger and Dusty sat quietly at our feet. I noticed how grateful I felt. This man’s appreciation was contagious. He turned to Dusty, “ready to go?”. And, we parted. As I continued my walk with Ginger, I thought about our interaction. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes. And, yet, in that short amount of time, we connected. Why? He offered and I allowed it. He could have not stopped. I could have walked by, head down and closed off. Instead, I noticed.

Once again, I was reminded that being open and staying open to whatever the moment may bring more often than not brings unexpected joy.

So, look for the unexpected today. I’m glad I did.

The Other Side

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No. This is not me four days post double mastectomy/reconstruction. This is me on June 1, 2015 finishing my first bike ride since being diagnosed with cancer on December 16, 2013. I’m sharing this for it’s ironical factor. I’ve owned this jersey (with matching vest and arm warmers) for years having no idea that I carry the BRCA 1 gene putting me at high risk for both ovarian and breast cancer. Life is funny and ironical.

I’m on the other side of the boob removal surgery. Not going to show you that photo. My plastic surgeon called this morning to check on my recovery. He reminded me to be patient and that I’m “under construction”. Yep. True. Good news. The pathology report from the breast tissue showed no signs of cancer. So, I’m probably not going to get breast cancer in my lifetime. Whew.

I’m sidelined again. Meaning, my once very active lifestyle has come to a screeching halt. At least for a little while. I’m learning to be patient. I’m learning to live in this moment and appreciate what it offers me. As a psychotherapist (aka “shrink”), I speak to this point so very often. And, yet, before cancer and the surgeries and the chemotherapy, I was truly giving lip service to my clients. Ok, maybe not all of the time. Some of the time I was living in the pure joy of the moment. Mostly when I found myself in nature. Now? Well, this is different. These are moments I had not anticipated. These are moments I had feared. Living in a moment that is fearful is …..well, let’s just say it’s hard. I have some work to do. Practice, that is. Practice.

The Next Chapter

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It was February in Colorado, a cold and snowy month, when I last posted about my “Cancer Journey”. And, now, the sun is setting on this 5th of July. I spent the Holiday weekend being as physically busy as possible. Here I am with Ginger practicing our paddle board techniques. It’s been 10 weeks since my last chemotherapy infusion and in that time I’ve worked hard to get ready for the next phase of this thing called “my life”. Tomorrow I’m having a prophylactic double mastectomy with reconstruction. I’m doing this to reduce my chances of developing breast cancer from over 85% to less than 5% in the course of my lifetime.

Honestly, I wish I had some newly developed insights to share with you. I’d like to say that I’ve had these great epiphanies since I last wrote in February. No. Not really. Although it wasn’t my intention to go underground, I think I needed a break from this cancer thing. As I’ve moved farther away from chemotherapy and my hair is growing and my appetite has returned and I’ve gained my weight back and I’ve grown stronger, I don’t want to be associated with a disease that tried to kill me. I don’t want to look back. Yet, tomorrow’s surgery is all about preventing what could be. Tomorrow’s surgery is all about stopping what might happen in the future. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this one. I’m doing it because it’s the “right thing” to do for me. I’m doing it because that means I’m living my life as if I will not die of ovarian cancer any time soon so I better reduce my ridiculously high risk of developing breast cancer (I have the BRCA 1 gene). Even now, as I write, this whole thing seems surreal. Can this be really happening?

It’s happening. It’s yet another opportunity to make meaning of what often doesn’t make any sense. I’ll keep you posted.

And, I’ll see you on the other side…..

peace.

I Don’t Feel Inspiring.

leah post workout showing off port:scarThis is my attempt at a “selfie”. I wanted to show my medical team how my port and sports bra and running result in chafed skin. During my last set of doctor’s appointments (blood draw, doc visit, chemo), I was reprimanded for allowing the skin around my port to be rubbed raw.  The port could be exposed and if that happens they have to pull it, reinstall another one and no one wants that to happen. Bottom line? I was reminded that I’m not done with cancer. I feel like I’m stuck in this netherworld: one foot walks in the land of all things cancer while the other foot walks, jogs, runs in the world of all things bursting with life.

If all goes well during this next series of visits which includes a CT scan and I’m still No Evidence of Disease, I have four more infusions. I’m torn. While I’m so grateful that I’m receiving a drug that is keeping the cancer at bay, I also feel like I’m dragging a ball and chain around my ankle. I can’t wait to cut loose from this constant reminder that my last year wasn’t a dream but actually a nightmare come true.

So, does my attempt to live my life crammed with reminders that I’m alive make me an inspiration? I guess it does for some and I’m ok with that. But, just remember, I’m no different than anyone else. There’s nothing special about me. I’m digging deep to find the strength to live in the face of my circumstances. I’m not alone. Everyday there are millions of people around the world doing the same thing under worse circumstances. I look to them for my inspiration. And, maybe that’s what we do for each other. We are connected through our humanness. We are connected through our vulnerabilities and our strengths. No one is immune to pain and loss. We carry these experiences and they become our stories. But, also remember that we are the Authors of our Stories. We write the scripts. It’s not what happens to us that shapes who we are. It’s how we interpret what happens to us that defines who we become.

My story? Well, the plot is still unfolding. I don’t know how the story will end. But, I do know I’m rewriting the script everyday so no matter the circumstances it will end on a positive note.

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