5

14 Jul

Five years.

Five years ago this month I got the devastating news that my cancer was back for the fourth time, but it had spread to my lungs putting me in the category of Stage 4, Metastatic thyroid cancer with distant metastasis. This is rare, occurring in less than 10% of thyroid cancer patients. The statistics are not great; 50% gone in 5 years, 90% gone in 10. I did molecular testing on my tumors and they showed the BRAF v600 mutation (lots of science) but basically, cancers with this mutation tend to be more aggressive. For the first 2 years post diagnosis, I got scans every 3 months, and since scan after scan showed stable disease (tumors still there but not really growing), my scans were spread out to every 6 months alternating between CT and PET scans.

What. A. Ride.

Last Saturday I had my 6-month scan which was delayed from June because of a nationwide CT contrast shortage (yes, there’s even a supply chain shortage on that). Monday, my oncologist sent me a text that everything STILL looks good!! STABLE! I made it into the 50% of patients STILL HERE after FIVE YEARS (Although I know there have been major strides in cancer care in the last 5 years so hopefully the stats are much better now). 5 years ago my youngest son was going into the 9th grade and all I longed for was to be alive at his high school graduation and here he is about to start his sophomore year in college. Now the longing extends to weddings, and dare I say grand babies?

How has my life/perspective changed in the past 5 years? That’s a tough question because my cancer journey started 14 years ago. I feel like cancer has been riding my shoulders forever but the last 5 have been the hardest. Not only the statistic constantly looming in the back of my mind, but that youngest child of mine had a stroke 2 years after that diagnosis, then the year after that we headed straight into this worldwide pandemic. Moving into 2022, I’ve really struggled. The whole ‘being brave and strong and keep pushing forward’ seemed too much and all the stored grief upon grief punched me straight between the eyes. I learned that the research done by Elisabeth Kubler Ross on the stages of grief were mainly on dying people and that we could not apply those same stages to the living. The living has to LIVE with that grief because it is entwined in our bodies, hearts, minds, etc. There is no ‘check the box and be done’ checkmark for denial, anger, etc leading to acceptance, while we’re alive we just weave in and out of those in no particular order. So, some of the lessons?

  1. Grief lives with us always, but it teaches us about ourselves, as well as our capacity to love
  2. My faith has become so simple; I believe, and love God and I want to love how Jesus loved. That’s it. Faith is not a building, denomination, or ‘being religious’. (I have lots of thoughts about faith and maybe I’ll write more in a later blog)
  3. Love lives in the small things, the in between moments of eye contact, lunch dates with friends, a hug, an encouraging text, etc
  4. Life can change in a blink of an eye
  5. You can’t stop time so make the most of those minutes. Stay present and notice.

Those are just a few things that come to mind. This year in particular I’ve been the angriest, and the saddest more than I’ve ever been. On a recent podcast, the speaker compared life these days to a tsunami. After the big earthquake a tsunami happens, then it’s waves and waves of aftershocks and destruction, but over time, the waves die down, then things slowly heal and become normal again. We just went through and are going through a global pandemic with the first hit in 2020. The aftershocks and waves are still happening giving us no time to heal; not just waves of Covid surges, we’ve had a war start in Ukraine, civil unrest, mass shootings, so so much. My ‘earthquake’ happened in 2017 with my Stage 4 diagnosis. We have had no time to heal.

Look up

I don’t mean to be trite but one day I was driving in my car, crying (which has been my norm over past months), and completely overwhelmed. After stopping at a stop light, I looked up. The sky was so blue and vast, and I was reminded of how small I was, literally just a speck in comparison. If you haven’t seen the latest images from the James Webb Space Telescope look them up. The universe is SO BIG. Looking up helped me feel better. Looking up reminded me that the God I believe in is SO BIG and that I am so small. That there are numerous unanswerable things in this world and it’s all a hodge podge of joys and sorrows but ultimately, I am so small in this ginormous universe and have very little control if any, of much of anything.

I listen to a podcast hosted by Kelly Corrigan called ‘Kelly Corrigan Wonders’. Every week she does an interview one day, reads an essay she wrote another day, then reads someone’s obituary on yet another day. All of her podcasts are great but the 5-10 minutes reading of someone’s obituary has had the most impact on me. Every week I get to hear a summary of someone’s life written by someone who loved them. All of them speak of the type of person their loved one was along with a smattering of examples like ‘he/she was the life of the party’ or ‘they would literally give the shirt off their back to a stranger,’ but what makes me catch my breath are the simple memories and the small moments like, ‘she made pancakes every Sunday’ or ‘I always came home to a hug no matter what.’ None of the memories spoke of grandiose events or big family trips. Love is in the small moments. What would you like a loved one to write in your obituary about you? I think about that all the time now and try to be that person while I’m living.

I live with Stage 4 cancer as a chronic condition, much like someone who has diabetes or Crohn’s disease. It feels like a double life or split personality most of the time. Acting normal, working out, going out with friends, enjoying life, but every farther future decision is tinged with the question ‘but will I still be here?’ While every daily decision as tinged with ‘is that how I want to spend my minutes?’ or ‘Does that buy me more time with people I love?’ For now, I don’t get to say that I fought cancer and won, the before/after narrative for me is before/during. But gratefully saying I’m stable and ALIVE after 5 years is more than enough 🙂

Life Is A River (and yes I know that’s a lake behind me)

5 Apr

We just moved. It’s been a lot and I didn’t think it would be, but so many changes have happened over the 2+ years of pandemic. I can’t seem to push past some of the sad days but there have been so many good ones. Warning, this may be a super rambling blog, so sorry not sorry. I’ve had lots of thoughts swirling in my mind so I’m writing to actually clear it up and put it out there. First, it’s Lent. Last year I did some amazing Lenten devotionals (from Kate Bowler and Erin Moon), and they were so helpful in quieting my mind and keeping my heart in focus of the season. I grew up Catholic and was ‘taught’ to give something up during Lent; a fast to remind you of the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert leading up to His death.’ Last year, I decided to partake in this ritual of fasting and give something up. This year, as I was prepping for lent, I downloaded and joined a few Lenten devotionals from people I love following, Kate, Erin, Sarah Bessey and had full intention of following and partaking in a sort of fast again. DID NOT HAPPEN. I read a beautiful article right before Lent (thanks Erin) that really resonated with me. The author spoke about her difficulty finding something to ‘give up’ this year and she asked, ‘over the last 2+ years of pandemic, haven’t we given up so much already?’ We’ve given up the false security that we are invincible (maybe that’s a good thing). We lost time with friends and loved ones, and many people even lost loved one and weren’t able to have a proper goodbye. We’ve lost jobs and safety, trust and confidence and to some extent, joy and maybe a little sanity. It seemed irrelevant to give up social media, chocolate, or whatever, when we’ve gone a strong 2 years giving up one thing after another. However, it is Lent, and I love Jesus. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, she talks about altars everywhere we go and in everything we do, so to live with purpose, slow down, pay attention; to be in constant prayer, not just ‘making time’ in your day to sit, read, and pray. What does that look like for me? Waking up and walking to the coffee maker in the silent, dark of morning and praying, being aware of the sun and rain and grass and flowers of spring, and praying, being in conversation with a friend or a child and praying for them while in conversation. Lent for me this year has been living in prayer and remembering God is always there (and also, on occasion reading one of those devotionals).

Second topic, we moved. I don’t usually get attached to homes or physical objects and I’ve never been emotional over a sale of a house, even my childhood home. I have always loved the idea of a different place, reinvention, scaling back, etc, but this one hit me hard. It didn’t happen right away. In fact, I was excited to downsize, save money, and move onward as empty nesters. Most of the kids had taken much of their things to their college/grad school apartments, in fact, AJ, the oldest literally only had his winter boots and coat left at the house. Then came the youngest, Alex’s room. His room was the same as when he left for college. The posters were up, the desk still had pens on top and notecards in the drawers, his closet had clothes, shoes, and a couple backpacks in their regular stack; it felt like another day and that he would just walk in after school and plop onto his bed. Then, still in the plastic hospital bag from when we left the hospital after his stroke in 2019, were the hundreds of notes and letters from his friends and well-wishers; reminders of that dark time that transitioned into a time of strength and healing. Packing up his room was the first ‘break of the dam.’ So many struggles, so many memories.

The piano. As discussions were had about what we would move or not move walking around the house, the piano came up. At first it was a non-negotiable even though, as Jim reminded me, I haven’t touched it in a long time. It was coming with us, and we would find a space. I have not been without a piano since I was 7 years old and maybe it had become a source of comfort and my link to my musical past. When Alex was in elementary, he even wrote a short assignment for school and talked about how my playing and singing would bring him joy and comfort so yes, it was coming. The weekend before the move Jim headed up north to bring some tools to the cottage and I sat at the piano to try to play. Cancer took my singing voice, but I had the piano. Over the years after all the surgeries and radiation, I’ve developed neuropathy in my left hand and arm to the point that I can’t really feel my fingertips. Sometimes it’s manageable and at times, it’s not. As I sat at the piano and tried to play that particular day, my fingers would not cooperate and actually sent more numbness and a little pain up my arm. This was the second ‘breaking of the dam’. I was heartbroken, hated cancer, and was now willing to NOT move the piano. It was Jim who said, ‘don’t give up on it yet’, so the piano moved and sits in a small corner of our even smaller home.

We gave up the keys to our house less than a week ago and over the weekend I flew to see Alex in Arizona for his mom’s weekend. I’m so grateful I got to spend time with him, and I decided, with the kids gone and mostly farther away, when they ask, I want to be there. The move was hard not because I loved the house or the ‘things’ inside of it, but because of all the memories. It was a house of safety, love, joy, and new beginnings for me; a place where I could mostly be myself and breathe. No, it was not all roses. We raised 5 teens in a blended family, Alex had his stroke, I got my fourth cancer diagnosis and Stage 4 on top of that: so many challenges but also so much love and support.

As far as the empty nest thing, what’s made it so hard for me is time and cancer. My same story. What actually helped me came from the show ‘This Is Us’ (spoiler ahead if you haven’t caught up to the current season). In a recent episode, Rebecca (the mom) who has early onset Alzheimer’s sits her adult kids down at a table and gives them a speech. I’m paraphrasing but basically she says, ‘Don’t let my illness make your world smaller. Take risks and live your dreams.’ It was a HUGE mindshift for me and I come back to that phrase when I get sad missing my kids. I will confess that I’ve used the phrase ‘don’t be mean to me, I have cancer and you don’t want that to be your last phrase/feeling/sentiment to me.’ Awful I know but sometimes I just want to hold them so tight. But, I too don’t want their worlds to become smaller because of me so here I am. This morning I did a meditation from Sarah Blondin and she talked about the constant tension of life between resistance and letting go. She said,’ Why hold on to the stones at the bottom of the river when you just want to be the water that flows freely?’ I want my kids to think of me and smile, feel loved, seen, and safe because they feel free and not burdened by my own expectations, sadness, disappointments, or my own pain. Heck, I want to be free of that too. How? Remembering that tension will always be there and that life is never perfect but is always beautiful. Thank you Jesus.

I feel better, not sure if you do. When is life not changing? Just like a river, it’s not always flowing peacefully, sometimes there’s rapids. Life is full of OMGs and WTFs but also full of love, joy, and moments of peace. I am so grateful I get to feel the gamut of emotions because that is living and that is growing and that is what it means to just be present. I am grateful for all of it.

Hello 2022

19 Jan

It has been a LONG time since I’ve written a blog post and honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would ever write another, but here I am. The last blog I wrote was right around the time Alex left for school making us empty nesters. Since then, I’d like to say that I’ve enjoyed all this ‘independent time’ not having to think about meals, sporting events, clothes for homecoming or prom, etc., but I haven’t. For the last 6 months I’ve been mostly sad. Not only are we in what seems like an endless global pandemic, but I also have cancer; both pointing toward a daily life of uncertainty. Time is my love language so having the youngest leave the house meant that that phase of motherhood and seeing them more often than not, was gone. Cancer already opens your eyes to your mortality so any less time with those you love is exactly that, less time. HOWEVER, I do realize that our job as parents is to grow independent kids and cheer them on as they learn to fly, so I guess I’m sad AND happy.

In the past 3 months I have been to 2 funerals; one a friend from church and the other, wife of a childhood friend that I grew up with. Both women younger than me, both moms, and both passing away from cancer. A friend of my husband’s passed away suddenly, another friend’s dad passed from cancer, and another friend’s young (younger than me), healthy boyfriend passed away just last week. All within the past 3 months. Time is our most precious commodity. Faith in a big God is still my peace.

What now? The pandemic is still raging. I still have cancer. People are struggling. All people are struggling. I am still mostly sad but getting better. All of the kids were home for the holidays which brought me so much joy and watching them come and go and ‘do their thing’ helped me be grateful for where they are AND where I am in life. We can start there, gratitude.

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions but for the past few years I have picked a word of the year. Last year I chose the word ‘simple’ and it was so helpful. It became a mantra and reminder for me to keep things simple and to really focus on simpler solutions. I had it on a bracelet, and I printed it on the opening page of my planner and journal. This year I have chosen 2 words and they’ve already been SO helpful. My first word is Kairos. There is linear, chronos or chronological time and then there’s Kairos, or my definition of those magical moments not necessarily confined within those minutes. Glennon Doyle has written, ‘Kairos is God’s time. It’s time outside of time. It’s metaphysical time. Kairos is those magical moments when time stands still.‘ Since cancer I have always sought after those magical moments and now more than ever, we need the magic.

My second word is ‘AND’. I chose this word because with most things in life, two things can be true at once. Life can be beautiful AND brutal (an amazing full life AND cancer). I can be both sad that my kids are gone AND happy that they’re becoming these healthy independent adults. We can be grieving lives we thought would be different AND still find joy and laughter. We can be disappointed AND still hopeful. We can be scared AND still be brave enough to take that next step forward. For me, focusing on this simple word has been so powerful. If we can remember that there is an ‘and’, it makes lots of things feel more ok…well at least it does for me.

Have you chosen a word? An intention? We have one life.

Empty Nest (yes I’m crying)

18 Aug

By the end of this week I will be an empty nester. Who came up with that name? I don’t think I like it. Plus, if it’s being compared to a birds nest, that implies they never come back. Am I wrong? Also, don’t mama birds shove their babies off and force them to fly when they’re ready? Ok. There were/are definitely times I’d love to shove the kids into the world and force them to fly but there are times I equally if not more, want to hold on and squeeze them in a hug and force them to just stay near. ‘The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.’~ Denis Waitley. Yes, yes, sure. I am not afraid of being an empty nester, it’s actually exciting to think the house will be more quiet, the tv/kitchen/couch will be just ours, our grocery bill will be significantly less (and I won’t have to think too hard about pleasing everyone for dinner), we can be more spontaneous, whimsical, and maybe even walk around in our underwear in our middle aged bodies.

I have been swallowed up in mixed feelings since Alex’s graduation last June, knowing he chose a college 2000 miles away and that this day would be coming sooner than later. I want to say that Alex is my hardest goodbye but I can barely remember launching the others so I know I’ll be ok. Alex is the baby and that in and of itself makes it harder. I was first diagnosed with cancer just as Alex started kindergarten and am now in my 4th recurrence. I was diagnosed as Stage 4 cancer when Alex was about to start his freshman year and I remember praying to just be alive to see him graduate high school. He has pretty much only known his mom as a mom with cancer. I’m still here, cancer has been stable since then but life was not easy within that 4 year period. Two years ago this month, Alex had a stroke and was right side paralyzed. In fact, almost everyday this month a memory has popped up on FB or in my google photos and it is of Alex at the hospital. This was the week, 2 short years ago, that he started moving his right arm and right leg again. Pictures have come up from the prayer vigil at his high school, of friends sending me encouraging videos, and of the night his friends gathered outside the hospital with flashlights and banners for him to see from the windows from his hospital floor. I lived at the hospital for 6 weeks and it wasn’t for me, it was for the child who is now ‘flying away’ and who had to fight hard both physically and mentally. Every memory and picture brings a flood of emotion. This is a hard goodbye.

A few nights ago we took a packing break and he laid down facing me on his bed and said, ‘let’s just talk.’ As I lay there facing him, I burst into tears. At the hospital, I would be in the exact position, staring into his eyes and praying at first for him to survive, then that he would just get better. I bargained with God to take me instead, after all, I was the one with cancer; the one who should be in the hospital bed. I remember the very last night at the hospital, looking at each other and both weeping about all that had happened, and expressing fear over his future and what leaving the safety of the hospital meant. I could not hold back the tears being in the exact same position looking in his eyes, I guess I have PTSD. All he said was, ‘Don’t let my last moments home be sad, be happy for me.’ I am ecstatic for him…for real!

As I try to process the last one leaving the house, I know that it’s not the fact that we are becoming empty-nesters, it’s the fear of an unknown future for both of us because of our health ‘scares’. I am also filled with questions about whether I was a good mom or not, did I help guide them on the right path, will they be ok and if they’re not, are they strong enough to ask and seek help, so many questions but I know I did my best. It seems the most random things melt me into a puddle of tears like the face to face talk, bringing something to his room and realizing he won’t be in it anymore for a long while (and then less and less), seeing the bag of almost 200 notes and letters he got at the hospital, the stupid picture memories that keep popping up on my phone, and even the random food items that only he likes that are still in our pantry and fridge. I know that as time passes these feelings will soften, he’s not the first kid to leave. It’s just another reminder that time goes so fast and to make each moment count. ‘Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body’.~Elizabeth Stone.

I learned after the first one graduated high school and left that raising kids is a long series of goodbyes and as they learn to ‘adult’, we learn to let go. Now I prepare myself once again to have my house as a place he visits instead of a place he lives and to leave another piece of my heart someplace else.

‘If you would have your child to walk honorable through the world, you must not attempt to clear the stones from his path, but teach him to walk firmly over them-not to insist on leading him by the hand but let him learn to go alone.’~Anne Bronte

What I Can’t Un-see

5 Jun

It has been a LONG time since I’ve written a blog. I thought since we were ‘shut down’ for so long I’d have all the time in the world to blog but because we all lived with so much uncertainty and the days felt like the combination of doing nothing and extremely busy, I spent lots of time just staring at the screen then turning it off. But here I am again, trying to infuse normalcy into my not so normal world.

My younger son graduates high school this weekend. I have been on an emotional roller coaster for maybe a month now. I’m not sure if the reason is all him, or if it’s everything opening up and pushing back to normal. The sudden shift after a year and a half of fear, masks, shut downs, etc has been so strange and I’m not exactly sure what to do with it but I also think for the next few months and maybe even a year, people will be grieving and that includes kids. My son basically went back to full, in-person learning just a month ago (from March, 2020) and now he’s graduating high school and leaving for college. It’s a lot.

There are many things a mom can’t un-see…or maybe I should just speak for myself. Many things/events in my kids’ lives are permanently housed in my mind; the look when the tooth fairy forgot to come, the joy on the face when a kid made a team or scored the last minute shot or got MVP, the heartache on their face when they didn’t make the team, or the tear-streaked faces after a break up of a first love. Those moments and their faces, both good and bad, are etched in my mind and heart. Now back to my youngest. He had a stroke. Since then (almost 2 years now), I cannot un-see how he looked when I first entered the hospital room and saw him unconscious and hooked up to all the machines; or the terrified look in his eyes when he finally regained consciousness, the look in his eyes when he couldn’t form the words of what he wanted to say, the pain when he realized he couldn’t move or feel his whole right side. He has recovered miraculously but every time he drives away, stays out late with friends, doesn’t immediately reply to a text, etc, I see the boy in the hospital bed. I know this isn’t exactly healthy and I have worked HARD to not necessarily un-see it but to shift my ‘sight’ to gratefulness for each and every moment of every day. At the end of each day or even when he finally responds to a text, I thank God for that moment, release, and can sleep in peace…but honestly for just another day. Then I wake up and run through the same process. It requires lots of focus, mindfulness, and lots of prayer and some days are harder than others…work in progress.

So here we are. He chose a college 2000 miles away. I look at him and I’m so proud and so grateful and happy that he has overcome so much, and so angry that he had an interrupted youth, and so scared that I’m too far to help him in case there is a health emergency, a break up, a time of homesickness, or any of those things. Those are a lot of ‘ands’ and ‘in cases’ and there are much more, but I will continue focusing on today. He is still here. When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer almost 4 years ago, I prayed for enough time to make it to this day, the youngest’s graduation. I am still here and cancer is still stable. I will always be mom and I know my job is/was to love him then let him go and be who God created him to be. He and I will both be ok and just like the other kids, he will take a piece of my heart along with him.

‘Your children are not your children.
They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the make upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He also loves the bow that is stable.’~K. Gibran

Tears and Magic

25 Nov

I lost someone dear to me last week and I cried for almost a half an hour after I found out. Then I cried again today. When you are a cancer fighter, and if you’re like me who has battled cancer more than once, you become close to some if not all of your healthcare providers, especially if you see the same people year after year. Dr. Menaldi was one of those people. If you don’t know already, I was a long time singer when I got cancer the first time. I sang at local events, church, radio jingles, was on a tv show, and was involved in musical theater. After my first surgery for cancer, my right laryngeal nerve was cut which paralyzed my right vocal cord. Singing I thought, was done. My vocal rehab team consisted of Dr Rubin~ laryngologist, Dr Menaldi~speech pathologist, and Marie~vocal coach. Dr Menaldi worked tirelessly trying to help me find a new way of speaking and breathing with only one functioning cord. Eventually, she trained me to be able to sing again albeit not the same. She pushed me and motivated me and when one thing wasn’t working she researched and tried some of her own methods to get me and my voice back, or close to the way it was.

Dr, Rubin (l) and Dr, Menaldi (r)

Cancer came back twice after that first time, both times in my neck, both affecting my voice again so I worked with my voice team for several years. They had become my family, my go to, my shoulders to cry on every time the cancer came back but also the ones who stayed positive, encouraging, and who pushed me to keep working to get my voice back. Last Friday, Dr Menaldi died of cancer. I hadn’t spoken to her in awhile. Last summer we reconnected after I found out her cancer had come back but I didn’t get to say goodbye. Instead this past summer, knowing her cancer was bad, she encouraged me in my path and in my current cancer journey. I cried because it brought back my past fight, seeing her two sometimes 3 times a week for 4 years. I cried because I didn’t get to say goodbye or encourage her in her fight. I cried because it made me scared about my cancer. I cried because it was a reminder of how truly brief our lives are here on earth.

We are in a pandemic and the holiday season is among us. Yes it’s different and we are all grieving, but life is so fragile and there is so much to be thankful for. My daughter and I were talking about things we miss because of pandemic and she mentioned that she missed travel. Then she said she misses landing and seeing my face and how excited I looked when I saw her (she’s been on mission trips to Africa, Haiti, India, and studied abroad in Jordan). Toni Morrison said, ‘When a child walks in a room…do your eyes light up? That’s what they’re looking for.’ Clearly that’s what she remembers, but aren’t we all looking for that? I think when this pandemic is over we will all be looking at each other with no masks on and magic in our eyes knowing we got through.

Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, lost everything and saw death all around him. After his horrendous ordeal he said, ‘When we have reasons to rejoice, we know how.’ Read that again. He knew how to rejoice and be grateful because he saw what he saw. After surviving he was grateful for EVERYTHING. This pandemic cannot even come close to being compared to what he went through but because of it, how much more grateful will you be when you can see your friends, when you can have a big party, when you can sit for a meal in a restaurant, when you can fully hug someone without anxiety, etc.. I have Stage 4 cancer. When I get caught up in the nonsense of life, I remember, I’m alive and my cancer is stable. My thing is time. When I get to spend time with loved ones I rejoice and I know how. Time is everything to me because I know how precious it is.

I’m not ashamed to say I watched the teen show ‘Dash and Lily’ on Netflix. Although it wasn’t exactly deep or brain stimulating, there was one line that stuck with me: ‘We see what we look for…magic.’ I always say there is magic in each moment and I believe it, but we won’t see it if we’re not intentionally looking. Always be looking because even now, there’s magic.

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To…

26 Oct

I am 51. How do you celebrate another year of life with cancer during a pandemic? By crying and being so grateful and overwhelmed with all the people and goodness you’re surrounded by. I’ve been busting out in tears alot lately; sometimes it’s being completely overwhelmed by this amazing life, and sometimes it’s sadness that comes with the burden of having cancer and wondering. Last night I cried because I really miss singing. It sounds dumb and it’s been so long since cancer surgery took my vocal cord, but sometimes grief over that loss bubbles up especially since my voice, music, and singing were such a big part of my life before cancer invaded my neck.

Last year, I was part of an event called Brushes With Cancer, an annual event held in different cities across the country by Twist Out Cancer. They match artists with cancer fighters/survivors as inspiration and the artists create something based on the cancer fighter’s story. A year ago I was matched with a professional singer and together we wrote a song. This year, I was able to attend the event (virtual because of Covid), and boy did I cry. Listening to all of the stories and seeing the art created from them was magical. I think the stories got to me because it reminded me that cancer affects so many people and their loved ones, and that I’m ‘part of the club’ that no one wants to be in. One piece of art that really affected me was a sculpture that a son created for his mother who is currently fighting cancer. It was a tangle of wood and steel with what looked like a wing at the top and in the middle sat a large stone. The metal represented strength and overarching peace and freedom while the stone represented the heavy burden of ‘cancer; strength and hope amidst the heaviness of cancer. ‘The Ascending’ which it was called, was beautiful and I felt it represented me too.

In 2011, The American Cancer Society had a “More Birthdays” campaign. That year, when I walked in Relay For Life, seeing the Happy Birthday signs broke me. I was overcome by tears after fighting and beating cancer three times and was so grateful to be able to celebrate more birthdays. Now, here we are, another diagnosis in 2017 and another birthday. Every birthday since given the Stage 4 diagnosis has been such a blessing and always a reminder to not waste the days. Today I’m 51. We’re in the middle of a pandemic so there is lots of anxiety and uncertainty in the world but here’s what I’m sure about: I’m alive and I’m surrounded by love, what else is there? Last year I posted a list of lessons I’ve learned and they still hold true so I thought I’d list them again:

  •  You are stronger than you think
  • Don’t fight your age
  •  Stay connected with younger people, it keeps your mind active and there’s lots to learn from each other
  •  Simple is better, there are so many things you don’t need; assess, trash, donate
  •  There are still so many good people in this world
  •  The Golden Rule is truth. If everyone treated people how they would want to be treated the world would be a better place.
  •  Actions are more important than words; Words don’t matter if your actions don’t match
  •  Bad things will happen
  •  There’s no need to be around toxic people, they just poison you and it takes too long to recover
  •  Everyone’s days are numbered, live like it
  •  Don’t judge a book by it’s cover, read the book (paraphrased from Dolly Parton)~because everyone comes from a really good story
  •  Beauty and ugly both come from the inside, not what’s reflected in the mirror
  •  There’s no ‘perfect time’ to follow your dreams, just dive right in
  •  Loving God is different than being religious
  •  Life is still filled with wonder just open your eyes

Lastly, always be grateful.

Life is short, break the rules. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret anything that makes you smile.’~Mark Twain

This Moment

4 Sep

It has been a long time since I’ve written anything on this blog. Because of coronavirus and all of this time in quarantine, we’ve all been forced to sit and slow down and grapple with our thoughts (more than usual), at least that’s been true for me. I’ve personally felt incredibly busy and not busy at the same time; how can that be? Grief. Over the past few months I have spent quite a bit of time grieving. I am not talking about a debilitating state of grief, just a general sadness that has weaved through my days here and there. One of the best definitions I’ve found on grief is: ‘the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in familiar pattern of behavior.’ Umm, coronavirus quarantine in general is a change in familiar pattern of behavior.

Over the past few months, my oldest left for grad school in Florida, which is the farthest he’s been from home, ever. His college graduation didn’t feel real because it was online, but when I helped move him out of his college apartment then pack him up for grad school, that’s when it hit, a new phase of life for him..cue the mom tears. Then there was the release of my daughter and two step-daughters, sending them away to college, each one week apart; a junior, sophomore, and a freshman. My youngest is starting his senior year of high school but it was exactly one year ago this August that he had his stroke. Facebook filled my feed with memories from in and around that time. Seeing the pictures and re-reading the comments and narrative I wrote, was overwhelming and I could still feel every single emotion of my heart breaking. Gratefully he is doing amazing now. Kids grow up so fast and you’re never truly prepared to release them into adulthood and yes, it’s a grieving process every time one of them launches into the world on their own (or even when they get their drivers license and drive away alone for the first time). I know for sure you can’t hang on to them and hold them too tightly. We equip them the best we can and let them go to fly…hardest thing ever. Jen Hatmaker recently said, ‘We are raising the kids we have, not the kids we were. Let them zig where you might have zagged. Believe in their dreams. Believe in them.’

Then there’s cancer. I missed my March appointment because of Covid but was able to have my scans done in June. The cancer center was sad because at the time (and still), only the patient could go inside, no caregivers or support. The waiting room was half full of cancer patients alone. One elderly gentleman in particular had a panic attack when they told him his wife couldn’t join him for his appointment. He pleaded with the receptionist and said she was the only one who could understand what the doctor was saying and that she took all the notes. It was hard being around the ‘scared sick’ and I think if more people could be placed in those rooms for just a short amount of time with those people (the sick, the elderly, the afraid, the vulnerable) looking into their eyes, then wearing a mask would be a no brainer; not a political statement, not a fear based opinion, just plain love and empathy for others. Thankfully, the tumors that have taken residence in my lungs are still stable so cheers to another 6 months (until the next scan). Typically in the times leading up to a scan I have scanxiety and can think of nothing else. Now with the pandemic, the scan was just another thing I had to get done that day. So strange. Recently, Chadwick Boseman, most famous from starring in The Black Panther movie, passed away from colon cancer. That was devastating to me. It put a pit in my stomach and just made me sad for days. Grief back to the surface. Cancer sucks, this pandemic sucks.

I saw this question in an article I read recently: ‘How do you adjust to an ever-changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?’ While the rest of the world is trying to adjust to this indefinite uncertainty, I, a stable Stage 4 cancer fighter, have been living with this new normal for the past 3 years. Some days are awesome, some are ‘eh’, but all is well. Here are some tips for those of you who can’t think straight right now, from a girl that has lived in indefinite uncertainty for quite some time:

*wake up and smile (literally open your eyes and grin for 5 seconds~you’re alive)

*every few hours think of something you’re grateful for. Maybe just one thing at breakfast, lunch, and dinner then one more before bed.

*don’t be too hard on yourself

*Let yourself have a good cry every now and then because this new normal stinks

*be kind to others but more than that, be empathetic, put yourself in others’ shoes; everyone’s handling the situation differently and everyone’s grieving the loss of how life is/was ‘supposed to be’

*be aware and present each moment and let things go. All we have is today, right now, this moment. This is has been a hard one for me because I have teens/young adults and sometimes worry takes over. I am practicing letting them go to make and learn from their own mistakes while being thankful for today. Key word, practice

Pico Iyer says it this way, ‘The fact that nothing lasts is the reason why EVERYTHING matters.’

Nothing lasts, everything matters. You have this moment

Just Anna

3 Jun

beachThe past few days have been hard. I’ve been trying to process all that has happened in America recently regarding race and it’s too much. When Covid started, it was Asians being blamed as being responsible, then the sickening killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, the most recent horrific murder of George Floyd, so many more…and those are just what we’ve heard about. It’s been hard and disheartening for me because of my own experiences with racial discrimination and has brought to mind all the times I have felt ‘less than’ or ‘out of place’ over the years. My experiences are in NO WAY NEAR what black Americans deal with on a regular basis, and I’ve not felt the pain of injustice, but they are mine and they are stories of being yellow/brown, and not white, in America.

I was born in the Philippines and emigrated to the United States with my parents when I was two. With very little money, we first settled in downtown Detroit at an apartment complex right next to a car dealership. Both my parents worked because they literally left the Philippines with nothing and came to build a better life in America from scratch. I remember being dropped off at a childcare/preschool in Detroit and having 2 little girls tell me I couldn’t play with them because I was different, I wasn’t black like them. I must have only been 3 or 4 years old but some memories never leave you. When I was 9, we moved to a suburb which was pretty much all white, and that very first day of 4th grade, the little boy sitting next to me asked my other table mates, ‘Do you think she speaks English?’ I grew up thinking I didn’t belong to white America or to black America so when I was 14 and my parents took me back to the Philippines to visit, I did not want to come back. I felt like I finally belonged someplace where I didn’t have to try so hard to fit. My mom, in all her wisdom, simply told me to get involved. She said, ‘Join everything, participate in everything, get involved and really get to know people, and if in a year you feel the same way, you can go back to the Philippines and stay with your grandmother.’ It was a risk but living life takes risks.

I’m still here. I did what she said, opened myself up and got involved. Did I feel like I belonged? Somewhat. Did racial remarks and attitude stop in my life after 8th grade? Never. I’ve been called ‘chink’ more times than not and have been asked (still) ‘what are you?’ and ‘where are you from?’ so many times it’s laughable. I was in a sorority in college (the only Asian) and people would say they probably chose me because they needed a higher GPA… ha, I was the wrong chick for that. I was chosen to be a sorority rep for the Panhellenic council (group that promotes unity and cooperation amongst fraternities and sororities at a university) and walking into my first meeting, one of the fraternity boys pointed at the door and said, ‘Your group is meeting next door.’ Next door was where the black Panhel council was meeting. I could go on and on. Last March I was in LA for a meeting right when Covid struck. At the crowded LA airport I sat waiting for my friend to come out of the bathroom and as I found and sat in one of the only available seats in the terminal, the couple next to me whispered between each other, got up and moved; no other seats open so they stood against the wall instead (insert eye roll here). I wasn’t even coughing, which for me is always a risk since I’ve had cancer in my neck several times, heavy doses of radiation, and now cancer in my lungs. Which by the way, cancer does not choose a color.

How do we change? First and foremost, listen. Since George Floyd’s murder, there has been so much noise. Mostly from white Americans talking; wanting to make things better, ordering books, talk, talk, talk. It’s so great to have these conversations open up but it’s talk I’ve heard before. How and when does it change? Today is Black Out Tuesday and maybe that’s a good start. Stop talking, give space to listen; listen to stories of heartache, fear, how people live and think every single day. Second, enter into relationship. In college, I remember having a conversation with one of my closest friends. I told her of my insecurities about being Asian, some of the stereotypes involved, and how people viewed me differently. She stared back at me and said, ‘What? I don’t even see color, you’re just Anna.’ When I was engaged to my now ex-husband, we visited his dad to announce our engagement and he walked out of the room. After our first child was born he wouldn’t hold him for at least the first year. It wasn’t great, but he’s from a small town and had no experience with other races. I’m not saying he’s a racist, I’m saying he just didn’t know and when you don’t know you base your thoughts on what you’ve heard or seen on tv or popular opinion or whatever. Slowly over the years, after getting to know me and being open to enter into relationship with me, he listened, learned, softened his heart, and loved. So much so, that when I had cancer the third time and was going in for my third surgery, he surprised me by showing up at the hospital to pray and support me; he drove 200 miles by himself to be there without me asking or knowing he would come and was already sitting in the lobby when I came to check in. What changed? He was open enough to enter into relationship with me. I was just Anna.

Black lives matter. Black people have a long history of oppression and injustice . Being Asian, I don’t believe that I will ever see a knee on the neck of my sons, brother, uncle, dad. I don’t worry about my sons being stopped or pulled over because of their color. I don’t worry that they’ll be harassed or questioned walking down our street in a mostly white neighborhood. With all the worry and fear that comes with motherhood, I can’t imagine the added fear of raising black sons and daughters wondering how they will be treated and what injustice they will face growing up and for the rest of their lives. I heard the easy analogy of your house being on fire and the fire department coming to fight the fire. It would be like all your neighbors saying, ‘what about my house?’ when their homes are not on fire. Of course the other homes are important and they do matter, but yours is the only one burning to the ground. In the Bible,  Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. The story was paraphrased this way by Manny Arteaga, ‘There are 100 sheep but one goes missing. Jesus leaves the 99 to go after the one. ‘But what about us? Don’t we matter?’ Of course the 99 matter but they’re not the one in danger. The one is.’ Black lives matter.

I am not part of white America or black America but have felt accepted by both. I was taught to be kind, respectful, and to love everyone, but also to work hard and stay safe and therefore be a productive, but silent part of society. There is too much injustice and discord in the world to stay silent and fear builds on fear. I also still feel on occasion, the sting of racism targeted at me so I’m tired of always having the mindset to make sure I somehow fit in. We all need to do and be better. I’m married to a white man and I always feel like I have to dress better and look good when we are in public. Why? So people don’t question why he chose to marry an Asian woman, dumb but true and believe me, I’ve heard comments.

This is America. The reason why immigrants have flocked here is because of the freedoms and opportunities for them and their families. What makes America beautiful is that it’s the ‘great American melting pot’ where people of all races are welcomed, but it’s historical roots are steeped in anti-black actions and white privilege. I grew up hearing and reading the history about women given the right to vote, how after years of slavery, slaves were freed, how men and women fought in World Wars to maintain America’s freedom, and now, here we are, still. In a recent interview, former President Obama asked the question, ‘Can we see in each other a common HUMANITY, a shared DIGNITY, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?’ It takes courage. We are one American family. Michelle Obama says, ‘Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it just can’t be on people of color to deal with it. IT’S UP TO ALL OF US- BLACK, WHITE, EVERYONE-NO MATTER HOW WELL-MEANING WE THINK WE MIGHT BE, TO DO THE HONEST, UNCOMFORTABLE WORK OF ROOTING IT OUT. It starts with self examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.

I am not black, I am not white, and all I want to be is Anna. In response to the systemic racism and social injustice in our country against black people-I see you, I hear you, I stand alongside of you. By nature I am a peacemaker, so in a time when everything is loud, I’ll still be soft. Let’s also remember to be kind and not judge each other as we go through these growing pains. Everyone processes things differently and judgement will only bring more division. Give grace. There will always be lots of words but until we enter into relationships-TRUE, HARDCORE, VULNERABLE relationships, with people of other races, religions, colors, we will never know, understand, and love them. Enough talk. Listen, empathize, educate then enter into relationship and just do. ‘Love justice, do mercy, walk humbly with our God.’~ Micah 6:8

Uncertainty

28 May

annapensiveIt’s week, I don’t even know anymore, of Covid quarantine. I have semi-adjusted to the daily web based calls for work, various networking calls, dog walks, exercise, cooking, etc, and of all those things, I don’t want to cook anymore…I’m bored with my cooking. I have developed a couple addictions; one to pork rinds (the ‘healthy’ keto kind from Whole Foods), and I can’t get enough of a cleaning instagram account called @gocleanco. It’s seriously a before and after gold mine of house cleaning. No, I haven’t deep cleaned my house from top to bottom nor have the desire to, but I love watching the cleaning stories on this account and I did buy powder Tide for the first time ever (if you watch, you know). It’s weird.

Yesterday I found out that one of the sweet cancer fighters I sent lipstick to a couple months ago passed away. If you’re not familiar, my lipstick company does a buy one/give one. Meaning, if you buy a lipstick, I donate one to a cancer fighter/survivor that you know, and if you don’t know anyone, I give partial proceeds to cancer organizations I’ve chosen. I got the information about this beautiful woman from one of my repeat customers. She was a young wife and mom of two little boys with a constant smile on her face. I was so happy to send her lipstick in hopes to bring a little joy to her fight. Days later I got a little thank you from her via private message on Instagram. She was super excited and grateful, and was hoping to try more colors. Hearing the news of her passing made me so sad and reminded me again how fleeting life can be, and that cancer is a bitch.

I also heard from a high school friend who had just learned of her diagnosis and felt they had no one to talk to who knew how it felt, so she reached out to me. Here’s what I said:

My advice to you right now is to first, breathe. I have learned that there are lots of things we cannot control. I knew what my job was; seek the best medical advice, stay calm, eat well, try to exercise, go to my medical appointments, etc., the rest I had to let go and trust God, NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME. We always have our own plan for our lives and it stinks when it’s derailed, but you have to let that go. I’m doing my part and I’m trusting God and my medical team to do theirs. Second, share your story because someone needs to hear it, even if it’s just you. The more you speak it, the more power your story gives you. My blog definitely helped me release some emotions but I do not hesitate to share my story because it allows people to help you, or at the very least, to understand you better. God and faith to me came not only in my prayers, but in the hands and feet of those who surrounded me. Next, seek counseling. I started seeing a counselor after the 3rd time I had cancer and it was eye opening and super helpful. Last, cry your eyes out but when you’re done, prepare your mind to fight; even if that cycle happens every 5 minutes. It may sound cliche’, but try to find at least one thing to be grateful for at the end of the day. Hope looks different to me now that I’m stage 4. Lots of people gauge hope in some future, but I’m too familiar with the concept of time and all we really have is the present. Hope to me looks like looking into the past and seeing how far I’ve come, thinking about my days and being grateful, finding bits of magic like a flower blooming or a friend calling. As much as life is complicated, it’s also really simple.

All of the things I said can be applied to our current Covid situation. The uncertainty and anxiety that everyone feels is how cancer patients feel all the time…welcome to our world. Author, professor, and Stage 4 cancer fighter Kate Bowler calls life a chronic condition and says we are always looking to be better, look better, feel better. She says that it’s ok that life isn’t always better, we can find beauty and meaning and truth around us, but there’s no cure to being human. If uncertainty is not the ultimate enemy, then we get to live in the space between with more courage.

That’s where I have to live, the space between. My cancer has been stable almost three years but it has not disappeared. I have been filled with uncertainty about my future but I don’t fear it and I no longer view uncertainty as my enemy. It just is, but I know God is with me holding my hand, and that’s enough.

What is Courage? Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, it is the quiet
voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow”. ~ Anonymous

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