Coping with Loss after Cancer

There is a raw wordless ache in my core. When I start to approach it, it builds into a fire that agitates my whole system and threatens to engulf the whole of me. It’s in my pulse and my blood. My scalp prickles and my hair hurts. I itch all over. My hands are restless, so I scrub dishes and fold laundry and pull weeds. I’m afraid that if I get too close to it, all my positive efforts at healing and rebuilding… my health, my career, all my gratitude, that it will careen off into a blurry void of hopelessness and crash into a gully of despair.

Three people in my circle have had their lives taken by cancer this year. Their names are Champagne Joy, Milyn Kukon and just this past weekend, Cat Barney. Cat and I were newly acquainted, and I wish I had more time to know her. Our sons go to school together, and this similarity in age, the idea of leaving behind a husband and son, it gathers the storm clouds and terrifies me.

I want to put a name on it, to analytically dissect it. That is safer than feeling the tsunami of emotion. I am left with this question:  How can I experience loss without retraumatization?

I have heard the saying that, “Anger is Sad’s bodyguard,” but I wonder if Sad is somehow allowing the walls to still stand. Anger threatens to obliterate me. Anger seeks to undo my remasking as a “Person Among the Living” after the absurdity that is cancer. Who am I angry with? Is it God? Is it Mankind’s destruction of the environment? Why would my genetic code go haywire like this?

I don’t know what to do with these feelings, so I write. I lean into my community again, like I did when I was weak and bald and sutured. What comes to me now is the image of being carried by a sea of people who love and support me.

After Harvey and Irma, and our mass retraumatization of watching these devastating images, I remember that most of us intimately know loss and pain and the vulnerability of being alive. I see these images and all I want to do is get on a bus and head to the most ravished place I can find and try to pick up the pieces.

As I wrote Cat’s name the sun broke through. I want to tell myself a story that she and Milyn and Champagne are everywhere now, all around us, invisible in the air, and we can breathe them in. Is raw vulnerability the gift they left? This reminder of impermanence? It makes me double down on my mission. Busy is my default coping mode.

Refocusing on the other, finding my community again, I’m leaning in.

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What You Nurture Will Grow

There were 7 of us gathered around the table, silently letting our bodies and minds arrive into the quiet anticipation of our time together. Our small monthly gathering of the Younger Women’s Support Group for cancer survivors under the age of 55 was about to begin. On the table between us sat a basket of unimposing flower bulbs, some rocks, glass beads and small vases.

A few days before, I met with the social worker who facilitates this group with me, and the idea formulated that we would lead the group in an exercise of focused intention. We were to focus on what we would like to nurture and grow, really feeling into what that need was in our lives. We used the bulbs as a structure to represent this idea, belief or habit that we were going to foster and grow by adding water and tending to.

The clear vase with white stones and blue glass looked beautiful when I brought it home. I was feeling inspired and hopeful as I added water and carefully brought it to the windowsill next to my crystals, potted plants and singing bowl. It was all set perfectly. Now I just have to wait for this bulb to grow, I thought. This didn’t turn out to be very easy.

Among us in the group, our intentions were as varied and personal as our inner lives. For me, I recognized a need for better self care and permission to rest. I find this feeling lives deep in my belly, in the core of knowing who I am. In the dark cob-webbed cellar of my being, there is an old rooted belief that my value as a person is tied up in how hard I work. Logically, I know this to be untrue, but coming from a long line of type-A workaholics, this belief can feel like an insurmountable hill when I’m in full tilt productivity mode. There is my heart work, my newly burgeoning coaching business, a few other side projects and jobs, my family, home, garden, friends and a myriad of other responsibilities. I like being busy and usually thrive on the rich diversity of my day-to-day. Until… I bottom out.

I know I have hit a wall when the deadened neuropathy in my fingers and toes comes back and it feels like I’m walking around with clothes pins on my extremities. It shows up in the dull ache of my low back, the ligament laxity that comes with full blown adrenal stress. It feels like the knotty kink in my neck. It’s really apparent when even after a cup of my strongest morning brew, I still want to face plant into the pillows. Instead of napping, I’m looking for what’s next. What else can I cram into my already busy day before my son gets off of the bus at 3 PM, before dinner, before bedtime, before, before, before… and then I’m dragging myself off to bed. Hmm, I’m wondering if some of this sounds familiar to anyone else reading this.

So it’s really no wonder that my bulbs refused to grow. At first, the water was evaporating too quickly. The heat from the bay windows sucked up so much water the first week, that I found myself adding more water every day. There was a tiny bit of root growth, that quickly shriveled up after a day or two of neglect.

I decided to add more water, hoping that my recent oversight would protect the bulbs from drying out. This only resulted in some mold growth. What else was I doing wrong here? Why was this taking so long?

I sat back and thought about what else I could do. As a gardener, I thought about the conditions that exist for bulbs when planted in soil.  There is darkness, this required period of rest, before the plant has energy to send its first light green shoots up through the dirt. I reflected on how I was not living up to my end of the bargain. Despite my intentions, I was not resting. I moved the bulbs out of the sunny window. I changed the water entirely.

Conditions must be right for growth to occur. For both the bulbs and for my intentions for better self care and more rest, there were some requirements. These 5 R’s can be applied to any difficult situation or hang up you experience in life.

  1. Reality: I must be willing to take a hard look at what is really going on here.
  2. Responsibility: After making an observation, what am I taking responsibility for? Where can I realistically effect change? Am I over-watering the bulbs and overdoing it energetically? Am I over-scheduling myself?
  3. Responsiveness: It is time for damage control. What can I do to mitigate the lack of growth for my bulbs and in the realm of my own intentions? It is not enough to observe and be stuck in lamenting over what has not grown. I can choose to be responsive and make changes.
  4. Respect: After getting clear on my intentions, it is not enough to make a statement, have an intention setting ritual and just walk away. I must remain vigilant, mindful of what I am setting in motion.
  5. Resilience: I must hook into the part of me that knows how to stay the course and go the distance. Even if I stumble, make mistakes or feel like a flat out failure sometimes, I can learn from my mistakes and keep on trying.

I really didn’t expect all these life lessons could come from some tiny little gladiolus bulbs. I’m reminded that there are lessons all around me if I pay attention. By observing what my body and bulbs are needing, by practicing moderation and most of all, by BEING PATIENT WITH MYSELF, then yes it is true… what you nurture will grow!

 

bulb

Melissa Eppard lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY area with her young son and talented musician husband. She loves gardening, hiking, poetry, art, music and spending time with her family.  As a Life Coach she knows that life is more than a sum of our losses and seeks to ignite the spark of purposeful living and creative fire in everyone she meets.  www.MelissaEppardCoaching.com

 

 

 

 

A Whole Year of Turning 40: Not Just Another Party

friends

This is a big one, but I’m not one of those women lamenting the aging process. After kicking breast cancer to the curb 3 years ago, after the steady climb back into my strength and vitality, gaining another year is an achievement. Sorry, not-sorry… it’s an outright blessing and a gift! But please don’t jump to buying me a present for my 40th birthday in November. Don’t look for a save-the-date in the mail.

Here is why: I have a special invitation to all of my friends and family. I am inviting you to celebrate with me All Year Long!

One of the gifts in being where I am in life is that I know what I like and I know what I need. I know how to ask for and pursue what I want. While I like to attend other people’s parties, I don’t enjoy the thought of planning one for myself, or hosting one, or having a surprise party thrust upon me. Hear me out before you close this and call me a party pooper!

I always feel overwhelmed at my own parties. There is too much noise, too many competing conversations, and I can’t give individualized attention to discuss anything of depth over the French onion dip. There may be quantity in who shows up, but it’s usually not the space for quality time.

There is all this pressure in the planning and preparing too. First, culling the invite list to meet my budget, booking a venue, planning entertainment and food, hunting down RSVP’s, you know…really working it! Then, suddenly it’s party day, and 4-5 hours later it’s over and done. I’m left stripping tables with half a buzz and tossing half eaten pieces of cake. Instead, I want my “cake” and my “birthday buzz” all year long!

Here’s the other thing. I don’t want you to celebrate me. I want to celebrate US in this world together. I want to honor our paths, lament our struggles and heartaches; I want to dance over our achievements, discoveries, and joys! I want to do something that is so uniquely US. It may be spontaneous or it may elegantly planned, but either way it will be personal and it will be QUALITY time. Perhaps there will be greasy food involved, or hysterical laughing, or getting lost in the woods. We might dare each other, go outside our comfort zones a bit. We might just stroll that old familiar neighborhood and talk quietly. We might sit in silence and watch the world go by together. If geography prevails, we will curl up with our phones and share our hearts. There will probably be a lot of laughing and maybe some crying too.

This would be the greatest gift for me in this year of turning 40. I want this celebration to be lasting, and I want to share time with the people I love and care about in a meaningful way. Here is how I see this playing out in real life. My job in to show up, to be (reasonably) available, and commit to showing up. Your job? Seek me out. Offer up your plan, your date, your reservation, your hike in the woods, your dance in the rain, your best lasagna, your cup of tea. Small groups are ok too.

This is not about what you will do for me, or buy for me. I really don’t want presents, just presence. Real life, real time presence. In thinking about the many people who have touched my life in a meaningful way, even a year might not be enough time, but we can try!

This Life Worth Saving

mommy and julian, age 6

My baby is about to turn 7. This time of year sparks a charge for me, because as I hold him and look into those gigantic brown eyes, I remember how terrified I was three years ago at this time.

As much as I wanted to crumble and hide from the world, I found myself planning Julian’s 4th birthday. We were keeping it small and low key because I didn’t have the bandwidth to plan a big party and was not feeling very festive. Just a few grandparents, some paper plates, a small cake. Nothing fancy. One week following this birthday, I was scheduled to undergo a double mastectomy. Then as soon as I could be up and walking I had fertility preserving IVF treatments to begin. As soon as those precious eggs were harvested, I would move on to begin 5 months of chemotherapy. I had my marching orders. I numbly moved forward one inch at a time, so afraid, and so blind to any possibilities that might exist in the future. I dared not dream or hope for too much.

Nothing was guaranteed to me then, and I still think that had it not been for Julian and my husband Joey, I might not have found the inner strength to go through with any of it. For a moment I imagine not having had these three years and I remember that every minute of this has been a gift. I look into Julian’s handsome face, those baby dimples still tucked away at the corners of his smile, that broad forehead and eyebrows like his dad’s, his mouth and chin just like mine, and I’m near losing it -in the middle of a Sponge Bob episode.

I swallow back my tears because emotions are confusing for Julian to grasp. He studies my face when I wince from a backache and asks me if I’m sick. If I languish in bed too long he will ask if I am dying. Still. While autism has impaired his ability to read emotions, it has also given him an iron trap memory, and a keen intuitive sense. I reassure him as much as I can, but I can’t undo that hellish year.

I think of how hard or perhaps impossible it would have been –to have arrived in this same place without adequate health insurance. I lost my employer based coverage just 2 months before that breast cancer diagnosis, and if there was any good fortune, it was to have been diagnosed during the Obama era and the age of the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare). As I write this, secret plans are being hatched behind closed Senate doors. I wonder what kind of protections will be afforded to people like me –people with hereditary or congenital conditions, as well as people with chronic conditions that require lifelong support.

I didn’t have to fight for every single immune boosting shot that enabled my chemotherapy to continue. I didn’t have to beg for anti-nausea medication. I didn’t have to squabble with the insurance company to cover my anesthesia during any one of those 4 surgeries.

I want to hope that we can reach across our differences and create a cohesive safety net for the most vulnerable among us. It is truly heart breaking to hear about real human suffering, and consider the cold calloused manor that health care is viewed when looking through a political and financial lens. We are treading in dangerous territory when we cut the heart feelings from this conversation, when we look at human life solely through the filter of a budget and start to assess which lives are worth saving.

I’d like to invite any Congressman or Senator who has voted (or will vote in the future) to do away with the ACA in favor of the American Health Care Act to come to my home. Come meet my little boy. Tell me that my life wasn’t worth saving. Tell me that I will still receive adequate follow up care and that I will still be able to afford treatment if cancer ever returns.

 

Here are just some of the impacts that the American Health Care Act will have: (the following synopsis quoted from https://www.thebalance.com/how-could-trump-change-health-care-in-america-4111422)

States will be allowed to waive several rules of the Affordable Care Act.

  1. First, the rule that insurance firms must charge the same price to every person of the same age, regardless of health. That rule protected people with pre-existing conditions. The ACA made insurance companies charge the same rate for those with pre-existing conditions as they did for healthy people. In states that waive the rule, chronic disease sufferers would pay much higher rates.
  2. States could also waive the requirement that companies offer 10 essential health benefits. Each state would define its own list of essential benefits. Once an illness is removed from the list, insurance companies can reinstate annual and lifetime limits.
  3. 22 million Americans will lose their healthcare over the next decade.

 

Melissa Eppard lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY area with her young son and talented musician husband. She loves gardening, hiking, poetry, art, music and spending time with her family.  As a Life Coach she knows that life is more than a sum of our losses and seeks to ignite the spark of purposeful living and creative fire in everyone she meets.  www.MelissaEppardCoaching.com

All the Right Reasons

I poured my guts out a few months ago about an experience of applying for a full time job, the first real full time 9-5, salaried with benefits kind of job since being turned inside out by breast cancer and all that came with it. Recently the Young Survival Coalition shared my story as a guest blogger, and they asked if I wanted to revise the content at all. I didn’t because what followed in the few weeks after I shared my heartache at not getting that job deserved its very own story.

I hate that cliché of “Everything happens for a reason.” You just can’t live by that creed when you have been diagnosed with cancer because what follows is some horrible head game of trying to understand what you did to deserve this. “Shit happens,” or “Bad things happen to good people,” seemed more apropos at the time.

My current motto is a line I heard from Abraham, (the channeled information shared by Esther Hicks) that goes, “You can never do the right thing for the wrong reasons. It is not possible.” Let’s break that down a bit. What I thought was the “right thing” was getting that job. My reasons had to do with job security and financial stability. That and thinking that to be effective I needed to align myself with a larger organization and mission.

So I felt this deep sting of rejection, the embarrassment of flubbing through a crappy second interview. Then in the week that followed, something shifted for me. You can’t fake this kind of learning by throwing on a pair of rose colored glasses. You have to dig around in the murkiness of your hurt and pain for a bit before something new emerges. What surfaced was a realization that my reasons for wanting this job were all wrong.

You are likely thinking that job security, benefits and financial stability are important. They do have importance, but in retrospect, I see these as largely one dimensional, serving to enhance the financial view of my life. Acting from this place of fear, I was unknowingly trying to override the alignment with my life purpose, the growth of my unique gifts and the contributions I seek to share while I have breath to breathe. I was afraid to trust and I was temporarily blinded by fear, so much so that I lost faith in my natural resourcefulness and the bounty that already exists in my life.

I would have had to give up too many important elements in my life to have taken on this full time job. Even early in the application process, I tried to squelch that tiny screaming voice in the back of my mind. I knew getting that job would mean a big departure from my availability and focus as a life coach. I remembered that promise I made to myself when I finished my training with CTI, knowing full well how important and vital this work is in the world, that even if cancer were to resurface, that I want to be doing this work until the day I die.

There are also the handful of other meaningful side jobs that help keep me afloat, those too I would have had to let go of. These clients are people whose work I deeply respect and who rely on me. In service to my personal mission, I only take on freelance work that serves two purposes, 1.) Jobs that offer me new learning and skills; and 2.) Jobs that offer healing, inspiration and enlightenment to this planet.

There were personal reasons that dawned on me too, realizing that I wouldn’t be there to get my son off the bus, and I’d only get to see him for those 2 tired and cranky hours right before bed. He is only 6, and I know I won’t be able to get these precious early years back. Besides, after school child care is not very easy to find when you have a son with special needs. I wouldn’t be available to help my mother in law who is sadly advancing in early onset Alzheimer’s. Come to think of it, between their doctor appointments and mine, there probably aren’t enough sick days and vacation days afforded by an employer, even a generous one.

When you are facing a difficult decision, seeking to make a change in your life, ask yourself which values you are honoring and which will you be squashing in the pursuit of this new dream. I hold a high value on freedom and flexibility, both afforded to me as a self-employed person. I value family and motherhood. I value independence and self-reliance. I value the fact that I can carve out an hour or two to write when the muse strikes me.

Here is something else so surprising and fantastic that emerged from this momentary fall on my face…

After I gave myself a few days to really feel all the icky sticky feelings that came up with not getting this job, I turned things around in a big way by using the very skills and tools that I offer to my coaching clients. We’re talking serious gratitude practices, and cleaning up my limiting beliefs and the emotional shockwaves that I was feeling by using EFT Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique). This allowed me to open up some breathing room in my nervous system, and I could start to feel my creative resourcefulness returning.

The most amazing thing happened next. Without having to do any outward push, seeds that I had planted months before suddenly bloomed in my life. Clients were coming out of the woodwork. More freelance work started flowing my way, all amazing projects and people that I’m delighted to work with. One client offered me a generous raise out of the blue! This beautiful new blueprint is emerging. I’m coming to see that by doing the right thing for the RIGHT reasons, by staying true to my dreams and my life purpose, by living and acting in alignment with all of my values, the financial stability can be a natural side effect. I’m excited to see where this new learning takes me!

If you ever want to explore how coaching can make a difference in your life, send me a message and I’d be happy to join you in self-discovery.  We are made for so much more that we often believe or allow!

MelissaEppardCoaching.com

 

Gratitude Mandala

Trying and Crying, an Igloo made of Tears: Employment after Cancer

I pounded my fists into the snow, packing down the bucket, an obsessive attempt at completing the igloo Julian had started. Being only 6, he gave up about two bricks into the process before returning to his sled.

Sliding the icy cylinder into place, soaking in the silence of winter, I let the first fiery tears eek out the corners of my eyes. Then, I couldn’t hold back, I found myself suddenly full on sobbing into the snow remembering what a stupid ass I had made of myself in that job interview. The sting of embarrassment was so deep that I silently prayed they would forget all about it and just do me the favor of never calling me back.

It was my first real interview for a full time job since the breast cancer diagnosis in 2014. As fate would have it, I had a stomach bug just 2 days before the interview, so when I arrived, there were tinges of fuzziness that certainly didn’t allow me to put my best self forward. The interviewees sat around me in a semi-circle reading from a list of questions, and all I could hear were pens scratching paper, my consciousness lifting about 3 feet above my head, right there in the corner, trying to find a way out. A hot flash came on, I wanted to tear at my clothing, crack the door, open a window. Does this flush look like embarrassment? Someone asked another question and that name I was searching for evaded me, the chemo brain had just punched that piece of memory out of reach.

Was all of this, even the opportunity, just a sympathetic gesture for the cancer survivor? Am I still viable as a contributing member of society? My heart and hands yearn to be busy, to contribute, to share my passion and my ideas. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t all that bad, but really truly that wasn’t my best self in the room that day.

Is it not enough that I sloughed through 5 months of treatment, that my breasts and ovaries were cut away from me, that there will be no more babies? I told my husband that I am tired of fighting, this fighting for my life and fighting for survival. He said then just stop fighting and start loving, start allowing. There is so much at stake though, so much risk. When we are talking about the nuts and bolts of survival, like the big small stuff of paying bills on time, keeping the vehicles in operating condition, making sure we have health insurance, that our kid is happy and well, it mounts to a pile of responsibility. That is on the table right now, not to even get into the looking over my shoulder at the ever uncertain future.

I remember the saying, “All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well,” and I’m really not so sure. I don’t see a lot of OK-ness reflected in the 24 hour news cycle, nothing seems OK at home or abroad. I look for it online on my social media feed but it’s too unsettling there. Where does this elusive feeling of OKness reside and how can I cloak myself in it?

Here is the best that I can muster, sitting here in the sun, the clickety clack of my fingers on the keys. I will not go hungry tonight. My adorable son will come home from school and snuggle up to me and touch my face. My husband will come home from work tired and hungry and we will enjoy each other’s company. This time was not guaranteed to me when that cancer diagnosis came to topple me down. My rock solid sister-girlfriends are a phone call away. Spring is coming soon. All is well, all is well, all manner of things…

Thinking of that interview, I choose to free myself from the shame of my stumble and fall. I had the strength and courage just to even put myself out there and try. Nothing is owed to me, not even my survival.

Underneath this melting snow, there is life, an endless cycle of renewal. It is easy to forget what is possible when all you see is dirty snow and mashed up yellow grass and mud, how from dirty, mucky places such beautiful, enriching and vibrant things grow.

All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well.

 

igloo

 

 

Be the Safety Net, Don’t Let Meanness Win

It was a shadowy end of the year in our family, punctuated by peaks of brightness from our silly six year old boy anticipating Christmas. While everyone else was finishing their holiday shopping, word came that my young niece attempted to commit suicide. It struck me that this attempt was made now, at the darkest time of the year. As we slowly regain the light, how will we all move forward?

We have seen meanness and bullying normalized and promoted in politics, in entertainment and on social media. The effects are far reaching and can be deadly. Reeling with feelings, I processed this the best way I know how and started to write. I decided to share the letter that I wrote to my niece. There is a good chance you know another young person struggling with depression and bullying. Reach out, be that safety net. (Note that the name has been changed to preserve anonymity.)

 

Dear Jamie, 

Let me start by saying that I’m so happy you are still here, that your attempt to kill yourself didn’t work.  I have been struggling with what to say to you. This brought up so much feeling… shock, sadness, anger, confusion. Mostly there are just questions. I want to understand why.

If it is bullying that drove you to this, look at it this way… when you hurt yourself or if you were to kill yourself, the bullies have WON at that point. There is no love there. They won’t spend much time at all feeling sorry for their actions. Meanness is a poison that just tries to consume everything around it. Your family and true friends on the other hand, we will carry the weight of our sorrow for the entirety of our lives. Your death would leave a huge hole in our hearts and our family. You want to know how to combat bullies? You Live, you find a way to Shine and to Grow and continue to reach out with Love. You do it in spite of them. Maybe someday even a little seed of compassion will grow. You will realize that only hurt and broken people bully because they themselves feel powerless and in pain so they seek to inflict that on other people, to try and syphon off power from people around them.

Don’t you remember that just two years ago I was fighting for my life… and now you were ready to just throw your life away?!  Where did things go wrong? Is there something more that I could have done? How do we go forward so you never ever try something like this again? I realize a letter is one sided, but if and when you are ready to talk about this, or about anything really, I am here. I want to listen. If it’s not me, you know that Grandma loves you so much too. Your Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters love you immensely. You have to understand that when you hurt yourself, you are hurting all of us.

I can only imagine how hard it is to be a teenager now. When I was your age, I struggled with feeling worthless and unlovable. I didn’t talk to my father for 5 years and had been going back and forth between families since I was a little baby. I grew up around a lot of anger and animosity and blamed myself for a lot of it. It was toxic. You have your own set of challenges, your own family dynamic. Add to that, the regular pressures of being a teenager; school, friends, trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. I can’t imagine what it is like growing up with social media, with this constant fake facade where people get to paint pictures of their perfection and beauty, or get to spout horrible things about others with little to no consequences.

What can I do to help Jamie? How will you reach out for help next time? Who will be your safety net if you start to feel yourself backslide into feeling like you want to hurt yourself again? You have too much to live and too much to give to just throw it all away. You were put here on this earth for a reason, and we need your gifts and talents, we need your ideas and your light. We need your spirit and your heart. I love you Jamie. I say all of this, even if it is painful to hear it and think about this stuff, only because I love you.

With love,

Aunt Missy

bullying

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

TeenLine, Teens Helping Teens 310-855-4673

 

 

 

 

The Period at the End

It is the end of an era. Next week I will say goodbye to my ovaries. What do I say about this? I could write a piece about the timing of the election, and how I better quickly get this over with before my health insurance is dismantled. I don’t know for sure, but this has surely played a role in bringing my next surgery to the forefront.

But here is the heart of it… I am reframing this from a story about loss, loss of fertility and youthful hormones, loss of yet another piece of my femininity to something else. This bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy will bring a gift of release. I will release worry and uncertainty about my high risk of ovarian cancer due to the BRCA 1 gene. I happily release the need for blood tests and ultrasounds every 6 months, and the news of new suspicious cysts forming. And as a consolation prize, I release my monthly cycle!

This last period was perfectly timed. I was walking the Avon39: The Walk to End Breast Cancer, a 2 day 39.9 mile trek all around New York City. After completing the first 26 miles on Saturday, I retired to Aunt Joyce’s apartment and realized that “my friend”, ol’ “Aunt Flo” had come for a visit. Why should I be surprised, having walked with close to 3000 women (and men), floating in a pink sea of estrogen. All of NYC was pink it seemed as the Susan Komen and American Cancer Society had also coordinated their fundraising walks for this same weekend. Of course there was the full supermoon emerging that night too, at its perigee, or coming closer than usual in its ellipse around the earth.  This was the most fitting scene as a farewell to my monthly cycle.

If you missed the exciting conclusion on social media, I’m happy to tell you that I did it! I walked all 39.9 miles, just weeks before my 39th birthday. I met amazing women, all with very touching stories to share about how Breast Cancer has impacted their lives or the lives of their loved ones. I kept finding these small groups of women to walk with, those of us with matching paces and strides, keeping each other going until the very end. Thanks to the months of preparatory conditioning and training, my only injury was a massive blister on my pinky toe on Sunday. I limped for the last 5 miles, and at each rest stop, there was a van driver taunting me with a free ride to the finish line. There was no stopping me though. I had come this far. My mantra was, “Walking is hard, chemo is harder. Walking is hard, but cancer is harder.” (Or I would start singing a song in my head like, “And I could walk 500 miles, and I could walk 500 more…” from the Proclaimers, or Destiny’s Child’s “I’m a survivor..”)

This walk was my way to give back. (A huge THANK YOU to all my generous supporters! Collectively we raised 7.6 million dollars in this NYC walk alone!) This walk was my dedication to my sisters and brothers still in the battle for their lives. This walk was my steep climb back to reclaiming my full pre-cancer strength and stamina. And this walk was a much needed focal point so I wasn’t only focused on surgery and more loss come November 2nd. I have been made stronger because of it and I know I will heal quicker and easier because of all that training.

My father asked me last year if I was finished writing this blog, now that the cancer was gone. The truth is that the healing journey continues. There was no way to neatly pack up and resume being who I was before all of this. In fact, I wouldn’t want to. In the weeks to come, I know I will feel some ups and downs as my body gets use to this new normal that surgical menopause will bring. I intend to share some of that, to offer my experience of what healing from this surgery is like, of how to support the body, and to chronicle the changes that occur. My heart is full of healing hopes, for myself and for all who need it. Thank you for following!

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Follow the Money Trail$: Keeping your Contributions Local

I had the chance to speak at a local fundraiser last night. Because we are on the cusp of going from Ovarian Cancer Awareness month to Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought I would share what I read last night and tell you why it is so important to make charitable donations to your local community whenever possible. I feel SO incredibly lucky living here in the Hudson Valley of NY, to have the supportive programming of the Health Alliance Foundation Oncology Support Program. You don’t know what exists out there until you really need it.

Here is what I shared…

“My neighbor was recently diagnosed with cancer. Unlike me, he has no family; he is an older gentleman who lives alone with his dog. When we spoke, I could tell he was confused and overwhelmed by all the information his doctors threw at him. He has to travel 2 hours each way to get to some appointments. I could see in his face that he was sinking and I was grateful to be able to throw him a life preserver. I told him about the Health Alliance Oncology Support Program, about the social workers who will sit with him and come to appointments with him. His face lit up when I mentioned the possible assistance with gas and groceries. We didn’t even get into the healthy lifestyle and exercise classes, cooking and gardening programs, and great writing and art classes too. I know there are so many people like my neighbor who may struggle without the support of family and a network of friends. The Oncology Support Program is there for people like him.

I didn’t really come into the OSP fold when I was freshly diagnosed. I turned to writing my blog, Melissa’s Healing Hope, as a way to process and heal emotionally. I tried attending a group at OSP early on, but ­­ didn’t identify myself as a survivor because I hadn’t survived anything yet, that dark cloak of surgery and treatments still about to fall. While the ladies in the group were very kind, I felt out of touch as a younger person with cancer.

It was after treatment ended that I found myself back at the Oncology Support Program. With a head full of soft peach fuzz, I struggled to make my post cancer life fit into something recognizable. I wondered who I was now and how to continue living with this cloud of fear and uncertainty looming over me as a survivor of hereditary breast cancer. At that time I was acutely feeling the lack of a young women’s support group in the area and considered starting a group of my own when I learned that a new Young Women’s Support group had just formed at the OSP. ­I found harbor there. There was safety and a normalizing just being with people who KNOW… who get the sacrifices of being a younger person with cancer, who know the exquisite pain of uncertainty. In this space I began to no longer feel like I was barely surviving, but found my new footing as a Thriver!

Instead of getting lost in the “What-If’s of a post cancer life, what keeps me going is my mission to give back. I give what I have and that is my time. I do this through my work as a Life Coach holding space for other people’s search for a fulfilling and meaningful life, and in sharing my voice through writing. I have recently started to co-facilitate that same young women’s support group that was my safe harbor, and just this week completed the Nurturing Neighbor training program that offers peer mentorship to other people diagnosed with cancer. I can never un-do this cancer experience, and I will never be who I was before all of this, but I like to think that I now have this gift of experience and authentic compassion, that I can show up and be there for others who are diagnosed with cancer or met with other life challenges, so they won’t feel so isolated and alone.

But there are other ways, very tangible ways to give. Giving gives back to the Giver. When you support the Oncology Support Program through the Health Alliance Foundation your charitable contributions improve the lives of people living with cancer here in the Hudson Valley. Thank you!”

…So where is the need at and who is answering the call right in your own backyard? Find out how you can help. I have previously written about shady foundations  who pocket large percentages of charitable contributions. What I love about the Health Alliance Foundation is that 100% of the donations go directly to the local people it serves, so that residents of the Hudson Valley hopefully never have to choose between having a treatment or skipping it to pay the electric bill.

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

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Magical Thinking and the Cancer Mystery Tour

I have always believed that if you go looking for trouble, you will find it. I have been conscious of wanting to choose another way, to WILL myself to good health, to think only Good, Healthy, Life Affirming thoughts. But like a child that learns about fire the hard way, I am still nursing my burns, still feeling the sting of a cancer diagnosis that came in spite of my good thinking and good behaviors.

I don’t have the luxury of ascribing to “magical thinking” any longer.  While Louise Hay affirmations no longer make me cringe, I still feel a knee jerk urge to respond and defend whenever I see a comment made on social media, telling the afflicted that they would be healed of whatever ailment if only they changed their thoughts, if only they shifted their attention. While the advice giver is well intentioned, the end result is a blaming and shaming on the part of the person suffering, so that not only do they have these difficult physical symptoms, but now they are made to feel like there is some flaw in the core of their beingness, in the way they think and in what they feel too.

I have come to believe that part of this magical thinking, this mode of unhelpful and usually unsolicited advice serves as an invisible talisman for the advice giver. It is as if saying, “If I believe this at my core, I will ward off any pain or illness, I will be impervious to cancer and other diseases.” I can say this earnestly because I am a reformed magical thinker. I once believed this too.

The truth is that we just don’t know; when it comes down to it, there is very little that we can control absolutely. It is a hard truth to swallow and I can understand this urge to armor yourself with your beliefs against the inevitable vulnerabilities of living.

I have had some troubling symptoms, some persistent pain, some dubious ultrasounds. In a moment of desperation, I reached out to my therapist and told her that I waffle between thinking, “It’s nothing, I’m fine,” to, “Oh my god it’s cancer.” Back and forth like an unmedicated bipolar person, my internal compass broken. Her advice was to be mindful, to allow my feelings to come up, but not attach myself to them. To not cling to the outcome, but to be here right now, where for all I know I am cancer free.

What is this new place that I have arrived at? It is a mix of healthy skepticism and fledgling hope. I am mindful of my symptoms but not yet fretful. I am not going to bury my head in the sand, nor will I set my hair on fire. 2 years a cancer thriver, the best way I can go about it is to lovingly place myself in the third person. My 18 month post-chemo body is made up of newly regenerated cells. In this newness I am a toddler.  I will pay attention to what this body is telling me, and I will respond like a responsible and concerned parent. I will stay curious; I will ask questions, I will be an informed advocate.

Maybe after the oophorectomy, after the painful cysts and their host ovaries are gone, the uncertainty will lessen. Then I will reach that 3 year mark, and that 5 year mark, and the what ifs of triple negative hereditary cancer will fade like old newspaper. I will stand inside my new skin, not impervious but more resilient, and always appreciative of how I have earned my health and my right to wake up each day anew. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Prayers did not save me, or did they? What is the harm in hope and positive thinking, and how can it serve me now? Thinking positively makes me feel good, but my thinking is flexible and allows for careful consideration for what I am feeling and experiencing in my body. There is honesty with this mindfulness. My mind does not lead my body like an absolute guru, demanding total acquiescence.

I think I have stumbled upon the soft spongy middle ground between science and spirituality, the place where they wed is called NOW. I am so grateful for now, grateful for this beautiful September day, for the playful banter of the branches illuminated in the waning summer sun.

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