Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012

Overflow

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At some point during the summer, about halfway through the chemo treatments, I dubbed this process of kicking cancer-ass, "the world's longest endurance race." So I guess it makes sense that I'm always comparing it to my sixteen hour dirge attempting to earn the title of "Ironman."

Momentum has taken hold of this little life of mine, the days seem to fly by me and I continue to be filled with gratitude and joy - for life, and for my amazing, growing village.

I had my 12th radiation treatment today. The whole thing is wild, and as I expected, I've grown to feel grateful for the experience, to learn more about medicine and treatments, and mostly to have met more of the people who make up my medical army. They have told me that I will burn and that I will get tired, but so far I've been lucky enough not to have any of those side-effects yet. I've ridden my bike to about half of my treatments. (They say the side-effects start to show up about 3/4 of the way through.)

So they're using a new fancy machine to radiate me, basically, it looks (and acts) just like a CT scan. I have a little mold that they made for me just before my first treatment, it is my "pillow," and it forces my head and right arm to be in the same position every time they radiate (my right arm above my head, head turned to the left).
My "pillow." See the lasers???

The tube! You can also see some of the laser beams on the machine. 
The process takes about 20 minutes. I go in, they lay me down, they line the markers on my skin (markers have been there for a month now and are covered with little waterproof stickers) up with lasers that literally shoot across the room in several different spots and down from the ceiling (it is SO COOL!) Once lined up, they put me in the tube for 5ish minutes - they actually DO a CT scan every time they radiate me. They align the scan they take each day with my very first PET/CT scan so that they can see where the cancer was in relation to where I am now (this is because I had a 100% response to chemo, so no cancer shows up on the new scans). Once they've done my scan, they pull me out of the tube and I lay on the table for two or three minutes (perfectly still!!!) while they do the analysis of the scans. The REALLY cool part is that my head is turned to the left when I'm having all of this done, and the computer monitor is on the left side of the room, so I get to see all my scans as they do their crafty work. It is AWESOME. Once they've completed their scan work, they send me back into the tube for another seven minutes or so - this time for the actual radiation. I can't feel anything and I can't see anything... the only thing that makes it different from having a scan is that it sounds like rats are running around inside the tube... weird. It's not a big deal, really.

In my head I apply the concept that the doctors use with the scans to my life. I take my experience in the Ironman and I overlay it with the experiences I've had (and continue to have) in my ultra-super-duper-long endurance race (for life). I can see the challenges and emotions lining up perfectly. I see the struggle to find my stride in the water and crying, holding onto a paddle-board, wondering how in the world I would finish the race if I couldn't get through the first hour. The overlay being the weeks after my first treatment, realizing that this was going to be much harder than I thought, realizing how sick I was, having Dan disappear, and clinging to my girlfriends as they (literally) held me and wiped my tears. I didn't know how I would make it through this race.

One step in front of the other, for sure. Constant forward motion.

I struggled through the race until mile 4 of the marathon, when I met my angel in the blue shirt and he was able to flip a switch I didn't even realize existed. When I realized that not only would I finish the race, I would finish STRONG, I began to exude energy, almost without choice. My body was depleted, my muscles had reached their limit, but I was bursting with life.

And here I am... 1/3 of the way through radiation, 90% through this process cancer-ass kicking, life hasn't just returned, I am overflowing with life. I'm at mile 20 of my marathon, I can hear my village and "Mr. Ironman" cheering me into the finish line...

I see now, looking back, where the cancer was. It's gone now.

I found out yesterday that I've been selected to be one of Air New Zealand's Great Walkers. I am one of four, the only woman, and the only person chosen from the US. I am shocked. Overwhelmed. Happy. Sappy. Ecstatic. Overwhelmed. Overwhelmed. Overwhelmed. I had settled my head with not being one of the chosen four, I was fine with the "everything happens for a reason" part of it. It's been 24 hours since I found out I won. I just sit here and think about it and cry. Not just because I won. But because I feel like I've won the ultimate lottery. I am here, I have life. I am gaining my muscles back, and the body I used to know. I can run trails. I am able to ride my bike to radiation. But then, on top of all of that, I have the most amazing, most supportive family. And then on top of that, I have the most amazing, most ridiculously fun and endlessly supportive village made up of friends, neighbors, old colleagues, and now acquaintances and friends of friends. I am absolutely on cloud nine. I have it all, and on top of that... I am going to spend nine weeks exploring the beauty that is New Zealand... My cup runneth over.

Amazing.
HA!!! I still can't believe it... so I just keep staring at this and thinking "REALLY!?!? WHOSE LIFE IS THIS???"



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

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“The  most  powerful  weapon  on  Earth  is  the  human  soul  on  fire.”      

Ferdinand Foch 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

For the Record...

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Last night, ten weeks out of my last "heavy" chemo; three weeks and four days after bilateral mastectomies...

I ran six miles, on trails.

A victory that sent me into the happiest of tears.

I. AM. BACK.



Maybe it was a little much - I could have done less. And yes, the muscles that were cut to accommodate  bilateral mastectomies and tissue expanders are a little bit... errr... irritated today- but I felt like a bird in flight!!! I needed to let go, so I did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

And then some

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Re-reading my little blog/journal tonight (narcissistic? yeah, whatever...) and I gotta say...

I miss Africa something fierce.

I'm missing the adventure, newness, hilarity of it all. I miss having the kind of passion that I had going into it... Like "life" multiplied by 3,447... and then some.

I know that at some point this will all make a little bit more sense, but I've never really been super appreciative of being "slowed down." A gift wrapped in cancer (no, I'm not being sarcastic.)

So surgery went great. Aside from having drains for three weeks (not a big deal, really) - I recovered like a rockstar. I'm not shocked or feeling any remorse about losing my breasts or nipples. The new girls are already about as big as I want them, and I'm kinda (REALLY) enjoying having smaller breasts. I'm streamlined now...

Losing 30 pounds doesn't hurt either. I knew it was chemo induced, I knew I didn't "deserve" this weight, but it tortured me. Yes, I've been careful about what I've put in my mouth the last few weeks, but I'm not starving myself. My body is naturally returning to what it knew.

I want to run. I have, a little bit. I'm worried about dislodging something in my chest, so I'm super careful. Dr Lawton said "Don't do anything that hurts you. Listen to your body..." And as I was about to ask her the ULTIMATE question, she said, "and DON'T RUN. That would be stupid. It would hurt."

Oh... ok. No running.

Technically, I'm not doing anything that hurts.

But I will say this...

I bought new runners on Saturday. I'm ready to reap what these legs are willing to give me...

I rode my bike 23 miles today. I know that my body is back. I don't feel the "cramping" in my legs that I had going into surgery. I feel strong, stellar, fierce. I feel ready to take on the world. (I know, I have a long way to go.)

I found out yesterday that I will have 28 sessions of radiation. It broke my heart. It felt like they'd told me that I had cancer again, and all of the emotions that came with having cancer came flooding back - from losing my world tour, to losing Dan, to losing health, to losing my hair, to losing fitness... and everything in between - and more. I cried all day long. Just like I did on April 10th.

Today, as it goes, I decided I would make this work for me. It is as it is, nothing more, nothing less. This is an experience. I'm the only person I know that's had heavy chemo, light chemo, mastectomies, reconstruction, and radiation.

So I ask myself, "Ok then, what do we do?"

Make it work.

If I'm gonna have to be at the hospital every day (minus Sat and Sun) for 28 days, I will ride my bike there. I'll save gas and build my legs and make this my own.

Done.

And suddenly, I've reclaimed it. It's mine. I'll come out radiated and FIT.

Suck it, cancer.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

LIFE

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It is the single, most important message I've ever received.

I kept asking him to repeat it to make sure I got it right - so he wrote it down for me. Thank you, the amazing (and beautiful) Dr. Vandermolen. it's framed in my home now, the first thing I see when I walk in the door... My new lease:



Every second of every day is sacred. Every time I'm told I'm "allowed" to do something, it's the greatest gift I've ever received.

Today, I took a shower for the first time in three weeks, and I rode a recumbent bike for 40 minutes.

I have bunny-hair fuzz on my head.

Life comes back.

Every single second... a gift.

Gratitude abounds.

Monday, October 15, 2012

VEEEEDEO....

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I made this little do-dad for a dealie that I'm hoping/dreaming/praying/hoping/dreaming about (and it might involve a little trail time in New Zealand).

Honest to god - I watch it and still can't believe I'm talking about my own life... Weird.




I'll say this, I am ONE LUCKY GIRL to have a brother as talented and helpful as mine (I have two of them, actually - which makes me twice as lucky!) Here's Jared recording some music to go along with the video. Love, love, LOVE him!


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Auto Fuser

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If you're easily grossed out, get over it, cause THIS IS RAD!

Ok - so they gave me this little device...

The teeny tubes were inserted into my skin during surgery, they were connected on the outside to more tubes that connected to a button that connected to an external pouch that had local anesthetic. When I pushed the button, my whole chest would go numb.

AWESOME???? YES!!!!

Here I am taking the tubes out.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012

9.22.12

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Shouldda, couldda, wouldda been the day I ran the Abel-Tasman 36k in New Zealand.

I have dreamed of New Zealand for years and years - this was going to be the one that I actually experienced it...

Or not.

Instead, I am doing the Susan Komen Race for the Cure tomorrow. A 5k. I won't run it. I'm not sure I could if I tried.

It's all been said a thousand times... not what I planed, not what I expected.

We could all say that about some time in our lives, "Things didn't turn out the way I expected them to..."

Sad story.

Live moves on.

I will get to New Zealand when it's time, when it's right.

I will run the Abel-Tasman one day.

It will be a different kind of victory for me when I cross the finish line there...

Monday, September 17, 2012

T-Minus 11 Days

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I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to feel about all this...

There was never a guarantee that I would have children, and after the events of the last few years  I'd kind of accepted that I wouldn't. That being said - it does sting a little bit - the fact that I will never breastfeed. Ever. Swallowing that, as a fact... man, it's huge.

Surgery is scary. I get really frustrated trying to figure out what happens when they put you out. It bothers me that time is just... lost. No dreams, no recollection of what they've done in the four or five hours while you were "sleeping," just ... darkness. I don't like it!

The notion of recovery is scary. I've never really been sick except for chemo and the surgery I had on my finger when I was 11 years old... So I keep thinking that recovery will feel like chemo. God, I hope it doesn't feel like chemo. God, I hope it doesn't feel worse than chemo...

Time will tell.

The strange thing is, it doesn't really freak me out. I'm not having any anxious crying spells or internal blowups. I'm ok with it. To be totally honest, the fact that I'm ok with it freaks me out more than thoughts of what is actually going to happen.

The bright side isn't so bad, either. Perky for life!!! I make no secret about the fact that I cannot imagine having made the decision to have any breast augmentation procedure sans breast cancer, ever. But since I DO have breast cancer, and it's smarter for me to have them removed, and reconstruction is covered by insurance... well HELL! Let's do this thing! My days of picking bikinis that will support my breasts are OVER! Selecting shirts based on what bra will work are a thing of the past... Seriously - it's cancer with an upside!

The surgery and reconstruction process are a trip to me. The more I know about it all, the better I feel. I'm loving the science behind it. Seeing as we're going to the extreme measure of taking my breasts, I figure we should be super safe and take my nipples too. Nipples = breast tissue = a place for breast cancer to grow... so get rid of 'em!

So basically, I have 11 more days of having nipples.

That's weird.

Again, what's weirder, it isn't freaking me out. Days keep passing and I keep just doing this thing that I'm doing. One day I'll wake up with perky, nipple-less breasts, some hair, and strong, fit legs... I'll put on a pair of slacks and a cute blouse, slap on some make-up, and go to work. Life will be "normal." Maybe the newfound appreciation for "normalcy" combined with a newfound freedom that makes me want to jump out of a cake, or out of an airplane, or into a swimming pool filled with (milka) chocolate, combined with the fact that I'm edging closer to the end of this chapter carry more weight than the notion of living a nipple-less life.

Yes. Exactly.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Connecting the dots...

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I went to Utah the day after my first chemo treatment to cheer on some friends, get out of town, keep some perspective, watch and reconnect with the race I'd done the year before, and most importantly - to find my angel in the blue shirt. The random dude who so graciously poured into me the inspiration and energy I needed to get through the race of my life a year before.

I love the race atmosphere. I was just as happy cheering people on as I would have been racing. My main goal on race day was to find Phil, although I didn't know his name at the time. I only knew that he was at aid station 4 during the St George Ironman in 2011, that he does ultra-marathons, and that he saved that race for me. I could write a dissertation on what it means to me to have finished the race that day, but I'll spare the details. I guess what's important to know is that as I go through the ups and downs that come naturally with cancer, chemotherapy, and eventually surgery - I often compare it all to the world's longest endurance race. I wonder how I'd feel about entering and completing my current challenge if I had given up on myself on that long day in May, 2011. To me, silly as it may be, the knowledge that I could bounce back and thrive on that day gives me hope and encouragement for what I'm able to do today... and every other day of this battle. I needed to thank my angel in the blue shirt. As I found out, his name is Phil.

When it was time to head to the run course and find my man, I parked as close, and central as I could (I was feeling REALLY rough by this point in the day...) I walked up to the first aid station I saw and said, "I'm looking for a dude who was working an aid station on the run last year. He was wearing a blue shirt and he does ultra-marathons." No joke, the girl I was talking to said "Oh, you're looking for Phil!" She then proceeded to throw me in a golf cart and drive me to Phil. I'm not exaggerating, it was that easy. When I saw him I started crying. I explained what he had done for me, how his encouragement got me through the race. I told him about my current endurance challenge - I cried when I explained how much it meant to me to have finished the Ironman that day. He welled up as he told his story about his own mother's fight with breast cancer. "She won the battle," he explained. "You will, too." He understands my current challenge, but I'm not sure he will ever know the difference he made, not just in my dat at  Ironman St. George, 2011 - but in my life. Someday I'll make sure Phil understands what he did for me.

A side note - I watched Phil on my return to IM St George as a spectator... he continued to do for hundreds of other athletes exactly what he did for me in the race a year ago. His pure energy, love of sport, and encouragement are magic.

Four rounds of chemo later, I took advantage of feeling great - the third week (before my next- and final round), and the fact that several friends happened to be doing the Leadville 100 MTB race that weekend. I jumped in a car with a dear friend AND my boy Tate and we made our way to  Leadville, Colorado... channeling my angel, Phil - hoping to provide some encouragement to some seriously stellar racers.
We saw SO MANY RAINBOWS on our way through Utah. Amazing. 
Again, the race atmosphere is AWESOME. It's mostly men. Incredibly fit men. (Yum.) I walked around the quaint old mining town on our first morning there while all the racers were registering and made some friends. While Virginia picked out a new kit to take home, I talked to Gary, a slightly above middle-aged dude. We talked bikes, then races, then he eventually asked what was going on with me. I explained the cancer thing and told him that there was a time when I was FIT. I pointed to my ankles - indicating my poor display of fitness.  When he looked down, he gasped (I don't have ankles anymore, they're more like the old version of my knees, which are more like puffed up bags of potato chips now). I asked him if he knew where I could get compression socks in town. Before I knew it, Gary had run to his car to get the pair he had. As he handed them to me, I started crying. (I am pretty sure no one understands my emotional battle with the puffiness.) He told me simply that he had crashed and almost died on Powerline two years ago. That fifteen racers had given up all of their hard training and their race to help save his life, and that this was a very small way for him to pay it forward. Whatever his reason, I could not believe his generosity, and honestly - was overwhelmed by his help. I wore the compression socks for three days. They helped A LOT.

I later googled my new friend, Gary. Here is what I found... Gary is yet another angel in this journey.

http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2011/03/10/minn-cyclist-survives-freak-accident-inspires-others/

Gianna plopped herself down into my life less than two hours later. The beautiful woman with short, brown hair and an incredible body that clearly didn't suffer from shyness sat down on my bench and was asking me what kind of cancer I had before I was able to realize that she'd taken my spot and that my dog was sitting on her lap. "Breast cancer." I told her. She told me what I was already able to figure out by her hair and her demeanor - she had breast cancer, too. We compared stories. Her's was a small tumor, she was triple negative, she had chemo, but something different than my chemo. She had surgery first, then chemo. She finished her treatment a year ago. She had bilateral mastectomies, she showed them to me right there on the street. Something about seeing this gorgeous woman with such amazing spirit and strength fully recovered from the same disease took the 400 lb weight that I didn't even realize was on my shoulder and blew it away into four million pieces and then scattered it across the Rockies so that I would never be able to find them again. I felt so much relief that I cried.
Gianna and me at the coffee shop where she plopped herself down into my life. 
I asked the question I was almost afraid to ask... "So are you racing this weekend?" Her response, "Hell yeah, girl!" says a lot about her personality. Living loud, out there... a bit like me. I explained to her that I would really love to do the race next year, but that I worry that my body might not keep up with my mind. She looked at me and said these exact words, "If I can do it, YOU can do it! No excuses, girl!" Ok. Done. I am doing the Leadville 100 MTB race next year. (Let this be considered fair warning for my friends and family - I WANT YOU THERE!!!!) Gianna and I talked for several minutes about surgery, chemo, cancer, recovery - and cycling. She IS my inspiration - another woman who'd gone through chemo, lost her breasts, and does really, really stupid shit. We agreed to race together next year. (However, I caught up with her after the race and she told me that the race was harder than chemo and that she'd never do it again. I haven't given up hope - I think these things are like childbirth: you forget the pain after a couple days and want the experience again.)

On raceday, we'd planned on going to the start to catch up quickly with our racers (we knew three people racing, plus five or six new friends that we'd met that week), then to quickly head out to an infamous part of the course, "Powerline," where Gary almost died. It's a very steep, rutted, gnarly hill that the racers would venture down on the first pass (about mile 20 for them) and then go up at the end of the race (80 miles in). 98% of the cyclists would be pushing their bikes up this hill the second time around because of the terrain, the steepness, the altitude, and the sheer fatigue from having been on the bike for so long. It is a perfect place to cheer people on.
John - all suited up for race-day and sporting his support for the cure!!! He's done more for me in this journey than I could ever begin to thank him for. 
Weird, what happened. It became more of a "mutual cheering..."

Remembering so clearly what it felt like to be on mile 4 of marathon in the Ironman, finding Phil, and then at mile 20 when I realized I was going to make it - I cheered like a maniac for these racers at mile 80 of their 100 (actually, 104) mile race. I said something to every single rider. They were amazing, my inspiration, so fit, so trained, in so much pain - and carrying on. Naturally, I wore my head bald and sported my "Bikes for Boobs" t-shirt. What happened on the trail that afternoon was more than a gift in energy to me, it was light, it was pure, it was clean, it was love, it was universal humanity - it cleansed me in a way I've never felt before.

As I cheered and cheered I became lighter. I expected to be exhausted, but I just felt so free. It seemed as though the more I cheered for the cyclists, the more they cheered for me. Every three or four minutes someone would say something encouraging to me... "You're the hero!" or "You're AMAZING!" Many told me that they were survivors. When they asked me if I was a survivor, I said "Not YET! but I will be!" They confirmed and we agreed to meet at the race next year. High fives, yelling, hugs, words of encouragement... It felt like it was my race and they were cheering me on. But it wasn't! It was a gift - energy out, energy in. It was pure love of sport and value for life blending perfectly on the mountain - my church.
Powerline! It is way gnarlier than it appears here!
When Ricky - a legend in the Leadville 100, having completed the race every single year they've held it, still riding the same bike he started on (18 years old?) with the same FRONT TIRE, road towards me on Powerline I yelled at him "HEEEEY!!!! I know you, but YOU don't know ME!!!" He rode straight to me and got off his bike. I thought he was going to give me a high five but he threw his arms around me and held me tight. I held him back and could feel his body shaking as he cried. He whispered into my ear, "I have cancer, too." I told him he was my hero. I told him to get back on his bike and find the finish line. He rode off, crying. I stood there in shock. Another angel in the journey.

I don't know anything about Ricky, his battle, or whether he will be back next year. I tried to catch him after the race, but couldn't. I want to hug him again.

We proceeded to cheer on the racers until we'd seen all of the people we committed to cheering for. It was magic. As we made our way down the steep trail beside all the racers making the dirge up people kept saying to me "Are YOU STILL HERE? You've been out here all day!" and "Thank you so much for being our here! You're a trooper!!!" No, no... all my thanks to THEM for being out there. For the gifts upon gifts upon gifts they'd granted me. For the new life I felt. Magic, again.

It continued as we cheered racers through the finish line. Light... magic... life. My friends laughed as racer after racer came to me to thank me for being out there, for cheering them on. Many of them telling their own stories in regards to cancer, who they were riding for, how it had affected them ... and on an on. Amazing to me to know how many people are touched by this stuff, how many of them fight for someone else, and how many of them have survived themselves and are crazy (BRILLIANT!) enough to attempt a race like this. Mostly, I'm so thankful for them for giving me what they did that day.

So, connecting the dots...

I just finished my sixth, and final round of chemo.

So if I hadn't have had cancer, how could I have ever known these gifts? Yes, they would have been there, but I could never have understood Phil's impact or this amount of support on a race course (that I had no business being on) without having experienced the battle of the last five months. I have been doing a lot of sitting, reconciling, resting, and thinking about the time since I've been home from my adventures in Africa and Thailand. Essentially, forced to abandon my big adventure because of a disease I'd never have chosen - experiences like these are glimmers of light in my attempt to reconcile it. Knowing that I will survive this, knowing that I will race again, knowing what I've already learned from this... I start to see it as a gift. I've started a comprehensive list of all of the things I am thankful for in this journey, and all of the little and big things people have done to get me through this part of the process. It is overwhelming. One day, when I'm absolutely sure that I have a complete list of "thanks" written down, I will post it. It may take several years. In the meantime - I settle peacefully with this part of my story.
Me and Tate enjoying the clean, thin air at the top of the Rockies.



Thursday, August 2, 2012

Westward Bound

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Live...
More than your neighbors.
Unleash yourself upon the world and go places.
Go now.
Giggle, no, laugh.
No... stay out past dark,
And bark at the moon like the wild dog that you are.
Understand that this is not a dress rehearsal.
This is it... your life.
Face your fears and live your dreams.
Take it in.
Yes, every chance you get...
come close.
And, by all means, whatever you do...
Get it on film.

- Jon Blais

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BODA!!!

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I think I talked about how much I loved the boda boda in Uganda. I met Steve, my personal boda driver, early in my stay in Kyabirwa. (When I say "personal," I mean that I had his cell phone number and I could call him when I needed him and he's come just about anywhere to pick me up.) He was AWESOME. It was so nice to know that I had someone that I could trust and rely on.

This video was taken on my way from the village, heading into Jinja one day (I was on my way to the rainforest for a mountain bike ride.) I love it. I think it gives a pretty good glimpse into the reality of what I saw every day.



Just to be clear (or maybe over-clear) - this isn't the village, and it's not the city - it's sorta skirting the city...

Ohhhh I love the boda...

African Babies

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Remember how I was gonna go save African babies???

This didn't just happen once, it happened every time I came close to a baby that was old enough to be afraid of the mzungu. Soooooo funny!!!



FYI - Winnie, the 11 year old daughter of the family that I lived with was holding the baby. No, she's not the mama, she was just being motherly. ;-)

I MISS AFRICA!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writer's Wall

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Ohhh, the struggle to get this out of my head...

People keep asking me if I'm journaling this process, the cancer, the chemo, etc... "Yeah, duh!" I say. Which is hilarious because I think in my mind I actually believe that answer - even though it's a total lie. I mean, I have been journaling - sorta. But nothing is coherent and I hate writing something down without actually having something to say. I've read so many blogs about cancer and chemo. I don't like them... As though having cancer suddenly makes you a writer. (As though I have any more validity than they do as a writer - but whatever, you get my point.) That being said, I understand why people start writing about this stuff when they go through it. It's weird, and there is a pressing desire to explain every single symptom. I think partially to re-connect with the rest of the "normal" humans out there and partially to try to find someone to commiserate with.

The reality is that for the first 33 years of my life, I did not have cancer. Oddly enough, I can't really remember what it was like to not have cancer. So I'm not really sure what to put up here... Do you want to know my symptoms? How the journey's been so far? Do you want details on my days? Overall emotions? Do you want to know what I'm learning?

And then I realize that I don't really give a shit about what other people want to hear about- this is MY BLOG.

Chemotherapy does weird stuff to a human. I don't know anything about any other chemo than the one I'm going through. When I explain to my amazing chemo nurse, Carrie, whatever the latest symptom is and ask her if it's "normal" she always says, "Sweetie, it's poison... Nothing about it is normal." She then usually follows with, "But it is a symptom we expect..." and then explains why it's happening to my body. I love her matter-of-factness and the onslaught of information I come away with. She has been such a gift to me through this process.

To put this dissertation into perspective, here's my list of side-effects:

- Hair loss. ALL of the hair on my body EXCEPT my eyebrows and eyelashes. (They're getting REALLY thin, but I'm so stinkin' lucky to still have some!!!)

- Pain. General body pain. Everywhere. Radiating from the inside out.

- Leaky eyes. I always look like I'm crying.

- Nausea. I would say that 75% of the time I've got a deep seated, underwhelming tinge of nausea.

- Brown fingernails. Weird, and painful. Like when I used to lose my toenails from running. My Dr has assured me that I will not lose my fingernails.

- Thin skin. Literally, it comes off when I scratch. Ack!

- Peely skin. Most of the skin on my hands and my feet has already come off once.

- Low white blood cell and platelet levels. Results in an incredibly slow healing process, mostly on my hands. It looks gnarly, too - like I have some kind of disease. My Dr has also asked me to stay off the mountain bike and the mountain as he doesn't want me to fall and cut myself. (Platelets are responsible for blood clotting.) If the platelet levels get too low, they'll do a transfusion. So far, I seem to be able to bounce back on my own. They give me a white blood cell booster shot after each treatment that is THE DEVIL. It makes the bone marrow swell (where white blood cells are created), but bones don't swell, so you can imagine how awesome the bones react. (It hurts, a lot.)

- Constipation and diarrhea. Yes, that's right. My days of normal poops are long gone.

- Loss of feeling in my fingers, toes, and lips.

- Loss of taste. Or, more accurately - everything tastes like crap. Except chocolate covered peanut butter pretzels. Ha!

- Brown splotches of skin randomly, anywhere on my body.

- Rashes. On my back and my head. It might be an allergic reaction to the chemo.

- Bloating & weight gain. Probably from the Prednisone and the Lupron (see below) - oh, and the fact that I workout about 1/10th as often as I used to... and let's face it, I've always managed my weight with exercise. {sigh...}

- Menopause. In an attempt to preserve my fertility, the doctors give me a shot that sends me into (temporary, hopefully) menopause. So, Add all the symptoms of menopause to the list. Namely: HOT FLASHES. I never understood how hot flashes could be something to complain about, until now. Seriously, they bring my discomfort level to a 10 out of 10. ACK! Upside: Not having a period!

- Fatigue. Incredible, unrelenting fatigue.

A dear friend of mine won a battle with cancer a few years ago. I always remembered his way of describing chemo to me, "Chemotherapy is systematically taking a person as close to death as possible without actually killing them." It's true. My main issue with all of the symptoms above is a general lack of connectedness to my body and to the world around me. Without the ability to feel, taste, and smell, I become disoriented and confused. In my worst days after chemo treatments, I can literally feel my body and my soul disconnecting from each other, like I'm floating around behind myself, watching myself go through my daily activities. Everything is slow and foggy. I hate it, but more than that, I find it to be the most distressing, uncomfortable feeling I've ever known.

The first few treatments I really struggled with trying to find some kind of understanding of what was going on with my body and how to react in a way that would allow me to survive this. Here is the conclusion I've come to, it works for me:

Life is a spectrum, it is comprised of good days, bad days, really bad days, and great days. We are bound to have some really, really awful experiences and some really, really amazing experiences - some of which we will have control over, some of which we won't. Some of the stuff that happens will suck life, and some of the stuff that happens will fuel it.

Chemo is rough. It's a major life-depletor. I can't control it, it just is. So I'm systematically trying to balance it with things that fuel life. 

It became very clear, very quickly that I was going to need a home. A place to put all of my things at the same time. A place to rest, a place to be sick, a place to have friends over, etc... So I got a little place to live. Ahhh a home. I literally cried when all of my furniture was placed and I sat down on my sofa. What a comfort!

I got a puppy. My little man, Tate. He is CRAZY, but he is an amazing little love. I found him at a yard sale - yes, a yard sale! He's a mutt. I have no idea how big he'll get, but I'm hoping he'll be big enough to be my running partner when I get better and he gets older. He's 80% potty trained now and does some really stupid tricks. Great news, he LOVES the trail, and he runs in his sleep (just like his mama). We're a pretty sweet pair.

For the first two treatments, I was still able to climb, so I did. I climbed Mt Baldy, bald - twice. (So stupid, but such victories for me!!!) I would run, too - when I was still able. Since my body seems to be rejecting the pounding that comes with running these days, I bought a bike. Very, very few things feel as good to me as the sensation I get when my heart beats fast. It's as though I can feel the clean blood pumping through my body, bringing me more, new life. Where losing my fitness has been one of the most difficult parts of this journey, finding it in a very slow three mile run, or 15 mile bike ride has given me life tenfold.

The conscious effort to create and absorb the things that fuel life has given me a new respect for these things. Simply spending time on my patio or my sofa with friends, tasting wine, cooking, smelling a flower, swimming, seeing an old (favorite) musical for the tenth time, holding a newborn baby, or having a conversation with a stranger - all seem to be catalysts to chemo, and then some. Despite chemo's attempt to kill me, I actually have an excess of fuel for life...

So I guess you could say - I'm happy.

I'm so looking forward to the next chapter. I spend a lot of time in my head, wondering what version of this woman will be spit out of this experience, what's in store for me, what I want, and how to get it. I look forward to fitness, having control over this body again, to training Tate on endurance running and trails, to road trips, to going back to Africa, and all of the great unknown.

Logistically, I have two treatments left. I will have a PET scan a couple weeks after that. The cancer is in my breast, the lymph nodes under my arm, and in the internal mammary lymph nodes (within the chest wall). The internal mammary lymph nodes cannot be operated on. The Dr. is confident that the 6 rounds of chemo will kill the spot in the internal mammary nodes. The PET scan will let us know if it does. Assuming it does, I will have surgery - bilateral mastectomies with reconstruction - about a week and a half after that. From there, it's a long process of breast reconstruction, combined with "light" intravenous chemo every three weeks (to complete 52 weeks), all of which I'm hoping will be done in time to celebrate my 35th birthday.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

3P3W Sends their Support...

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Feeling so loved.

A little background...The "Rafiki Dance" - as it's been dubbed, was one that I started doing in preparation for my arrival in Africa. Each day that we climbed, our team would do choreograph and record a little dance. Needless to say, this tradition provided for a LOT of laughs and good fun. We recorded the Rafiki dance on Mt Kenya - and in my opinion, it was the best dance we did (duh!) The day after we recorded the dance Ema (our official videographer) dropped his camera and the recording was lost.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A year ago... Ironman St George - May 7th 2011

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(Update on my angel in the blue shirt to follow this post...)

Up earlier than I wanted to be by the rustling around in the kitchen… 3:30 came about 45 minutes earlier than expected. Up, dressed, eating. Teeth brushed. Ready. In the car. On the shuttle (bus) – for the 25 minute ride to the start of the race. Pitch black. The bus driver hilarious. Energy abounded. People either chattering too much or too silent … and either way, adrenaline poured from us.

Arriving at the start, entrance only granted with the blue bracelet that would mark me as an “athlete”… 

To the bike. To my bike gear bag to check once more that everything I need is there. Added salt to the bag. Went back to the bike, pumped tires. Port-a-potty… bike. Checked brakes. Walked around… talked to those in the group. Took pictures. Back to bike. Everything is still there. Fluids good. Brakes still work. Ok.

Wetsuit. Cap. Goggles. 

Where are my parents?

Wetsuit. 

John took over. He guides me to a spot on carpet where we sit for a little while. Checking my phone, where’s my family? Where’s Dan? 

John: “Put your wetsuit on.” Oh… right. Ok. Wetsuit on. Not easy. So tight. Phone rings. My mom and dad and the entourage are there. Finally. I give my bag to the guy. The last time I’ll see it till this day is over. Grab my pump, cap, goggles, and phone and go to find my family. 

They look at me like I’m crazy. I feel a little crazy. Pictures, laughter. Ready. 

The pro’s are gone. I have to get in the water. We aren’t moving fast enough. I have to pee. I can’t wait. I pee in my wetsuit. Ha. 

The gun goes off. I still can’t see the water. I run in. I try to swim. I can’t breathe. 200 yards out I stop. I can’t put my face in anymore. I need a minute. How can I do this for 2.4 miles? 

I hold the board with the beautiful girl paddling along. She tells me she won’t let me drown. That I’ve already started. I’ve already gone so far… keep going. So I do. God bless that girl. Finally, breathing every stroke, I get rhythm. And then, I find it every third stroke. I am passing people. Catching up with myself. Ok. I will be ok. 

In the water I can hear people talking and it bugs me. Where is that coming from? Who can talk and swim? Then I realize it’s the announcer calling people’s names as they exit the water. Oh, I’m so close. This beautiful swim has almost come to an end. 

Out of the water, up the boat ramp. Feeling great. Reminds me of the California half. Wetsuit stuck. Two people run to me and literally tear it off. “Lay down!” Ok… and bam… I felt naked. 

“RUN!!!” I hear the announcer call my name. I can’t believe I’m doing this. To the bike bags, to the dressing room. I sit. A lovely woman takes all of my gear out of the bag and starts putting my socks on. She talks to me… “Arm warmers?” Oh god, no. “Is this your first Ironman?” Yes. “Wow, you are so amazing!” My typical response: well, the day’s not over yet! She was great. Socks, shoes, gloves, sunglasses, helmet… out of the tent to sunscreen. 

She missed my face. “Can you get my face???” I’m sure I had snot coming out of my nose. Woops… sorry, lady! I thanked her. 

Ran down the carpet where another amazing volunteer was holding my bike. Up and over. Moving.

My family waited in the “bike out” chute. Screaming and shouting “GO… Steph… GO!!!”

The first 20 miles of the bike were slow and slightly hilly. Immediately, a headwind. I passed my first aid station. Took it in. I understand. Grabbed water, drank as much as I could. Tossed. 

30-35 miles in… to a place I recognized. The field in front of the Morris’ house to my right. Looking for my family. I don’t see them. They weren’t able to get out of the T1 area fast enough. People are screaming my name. There they are, the Morris family, with a sign made especially for me.  What a treat. I glow from the inside out. Yell and wave at them. 

It gets hot. And hillier. I try to take as much as I can at the aid station. I begin to suffer. Around the big red mountain we go. Hotter, still. Up, up, up. I begin to know the cyclists around me. We talk about the heat. The hills. Someone explains the next four hills to me. It helps. I have something to count. My stomach is upset. 

I prepare my head. Better. Ok. 

“The Wall” – reminds me of GMR. But shorter. A long switchback. Ok. I got this. 

My head was wrong. I thought downhill followed the wall. No. Another climb, straight into the wind. Ack. I’m losing time. Losing my head. I need a bathroom. Diarrhea. I want to barf. I would feel better if I barfed. 

Finally, the downhill I craved. Headwind, but downhill. Thank the lord.  Loop 2 followed the downhill. Finally, an aid station. Port-a-potty. Family waiting. I tried to smile. I wanted to throw up. I laughed at them, their sign, the bells, and whistles and screaming. It couldn’t help but bring me joy. 

Loop two: Suffering. Water. More water. The kids want to spray me. Most cyclists are too cool or too serious or too stupid to accept. I do. So fun. The four of us giggle while I cool off. Gatorade. I try to muster the power bar down my throat. I can’t. I barf. Relief. 

The “four hills” again. I prepare my head. Even with all the gas I have, I may not make it. I prepare myself for the conversations where I explain why I didn’t make it. I accept it. 

“The wall” again followed by the climb out of Veyo. I cry. I want off the bike. I’m not tracking miles as progress, just trying to make them fast enough to be able to run. But… I don’t want to run. 

Maybe I won’t make it. Oh please. Let me miss the cut-off. 

Oh please. Let me make the cut-off. I wrestle. 

I make the cutoff. The girl laughs at me as she takes my bike. Someone is yelling at me “two minutes!” hu? I run. “Get in the tent!”…  I’m there. I sit. 

Five beautiful blonde haired blue eyed innocent 14 year olds help me. They put sunscreen on me. Vaseline on my lips. Shoes. “Arm warmers?” Oh God, no. I start to leave. 

“Wait! Was there a visor in that bag???” No. No visor. “Oh, I thought for sure I packed a visor.” Then she looks… my good luck charm, under the chair. “Is this it?” 

YES!!! Thank you! Visor on. Watch ready. I cross the mat. 

26.2 miles to go. 

The first few are very, very slow. 15 minute miles. I will not make it. My family sees me. They are worried. They know. I’m not well. I try taking as much water, Gatorade, and gu as I can. I take salt and ibuprofen.

Mile 4. I find my angel in the blue shirt. “I will never make it.” He cries. He explains his biggest regret – a DNF in a 100 mile race. “You have to come back, for me.”

Ok. I look in his eyes. He is serious. So am I.

Like a switch. The outside energy comes in. I have life again. I will finish.

That moment marked the switch. From there, I lit up. Energy out- Energy in. Cheering on my fellow runners. Cheering on my volunteers. Giving them what I could. “Thank you” “Good Job” “Good Luck” salt, smiles… whatever I could. And with every step, more energy.

Family- all smiles on the return for mile 13. Clean energy. They knew. I would finish. I explain, “I’m running the downhills, walking the uphills as fast as I can.” Jared: “I will walk with you when you come back.”

Mile 13, 8:00pm. 4 hours to finish 13 miles. I have it. I walk fast. 12 minute miles. Jared joins me. He is so proud. His face is beaming. So grateful for my brother. So proud of his pride.

The sun descends, the stars appear. Heaven becomes more clear. Stronger. Happier. Energy, energy, energy. Lighting up the world.  

Multiplication in my head… minutes per mile. Finishing. I got this. I got this. Volunteers start telling me I’m an Ironman. “Not YET!!! But I will be!” I am passing people. “You go girl!” I’m one of very few still jogging.

Mile 22. Angel in the blue t-shirt waits in the middle of the street “Is that my girl!?!?” I run to him and hug him. “I WILL FINISH BECAUSE OF YOU!!!” And then quietly… “You changed my life today. Thank you so much.” He cries again and tells me to go find the finish. I start to run off. People at the aid stations on both sides of me start to cheer. Energy out, energy in.

I can hear him… Mr Ironman… Yelling… bringing in the finishers. And then, I see him.

I look behind me. Nate, a friend I made on the bike from the Navy, is behind me. He won’t catch me. I will barf at the finish line before he catches me. I sprint. Mom wants me to stop for a picture. I smile. I move… high fives. I hear my name. I look up. 15:59:37.

Ironman.

Pretty cool.

Two volunteers. They worry. I sprinted. My heart is too fast. I bend over. Squat for a second. “Do you need medical?” No, I just need my heart to slow down. “Well, you’re in the middle of the chute.” Oh, do you want me to move? Ok… I move. They put the medal on. Wrap a space blanket around me. It’s too hot. I take it off. Water. Picture.

“There’s pizza in the tent ahead, I will walk you there.” Ok.

But then, my family. My daddy with his arms stretched out. Waiting. My mama crying. The rest of them glowing. Energy out, energy in. Pictures, laughter. 

This is an awful picture of me, but the way my dad's arms are reaching out to me is so priceless. Brings me to tears every time I see it. 

Pizza, goodbyes.

Back to the finish. Cheering on the last finishers. Dancing. Singing. So happy.

Massage. Bike, bags and back to the hotel for beer.

24 hours later, back in bed with sore toes – on cloud nine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Once Upon Another Time

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Before I knew which life was mine
Before I left the child behind me
I saw myself in summer nights
In stars lit up like candle lights
I'd make my wish
But mostly I believed...
There was a period of time between the day I found out I had a malignant tumor and the day I found out exactly how bad the cancer was. It is, as they call it (whoever "they" is) - the "waiting game." During that time - a period of five or six days, I was convinced that I was going to die. That the cancer had spread way too far in my body, that I'd waited too long.

My reasoning: I was afraid I'd done too much too quickly in the short life I'd lived. Not to pretend I'm exceptional, but until that day on April 10th, I'd been in control of my choices. I would make a decision and then find a way to follow through with it. In so many ways, I've been so lucky to do the things I've done. Gifts upon gifts... Life.

If anything, people find me annoying because I have too much life. ADD, ADHD, whatever. Always going, talking too loudly, singing, running around without shoes on, blurting opinions, wearing my heart on my sleeve - exuding life to an obnoxious extent (some would argue). For those five or six days before I got official news about the cancer, I was sure that I'd used up all the life in my life too quickly.

I didn't know what it felt like to be void of life until two weeks ago. The day after the day after they put the poison into me via needle and bags of fluid. I didn't realize I was so delicate. When I struggle, I struggle fiercely. I fight, I punch air, I scream and yell and swing my arms. It's not pretty, but it's life. Fierce life. Not death. This is different. From the inside out, I was dying. Life drifting from me, almost literally as my fingertips, lips, and tongue lost the ability to feel. The general "disconnectedness" from life, my body, and everything in between is foreign to me. How did I become this girl?

Certainly I didn't choose this.

And then...

The feeling in my fingers and lips and tongue come back, but my hair goes and takes with it a certain identity I didn't realize I had. Even today, I run my hands past my head to put my hair "back up" and realize it's not there. It shouldn't bother me so much. It's not my identity. But when it goes away I realize that it's been attached to me as long as I can remember. And really, it was pretty important to me, even though I never had good hair. So it's gone. It's not a short haircut. It's gone. It will be years before I have a ponytail again.

It does break my heart. And I realize, I'm slightly delicate. There's nothing to punch. When did this happen? How? Where did I go? Africa, Asia... and ... Chemo? I punch and punch and punch. But I can't hit anything.

Chemo: cough syrup for cancer? Cough syrup for "life?" Stealing life to give life... a strange concept. But then... "The only piece of advice that continues to help is that anyone that's making anything new only breaks something else."
For me: whether I wanted my old life or not, it seems as though new life is not optional. With no home, no job, no hair, new boobs on the horizon and a general uncertainty in every aspect of my life - I am learning to accept that a new life is in order.

The old life was pretty lovely, but she seems so distant these days. Eventually I will stop asking myself what happened to that strong, beautiful girl and accept this version of myself, a woman now - I suppose. All grown up.

But then, about 10 days later strength comes back, the struggle fades, and I start to feel a little bit like myself again. I run the beach, the trails, I swim, I climb my mountain. I am almost back... until the next round. And it continues. 
And there you have the Ferris wheel that is chemo (for me). I have seriously struggled with what to put up here. I've written at least 7 drafts to get me to this point, and really - it doesn't tell you anything about cancer - where it is or what my treatment is or what happens next.

Suffice to say - life continues for me in a form that I cannot even conceive. I don't want this to be a blog about cancer and details about what medicines they're pumping into me or how many rounds of chemo I will have or what the side effects are, or how bad surgery is, or blah blah blah blah... So many people write blogs about that stuff.

I want this to be a blog about life. Clearly, I don't have a great grasp of that right now... but I'm trying. I take my good days and my victories as they come.

I have to say - the most amazing part of all of this is the incredible amount of love and support I've received from my family and friends. It has been endless and overwhelming to me. If you're reading this, you support me and it has made all the difference.


PS - It's a little weird. But I actually kind of enjoy being bald now that I've gotten used to it. Go figure!

Monday, May 14, 2012

1 month later...

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I knew it would happen...














But had no idea what it would feel like.

More to come. I've got at least four half-written posts waiting for some love. ;-)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Game Changer

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I am on an airplane bound for Tokyo – from there I will catch a flight bound for Los Angeles. Home. I will be greeted at LAX by my parents and Roberta - President of the Society of Beating the Shit out of whatever is Growing in Steph’s Breast.

Of all the twists and turns I could have foreseen this journey taking - this was not one. Not even in the deepest, darkest corners of my mind…

At some point in the last few months or so I noticed that my nipple had started inverting when I raised my arm over my head or bent over. I tried to pretend it was nothing. I had no mirror in Africa, so didn’t take much notice there. But in Thailand it became very clear – something was wrong.

I told Lyndall, who became my instant advocate (she actually became my advocate the day I met her on January 3rd, my Lyndall). She decided that we would go to the doctor as soon as possible and forced me to ask the nurse who had been dressing her leg every day about where I could get checked out. This nurse became the second or third, or maybe 30th (I can’t keep count anymore) miracle to me. She instantly started calling hospitals to find out the cost of a mammogram. She came back to me within 10 minutes with all the information I needed to make my appointment.

Lyndall and I arrived at the hospital around 1 pm on April 10th – the day before my 34th birthday. By 2 pm I had already seen the doctor who told me that there was no lump, so not to be concerned. I was ready to bound out of the place, having heard what I wanted to hear. Lyndall piped in (in her infinite 23 year old wisdom) “yeah, but it makes her nervous, can she have a mammogram anyway?” The doctor agreed and we were escorted from the waiting room for the GP doctors to the waiting room for x-rays.

The doctor had requested a chest x-ray and a mammogram. When the nurse doing the mammogram disappeared for quite a long time and I was escorted into a different room for an ultrasound, the fear started to seep in.

The woman doing the ultrasound looked at both breasts – the “good” breast first. I watched along in awe… When she got to my right breast I saw a little black dot. I asked her what it was, “that’s just a cyst” – ok, good, THANK GOD… just a cyst.

Then she moved the little gadget over about an inch and I saw a larger, mean looking black mass. I asked her what it was. 

As long as I live, I will remember her words, “That is your tumor.”

It’s that feeling of shock where your hands and feet go numb and you want to ask her to repeat the sentence because surely, she didn’t say what you thought she just said.

“What? Tumor? Is it big? Can you tell if it’s cancer?”

Yes, tumor. 2cm. She can’t tell if it’s cancer.

And then I laid on the bed and sobbed as she continued to take pictures of the inside of a breast … my breast … which has a tumor inside of it. Still, as I write this journal entry five days later, I cannot believe it was ME on that table and that I am the one telling this story about myself. Surely somewhere someone made a mistake and everything is really fine.

Surreal, being told this news on my fourteenth week traveling - in Thailand – alone except for Lyndall, my angel this week – The Amazing Lyndall. I will say that as the tears streamed down my face and the woman with the gadget tried to ignore the emotion of the situation, the only coherent thought that went through my head was “I have to go home.”

When I left the ultrasound room I popped my head around the corner and motioned for Lyndall to follow me to the dressing room where I proceeded to sob, and sob, and sob. She held me there and cried with me for about 20 minutes. When we could both walk, we found ourselves a bathroom (where Lyndall forgot to lock the door and ended up giving a free show to some mzungu dude in the Thai hospital… HAHAHAHA!!!), and were then escorted back to the original doctor I’d seen earlier, the one that told me everything was fine.

When we walked into her office she said, “everything is fine, why are you crying?” Lyndall and I looked at her disgustedly – one of us told her to read the (EFFING) report sitting in front of her from the ultrasound tech.

She didn’t know what a category 5 tumor was, so googled it as I sat there, still in shock. I didn’t know what category 5 meant either, but I knew that categories 1-4 had to come before it and that FIVE was much higher than I wanted it to be.

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” she said, “95% chance of being malignant.”

Which is when I told her to shut-up. “What now?” I asked.

Next thing I know we are being escorted to the surgeon. Lyndall’s leg is covered in bandages – what skin is visible shows off some of the worst road rash I’ve ever seen. So here we are being escorted from one office to the other in the Thai hospital, Lyndall hobbling along with her disgusting leg and me holding on to her, sobbing. Really, pretty hilarious. Quite a pair… (The hospital staff couldn’t figure out which one of us to treat!)

My surgeon was lovely, attractive, well-spoken (even in English!!!), caring, and brilliant. He tells me what he understands: according to the ultrasound the tumor is very, very likely to be malignant, and I very likely have cancer.

I already understood this.

I told him where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and where I was planning to go. I asked him what he would do if he were me. After explaining that Bangkok has a phenomenal hospital and could treat me just as well as any hospital at home – he looked in my eyes and said, “You need to go home.”

Ok. Done.

He wanted to biopsy the tumor to further a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible (meaning, as he put it “right now”). It takes a week, possibly two, for results (the longer wait is because of the Sangkran Festival – which I have to say, we had so much fun at that it’s worth waiting the extra few days for). Obviously, by this part of the day I was completely unable to compute logic. “I won’t be here in two weeks… or should I stay two weeks? Or should I wait to have the procedure?” Ultimately, I decided to have to biopsy.

I was still wearing the skirt I’d put on that morning; there was no gown, no four million questions about family history, allergies, etc… They didn’t ask what I’d eaten that day; they were pulling my jewelry off of me as I was being escorted to a small room off the emergency ward.

It was like a closet – but very clean. They laid me down on the table, wrapped a blindfold over my eyes, and before I knew it the doctor was poking needles into me. I felt very little other than the occasional tug or pressure deep within my breast. I could hear him clipping and snipping away. I lifted the blindfold as much as I could and made eye contact with the nurse who stood over me. She just kept putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, “it’s ok, it’s ok…” tears streaming down my face.

Whose life is this???

In my head I was pretty sure that I’d woken up several hours earlier to a body that I considered to be healthy. Very healthy. I never get sick. Ever. I had planned on a seven mile run that afternoon. Instead, here I was having a tumor cut out of my breast. I honestly thought I would wake up and it would all have been a bad dream – the kind where you wake up sobbing…

I could tell when he was sewing me back up. It took about half an hour. I don’t know how long the incision is or even exactly where it is. I have a bandage on my swollen, right boob that covers much of it. I have stitches that need to come out on Tuesday. I will have it done from my GP at home.

I’m not ready to come home.

I’m in shock. Within four hours I went from spending the rest of the year exploring the eastern part of this planet to getting on an airplane in just four days and going home. My future was vague, but expected. I’ve lost the ability to create my future, it’s waiting there for me. It will come in an e-mail from a Dr. in Thailand sometime in the next couple weeks.

I want to drive, forever. I want to climb my mountain. I want to swim in my ocean. I want to kiss the earth there.

By nature, I adopted an “everything happens for a reason” attitude sometime back. It works for me most of the time – and even though I’m incredibly confused by the emotions swirling around in me right now, I can see some of the “everything happens for a reason-ness” in what’s happened in the past few weeks:

Thank you to India for not allowing me to get a visa. Thank you to Thailand for being so accommodating. Thank you to Lyndall for coincidentally having planned your trip to Thailand at the same time same time as me. Thank you to Thailand for some of the kindest, most gentle, and fast acting medical personnel I’ve ever met.

I don’t have a diagnosis yet, and at the risk of sounding pessimistic (or maybe realistic) I am preparing myself to deal with cancer. I won’t lie and pretend that I am ok with the fact that this is happening to me or that I’m cool with the “everything happens for a reason” part of this. So far, my emotions have been unpredictable and incredibly varying in regards to my denial of this part of my journey... Gratitude, tremendous fear,  anger, and the deepest sadness I’ve ever known. I just never thought I would be the girl that would have to FIGHT for life. I’ve always been so good at living it aggressively… I guess I always thought it was a right, having life.

In some ways I feel like I’ve let my body down by not taking better care of it. In some ways I feel like my body has let me down by not taking better care of me. We’ve always been so tight – me and my bod… I just can’t figure out what went wrong.

On top of that, I miss Africa something fierce. I can’t figure out how to tell my friends there what is happening to me. I am mourning the rest of the journey I’d had planned. I’m struggling with the fact that I have no home at home, no job, no real value or place to be (though I realize all of that can change very quickly).

Silver lining(S) – Home is where my army is. I have already been showered with support and love enough to last a lifetime. My mountain and my ocean are there. Familiar roads, English speakers, my little car, Trader Joes, CHEESE!!!, a kitchen to cook in, and some freedom to move around await.

All of the above being said, the bottom line is this: I am trying to prepare myself to have the most positive reaction possible to the worst news possible. For better or for worse, I am a fighter by nature and this will be no exception. So, though I’m not there yet – I will get this sorted in my head and ultimately pull out some mean moves to kick this stupid bugger’s ass.

Side Note: I am aware that everyone has an experience with cancer in one-way or anther. I’ve already learned that most everyone has an opinion about what I should do, how I should feel, how I should act, etc… I’m sure that sometimes these messages will be good for me to hear, but sometimes not. I am respectfully requesting that you please ask me if I am up for hearing what happened to your friend, what kind of treatment I should have, or what I shouldda/couldda/wouldda done to prevent this. Thaaaaank you!

PS – Wall Edgar Worm is coming home with me despite two attempts to kill him. Yes, I will ask the doctor on Tuesday to please get rid of him; he’s a bit clingy. ;-)

Monday, April 9, 2012

I'M ALIVE!

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Three months and 9 days removed from home. Two days to 34. Woah. Who. Am. I?

I’ll start with stating the obvious… Asia is not Africa.

I dreamt of Africa forever before I went. It did not let me down. Asia confuses me. Bangkok is supposed to be chaotic, but it’s not. It’s simple. There are 7-11s on every corner… I always know where I can find shampoo and razors and water. There are ATMs every ten feet, a taxi every 12 feet, and four billion other white people. For all the complaining I did about being the only mzungu around, I have to say – I kinda wish there were a few less here. This is a city where the tourism and the Thai culture are so dependent on each other that they’ve molded into one and it seems impossible to really know what authentic Thai culture is.

I felt bonded to Africans before I met them. And while I’ve made friends with other tourists here, I have yet to connect with a Thai person - other than the woman who gave me a foot massage for 6 bucks the other day – I gave her a $2 tip, she hugged me – honestly, that’s the only connection I’ve had with a local here. This kind of tourism doesn’t interest me at all.

Bangkokian tourists have created their own sub-culture here. (Fair warning, I’m going to get critical and rude…) This is where all of the people who annoy me at home come to feel as though they’ve experienced some crazy travel adventure. They arrive and (I kid you not) have faux dread-lock extensions put in, they get tattoos and piercings and maybe hire a Thai girlfriend and walk away thinking “Woah, that was a very cultural experience.” I’m not sure if this behavior is better than not traveling or not. They make me angry. They know nothing about the Thai people or culture. They come here to be comfortable, drunk, buy cheap clothes, faux ray-bans and pretend that they have a clue about the world.

The paragraph above implies that I know something about the world or that I believe I’m a “better tourist.” I guess it’s true. Or maybe it’s just what I value in comparison to what the Bangkok Tourists value.

For the past few weeks I’ve been doing some heavy thinking about what I’ve learned since I’ve been away from home. The lessons are countless. One day I will try to compose a comprehensive list. But for now, I will say that I have learned that I get the greatest joy out of truly connecting with locals- seeing the underbelly of a place. My time in the village in Uganda and the short time I spent in a village at the base of Kilimanjaro returned the greatest rewards for me. I walk away from Africa feeling like I’ve given it my best shot at connecting in the short three months I was there. I feel gratified, fulfilled – and of course, cannot wait to get back. I’m happy to say that having spent as much time on the continent as I’ve spent, it doesn’t feel so unattainable as it once had. Surely I’ll be back soon.

So here I am in Thailand feeling pretty disconnected to anything Thai (even the food! What is wrong with me!?!?!) I left Bangkok on Monday evening for Phuket, the most touristy destination in Thailand (so I’ve read). Tourists here are different, they come here for holiday – a proper vacation. While it’s not really the way I do anything (I’m no good at sitting on a beach, never have been… I’m always either swimming, surfing, playing Frisbee, or searching for a trapeze to play on…) I like the people here. I’ve also realized that I can rent a scooter (yes, dangerous, blah, blah blah…) and explore this island on my own terms.

Since I left home almost 3.5 months ago, it has been rare for me to feel pure joy – simplicity -the kind I used to get from climbing Baldy. That’s not to say I’m not happy, I’m just constantly processing experiences and trying to make sense of everything that’s happening. Sometimes it feels like I’m on Star Tours at Disneyland and the experiences fly by me like the stars do as my aircraft blows from one planet to the other. I can safely say that riding a scooter on this island, finding the little nooks and crannies, places without tourists, searching for the most secluded spots, finding beautiful blue ocean where it never should be, seeing thunderstorms roll in from the nighttime distance, feeling the air on my face, negotiating the twists and turns and traffic of the island (including driving on the LEFT side of the street!!!!) have provided me the greatest sense of freedom and the greatest peace since I left home. Pure Joy. I may stay here longer than I anticipated, book myself into the cheapest hostel I can find, and rent a scooter for another week. Just cause it makes me so happy… and well, cause I can. (LUCKY ME!!!!)

I am learning to love Asia (Thailand, at least). It hasn’t come instantly like Africa did. But then, I didn’t spend years dreaming about it like I did Africa. I’m proud of myself for giving Asia a chance even though she was off the intended path, and has been a challenge for me.

Because I was unable to obtain a visa for India, I have a LOT of time here (two to three months). I’m looking to spend a month traveling in Thailand (two weeks, already gone… WHERE DID IT GO???), a month living in a hill tribe up north (outside of Chiang Rai) teaching English in a primary school again, and a month traveling in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. At that point, I’ll probably travel down to Indonesia and then on to Australia where I will meet Lyndall (LYNDALL!! I LOVE YOU!!!) and Christie (CHRISTIE!!! I LOVE YOU!!!) and hopefully Janine (PLEEEEEAAASSEEE!!! JANINE!!! MAKE IT TO OZ!!!!) and probably explode with happiness as the four of us make our way around the coolest parts of the country, camping, laughing, and reminiscing along the way. (All of these wonderful women are Peaks Peeps – and My Peeps. I’ve only known them for 3.5 months, but they will certainly be part of my life forever.)

Details and pics on what I did in Bangkok and Phuket to come (again, mostly for me).

Love to you all – hope you had a fantastic Easter! (I completely forgot about it. This is a Buddhist country… Kinda nice!!!)

PS  - Willy Edgar Worm lives on – he got a free trip to Bangkok. He doesn’t bug me, he lives in the same place in my arm. When I get to Australia, I promise to have him checked out. Hoping to come home “worm-free!”