I Choose Love

Finally, I did it. I finally wrote something for Tedx that I believe in and that I can live with. 

I have been fighting this talk for months. More or less, I have been fighting my way through coming to terms with the past year and understanding what suffering and pain and beauty and love mean in my life. I have been through moments of shear disbelief, cursing and swearing that this diagnosis didn’t have a purpose. That it was just out to ruin me and the things I was trying to accomplish. I had moments of anger, screaming in my car to the sky, “What do you want from me!?“. I picked a fight with God and the Universe. 

“Why is it never enough? WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” 

I felt I had failed. I was so angry with myself for dropping the torch of faith and hope. I was so unkind and unforgiving with myself. I was hit with a wave of reality after I tried to sail in for a smooth landing after treatment ended. The disease was fading out but the burden of the life I had left behind (running a business, being a wife and a mother) -it was catching up to me. There was no rest for the weary. I had to get back into my own life and fight again to reclaim my space in this life. 

I was so sick of fighting. I was so sick of scraping for every inch. I was mad and I was over every insult and hurdle thrown at me by bad timing and worse luck. I was mad that I was human, that I was feeling these things at all. These things that made me feel weak and out of control and sorry for myself. I hated it and I turned that hate in on myself. I raged inside. I thought about what cancer had taken from me, how it had hurt the people I loved. I fell apart- impoloding on anger and sadness over things I could not control and that wounded me deeply.

Slowly, more slowly than I liked, I began to soften. I’m still angry at cancer, but I’m no longer willing to hand over my life, my freedom, my happiness to it. I am no longer angry at myself for hurting. I lived through hell. I made mistakes. I also witnessed beautiful things. Incredible, life-changing, soul affirming things. I have learned and grown as a person. I have given and received more love than I thought possible in a lifetime. I chose to extend love to myself instead of punishing myself with hate. I chose to be patient and kind and to magnify the love that has been so generously and freely given to me and to share it with the world. 

I know. I know that sounds like an overly sentimental, idealistic, naive, placating statement. But it’s not. 

To live is a choice. To love is a choice.

Growing and learning and connecting are choices. I don’t make the choice to extend my hand and my heart to anyone lightly. I make it because it means intentional, meaningful living for me. I believe in wonderful, beautiful, absurd notions of love because that is what has been demonstrated and extended to me for the last year. That is what saved me. That is what created a life worth living and I’m embracing it and moving forward.

You can write me off as foolish and naive or you can challenge yourself to question what you are made of. What, if not love and kindness, has made you resilient? What has helped you survive? What is it that you wake up searching for? What has it felt like to share a piece of your heart with someone? You cannot convince me that this is not a worthy enterprise. All that is good and meaningful in my life has been rooted in love. It is more powerful than any disease, or worry, or doubt, or fear. I believe in love and in our ability to connect and heal one another. Call me crazy if you like, but I just walked through the darkness and I’m still here. Better than ever. What else can grow in such a barren plain? 

So I’m stepping forward with love and hope on my mind. Love is laced on the words that flow from my mouth. The enormous power, the unyeilding presence of this beautiful gift is ingrained in my heart and my soul. I am a love warrior. A fighter for all things true and necessary and kind. I hope I can share that with those who need it and I hope to continue to receive it as the restorative, fruitful gift that it is.

Be well, love fiercely, and Give ‘Em Hell.

Photo Credit: Larry Stanley

Be Brave, Kid

I’m on my way back to Seattle for some follow-up care post radiation. I’m expecting a quick and positive review from the radiation oncologist as my skin has healed quickly and fantastically. I also get to see the plastics team for, umm…reinflation? After living lopsided since January, I get to re-expand my right side (it was in the way of radiating the left side). So I guess that will be nice. It is usually a little hard on the muscles in my chest and back initially but that will subside in a matter of days and it’s easy given everything else I’ve handled.

Overall, I’m feeling good. Good for where I am in my recovery. It’s all relative but compared to this time last year, it’s heaven. My major limitations are energy and nausea. I think I’m about 40% of the energy I enjoyed BC (before cancer). I also rely on anti-nausea medications most days but I don’t experience much pain most of the time. For my friends who are still in the middle of the battle, hang in there. There is light at the end of the tunnel.*

Going back means facing some scary monsters under the bed. I had a hard time in Seattle while undergoing radiation and being away from my family. It was a period of insecurity for me.  I felt insecure and exposed about my body, the end of treatment, going back to work, and facing the life I had left behind. In transitioning back to life AC, I felt like a girl without an identity. Without something that really grounded me. I wasn’t healed, but I wasn’t sick. I had one foot in my career and one foot in life outside the office. I was a mother without children, a wife without a husband. It was a new city, new friends (great friends), new home, new bed, new body, new injuries, new family (the best new family) and old feelings, old conflicts, old struggles, old doubts. Most of the time, I was barreling through a spiraling depression. I’m going back to face that and from 30,000 feet where I’m writing this, I’m feeling brave.

Maybe it’s the altitude that grants me some perspective, but from here I can see the horizon. Honestly, this plane is chasing down the sun. So, too am I. I’m chasing down lighter days. I’m building my energy, picking up my stride trying to round that corner. I can see the end and the new beginning. It’s a season of choice, a season of reconciliation. I have no idea what the future holds but the shadows don’t seem so long in this new life. 

So I’m heading back to the battleground a little lighter. A lot lighter. I can ground myself in my family, my friends, and within myself. All three are comprised of the old and the new. Somehow, I am grateful for it all.

Give ‘Em Hell


*I do know and love too many (not in favor but in frustration with the fact that this reality exists for them) metastatic cancer fighters. I have a small window into your world and I am achingly aware of how unfair and maddening life with cancer is. I do not mean to disparage or dishearten your journeys. I only mean to offer light and hope to those who walk after me- whatever the path looks like for them. I believe you know and trust that about me, but I want to be clear that I hold you all in my mind and heart when I write.

Go Home Cancer

Go home cancer. I am done with you. 

It’s 1:38 in the morning. I pushed away the pillow that is usually tucked between me and my husband. I scooted over to his side and pressed my forehead against his back. Closing my eyes against his warm skin, listening to him breathe, smiling at a sudden small snore. I try to remember what life was like before. I try to feel something, trying to will back my emotions and beat back the unyielding presence of this stupid disease.

And that’s when I realize how done I am. 

There is a strange place between surrender and acceptance. Between feeling and not feeling. Between grasping at control and understanding that real power comes from acknowledging how little control you actually have. 

I am not sad. I’m not hopeless. I’m not giving those sacred pieces of me to cancer tonight. I know a terrible, awful thing happened to me. I am acutely aware of what that did to me and the people who love me. But I also know the better, bigger parts of life. I know love, I know patience, I know grace, and I know strength. I know I don’t have it all figured out, but I trust that I’m making my way back. I have faith that I am reclaiming my life. Breath by breath, I am coming back to life.

So go away cancer. There is no room left for you here. I am closing the gap, pressing my head and heart against the life I choose instead. 

Give ‘Em Hell

Featherweight

I didn’t one day wake up with cancer.

I won’t one day wake up healed from it.

There is a disconnect between actively fighting the disease and the waiting afterward. It is so much more than a postscript. The person this disease left behind- meI am so much more than an afterthought to this illness.

I have recently been taking account of the damage from the last year. The thousands of major and minor ways cancer came and stole and pillaged and sucked the soil dry. Whether I really want to or not, I can no longer unsee the wreckage. No longer blinded by the fight, the shadows and the cracks are revealed to me and the heaviness of it sits with me now. An unwelcome houseguest. A hated companion. 

Somehow, I feel like I’ve failed at what I was sent to do. Survival wasn’t really the point for me. 

Love was. Healing was. 

Creating a space that was sacred and special and where I could maybe help- or help heal? -anyone who wanted to stand near me. I believed that there was fantastic beauty in the world. I believed that pain revealed love and connection and grace that made life worth living.  

Cancer gave me wings. I could write about all the wonderful and terrible things that were happening to me, and yet I still felt so channeled in to love. I believed if I stood bare and showed my scars and pains, it would help other people perhaps love themselves a bit more. Maybe be kinder to themselves. Somehow learn to be more patient with their unworkable suffering. I thought if I bore the unbearable weight of it all, it would be lighter for others.

I know in the logical pieces of my brain that is true. I know I was a conduit for love and I am so grateful for that. I am so grateful for what cancer brought into my life and I am so scared of what a future without those wings looks like. Will I still have the opportunity to love and help and hold safe the hearts and hands of others? My life was so painfully beautiful, now I’m afraid that without the pain I will lose the beauty. I’m afraid I’ve seen and experienced things, wonderful things and ways of seeing the world, that will be cut off to me now. True, it was hell but it was also purposeful and necessary. It’s hard to think about living a happy, fulfilled life without that life-sustaining intention.

As I write this, I am reminded to keep fighting. If not for myself, for someone else. I hold on to hope. Always.

 

Give ‘Em Hell

It Burns

Radiation isn’t too bad. Not compared to chemo anyway. It left me tired and stranded in bed some days, but compared to the different phases of hell I walked through this past year, radiation was by far one of the easier ones.

Not to say it isn’t difficult. Every day for six weeks straight I drove to the hospital, waited my turn, held perfectly still while they adjust and re-adjusted the table, held my breath for up to 40 seconds between 4-8 times, and listened as the machine zapped it’s way through me. Sometimes I could smell and taste my skin burning. I applied creams and aloe as prescribed 4 times a day- ruining half my tops as the greasy applications soaked into my clothing. 

In the end, my skin held up fairly well, I’m told. This is what “good” looks like 10 days out:

Fortunately, I don’t have many nerve endings in that area anymore so I am only moderately uncomfortable.

To be perfectly honest, it used to be a lot worse. But that’s what healing is all about. Time, patience, gentleness. Slowly but surely, I’ll crawl out of it. I’m working on that both emotionally and physically now.

I am still at odds with myself physically and mentally- something I’ll write more about later. But for now, I wanted to remind you (okay, me) that we heal. Our greatest wounds heal over time, it’s one of the amazing gifts of being human. I’m not suggesting we move on without scars, or that we are not forever altered. But still, we move on. 

And maybe if we’re really lucky and we hold on to hope and faith, we also move up.

Give ‘Em Hell 

Girl Interrupted

I had my first cancer treatment just over a year ago today. Now, I’m sitting in my bed in Bozeman having just recently completed radiation. Tom came out to get me from Seattle and we packed my things, gave hugs to the family that lovingly took care of me, and we drove East. Just like that, over the 10 hour car ride from West to East, a year long battle ended and another journey began.

I feel this enormous pressure to be “fine” or even more. To be giddy and exalted. I imagine dusting off my hands, clapping them together, dust rising into the air and sifting away. As though the weight of the last year should be like such fine dust itself and I should be able to put down the heavy work of fighting through it and move on with my life. 

I’m frustrated that it’s not actually that way. It would be so easy and so nice if life were that simple, if I could cut ties with all the emotional and cognitive pieces of me that stumble and crash when pushed too fast. Instead, I am coming to terms with the fact that while my body has defeated the disease, I still have a lot of healing to do. 

This is a very vulnerable space to be in. While I was being treated, I was surrounded by medical professionals who understood what I was going through. They walked alongside me every step of the way. Also, I could easily point out my physical (and logically related, emotional) suffering to outsiders and I was constantly met with the empathy and support that I needed. In the end though, this is much harder. There is nothing to point to. Even I expected this to be a lighter, happier time. How can I expect anyone else to understand the completely out-of-my-head, deeply depressed and numb feelings I’m struggling with? It surprises and confuses me even, which convinces me that very few will understand, and that in itself makes it feel even more isolating and frustrating. 

While I was fighting cancer, the obstacle was the disease. Something random and unexpected had happened and was causing me to have serious problems. 

Now, the disease is gone. The obstacle is me. 

I am now charged with finding the courage and energy to pick myself up and keep going. That is really hard when a year’s worth of heartache, pain and suffering are on my back, and I didn’t exactly drop delightfully into a world of sparkles and rainbows. Nope. I mostly crash landed into kind of a cold, harsh reality that demands things from me I’m not sure I have yet and that already feel overdue.

Inside, I want to hunker down under the covers and wait until the softness in me firms up a bit. I want to give myself the time and space to be gentle as I learn how to reengage in life again. That is diametrically opposed to reality. Reality for me is children, marriage, work- making sure we keep a roof over our heads (monumental task, actually) while trying to fill in some of the gaps and cracks my kids have suffered in my absence. I feel pieces of me being pulled in so many directions, and yet, I desperately yearn to pull them together and and fuse myself whole again.  

It may be that I require more love now than ever (something I am not thrilled to admit). I don’t want to be so frail, I don’t want this to be so hard. But I recognize that this is where I am. I also recognize that I’ve picked up a lot of tools this year that can help me recover. Of course, I also have some spectacular people in my life that have been there when the lights go dark. I’ve abashedly told Tom that I need him- probably in the most sensitive, assuring way I’ve ever needed him. That hardly seems fair, I know, considering what he’s been through and that he needs a break, too. But that is part of our commitment to each other, and we’ll work it out and someday I’ll have the good furtune of returning the favor,  I’m sure. 

This is life now. So begins a new chapter. One of healing. One of attempting balance. One of moving forward despite the balled up fear and anxiety and eggshell exterior. Choosing to try feels like the bravest thing I’ve had to do yet. But I am willing myself to across that finish line. This, like all other things, will be captured inch by inch, pushing and pulling and scrapping to survive. Deep down, even though I’m tired, and worn out, and the light is dull, I know there is a life worth fighting for. 

So I must. 

And I will.

Give ‘Em Hell

Photos by David Rojek

The In-Between

I am almost done with treatment. Yes, it’s true. Only 6 more doses of radiation and I can say that just over a year of eradicating this disease is over. Five months of chemo, a blood clot, a double mastectomy and what will be 28 doses of radiation plus some maintenance chemo on the side until April. The next big hill will be reconstruction. I’m sure I’ll be pecked and poked a bit with visits to the plastic surgeon to prepare for reconstruction, physical therapy to reclaim use of my left arm/shoulder, and whatever else they want to throw at me to keep me healthy and cancer free. But for the moment, most of this major battle is behind me. 

It feels like standing directly adjacent to the train tracks as a train goes blasting by. I could see it coming with the diagnosis last February. Then, the full blast of the train’s horn was shattering my ears as the wheels shook the rails. Then there’s the moment of impact. A blast of wind and force hit me and sent me into this world where all I could do was experience the deafening sound and thundering vibrations racking my body. It went on and on and on and on and on at an incredible volume, the way some of those seemingly never ending trains do. At times, it thought I might just lay down and dissolve into the ground, so tired from fighting to stay upright against the unending cla clunk, cla clunk, cla clunk of the mighty beast. 

But now the end is in sight. I don’t have to summon up every last bit of courage and might to get through the day. I don’t have to be afraid all the time. Afraid not just of disease, but of survival, too. My resources are coming back to me. I’m starting to see that I can fight again to gain ground, not just to avoid being crushed by the overwhelming weight of it all.

It’s as though that train has finally stormed by me and I am left standing in the sudden quiet, far too open space of survival. Everything inside me is still rattled and I’m left shaking from being way too proximal to an untimely end. In anechoic space it occurs to me that physical survival is one thing, mental survival is another.

I know what I want. I want to be somewhere quiet with my husband where I don’t have to do anything but breathe. I want him to hold my hands in his. I want to curl up into his chest and feel his comfort and warmth. I want him to be gentle and kind of hushed as he helps me come back to myself.

A lot of this last year, perhaps the entirety of it, has been dedicated to the battle. There has been a lot of numbing, a lot of avoiding other things and needs and hurts just to soldier up and get through another day. I know I need to ease back into myself, that I need to take great care in coming back online. It feels like a fragile existence: a little tired, a little crazy, a little angry and little hurt. It’s going to take time for me to understand who I am now, now that disease and pain have forever reshaped me.  

There is no doubt that I will be better from having struggled. I know that. It is weird to now be standing on the other side of this though. I feel like the world’s secrets have been revealed to me and I just have to go about the business of sorting through them and trying on what fits. I feel like a calmer, more still time is coming. I am definitely praying it will be, anyway.
If you want to find me, I’ll be in the mountains arguing with myself and God about what steps to take next, how to make sense of what has happened, and how not to mess it all up. I was given this gift of life, after all. Must do something spectacular with it.

Give ‘Em Hell.

“The Mountains Are Calling, and I Must Go…” Muir

Cancerversary 

Happy February 9th! For me, this marks one year since I received my official breast cancer diagnosis. The days before and after this were a whirlwind of blood tests, imaging, biopsies, physician consults, and of course phone calls. It took me a while before I got comfortable even saying the “cancer” word out loud. It felt like a giant marble in my mouth. It was definitely a reality that was hard to come to terms with, mostly because we had no idea what to really expect or how things would unfold.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have been a wreck. This last year was harder than hard and darker than dark. But what kept me afloat most days was the overwhelming love and support I found here through all of you. Almost everyone I come into contact with offers love and support. That’s a major shift from life pre-diagnosis. We had our friends and family then, yes, and we knew we were loved. But this year, this mess, it has revealed to us love and community beyond any measure of our imagination. I know a lot of us are struggling through difficult days, but if I could give you anything it would be this lense through which I will always now see the world. 

We live in a time where we are trained to look for the threats. It helps us survive, it helps us make decisions that protect us and the ones we love. But it is also very heavy. It is a lot of work to continue to scan the horizon for new dangers and to feel vulnerable and powerless and afraid and frustrated in the moment. When I am in that space it leaves me feeling tired, overwhelmed, hopeless and fearful. Cancer is one long exercise in navigating those heavy moments, and here is what I know.

Love wins.

Love wins every time. Our power to reach out and connect with one another and lift each other up is the most awesome power on earth. We have, through our ability to extend compassion and kindness toward one another, the ability to influence lives and hold one another’s hearts in our loving hands. My life has been so moved. It has been lifted up and celebrated and I have been reminded of what a beautiful gift it is. Time and time again people have revealed to me who they truly are- deeply flawed, struggling, unsure, beautiful souls whose bedrock is kindness and good. 

I know I screw a lot of things up. I know I am not the zen, meditative, pure vessel I wish I could be. But I have my moments. And I keep striving to have more moments. It has been by you and through your love that I have had the opportunity to pursue them at all. So for that, I have to say a deep “thank you.”

Instead of sadness or grief in this moment, I am charged up with gratitude. Gratitude for the love that has been shown to me this past year. Gratitude for the advancements in science and medicine that allow me to be here still. Gratitude for the opportunity to crack open my heart and soul and let the light shine in. 

Today, I celebrate. I am alive, I have walked a mighty journey and it has been a triumph. The love and support I have been so generously given has forged a strength in my soul that is second to none. With it, all things are possible. There is still more work to be done, but looking back I know I will persist, I will endure, and I will rise. Always.

Give ‘Em Hell

Photo Credit: The incomparable Larry Stanley

Falling With Style

When Buzz Lightyear tries to tell Woody he can fly in the film Toy Story, Woody correctly, if not brutally insists, “That wasn’t flying, that was falling with style!” In the end, Buzz accepts his limitations and Woody becomes more gracious about his new friend’s worldview. 

I appreciate Woody’s perspective even if it did come from a place of fear and sadness over being dethroned as the favorite. As for my own brutal honesty, it’s what comes out when I am brave enough and strong enough to be seen. (I’m reaching for another sip of wine now.) Whew, okay. Here we go.

  • The kids and Tom left today. I know I will see them again. I know people go longer without seeing their children. Still, it’s 3-4 weeks away. I will never forget how I tried to call out to them behind the security line to say one final goodbye and no words would come out. I wanted to run to them, close the distance between us in seconds and hold them in my arms. But I couldn’t say a word. My throat was too tight with sorrow and grief. I watched as Sophie’s blonde hair bobbed out of sight and then felt the gut punch of cancer. I walked through the airport bleary eyed with tears until I made it to my car where I started to gasp for air and scroll mindlesslessly to set the next destination on my phone’s navigation. I fumbled and fumbled with the app. No, google, I don’t know where I’m headed. 
  • On rage: I don’t have a lot of anger about cancer. It’s just not where my mind goes most of the time. But sometimes, even though it’s rare, I get furious. Being separated from my family (particularly thinking about the impact on the girls) makes me want to throw things. I once kicked a trash can in a private stall in an airport bathroom- the most aggressive act I’ve had this entire time. It indented upon force and then immediately…no… instantly…popped back in to shape. It was so unimpressed with my anger that it went back to being completely unaffected instantaneously. You can imagine this was largely unsatisfying if not also kind of impressive. Well played, universe. Well played.
  • Oh poor me” moments aside, I did have a nice time with my family this weekend. We celebrated Sophie’s birthday, we went up the Space Needle and to the Science Museum. We went indoor skydiving even where I fell with some style. We were a family and even though I was too tired to walk through the museum, everyone took turns pushing me around in the wheelchair. There are solutions to these problems! A highlight includes looking over at my husband as we watched a (cough cough…boring) presentation on the moons of Jupiter. He was enthralled. He had read about it, of course, and watched with the rapt attention I might give to say, Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. It was so sweet to be reminded of his interests and passions. I fell in love with him because he is so many things that I admire: funny, intelligent, curious, kind, generous, selfless, loving. For a few moments in that planetarium I felt those old blushes of love bubble up in me. I looked at him like I did 13 years ago. It was so heart warming and hope inspiring to be visited by glimpses of our former selves. Those people who were less burdened, who had energy to give and exchange with the other, and who were not so buried under life’s complexities. I feel like I saw him again. And my God, I’ve missed that face.
  • I now have a 3 year old and a 6 year old. Soon, I will also celebrate(?) one year of cancer under my belt. I have no idea what to do in this awkward moment. I’m walking up on it like a strange dog. It might be all happy and energized or the thing might bite my hand. Either way. It’s coming and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
  • After speaking at the Moth, I realize I want more of my time and energy to be committed to speaking and writing and learning from and listening to people. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what makes me feel helpful and useful in this world. I am still a lawyer, but I want to honor the direction I feel I am being pulled. If I know anyone out there who has good leads on how to make these passions more professional, please please let me know. 
  • As hard as it is to be out here with out my girls and Tom, it’s probably a pretty big piece of putting together the puzzle of my life. I’m learning why the hard things are hard and I’m getting to a point where I can extract the meaning and lesson laid within them. It is hard to sit and stare at myself and at my behavior. I have to really wonder after a while, “What am I doing?” Then I have to formulate the ideal in my mind and compare reality to that. The icky part is the mess in between that doesn’t match up. I have to look at what drives what I do, how I feel about things, what stories I’m telling myself, and sometimes I have to rewrite the script. It’s not easy. It’s the hardest emotional work I’ve done this entire time. But I am in good, loving hands with my host family and now my mom is out here with me for a few days to make sure I take it easy. Hopefully I continue to develop and improve. 
  • As long as the days are sometimes, considering the work I have to do, there hardly seems like enough time. I’m taking it day by day, being gentle with myself as the cumulative radiation has its way with me. I’m more easily physically tired (hence the wheelchair at the museum) and I miss being able to just go out and hit it with a long hard walk. So short bursts and then rest for me now. Which seems like a reasonable way to approach everything, doesn’t it?

Be good to yourselves.


Give ‘Em Hell.

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