05 August 2013

The Cancer Connection

One of the projects at the Sketchbook Project
was to draw a postcard to leave behind and pick up
one from another artist.  Here's the one I left behind.
This morning, our Team In Her Shoes went to a crew training day.  Last year we had 18 walkers.  This year our team has 14 members.  Some of my walkers decided to work on the crew - which is another difficult job as they have to work behind the scenes supporting the over 2,000 walkers who will need water, meals, medical services, and all that.  The crew has to wake up at the crazy early hours of 3 and 4 a.m. to get things set up for the walkers, so I'm very grateful, and totally impressed with my team.   So we met up for breakfast and then went to the training session and my crew members got their assignments today.  It was a fun morning, as it always is with our team, and in just a little over a month's time, we'll be at the Avon Walk in Santa Barbara, the weekend of September 7 & 8.  If you're in the area and want to come cheer us on at the finish line please do!  I will post more information about the route and the closing ceremonies which will take place at Carpinteria State Beach at 2:30 p.m on September 8, so do check out our facebook page.  And I've also posted photos from this morning's crew training day as well.  Check out Team In Her Shoes.

So after this busy morning with the team, we met up with my son Nareg to go to an L.A. art event.  Last year sometime, my daughter Ani and I participated in the Brooklyn Art Library's Sketchbook Project:  a mobile tour of sketchbooks from around the world that would, after touring, find their way back to become part of the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Art Library.  All participants signed up with a fee and received a small 5"x7" sketchbook which they could rebind if they chose to, and fill with whatever sketches, paintings, doodles, writings, collages - whatever they wanted to.  You mail it in by a certain set date and the book gets digitized so it can be viewed on the computer, and then it goes on national tour.  And today the tour ended in Los Angeles.  And so we went to be part of the sketchbook project and see ours, and other artists' works on display.

When we  got there, we signed up for a library card.  The mobile library was like a lunch truck set up with a window that opened to serve us.  We typed in our interest, or artist's name in the computer, and the librarian would brought us the requested sketchbook we chose PLUS a random artist's sketchbook.  The mobile library had over 4.500 sketchbooks and over the course of the tour, I have received emails from all over the country whenever someone has viewed my book.  

It was an incredibly enjoyable afternoon.  Ani and I kept checking out sketchbooks, and surrounding ourselves with all the amazing creativity that's out there, while Neddy and Nareg were looking over our shoulders.  One of the books that I came across was kind of a mixture of emotions.  All about life and death, friendship and loss.  Lots of color, and paint, collage and label maker lettering.  And as I read this sketchbook/journal, I felt such a deep connection with the artist.  Her name was Pamela.  And she was from Corvalis, Oregon.  She had been diagnosed with cancer - a non-curable form of cancer that was taking her life away, little by little, every day.  She wrote about how much she always liked her hair, and how she was going to miss it as it was falling out due to the treatments she was receiving.  She wrote about living life to the fullest.  About how much she was going to miss her friends.  And as I came to the finish of the small book, she was saying her final words as her life, and the book were coming to a close.  I stood there and all I could do was exhale a "Wow."  It left me numb.  I was holding in my hands a part of this woman's life.  The emotions were all there.  It left me wondering if she was still alive (though inside I could feel she wasn't).  

After returning the journal, I knew that my next sketchbook topic would be about my experience with this disease.  There are a lot of subjects that I could share about, but this one runs deep.  In fact, I had been asking Ani what I could blog about this week and she's the one that had the idea.  Why not blog about your cancer connections. And so here we are today.  

I sometimes liken having cancer, or having gone through cancer, as a membership in this exclusive club that no one wants to belong to.  Yet when you do belong, you are in it for life.  I am fortunate to call myself a three time cancer survivor.  As positive as I am, and as blessed as I feel, I still have to go to my appointments.  We're still looking for answers, and I still breathe a sign of relief when the doctor tells me things are fine and he'll see me next time.

When you have had cancer, other people seek you out.  People that are going through it.  Or family members who have relatives that are going through it.  You share your story with them, much like I'm doing with you.  Because you know what it's like to feel what they're feeling.  You know what it's like to get the diagnosis of the "Big C" and you know the terror associated with the idea that your health is not in your own hands.  You want to give comfort to others, and you want to give hope.  If you're a survivor, like I am, I feel there is an added responsibility to share your journey with others.  To encourage.  To share your faith and love with them.

When I got diagnosed at age 34 with breast cancer, it was difficult for me to find support.  Oh, they always tell you to seek support groups and such, but because most incidents of breast cancer are involving women that are a bit older, when you're younger, the support groups for your age aren't there.  At least they weren't back then.  I remember my doctor refering me to a support group at the hospital.  I took my mother with me and when I got there, it was my mom that was greeted by the members.  So I sought support through a cancer support group online.  And that's when I met my friend Carolyn.  She is a breast cancer survivor and a Hodgkins Lymphoma survivor, and we became friends.  It was Carolyn that first got me into walking for the cause.  We decided to sign up with Team In Training to walk the Alaska marathon, and we each trained separately - she in Kentucky and me here in L.A.  Sadly, a family loss kept her from participating in the walk.  And so I flew to Alaska myself and walked the Midnight Sun marathon there.  And then a couple years later, Carolyn and I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge together when we participated in the San Francisco marathon. Two friends who would never have known one another if it weren't for  cancer.  To this day, Carolyn and I keep in touch through Facebook. After years at one career, she went to school to become an oncology nurse, where she makes cancer connections of hope and love possible for her patients.

A year or two later,  on Christmas eve, about 16 years ago, I received an email.  It was from a woman named Diane from Minnesota.  She had read my cancer story on the internet.  As a young mother, she wrote me a letter, out of the blue.  "I just got diagnosed with breast cancer.  I'm terrified.  You and I are the same age.  I have two children just like you do.  Please tell me I'm going to survive this.  Please tell me I'm going to see my children grow up."  Diane and I became friends/penpals.  I was three years past my first round of cancer.  We would write to one another.  I would offer encouragement.  We shared a passion for drawing and gardening.  And we wrote about our mothers whom we both had close relationships with.
Diane went through surgery and treatment and she made it through.  We started corresponding through regular post, sending photos of ourselves with our children.  Christmas cards.  And then for a while I didn't hear from Diane.  Several months had gone by and then I received news that her cancer had returned.   I was numb.  But she was doing so well.  Three years had gone by since her first diagnosis.  Again we started writing, but this time she was seeing another doctor.  She wanted to go the holistic route and was traveling far to get to her treatments.  But she assured me she was doing well.  Life was busy for the both of us - but when out of the blue her husband called me one day, I knew something was up.  "I just wanted to call you, " he said.  "Diane passed away."  And he started crying.   He shared that the cancer was aggressive.  She didn't want to go through chemo.  She opted to live as much  of her life as she could with her family knowing her as they knew her.  She didn't want to be poisoned by the chemo and have her children see her that way.  And so the cancer claimed her life.  Diane was my first friend lost to cancer. For years I kept in touch with her mother, who would write me about how much she missed her daughter.  We shared that connection.  Her mom would write me about Diane's children and how they were growing, tell me about the flowers that always reminded me of her dear daughter.  Eventually, the her letters became less frequent, and then became annual Christmas cards.

There have been many others that I've shared the connection with.  My husband's boss who wrote me one day to ask for advice and prayers.  Calls from friends of friends that just want to connect...to talk to someone that knows what they're going through.   Men and women.  A friend recently reached out to me.   As her husband was getting ready to undergo chemo, she found herself filled with mixed emotions.  Fear, anger, frustration, and guilt. Things were supposed to be getting better, she said.  Life has been tough, and now this.   Sometimes you can help by consoling and offering whatever worked for you.  Other times, all you can do is listen and reassure that the feels are real and justified.  And offer prayer.

I don't know why some people get cancer and others don't.  Stress?  Diet?  Genetics?  Who knows.  What I know that I DON'T  believe is that God gives cancer to people.  But I do believe that faith can take cancer away.  I also believe that there are no coincidences in life...and that all things happen for a reason.  Sometimes the reason is very clear.  And other times, we don't understand the reason until years later.  When I got diagnosed with a second type of cancer, I urged my siblings to get checked.  It was only because of that, that my brother's cancer was diagnosed early enough to save him.  Had I not undergone cancer when I did that year, his cancer would have gone undetected.  Like I said, I don't believe in coincidence.  We are right where we are supposed to be.  We have always been close....but now we share the cancer connection as well.

Two years ago, I recieved a call from my cousin.  My childhood friend had just gotten diagnosed with breast cancer.  Through the years, she and I had lost touch basically seeing each other a couple times a year. But we now had cancer in common.  Ani and I were getting ready to walk in the Avon walk and that year, we added her name to our list of names we were carrying with us on our trek.  Because of cancer, we rekindled our friendship.  I'd like to think I helped her get through her battle in 2010 (at least a little), and come 2011, she helped me get through mine. Last year, she and I held hands together as we crossed the finish line after walking 39.3 miles in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. And this year, we'll be walking together again!  Friends together.  Survivors together.  Sharing more than just cancer.  Sharing happy, healthy times together walking for a cure!

As this year's walk is quickly approaching, I'm getting myself ready to once again go the distance for a cure.   This year there are 14 on our team, but only six of us walking.  Three of the six of us walkers are cancer survivors.  Two of us women; one a man.  Each of us sharing that strong connection as we walk with the hope that one day we'll be able to look back on cancer --  and all that we've experienced because of it -- as a thing of the past.  Til then, we'll keep walking, we'll keep dreaming, praying, hoping, and sharing the connection with those around us.

If cancer has touched your life, or the life of a friend or family member, please send me their name and I will carry them with me, every step of our 39.3 mile trek.  You can email them to me at anush@pomegranateandeye.com  or facebook message me.  And if you'd like to support our team, you can click on our Team In Her Shoes website address at www.avonwalk.org/goto/inhershoes

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