28 June 2011

Fear, Living with Uncertainty, and Cancer Recurrence

When you first get diagnosed with cancer, your world stops.  My first thinking, eighteen years ago, was "What will happen to my children if I die?"  I think that's the first question for parents, right?  You have no clue what you're in for.  You're at the mercy of your doctors and health care providers as far as your physical health is concerned...and if you're a believer, you're at God's mercy for the rest.

Somehow, you manage to make it to all your appointments, your surgery, through your recovery, and your treatment.  And then it's over.  It's like you're "sprung" from the prison of your disease.  Sure, you have to go to your follow up appointments with your surgeon, your oncologist, in my case, my plastic surgeon.  But the intense focus and attention that you and everyone else around you has put on your cancer for the past couple months eases up.  And then you're faced with  --- I know I was -- FEAR.   The fear is of recurrence.  Uncertainty. Did they get it all?  Is it really out of my body?  What if they didn't?  What if I have to go through it again?  I remember it being terrifying during my recovery from Round One all those years ago.  A lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, and six weeks of daily radiation treatments left me little time or energy to think about anything else other than my family and surviving. 

I remember making a point to walk every day, eat right, check myself, reading up on all the latest news on breast cancer.  That's how I got started in doing the Avon Walk.  I celebrated my 5 year "cure" by walking 60 miles during the first 3-day they had...from Santa Barbara to Malibu.  My daughter was too young to join me at that time, so I did it on my own.  It was very cleansing for me walking all those miles...just thinking, praying, praising.  I had survived.  But I think that was the beginning of letting go for me.  They said if I could survive 5 years without recurrence, then I was "cured."  I remember walking those painful steps on the third day feeling "alive" albeit with blisters...it just reinforced the fact that I was there.  Crossing the finish line with my "sisters" in celebration.  Seeing the faces of my children at the end - then 6 and 12 - and thinking that I had completed the journey. If I could survive 5 years without recurrence, then I was "cured." That's what I was told.

But that's only cured of recurrence of the SAME cancer.  Not of other cancers.  I had 18 years of great mammograms after my cancer.  And then this year --- it's baaaaackk.  But really, IT was not back.  Because it wasn't  the same cancer.  It was a different cancer, but in the same breast.  And then earlier in the year, in February, I had colon cancer.  Totally unrelated to the breast cancer.

I guess what I'm saying here is this.  Life is uncertain.  And our health is uncertain too.  Yes, there is a chance of recurrence after cancer.  Doctors will talk in statistics.  "You have a 5% chance of recurrence".  "If you survive five years without recurrence, you can consider yourself cured."  We cancer survivors are in this limbo.  We don't really want to know if it's coming back.  What we want to know is that it's NOT coming back.  And no one can tell us that.  In the beginning you live day to day.  Then doctor's appointment to doctor's appointment.  Month to month.  And then you celebrate your wellness anniversaries.  The fear is always inside there.  It's that little apprehension when you're opening up your screening results.  But you can't let that take over.  Remember: I may have cancer; but cancer doesn't have me.

So what do we do then? You just put on your big girl panties and deal with it!  You can't just stop living your life because of the fear.  Life will go on.  So enjoy every single day.  Don't stress over the small stuff (because it's all small stuff).  When you're walking, look around you.  Find the bird's nests in the trees.  Look at the shapes and colors of God's creation, and breathe in the smell of the air.  Go ahead, pick a dandelion and blow!  Launch the seeds!  This is life.  It's happening right now.  Don't miss it because of fear or worry, because honestly, you're missing RIGHT NOW by worrying about the future.  Relax.  Let go of the cancer.  Think good thoughts.  Surround yourself with beauty: nature, music, family, friends, love, laughter, a nice glass of wine, or a good cup of coffee.  Celebrate not just the milestones, but the day to day, ordinary of life.  Take good care of yourself.  Do your best.  Say your prayers.  And believe in your wellness!

24 June 2011

The Lesson of the Peas - Support!

Just two days ago, I picked the first peas from my garden!  I had just gone out to take a look at my weekend weeding plan, when I saw the pods.  Delicious.  They never made it into the dinner salad.  We just ate them off the vine.  I picked a few strawberries, checked on the peppers and tomatoes.  Everything is growing really well.

Yesterday, after work I came home to find the peas completely toppled.  What happened.  They had grown beyond their support and with nothing to grasp on to further, they had grasped on to each other.   Their little tendrils were twisted on to one another. Knotted.   The weight of supporting one another had caused them all to fall down together.

As I was working in the garden this morning, untangling the tendrils, tying the peas to the support I had bought, I was thinking about this lesson.  We are just like the peas.  We grow up staked in our support systems:   family and friends growing together.  We mature and sometimes grow beyond our support.  Letting go, we venture out on our own.    We meet with friends that are like we are.  Sharing the same likes and dislikes, the same interests.  And for a while, it's great.  We create.  We give fruit.  We flower.  And when we need support, we hang on to each other.

But if that support is not rooted in firm foundation, we'll topple.  Together.  It's up to us to choose that firm foundation.  For me, it's my faith.   For others, it's something else.  But for me, it's my Christian faith.  The lesson of the peas is a thought-provoking one for me.   The new support I put in the garden was put in right at the base...right at the family and friends level.  The support framework is Faith.  Faith, family, friends growing together create strength, support, growth.  They cause us to flower and bring forth fruit.  And that's delicious!
My garden today: June 24, 2011

17 June 2011

The Post-Op Garden, Goals, & Miracles

My Garden - Six Weeks Post Op
 Back in April, with my upcoming surgery looming in the future, I set out to dig up and plant my garden.  Remember?  It took days of cleaning up the plot, pulling out the devil grass and weeds, adding new soil, watering, planting.  I knew that in the weeks to come, I wouldn't be able to dig.  Or bend.  Or use my arm.  My goal was to plant my garden before I had my mastectomy...so that all I'd need to do in the days after surgery is turn on the sprinkler and water.  And it happened.  This is a photo of my garden today...six weeks post op.  Time flew by.  A goal was set six weeks ago.  Now I'm looking at a garden that is thriving, growing, full of life.
Back in March when I got diagnosed with breast cancer round two, I knew there were things that I'd need to do to prepare for surgery.  I set another goal. 

Ani & I on graduation day - Six weeks post op

With Ani's upcoming graduation in June, I needed to make sure that I was well enough to attend this very important milestone.  In order to make it, there were things I needed to do: set my goal in my head and tell myself (okay, convince myself) that YES, I would be there at graduation with the cancer behind me.  Once I convinced myself, I needed to make it happen by making sure my healthcare team knew my intent.  So everyone involved knew I had a graduation to go to.  I think this helped tremendously as the team then became involved in my goal.  Not only were they trying to remove cancer from my body, they were working to get this mom to her daughter's graduation!  And it happened! Thank God, I am thriving. 

Like my garden, there are changes that are taking place every day.  Some are too subtle to see, even for me.  I am six weeks post op from breast cancer.  I am healing and will continue to heal for months to come.  My incisions are closed.  The bruising is almost all gone.  There is still soreness, especially under my arm and numbness throughout the breast and abdomen.  Phase two of reconstruction will happen in a few months so I'm not finished yet.  But I'm back to work.  I'm starting to be able to bend again (watch out weeds!)  And we are walking...training for Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in September (39 miles in two days!)

The other day, as I stood looking at my scars, I was commenting to Ani on what an amazing job my surgeon did.  Her comment to me was, "You know what's more amazing?  Your body's ability to heal.  The surgeon did the surgery; but it's your body that's doing all the healing."  Never thought of it that way. 

All of life is a miracle.  The idea that you can put a seed in the ground, water it, and with the help of good soil and sunshine, it will grow to a beautiful flower, or a juicy tomato.  Then there's the miracle of our daughters and sons, growing from babies to insightful, loving, caring adults.  The healing of our bodies.  The fulfillment of our dreams.  All of life.  Miracles.

Post Op Peppers

Post Op Peas

08 June 2011

Looking to Graduation, and a Look Back on Ani

In just two days, my daughter Ani will be graduating with her Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Cal-State L.A.  This is the completion of a huge goal for her in her scholastic career; and it was a health goal for me.  Just a little over five weeks ago, I was treading the uncertain ground of mastectomy, reconstruction....breast cancer.  I had put Ani's graduation in my mind as a goal, and made it my wellness focus, letting everyone -- doctors, nurses, medical office staff, you name it -- know that I needed to be well and present at my daughter's graduation.  And by the grace of God, I am here.

As I sit here in the coolness of my dining room, she is still asleep nestled in the soft cocoon of her bed her crazy hair fluffed out all over her pillow.  It's been a busy quarter for her: putting in her precepting hours at the hospital, organizing the pinning ceremony for her class, finishing up her classes, juggling work at Children's Hospital on weekends, her relationship with her wonderful fiance, family, and being my personal nurse through my breast cancer surgery.

When the nurse first handed her to me, 24 years ago on that May morning in 1987, she looked up all wide-eyed and wet, so sweet and innocent.  I instantly fell in love with my daughter (though I think that started happening when she was in my belly).  But holding her right then and there, still fresh, we understood that this baby had been entrusted to us by God, such a blessing, for us to see through and love and care for.  And I have had the honor of being her mother through these years (and hopefully many more to come).

From a young age, she was crazy creative.  I'd put food coloring in her oatmeal and let her finger paint with her breakfast.  We pierced her ears at one because she kept taking my bangle bracelets and hanging them off her ears as earrings.  At age 3 she'd go through a box of watercolors a week, mixing colors, painting pictures.  She'd pick out her own clothes - wild combinations of colors, scarves, mix/matched shoes.  She'd take a nap in the laundry basket after the warm clothes had come out of the the dryer (hmmm...is this where the cocoon thing started?) Then came the make-believe.  We had the best toy chest in the neighborhood filled with all the costumes I'd sew for her, props from her dad's studio, and finds from mamajan's closet - Belle, Pocahontas, Princess Jasmine, Miss Maral's Arabic dancer, the orange polka dot Flamenco dance dress, the Armenian costume.  And then the packrat stage.  I'd find paper bags, purses, containers all over her room with the most random things: one pen cap, one bandaid, one gum ball.   One paperclip, one head band, one pink Barbie shoe.  (I don't think the packrat stage has truly ended yet.  : )

She has always been headstrong and a quick thinker.  Once, when she was about 3, I remember walking into her room and saying, "Ani, I want this room cleaned up!"  She turned around and sang to me the old Stones song...."You can't always get what you want!"

We went through some tough times too: breast cancer round one when she was six (the hugs from both Ani and my son Nareg helped me make it through); the divorce between Ani's dad and I, high school years with their secrecy and defiance, the "tragic youth" phase.  These were heartbreakers -- I think for both of us.  But we made it through with a lot of love and a lot of prayer.

And then the senior prom, her date that night with Eric, happy times.  High school graduation, college, jobs, the decision to become a nurse.  More goals.  Wedding proposal, engagement party, love, happiness.  Smiles.  Making a decision to work with children, getting offered the student nurse position at Children's Hospital.  School, study, more school...more study.  Getting offered the internship at Children's.  And now, just two days away from graduation, I'm sitting here looking back at all these years that have gone by in the blink of an eye!

We made it!  Ani, you are an amazing young woman.  I'm so proud of you.  I know the next few days will be filled with commotion, people, friends, family, rushing around, cooking.  But I wanted to thank you, for filling my days with love.  For your hugs and "I love you's".  For the countless text messages you send me to let me know you are safe.  For walking miles and miles with me - through the Avon Walk...and through life.  For being the best daughter I could hope for. 

I'll have to set new goals now.  Training for the walk in September, planning a wedding.  Living life, one day at a time, one blessing at a time.  Loving it all!

I have a prayer that I say after Ani leaves for work in the mornings - May God protect and keep you safe.  May you touch the lives of all those children that you help at your job and fill them with God's love - the love that you so abundantly have in your heart to help others - may it flow through you, to them and make their days a little less difficult because of your love and care. Asdvadz hedud, Ani!

May you always walk in God's light and love!!  Congratulations to my ShooShoo!

02 June 2011

Memories of Grandma - or - Who's in the Mirror?

My grandmother lived in a duplex on the corner of our block.  She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a strong woman of faith, a proud American citizen, and an avid reader.  Se loved to knit, crochet and do needlework.  She also loved to garden.   I think because of the horrors she witnessed during the genocide, the beauty of her garden, the colors, the "life" it held were important and therapeutic to her.   She had a small vegetable garden in the courtyard of her duplex where she grew swiss chard, tomatoes and parsley.  While she tended to the garden, I would play waitress with her, pretending to take her order on an ivy leaf that was my pretend pad.   

She lived on the top floor of the duplex.  When you walked into her home, you would stare right at the stairs that led up to her living space.  Her house smelled like a mixture of palmolive soap and onions, and it was always cool in temperature in the grandma's house sort of way.   As a little girl, one thing that I remember are the large gardening shears that were always on the second stair of the staircase.  I remember how huge and sharp they looked, like old rusty giant's scissors.  My grandma would use these scissors to edge the grass of her front yard.  Not the garden itself, but the grass that grows in the sidewalk sections. 

She took a lot of pride in her garden.  Her knees were bad, and she'd sit on the sidewalk, one knee extended, one knee bent, and she would snip the grass where it hit the edge of the walkway, scooting herself down the plot as she worked.  Her flower garden was beautiful.  She grew fuschia flowers, the pods of which my brother and I would love to "pop" as they hung down in clusters.  She loved showy dahlias and roses, and most especially she loved to grow oriental poppies.  She would harvest the seed pods of the poppies and collect the seeds to put on her boregs and fresh baked bread.  Once she shared with me that when she and her friends were children in Armenia, she would work in the poppy fields, harvesting the pods for opium.  The beautiful red, ruffled blooms brought back happy memories of her childhood.

I've been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately.   When my life feels like it starts to get overwhelming, I think of her and her quiet strength, her faith, and her inner peace.  She had a soft face, a broad nose, her hair was long and always coiled into a bun that was pinned up at the nap of her neck.  Her stockings were knotted at the knees.  Plain.  No make up.  Basic.  Despite my health issues, compared to her life and what she had to endure as a survivor, raising a child as a single widowed mother, my life is a piece of cake. 

Lately, when I look in the mirror, I've been seeing my grandmother.  When I was young, I looked like my father; as I grow older, I look like my mother; but there are certain times, when my hair is pulled back, when I have no make up on, when I'm just plain ol' me when I look like my grandmother.  And last month, when my brother and sister came to visit me in the hospital after the mastectomy, I heard them whisper it to each other, "She looks like grandma!"  My ears heard it...and I was glad, because I thought I had been imagining it.

And the similarities don't end with looks.  I too like to knit and crochet, I love to read, and  I find a great peace in spending time in my garden.  Although I haven't had luck growing poppies, I do love to grow my vegetables and flowers.  Like her, I have bad knees and can't squat, so I do sit...and bend just like she used to. 

Yesterday, my sister Susan came over to help me weed the garden since I'm not able to pull and use my arm too well yet.  Two sisters-in-law, but truly more like sisters, we worked together - Susan turning over and loosening the dirt so that I'd easily be able to pick out the grass/weeds.  We cleaned up the garden together, talking, sharing while we worked.  And then just like my grandma, I picked up my gardening shears and trimmed the edge of the grass against the concrete.  We finished, and came into my cool house -- was it me? or did it smell like palmolive soap and onions?  I went into the bathroom to wash up, and there she was in the mirror.  I look like my grandma.  It's a nice reminder of someone that I miss and hold so dear.