I've written on my blog exactly two times in the last year. Wow. That kind of astounds and saddens me. It's like an old friend who I have neglected.
Coming here to write has been a big part of my life since my diagnosis with breast cancer in 2008. During the really difficult times, I truly believe this blog saved my sanity and helped me get through. I was able to "get it all out there" and the response from my readers was moving, gratifying, and affirming.
I wanted to write on my blog again today because it's my birthday (you'll see two posts back, I wrote on my birthday a year ago--where has the time gone?). This has been something of a journal for me, so it only seemed fitting that I update it.
I couldn't even begin to sum up my life over the last year. It's been a year of transition, from our once tightknit, three-person family to the proverbial empty nest. Is it surprising that many of the emotions I've experienced are akin to grief? Major life transitions are always hard.
This has also been a year of growth in many ways (if I ever stop learning, it will be a sad day). Many of you know that photography is a huge part of my life. There are so many rewards to being a photographer, one of them being the connections it brings with other people. There is also the immense satisfaction in helping someone cherish their memories in a tangible way--or helping an insecure teen (or adult, for that matter), recognize their unique inner and outer beauty.
I've come to the realization that having had breast cancer has changed me in myriad ways--some good and some not so good. I feel more empowered now, not in an "I am woman, hear me roar" kind of way, but in a "do it now while you can" kind of way. In the days before I had cancer, I didn't have enough courage to do some of the things I wanted to do. Now, I ask myself, "What's the worst that could happen? You've had cancer, for crying out loud!"
And so, I forge ahead. I think this is a good thing and I sincerely wish I would have had this trait long ago, when I was young. I'm sure my life would have been much more satisfying in a bazillion different ways. So, I'm actually thankful that I was allowed to experience and survive something that strengthened me in that way.
The flip side is that I don't experience life in the same way as I did before. I'm not sure how to articulate it, but my highs were higher and my lows were lower before cancer. I think it's because I invested so much emotion into my everyday life--as if it was my "end all and be all." Now, I realize how relatively unimportant most things are. I'm much more relaxed and comfortable in my own skin.
How do I explain this? I see beyond the veil more now: this life is fleeting and fragile, and the really significant parts have to do with eternity--our relationships, what we do for others, our relationship with our Creator.
A few months ago, I had another recurrence scare. I noticed a small, pea-sized lump underneath my lumpectomy scar. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like part of the scar tissue . .. but not. I had it checked out and was told that it wasn't anything to worry about, but to return in three months for another exam. At my follow-up appointment last September, my radiation oncologist realized that it wasn't scar tissue and recommended that I have my annual mammogram early.
My husband accompanied me ONCE AGAIN for a mammogram and ultrasound appointment. It's funny, but after you've been through this situation so many times, you get kind of . . . resigned. I was truly concerned because (unlike the first time I went through all of this), I knew the implications of the results, but it also took away some of the fear of the unknown.
The upshot? I was told that there was definitely something there, but they weren't sure exactly what it was. So . . . I was referred for a breast MRI.
Despite the fact that I nearly came undone at my first (and only) breast MRI five years ago, I wasn't nearly as anxious as I thought I would be. I knew the implications: if recurrent breast cancer was found, I would probably need a mastectomy and chemo. The thought of having to go through chemo again kind of made me want to buckle at the knees. I knew that my life could change drastically on testing day.
But, you know, after going through cancer treatment once, you tend to get philosophical about these things. Anyone's life can change drastically from moment to moment--it's just that most people aren't constantly aware of this fact. Going through cancer is like a huge sensitization program in Mortality Awareness.
On the day of testing, I took a half of a Xanex (don't judge me), so I could do the MRI. The one thing I completely forgot about was getting the IV (for the contrast injection). I am what phlebotomists call a "difficult draw." The technician took one look at my veins and called the hospital's crack IV team. (Actually, he said rather half-heartedly, "Well, I could give it a try . . . " Uh, no thanks, buddy.)
So, the "crack IV gal" showed up with her cart and I very expertly gave her my instructions (from the past five years of experience with cancer treatment): "Okay, so here's what works: use the vein in my wrist, not on my arm. I usually run my wrist under very hot water for several minutes and then you slap it repeatedly until the vein is about to pop out. That should do the trick."
She listened intently, all while surveying my veins, nodding her head, and (thankfully), concurred with my instructions, "Yep, as long as you're okay with a little more pain, that's what we'll do." Believe me, sister, a little more wrist pain is really the least of my worries.
Bammo! She got the vein on the first try (thank you, God). Relieved to have the first expected trauma down, I moved into the MRI room and dutifully layed down on my stomach, preparing for the 25-minute exercise in mind control. Yes, I said mind control because you have no control over your body while inside of a tube in which you are supposed to remain perfectly still for half an hour.
The only control you have is over your thoughts. Oh, sure, they give you head phones and make a big deal out of letting you choose your preferred music, but it's all an illusion. The headphones and music make little difference when you're laying in the middle of a 747 engine.
Thankfully, I made it through the test while praying the Jesus prayer. For those who don't know, the Jesus prayer is an ancient Christian prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." (I did a blog entry about the true meaning of mercy; you'll find it here.)
After the test, my husband took me to the Olive Garden for comfort food. He made note of how relaxed I seemed and how much better I was handling things this time around. (Never underestimate the power of prayer and the judicious use of Xanex.)
After our meal, he went back to work and I killed time shopping so that I wouldn't have to think about the test results. As I said earlier, I knew that my life could change drastically that day, depending on the outcome of the MRI.
I was told to call my doctor at the end of the day for the test results.
A couple hours later, I received a call from the diagnostic lab at the hospital, telling me that my test results had been sent to my doctor. I thanked them for letting me know and promptly started calling my doctor's office, only to go through a maze of recorded messages telling me to punch this number and that number, eventually ending with a nice-sounding lady's voice instructing me to leave a message.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: what the heck was I doing? I was mere blocks away from the doctor's office! Lame sauce!
I immediately drove to the doctor's office, praying as I went. When I arrived, I spoke to the receptionist, telling her that I didn't have an appointment, but that my MRI results had just been sent over and I was there to see them. She asked me to sit down in the waiting area.
I made my way to the waiting room that was quite familiar to me back in 2009. Every day for nearly seven weeks, I spent time in that room waiting for my radiation treatments. It seemed strange to be sitting there alongside others who were now going through their treatments.
I thumbed through a worn People magazine, trying to distract myself. Everytime someone opened the door, I looked up anxiously, expecting the doctor to call my name. It seemed that time stood still while I tried not to think about all of the implications the next few moments would bring.
Finally, after the longest 10 minutes of my life, a nurse called my name and I followed her down the hallway. She was holding my report and brought me into a room. I expected to see the doctor, but apparently he was too busy to see me. Instead, the nurse said, "So . . . it looks like everything is okay."
I was a little confused and incredulous and asked for more details, while trying to process what she just told me. "So, the report is okay? Nothing was found?"
She obviously didn't know any of the details, so she started to read the report in front of me. I asked, "Can I get a copy of the report?"
"Well," she said, "you'll have to sign a form for that."
"Okay!" I said eagerly.
She led me to the receptionist's area and I signed the first piece of paper they shoved in front of me, barely reading it. I immediately started to read the report, sifting the medical terminology from the words I could recognize. Finally, toward the bottom of the report, my eyes fell upon these five words: "NO EVIDENCE OF RECURRENT DISEASE."
NO EVIDENCE OF RECURRENT DISEASE . . . NO EVIDENCE OF RECURRENT DISEASE!!!!
How do I explain the emotions I felt as I read those words? Literally, for months on end, I had been living under a dark cloud. When I read those words, I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol. I wanted to run down the hall, clicking my heels together, screaming, "I'm as light as a feather!" In fact, I made the sign of the cross (yes, in front of the nurse!), and said, "Thank you, God!"
I then came to myself long enough to ask the nurse, "Then, what is it that's there--the lump?" She didn't know. I started to read the report again and this time I saw the words, "dystrophic calcification." Uh-huh . . . whatever that meant, it wasn't cancer.
As I left the clinic to walk to my car, I was overcome with emotion. I started to tear up and began to thank God. My first thoughts were: I have been granted another reprieve! God isn't finished with me yet! followed by: Yeah, don't go getting cocky--you could get hit by a bus tomorrow . . . (it's tough being a pragmatist).
My biggest take-away from the whole experience is that God has a purpose for my life and that there's more for me to do while I'm here. I have no illusions that I'm going to accomplish great things with the time I have left to live, at least in the way that the world sees them. But I am more aware of the significance of the life that God has given to me--and more distraught over wasting it.
Since the day I left my doctor's office, I have rocked my four-month old granddaughter and sung "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" to her. I've kissed her soft, sweet cheek, held her close to my heart, watched her smile, and heard her coo.
I've taken a walk in the early morning sunshine with my daughter while we talked about everything from growing-up . . . to God . . . and Star Trek.
I've met my husband at the airport after his two-week absence, trembling with excitement to touch his face and give him a welcome-home kiss.
I've laughed heartily with my 87-year old mom, kissed the cheek of my 87-year old dad, and told them both, "I love you."
I've embraced my aging German Shepherd, stroked her velvety coat, told her what a good dog she is--and that I love her.
I've sipped champagne with dear friends and toasted, "To life!"
I've had the privilege of taking photos of family and friends, helping them to keep their memories alive.
And, perhaps the best accomplishment of all: I've put two feet on the floor every morning, crossed myself, and said, "Thank you, God, for giving me life."
"Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!"
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol