How I kicked my cancer fear to the curb

Recently, I’ve had many people ask me one of the most important (but most overlooked) questions about cancer treatment. How did I learn to cope?

I don’t mean physically cope with getting through the treatments. Coping with treatments and healing after surgery is really just ‘grin and bear it’. There’s no secret to physically getting through treatment – you just have to put on your rally cap and fight like hell.

But how do you MENTALLY cope with cancer? How do you endure a diagnosis like stage 3 melanoma and NOT want to crawl into a hole and cry yourself to sleep?

Well, I have to admit, there was definitely a little bit of that for me – at first.

 

I’ve always said that cancer is more of a mental battle than a physical one. My melanoma diagnosis hit me very hard. I’m in healthcare – I should KNOW the warning signs. I should KNOW to take care of my own health first and foremost. But I put my changing/bleeding mole on the back burner while I worked 60 hours/week taking care of other people.

I felt a HUGE amount of guilt and blamed myself for months. I felt defeated. I felt lost. Why me? How could I do this to my family? What if I don’t make it? How am I supposed to live my life like this?

And then I gradually began to realize that this was a battle of wills. Much like any sport, the team with the best mental state wins. I was NOT going to let this stupid cancer win. This cancer was NOT going to bring down my spirit. If I was going to fight like hell physically, I also had to fight mentally. My whole being had to fight – and fight hard.

I knew the odds weren’t in my favor. I knew that melanoma defeating me was more of a likelihood than a possibility. At the age of 31, I had to come to grips with my own mortality in a very real way.

But you know what? As the old saying goes: there are only 2 certainties in this world – death and taxes. If my life was going to be cut short, I better make it a damn good one.

So I came to the conclusion: cancer may take my life. But cancer would NOT take my soul.

 

Sometimes you have to endure the rain to experience a rainbow

I have a soft spot for country music, and Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying” to this day makes me cry. There’s something about facing death that makes you realize how precious life is – and you have to soak up EVERY MOMENT. Every day is truly a blessing.

Thousands of people have survived cancer and been given a second chance on life. And since treatment that has become my new mentality – I’ve been given a second chance at life. And you can’t have a full life when you’re constantly worried.

So I permanently shut off that leaky faucet of fears and guild and questions that kept creeping into my mind.

How did I do it? Mindfulness meditation.

I began reading books such as The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh and it made me realize that meditation doesn’t have to be all granola and incense and “ohm”. Just being mindful – learning to soak in every moment – was something we could all do. Soaking in the joys of everyday life has made me more grateful and more introspective about how I want to live.

Think about it. Think about what you want to accomplish in life. REALLY TRULY accomplish. Because YOU are the only one who can make these dreams a reality. YOU are the only one who can choose to live in a beautiful state rather than living every day in fear.

Because living in fear is no way to live. And I choose living a life that’s worth living. And so should you.

So say NO to the fears. Say NO to melanoma and cancer. Put your foot down and choose to take back your life. Start LIVING your life while you still can. It’s that simple.

So get out there and start living!!

3 Things My Cats Taught Me About Life

Frankie being embarrassed because he got caught snuggling with his teddy!

Have you ever been jealous of your pets? Just lying around all day, playing with toys and getting tons of food and affection. No job, kids to chase after, not a worry in the world. Pets have the purrrrfect life. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself there!)

Why can’t we live the good life like our pets?!

Ahhh, but you can! I’ve learned many a thing from my furry felines over the years. Here are just a few of the many things I’ve tried to implement in my OWN life that I’ve learned from my cats.

1 – ALWAYS make time for play time

What do a string, a box, and a wadded up piece of paper all have in common? They’re all instant toys if you are a cat. (Did that string just MOVE? Let’s attack and find out!)

Cats are always curious, and because of this constant curiosity, they can turn any ordinary object into something much more interesting. Just like kids, they are constantly learning and playing with their surroundings. They aren’t concerned about what their boss might think or what the neighbors will say. There is no judgment about which toy is the classiest or how much money it cost. They would never say to each other “Don’t use the GOOD mouse again, Fuzzy! You’ll ruin its tail!” Nope, that good mouse is going DOWN…tail and all!

And this time is never “thought” of as play time. Play time doesn’t have to be designated to pets between the hours of 5 and 6 PM. It’s anytime, anywhere.

Unfortunately, for Frankie, that means sometimes 4 in the morning seems like a good time to play.

But crazy early mornings aside – when was the last time you really had play time? Just time to goof off and have fun?

My husband and I always try and make time for fun. We play catch, bike, play in the garden, spray each other with the hose (mostly me getting him on surprise attacks) – we try and make life fun. Play time is anytime.

Tamarin making friends with a Turtle neighbor!

2 – Don’t hate on a good nap

I LOVE a good nap. I see the cats hanging out on the couch napping by 10 AM and I’m jealous. I’m up by 6 am for work, so by afternoon I’m ready. I mean, why did they take away nap time in the first place?? Adulting is hard. Being is cat is NOT hard – so why do THEY get to nap?

OK, in all seriousness, getting enough sleep is SUPER important. Your morning sets the tone for your whole day, so who wants to wake up and feel like crap? Crappy morning tends to mean crappy day. And no one wants that.

A NEW snuggle bear for the fuzzy man

I’ve never had much of a problem sleeping…but my husband does. He tosses and turns and tosses some more and wakes up and rolls over and by the morning, I could kill him. I’m cranky and moody and it’s almost as though I really DID wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

By afternoon, I’m a crazy person barking at my husband about how he needs to go on a cheese diet because he ate the last of my favorite raw cheddar. Not that that’s not a serious offense…I take my cheese very seriously. But if “cheese thief” is his worst offense, I think I’ll keep him and fix the thing that’s making me cranky.

The best solution? You guessed it! Nap time.

3 – Purr more

You can always tell when a cat is happy. They rub against your legs, give you “head butts” with their cheeks, and start their purr motors. Our older cat loves to do all three in the middle of the night (maybe THIS is why they nap so much! Late night purr parties!)

My husband only has to walk towards Frankie and immediately he starts purring and rolls over to get belly rubs. It doesn’t take much to get that motor started. And he loves every second of attention. (I’m talking about Frankie the cat here. Well, I guess that last comment can apply to both of them).

Just a few chin scratches and any cat is in fuzzy purr heaven. Why do we humans have to make love and affection so complicated?

It’s a very simple concept, but one we tend to overlook. If you love someone or something, you show them affection and give them verbal confirmation of your love. It really isn’t hard – but somehow we seem to forget that little things matter in our busy lives. Take the time to show your loved ones you care. A few extra cuddles never hurt anyone. TRUST me. The dishes can wait.

So what do I aim to do in my life? What have my cats taught me?

Nap. Purr. Play. Repeat.

My partners in crime

New status!

Last week, I met with my oncologist and got the results of my latest PET/CT scan. It’s always so nerve wracking to meet with the doc – it involves so many important decisions and information that just prepping for the appointment can make me nervous. Walking in the door of the hospital is like walking into the unknown…I can always feel my heart racing as I try to stay calm. Deep breathing exercises usually help, and closing my eyes and using mindfulness meditation also helps to bring down my heart rate.

I didn’t expect to hear any change in treatment plan in this visit. I was hoping, at best, for no change in my scans.

But I was pleasantly surprised!! NED. No evidence of disease. The best three letters I’ve ever heard!!

My cancer is completely gone. No uptake on the PET scan. Nothing visible in the CT scan.

NOTHING! It’s like it all melted away!

I’m over the moon. All the craziness that I’ve been through, all the poking and prodding, all the infusions, for now, are done.

Would I go through it again? Honestly…yes I would.

Cancer really does something to you. I feel like being so young and looking at death is like a mind altering drug. I’ve become more patient. More sensitive. Less judgmental and more caring. I celebrate the little things and stress less about the big things. I’ve become closer to my family and friends…close in a way that I could never have predicted.

I’ve changed my whole outlook on life.

So to me, all the hardships for the past 20 months were all worth it. Giving up my career as an anesthetist in Florida, moving cross country for the BEST care at Mass General, building a greenhouse and a garden for my sanity, going back to work as a surgical neurophysiologist, all of this was a journey. It wasn’t a pleasant journey at times. But it was a journey that has changed not only my body, but also my mind and my soul.

I hate to say it. But I’m a better person thanks to cancer.

 

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Life is beautiful…and so is death

After I got the good news that Monday about the mets shrinking and holding treatment, I was on top of the world. I couldn’t believe it!! I felt like I had just been though the tunnel of Hell and finally popped out on the other side. A HUGE weight had been lifted, and I felt so free! Light as a feather, a permanent smile on my face, nothing could bring down my spirits.

My husband and I decided to take a weekend getaway, see a concert, and hang out at his family’s lake house cabin. Nice and relaxing R&R time away from the house. We just wanted to have a weekend to soak in life, you know?

We saw Hall and Oats (one of my FAVORITE bands!!) and had a blast! They were so much fun, and they played some seriously jazzy rifts. It even rained a bit, but nothing could dampen our fun that night!!

The opening band taking the stage!
The opening band taking the stage!

The next morning, we were relaxing by the lake when we got a phone call. My husband’s mother, who lives in Florida, was being transported to the hospital after having a heart attack. It was a total shock – we had not expected this type of news. She didn’t have any heart problems – she was perfectly healthy! We were frantic, making tons of phone calls, trying to gather what exactly was going on and let family know the details. An hour later, my husband got the worst call. His mother had passed away.

In an hour, our lives had melted. One hour. That’s all it took to change our lives forever. One minute, we were on top of the world with my good news, and in the next, we hit a huge low with a beautiful soul now missing from this world.

Shock. Anger. Grief. I went though every emotion possible. How is this fair? How is it that we have to endure such hardships? Why her? Why not me? Why does my poor husband keep getting beat up with everyone he loves being knocked down?

No matter how many times I ask these questions, there is no answer. My mother-in-law was a very loving, spiritual lady. And I now find comfort in her beliefs that things happen for a reason. No matter how much her passing pains me, everything happens for a reason. There is no answer to the meaning of life. Life is frustrating, beautiful, and mysterious all at the same time. No matter how hard we try, no matter how much scientific testing we go through, life will always be a mystery.

This is yet another reminder to me that it is up to ME to make my life worthwhile. Life is short. None of us know when or where we will pass. Possessions are just things, but love is a memory no one can take away. Love as though this is your last day, everyday, and your loved ones will have something to remember you by.

“Love is the fuel of our physical and spiritual bodies” ~ Caroline Myss, Anatomy of the Spirit

Acceptance

WOW. What a summer! I know it has been forever since I have posted, and I’m truly sorry for not keeping everyone up-to-date.

This summer has been filled with LOTS of highs and lows. Lots. My second (and last) infusion of the Ipi/Nivo combo was in May, and holy moly did I have side effects after that infusion. Uncontrollable nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, crazy high liver enzymes, and generally lousy feeling. My weight dropped down to almost 100 lbs because I could’ve keep anything down. They stopped treatment and put me on steroids to get my liver enzymes under control.

While on steroids, I had lots of other (scary) side effects. I developed hand tremors, arm weakness, anxiety swings, heart palpitations, crazy sweating, and really felt like I was jumping out of my skin. We thought maybe my thyroid was being attacked by the immunotherapy. Endocrine labs and MRI all came back negative. So the team figured it must be the steroids, so we should wean at a decent pace.

Once I got off steroids, I felt great! I had gained my weight back and felt totally normal (still with a newly developed caffeine sensitivity, but I can deal with that!) I had my 3 month PET scan, and everything has shrunk dramatically!! WOOHOO!! I was on cloud nine!!

Frankie being embarrassed because he got caught snuggling with his teddy!
Frankie being embarrassed because he got caught snuggling with his teddy!

Then came the conversation with the oncologist…the dreaded “what is the game plan” conversation. I knew the great news that things were looking very positive, but now what? Everything I had read said that the next probable step would be to go back on Nivo alone as maintenance. So I was expecting the conversation to lead that direction.

And I was super surprised when it didn’t. My onc was incredibly honest when he said that my earlier steroid-induced symptoms seemed very much like a central nervous system autoimmune disorder, and he was afraid that if we go down the maintenance path, we could run into some serious side effects. I knew this was a possibility, but that’s when I realized it may be more of a reality, and my mindset changed. Having worked with neurosurgeons, I have also worked with neurologically impaired patients, and that’s a terrifying proposition. I might be cancer free, but at what cost? Will I be able to walk? Feed myself? Will the tremors come back and remain this time? When the side effects were at their peak, I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee without spilling it all over the place…would that remain permanent?

Yes, this is a big gamble. NOT doing maintenance doses might mean that my melanoma comes back, bigger and badder than ever. That’s a possibility. And I’m not taking that lightly…trust me, that’s on my mind during my sleepless nights. But I’ve decided to choose quality over quantity. I’d rather live independently, be able to do the things I love, and not go back to the side effects and the possibility that they remain permanent.

Perhaps I’m also following this path because I have accepted my melanoma diagnosis. I accept I will live a shorter life because the melanoma will come back at some point in time. These are the odds, plain and simple. I have told my husband, I’d be happy to get in another 15 years and make it to his retirement. Just last year I was handed a very poor outlook on 5 years, so 15 looks darn good to me. I’ve had some pretty bad side effects, and the side effects are way worse than the cancer itself…so why push the envelope, just to get rid of some possible crumbs of cancer still hanging out?

It truly is amazing, the ups and downs we go through with treatment. The “what-ifs” we face are truly daunting. I know it’s incredibly difficult, but acceptance of my diagnosis has really helped me face some very difficult decisions. We use words and phrases like “keep fighting” and “win the battle” with our diagnosis. I will always keep fighting for myself and for others, but I must ask you, have YOU fully accepted the consequences if you lose this fight? Every battle has a winner and a loser. There is no guarantee that a valiant fight will win the battle. I’ve accepted that moving forward is the only direction to go, so I will keep fighting, but I also know that my best efforts may not be enough. I’d rather fight melanoma on another date, at another time, than the possibility of more permanent side effects from keeping up the treatment. This battle, for now, has been won. But I know the war is not over.