Year One After Treatment

Year One After Treatment

Last week, I got the results from my latest PET/CT scan. According to my calendar, it was my 4th scan since the final round of immunotherapy last May.

It turned out to be lucky #4 because I heard the sweetest 3 letters anyone with cancer will ever hear:

N…E…D

No Evidence of Disease

No evidence that the stupid f*cking melanoma was ever there. None. My insides are “squeaky clean” according to my oncologist.

Holy hell, people! I can’t help but curse, I’m so f*cking happy!!

Me and my favorite person at the Miles for Melanoma event in Boston last year

A lot has happened in the past year since my treatment. I mean…like…a lot. Life keeps moving forward, with or without us, so it’s interesting to look back at the path I’ve chosen.

In the past year, these events top the list as the most important: stopped treatment early due to gastritis and borderline colitis, lost 20 pounds, went on steroids, had a nervous system reaction, lost my mother-in-law to a heart attack, interviewed like crazy and got 2 job offers, started a job as a traveler, and now my husband and I have decided to retire early so we’re in the process of buying a rental property.

Man – the last year of my life really makes my head spin. I’m only 33 and I feel like I’ve experienced enough to be twice that age.

OK, maybe not TWICE that age. I take it back 😉

But the last year was definitely tough. Going through treatment and then losing my mother-in-law so suddenly broke my heart. Here I was, really trying to keep my head above water with all the side effects of treatment, and then out of NOWHERE we lose a very dear family member. Losing her so suddenly made me realize EVERY day here on this earth is a blessing, side effects and all.

Life is short. Make the most of every day. Make the most of every year.

And that’s my plan. I’m working on kicking cancer’s ass – one year NED at a time.

Overcoming my Fear of the Sun

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, the fear is overwhelming. Fear of painful treatment, fear of the unknown, fear of death. Fear begins to creep in and take over your life. I know – I went through lots of tearful nights and inner turmoil. I wanted to be positive and my old, happy self; but how can you be happy with a gray cloud surrounding you?

After I was diagnosed with melanoma and came to terms with my fear of death, I still had another constant fear. I became terrified of the sun. Every dermatologist and every doctor uses the guilt-stick to beat skin cancer patients into avoiding the sun completely. “Wear sunscreen on a daily basis” “Don’t go outside in the middle of the day” “Avoid tanning and ABSOLUTELY avoid tanning beds” (the latter one I agree with, but the others are mostly fear-mongering).

As if my cancer fears weren’t crippling me enough, now I had to completely change my way of life. I started to super over-analyze the tiniest bit of sunshine as though the UV rays were my kryptonite.

I distinctly remember my tipping point. I was at an anesthesia conference in Orlando, Florida (PERFECT place for someone with melanoma, right?!?) and my entire group was hanging out by the pool. There they all were, in bathing suits, splashing around, having a grand-ol time socializing and sunning. And there I was, covered in sunscreen and almost all clothed, sunglasses and hat and all. The dark cloud in a room of sunshine.

I couldn’t have a good time. The entire scene was just terrifying to me. Every moment out in the sun just made me think more and more about how my life had changed. I was imagining all my moles bursting into melanomas, one by one, for every extra UV ray that was hitting my body.

After about 20 minutes, I went to my room and broke down.

That was my fear-tipping point. I knew I would never be the same, but I also knew it didn’t have to be THIS way, either.

I didn’t want to totally go hog-wild and go sun bathing or anything CRAZY like that. I just wanted to control my fear to be able to make the most of life. I absolutely did NOT want my life crippled by my fear.

So I used a little bit of mindfulness to change my thinking. Every time I was in the sun, I thought of all the good qualities it brings to earth. When I really got to thinking, skin cancer was the ONLY bad thing about the sun. The sun existed for eons before humans. It helped life form on this earth.

So during my walks, I would look at the daisies and say to myself “the sun helped give those life”. Or if I saw an amazing sunrise/sunset, I would give a little nod to the sun for creating such beauty. Even during grace, I would give a little mental thanks to the sun for nurturing the fruits and vegetables on my plate.

Consciously making the effort to bring the sun into my positive thinking was paramount to conquering my fear. It took time for me to begin to feel comfortable stepping outside without focusing on the kryptonite, but slowly it happened. It was not an overnight miracle. But slowly, using positive thinking and mindfulness, my mindset changed.

Slowly I became my thoughts; not the fearful ones…the positive ones.

As Tony Robbins (one of my personal favs) states “When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.” I took this mantra to heart – every…single…day – to conquer my fear of the sun.

And to this day, I’m happier because of it.

What are you fearful of? Have you ever used mindfulness to conquer YOUR fears? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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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