Career vs Cancer

Before cancer, I was a self-described work-a-holic. I moved from Georgia to Boston for work opportunities and then back down to Florida 3 years later for anesthesia school. I took on everything and anything that would advance my career, with a 60 hour work week becoming the norm.

Late nights, TONS of unmanaged stress, a poor diet and lack of sleep all began to creep into my daily life. My weekends and relax time became shorter and shorter. I found myself wishing for a different job, a different life that I could enjoy.

But I trudged on, thinking that this was what people did to get ahead in life.

My career was my life. It was my personality. It involved everything I stood for and everything I wanted (or THOUGHT I wanted) in my life.

In Santiago, Chile for a neurosurgery conference

But when I was diagnosed with cancer, I really had to rethink what I wanted in life. Do I want a career? Or do I want a life? I knew that it was a decision that would change the direction of my whole being. I had the chance to rewrite my future chapters before they got away from me.

And the most important question boiled down to this: Did I want to make a life or make a living?

I knew that if I dedicated the same amount of time and energy to fighting my disease as I did to my career, I’d win the fight. I’d been a work-a-holic, and that took time and dedication. If I switched that time and dedication over to fighting cancer, how could I NOT win?

It became a clear decision for me – I quit my career to fight my disease full-time.

This decision wasn’t easy. But for me, it was the best decision I could make for my health. I dedicated my time to a healthy diet, yoga, meditation, and researching everything I could on the immune system, cancer, and holistic health.

I’ve never looked back.

Once I was through treatment and had a clean set of scans, I began to think about work again. What did I want in a career? This diagnosis had changed my life, my mindset and my future. I wanted a career that was rewarding, but I needed it to work with my new way of life and my new normal.

On a mission trip in 2007

I didn’t want to go back to the life I had before cancer. My “career before self” mentality had passed. I chose to make a life rather than a living when going back to work.

Perhaps this is what people mean when they say they want a “work life balance”. Balance is a choice – you have to mentally decide what you want in life. Cancer forced me to make a lot of tough choices, and my choice in career was one of them.

After cancer, you have the ability to rewrite your future. There’s something about looking at death that makes you reevaluate life.

Do what you love, make life worth living, and create your own happiness.

Journaling with Cancer

I often talk about the stress and the mental battle I went through with my melanoma diagnosis. Being diagnosed with cancer is INCREDIBLY stressful – nothing else compares, really – and it forces you to reevaluate your life. At the ripe old age of 31, I was trying to come to grips with all of life’s deepest questions. Why me? How did this happen? When all this is over, what do I want out of life? How is this going to change me? Am I living a life worth living?

My head would spin with questions every night, and instead of sleeping, the worry would take over. I knew my thoughts weren’t helping my mindset. I needed an outlet to clear my head.

I didn’t want to go to a shrink, though. I mean who does?? I’m not having suicidal thoughts and I’m not on the verge of breaking down. If my family found out, they would think that I wasn’t handling it well, and THAT would be a whole other stress-inducing problem. I just needed to vent.

So I started to write.

I started this blog as a journal. I started a garden journal. I started a ‘journal’ journal. And I started to write every chance I got.

It was such a relief to get allllll those thoughts out of my head. Writing them down seemed like instantly unloading all my crazy thoughts onto the paper – like cutting and pasting them from my head to the journal. It became my external hard drive, where my all my deepest thoughts were safe and sound.

Don’t know where to start? More info to come!

And slowly my mind felt more clear. I felt as though I could really face the day without those constant fears chirping in my head. My therapist became my journal – I could openly examine my thoughts and writing them down made me accept my own point of view more freely. My goals and aspirations became clearer. It was like venting to my best friend that would never tell another soul about what I had complained about that day.

You may think “this journaling stuff is only for teenagers to relieve their emotional angst”. Heck, when I started I thought it would save me the trouble of seeing a mental health professional. In researching the effects of journaling, however, I discovered it’s a lot more than both these things.

Journaling has been a habit of highly successful people for ages. Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, and Oprah, just to name a few. Journaling their thoughts, ideas, dreams, and daily goals has helped them all attain amazing lives.

And my goal is to have an amazing life. I want to make my life worth living. Every day is a blessing, and keeping a journal is a way for me to reflect on what I have, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

Do you keep a journal? How does it help you? Let me know in the comments!

The Mental Health Crisis in America

Mental health is one of the few places the medical field has absolutely FAILED in the US. And when I say failed, I mean failed with a big fat ‘F’. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, exit stage left kind of fail.

The numbers don’t lie. The statistics of how we’ve failed, and continue to do so, are staggering. Over half of American adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, even to this day. Teenage depression rates are rising. 43.7 million Americans struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder, which is over 18% of the population. These numbers even EXCLUDE developmental disorders and over 8% of adults in America who report having a substance or alcohol problem!

How can this BE? We’re in 2017, people! We can’t IGNORE over a quarter of the population!

We HAVE GOT to do better at helping those with mental health problems. Not tomorrow – TODAY!

This really hit home for me in a one-two punch. My friend’s brother, who had been struggling with depression, committed suicide. The following year, I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t really soak in the hardship of my friend’s loss until I saw myself in a similar boat – struggling to keep myself afloat mentally and physically.

Mental health problems can affect any one of us. Our friends, our family, and ourselves. Just like breaking a leg or having cancer, treatment SHOULD be available to everyone. For any reason.

But it’s not.

No matter how you slice it, millions of Americans struggle with mental health…every….single….day.

You can find many more statistics and resources at http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

I found myself struggling with anxiety and depression after my diagnosis. I couldn’t accept that cancer could happen to me. I became terrified of the sun’s UV “death rays” and scared of being in the sun (see my post about conquering that fear here). My entire career has been in healthcare, but I developed “white coat syndrome” – it’s a real thing – where before every appointment or scan, I would sit in the waiting room, sweating profusely with my blood pressure and heart rate skyrocketing. My dread and anxiety when seeing the doctor became the norm.

Does this sound familiar?

When I finally decided to take control of my thoughts and emotions, things slowly became better. I decided that cancer may take my body, but I wouldn’t let it take my soul. I became stronger mentally and started to bail out the sinking ship to weather the storm. I did this through mind-body connection methods such as mindfulness meditation and journaling that I discuss in this blog.

Many people can do this same thing and eventually bail themselves out. Many others, however, need professional help to lead them in the right direction through the storm.

BOTH methods towards mental health simply DO NOT have enough support out there. Those who want to take control of their thoughts on their own don’t have enough support. And those who need professional help don’t have easy access to professionals.

We HAVE GOT to help each other and ourselves. We need to acknowledge that America needs better access to mental health services. Ignoring this problem won’t make it go away. And every day, more and more people are struggling.

Mental health doesn’t have to be this way. If you see someone struggling, don’t ignore the symptoms. If you need help, please reach out. Anxiety, depression, anger, and fear don’t have to be a daily part of your life.

Let’s admit America has a mental health problem.

Because as the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem.

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!

 

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