A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Another Survivor's Viewpoint

The following post is by a friend, who battled lung cancer last year.

While My Shoes collected Dust . . .

Anyone who knows me knows I have an intense love of shoes…some would call it a shoe fetish.

I like to think of them as essential items of clothing--as necessary as blouses, sweaters, dresses or pants. The difference is women’s shoes are a strong expression of an individual’s personality in a way that clothes don’t always equal. (Don’t get me wrong, I love clothes, too.) So, I shopped the shoe departments anywhere I could, regardless of whether there was a great sale or not.

I recently discovered something my husband had said was pitifully true—my shoes had collected dust!

Neatly arranged in our spacious walk-in closet, my shoes sat two by two with a fine layer of visible dust on all of them. That’s when the full impact of it hit me--the “it” being the unexpected and intense ordeal of my year-long battle with cancer, including months in the hospital and then months at home recovering baby-step by baby-step.

My journey isn’t about my shoes, but they are indeed a metaphor for leaving the way of life as I knew it.

I’ve learned a lot of wonderful and surprising things along the way about myself, my husband, our families, friends and the human spirit. While the shoes in a closet might get dusty, human kindness, care, concern and love never do.

I’ve discovered that everything I’d been taught about what was important in life is true. Not that I didn’t believe it, but I hadn’t “lived” it so completely before. You believe that accidents and/or complications from illnesses are something that happens to other people…certainly, not to you or the ones you love.

Well, guess what? Not true. And if you’re the “one” it happens to, to say that you question everything you’ve ever learned about life is an understatement.

On my first trip to a mall (shoe department), when I tried on a great pair of edgy flats in a metallic color, my husband voted them out and insisted I buy the red ones. Red flats? Red wasn’t me. But when a stranger who was trying on shoes next to me agreed with my husband, I ended up buying both pairs.

New shoes mean you have new places to go and new things to do. They signified my return to life as I knew it when the concerns of the day were mundane ones. There’s one big difference though: nothing will ever be mundane again. Nothing.

When you realize that all of us take much of our lives for granted, that realization takes you to a different place. I wanted to put up billboards asking people to take a long, slow look at their lives. But, if I had seen such a billboard, would I have paid attention to it? Probably not. So, what’s my point? To inhale life deeply, joyfully and slowly.

This Spring, I’m going to put on those red shoes and let them take me into my new future. I won’t have any preconceived expectations about what it’ll be or where it’ll take me. I’ll smile at things that used to make me frown and embrace problems that used to make me run. I now know what “the bottom” looks like--and it isn’t pretty. It comes unexpectedly and, like a roller coaster, when it comes, you’d better hold on for dear life.

All of us know that in times of trouble you find out who stands with you, beside you and for you. You also find out who doesn’t. Finding out who doesn’t, was one of the many things that for a long time, I wished I hadn’t learned. But, I came to understand that finding out who you can’t count on is of equal importance as finding out whom you can.
And, while that may sound negative, it isn’t. It gives one the freedom to weed your personal garden and focus on new plantings. You view your commitment to friends in a new light, and you find yourself promising to nurture and care for them with the better understanding you have now. True friendship takes on such a different meaning.

You realize you are walking in new shoes on a different journey--and it’s a second chance. After all, how many people gain a lifetime of experiences ---- both good and bad---- in a single year’s time?
I incessantly asked the questions: “Why me? Why now? Why this?” And, it’s taken more time that I care to admit, but finally, I discovered the reason for this experience isn’t what’s important.

I started to look at all of the things I hadn’t lost as opposed to what I had.

I had to look at what I faced now, and found myself looking at a big, open blank book. One that was waiting to be filled with steps of the journey: stories, drawings, sketches, jokes, diary entries and/or anything that came to mind or came along. You’d think that it would be very exciting for a creative person like me but it was not only daunting, it was downright frightening.

I’d always had a script for my life and I’d followed it to the last detail. What do you do without your script? No one told me that my story might need a major rewrite midway through.

Realizing that fact left me suffering from the ultimate creative block. I couldn’t focus or concentrate on the very things that used to propel me forward, so how on earth was I supposed to develop that new script?

Where you do start and how do you begin? I figured a good place to start was to make a list of what I had deemed important. Next, to reflect on how my life had changed. Then, I created a second list, detailing what mattered now. That would require some serious soul-searching.

I spent long hours thinking about what I used to value. First, was my good health. Well, so much for that.

Next was my career. I had a successful one by all measures, and one I worked very hard to develop. I’d never thought about leaving my career. Now, I could scratch that off the list as well.

Tackling my second list, I realized the most important thing on both lists was my husband. Next, was the amazing support we had around us. We had no concept of how many people would come to our side. It was mind-boggling. My husband and I found out this past year that we’re only as strong as the people in our lives.

Another important discovery through my illness was the wonderful new people who came into our lives—people we’d never have met any other way and now are like family to us.

It taught me that you never know who’s looking up to you for whatever reason. Your attitude and actions can have such an impact and, often, you don’t even know it. The thoughtfulness and laughter they brought was infectious and helped heal us. They showed us by example how you can help to restore life to the living.

One of our favorite phrases now is it was one of the worst ways in the world to meet some of the most wonderful people.

I also thought about my second “career.” What shoes did its journey call for? As I began to heal physically, I became impatient over the next phase of my life. As I’d always done, I felt the urgency for a new script right away. Right now and right here. I expected myself to come up with instant answers. Wouldn’t it be convenient if life worked like that? But, a life journey takes planning, time and work, so I knew no instant answers were available.

I wish I could tell you how this new journey will unfold, but I can’t even tell myself. What I do know is that day in the shoe department, when I purchased not only the metallic pair—but the red ones as well—was a turning point for me. To try something new. And I’m going to make sure my new shoes don’t collect any dust.

A Survivor's Advice

After reading your blog, I want to tell you that thoughts of death hover for a long time after cancer/surgery, etc.

After my mastectomy, I had visions of my own funeral forever it seemed -- whenever anything would remind me of my vulnerability -- and there are lots of reminders out there.

Your last blog spoke to me and brought that all back. I want to encourage you that it does pass, so, hooray for stepping off the bandwagon for awhile.

It takes more courage to say no to things than to say yes for those of us raised as people-pleasers and blessed with talents that make that possible.

Your Friend

What I'm Giving Up for Lent

I’ve realized that I’ve been following the “live today since I may not have tomorrow” creed these days. This has translated into me cramming a year’s worth of life into each day. To be honest, I've always lived this way -- going “90 to nothing” and then collapsing. But now that I've had cancer and the constant threat of death hovering over, I’ve accelerated this mindset & lifestyle to burn-out.

My vulnerability of wanting to be loved (make that adored) and significant are what drive me to exhaustion. I try to be the perfect daughter, niece, wife, friend, coworker. Can't say that I actually achieve that, but, boy, do I try!

So, I’ve taken my minister’s sermon yesterday to heart. While others are giving up addictions like chocolate, or bad habits like texting while driving, I've decided to give up my calendar.

For the next 40 days, I'm going to live each day at a time rather than pencil in activities and commitments for two months out. I'm going to spend time in my wilderness with God – reading, journaling, meditating…having my spirit refreshed & renewed. By the way, my minister pointed out that “Lent” means “spring.” I never knew that!

It’s not to say that I won’t get together with friends, but it does mean that I’m not going to make a single commitment in advance. I don’t intend this to be my way of operating from now on – but just for Lent, I’m going to slow down, not overcommit, and listen to His voice instead of all my fears.