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    I always look twice when I see a woman with very short hair.  I wonder….

    When I was wearing my bucket hat with the “cancer sucks” button on it, I was occasionally approached by survivors who wanted to encourage me.  I appreciated that every time, especially the ones who had finished with treatments some time before who looked healthy and well.  When I’m in an environment where I know it’s ok, I do that as well and it is well received.

    When it seems so but I’m not sure, I don’t ask but I want to.  I want to know if she’s part of the been to planet cancer club.  I’m not sure why I want to know but I do.

    The cancer experience changed me irrevocably.  I would not have chosen such a method to create such deep change, but my life is very different and much better.  People sometimes ask me if I am glad it happened.  If I had a guarantee that it wouldn’t bite me again, my answer would be an unequivocal yes, even though I am missing an appendage and wear a compression sleeve on my left arm.

    It is so hard to explain how this is so to people who haven’t had to face it, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

    That handsome woman there with the chic, outrageous short hair might just be another member of the club I never wanted to join, and she might not…

    I guess I’ll never know.

    Is it yours?  Is it your family’s?  Does it belong to your kids, your job, your partner, is it hostage to dreams you have tucked away for the future until you could ransom them?  Do you value it?  Why?

    When I was diagnosed with IBC in 2007, my life had become unbearably stressful.  I was overwhelmed by the fallout of a horrible divorce, I was struggling to make ends meet, my children were hurting, and I came perilously close to losing my job which had been a labor of love for many years.  When the doctor who did my ultrasound and biopsy told me “this is very possibly a cancer”, my first thought was

    Oh no.  My poor children.  No.  This can’t be happening.

    I knew I had to survive for them.  Then I realized I had to survive for me.

    Four days later, I was at a restaurant waiting for my breakfast, passing time while my car was being serviced.  I got the call from Dr. Borofsky.  Yes, the mass in my breast and the lumps under my left arm were cancer.  I was sitting next to a couple having breakfast, and I tried not to call attention to myself.  After the call, my breakfast arrived.  I tried to eat it, but it tasted like sawdust.  As I was struggling with my breakfast, the couple got up to leave.

    The woman approached me and said,

    “Honey, you’re gonna be all right.”  I was speechless.  While I recovered, she continued.  I remember her face ever so clearly.  Big blue eyes boring into mine, red hair, her expression deadly earnest.

    “Do you have children?”  I nodded tearfully.

    “Well, this is their time to learn that you come first.  Nothing, and I mean nothing is more important than taking care of you right now.  Do you understand?”  by this time I was really crying.  She went on, “and when you get scared, you just feel around in you left back pocket, and I’ll be there, praying for you.”   I blubbered, “promise?”  and she did.  She meant it.  To this day I don’t know that woman’s name.  I never saw her again.  I will always be grateful to her.

    Later, my struggling seven year old daughter would tell me “ever since you got cancer, all you care about is yourself!”  That was hard, but self care for me was not negotiable.  If I gave my life away, how was I to love my life enough to tell my body to hold fast?  Whose life was I fighting for, if not for mine?

    It was tough at first.  I had to learn to pay attention to subtle signals from my heart and spirit about what I wanted to experience, what I wanted to do with the windows of strength and focus that I had.  Before my surgery, I painted my room purple so I would be enveloped in my favorite color while I recovered.  I rediscovered painting after decades of not even picking up a brush.  I made my Bay Area stage debut as the White Witch in “Narnia”.  I blogged on Caringbridge.  I accepted every offer of help I received, as a heart opening opportunity.  I went to my comedy improv class every Tuesday and laughed like a lunatic.  I made sure that even if I felt like crap, I saved some juice to sing my children their lullabies.

    Happiness and satisfaction made my body hum.  I chugged along through chemotherapy uneventfully without interruption, which was the goal.  Creating a life that fed my soul kept me engaged in doing everything I needed to do to get well.  Self care was not a task, it was love.  It was love for myself, love for the people who cared about me, love for my children, love for this beautiful world which I am still blessed to inhabit.

    Today my life looks very different.  I had been a professional full time massage therapist and teacher for nearly twenty years, and now I had a moderately gimpy left arm and not so much stamina.  So other things, things I loved, came to fill in the gap.  I provide massage for very ill pediatric inpatients at a children’s hospital, and I teach theater arts to children in an elementary school.   The art that began to emerge after my year of treatments was shown locally, and people actually bought prints!  I discovered through Caringbridge (which I highly recommend) that I loved blogging, so here I am blogging again!

    Having discovered who I’ve been hiding all these years, I brought her to light and my husband of just over a year found me.

    So, with all this ”me” focus, what happens to my kids?

    I laugh with them.  I nurture their dreams, and they get to see that I am nurturing mine.  I spend more time with them.  I do shows with my daughter.  My son just popped his head into my room and said something ridiculous, cracked me up, then left without a word.  I take them and their horde of friends to the beach.  When I have been taking care of myself, I have the patience of Job, which is quite an asset with a tween girl and a teenage boy.  Most of all I am still here, with them.

    That red headed woman was an angel.

    I just posted a blog about Inflammatory Breast Cancer.  Why?

    It’s a rare cancer, so it may not be relevant to a lot of people.  But for those who want to know, it is more than relevant, it is extremely important and unbelievably scary.  Why?

    Stinkin’ statistics!

    When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, it is tempting to look for hope in statistics.  The problem with that is that many statistics are irrelevant by the time they’re published.  Sometimes you’ll find different statistics in different places.  If the statistics are on your side, maybe it helps to look at them and maybe not.

    When I was waiting for my cancer diagnosis, my mom was going crazy on the internet, looking up all kinds of breast cancer and trying to second-guess her fear.  What I had sounded alarmingly like IBC.  She told me she said to herself, “oh please God, not that one!”  Everything she read about it sounded terrifying, the statistics not the least.  She didn’t tell me any of it.  When Dr. Brown gave me the diagnosis of Stage Three Inflammatory Breast Cancer, her tone of voice and facial expression told me it was breast cancer, period.  She told me that I had an aggressive cancer and that we would treat it aggressively, and she was optimistic because she was confident that I could handle the treatments.

    I responded to her optimism with my own.  I was very blessed to have her and the other amazing docs on my team taking care of me.  I didn’t know that I had the bogeyman of breast cancers until later, after  my “phenomenal” response to chemotherapy.

    So, if you or anyone you know is facing cancer, forget about statistics if they aren’t great.  If they are, so much the better.  Each of us gets to choose where to direct our energy, and for me the pursuit of my own happiness and well being was the most important task on earth in 2007.

    I still try to remember that. When Mama’s happy, everybody is happy!

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