From patient to survivor

This is going to be an interesting transition.  

For the past five months I have been a cancer patient.  I’ve been treated for advanced stage colon cancer with various heavy duty chemo drugs, been poked, prodded, squeezed, examined, had blood drawn about 20 times, been given steroids, various anti nausea meds, vitamins, etc.  I am currently  20 doses (10 days) of oral meds away from officially completing my chemo treatment.  I haven’t been deemed “in remission” yet.  But hopefully my scan a month from now will indicate that I am.  
Then what?

It’s easy to acquire an identity from something like this.  My oncologist calls me a trouper, says I’m tough.  My physician’s assistant calls me “the poster child.”  Cancer fighter, chemo girl, positive attitude lady, fearless patient, cancer “victim” etc.  So when you are in the formidable position to graduate to “remission” your identity may actually go through a crisis.
You may go through a crisis from the sudden lack of attention you became accustomed to.  Empty mail boxes suck!   
You may not remember how to tackle all of the responsibilities you have to re-encumber yourself with.  Hmmm, how does this here dishwasher work, again? 
You may have gotten used to playing “the cancer card.”  Best excuse ever for skipping the bane of my existence: baby/bridal showers and children’s birthday parties!  
You may feel lost without the constant stream of visitors and flowers.  Do people still love me?  Do they know it’s still hard and scary?  I’m not just suddenly magically better – these side effects linger like an unwanted guest, and might not ever leave!  
You may have become comfortable with living day to day and eschewed making long term future plans.  Maybe that 401k doesn’t look so useless all of a sudden.  You may balk at the idea that you have to think beyond life with cancer having a lead role.  You go from writing Wills and bucket lists to making grocery lists and weight loss goals.
Cancer can give you a strong identity and when cancer leaves, an identity crisis may present itself.  Who am I now, without the clear and present danger of cancer?  Do I go from being a cancer warrior to a cancer scout?  A hunter of sorts?  A constant fearer of its return? Do I think the best and believe it’s gone forever?  That God has healed me? That I kicked its ass for good?  Or watch for it at every turn? 
Do I freak at every twinge, bump, lump and pinch?  Do I live fully grateful for each moment?  Or fear the worst?  
Who am I after cancer?  Knowing it could come back?  Knowing I could have to do all of this again?  
An identity crisis seems nearly inevitable.  
Here’s why it isn’t.
I’ve approached this fight from a singular perspective – as a child of God, loved and accepted because of Christ’s sacrifice.  I’m God’s kid.  He works all things for my good.  The cancer.  The chemo.  The (hopefully) remission.  
My identity can’t be shaken because it is derived from my relationship to the one thing that is unchanging.  I can be beaten and blown by the wind, of course.  I can forget my identity at times.  But by reminding myself of who I really am, listening for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, and surrounding myself with mature, similarly weathered followers of Christ who remind me when I forget…that’s how I stay anchored.  That’s why I’m not confused about who I am now.  
I’m lying in bed, toughing out what I hope and pray will be the last day I ever have like this.  A tired, ouchie, prickly, lonely day where I both wish for company and cringe at the thought of it.  I’m over this crappy way of spending weekends.  And yet, I’m at peace.  I’m grateful.  I’m amazed at God’s mercies.  I’m smiling because Jesus has been in this fire with me the whole time.  We know, that those who follow Christ will suffer.  But we will never suffer alone.  Sometimes it’s been just me and Jesus.  But many times you’ve been his hands and feet.  I don’t have photos of nearly everyone who has helped me through.  But here’s a nice sample. 

Last chemo coming up

My last scheduled chemo is on Thursday.  I will have two weeks of chemo pills after that so we aren’t really done until about ten days into April.  But the end is near.  Mostly I’m excited.  And happy I’ve made it through with my hair and most of my sanity.  

I’m a little…cautious?  I guess because I know cancer can seem gone when it’s really not, and can come back unexpectedly with a vengeance.  I’m also concerned about this pesky neuropathy that doesn’t want to go away.  (It could take a while to disappear or it might not go away at all.)  
I’m grateful.  For what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, how I’ve been loved and supported.  I have a little army of Team Jessi and man, are they good people.  The encouragers, the gift givers, the child watchers, the prayer warriors, the care givers, the make-me-laughers.  I’m grateful for the chance to know suffering can bend me but not break me, because I have Jesus.  For the wisdom that comes from having slugged one’s way through Real Problems.  For the experience of looking death straight in the eye and learning how to face the possibility with something besides straight up fear.  For the unique equipping to support others who are struggling with Real Problems.  For the natural correction of my perspective.  (Basically a crash course in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.)  Cancer has made me braver.  You can’t buy that anywhere, you know.  
It’s not over yet.  In some ways, it will never be, because we can’t quite go back to life as we knew it before cancer.  I’m different now, life is different now.  But this particular chapter is coming to a close.  

I’m up for the next one, whatever it is.  I’m hoping it has more fun and fewer copays.  More calm and less medicine.  More energy and less nausea.  More levity and fewer tears.  
I’m not looking forward to this last treatment.  But it must be done.  Prayers for a quick recovery and clean scans from here on out are appreciated.  While the outcome of treatment will unfold over time, and there are still some unknowns, we have much to celebrate.  Much.

Should I have a Will?

Yes.  You should.  Plain and simple.

Do you want the government to get a big chunk of your assets?  Do you want your relatives fighting over your stuff, your money or your children?  Do you want there to be financial and relational chaos in the wake of your departure of this world on top of the emotional mess that’s inevitable?  If not – bite the bullet, invest a little money, make a few tough, morbid decisions and be done with it.  
While you’re at it, make some end of life health decisions, too.  Do you want to be buried, cremated or have a Viking funeral?  Heh-heh.  I think that’s illegal.  But seriously, do you want your body donated to science?  Do you want to live in a vegetative state for 20 years or have that plug pulled so you can go toward the proverbial light?  
Imagine the shock and grief involved if you’re in the hospital, at the bedside of a loved one who had an unfortunate accident, and you have to decide whether or not to “pull the plug.”  Pretty stressful, right?  Wouldn’t it be easier if you had a handy document that outlined exactly what that person wanted?  Now put yourself in the hospital bed.  Don’t you want to make that horrible situation a little less heart wrenching for your family?
What about your kids?  Who will they go to in the tragic and very unlikely event of your spouse and you dying simultaneously?  
Yes, it is hard to think about these things.  I hated imagining my life without me in such a concrete way.  And if we’re honest, maybe a little part of us feels like if we write a Will, we’ll die the next day.  Let’s deal with that one right there.  There is no cause/effect relationship here, I promise.  It’s understandable, kind of, but totally irrational.  
Another reason people avoid doing this is they say “I don’t have anything – I’m not rich.”  While that’s the case for most of us, you probably do have some things – antique hand me downs, a car, a life insurance policy, a 401k.  Plus you should certainly clarify your wishes about what is to be done with your body, your pets and your children.  
I have cancer.  So that lit a fire under our arses.  But really, we should have done this years ago. And so should you.  After having gone through the process with a kind, skilled attorney, I feel relieved.  If I’m driving down the highway and a semi veers into my lane, my last thought can be something more poetic than “Oh, $hit, I should have gotten that Will done.”

Nutrition and cancer

Let’s start with one thing. I am not a doctor. I am also not a nutritionist, a dietitian, or an expert of any kind on the topic of cancer and diet.  So I’m not trying to tell you what to eat or what products to use or not use if you have cancer.  What I am doing is sharing what I have decided to do, after concluding that diet may affect cancer, speaking to two dietitians, a nutritionist, numerous cancer survivors and my doctor, and reading a crapload of books and blogs and such on the topic.  

A lot of what I say here comes from the above books, especially the Anti-Cancer Lifestyle.  I found it to be practical and balanced.  
This is what I’m thinking and what I’m doing.  Not a recommendation, necessarily.  Some people would never give up some of the things I’ve given up and some people will think I’m not strict enough.  To some people this is shocking info and to some it’s familiar and almost common sense.  I’m not trying to be critical or directive.  It’s just, well, food for thought.  
Some interesting info:
Cancer rates have increased sharply since 1940.  Here are some other things that have happened since then:
Huge increase in refined sugar in our diets – In the 1800s sugar was a rare treat.  Today the average western diet contains 154 pounds of refined sugar per year (!!!). That is cuh-razay.  And gross.  
Changes in farming, therefore changes to our food (factory farming.  Cows used to eat grass on farms.  A natural food rich in omega-3 fatty acids (the good kind.)  increase in demand has led to farmers taking shortcuts.  Now cows eat corn and soy and wheat.  These have omega-6 fatty acids (the bad kind.)  So your beef and milk has fatty acids that prompt inflammation, instead of the fatty acids that reduce inflammation.  Inflammation is widely acknowledged as a pre-cursor to cancer.  
Introduction of processed foods and trans fats.  Hydrogenated oils like vegetable oil are omega-6 oils.  They are in most pre-packaged foods currently but did not exist prior to WWII.
Exposure to chemicals that did not exist prior to 1940.  (100,000+ chemicals released by industry since then.) Flame retardants, pesticides, dyes, detergents, etc. One 1995 study tested a representative sample of the approx 75,000 substances on the market at that time and concluded that 5-10% should be considered “carcinogens.”  From dry cleaning, to household cleaners to shampoo – there’s some icky stuff out there.  
So.  What to do???  It’s overwhelming.  I know.  But here is what I am doing in response to the information I have gathered.
I avoid refined sugar as much as I can without going crazy.  My mom is making a chocolate cake tonight and I will probably eat some.  I received some Belgium truffles and you know I went to town on those.  But I do not mindlessly pick at candy, cookies or put sugar in anything.  I use agave for things like salad dressings and if I were to bake I would use coconut sugar. I buy products like jam with no added sugar.  Artificial sweeteners are basically poison so I don’t use those at all.  Stevia is natural but I think it’s gross so I don’t use it.
I primarily eat only organic meat and animal products.  I’ve cut out milk, creamer and butter and use almond milk, soy cream and an olive oil product instead.  I very rarely eat red meat now.  Special occasions only (like corned beef for St. Patty’s day!)  i typically do not eat meat for breakfast or lunch and even try to make those two meals vegan as often as I conveniently can.  I cannot give up cheese – it’s just not happening.  But I have cut back on it and try to buy organic.  
I do not use oils except for olive oil for salads and coconut oil for cooking.  I do not buy very many pre-packaged, processed foods.  The only frozen things I buy are fish, veggies and an occasional ice cream related treat.  
I do not microwave anything plastic.  
I avoid most heavy duty cleansers.  I replace with Method or Meyers brand or plain white vinegar.  
I only use regular anti-perspirant if I’m doing something physical with others out of courtesy, lol.  I use a natural deodorant otherwise.  
I’m slowly switching my body products and cosmetics over to organic.  I do not use dry cleaning.  
So that’s mostly stuff I DON’T do.  Here’s what I DO do.
I primarily buy organic produce although items with a tough outer skin like pineapple or oranges I don’t worry about as much.  I eat a LOT of green things: kale, spinach, cukes, chard, arugula, etc.  these contain cancer fighting anti oxidants.
Other anti-cancer foods:
Sweet potatoes
Whole grain bread, pasta
Green tea
Red wine (woohoo!)
Filtered/bottled water (never leave bottles in the car/sun!)
I get as much physical activity as I can.  Chemo had made this hard.  But exercise fights cancer!  The more, the better.  
I am working on addressing my stress levels.  Stress feeds cancer.  Prayer, yoga, meditation, the Spa station on Sirius/XM.
This is in no way comprehensive.  There are theories about wheat, gluten and carbs.  Theories about diets being too acidic and the need for a more alkaline diet.  Many people say zero animal products is the way to go.  Some say more meat, but no grains.  Some say cell phones and all of the electronics are a factor.  I do some things in response to those theories but I haven’t bought fully in to any of them.  
I hope this was helpful or at least interesting.  Thanks for reading.

Chugging along

This week has been tough.   I think I’m getting impatient.  The end of my 8 cycles of chemo nears so I’m just ready to be done!  

I was inspired by the beautiful weather yesterday, so I decided to go for it with the run/walk.  A quarter-mile into my journey I realize that the cool air, though much warmer than it has been recently, was still really rough on my nose/throat.  It’s the strangest feeling. It’s 50° outside and it feels like I’m breathing in Arctic ice winds. It hurts.  It makes me feel like I have athsma. My hands went numb.  Then my feet.  Crap, I thought.  I felt nervous.  And a little scared.   I was jogging on a loop around my neighborhood and I was getting close to the halfway point, so there was really no turning back.  I thought about how silly it would be to call someone to come and get me.  Pride won out.  So, forward I went.  Every step was awful.  I cried a little bit, to be honest.  
I would like to tell you that I got home and felt great.  Invigorated.  Proud of myself.  In reality, I felt sick.  Really sick.  I overdid it.  I asked too much of my body.  And it frustrated me greatly.  A little over a mile and half did me in.  Dammit.  It sounds ridiculous!  I don’t want that.  I don’t want to be limited by this anymore.  I want my body and it’s energy back.  
I collapsed on my couch, feeling nauseous and defeated.  24 hours later, I’m still not fully recovered.  I feel all prickly and weird and sick.  And I’m torn, emotionally.  I want to kick this thing so hard in the ass.  I want to stand up to cancer and fight it down into the dirt.  I want to believe that nothing can get in my way.  I’m supposed to be Wonder Woman, right?
But part of strength and wisdom is knowing your limits.  Part of confidence is having the humility to grasp that you are vulnerable, imperfect and, in my case, not in top athletic condition.  
My lessons so far have primarily been about discovering my strength, my ability to weather this awful storm, to march forward, to shoulder a heavy burden and somehow keep going.  Frankly, I’ve amazed myself on more than a few occasions in little ways like keeping my head in the game through a three hour meeting while suppressing the urge to vomit.  Or getting out of bed to spend time with my kiddo.  
But yesterday, even though I completed my goal, I bumped up against a limit.  A wall.  I don’t like it.  It’s in my freaking way and I have shit to do.  But it’s there.  That’s reality.  
And I’m still me.  I’m still a warrior.  God is still on His throne.  Even if I have to limp around the wall instead of leap gracefully over it.

Tragic loss

This week, a 14 year old girl I watched grow up was hit by a truck and killed.  Alyson was the big sister to triplet siblings and daughter to a widowed mom.  My heart breaks for this family, who lost their father, years ago, to a car accident just a few months after the triplets were born.  

What is there to say in the midst of such sorrow? Such loss?  
Well, there is plenty to say.  But anything helpful?  Anything that peels back the heavy, black, dusty curtain of grief to reveal God’s goodness and glory?  
The only thing that has ever given me that tiny peek into the light in times such as these is this:  losing a child is very likely the very worst pain.  The deepest loss.  The most hopeless emptiness.  The kind of emotional hurt that turns physical.  Dark.  All consuming.  
But.  God’s been there.  He knows.  He watched His only son die on the cross.  He had all the power in the world to rescue Jesus.  But He let him go.  
And He did it for us.  He could have extended grace and mercy to us any number of ways.  But I find it incredible that along with that forgiveness, He chose an act that would communicate so much. That He would do anything for us.  That He would suffer for us.  That it could never be said that God doesn’t know our pain.  Even the very worst sorrow we can imagine.  
It doesn’t fix it.  This truth doesn’t take away the hurt.  But it is no small thing to know we are not alone in our suffering.  

No regrets

Years ago, in my family, we started using the term “no regrets.”  Basically, we all kind of came around to the idea that when someone is dying, you should be able to, shall we say, send them off to greener pastures, without obsessing over how we should have spent more time with them, been kinder to them, been more understanding or generous.  

Basically – do the right thing now so you won’t regret not doing it later.  This began in my mid teens and it has really stuck with me.  I really do make an effort to engage with others in a way that I won’t later regret.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have conflict – I have plenty of that.  And I fall short at this when stressed or tired.  But I do seek to take time, to make peace, to be generous with my words, to make sure people know what they mean to me.  I’m not great at this, but I make a real effort.  Sometimes I want to hold a grudge or ignore a need or pretend I didn’t see the “missed call” on my phone.  But a common prayer of mine is that I would put the needs and interests of others above my own.  Because regrets suck.  
My friend and coworker whose wise and encouraging words can be read here: recently quoted some famous leader as saying you should greet people and spend time with them as if it’s the first time getting to know them and part ways as though it’s the last time.  I never thought of it quite that way before but that’s a helpful thing to consider and put into practice.  

Sports people say something like “leave it all on the field.”  I think it’s a Vince Lombardi quote.  I say do that with life and especially relationships.  

We all know the drama queens who, when someone dies, they sob and shake their fists and wail and say stuff like “I never told him I loved/forgive/appreciate him!”  Ew.  What a terrible way to live.
Relationships are hard.  Loving people is risky.  You’ll get hurt.  You’ll be disappointed.  But when you give up, check out, or lock the door on a relationship that doesn’t truly warrant it (yes, there are times to lock the door and throw away the key – abusers, for example) you’re setting yourself up for regret.  You can ignore that family member who is a little draining.  You can skip the hospital visit, the 80th birthday, the driveway across the street you know you should shovel. You can find 100 excuses.  But those excuses are the breeding ground for self-centeredness.  And self-centeredness, if left unchecked, will end in regret.  
So, a reminder to myself and anyone who doesn’t want to be at the funeral feeling like a jagoff:  
Send the flowers
Write the note
Forgive the offense
Express appreciation
Give grace
Play Scrabble
Give the foot rub
Bake the cookies
Accept the apology
Say thank you
Point out the talent
Give the hug
Erase the debt
Hold the hand
Mend the fence
Say sorry
Leave it all on the field.