Celebrating a herniated disc

“You are stable.” I have lived from scan to scan every 4-6 months hanging on those words for the past seven years. I even started to believe that things would stay that way. Although #scanxiety would creep in, it never really took hold for very long. I would tell friends “no news is good news” and when the phone didn’t ring I believed I had skated by for another 4-6 months.

But this past June I sat in the doctor’s office expecting to hear him say “You are stable.” Instead, I got the long face, you know the look the doctor gives you when he doesn’t have good news. Instead of hearing the words I wanted and expected to hear, he asked “how does your back feel?”

Funny thing was, my back felt fine. I didn’t have any pain. I was riding a high from the previous weekend when I had walked down a runway at Austin Art Bra, a fundraising event for the Breast Cancer Resource Center (BCRC) where all of the models are current or previous clients of the BCRC. I was one of two stage 4 clients that walked the runway.

The doctor shook his head and while looking down at the report, informed me that there was a new spot on my T9 (on my spine). Still looking at the report, he told me he thought this was “just a bump in the road”. After all, I have been on the same medication for seven years and it has kept me stable all this time.

You would think that living with stage 4 cancer it wouldn’t shock you to hear that something has changed. But 7 years has made me a little complacent.

I’m grateful that my oncologist does not like to overreact. Because this was just one small spot, he wanted to do a biopsy and then recommended radiation. Afterward, I would remain on the same medication and we would see if things changed on the next scan.

This all seemed like a great idea. After the biopsy, I had 10 rounds of radiation and finished in time to go on vacation to the beach. Biopsy – check. Radiation – check. Continue living and not worrying about cancer – check.

Then the end of summer came. This summer had been full of lots of things culminating with my oldest daughter being offered a job in South Carolina and moving within 2 weeks. Of course I agreed to drive out there with her. I wanted to see where my daughter is going to be living and a trip to South Carolina sounded fun.

But when I got home I could hardly walk due to pain in my back. Being the realistic optimist that I am, I figured I had finally hit my limit on everything I had done this summer. So I decided I needed to rest. Slowly, and I mean very slowly, my back started feeling a little better each day. But after a week and a half of still not moving very well, I decided it was time to mention this new pain to my oncologist.

Not surprisingly he wanted to do a scan. Actually an MRI. Which, if I’m honest, I expected him to do just that. Wednesday morning at 9 am I reported for my MRI. Another box checked. Afterward, I met a friend for a late breakfast and decided to put it out of my mind as much as possible until I heard from the doctor.

Thursday morning around 11 am, the phone finally rang. It was the nurse. Unfortunately, I was on the phone and couldn’t get the call before she left a message. As my heart was pounding, I pushed the play button on the message I was relieved to hear herniated disc with nerve compression – not related to metastatic disease. The complete message was 1:33 however all I heard was not metastatic progression!

My heart rate suddenly started to slow down to a normal rate as I heard the words “herniated disc. It’s not cancer.”

Grieving Widow is NOT my Identity

For J.R.s birthday this year, I planned a few fun things. I didn’t want to sit at home and brood, and I didn’t want it to go unacknowledged either.

The craziest thing I did was book a Discovery Flight with Genesis Aero in Georgetown. For me, it wasn’t just a flight to discover if I want to be a pilot (which would be AWESOME by the way), but it was also about rediscovering who Kim is before she puts on any other hats.

You know the hats I’m talking about: mom, daughter, sister, wife/widow, friend – but before I put on any of those hats I am KIM first.

Between cancer and grief, I have forgotten who Kim is as a person – not a cancer patient, not a wife or grieving widow, not a mom. What is it that makes Kim, well, Kim?

The Discovery Flight was about reclaiming my sense of adventure.

As I shared with friends about my discovery flight I began to notice a similar reaction from a lot of people (aside from the “are you really going to do that?”). Almost everyone asked if J.R. was a pilot or if that was HIS dream. Ummmm. NO! They did not understand that although I was doing this on his birthday, I was doing this for ME! And then they really thought I was crazy.

J.R. was not a pilot, although he liked playing simulation flying games, something most people didn’t know about him was he was terrified of heights. He was fine on a commercial flight, but I’m not sure how much he would have enjoyed the little Cessna I was co-piloting. This was NOT about him, but it was another way I continue to try to honor him – by rediscovering KIM.

Honestly, I was the one in the relationship that loved to do what he might have called “crazy” things. (If you know J.R. you can imagine how he probably did more crazy things before we met to last him a lifetime). I was the one who jumped off the cliffs in Italy. I am the one who wanted to try skydiving (although I never did get that done and I’m not sure the doctor would sign off on that now).

What’s next on the adventure horizon? I’m not sure yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if it includes scuba diving lessons or ziplining (don’t worry, you won’t be seeing any bungee jumping videos, I may be adventurous, but even I have my limits).

#BreastCancerAwarnessMonth – It’s not all about the Ribbons

It is October. It is #BreastCancerAwarenessMonth. It is the month where so many talk about survivors and fighters. It is the month where people say how strong you are because you have cancer, or you had cancer, or you are fighting cancer.

October – the month I dread

Pink Ribbons are everywhere. People wear shirts that say “We Fight Together” – I saw this one yesterday at a fair I was working for the Breast Cancer Resource Center.

The pink ribbons paint a pretty picture. How people show every day how strong they are. How they proudly talk about beating cancer.

Women put on a brave face and head to the infusion rooms. They show their bald heads while smiling holding onto a metal rod on rolling wheels that holds the chemo they are receiving.

What they don’t show is the women who have had to face the fear again. When the cancer comes back and has now spread to other parts of the body. In my case, to my bones. For others, it could be bones, liver, brain, etc.

There is no ribbon for the women who have to continually face treatment because of metastatic breast cancer. Every hour, every day, every month, and fingers crossed every year is #BreastCancerAwarness. We live, eat and breath every day of lives.

Today I got a tattoo.

No, it is not a pink ribbon. No, it does not have anything to do with cancer. It says “Be not afraid!”

It is a reminder to me to live life to the fullest every day and to trust God.

The fear of what will happen, or when the cancer will spread more or to different places is a daily struggle. Most of you don’t see that from me because I put on the “happy face”. Most importantly, during this Pinktober, I want to remind you that it is not always sunshine and rainbows, but I know God gives me the strength to continue, not Pink Ribbons.

 

Open to New Possibilities

I have been reading the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron with a few friends. It has been a slow going process. We don’t meet every week, in fact, it has taken us almost an entire year to get through 9 chapters. But what started as an exercise to help me “tell my story” has evolved into so much more.

I started this blog to tell my story. Then my husband got sick and it became our story (which it really was all along anyway). After 10 months, he passed away and I started writing a little more about grief and the healing process.

I’m excited to share with you that with the help of my Artist’s Way friends, and some other very unexpected events, I am working on a new project. I have been shown some new possibilities for a way to express what I have been wanting to share with the world (or at least with those who need to find hope when all else seems lost).

This new project is fiction, however, like most things people write about, it is based on things I have learned along the way through my cancer diagnosis, my husband’s cancer and death, and my journey of healing through grief.

I cannot express how excited I am about this new path that I feel is being laid before me.

I hope to share just a few gems along the way as I travel down this path.

Today’s gem came to me as I was doing a writing exercise exploring the antagonist- Grief.

Grief is a Bully. When you are in the midst of grief, it will butt in at the least opportune time and take control of a situation.

Move Forward vs. Move On

Have you ever felt stuck? Sometimes we get stuck and don’t even realize it.

We don’t know how to Move Forward.

A couple of weeks ago I realized I was feeling stuck and decided to sign up for a GriefShare group. My husband has been gone for 2 years and I was feeling like I was still stuck.

Two years later I am not as quick to break down in front of people, but I do still find myself occasionally wondering if I will ever feel like I’m getting on with life. (To those of you who know all the things I have done in the last 2 years that may sound strange because I don’t sit and wait for things to happen, but there are times when I feel like I do things because they are expected, or because I don’t want others to worry about me).

Last night I was watching the video at GriefShare and one comment resonated with me. I thought about it the rest of the evening and was still thinking about it this morning. Honestly, I can’t even tell you what the rest of the comments were, but what struck me was a comment about the difference between “moving on” vs “moving forward.”

The commentator talked about how “moving on” felt like you were leaving your loved one in the past. “Moving forward”, however, was not forgetting your loved one, but experiencing a new you. It is amazing how changing one word can give you a different perspective. If you have never been through grief, changing that one word may not sound like a big difference, but if you have experienced the loss of a loved one, you get it.

I was raised in the military. My dad was in the Army. Each month there would hold a “Hail and Farewell” at the officer’s club. In the military, people came and went all of the time. This gave everyone the chance to say hello to the newcomers and to say goodbye to those moving to their new post. As a child watching this and making the moves to new places, I realize that we “moved on”. I did not stay in contact with friends from elementary and/or middle school. Sure I tried with a couple of friends to stay in touch, but those did not last long. I did not form long-lasting attachments to friends because I never knew when the next “Hail and Farewell” would be and which one of us would be ‘moving on.’

I realized last night that I was afraid to ‘move on’ because I didn’t want my husband to be forgotten like the friends in my past. But as I listened to him describe ‘moving forward’ I knew I needed to change the vocabulary I was using. Moving forward does not mean forgetting the life we had. Instead, Moving Forward empowers me to allow myself to find joy and experience what life has to offer. He told me in his last letter to find a reason to smile every day- I think this was his way of telling me to move forward.

I am a different person because I had him in my life. I will forever be shaped by that love. And as I move forward, I can’t help but carry him with me because of the love we shared. I feel like I have just been shown how to move the gear shift from Neutral to Drive.

It will feel strange to shift into Drive, and there will be times that it may slip back into neutral, but knowing I can move forward will make it easier the next time to shift it back into Drive.

 

 

Lessons learned from swimming in the waves (of grief)

The waves of grief hit me (again) yesterday.

Last night I attended a visitation for a friend who was taken too soon from his family. Another life lost to cancer.

I shared a moment with the widow and told her to please call whenever she needed to vent, to cry, or just to have someone listen who might have the slightest understanding of what she is going through.

Last month was two years since I lost my husband to cancer. And although some days it still does not seem real, most days I have accepted this new life situation (I searched for another word, but after reading the definition “a set of circumstances in which one finds oneself” – situation seems to be the best word to convey my meaning).

As I left the visitation and started driving, I wondered what I would say to her if she calls. I started thinking about my trip to the ocean earlier this summer and how grief is much like the waves in the ocean.

When instructors are teaching swimmers how to swim in the ocean (a much different type of swimming than in a pool) some of the lessons they try to convey are:

  1. Stay in tune with the movement of the water.
  2. Adjust your breathing in unpredictable waves. When facing unpredictable waves, take a breath whenever you can, or hold your breath if you must.
  3. Keep up your momentum
  4. Dive under the big waves. Submerge your body until it passes.
  5. Don’t go alone, have help available in case of an emergency.

As I think about each of these lessons, I realize that this is how I have survived the past two years.

  1. Stay in tune – the calendar is the best way to stay in tune with the movement of grief. The first year there are so many predictable events that will bring about a heavy feeling of grief. Allow yourself the time and space to feel those and realize that the wave of grief will be coming at you during those times: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. When you know the wave is coming, it is ok to ride it out. Trying to fight it will only wear you out and you may get sucked under or swept away by a deeper undercurrent.
  2. Unpredictable waves – As the words suggest these are the times that you have no idea why you are feeling so pulled into the wave of grief. This will happen. It is ok to adjust your schedule to allow yourself to be swept into the wave. Fighting it will just mean that more unpredictable waves may come and they will be bigger and more fierce. If you learn to stop and take a breath you may actually be able to discover what the trigger may have been so that the next time it may be a predictable wave instead of unpredictable. [Note: there will be unpredictable waves that you will not ever see coming, but after time, the unpredictable waves do become smaller].
  3. Keep your momentum – momentum is the key. Stay in touch with friends and family. Get up every day. Put one foot in front of the other. And all the rest of the cliches. When you start to feel yourself stopping, seek help. There are many people around you that care for you and love you. Some days this will be harder than others, but wake up, put your feet on the floor and find one thing to help you to keep moving forward.
  4. Dive under the big waves/submerge – For me the big waves are still birthdays/anniversaries. I have found that if I allow myself to submerge myself in the grief temporarily it is easier to come out of it on the other side. Ignoring grief and trying to stay above may work on as a stopgap measure, but the wave will come back, and it will be stronger the next time. One of the best books I read after my husband passed away was “You Can Heal Your Heart” by Louise Hay and David Kessler and my favorite excerpt is “The only way out of the pain is through it. You must feel it, but not stay in it or live your life from it. The only way to feel love when you’re grieving is to stay aware of how you treat yourself during the loss.”
  5. Don’t go alone – Finding a friend who understands your circumstances and being able to share your feelings is a huge relief. Holding all the feelings inside and not being able to feel like you can share them with friends because you think they are tired of hearing you cry is very common. I have never been a huge fan of support groups, mostly because of one very bad experience a long time ago. But I have found a support group that has changed my tune. If you have not found a support group, keep looking. A good grief support group will be nonjudgemental and will listen to all the crazy thoughts that you have been holding in, because, believe it or not, at least one of them has had that same thought.

Experiencing Prevenient Grace in everyday life

Have you ever really thought about Grace?

Not the grace that we say before eating a meal, but the Grace God offers each and every one of us.

Last summer I bought a hot tub. I didn’t really have a full vision for my backyard, so I had a concrete slab poured for the hot tub along with a sidewalk from my covered patio to the hot tub.

Now that I have lived with it for a year, I have all sorts of thoughts and ideas on how to improve the design and function of the area. But, as a widow, this is just one more thing that makes me miss having my husband to bounce ideas off of (not to mention he usually could do the work, or knew where to find someone to do the work).

At this point, you may be wondering what my hot tub and patio have to do with grace, but stay with me…

Recently, the sermon series at church was about God’s grace. In the Methodist Church, we see grace as threefold: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace and Sanctifying Grace.

Several weeks ago I mentioned to some friends at church that I wanted to expand my back patio. I was looking for recommendations for a trustworthy contractor to come bring my vision to life. Instead of a recommendation, one of them said he would come take a look and see what I had in mind. A couple of days later, we stood in my backyard and I described my vision to him (nothing fancy, just adding some pavers and stone to improve the flow and expand the living space with some outdoor seating). It turns out he really likes doing this kind of project and said he and a buddy could do it for me.

This week has been full of activity. My friend and a couple of other recruits came over and began the process to expand my patio.

As I watched them work in the hot sun, I wondered what I had done to deserve these friends in my life. (And, if you know me at all, you know how hard it is for me to ask for help, which is what this felt like). Which led me to think back on the sermon series about Grace…Especially Prevenient Grace.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, defined prevenient grace as God’s active presence in our lives, not dependent on human actions, but a gift that is always available.

I have done nothing to deserve God’s grace, His Prevenient Grace. It is a gift that is there always, and there is nothing that we can do to escape it. Even if we try to turn from it, it will be there when we are ready to finally accept it.

And so it was with my patio. I did not do anything to deserve these men and women coming over and spending a Sunday afternoon (and several evenings throughout the week) working on my patio. It was their way of expressing God’s love and showing me a living example of Grace.

God uses the people in our lives to show us, in terms we can understand, what Grace really is. It is not just something we say before a meal. If we are willing to look around, we see it is through everyday people doing things (for us or for others) that are completely undeserved.

I will never be able to thank these folks enough, nor will I ever be able to thank God enough for his Grace. The best I can offer is to live my life expressing the same kind of grace to people I meet every day (and maybe offering a nice steak dinner to those that worked on the new patio).

How have you experienced God’s grace? How have you been an example to someone else of God’s grace?

Don’t tell me it is Impossible

My dad’s favorite song is/was “The Impossible Dream“. The last stanza is one of my favorites:

And the world will be better for this

that one man, scorned and covered with scars

still strove with his last ounce of courage

to reach the unreachable star

Last week I had my final physical therapy appointment (maybe not by choice, but because of insurance rules). At the appointment, the physical therapist handed me a slip of paper with the words Girdlestone Procedure written on it. He had been to a conference the week before and was telling a colleague about my situation. The colleague said, “Oh, yeah, that is the Girdlestone Procedure.”

May 9th will be exactly 5 months since I went to the hospital believing I was just going to have an infection cleaned out. (you can read more about that here). Instead, I stayed in the hospital 10 days and the doctor removed my left hip prosthesis and peformed the Girdlestone procedure (somewhat modified for my situation).

As of today, I walk with a cane and have a lift on my left shoe. Occasionally, I have been known to look around and realize I walked around my kitchen island without even using the cane. My goal at physical therapy was to walk with a cane. Now I have set a new goal for myself to walk a mile on the treadmill by the middle of June.

The idea of walking a mile and perhaps walking without a cane eventually all seemed normal to me – until last night.

Last night I was having trouble sleeping. So I got up and found the piece of paper with the name of the procedure on it and proceeded to do what anyone with a computer and insomnia would do – I googled “Girdlestone Procedure” (here is an interesting link to understand more about it).

It was originally developed to treat patients with complications from tuberculosis. With the development of better, stronger antibiotics and hip replacement joints, the procedure is not used very often now. It is considered the last effort, as was the case for me.

[If you are reading this for the first time, you may not know I have Stage 4 Breast Cancer with metastasis to the bones. A large portion of the socket of my left hip was destroyed by cancer in 2010.]

If I didn’t already know I was stubborn, reading the articles and case studies I found last night would have solidified that description (my family has been known to say that when you look up stubborn in the dictionary, you find a picture of me – I have not found a dictionary that has that picture yet).

As I read the case studies and the description of the procedure, I realized I am way ahead of the curve. I was walking with a cane 10 weeks after the surgery.

When I finally put the iPad down and drifted off to sleep, I was thankful that I had not known anything about this procedure and the case studies in December or any time during my physical therapy.

My scars and I are going to use every last bit of courage to reach for the unreachable star. I can hear my dad saying “That’s my girl!”

Got to get the gym and get moving on the treadmill so I can knock that next goal out of the park.

 

Friends

Friends. Over my lifetime, I have had many friends. The only person I ever considered to be my best friend was my husband. Growing up I don’t remember ever having a best friend. Most likely that is from being raised in the military (at least that is what I have always blamed it on).

Being a military brat, there were always new faces around. And you had plenty of friends, but none of the friendships ever lasted beyond the next move. You see, either we were moving or the family of my friend would move. I learned to adapt. Those friendships were great for the time and place, but when we got to the next place there would be other people and friends. I never kept in touch with the friends I left behind after we moved (there were a couple that I tried to keep up with, but as kids, that never lasted long, we each had other friends to engage with where we were).

This morning I was reflecting on what I read last night in Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend (I’m trying to read one self-improvement book per month this year). Last night the chapter I was reading was “Boundaries and Your Friends.”  I was able to see myself in many of the situations described in the chapter (probably not a good thing). Mostly, the compliant friend. Again, I think that goes back to having to make new friends all the time. It was easy to be compliant to make a new friend.

As I reflected, I thought about being a military brat and making new friends every time we moved. Then I moved onto the friendships I have now. In many ways, I feel like I’m back to that (scared) military brat kid. I have many friends, but sometimes I wonder when one of us will move on (I think that is the cancer talking). I find that I can easily adapt to new friends (probably because I am the compliant friend) but I often struggle to keep meaningful relationships going (or maybe that is just self-doubt talking to me).

After my husband passed away, I sold our house and moved closer to friends. Because of the toll cancer has taken on my body I needed a lot of help from friends – packing, moving, unpacking. Then in December, I had surgery and I needed more help – rides, meals and general help around the house.

Share each other’s burdens

Friends were great about helping out. Many rallied to the call for help. But once the crisis is/was over, I find myself apprehensive to call for fear they will wonder what I need now.

And that leads me to ponder – how am I being a friend to them? Am I listening to them? Am I offering support? (Physically, I can’t offer much help – certainly I can’t carry a couch up stairs if you are moving, but I am willing to hang out and listen if you need an ear). Am I offering a two-way street?

I worry some people don’t share their problems because they don’t want to burden me, but Galatians 6:2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” I have shared my burdens, how can I lighten your load?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The doctor Believed I could

Have you ever had someone believe in you, even more than you believe in yourself?

If you read my last post, you know that I had surgery to remove (yes, you read that right) my hip prosthesis. Because of the damage to my hip from stage 4 breast cancer, there is not an option to replace the hip. The prosthesis lasted me 6 and a half years. Now I have to figure out how to get around without the use of that left hip. In December that seemed like a daunting task.

Even before the doctor performed the surgery, he told me he believed I would be able to walk with a cane because I would have enough scar tissue to support me (not to mention the muscles). I thought he was crazy, and everyone else (including people in the medical profession) asked “How can that be? Don’t you need a hip to walk?” Honestly, I always thought you needed a hip to walk.

But because he told me I could do it, I believed it too. And I held onto that belief at every physical therapy session.

He Believed I could so I did!

Yesterday, March 1st, was exactly 10 weeks from the date of my surgery to remove my prosthesis.  This video captured my third lap around the cone and is evidence that I can walk without a hip joint!

I’m not sure that I would have believed this to be possible, if the doctor who performed the surgery had not believed first and shared that belief with me.

What is holding you back from believing the seemingly impossible?

I believe that I will get stronger and I will walk with a cane. And beyond that, I may just decide I can walk without a cane.

I BELIEVE!

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