On Thursday, it will be 15 years since I walked out of the hospital, finished with my treatment for bone cancer. The final chemo completed dripping and the rescue drugs flushed my system. I still had some blood transfusions and plenty of tests to complete, but I can vividly recall the warmth of the sun on my face, the light breeze rubbing against my bald head and the rush of emotion as I breathed in fresh air.
When I finished treatment I felt different. My lower part of my femur, where the tumor grew, and lower part of the tibia were replaced with titanium. I was blessed to respond well enough to chemo (ie, became incredibly sick while the chemo killed the cancer and most of my good cells) and be able to keep my leg. I worked hard through physical therapy, teaching my muscles to respond again. I was devoted, almost obsessed, with working out before cancer. I rode horses four days a week, ran at least five days, participated in step aerobics and biking. Due to my surgery, I could no longer ride my beloved horses nor run (ironically both of these activities were what triggered the pain that took me to the doctor to discover the bone cancer). I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do any activity. I was terrified to hurt my leg. I distrusted my body.
But in time, I learned to appreciate my body. I struggled with body issues before cancer, focused on being slender and toned. Ironically cancer taught me to appreciate my body, marveling at its ability to fight cancer, endure chemo and grow strong again. I won’t lie – it took LOTS of effort, determination, many tears of frustration and much courage. Fifteen years later, it still does. It took family and friends encouraging, sweating with me, biting their tongues when concern appeared in their eyes. Even my surgeon stopped suggesting I take it easy. He finally concurred I knew my limits and there was no reason to sit on the couch after surviving cancer.
With most activities, I learn to modify moves when necessary and learn to recognize my body’s limits. I listen to my body and have accepted when to stop and when to say I’ll pass. At times it bothers me still to be limited but I remind myself how blessed I am to have both legs and a body that is strong and healthy. Fifteen years post treatment. Just knowing my body is strong, fit and capable makes me proud and happy. It takes hard work, mental and physical strength, and often times, patience to stay healthy and positive. These are the activities that stick in my mind as I reflect on how far I’ve come in 15 years.
1. Zumba – My sister talked me into taking a Zumba class with her to motivate her return to working out. We loved the class, filled with fun music, dance moves and great people. Our instructor is spunky, energetic and kind. My only hesitation was uncertainty if I would be able to do the moves because of my knee/rod. I always loved to dance though so Zumba seemed a good way to work out while dancing. And I was right! In the almost two years that Kelli and I have participated in the weekly class, my confidence in my body has grown tremendously. I stopped caring that I modify some moves and even stopped needing to modify other moves! I feel great every time we go.
2. Weight lifting – I hired a training a few years ago to show me various strength training moves. He taught me exercises, and gave me tons of self-confidence. I realized I was treating my body a bit too fragile because I didn’t trust it. I learned to try new exercises, stunned to discover what I thought would hurt actually didn’t cause aches (except sore muscles the next day!). I’ve learned to accept that my leg muscles will never be as toned as I’d like because of surgery and limitations on exercises but I am proud of what I can do.
3. Hiking – I have always enjoyed the outdoors but since treatment, I love the outdoors. I love fresh air, sunshine (I wear tons of sunscreen) and blue skies. Maybe it’s because treatment included three out of four weeks of the month in the hospital (for 13 months). Maybe it’s because everything becomes a little more precious after facing your own mortality. I walked the neighborhood a lot post-treatment, nervous to venture onto wooded trails for fear of tripping and hurting my knee/rod. But after looking for opportunities to meet single young adults, I discovered an interesting outdoor club filled with fun people who loved to be outdoors. And then discovered hiking was possible. I just pay close attention as I’m walking the trails, but honestly I’ve tripped less than people with two ‘normal’ legs!
4. Backpacking – I am limited to carrying 25 pounds so I pack light. It is so satisfying to put my Osprey pack on, knowing I’m heading on an adventure with friends. I even helped teach a basic backpacking class for several years. Not once did someone suggest I take it easy because of my health history or leg. I was just a club member with a minor limitation but one that people often forget about.
5. Rock climbing – After one too many people brushed off my interest in trying rock climbing, I was more motivated to try it. I quickly learned I wasn’t nearly as physically intimidated as I was mentally intimidated! Who knew I had a fear of heights? I learned to modify moves and take my time. I am grateful to my friends, especially Jeff, Chuck and Marie, who never once questioned my ability to climb, simply trusting I knew my own limitations.
6. Step aerobics – During college, I was obsessed with step aerobics classes. I wrote off being able to participate post-treatment, thinking it was too much impact and fancy stepping. But I caught myself watching step classes at the gym and slowly my curiosity grew. I knew my husband (then boyfriend) loved me when he offered to attend a step aerobics class with me. I do modify some moves and step lighter than most people. But at the end of our first class, the smile wouldn’t leave my face.
7. Fall in love – I’ve always been emotional and empathetic to people. But it’s often tough expressing myself to people. It wasn’t until my diagnosis, then my dad’s diagnosis, that I realized how short life can be and how important it is to tell people you love them. I cherish the important people in my life. I sometimes crave the laughter of my nieces and nephews, the hugs from girlfriends, fun adventures with friends. I have learned to (try to) express myself more often and let my love for these special people fill my heart.
8. Yard work – I finally learned why my mom loves to get her hands dirty in the garden (ok, I wear gloves!). Nothing is more satisfying than digging up weeds, churning dirt, carrying bags (and bags) of mulch, sweating from the exertion (and burned calories!) and admiring your hard work upon completion. Or planting bright flowers to adorn the deck. Or eating vegetables that you grew.
9. Biking – I loved biking before cancer but became nervous about falling off a bike post surgery. I bought an exercise bike as a cancer anniversary present for myself, which I have logged thousands of miles on (and read many books!). But I itched to ride a ‘real bike’ again in the fresh air. It was two years post-treatment before I found the nerve – and I did fall off the bike (thanks to my sister’s clip pedals!). But I wasn’t hurt and I got back on. I bought myself a good bike with good shocks to ease my knee and now biking is one of my favorite activities. I love to bike the local paved trails, like the Macomb Orchard Trail.
10. Play – I love getting on the floor to play with my nieces and nephew. I love playing t-ball, blowing bubbles and hiking through the trails with the kids who make my mouth smile and my heart melt. I love climbing to the top of a slide, building a fort in my living room and coloring.
11. Speak in front of a crowd – I was painfully shy growing up. I hated talking in class, let alone a group of people. College helped me grow out of my shell, but during treatment, something blossomed inside of me. I learned to speak up, share my story with others and be more outgoing. After treatment, I was invited to speak at events across the country related to cancer advocacy and at fundraisers for one of my favorite cancer organizations. Perhaps because I was sharing my story that I knew intimately or perhaps I knew I was helping others touched by a terrible disease, standing in front of the crowd made me feel courageous, not scared.
12. Interview for a job – I’ve been told I interview really well. My secret: When I prepare to walk into a job interview, I tell myself “You had cancer. Nothing anyone says is scarier than that.” My nerves disappear, my body relaxes and a smile easily comes.
13. Write – Words have always been the way I best express myself. Writing stories, articles and notes has been my passion since I was a small child. I didn’t write much during treatment for I didn’t know what to write. I didn’t write much after treatment for I didn’t know how to express my emotions of my dad’s declining health. Then one day I sat with a notebook on the couch and the pen started moving. I wrote an article about life after treatment. Then I wrote one about giving up my love of riding horses. Then I began journaling again. My writing is more emotional now, more reflective of me.
14. Take pictures – Pictures adorn most of our home’s walls and shelves. Of people, places and adventures in my life. I take a camera almost everywhere. Photos albums contain memories because memories are my obsession. I’ve learned that you don’t know when someone will leave your life or when you may leave. For those reasons, I love capturing memories. Smiles, happiness, love, peace.
15. Make a difference. I am a firm believer that it truly takes only one person to make a positive difference in someone’s life and the greater world. One person’s idea takes shape or one person’s kind act sets an example. Yes, it often takes courage to be that one person but oh what a difference it can make to the child who learned to read or the man who has a meal or the animals rescued from disaster.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. Cancer has taught me many things, both good and bad. Sometimes the bad seeps into my consciousness and takes hold for a bit. The days I miss my dad so unbearably much. The few times I’ve had a suspicious test result. The moments I just need to feel frustrated. But mostly I focus on the good and the many lessons I have learned in the past 15 years.