I am a whirlwind of emotions as my 17-year cancer anniversary approaches this weekend. Gratitude and anxiety rank near the top. Gratitude for the obvious relief I feel for still being alive and healthy. Anxiety because the worry – of relapse, injury, side effects and more – never disappears completely. Never, ever. And then there are a web of other emotions jockeying for top positions. So, today, I take a deep breath and make myself step back from all of that before it consumes me. Today, and I try to make it always, I will focus on the simple, joyous, beautiful people, things and moments that make my life so precious. And, of course, I’ll stick with 17 things in honor of this momentous journey.
1. Laughter. Who doesn’t like to laugh? But I don’t think I really appreciated the healing ability of laughter until cancer. My family and I learned to laugh at the weirdest and toughest situations, which made life seem not so ominous and much more bearable. Since then, I seek out people who can laugh with me and find joy in life. And, most importantly, I have learned to laugh, a lot, at myself.
2. Exercise. I have always been active and focused on keeping my body healthy, even long before cancer. I remained focus after treatment – I only get this one body during this life and it’s already been pretty beaten up from chemo and side effects. So I work out to stay strong. The reality is I enjoy working out – I love feeling the strength of my body and I’m proud of all I can do post-cancer. I’m addicted to Zumba, love hiking and biking, feel powerful when strength training, and get geeked when I can coax my body into certain yoga poses.
3. Walks, hikes and bike rides with friends and family – I’ve shared some awesome conversations with family and friends while on walks, hiking in the woods and biking along trails. I don’t know if it’s since we’re not locked into staring at the other, we feel more relaxed in fresh air, or maybe even the scenery distracts us, but we talk about everything from jobs to dream trips to feelings to dinner options and more! Plus we get a great workout without feeling like we’re exercising (which I, frankly, believe is the best form of exercise!).
4. Time with friends – Not texts, Facebook posts or even emails. I’m talking about good ‘ol fashion phone calls or, even better, in-person visits. I feel like these are sadly rare as we all get busy with family, careers and other priorities. But I admit that time with good friends brings such joy and contentment for me. Especially knowing that someone thought enough of our friendship to make the time. Sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences with good people is one of my favorite past times and something I cherish.
5. Music. A powerful tool, music fills every mood and emotion you may experience. From pop to country to jazz to oldies, there is a song for every occasion! I have always loved music (spoken like a true high school honors choir member, right?) and thank my parents daily for their various tastes in music so that I could have the freedom to listen and appreciate so much.
6. My hair. Okay, this may sound funny and a bit self-indulgent but it’s true. Hey, I didn’t have ANY hair for almost a year during chemo. As much as you don’t want to feel vain about losing your hair when you’re going through cancer treatment to save your life, I admit it was much more heart-wrenching to watch it fall out than I thought it would be. I think it was the final step to really facing that the cancer was real and the chemo was pretty deadly. So now that I have lovely long hair again, I really love when my sweet husband, nieces, sisters or…okay, I admit, when anyone plays with my hair! It’s one of the most relaxing gestures I can indulge in.
7. Family time. It’s not always easy describing my relationship with my family – we are incredibly close, yet so different from each other, and sometimes very similar. We love fiercely and laugh hard. I cherish the time with my family. My mom has always been my biggest supporter and protector. I miss my dad daily and often still pause to wonder what advice he might give. During my treatment, my sisters were at the hospital every treatment, often long past visiting hours ended to ensure I wasn’t alone during the tough times. My family celebrates my joys and stands beside me during the challenges. We have always protected each other. Some things will never change.
8. Quiet time with just me. While I love to be around family and friends, to laugh and share conversations, I also delight in my quiet time. Give me a book, journal, camera, or even a just a blue sky to stare at, and I can relax. I’ve learned that being alone at times allows you to take a step back from life, decisions and relationships to evaluate what’s working, and not. Self-reflection helps me “be real” with myself, acknowledging mistakes and behavior that need to change, and also reflect on accomplishments and happy moments.
9. Bright flowers. I’ve always loved flowers – bright, happy flowers that fill up the room with a pretty, soft scent. During chemo, when my immune system was low, I couldn’t have flowers around me for fear of germs. Since then, I love having flowers near me. Whether I buy them or someone else offers a lovely gift, flowers seem to brighten any situation.
10. Accepting nothing, and no one, is perfect. Because this is so true, and so real. We all make mistakes and have faults. No one is better than another person. People are not perfect, therefore life is not perfect. That perfect path we think about in high school won’t happen exactly the way we plan because there are always bumps and detours in the road of life. But those things build strength and courage in us, and I’ve learned that the sooner you accept that others, and especially you, aren’t perfect, the easier the road is to travel.
11. Fresh air. There was one stretch during chemo that I was in the hospital for 17 days. I was pretty sick most of that time so it felt like forever. I recall staring out the window at the sunshine and green leaves on the trees. Besides growing incredibly stir crazy, I missed summer’s warm, fresh air and the wind’s breeze. When I was finally discharged, I refused to turn the air conditioning on during the drive home. I needed the air. While I appreciate air conditioning, I love the fresh air. To this day, I get stir crazy when in air conditioning for too long.
12. Pictures. Memories – of people, adventures, moments – remind me of how special life is so I love capturing as much as I can to preserve, for me and generations of our family.
13. Summer mornings. Bright, sunny mornings with the birds chirping and chipmunks playing. Flowers in bloom and green grass. Yes, I love these moments. Give me a weekend morning when it’s quiet before too many others wake, and I can feel the waves of relaxation wash over me.
14. My own two legs. When you’re diagnosed with bone cancer in your femur, you face a very high risk of losing your leg. If you’re lucky, like I was, to be eligible for a limb salvage surgery, you face still the challenges and risk to your leg – the titanium rod and pin can wear out, get infected or damaged, which risks losing your leg. So everyday I wake up and walk on my own two legs is a blessing and I am forever grateful that I have been so lucky. It is a deep fear always in the back of my mind that something could happen to my rod, and I know a replacement is in my future in a few years, but I try to keep that fear locked away and hold onto the gratitude.
15. Horses. I’ve loved these beautiful creatures since early childhood. My dream came true when my parents allowed me to start riding lessons at age 9. The devastation I felt learning I’d never ride again, at age 22, still lingers deep down. I can’t really describe why horses bring me such joy, peace and contentment. They just do. Nothing calms my soul faster than running my fingers through a mane and resting my cheek on the warm neck of a horse. I miss riding and the regular contact with horses, but I still feel great comfort and joy anytime I’m near these animals.
16. Contentment. This has been very difficult to find since my diagnosis and post-treatment. After talking to many other cancer survivors, I know many of my restless emotions are normal. As are the questions – why am I still here when others died? How can I give back to show my appreciation for the second chance? Then there is the feeling that you should accomplish all you can in a short amount of time because…..who knows how long you have left here on Earth. I know every person faces death but I think it’s more at the constant forefront of your mind when you have faced your own mortality, especially at a young age. I have found pockets of contentment over the years. My mom has been my rock since I was child, but since treatment, she is always my special protector and shoulder to lean on.
17. The ability to bounce back and overcome life’s obstacles. We all face many challenges in life, from jobs to losing parents to deciding to have children to financial decisions and more. After facing cancer, a major surgery, losing my dad to cancer and managing the ongoing anxiety of relapses and injury, I tend to try to face other challenges with a different attitude than some – for I have survived cancer, a disease that ravages lives and constantly tries to knock you down. So I often tell myself, “I have survived cancer. This situation is nothing. This is life.” And I am so blessed to have this life to live.
What do you value and appreciate in life?