Heather's Hangout

Sharing the people, places & little moments that make a difference.

Celebrating 20 years of life after cancer March 30, 2017

Filed under: Cancer Tips,Life Lessons — Heather @ 8:05 am
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Find joy and peace in life.

A few weeks ago it dawned on me that my 20-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis occurs in May. I usually celebrate my cancer anniversary as the day I finished treatment, free from hospitals, chemo and the terrifying weight of that disease (there’s still a weight but different than going through treatment). Recognizing my diagnosis is important to me too. Cancer changed my life. For better and worse. I was diagnosed at 21, on the cusp of becoming an independent adult, with all the excitement and hope for life that only a young adult can truly muster. Facing a disease will change anyone’s outlook on life but when you’re a young adult who doesn’t really know anything about the real world, it sets your life on a completely new path. For better and worse.

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Since it struck me that it’s been 20 years, vivid memories have come rushing back (of course). I recall the ache in my knee that taunted me sporadically for more than a year, yet I kept canceling doctor appointments because college fun (um, and studies) kept me busy. I hear the quiet warning in my head wondering why my knee was hurting more consistently. I can feel the stunned anxiety and stir of fear when the doctor at the urgent care center explained my knee x-ray showed a possible tumor. I remember the guilt of making my parents and sisters worry so much and assuring them that I would be okay, then sobbing in fear in the privacy of my bedroom. I see myself holding a basin as my nurse started my first chemo drip (it took a few more days to begin puking my guts out from the poison). I feel my hair falling out in clumps. I know the determination of making my leg muscles work again so I could walk after surgery replaced my femur with titanium.

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Through these memories, many others also surface. The kindness and determination of my surgeon, oncologists, nurses and medical team. The outpouring of support and love from family, friends and even strangers who saw a bald young woman on crutches for so many months. The bonding with other cancer survivors. The deepening of an appreciation for the simple things in life (fresh air, blue skies, flowers, hugs, pressing my face into a horse’s mane, the kiss of my little niece, eating without throwing up). The strength and courage that grew in my heart. The new love of life that blossomed in my soul. The friends who came into my life, thanks to cancer, and who touched my heart in ways I will never forget. The adventures and opportunities that have arisen from being called a cancer survivor.

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Travel to fun places, like Ireland!

I recently wrote of advice that I would share with my 21-year old self as she underwent chemo and surgery. Someone once told me that I should ‘move on’ from cancer. That’s a tough thing to do since I AM a cancer survivor. I didn’t ask for the title but it’s part of who I am. And, frankly, I am so very thankful to call myself a survivor because the alternative sucks. Cancer impacted my life, for better and worse. There is no doubt.  My entire life path changed due to my cancer diagnosis at 21, then again when my dad died from the disease. But I can’t say that it’s been all bad. Maybe that’s because I won’t let it. My attitude, thoughts and actions have tried to be positive and purposeful. It’s the best I can do. Throughout the past 20 years, I have learned some positive lessons. I share some of these with you as we walk through life:

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  • Give thanks every morning you wake that you are alive to enjoy another day. Count at least three blessings before bed. There is always something to be grateful for in your life.
  • Laugh as much as possible. Laughter really is one of the best medicines.
  • Surround yourself with positive people (and yes, you can still be a realist and positive).
  • Smell the flowers. Even the stinky ones. Flowers are a beautiful symbol of new life.
  • Be active. Find an activity you enjoy and do it. Moving your body keeps you healthy, physically fit and helps you enjoy life.  I stay as active as my leg allows and have found many activities that I enjoy so don’t feel like I’m working out!
  • Don’t skip regular doctor appointments and preventive screenings, including skin, colorectal, cervical and breast cancer screenings.
  • Embrace love. Don’t be afraid to fall in love. Take a chance, knowing that love, even in fairy tales, isn’t always easy. But it will be worth it when you find the right person.
  • Travel outside of your hometown, current city and state. Learn about other cultures.
  • See a live play or musical at least once at a community theater, on Broadway, wherever. Appreciate the talent, story and magic behind these performances.
  • Have dance parties – with yourself, friends, kids, pets. I usually was the first one on the dance floor at clubs during college, which is surprising when I think back since I was incredibly shy any other time. Even now I catch myself dancing while cooking in the kitchen, at work when I need a break (behind my closed office door!), folding laundry, hanging with my nieces and nephew, or whenever the urge hits. Just get lost in the music and fun.
  • Know that it’s okay to fail sometimes. The greatest lesson is what you learn.
  • Take lots of pictures and be in lots of pictures. Capturing great memories, trips, people and moments in your life can bring joy in the future. While I have hundreds of pictures on my smartphone and digital camera, I also print and frame many of my favorite memories and people to see throughout my home. I love walking by those frames and smiling at the reminders of those moments.
  • Volunteer in your community. Helping others is, of course, the right thing to do in today’s society (at least in my humble opinion). We are all fortunate in our lives in one way or antother so I’m a believer that we ALL can give back in some way. People need to know there is kindness still in the world. Plus, helping others often helps yourself – it brings gratitude and joy. Trust me.
  • Pay attention to politics. Decisions are made by a small number of people that greatly affect, both positively and negatively, millions of people. Including you and me. Know what’s happening in your local community, in your state and at the federal level. Don’t be afraid to contact your elected officials. We still live in a democracy. They work for us.
  • Make peace with the people who hurt you. You don’t necessarily have to verbally say it, but at least learn to let go of anger and hurt. Forgiving someone ultimately heals you and allows you to move on with freedom and an open heart.
  • Face your fears. We often learn great lessons by recognizing why something or someone stirs fear and uncertainty. Fear sometimes is the red flag that we need to pay attention, and other times, it’s a hindrance to great success, happiness and love. Listen to your emotions to determine why you feel the fear and then face it.
  • Be okay with alone time. In a society that makes it easy to be connected ALL THE TIME, it sometimes feels like my brain is always connected and overloaded. I need quiet time to regroup and refresh my brain and emotions. I love nothing more than having ‘me’ time to read, hike, bike, write, garden or even simply sit on the deck feeling the warmth of the sun and soft breeze. Whether I’m single or in a relationship, I need that ‘me’ time every so often. I think it’s important for everyone to appreciate alone time.
  • Learn something new every month. Try a new recipe, practice some words in a foreign language, read a book, play the guitar or piano, visit an art museum, listen to a new band. Whatever your interests, expand your knowledge and you’ll expand your fun and enjoyment of life.
  • Make friends of all ages and backgrounds. When I make a mental list of my friends, it pleases me to know they fit into an incredibly wide age bracket, have varying education and professional occupations, are talented in a variety of activities, are both genders, married and single, children and childless, and have experienced a myriad of life circumstances that make each person unique and special. They all bring such different perspectives of life and fill my heart with different appreciation.
  • Appreciate your life. We only get one body and one life. Make the most of it. Enjoy every day. Choose joy, love, kindness, happiness and hope.
 

Why we need one voice against cancer March 16, 2017

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Meeting with Sen. Gary Peters to discuss cancer care.

Unless you don’t own a television, aren’t on social media (or the Internet) or perhaps live under a rock, chances are that you’re aware of the hot topic of health care. As a cancer survivor, it’s a topic dear to my heart as I’m most likely affected, as well as more than 16 million other survivors, by any changes to the current law. And that’s just cancer survivors. Add in millions of others affected by different pre-existing condition circumstances and health issues, seniors, and others, and, well, it’s a major topic. Many people are turning their heads because they don’t like politics. But this topic isn’t about politics. It’s about taking care of people.

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Politics has been a bit of an interest for me since I was young. I loved my high school government class, was elected to our student senate and even got to serve as mayor of my hometown for a day! In college, my interests waffled between being a travel writer, communications director/press secretary for a politician or lobbying firm, or running for office myself. When I was diagnosed with bone cancer my senior year in college, my interests turned to healthcare and cancer advocacy, whether as a career or volunteer efforts.

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Last year, I had the great opportunity to attend the One Voice Against Cancer Lobby Day in Washington, DC as a LIVESTRONG advocate (read about that awesome experience here). I’m honored, flattered and thrilled to share that I will again attend OVAC in June with representatives from many organizations, including LIVESTRONG, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Susan G. Koman, Sarcoma Foundation of America and many others. I’m excited to be able to meet with my congressional representatives and their staff to discuss cancer and healthcare issues. It’s critical to keep cancer as a healthcare priority, ensuring coverage for people with cancer and funding for screenings, research, treatment advances, survivorship care and more. I’m also excited to once again come together with the other advocates who are passionate, kind, intelligent and dedicated people. I am a better person when I leave these gatherings, having engaged with such inspiring people.

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I’m always a little fascinated when people ask why I volunteer so much and wonder how I

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Research gave us extra special time with this guy.

can enjoy advocating on tough issues. Sure, I admit it can be mentally and emotionally draining at times. Not everyone I meet has a happy ending, not all issue outcomes swing the way we want. But I am never alone, for great people stand beside me all the time. And I believe we can make a greater difference if we work together for change. It takes one person to make a difference in someone’s life, and one person to make a change and start a movement that could positively impact someone. I’m alive and able so figure why shouldn’t I be that one person?

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I became even more determined to be a voice for cancer survivors when my dad was diagnosed and then died from the disease. Once during my cancer treatment, I rested on the couch as my dad sat beside me, holding my hand. Then he said he prayed every day that he could take my cancer from me. I got so mad at him for that and made him promise, even pinky-swear, that he would never do that again. As much as cancer sucked and unnerved me, I would never want anyone to take that burden. Less than three months after that conversation, I was told my tests were coming back cancer-free. And my dad was diagnosed with late stage multiple myeloma. It devastated me. And deep down, survivor’s guilt bloomed. Yes, I know my dad didn’t have the power to magically take my cancer, yet that doesn’t stop those moments from being laser-cut into my brain and replaying every so often. It was another motivation to become active in cancer advocacy and policy. Because if he could be willing to stand up for me, then I could certainly continue his fight, my family’s fight, and stand up for others touched by this terrible disease.

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I recognized years ago, as a young adult cancer patient facing many serious issues and decisions, that I had the chance to live beyond my cancer and save my leg, because someone else once had the courage to stand up for others. A researcher had the opportunity to develop new cancer drugs. Surgeons had the ideas to test cadaver bones, then titanium rods to try to prevent amputations. My dad was told he had maybe three moths time when he was first diagnosed. Thanks to a wonderful oncology team, his stubbornness and zest for life, and new treatments and drugs, he lived six years. My family had more time with my dad because someone else stood up in the past to push for change. I am committed to pushing for more research for cancer drugs and treatment so another daughter can get more time with her dad. I realized so many years ago that I wanted to be one of the people who held tight to the baton as it was passed and help make a difference in others’ lives.

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Love visiting DC!

Consider these healthcare facts:

  • More than 16 million people are cancer survivors in the United States. It’s expected to increase to more than 20 million by 2026.
  • Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., exceeded only by heart disease. This means 1 of every 4 deaths is from cancer.
  • It is estimated that 41 out of 100 American men and 38 out of 100 American women will develop cancer during their lifetime.
  • More than 52 million Americans had a pre-existing condition in 2015, meaning they would be at risk in obtaining health insurance coverage without this protection in the healthcare bill.
  • More than 1.7 million new cancer cases are expected to occur and approximately 600,000 cancer deaths are projected in 2017.
  • 117 million Americans have a chronic condition.
  • Preventive health screenings have helped lower rates of certain cancers, including colon, rectal, cervical and breast.
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When I read this facts, I know that our work isn’t done. Far from it. We’ve made great advances in treatment and survival rates, but when people are still being diagnosed and dying from the disease, then we keep working. These people need health insurance, access to care and preventive screenings. I encourage you to get involved….call your representative to share your thoughts on the proposed new healthcare bill, more funding for health screenings, access to care and whatever else is important to you. Let’s work together to make a difference.

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Need more tips for being an advocate for others? Read my previous blog post.

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Interested in becoming a cancer advocate? Check out LIVESTRONG and the American Cancer Society Cancer Advocate Network.

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Sources: American Cancer Society, Kaiser Family Foundation, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, National Cancer Institute. US Capitol: © Joegough | Dreamstime.com

 

Fundraiser benefits cancer survivors February 12, 2017

benefitingls_2cIf you’re in metro Detroit and without plans next Saturday, Feb. 18, please join me for a fun event supporting people touched by cancer!

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I’m hosting a “Rock Your Ride” fundraiser to benefit LIVESTRONG’s programs and services that support people with cancer, caregivers, family and friends. The event is at Cyclebar Troy, a new activity that I recently tried and liked (read my blog).

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Not an avid cyclist? Not an avid fitness seeker? Not a problem! Some of my family and friends were a little hesitant to register since they’ve never participated in a cycling/spin class and don’t regularly exercise. That’s okay! The class is for all fitness levels. You ride at your own pace, so if the instructor says to bump up the resistance or pedal faster, you can do that….or not. It’s all within your comfort zone. As long as you’re pedaling, you’re getting a workout! The music is fast and fun, the instructor is high-energy, the lights are low (kind of my favorite part so people can’t really see me!), and you feel awesome afterward. And the best part of this class? You’re helping support programs and services that provide help to cancer survivors, caregivers and others.

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Your $25 cycling/spin class at Cyclebar Troy includes:

  • 50-minute fun, calorie burning cycling/spin class (with great music and people!)
  • LIVESTRONG yellow wristband
  • Cyclebar water bottle
  • Post-class snacks
  • Happy emotions of helping people touched by cancer

Cycling shoes, towel, lockers, hair bands and changing rooms are also available (no additional fee). Feel free to wear yellow and/or black clothing in support of LIVESTRONG!

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The event begins at 11:45am at Cyclebar in Troy. Everyone MUST REGISTER online to guarantee a spot: http://bit.ly/2gTMqzE

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hh_cyclebarNeed some reasons to join me?

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The event benefit LIVESTRONG’s programs and services for people with cancer. The nonprofit offers a wide range of free/low-cost programs and services, including navigation services, fertility assistance, clinical trial matches, public policy advocacy and more. You can read about some of my favorite programs here.

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You’ll get a great workout. Whether you ride hard the entire time, do interval training or stick to your own rhythm, it will be a great workout. The trick with any workout is to always be moving. I admit that I’m usually muscle-burning tired after any Cyclebar class, but it’s a ‘good tired’ feeling, knowing that I burned some mega calories while having fun.

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You’ll hang out with fun people. I mean besides me (ha ha). Several of my family and friends are attending, many who haven’t been to a spin class but are excited to try it out. These people make me smile and laugh on a regular basis so I can’t imagine what laughs will occur during this class. And if you hear someone singing really loud to the great music, um, just ignore that. It’s probably me singing to distract myself from the workout (wink).

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There are some spots left and I’d love to see you there. Don’t forget that advance registration is required – click here to register.

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Hope to see you there and thanks for supporting people touched by cancer!

 

Honored to be a LIVESTRONG Leader January 6, 2017

hh_livestronghqThe best year ever is kicking off on a good note! I am honored, excited and proud to share that I was chosen to serve as a LIVESTRONG Leader in the new year. Leaders are volunteers from around the world who help strengthen LIVESTRONG’s mission, messages, and programs and services in local communities (and online).

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I’m excited to focus on some grassroots efforts to raise awareness of the great programs and services that LIVESTRONG offers to people touched by cancer. You might ask why LIVESTRONG? There are thousands of nonprofits dedicated to some sort of cancer cause, and I’ve been involved with many over the years. LIVESTRONG is an organization that I’ve been involved with on some level for many years because I truly believe in what they do for people affected by cancer. I think one of their greatest strengths is the ability to make a difference on the grassroots, local level. LIVESTRONG helps build a community by getting the people directly affected by cancer involved in the programs and services, through sharing program information and their own stories, raising funds to support these programs, meeting with elected officials to advance patient care, and so much more. Not just cancer survivors – caregivers, health professionals, family, friends, community professionals and more. People passionate about fighting cancer, interested in helping others and making a difference, talented, kind and compassionate. These qualities and so many more are what make up the people involved with LIVESTRONG. I love being in the presence of these people. A major reason I’m honored to be a volunteer for this organization.

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A few of my favorite LIVESTRONG programs include:

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LIVESTRONG at School: This program, designed for grades K-12, provides educators the tools and resources needed to have conversations about cancer in an age-appropriate manner. According to the National Cancer Institute, 25 percent of cancer survivors in the United States have at least one school-aged child at home.I also love that my younger sister jumped on this program idea when I shared it with her (she’s a former high school teacher and mom of three young children) so we’re already developing plans to pitch to our local schools!

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Advocacy/public policy work: LIVESTRONG works hard to ensure that cancer care remains at the forefront of the legislative agendas and is a national priority. I love working in this area of cancer advocacy, not just with my fellow cancer survivors and supporters, but also our elected officials and their staffs. I had the honor of being a LIVESTRONG advocate at last year’s One Voice Against Cancer lobby day in Washington, DC.This type of volunteer work is admittedly a bit of a rush and excitement for me. I just love it, especially the highs, and even the lows.

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Guidebook and journal: When I was asked to help edit the first edition of these books, I happily put my professional (and cancer perspective) skills to work. I then cried when I finished….because I was so happy these resources, packed full of valuable information, were available to people with cancer (these weren’t completed until after I finished cancer treatment). It’s a great way to navigate and organize your cancer journey. I always direct newly diagnosed cancer patients to these books.

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LIVESTRONG Fertility: Thousands of people are diagnosed with cancer during their reproductive years. Facing the possibility that cancer can take away your ability to have children adds stress to an already stressful time (facing it years post-treatment is equally stressful). This program provides reproductive information, access to discounted fertility preservation services and free medications, and more.

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Navigation services: These services provide free, personalized support and information for people affected by cancer, at any stage of the cancer journey. There is wealth of knowledge and support offered through these services.

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“Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything. This is LIVESTRONG.”

People sometimes ask me why I devote so much time and energy to volunteering for cancer-related organizations, wondering if it doesn’t get to be too much since I’m a survivor and lost my dad to cancer. My response is always why not? I’m alive, blessed to be healthy, and able to give back. But I honestly don’t feel it as an obligation because I survived cancer (although I do feel that ALL people have some obligation to help others when you can; simple kindness goes so far.). I feel it’s simply part of who I am – I enjoy helping others.

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If you or someone you know is going through cancer or a caregiver, supporter or health professional, visit www.livestrong.org for information and assistance.

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***GREAT NEWS! If you’re in the metro Detroit area and interested in supporting LIVESTRONG, join me on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 11:45am for a “Rock Your Ride” event at Cyclebar Troy benefiting LIVESTRONG. It will be a fun cycling class with great music and giveaways – ride at your own pace and no experience necessary! 🙂 Click here to register.

 

Lessons to help survive life December 5, 2016

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The road of life has taken me through many ups and downs, and even some potholes, in the past 20 years. From a cancer diagnosis and treatment to my dad’s treatment and death to my own side effects from cancer to losses of family members and friends to the end of my marriage, life has certainly presented some challenging ‘life events.’ (and yes, I am much older than 20, but the early years didn’t seem so challenging – no doubt owed to good health and awesome parents.)

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When you go through challenging and emotional situations, such as cancer, the loss of a parent or even the loss of a job, it’s easy to get bogged down with the negative or overwhelmed with the transitional phase. I’m a planner and caregiver, meaning I like to be organized and help others long before I focus on me. When a challenging life event happens to me, all of my plans change and I have to learn to care for myself. Whew. Weird. You think your life is moving in a forward motion, then it stops. Then a new chapter begins, which can be scary and uncertain….and exciting if you focus on the new opportunities, happiness, hope, love and simplicity that will greet you in this yet to be written chapter.

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This has been a transitional year for me. As emotionally and mentally draining as it’s been at times, it has surprisingly been filled with….lots and lots of hope, optimism, love, happiness and laughter. So much more than I expected. Opportunities have arisen that provided me with new adventures, unexpected happiness and so many amazing people to add to my life. I was anxious to start this new chapter, yet instead I now am so excited to add to the pages of my life.

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Here are some lessons that I’ve learned, not just from this new chapter, but every one that’s been written so far:

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Get some fresh air to clear the mind.

Take me time. News flash: Taking time for yourself is not selfish. So often we put others first and worry about how others are faring while we lose sight of our own happiness and well-being. As challenging as it is to focus on me, I’m making myself do just that. If something or someone makes me happy, I’m going to embrace those moments and people. I’m also finding comfort and relief at having some time to remember or figure out what makes me happy. I checked out several books from the library to escape into fictional stories. I hiked many miles on the nature trails alone to clear my brain and simply enjoy quiet. I bought a new road bike that gave me freedom to explore new areas and trails to feel the wind on my face and strength in my body. I spread a blanket at the park to listen to the birds. I turned the music loud and danced in my living room (I do this fairly often!). I sipped a glass of wine on the deck watching the sunset. These things bring me peace and joy.

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Spend time with people. For the first few weeks after I filed for divorce, I wanted little to do with people. I couldn’t figure out the myriad of emotions that swirled in me, let alone figure out how to be the supportive, kind, smiling friend I always try to be and still really wanted to be (it’s good that I have kind people in my life who regularly checked in). So I sort of hid out after work, taking a lot of me time to process. The me time wasn’t bad and I did work through many questions and emotions. But then I crawled out of my blah time to realize I missed people. I missed laughing and being silly as I am when hanging out with family and friends. I started accepting invitations for drinks and movies and games and more. I joined a new outdoor club, book club and social club. I enjoy spending time with people who share the same interests, kind hearts and zest for life.

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Embrace new opportunities. I’ve learned that when one event happens, it often sets in motion another series of opportunities. Sometimes we ignore these opportunities because they’re too different, new or unknown, and those things can be scary. Life is about taking chances, whether on situations, people and even ourselves. When you’re entering a new chapter of life, there can be a lot of newness around you. It can be overwhelming…..if you let it. Or it can be exciting and satisfying. I’ve always loved new adventures and meeting people so I’m trying to include these whenever the opportunity (or person) presents itself. What I discovered the past few months is that I am much more carefree and ‘go with the flow’ than I ever have been. I worry less. I laugh so much. I have conversations with random people all the time when I’m out. I admittedly am still a planner, yet lately I’m ready to follow fate. We only know where the road leads if we follow it. And who knows who we might meet along the way to enjoy the journey with us.

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Don’t lose faith or trust in yourself. We all have that voice inside that waves red flags or yells warnings, and we all at times have pretended we don’t see the flags and ignored the voice. Then we sometimes regret and lose trust in ourselves. I certainly have. I wonder if I’ll ignore the voice and red flags again, if I’ll make the right decisions, if I can trust my own opinion.  But the thing is, we all at times make mistakes. And maybe what we think is a mistake is really a step on the path that we’re supposed to be on. I have to believe that many things in life happen for a reason. I don’t always like it – for instance, I would prefer not to have had cancer, instead be a ‘normal’ physically able, healthy person. But I survived cancer when others have not so I believe I’m here to help others and make a difference. If I didn’t have my cancer experience, I wouldn’t be able to relate to and support cancer survivors, and people in general, as I can now. I wouldn’t have experienced the many positive opportunities and adventures that my cancer journey led me on. And I wouldn’t have met so many amazing people who have crossed my path.

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Ask for help. I’m probably the last person to be suggesting this because I have a hard time asking for help. I’m much more comfortable supporting others and offering hugs and kindness to strangers. Which makes me appreciate those people in my life who have offered help without me asking. Whether phone calls, texts, cards, getting drinks, road trips, bike rides, hikes, dinner invites, simply checking in, whatever. It means the world to know there are people supporting me. The times I have reached out to someone for support, I was not disappointed by the love provided to me.

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Learn to let go and relax.

Learn to let go and embrace your new opportunities and new chapters of life. Many times since my cancer diagnosis I have had to let go of the plans and ideas of what my life should be like. Whether it was from cancer, my dad’s death, relationships, jobs or seemingly simple decisions that I made on the fly, my life has curved a little unexpectedly. And that’s okay because I believe overall my life is great and I have learned some very valuable lessons about love, faith, determination and myself. I will share that every time I’ve started a new chapter, something good has come from it. Maybe I didn’t recognize it at first, but over time it has been blatantly obvious that I embraced what was in front of me, consciously or unconsciously, and ‘ran with it.’ I could say ‘what choice did I have?’ But we do have a choice in how we react to situations.

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People often say that God only gives you what you can handle and these things make you stronger. Some days I believe those statements. Other days I think He must have mistaken me for someone else because I’m tired and not sure how much else I can handle. But then I wake up, wiggle my toes, feel my own two legs, take a deep breath and count my blessings to be alive.

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My optimism and positive energy thankfully continue to poke through even the toughest situations that I have faced. I guess it’s just who I am (some days I have to dig a little deeper for the strength). I am so very optimistic about this next chapter. I’m ready for to go on new adventures, meet new friends, embrace new opportunities, fall head over heels into new love and feel new happiness. I’m ready to be the author of my own life’s book.

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Thank you for being a part of this new chapter.

 

The challenge of writing about the LIVESTRONG Challenge October 20, 2016

hh_livestrongwalkI’m not sure how to write this blog. For one thing, I’m feeling a bit jet-lagged. The other is that my heart is so full and my mind keeps replaying so many memories from my recent trip to Austin that I don’t where to start. So if I babble through this, bear with me.

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I spent five recent days in Austin, Texas celebrating life, friends, survivorship and positive change. I spent these days supporting the LIVESTRONG Foundation‘s 20th anniversary of the LIVESTRONG Challenge event. I am a better person for doing so.

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It’s been several years since I visited Austin. My first trips to Austin were, ironically, related to LIVESTRONG. Back then it was known as the Lance Armstrong Foundation but the goal of supporting people touched by cancer was the same. I was very involved with Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana and the foundation provided assistance in helping us start a young adult survivors conference (to this day, it’s one of the efforts I’m most proud of). So it felt a bit ‘full circle’ to return to Austin for another LIVESTRONG purpose.

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My regular readers might remember that I represented LIVESTRONG at the One Voice Against Cancer (OVAC) lobby day and I’ve written about their support services for cancer survivors and caregivers in the past. As part of my commitment to the organization, I thought it would be good to check out a fundraising/team event so I could better speak on the various events offered. And, admittedly, I eagerly jumped at the chance to meet up with some friends who also were attending the Austin event. We all know I’m not one to turn down a chance to travel!

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hh_livestrong_signsSo a group of us headed to Austin. And it was not a disappointment (although I don’t know that any trip I’ve ever been on has been a disappointment because I believe in making the most of any situation, especially an opportunity to travel. But I digress….remember the jet lag). There were so many opportunities throughout the trip to connect with people I had met in the past, and meet lots of new people. I love that we all have at least one thing in common – our dedication to help LIVESTRONG support people touched by cancer.

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The day of the Challenge event was….early. And steamy (seriously, Texas, 90 degrees and humid in October? My hair was so not prepared for that weather.). But the day was full of so much energy. And once again, everyone in attendance had something immediately in common – fighting cancer. Most of you have probably been to a charity walk or event. There is something powerfully inspiring and motivating to be part of an event with a common cause. Of course, as a cancer survivor and someone who lost her dad to cancer, these cancer-related events are deeply personal. I have attended and planned numerous cancer charity events, and I always take some time to step aside from the crowd and absorb the impact. I see the joy, sadness, hope and dedication on faces. I hear the stories. I watch the determination. I am inspired and touched. I leave every one of these events with a full heart and renewed commitment to being a cancer advocate. This LIVESTRONG Challenge was no different. Thousands of people came together to walk, run, bike or observe, as a team to raise funds for a cancer institute that will have great impact on thousands fighting this crazy disease. There is significant positive power in that movement.

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livestrong_dadsign2I felt so much gratitude as I added my name to the survivor card. Some days I feel like a different person than that 21-year-old young woman diagnosed with bone cancer, as if I could sit beside her on the hospital bed, wrap her in a hug and promise brighter days. Then there are the days that I vividly feel every ache and emotion. There was also a moment when I wrote my dad’s name on the “In memory of” card that I was certain he’d be there if I turned around. Maybe more wishful thinking, or desperate longing, but I still am sure he was there, cheering and supporting me and everyone else there that day. I like to think that he proudly walked beside me on the route.

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I am grateful to be able to participate in these events. As a cancer survivor, I know how blessed I am to have every minute of every day, alive and enjoying people and places. Therefore, while I walk and speak and try my best to make a difference because of my survivorship, I mostly do these things for him. And others who do not get to walk, speak or live.

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And the people. I don’t even know where to begin with these people who come from near and far to support LIVESTRONG – from seeing current friends to making new. I must have hugged hundreds of people, including strangers. I shared and listened to so many stories. I sat on a bench after the walk with tears in my eyes as a woman told of losing her husband to cancer, the love of her life, and promised her that I wouldn’t ignore special moments, opportunities or people. I hugged a man who completed treatment last month, then was swept in a bear hug by him after I shared that I was done with treatment too. So many times this trip, I laughed until my cheeks and stomach hurt. I embraced connections that I didn’t know could exist so strongly. I was reminded numerous times of how beautiful life is, and the impact our positive actions can make on so many people. I felt like I was home, surrounded by love, inspiration, motivation and kindness. So much kindness.

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This is LIVESTRONG to me. People thank me for being involved and helping others, but I always feel like I should be saying thank you for the opportunity to be involved, to help others and do good. After all, I can. I’m alive.

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If you or someone you know is going through cancer, visit LIVESTRONG’s website for some valuable information, navigation services and more. If you’d like to help make a difference, check out LIVESTRONG’s advocacy efforts. Donate to support their services or join Team LIVESTRONG. You’ll make a difference. I promise.

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My reminder to appreciate the little things October 5, 2016

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Hiking in Cuyahoga Valley

I tend to be a naturally optimistic person. I like to be happy and enjoy life (don’t you??). I’m going to be frank, though. Every so often I get in a funk and get frustrated with some of my physical limitations, thanks to cancer.

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When I was diagnosed 21 years old with bone cancer in my femur, there was a very real possibility that I might have a leg amputation. It was terrifying. It’s sadly not uncommon with my type of bone cancer diagnosis. Thankfully, I was diagnosed fairly early (it was stunning to know my tumor had been growing for almost a year!) and the horrible chemo did its job by killing the majority of the cancerous tumor in my femur. The tumor shrunk enough to be removed and save my leg. That meant the lower part of my femur, knee and upper tibia were removed and replaced with titanium.

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I work hard to keep my leg in strong shape. I work out at least four times a week, sometimes more. I have always enjoyed exercise and being physical so it makes it less ‘work’ for me (I know many people feel like working out is a chore). During Michigan’s warmer months, I get most of my exercise outdoors hiking, biking, and more.

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The challenge with the titanium rod is that I have to be more cautious than the average person with regard to injury, impact and twisting of my leg. A wrong move or fall could break my remaining bone, the pin, etc. One of the bigger blows that cancer gave me was having to stop riding my beautiful horses (too risky if I fell). I also can’t run (too much impact) or ski (too much twisting), and can only play tennis if my opponent can serve pretty close to me so I don’t have to run (uh, yeah, so I don’t play much; no offense to my family and friends!). Over time, I’ve picked up many other activities that I now love and enjoy. My regular readers know my love of hiking, biking and Zumba. I usually try to shove that caution to the back of my mind and throw myself into enjoying everything I can.

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Sometimes, though, that always present caution and tiny anxiety in the back of my mind get a little louder and cause me to get….well, cranky and frustrated. Because I don’t want to always be cautious and anxious. I want to ride a horse, run a marathon, sky dive, bike without any cares, teach my niece to play tennis and not say no to joining my friends in an activity.

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My annual check up with my oncology surgeon arrived just in time with my blue(ish) mood (this sounds so much better than saying I was feeling sorry for myself) so I decided to express my frustration with my limitations. I am so fortunate to have my cancer care team. My doctors always devote every minute in the room to just me and my concerns. They listen, talk and share. Never have I felt rushed or silly for bringing up a topic.

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Climbing to the top of a sand dune – very rewarding!

My surgeon asked me to share what activities I do or have done since surgery. I listed biking, hiking, Zumba, yoga, rock climbing, weight training, dancing, etc. She kind of chuckled and asked what don’t I do? I started to list some of my ‘restricted’ activities but stopped. I sort of saw where she was going with her questions. Then I recalled a past conversation when I complained that during a hike on a glacier field in Alaska I had to turn back after a few miles because I was worried about falling on the slick footing. “But you hiked a glacier field in Alaska! Even a few miles is an awesome accomplishment that most people won’t or can’t do!” was the reply. I know this is true. From hiking in Montana, Ireland, Oregon, Hawaii and elsewhere to rock climbing in Canada to biking miles and miles without an ache in my knee, I am a fortunate bone cancer survivor. I accomplished these things on my own legs. My healthy body allowed me to push myself physically and enjoy these amazing moments.

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She eased my mind quite a bit about how long my hardware (medical jargon for the titanium rod, plastic knee, etc.) should last and my activity limitations. She reminded me that I know my body best and basically said as long as I pay attention for certain pains, then I could appreciate the many activities I can do. And she’s right.

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I share all this not to brag, because I know most of you can do all these activities and more, but to share the lesson I was reminded of today. Sometimes we all need a reminder of the good in our lives and all that we can do so we focus on the positive rather than allow the the negative to drain too much of our energy. Not every bone cancer survivor has both of their legs. Not every bone cancer survivor who has their two legs can be as physically active due to complications. Some walk with limps. Some are in chronic pain. So, yes, I am fortunate. I can do so much and love every minute that my body is moving. It’s freeing and a reminder that I’m alive. My example is being a bone cancer survivor, yet I am sure that each of you has a circumstance where you can appreciate what you can do.

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Who cares that I sometimes decline an activity because it’s too risky for my leg? So I can’t run anymore. I hike downhill a little slower than others. I stand on the sidelines during a volleyball game. It doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy many, many activities. Or stand on the sideline cheering on my friends, which also brings me joy. I simply embrace the accomplishment in a different way than others. I no longer take for granted that I wake up every day and walk on my own two legs. Neither should you take that for granted because you never know if someday the ease will disappear.

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The fact that I even wake up every day, breathing and cancer-free, is always the biggest blessing I count. And sometimes that’s what I focus on for that day. Because I’m human and have ‘those days’ that I feel a little down and frustrated with myself. But I allow myself those days because it brings me back to these grateful moments.

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On a side note, the really happy news for me is that my surgeon pretty much gave her blessing (with a few caveats) for me to attempt to ride this ‘little’ bike event across Iowa with Team Livestrong next summer. I’m super excited to have something to train and focus on as I think this would be the ultimate accomplishment for me as a bone cancer survivor. Stay tuned for more on my new bike and adventures!

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What are you grateful for today?

 

 
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