Heather's Hangout

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

19 years (and counting) June 27, 2017

Family_91998

One of my favorite family pics taken 19 years ago after treatment.

Today marks 19 years since I finished treatment for bone cancer. Nineteen years since I walked out of the hospital, on my own two legs. Bald and skinny. Alive. I still vividly recall breathing in the fresh air, lifting my face to the sunshine….and bursting into tears. Tears of relief at being done with the hell treatment, tears of anxiety at what my new life would be, tears of joy at being alive.

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I had no idea what my new life as a cancer survivor would bring. I was 22, on the cusp of starting my adult life. Worried about a career, wondering if any guy would like me as a cancer survivor, anxious to figure out what activities I might be able to participate in, ready to “feel healthy” again. I really wanted to get in a car, head home and never think about cancer again.

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But that wouldn’t happen. Because I am a cancer survivor. Thankfully. And while I admit I spent several months post-treatment trying to move away from my cancer journey and pretend I was my pre-cancer young adult self, the blunt reality was that cancer had changed me. Good and bad. And so I had to figure out how to embrace the new me and my new life. The past 19 years have been full of challenges and accomplishments. Heartache and laughter. Disappointments and fun surprises. Sitting on the couch and exploring the world. I’ve been…..well, living life.

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A fellow cancer survivor and I recently discussed how cancer has affected our lives. In so many ways. Most significantly, it’s the one thing we think about every single day. It’s of course hard to forget I had cancer. If the memories of weeks of chemo and the harsh side effects weren’t so vividly embedded in my brain, the titanium rod acting as my left femur and part of my tibia  provide a daily attention grab.

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But each day is about so much more than my story. I think of my dad’s fight with the disease and never-closed hole in my heart as I miss him. I think of Sara, Josh, Mikki, Alex, David, Michael, Chuck, Travis and too many others who don’t get to breathe in fresh air or feel the sun warm their faces. I think of Andrea, Terry, Jeff, Amy, Samantha, Lauryn, Cassandra, Kay, Mary, Jonny, Elizabeth, Luke, Tim and millions more who also appreciate life after facing cancer.

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MtHood_hh92010

Ready to explore each new day.

When I am scared or nervous to do something or share my emotions with someone, I remember I faced cancer. Nothing can scare me more. I have stared at a monster, fallen down terrified, and stood up to stare back. Cancer has taught me to search for the good in my life and in those who I welcome into my life.

My life has been so influenced and changed by cancer. How can it not be? It struck me recently that I have almost lived longer as a cancer survivor than not. Yes, I am blessed. Forever grateful. Because cancer brought me:

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Courage. Strength. Opportunities. Laughter. Friends. Motivation. Gratitude. Awareness. Kindness. Appreciation. Joy. Achievement. LOVE.

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Some of the best lessons:

  • Do not let life pass you by. Enjoy every day.
  • Share your gratitude by helping others.
  • Do  not turn away from love, even if it doesn’t lead to the path you intended. It doesn’t mean that path is wrong. Embrace every opportunity for love in your life.
  • Know when to let go of the wrong people and hold tight to the right people.
  • Feel joy, every day. Share joy.
  • Breathe in the fresh air, breathe out your fears, hesitations and regret.
  • Open your heart and mind to the possibilities a new day brings.
  • Sing. No matter who is listening. Sing. Dance. Laugh.
 

Still learning lessons from my dad June 18, 2017

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 1:57 pm
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Family1980

We were a tight-knit family from the start.

Father’s Day seems to creep up on me every year.

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Perhaps because it is like every day for me. It is a day without my dad. I recall the memories of our time together, and ponder the many moments that he has missed in my life, and our family, since his death from cancer. My sisters and I were fortunate to have a dad who was ‘there’ for us. My parents were an active part of our childhood, from activities to helping with homework to family outings and more. I am blessed that I never doubted for any second the love and support that my dad had for his daughters (and my mom still has).

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Since we have always been a close family, his death had a significant impact on our lives, causing a deep hole that aches less over the years, but never will fully close. I think of him often. When I decided to buy a new home on my own, I knew he would be proud that I worked hard to afford it. When I made an offer on my new home, I thought how convenient it would be to have him inspect my house (he was a home builder). When I needed to coordinate contractors before I moved, I thought how he would have had a list of people to call. As I make a (growing) list for the handyman I need to hire, I think how easy it would be for him to complete my list (because he would have been insulted if I even thought of hiring someone!). As I still figure out this new chapter of life, deciding on my long-term career goals, dating again, travel plans and more, I think how amazing it would be to have him sitting across from me, listening and giving input when I needed it. As I advocate on behalf of cancer survivors, I know he would be proud. As I prepare to bike across Iowa with LIVESTRONG, I know he would encourage me and remind me to have faith in myself.

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The great thing about my dad is that during his time with us, in our presence, he shared many stories and taught us many lessons that traverse through these years without him in our presence. Just the other day, I was pondering the best way to hang a new shelf and I swear I felt him standing beside me right before my ‘aha’ moment. Some of the lessons that he shared…..

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Be smart. Get educated in school so you can have a career that allows you to be independent and happy, and get educated outside of school about the world around you. There are so many lessons to be learned simply by paying attention to what’s in front of you.

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Be a woman who can take care of yourself, yet also be willing to let a man support and be there for you (and don’t settle for a man who is unwilling or able to do this). My parents raised my sisters and me to be able to do many things around the house, in the kitchen, outside in the yard and through varying aspects of our lives. My dad also showed my sisters and me what it is to have a man respect and love you, as he did my mom, by pitching in with cooking, chores, supporting her career choices, listening to her and us, asking for opinions and more.

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Laugh and be silly. If you didn’t know my dad well enough, you might see a serious, sometimes scowling man on the outside. But when you got to know him, you saw his loving, funny and goofy side. He loved practical jokes and playing games. He showed me the joy of letting your guard down and enjoying the moment. And thinking about his sometimes too serious side reminds me not to be so serious all the time.

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Trust in love. My mom turned my dad down multiple times before agreeing to go on a date. He said he knew the moment she smiled at him that he needed her in his life so kept asking. Many people didn’t think they would make it very long due to varying circumstances, yet they trusted in each other and their love (and were married almost 35 years before he died). I often marvel at how fortunate my sisters and I are to have grown up with such an example of love triumphing, and I often hope my future husband and I will be brave enough to trust in our love overcome anything life throws at us. I have learned that you never know when love will stroll into your life. But to trust in love with someone else, you have to trust yourself, your judgement and what you want.

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Wishing all dads a very Happy Father’s Day, today and every day!

 

One voice on cancer survivors day June 4, 2017

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Grateful to celebrate life with my nieces and nephew

Today is National Cancer Survivors’ Day. This annual day celebrates people who are cancer survivors, and also family members and friends. Because anyone who has faced the disease is a true survivor.

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I’m so blessed to be alive 20 years after my diagnosis with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. I’m fortunate to have survived 13 months of aggressive chemotherapy and a surgery to replace my femur and knee with titanium. I’m grateful to wake up to celebrate every day with the more than 15.5 million other cancer survivors in the United States.

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Today, I’m also honored to be traveling to Washington, DC to join 39 other LIVESTRONG advocates for the One Voice Against Cancer lobby day. There will be 130 volunteers representing 19 organizations from 38 states coming together to advocate for funding for cancer research and other critical cancer programs. If you follow politics or the news even a little bit, you know the important issues being debated about healthcare and coverage for millions of Americans. We’re going to make sure that the voices of 15.5 million cancer survivors and their families are heard by our elected representatives. We’re going to speak on behalf of those who are no longer here with us because of cancer, and millions who will hear the words, “You have cancer” in the future.

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This year at OVAC, we’ll push to make funding for cancer research and prevention a priority. It’s estimated that more than 1.7 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and over 600,000 will die. There is a lot of great research and prevention programs being developed and we don’t want to see those slowed or stopped. My fellow cancer advocates and I will be meeting with our senators and representatives to ask them to:

  • Support a $36.2 billion budget for the National Institute of Health in FY18, including funding provided from the 21st Century Cures Act;
  • Support $6 billion for the National Cancer Institute; and
  • Support $514 million for the CDC cancer programs

Someone once told me that I should ‘get over’ having cancer. For a very brief moment, I took it to heart, wondering if I should try to get over it. Until I realized that I can’t get over it. Because I did have cancer. I didn’t choose it and I’m not ashamed or embarrassed for having it. I am a cancer survivor. That is the reality of my life. Being a cancer survivor is as much as a part of me as being a female, daughter, sister, Caucasian, etc. We can’t compartmentalize various pieces of who we are because it’s the sum parts that make us whole. So I don’t apologize for being a cancer survivor. And I’m not going to get over it. I’m going to embrace it and celebrate it every day because it means that I’m alive to enjoy another day.

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Survivor_LIVESTRONGimage

A beautiful statement!

I feel great gratitude and blessings for being a cancer survivor for 20 years. I am fortunate. And I believe in showing my blessings and gratitude by giving back and helping others. It’s why I volunteer for great organizations that support people with cancer, such as LIVESTRONG, American Cancer Society and Imerman Angels. It’s why I volunteer to mentor survivors still going through treatment or even post-treatment. It’s why I get excited to advocate for others affected by the disease during the One Voice Against Cancer lobby day and other opportunities.

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I can’t wait to share more about my experience in our nation’s capitol with inspiring people so stay tuned. In the meantime, if your life has been touched by cancer, I hope you celebrate this day (and every day) doing something that makes you incredibly happy!

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I’m honored and excited to share that an article that I wrote relating to lessons I’ve learned as a cancer survivor was recently published by Coping with Cancer magazine. I’d love to share it with all of you in case you are cancer survivor or know a cancer survivor. It’s my way of fulfilling my love of writing with trying to ease another person’s worry and anxiety.

 

20 of my favorite activities May 28, 2017

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 12:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,
trails

Ready to explore?

One of my favorite pieces of the start of spring and summer weather is the opportunity to sit outside on the deck, at the park, or anywhere outdoors and enjoy good conversations with family and friends. I’ve been doing that recently and several of our conversations have drifted to what we’d do if we didn’t have to be at the office every day, whether we won the Lotto, retired or some other plan arose to keep us financially independent. It makes me think about all the activities that I would love to do more regularly if I had more time. I don’t think I would get bored!

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Here are 20 of my favorite activities (in no particular order):

    1. Hike
    2. Bike
    3. Read
    4. Garden
    5. Dance
    6. Sing
    7. Write
    8. Make candles
    9. Photography
    10. Geocache
    11. Camp
    12. Wine tasting
    13. DIY craft projects
    14. Relaxing with good people
    15. Beer tasting
    16. Puzzles
    17. Golf
    18. Volunteer
    19. Try new food recipes
    20. Road trips
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What activities keep you busy? What would you try if you had more free time?

 

5 favorite activities that spring brings May 7, 2017

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Love hiking in the woods!

The spring weather is slowly trying to make a steady presence in Michigan. The temps have been a sporadic but I’m grateful for the days filled with sunshine and mild temperatures. I’m loving that the days are staying lighter longer. More time to play outside after work and on the weekends!

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With spring comes opportunities to participate in some of my favorite activities. Here are few that I enjoy. What are some of your favorite spring/nice weather activities?

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Biking. I love being on a bike. Whether it’s my road bike or mountain bike, I enjoy the ability to explore the area on a bike. From the physical rush to the mental clearing of my mind to great views to the simple joy of feeling the strength of my legs, biking is definitely a favorite activity. Our mild winter let me get several rides in even during traditional winter months, but it’s much nicer to bike in sunshine and warming temps!

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Hiking. Nothing chills me out faster than spending time on the trails, surrounded by trees, plants and friendly animals. It’s such great physical exercise and mental relaxation, but rarely feels like either since I’m usually enjoying myself so much.

geocachecanister

Logged this geocache find!

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Geocaching. This GPS outdoor scavenger hunt is a fun past time to do with friends, family, or alone when I have some time to spare. I especially love taking my nieces and nephew on this treasure hunt and also logging a cache when I visit new places.

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Gardening. It’s not quite warm enough to plant flowers but it’s soooo close! I’m getting excited to plant bright flowers in my new pots and put them on the porch and deck. Flowers always bring a smile to my face.

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Grilling. Yes, I know that many people grill year-round, even in the snow and cold. But…..I don’t! I have a great new grill that will be often used to make yummy vegetables, burgers, chicken, and much more to enjoy while eating on the deck.

 

Why I’m biking in Iowa for cancer May 5, 2017

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Excited to be part of the team!

Twenty years ago this month, I walked into a clinic as a carefree 21-year-old three months shy of graduating from college. I walked out stunned and terrified as X-rays of my achy knee revealed a tumor growing in the lower part of my left femur. Less than three weeks later, I started chemo for osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. A surgery to replace part of my femur and tibia with titanium, my hair falling out, 13 months of chemo, hundreds of days spent in a hospital bed, 40+ blood transfusions later, I walked out of the hospital a cancer survivor.

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My life had dramatically taken a different direction than planned. Facing your own mortality at 21 forever changes you. In the past 20 years, so many lessons have been learned, challenges faced and overcome, tears shed, and laughter bubbled out. Part of this 20-year journey was becoming an advocate for other people touched by cancer. From mentoring patients to meeting with legislators in Lansing and DC to speaking about young adult survivorship around the country, I am blessed and grateful to be alive to help others through their journeys. While a cancer diagnosis will always bring fear, uncertainty and anxiety, I hope to be able to help alleviate a little of those feelings by making sure programs, services and support are available to everyone.

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Which is a big reason that I’ve supported LIVESTRONG for many years. LIVESTRONG provides a multitude of programs and services to people affected by cancer (Read about some of my favorite LIVESTRONG programs). Many of you know I was so excited to be selected as a LIVESTRONG Leader volunteer this year, allowing me to take an even more active role in advocating for cancer survivors.

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So I decided that, in recognition of my 20-year cancer diagnosis and my

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Miss this sweet man.

commitment/belief in LIVESTRONG’s mission, I’m joining Team LIVESTRONG in a week-long bike ride across Iowa in July. The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, is the world’s oldest, longest and largest recreational bicycle touring event. Thousands of people from around the country and world attend this annual event. You bike from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, camping at host towns each night, enjoying music, food, drinks and great company.

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For the past decade, LIVESTRONG has participated in RAGBRAI, usually hosting a team of 70+ cyclists who raise over $100K each year for these important programs and services. This year, the route is a mere 402 miles, the third flattest and shortest route in RAGBRAI history. I simply laugh when people say this! That is still a LOT of miles to bike! The first day is 62 miles (one moment please while I take some deep, calming breaths….ok, I’m back). My surgeon and I decided that I won’t ride every day, as it’s too much on my left leg with the titanium. Our goal is three days and if my leg feels good after a rest day, I can add another.

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Logging some miles to prep!

If you read my blog about my lovely new road bike, you learned about my experience with Team LIVESTRONG at RAGBRAI last summer and how each member touched by heart and inspired me. From the other survivors to the caregivers to those who lost someone dear to cancer to those who rode just because it’s for a good cause and fun….these people are why I’m registered. And besides, 2017 is My.Best.Year.Ever. So why not bike across Iowa??

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Some of this ride is admittedly personal. Before cancer, I ran miles, rode horses and rarely backed down from a physical challenge. Cancer rocked my world in so many ways. Today, I am consciously aware of the rod in my leg and risks associated with hurting that leg (including losing it). Cancer can still, 20 years later, flood me with anxiety, sadness and frustration. Some days I have to turn from watching someone ride a horse, run, play tennis because I miss these so much. But I know how fortunate I am to have both of my legs. I focus on what I can do – ride a bike, hike in the woods, have dance parties and so much more.

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So in July, I’ll ride to remind myself that cancer can never take my determination, strength, laughter and love of life. I’ll ride for the hundreds of friends who make my tribe courageous and full of life, the many friends and family who cancer took too soon, and my sweet, brave dad who continues to be my hero and always in my mind and heart, even if cancer robbed us of him.

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If you want to support my (crazy) endeavor, please consider donating to Team LIVESTRONG via this link. Any amount supports people affected by cancer. To add a little fun (because life has to be full of fun!), every $10 donation increment will get your name entered into a drawing to win a bag full of Michigan-made goodies (think Saunders, Better Made, McClure’s, etc) from me. I’ll even ship so no need to be local.

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Thanks for your support and being part of this journey with me. Now I’m off to ride a bike!

 

Perfect book for history and horse lovers April 20, 2017

PerfectHorsebookI’ve been addicted to fiction books lately, as it’s sometimes nice to escape to new worlds and other ‘people’s’ stories. But when I was walking through the library the other day, a nonfiction book cover caught my eye and made me pause in the aisle. Many of you know that I’m a major horse lover so when I saw the cover for “The Perfect Horse,” with the beautiful head of a white horse along with military troops, I was intrigued. I’m happy I was!

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If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy the book as it takes place during World War II. If you’re an animal lover, you’ll enjoy this book as it tells the story of a daring rescue mission to protect some of the world’s priceless, purebred horses from the Nazis.

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“The Perfect Horse” by Elizabeth Betts is a true story of how Hitler sought to breed the perfect military horse by gathering some of the world’s finest purebreds. The book tells the tale of U.S. Army troops who took huge risks to rescue these horses at the end of the war, before the Russians, refugees or others could slaughter these horses for food or other.

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I found the book fascinating from the start. You learn about the different horse farms in Germany, Poland and Austria that bred Arabians and Lippizzaners. I loved learning about the prestigious and historic Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which has practiced classical equitation for nearly 450 years. The book also shares the history of the U.S. cavalry and their role in military actions.

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As much as I’m a horse lover, it was also horrifying to read how the Nazis looked the other way as millions of people were murdered while horses were treated with kindness and warmth at farms not far from concentration camps. It’s sickening to read how the Germans wanted purebred horses as much as purebred humans and would stop at nothing to accomplish this. I also was fascinated by the loyalty and duty many of the veterinarians, grooms, riders and farm managers felt for these horses, as they considered the horses national treasures. The book chronicles the decisions and challenges the farm directors faced while the war raged around the farms and the Germans began to lose.

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The book shares the stories of the many American troops who played a significant role in rescuing these horses from the Germans and before others could harm or kill the animals. These horses were among the finest purebreds in the world so it ultimately was important to try to rescue them as the war ended. To do this, Americans, Germans, Polish and other countrymen worked together to protect the stallions, mares and foals. Overall, this was a well-told story and interesting book.

 

 
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