Heather's Hangout

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

Finding gratitude in an uncertain world November 21, 2017

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 9:00 am
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HH_bikeMissRiver 2017_blog

Grateful for how far I’ve come since cancer treatment.

It is slightly stunning to me that Thanksgiving is this week, starting the whirlwind holiday season. And a stark reminder that the year is quickly winding down. I can’t believe how fast the year went – a testament of the fun and adventures creating my Best.Year.Yet? Or the reality that life seems to speed up the older you get? Hmmm, I’ll choose the first. Haha.

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Life is always going to be a series of ups and downs, right? For every fun adventure, hard-won accomplishment or satisfying moment, you will most likely encounter a moment of disappointment, heartache, frustration at points along the journey. Even love, as beautiful as it can be, often takes us on a bumpy road toward happiness.

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During this time of year, it seems that people focus on gratitude and kindness. I’d love to see people be more dedicated to this practice year round, but am happy to see the practice done at all. And even though I try to focus on daily gratitude, I too pause a little longer this time of year. Such is the time of year, right?

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I’m going to be honest – I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around the approaching holidays. A lot flits through my mind lately, emotions to sort and decisions to be made about the future. I have to remind myself to focus on the present too. Which leads to opportunities to give thanks for all the current goodness in my life. Because I am very lucky. To be alive 20 years past a bone cancer diagnosis. To walk on my own two legs after having my femur replaced with titanium. To find happiness, courage and calm after restarting my life on my own a few years ago. To trust the people in my life. To be optimistic about my future.

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Several family and friends have commented over the past two years they are happy that I’m happier than I seemed in the past. I know the decision that led to the feeling of a heavy weight lifting from my shoulders because I vividly recall feeling startled at the change. I didn’t realize I was carrying so much emotion in my heart and “on my shoulders.” It was equally startling when people randomly commented on how much happier and at peace I seemed. I guess you think you’re happy and content, or convince yourself of these feelings, until you step away from a situation and the clouds clear. Regardless, I’m thankful for how far I’ve come in the past 20 years, and even past few months.

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thankfulsignI trust in myself and the journey I’m on. That took a lot of work and focus on what and who I want in my life. And then finding the courage and commitment to make changes, if needed, and embrace the new experiences with arms wide open and no hesitation. I knew I no longer wanted to settle or stay in a situation because I felt obligated; I instead knew I had to listen to my heart, understand who and what I need, and pursue those in order to have what I truly want in this life. Without apology or hesitation. Life is much too short – and you never when it will change or end – to not focus on who and what you need to be happy – not just sort of happy and content, but REALLY happy. I can not settle for less, not now that I’ve felt and seen the difference. Nor should you, my friends. My heart opened to giving and receiving love, which brought amazing people into my life. I’m still surprised I didn’t meet certain people earlier in my life, but I’m so grateful for their presence now, and hope they’re forever walking with me along our journeys.

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I’m grateful for many things occurring in my Best.Year.Yet. I never dreamed I would log more than 1,400 miles on my road bike this year (compared to barely 300 last year, and probably less in previous years), including a trip across Iowa with LIVESTRONG teammates. I overcame a lot of mental, emotional and physical challenges to accomplish these goals. I’m so very grateful for my healthy body staying strong 20 years past diagnosis, letting me walk every day on my own two legs and reminding me of how far I’ve come since cancer treatment. I’m grateful for the opportunities to help many others affected by cancer, through mentoring, writing, advocacy, meetings with legislators, and simply coming together with like-minded people to make a difference. What an honor and pleasure these moments are for me!

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I’m grateful for the opportunities to explore the world through my travels. And even more grateful for the people who accompanied me, and those I met along the way. So many memories to cherish.

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There are so many people and things I could add to a gratitude list. I am a lucky woman. Wonderful people surround me, my health holds strong, my heart is full of love and happiness. While I admittedly am someone who likes to look to the future (I’m naturally a planner!), I have also learned to embrace every day, and find at least one thing to be grateful for in that day. Because there is always one thing, even if it’s simply waking up (actually a pretty major thing to be grateful for!). One of my favorite quotes is “Wrap your arms around life and give it a hug.” A beautiful daily reminder for all.

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5 tips to relax and enjoy life October 15, 2017

5 tips to clear your head_blogheader

It’s been an odd weather week in southeast Michigan. Dreary, downpours, high winds, then sunshine, humidity and warm temps, then back at the wet, gray again. So when the sun glimpsed out, I quickly pulled on my cycling shorts and jersey, grabbed my gear, loaded my bike and headed to my favorite rails-to-trails. I needed fresh air, quiet trails, sun on my face (with sunscreen, of course) and the feel of my muscles moving.

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It was a shorter ride, just under 30 miles, but, oh my, did it feel good to be on my bike after almost two weeks without cycling. Glorious, really. I just haven’t had the chance. And I felt it. Mentally, physically and emotionally. Between my recent trip to Boston, the wet weather, work (where I’m temporarily taking on part of a colleague’s responsibility), unexpected bumps of ‘that’s life,’ volunteer projects and trying to maintain the “expected” social life of an active, single woman (ha!), life has been moving at a brisk clip.

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It’s also been challenging the past few weeks for the people in my life. We unexpectedly said good bye to a woman who’s been a second mom to me for 40+ years. A friend received the stunning news she has breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Another friend decided to end a long marriage. I was asked to mentor two young adult females recently diagnosed with bone cancer. And a few weeks ago a biopsy revealed melanoma in a small mole, requiring additional surgery on my arm.

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Life hasn’t been all stressful though. There are always positive, smile-inducing moments in every day. Thank goodness for that knowledge! My good friend who experienced a medical emergency during our RAGBRAI trip is recovering like a champ post-surgery. Another friend got engaged after meeting her now fiance at a conference last year. Another friend got a clean bill of health after a grueling cancer treatment. I made positive strides on some career decisions and my second biopsy revealed clean margins (no sign of additional melanoma) so I only need to remain vigilant with follow up. My beautiful nieces and nephews are healthy and enjoying life.

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In the midst of the chaos that sometimes bullies its way into our lives, it’s important to take some time to relax and clear your head. At least it is for me. And should be for you too. Stepping away from our day to day routine or away from stresses help provide a different perspective or opportunities to simply distance yourself from what’s causing you grief, demanding decisions, and overwhelming your thoughts. We all need moments to clear our head, take a breath before making decisions or determine if what you’re feeling about a situation are valid emotions or possibly from overthinking that situation (um, not that I EVER overthink situations! Nooooo.).

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Here are a few of my go-to areas when I need to clear my head.

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Get outdoors. You all know I love to be outdoors. Fresh air, blue skies, sunshine. Oh my. I sometimes like to simply sit on my deck, a park bench by the lake or blanket on the grass. I mostly enjoy being active, hiking, biking, geocaching, backpacking and more. Combining nature with physical activity almost instantly relieves stress, anxiety, mental exhaustion. Some days I almost immediately gain a fresh perspective on a situation, other days I don’t think at all except about the activity at hand and how much fun I’m having.

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BooksRead. I like to read a LOT. I mostly enjoy reading fiction for the simple fact that I can escape to so many new neighborhoods, stories and people. While most of the books are fiction, the good ones enable me to relate to characters and feel a myriad of emotions. But the plots are unrelated enough to me so that I can close the book and leave their drama behind!

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Dance and/or sing. If you only knew how much I sing and dance in my house, or even office (door closed of course)! All.The.Time. Some people prefer the television on for ‘background noise.’ Not me. Give me music any day. I was raised in a house filled with music – my parents often had music in the background of our lives, or center stage as we sang and danced through the living room, kitchen, garage, wherever. It’s amazing how music can move us emotionally. There really is a song for every situation! From joy to heartache to anger to anticipation to determination and more. I think that’s why I enjoy Zumba so much. After a busy day at work, it feels awesome to dance and sweat away any work or life stress!

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Spend time with children, family and friends who make you laugh and enjoy life. When I made a big life transition a few years ago, I also made decisions on the type of people I want and need in my life. Particularly ensuring there were mutual respect and mutual efforts for the friendship/, after recognizing not all of my current relationships had those. I made changes, some not easy at all, and I’m incredibly happy in my life right now. I’m blessed and fortunate to have many amazing people in my life. People who make me laugh, listen, support and love. There is nothing better than spending time with these people, going on adventures, talking openly, being silly, able to be yourself, laughing and more.

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HH_GaylordDockTake some me time. I had some free time recently when I was at a conference in Boston. It was a great opportunity to step back from my day to day life, thinking about how far I’ve come and what path I want my life to follow. I think it’s important to live for each day, yet also look to the future. While I believe that things happen for a reason, I also believe you can nudge your life in a certain direction. It helps me be certain I’m making decisions for the ‘right’ reason, not because I think someone else wants me to or tells me I should. I need to do what I think I should and want. I encourage you to take some me time to revel in how far you’ve come, and think about your future. And don’t you dare feel guilty about me time. Everyone needs some time alone.

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I hope you are all having a beautiful weekend and have had an opportunity for ‘you’ time to clear your head. If not, do it! You deserve it, you amazing person!

 

My birthday wishes September 12, 2017

My birthday wishes

Birthdays have always been special days in my family. My parents made each new year fun and happy. We didn’t have bounce houses, farm animals or huge parties like are in excess today, but I loved the sleepovers, house full of family and friends, and laugh-filled celebrations with my favorite Angel food cake.

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When I was diagnosed at 21 with bone cancer, appreciating and celebrating life took on new meanings. I spent my 22nd birthday in the hospital hooked up to an IV of chemo, feeling too nauseous to eat cake (I think my then-pregnant older sister and favorite resident doctor enjoyed my piece!). I promised myself that every birthday from that year on would be a time to reflect on life and remind myself to wrap my arms around the joy of life.

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EEdwards_lifequoteToday, on my birthday, I’m in Washington, DC, ready to join hundreds of other cancer advocates on Capitol Hill in meetings with our various legislators to discuss the importance of increased funding for cancer research and supporting cancer-related programs. It’s a long way to come from that birthday 20 years ago spent in the hospital fighting for my life and leg. A slew of emotions are whirling through me.

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Every year that I celebrate another birthday is a joyous occasion for me. And not one that I take for granted. I will soon have spent more of my life as a cancer survivor than not. What an emotional accomplishment. The past 20 years have been full of ups and downs. I whispered goodbye to my dad as he died from cancer, battling survivor’s guilt almost daily when I think of the life he’s missing. I’ve picked pieces of my heart up more than once, broken sometimes because of my naivete and other times by people I should have been able to trust. I worked tirelessly to remind my body how to walk after surgery…twice. I felt lost and alone many times. I rethought Plan A so many times that I no longer remember what my original life plan was! I’ve learned life is hard. There’s no guidebook, no getting back lost time, no map, no time outs, no re-dos to change something. Sometimes life knocks you flat on your tush. Again and again. And yet…..life is still beautiful. There is sunshine, laughter, kindness, unexpected love, blue skies, hugs, music, mountains, beaches and So.Much.More.

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In January, I dubbed this year as my Best.Year.Ever. Of course I had no idea what the year would bring because I’ve certainly learned you can’t control all that will happen, but I needed goals. And, darn, it’s been a good year. I’m at the lowest weight and best overall health that I’ve been in many years, I logged more miles on a bike than I ever thought possible (the year isn’t over, and I’m already planning how to ride more next year!), I’ve traveled to new places and experienced fun adventures, I’ve been involved with amazing cancer advocacy opportunities with several more exciting possibilities on the horizon, I’ve met so many awesome people and strengthened relationships with people who bring so much joy to my life, and the list goes on. Of course, there are things I’d like to still accomplish with my career and personal life….but there’s still plenty of time left in the year!

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hh_sunset2009

What will a new day bring?

I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone over the years but none more so than almost two years ago when I decided to change the negativity, mundane and discontented cycle my life had slipped into. It was unnerving, very unnerving, to step into the unknown by myself. I had to ignore the doubters and really focus on what I wanted out of life. But I had to do it. For me. And I can honestly say that I didn’t expect to find so much joy, contentment, adventure and satisfaction from those changes. I didn’t realize how much I was holding back happiness until I decided I was worth it and deserved it. Was it easy to leave a relationship and life I thought I wanted and society said I should stay in? Not at all. But I wanted, and needed, to open my heart to the possibility of true love, happiness and real life. And, no, life hasn’t been all sunshine and dancing unicorns; that’s not how life works. But, heck, it’s been good.

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I had a recent conversation with a friend relating to religion and spiritual views. It got me thinking about life in general. It reinforced that just because society says you should think this, or live your life ‘this way,’ the truth is you must do what works for you. And that sometimes is difficult. Because other people may get hurt, or it takes more courage than we’re used to, or others tell us it’s not right, or stepping over that edge into the unknown is heart-stopping. Sometimes, actually often, life takes us on a very unexpected path. Maybe you find a career that you surprisingly enjoy, maybe you meet someone who captures your heart at ‘the wrong’ time (by the way, don’t waste life waiting for the right time), maybe your health doesn’t stay as perfect as hoped. That’s all okay. I know it can be scary, tiring and worrisome. If we let it. Because sometimes the people and experiences we encounter, that are off the ‘traditional path’ of life, are the very ones for us. I’ve learned that often the unexpected moments, plans and people turn out to be exactly what we need to help us find our ultimate path in life, joy and love.

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I’m feeling a bit philosophical this year, and I realize I’m babbling a bit. But, hey, it’s my birthday and sometimes turning a year older makes you pause to think about life. I believe it’s important to check in with yourself every so often.

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What’s my birthday wish? I have a few (again, it’s my birthday so bear with me!). You all find happiness. You find courage to live the life you want. Don’t waste a day. Don’t be afraid to open your heart. Take a chance on adventure and happiness, take care of your health and body, explore the neighborhood and world around you. Share your feelings with people you care about, help someone, be kind, stand up for others. Don’t sit on the couch watching the days go by. When I close my eyes and make my birthday wish, I know what I hope for my life. If you had a wish, what would it be? Think about it…..and go for it!

 

19 years (and counting) June 27, 2017

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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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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.
 

The best date June 25, 2017

Filed under: Random Travels & Exploring — Heather @ 8:03 pm
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BT_plane62017

This pilot can’t quite see over the controls!

I admit it’s been a long time since I’ve gone on a date that truly excites me. It’s been some time since I’ve sat across from a guy who likes me as much as I like him, or vice versa. Dating isn’t easy, especially when you have a good idea of what you want, and, maybe more importantly don’t want, in a relationship.

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So it was a fun, refreshing outing today with…..my handsome, funny, goofy, smart, talkative nephew. 🙂 (sorry, family, for the tease.) I try to take my nieces and nephew on outings throughout the year, and also try to spend time on individual activities. It was my 8-year-old nephew’s turn so I picked him up for a special date. I love exploring the outdoors and being active with the kids. You may have read my other blog posts about our previous adventures in the woods, geocaching and more. I decided today we would explore the outdoors in the city…..we headed to downtown Detroit to wander through the Michigan DNR Outdoor Adventure Center.

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I visited the Outdoor Adventure Center a few years ago when it first opened (read the

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Learning how to keep forests safe.

blog), and it was BT’s first visit, so I looked forward to it. Plus, it was a gorgeous summer day, which added to my plan to walk Detroit’s riverfront after the center.

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The Outdoor Adventure Center basically brings all of Michigan’s awesome outdoor fun indoors to the city for residents and visitors to learn about and explore. There are hands-on activities, exhibits and simulators. There are also tons of interesting facts throughout the center to learn about Michigan’s outdoors, as well as protecting the environment in general. It’s fun for all ages!

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We checked out some live fish, relaxed in a yurt, “reeled in” a walleye and pike from a fishing boat (great simulator!), walked through a mine shaft, and wandered behind an indoor waterfall (Michigan has more than 150 waterfalls!). We laid down in a small tent to discuss the pros and cons of sleeping in a tent and what happens if it rains, then I watched BT climb a tree and slide down. We discussed the awesome ability of beavers to build such cool dams, and I delighted at his laugh upon seeing a hibernating bear inside of a den.

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Eek! Black bear behind us!

He loved the second floor of the center, where there are numerous hands-on activities and simulators. We discussed recycling and energy conversation inside a small mock kitchen and bathroom. Then we tested each other on the sounds of various frogs and birds. He refused to hold my hand across a suspension bridge (um, I wanted it for MY comfort) but did sweetly come back when I was mid-way to “help me.” He piloted a very small plane used by the DNR to monitor hunting and trapping, and I discovered I might stick with commercial airlines for a while!

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We kicked butt as a team in a hunting game, and I almost bounced out of a dune buggy that he drove (seriously, wear a seat belt!)! His huge smile while driving a snow mobile warmed my heart, and he actually congratulated me when I barely won a mountain bike race (he can be a little competitive). On the third floor, we talked about bald eagles, climbing trees and protecting nature.

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Back on the first floor, we sat around the campfire again while we discussed our next

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Love our time together!

plan. With a decision made, we grabbed some sunscreen, snacks and water from my car and headed to the river. I love walking Detroit’s riverfront! Much work and improvements have been done over the past few years. Many people were using the ride share bikes, as well as sitting on benches and standing along the railing. We wandered a bit, then found a shady spot along the river to eat our snacks, watch the many boats coast by and talk. We discussed summer vacation plans, third grade, his book recommendations for me, when I might get married, Canada, birds, the Coast Guard’s duties, sailboats, Corvettes, his dog, my favorite candy, why I don’t like sour Skittles and much, much more. I truly have an adorable, charming, silly, sweet, intelligent, fun nephew (I’m not being partial, it’s the truth!).

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I knew the day was a success when, as we walked along the river front, BT took my hand and shared how much fun he had with me. And then added with his charming smirk, “My sisters are going to be pretty jealous.” Ah, yes, a successful day.

 

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!

 

Celebrating 20 years of life after cancer March 30, 2017

Filed under: Cancer Tips,Life Lessons — Heather @ 8:05 am
Tags: , , , , , ,
HH_GaylordDock

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.
 

 
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