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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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.
 

5 lessons to my 21-year-old self February 3, 2017

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 9:00 am
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MtHood_hh92010

Enjoy every day!

I went to see my oncology surgeon the other day for a check-up. For those of you who haven’t read my history, I am a bone cancer survivor. Diagnosed at 21, I was fortunate to have my left leg saved, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatment and a major surgery to replace the lower part of my femur, knee and top part of my tibia with titanium.

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My leg has recently been achy in unusual areas of the titanium rod. I kicked off a busy fitness routine at the beginning of the year, including Zumba, strength training, cycling and whatever else I feel like doing. I decided better safe than sorry by visiting my surgeon. Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be anything distinctly wrong with my leg. The tenderness is probably due to the return of cold, winter weather in Michigan and, more likely, that I do not like to sit still. I push my leg regularly with all the physical activities on my schedule, which my surgeon forewarned wears out my hardware (medical terms). I know this and know I most likely will have the hardware replaced in time. But thankfully not yet. While there is nothing wrong with my leg, I still received some suggested restrictions that kind of bummed me out. Because I don’t like to be restricted from what I want/like to do (who does, right??). It makes me feel like cancer is winning a bit, weird as that may sound as I write this with a clean bill of health (thank heavens).

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I admit when I left my surgeon’s office, I felt a bit…well, pouty, a tad frustrated and maybe even a bit sorry for myself. So when I stopped in the waiting area to put my coat and gloves on and looked around at the other patients waiting for appointments with various oncology doctors, I was quickly reminded to count my blessings. Especially when I noticed a young woman sitting near me flipping through a magazine. I saw her bald head peeking out of the colorful hat she wore. We smiled at each other and I swear I saw a glimpse of myself at 21 years old, feeling hopeful, nervous, anxious, tired, determined.

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Trust yourself, even if some part is titanium!

When the woman was called back to the exam room, I found myself staring at that closed door. I vividly remembered being at that stage of treatment, mustering up positive energy and smiles because I really believed a good attitude would help my fight against this disease. But deep down I was also terrified, confused (why this was happening to me), and uncertain. Yet, I kept the positive attitude through treatment and beyond (it thankfully is my preferred state of mind). I gave thanks daily at being alive. I felt blessed at the people who made incredibly positive impacts as they entered my life, sometimes to simply pass through. I counted blessings even when the hits came. And I continue to do all that. Every day.

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As I later sat in my car waiting for it to warm up (come on, spring!), I still thought of the young woman. And of myself, who at 21 had so many ‘big plans’ for the future. I don’t know that I would tell my younger self to not do or try something because, as difficult as some of those situations (and people) turned out to be, each one brought me to this point in my life and helped add to the woman I am today. I needed those learning experiences (okay, maybe I could have skipped some of the tears and bad dates). But there are still some lessons I would share with my younger self:

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Have faith in yourself. There will be moments when a situation or person makes you doubt yourself, your talents, emotions, and, possibly, even your thoughts. Stay true to yourself. No one can tell you how you think or feel. YOU will make the best decisions for you. There will be challenges to overcome throughout your lifetime – some you may see coming, many you will not. As odd as it sounds, try to embrace these. The disappointment, tears, heartaches, frustrations, uncertainty. These will make you stronger, wiser, fiercer in determination and courage, more compassionate, and prepare you for the next challenge. Never lose faith or trust in yourself.

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Trust your gut instincts. These red flags wave for a reason. Sometimes these gut instincts will mean you need to do something unpopular or may make others unhappy with you. Sometimes these gut instincts will protect you from potentially difficult situations. If you know something isn’t right, pay attention and react. But know that you will also at times ignore your instincts. Learn from the moments that will inevitably follow.

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Take nothing or no one for granted. I heard many times growing up that “life is never guaranteed so appreciate it.” I didn’t really understand what that meant until my cancer diagnosis. Before cancer, I thought I would always be able to run on two legs and be adventurous in my choices of physical activities. I trusted that my dad would be beside my mom, sisters and me for decades to come. Life changes, sometimes very unexpectedly. I learned to fully embrace happiness, family, friends, adventures, accomplishments and so much more. Take time to step back to soak in special moments.

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Don’t hesitate to share your emotions with someone special. Whether your parents, siblings, friends, crush or someone passing through who made a positive impact on you, share your thanks, thoughts and feelings. You really don’t know that there will be another chance or another day to share. Within two years after treatment, I lost four friends to cancer and there is so much I wish I would have shared with them. I know in the past I missed opportunities to share my feelings with romantic partners, friends and others because I was either too shy, nervous of their reaction, figured I had time or some other silly reason. I rarely let those moments slip by me now. On the flip side, when someone hurts or upsets me, I voice those feelings too. It took a long time to find that voice because I tend to be nice and worry about others’ feelings, but I’ve learned there are ways to have difficult conversations in a kind, respectful way (even when the other person may not be).

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Enjoy every day. Even on seemingly bad days, don’t go to bed without picking one positive moment in the day. Because I promise there will always be one moment that makes you smile, brings you comfort or at the very least reminds you that there will be sunshine tomorrow. And don’t forget to laugh. Often. Nothing makes me feel better and more optimistic than laughing. Surround yourself with people who share your zest for life. Find a job you enjoy, explore the world outside of your local community, try new activities. Live.

 

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.

 

5 ways to focus on feeling gratitude November 23, 2016

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 9:00 am
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Grateful for this family.

I always start seeing lots of posts on social media relating to gratitude and blessings as the holiday season approaches. And, of course, Thanksgiving is a great time to focus on being thankful. But why not express gratitude all year long?

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I am so thankful for so much. From my amazing family and friends to my good health to a good job to being alive, I thank my lucky stars daily for all that I have in my life. As positive and optimistic as I am, I too have moments/days that sometimes make me just feel….yuck, blah, blue, you name it. You know what? It’s okay to feel these emotions. I acknowledge and embrace these emotions sometimes as much as the happy and loving emotions because it allows me to address what in my life is making me feel these and perhaps change a situation if I can. Acknowledging these emotions also makes me that much more grateful for the people and circumstances that bring me joy and contentment.

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If you’re feeling in a funk or having a blue kind of day, here some suggestions for moving your mindset into a positive mode.

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Think of three things to be grateful for from your day. Every night as I lay in my bed, I recall three good things from the day. Even if it didn’t feel like a good day, there is always at least one good thing you can think of for the day. Maybe it’s simply that you lived through another day. Once you think of one thing, I find that the others come to mind. Sometimes my items are simple (being alive, saying no to Dr Pepper, etc) and other times a bit more complex. Recalling these items reminds me of the good in my life, as well as helps me relax before falling asleep.

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Pictures. I love taking pictures of my adventures, time with family and friends, and any other fun moment that I can capture. And while I do store a lot on my smartphone and computer, I still print many pictures to place in frames around my home. I love walking through rooms, glancing at a particular picture that brings back happy memories. I am grateful for the opportunities and people in my life.

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Write your gratitude.

Journal. I love to write and am an admitted journal collector (sounds nicer than addict!). I see a pretty or inspirational journal at the store and buy it. And use it. I have multiple journals in use – one for writing my gratitude lists, another for blog post ideas, another for article notes, and….you get the idea. Writing down my gratitude, goals, and positive moments helps me stay focused on the good feelings. I also love to go back and read what I wrote, particularly on days that I can use a bit of optimism.

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Tell people how you feel. I never used to be very open about my feelings. I felt awkward sharing how I felt, especially if it might come across as mushy or sentimental. It’s still not super easy to share but I have learned how important it is to let someone know how you feel because the opportunity may never happen again. I want people to know they are appreciated, loved, cared for and valued as a part of my life.

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Live it. If you really want to feel happy and be positive, then you have to live your life in a positive way. Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to do that. Instead of focusing on the negative things happening in your life, think of the good (remember, at the very least, you can express gratitude that you woke up and are alive). You attract what you share so if you are always speaking negatively, thinking pessimistic thoughts and expecting less than stellar things to happen to you, chances are that those things may happen. We all have moments, even days, of feeling blue. That’s okay. It’s how you pull yourself out of those blue feelings that can make all the difference in your life. Start by saying thank you to someone. Smile at a stranger (and even yourself in a mirror!). Do a kind act for someone. Give a hug. Send a card. Volunteer. Offer to help another.

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There are so many simple, free ways to live a life of gratitude. Start today. You’ll be grateful that you did.

 

Smiles for my dad November 1, 2016

Filed under: Life Lessons — Heather @ 8:12 am
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family1980

A family filled with love.

I’m so blessed to have amazing people surrounding me in love, especially my mom who has been my biggest protector and supporter since I was born. Yet, there is always a glaring hole in my support system that I can’t help but think of and miss daily. This is a tricky time of year for my family. As we prepare to celebrate the holidays, we know that in years past we also would be celebrating my dad’s birthday. No matter how many years pass without him, the ache of missing him never truly dulls. So today, if you could bear with me, I thought I’d share a few stories about an awesome man.

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My dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow, less than a year after my bone cancer diagnosis. If my cancer diagnosis was shocking to me, his was devastating. Here was this young man, not quite 50, the foundation of our family, the strong father given three months to live. Thankfully, my determined mother and stubborn father told the doctors that was unacceptable and searched out new treatment alternatives. Since I was still in treatment, for a few weeks my mom would visit me on one floor of the hospital, then head upstairs to see my dad. Yes, she is forever a heroine in my story.

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I fought my own guilt with his diagnosis for a long time. Several times after my diagnosis, he would hold my hand and whisper a prayer. I once asked him what he prayed for and he responded that he offered to take my cancer away. I was very upset and angry at him for even hinting at that. Cancer was terrible. My chemo treatments slammed my body and kicked my butt. I couldn’t imagine wishing this disease on anyone, let alone one of my beloved family members. So when my dad was diagnosed shortly after I received very promising health results, I admittedly was pretty shaken. My logical brain knew that my brave, strong dad couldn’t will my cancer from my body into his but….my wounded heart questioned it for a long time.

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A great example of love.

The day before his 50th birthday, he was at the hospital recovering from his first stem cell transplant. He told the doctor that all he wanted was to spend his birthday at home with his family. So you can imagine his joy when the doctor walked in the next day and announced he was discharging my dad. What a happy day for all of us! Little did we know that we would only celebrate a few more birthdays with him. But that day, we felt blessed.

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I’m grateful for a childhood filled with love and laughter. My parents created a wonderful home that welcomed everyone, and we often had friends and family stopping in. My sisters and I would even come home to find friends hanging out or playing basketball with our dad! I loved watching my parents together. They weren’t perfect, and I could tell when they were driving each other crazy, but they loved and really respected each other. Not everyone believed in their relationship at the beginning, not even my mom! She turned down his date invitations numerous times before finally saying yes (thankfully!). He said he remained persistent because he just knew that she was the one. He felt a connection that he couldn’t ignore. My parents always made me believe in love. Any time I start to doubt the power of love, I think of them. I am so blessed to have such examples of two people overcoming obstacles for love. It gives me great hope for my future.

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I can’t hear Michael Jackson’s Thriller without thinking of my dad and my best friend’s dad acting like zombies while chasing all of us squealing girls! Pick a song by John Denver, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, ABBA, Kenny Rogers, The Carpenters and Neil Diamond, and my sisters and I can probably sing every word….and maybe even have a dance for it.

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When I wanted to ride horses at nine years old, my mom agreed (I had a truly stellar sales pitch) but my dad was hesitant. I’m sure money for riding lessons was a concern, but he admitted his greater concern was that I would get hurt. My mom enrolled me in lessons and, shortly after, he became one of my biggest fans. While they had neither the time nor money to devote to my obsession, both of my parents often took turns driving me to the barn after work, helping groom the horse and watch my lessons. My dad was at the barn once when I was thrown off by a particularly feisty horse (that I loved to ride). He was in the arena as fast as my trainer. As I stood and brushed myself off, he held the reins of the bridle. “You ok?” he asked. When I acknowledged I was, he handed me the reins, gave me a leg up into the saddle, looked at the horse and sternly said, “Don’t dump my daughter again.” And that horse never did. While my mom was the ‘go to’ parent with questions and concerns during college, I always knew when it was time for me to go home for a visit because my dad would suddenly call to check in, make sure I was happy, of course studying, no boys were bothering me and remind me how proud he was of my goals.

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Pictures capture the special memories.

Once we were both diagnosed with our cancers, we shared a lot of random conversations about life, the challenges of cancer, his hopes for my sisters’ and my futures, and the trips and adventures he wanted to take with my mom. Towards the end of his life, when he accepted his approaching death before any of us, he reminded me that his fight would not be over if he wasn’t here because he would live on in my mom, sisters, me, our kids.

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I often pause in the day to think of him, wondering if he would be proud of the woman I am today. I would like to think so. I would give anything to have one more talk with him, one more opportunity to hear his fatherly advice in that gruff, no-nonsense voice.

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I’ve thought much about my dad recently, of the advice or direction he might give me at this juncture in my life. I have not made the best decisions in the past, sometimes ignoring my gut and my heart, things he always advised against doing. I’m sure he shook his head as I made those decisions. Yet I’m also sure he waited at this juncture, because he always had faith in me to find my way. He believed that of my sisters and me all through our lives.

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A few lessons that my sweet dad taught me during our time together:

  • Do not take life for granted.
  • Don’t ignore what’s in front of you, even if it’s not what society tells you should do or who you should love.
  • Be loyal and kind to others. But don’t let someone take advantage of that loyalty and kindness.
  • Don’t sit idle waiting for life. Take chances, trust your gut.
  • Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Just try to learn from those mistakes. And know that what someone else may think is a mistake, may be exactly what you were supposed to do/learn.
  • You are owed nothing so work hard for what you want. Do not quit on yourself or your goals.
  • Help those who need it because we all have something and some time to give.
  • Laugh, dance and enjoy life.
  • Do not wait to tell someone how you feel about them because the moment may never come again.
  • Offer a smile to others. A few days before my dad died, he told me that my kindness and smile will change the world. Maybe it’s not that easy to change the world, but then again, a smile is one of the easiest (and free!) things we can share with others.
 

My reminder to appreciate the little things October 5, 2016

hh_cuyahogatrail2008

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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sanddunes

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?

 

18 lessons cancer taught me June 27, 2016

Filed under: Cancer Tips,Life Lessons — Heather @ 8:15 am
Tags: , , , ,

18yrs_cancer

Today is a special day for me. Actually, every day is a special for me. Every day that I wake up, can breathe deeply, get out of bed on my own two legs. And every night when I get into bed, say prayers of gratitude, close my eyes and fall asleep, breathing on my own. And every moment in between.

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Eighteen years ago I walked out of the hospital, finally finished with an aggressive treatment for bone cancer. I spent most of 13 months in the hospital while intense chemotherapy pumped through my body. I endured a surgery that removed most of my femur and part of my tibia, replacing these with a titanium rod, and forcing me to teach my leg muscles to walk again (but, man, did I have amazing arm muscles after seven months on crutches!). I lost my hair, weight, eyelashes, and appetite. I felt fear, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, anger and more.

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HH_Mill Creek stone_Cuyahoga 508But, wait. I refused to let cancer fill me with bitterness and fear (I still refuse!). I also felt hope, joy, love and support. I made new friends and reconnected with old friends who touched me with their outpouring of love and encouragement throughout treatment and beyond. I discovered a strength and determination I didn’t know existed inside of me. My love for life blossomed, laughter at simple things bubbled up inside of me and I caught myself throwing my arms to welcome new adventures, new people, and new possibilities.

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Cancer, for all of its scary and sad moments, taught me to embrace life and accept change as gracefully as I can (which isn’t always easy!). Here are a few other lessons that I’ve learned along the way during these past 18 years:

  1. Take no one or nothing for granted. You just don’t know when life will change or that person will no longer be in your life.
  2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Go after your dreams. You may not get another opportunity.
  3. Tell someone how you feel. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings. Feeling love, happiness, gratitude? Spill it. Feeling frustrated, sad, lonely, annoyed? Share those emotions too. Let people know and understand how you feel. It’s okay to be vulnerable.
  4. Let go of negative emotions. Seriously, just let it go. Resentment, hate, anger and allbreathquote those just build into a negative ball of energy and drag you down. Life is too short to not be happy.
  5. Travel. Get away from your hometown, state, country if you can. Sometimes stepping away from the every day helps clear your view of life, present and future.
  6. Ditch technology every so often. We’re a society programmed into being connected. I get it (heck, I’m typing this on a computer!). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t set technology down to have real conversations in person, read a real book with pages, play a real sport or activity in the real outdoors.
  7. Hang out with kids. Life is much simpler through the eyes of children and teens. They mostly still believe in magic and ask good questions and project a sense of innocence onto you.
  8. Make new friends. If you still have friends from childhood, you’re fortunate. But life brings a wave of new circumstances that sometimes offer new relationships with people. Embrace new friends and new experiences. I believe everyone touches our lives for a reason, even those you sometimes quickly move past.
  9. Volunteer in your community and beyond. We are all fortunate to be here. We all have something to give to others. It doesn’t have to be money – volunteer your time, help at an event, help make our communities better places. The world could use a lot more love and gratitude.
  10. Spend time with older generations. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. Just as children give me a sense of innocence, older generations give me a sense of wisdom. In today’s fast-paced, technology society, I think we often forget to listen to those who learned long before us. Wisdom should not be ignored.
  11. Be a good friend. Be there when others need you, not just when you need others. Accept that we are not all the same, that our lives may have different paths. Know it’s okay to have friends who are different than you.
  12. Love fiercely and deeply. Don’t be afraid to open yourself to falling in love. I am a romantic and believe love drives so much of our kindness, smiles and contentment. Love isn’t perfect but neither are you. Embrace it to find joy.
  13. Don’t take today, tomorrow, or next year for granted.
  14. Be prepared to move on. Sometimes you try and try, but life presents a situation or problem that you can’t solve. It’s okay to say, “I’ve given it my all and now I am letting go.” Be brave and accept your decision.
  15. Snuggle with a puppy. Animals love unconditionally when you love them.
  16. Don’t settle for less than happy. As I said, life is too short to not be happy.
  17. Respect and listen to your body. We only get one great vessel so take care of it, listen when it tells you something is wrong and keep it healthy and strong.
  18. Welcome each new day with gratitude and love.
 

 
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