Stories from a Life I Didn't Plan

Month: April 2016

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life

What is The American Cancer Society Relay for Life? I had heard something about it, I had never really given it much thought. However, after being diagnosed with cancer last summer, The American Cancer Society has provided me invaluable education and resources to help me navigate my cancer detour. I am infinitely grateful for their support of cancer research, education, and community awareness programs.

This year as a celebration of finishing chemotherapy and returning to a strong state of health, members of my family, friends, and colleagues have committed to walking with me in Relay for Life of Saratoga. If you would be willing to donate or to walk with us, I hope you will visit my page and support Team Chel! in this event.


Writing on the Heart

Writing on the Heart

During the past few months, I have written about the many ways my family and friends have shown their love and care for me, which I have come to think of as writing on the heart. By how we respond to others, we leave little notes written on their heart. These etchings can be bitter or sweet memories. It all depends upon us and how we make them feel. In recent findings by psychologists John and Julie Gottman, relationships that succeed over time have two things in common: kindness and generosity. The partners in these relationships respond positively to bids, or requests, to pay attention to things they are interested in and that is like writing on the heart with positive words of affirmation and love.

Recently, I was in a situation and I needed to reach out for help. Although I used to think of myself as quite the independent person and tried to do things on my own, I have found that I need people a lot more than I thought. In this situation, my help came from a source I hadn’t thought to reach out to at first. I hated to impose, but I really needed someone’s help. It was a relief when the person said sure and stayed with me until the problem was resolved. It was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone and that someone with more knowledge about something was there to advise and support in that moment of need. That person was writing on the heart, my heart, and saying you matter. I care. I am your friend.

Last year I faced another situation I could not resolve on my own. One of the hazards of teaching primary grades is that sometimes they pass on runny noses, upset stomachs, or little critters from their head to yours. In all my years of teaching, I had never had the latter happen until last year. As I sat on the couch one evening as it neared bedtime, I felt the eerie sensation of something crawling on my head. I reached up and pulled a live louse out of my hair. Since I live alone, there is no way I could have given myself lice, but I also knew there was no way I could rid myself of them. So, just when I should have been settling down to sleep, I was calling Julie, a teacher friend of mine, and asking if she would help me. Without hesitation, Julie went to the all night pharmacy, got the necessary shampoo and comb, and came over to remove the remaining lice and nits out of my hair until about 1 o’clock in the morning. It was gruesome and wholly unpleasant, but Julie did it because she is my friend. She was writing on the heart, my heart, and saying you matter. I care. I am your friend.

This week, I lost a fellow on the cancer journey: Geraldine Sims. Although she was fighting an arduous battle herself, she took time to reach out to me with encouragement and kindness. She prayed for my recovery, even when faced with the reality of her own failing health. She challenged me to have greater faith, even when things looked bleak, and to love and encourage others in spite of my own suffering. Her example of loving support was writing on the heart, my heart, and saying you matter. I care. I am your friend and sister in Christ.

I could tell you story after story about how people over the past few months have been writing on my heart with words of encouragement or acts of kindness. How I wish I could share about each person who sent a card or package that arrived at just the exact moment to encourage me when it was most needed. Or, the hug coming just at a moment I felt weak and hopeless, and the warmth of love stuck me back together and renewed my strength to go on. Each person was writing on my heart, making it stronger, making it more loving, making me a little different person through their love and affirmation.

So, I have been thinking about myself and what I might be writing on the heart of each friend or family member. I want to be purposeful and not reactive. I want each message to be positive, not negative. I don’t want to write I am too busy. I don’t have time. You are unimportant. Something or someone else is more compelling than you right now.

Instead, I want to be writing something positive like the friends I mentioned here: You matter. I care. I am your friend and I am here for you–anytime, always, no matter what.

How about you? Has someone been writing words of love and affirmation on your heart lately? I hope so!

Please know you matter. I care. I am your friend.

Looking Back on Chemotherapy

A few weeks ago, I began dreaming of life after chemotherapy and suddenly here I am. Chemotherapy is over! As I am looking  back on chemotherapy, which has dominated the past few months of my life, I feel overwhelmingly grateful.

Looking Back on Chemotherapy with Gratitude to God

First, I am grateful to God that I had multiple symptoms that enabled my doctors to detect the cancer at an early stage. Often, people have no symptoms until later stages when cancer is more widespread and difficult to treat. The cancer I had was found when it was still self-contained in one region of my body and had not spread to lymph nodes, blood, or bones. This gives me a positive outlook for continued health, for which I am infinitely grateful.

God was also very near during my darkest moments. He listened when I talked only to Him about the pain, uncertainty, and fear that came with the diagnosis, deepening my faith and trust in Him. He heard me when I cried alone in the night and brought me peace and comfort. God gave me time and provided the kind of support I needed to process having cancer and being on chemo. He has given me renewed purpose and hope for a bright outlook for my future. God has taught me to “live to live” and I am grateful.

Looking Back on Chemotherapy with Gratitude to the VMOC Staff

Asleep in Chemo Chair

Asleep in Chemo Chair on Infusion Day

I am also grateful for a kind, compassionate staff that cared for me during my treatment. From my first visit to the oncology practice where I received chemotherapy treatments, I received kindness and compassion from all of the staff members. Beginning at the receptionist’s desk when I walked in, to the schedulers’ desk as I left, each person made me feel like I mattered because they cared.

My now familiar name and face are readily recognized by everyone. Each person dealt kindly with me and made allowances for my emotional moments, even the negative ones. They showed sympathy and understanding when I didn’t even understand my own emotions. Their kindness and compassion created a safe place for me during treatment–so safe that I could sleep soundly for part of infusion day.

On Tuesday when I finished my last chemo infusion, I walked out of the chemo infusion room with a warm hug from one of the oncology nurses and a celebratory certificate of completion signed by all of the staff. They gathered around the scheduling desk to cheer me on and wish me well. Although it may sound silly and inane, I nearly broke out into tears. Their gesture of support and recognition was so touching and their well wishes were utterly heartfelt. They overwhelmed me with their compassion. As I am looking back on chemotherapy, I am grateful that such a kind, compassionate staff cared for me on the cancer detour.

Reflecting on Chemotherapy

Looking Back on Chemotherapy with Gratitude to My Family

When I was diagnosed with cancer last August, my family hastened to surround me physically, demonstrating their love and concern. They were with me in the hospital and have continued to surround me in so many special and felt ways. I have seen over and over how blessed I am to have such a loving, supportive family.

My mom came for almost every round of chemo. Only when she was sick did she stay away. Even though the long trip was difficult and so was dealing with an often cranky and emotional chemo patient, she still came willingly with a helping hand. She ran errands, cooked healthy meals from new, unfamiliar recipes, and slept in a bed made of her own fears and sadness about me having cancer. She didn’t burden me with her struggle over my health, but instead worked to lift me up and help along the way. Her hugs made life easier and helped me to remember we would make it through this together.

Dad, Mom, my sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins nieces and nephews showered me with their love in so many ways it would take an extremely long post to list all the special things they have done to show they cared for me. My sisters all picked up the phone when I called, helped me grapple with difficult issues, and loved me in the process. Each one gave me something useful and precious to help me through these challenging months: heavy duty work gloves to use when I grabbed something out of the refrigerator or freezer, comfy slippers, delicious triple ginger cookies to help with my persistent nausea, and packages in the mail with special seasonal treats.

As I am looking back on chemotherapy, I am grateful to my family for helping to give me strength to keep fighting.

Looking Back on Chemotherapy with Gratitude to My Friends Both Near and Around the World

If you’re reading this post, then I am grateful to you. Like my family, friends old and new, near and far have surrounded me with their love.

Even if I have mentioned before the dear friends who went to the store to pick up needed items for me, sent me cards and packages in the mail to encourage me, took me to chemo, took me to the hospital, once even in a borrowed Tesla Model S, drove me to or from procedures, called to remind me I was loved and prayed for, Skyped or talked via Facebook Messenger to remind me I belonged and I mattered, posted encouraging comments on my blog, Facebook page, or CaringBridge site or otherwise let me know you were praying and wishing me well, it bears mentioning once again. You were a tremendous blessing to me and I thank you!

All of you have helped me realize how rich my life is with you in it and just how blessed I am to have such an amazing network of people who care for and support me. You have made this detour less lonely and forsaken. As I am looking back on chemotherapy, I am infinitely grateful to you for accompanying me so lovingly and constantly.

Looking Back on Chemotherapy and Looking Forward with Gratitude

Looking Back on Chemotherapy

Last day of chemo with my 20 lb. chemo bag

Now as I am both looking  back on chemotherapy and beginning to look forward to life after chemotherapy, I know I will undergo more tests and procedures to make sure I remain healthy, but I am confident that everything will be fine. And, I know that no matter where my continued journey of life takes me, even if another detour pops up somewhere down the road, I will be well accompanied.

Thank you for being in my life and for showing me  how rich I am!


Nausea and Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

Nausea and Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

Nausea and Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (CIPN) have been garnering more of my attention than the cold sensitivity and other chemo side effects I mentioned in earlier posts. Lately, nausea has resurfaced and CIPN has become more bothersome. Although nausea has been more of a constant companion than CIPN throughout most of my chemotherapy treatments, and even though CIPN is essentially a latecomer, its long lasting effects can be more pernicious and bothersome.

Maybe you have never heard of Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy, but it is nerve damage that creates numbness or tingling, unrelated to the sensitivity to cold, in the extremities. According to my oncologist, CIPN may continue spreading up my fingers and toes, and unfortunately, could even become permanent. For about 15% of patients, it never goes away. Part of deciding whether or not to continue chemotherapy depends upon the progress of neuropathy from one chemo cycle to the next.

For me, CIPN began in my feet and has been spreading up toward my shins. Most recently, I have been sensing it in my fingertips, which has required some extra care when chopping vegetables! I guess if it lasts for a year after chemo, then it is likely to become permanent. I would prefer for that not be the case.

I love playing the piano and, as you can tell, I love to write. I also enjoy walking for exercise and enjoyment. It would be disappointing if the unpleasantness of Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy persisted and diminished my enjoyment of these favorite pastimes. So, I take the Vitamin Bs recommended by the doctor and try to stay active, hoping that by using these tingly fingers and toes, I can ward off the worst of it. Although only time will tell, I am hoping and praying for the best!

The Ups and Downs of Chemotherapy

The Ups and Downs of Chemotherapy

Chemo Cycle 11

The ups and downs of chemotherapy can be challenging at times. Chemotherapy affects people physically, emotionally, and mentally.

The Physical Ups and Downs of Chemotherapy

Most obvious to the outside observer are the visible physical changes, which may include weight changes, hair fallout, discoloration of skin, sensitivity to cold, neuropathy, nausea, fatigue, inability to sleep, just to name a few. From the outside these are easily observable and people sometimes comment or ask questions about these changes.

The side effects definitely result in ups and downs because they are the most basic daily challenges. Nothing else can be processed or dealt with while in the throes of nausea or sleeplessness. The priority becomes survival and finding ways to mitigate these physical effects of treatment.

Yesterday when I went to have my chemo pump disconnected at the end of my treatment, I wore a beanie because showering is more of a challenge with the pump than I can master. So, my hair was somewhat of a mess that was best covered up. It was also chilly outside, so the beanie served dual purposes. Someone who has seen me on a regular basis over the past five months asked me if I had all my hair tucked up in the beanie or if the hair she usually saw me with was mine or a wig. Thankfully, it was a good day and I found her query humorous.

The Emotional Ups and Downs of Chemotherapy

But, there are days when that would have been more that enough to send me into an emotional tailspin. My hair loss has been one of the more difficult side effects of chemo to accept. But at different times, all of the side effects have taken some emotional toll and required time to come to terms with them.

With so many foreign substances coursing through my veins, maintaining an emotional even keel has been a challenge.  Out of the blue, something insignificant can seem like the end of the world and result in a major meltdown. It isn’t always predictable and it definitely hasn’t been pretty.

Then, there is the constant adjusting to having been a cancer patient. Until Monday, I had no longer called myself a cancer patient because the follow up tests after surgery showed no active disease. Instead, I was calling myself a chemo patient. Somehow, that made me feel better. It was almost like I already beat cancer even though I am still in treatment. But, inevitably another bend in the detour sends me back to square one.

For example when I started chemo cycle ten, my oncologist warned me that 80% of patients made it to cycle ten, but not beyond. My platelets and white blood  cell count were both on the low end of the normal range, so I interpreted my oncologist’s ominous words as preparation for calling an end to chemo after that round. I didn’t expect my platelets and white blood cell count to rebound so effectively. You may imagine, then, my dismay when he said chemo was on for cycle 11 this week. Although I know it is the best possible scenario to finish all 12 chemo cycles, I wasn’t emotionally ready for another round.

In fact, I had already begun to think of what life might be like after chemo. I began dreaming of a future filled with hope and possibility. As I sat in the consult room with the oncologist telling me we were proceeding with chemo, suddenly I was a cancer patient again. All the gloom and doubt surrounded me, effectively erasing my hopeful plans for the future. Once again, I was the woman with the big black C hanging over her head. There was nothing I could do about it, but cry.

I wish I could tell you I was always emotionally strong and that I never had doubts, but that is not the case. There are times when my past rises up and robs me of my hope for the future. I suppose we all have things in our lives that do this, but for me, this has become the greatest emotional challenge of having cancer.

The Mental Ups and Downs of Chemotherapy

Chemo brain is real. There are times I find myself grasping for words or wondering how to explain things. My ability to process and retain information is not as strong as it was before starting chemo. Unlike other patients, however, I am not completely fogged in, but I still find myself noticing little lapses and inaccuracies that were not part of who I was before. After chemo is over, some of this will probably self-correct, but some of it may linger for awhile.

The good news is I have wise people I can sound ideas off of and who can help me think things through. Laughter can also help minimize the sting of these little inconsistencies. And hopefully, little by little, maybe I will think more like myself than I do right now. At least one can hope!

I find myself wondering who and what I will be when this is all over.  I suppose only time will tell. But, whatever happens, I am hoping to be audacious and awesome!

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