Stories from a Life I Didn't Plan

Month: May 2016

Back to Work After Chemo

Back to Work After Chemo

Going back to work after chemo has turned out to be challenging in ways that I had not anticipated. Consequently, this week’s post will be comparatively short.


Returning to work was going to be hard physically, I thought. This first week back, I had a commitment every evening after work, so I anticipated being fatigued. Little did I know I was wholly unprepared to deal with the dissonance of reintegrating into teaching at my school, an entity I thought I knew intimately, but which has continued to develop and evolve while I was cocooned for chemo. While I was on leave from work, I thought about how the people at work were not part of the cancer detour, but I failed to realize that I wasn’t part of those months in their lives or the school community, either. I am back seeing familiar things and faces, but I expected everything to be the same and for me to fit right back in. However, since I didn’t live through events with the rest of the staff or experience the ongoing metamorphosis of the school, I have realized that I am out of sync.  Once familiar things have changed and catch me off guard. And, sometimes, my absence has been forgotten about by others and I find I don’t know what is going on for lack of information. For me, this has resulted in an emotional first few days back at work.

Although dealing with the machinery of the school has been a challenge, being back with my students for the last part of the year has been pure joy. The students have adjusted nicely to having me back and are happily requesting to sing songs throughout the day and play games during physical education that I taught them in the few short weeks I worked early in the school year. In spite of my absence, they have had a good year. For this, I am thankful. And, the opportunity to have closure with them is a blessing. In fact, next year I will be assigned to a different school in the same school district, so I am taking advantage of these last few days of school to say goodbye to staff and students alike. I have loved reconnecting with former students and been glad for the chance to tell them goodbye.

Living Strong, Living Well

Twice a week the Living Strong, Living Well program has given me an way to decompress and de-stress after work through physical exercise. And, while I notice my emotions lifting after exercising at the YMCA, I also know that aerobic exercise and strength training  correlate with a lower recurrence of cancer. So, I am pleased to have a dual benefit from my workouts and hope to be able to continue once the program ends.

Furthermore, I have found comfort in working with this group of survivors as we commiserate or laugh about side effects, while focusing on becoming stronger and healthier. Following orientation day, all participants seemed to be looking forward and no longer defined by the disease that gripped us. A sense of anticipation of better things ahead and an easy camaraderie has developed, both of which inspire me to do my best and be a cheerleader for other participants.

Life is Good

Although I have faced unexpected challenges going back to work after chemo, I am happy and grateful for the people, resources, and opportunities that continue to support me in my journey of life as a cancer survivor.  Life is good. Truly, it is good to be alive!


From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor

From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor¹

On Tuesday, life took a major shift from cancer patient to cancer survivor when the oncologist cleared me back to regular, everyday life. With the exception of taking care to not put too much pressure on the mediport site, I can do just about anything I used to do. And, Monday, it is back to work. So, little by little, I am venturing out into the world and resuming some of those normal activities that were restricted until this week.

Grocery Shopping

Naturally, on the way home from the oncologist’s office, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up some fresh fruit that I could enjoy without have to peel to eat. Unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables were restricted from my diet until given the green light after chemo, so I was anxious to get some of my seasonal favorites. Surprisingly, instead of finding going into the grocery store exciting and freeing, I found it a little overwhelming because of the number of people in the store. I bought minimal fixings for salad and quickly exited the store. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed eating lettuce, raw carrots and unpeeled tomato.

However, the following day, I set out at a different time, in a less crowded location, and found delight in selecting berries, grapes, apricots and nectarines–none of which are going to be peeled. Meals have been fruit heavy since then, to the delight of my taste buds! Although I may continue to seek off times to shop, as much as possible, until I overcome my discomfort with the crowds, I am enjoying picking out fresh fruits and vegetables to reincorporate into my diet.

Living Strong, Living Well

This past Monday, I began the Living Strong, Living Well program at a nearby YMCA. The professor from Stanford University who facilitated the orientation session emphasized that the program’s focus was wellness, so we were not obligated to state what kind of cancer we had had or anything to do with our treatment or the disease. Instead, she asked us to share what we hoped to get out of the program and something we valued.

These instructions fit in perfectly with my goal in joining the program, which was to transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor, and to no longer be defined by the disease that gripped me, but by who I am as a person. It was incredibly freeing to introduce myself and to say what I wanted to gain through the program and what I valued. Not to have to tag on anything about the diagnosis, the emotional roller coaster that started after receiving a cancer diagnosis, or the agonizing months of treatment was a redefining moment and one more step in seeing myself as a someone who is healthy and thriving.

Back to School

In preparation for my return to school for the last eight days of instruction before summer break, I needed to touch base with the long-term substitute teacher who has been in charge of my class and my first grade teaching partner before Monday. It was bittersweet heading back to school yesterday to meet up with them, but the anxiety I felt before arriving, and the immediate coughing fit that overcame me upon my arrival, quickly disappeared as I was warmly greeted by colleagues and students.

From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor

Maybe someday my hair will grow long and thick like it was in 2009

I must confess I still find it difficult not to protest when people comment that I look good and that all the rest I had must be the reason. Because my work colleagues have not accompanied me on the cancer detour, and in fact have not even been told by me what illness I had, they do not know what caused my weight loss, that the reason my hair looks almost exactly the same as before is because what didn’t fall out quit growing, or that the months of chemotherapy could hardly be described as restful. While the inward battle of emotions rages, I try to maintain a benign countenance and politely respond to their well-intentioned comments. Admittedly, I am extremely over-sensitive, but, as with all other things, I hope this too will pass. And one day my hair might grow back long and thick!

As students rushed up to greet me with hugs, I fought the urge to pull back for fear of contracting some illness. For months I have dutifully avoided human contact to prevent infection, so I am still adjusting to the fact that my immune system can now battle disease and I no longer need to take such rigid precautions. I may have to continue to remind myself of this fact over the next few weeks, until it becomes an automatic reaction to enjoy the embrace of others without trying to pull back.

Meeting Up with Friends

While on chemo, I rarely went out for meals because of the risk of infection. If I ventured out, it would normally be to sparsely occupied places where I could maintain a safe space from other diners. Now that I am transitioning from cancer patient to cancer survivor, I can meet up with friends in public without having to estimate if I am far enough away from any diner who might be coughing or sneezing. While I do not find coughing or sneezing pleasant to be around, I am happy that I am able to meet up with friends over a meal  to reconnect after these months of virtual isolation during chemo.

Although meeting up with friends is a welcome change, my long-term dietary changes remain in place. So, I remain ever mindful of my menu selections in order to promote continued health. I am not finding the dietary shifts difficult or limiting, but instead find something of a rewarding challenge in selecting something appetizing that is also healthful.

More of Daily Life

As time goes on, driving longer distances, sitting on a crowded beach, and other normal activities will also mark the shift from cancer patient to cancer survivor. But for now I am satisfied to gradually resume quotidian normalcy.

Which of these daily activities do you think you would most enjoy resuming?

1 Hewitt M., et al., eds. From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition (National Academies Press, 2006).

Regaining a Sense of Well-Being After Cancer

Since receiving my diagnosis last year and undergoing months of treatment, I am finally regaining a sense of well-being after cancer.

When diagnosed with cancer, life changes in so many ways. A fairly common effect is the loss of a sense of well-being. Gone is the confidence that you are healthy. All of a sudden, a nagging little pain or fleeting discomfort you would have assumed was nothing before cancer becomes a big deal and another thing to talk over with the doctor on the next visit. I imagine the ongoing treatment and risk of side effects or infection contributes to this feeling of needing to keep track of each ache, pain, or anomaly and ask the doctor if it is normal. For months, a doctor wants to know all of those little things, which creates a hyper-focus on how the body is functioning and feeling.

Once treatment ends, that hyper-focus remains, but the ongoing follow up and reassurance of having the knowledgeable doctor regularly tell you your complaints are nothing to worry about is no longer there. Making that shift from being dependent on someone else to tell you that you are okay to analyzing the facts and believing you are healthy is one of the transitions faced at the end of treatment.

Similarly, the possibility of a recurrence can lurk in the mind and cause worry and stress, especially when faced with follow up tests and procedures. Certainly, having faith helps with all of those doubts, but the reality is I was a person of faith when I got cancer. I still had cancer.

So, right now, I find myself in the lull between treatment and the first round of follow up testing to confirm what we believe the chemotherapy accomplished. Almost all the time, I live with a sense of peace and an expectation of a long, healthy life. But, on occasion that lurking thought in the back of my mind rears up and causes a momentary worry that passes quickly. I am grateful for these moments because they are reality checks for me. Yes, the reality is I had cancer and there exists the possibility that it could come back. But also, I have faith in God and in modern medicine and I believe that the treatment I underwent rid me of the disease and will prevent a recurrence.

What does regaining a sense of well-being after cancer and the end of my detour mean for my life? Loads of change for one thing! Life will be different. My body functions differently now. I look at life differently. I have to be more purposeful. For example, a huge focus is what goes in my mouth. Is it good for me and will it help my body function optimally? Another important change has been (nearly) daily exercise that lifts my spirits and gives me time to talk with friends who sometimes accompany me on my walks. I have come to love spending time walking outdoors and the time for reflection that comes with my footfalls on the cement. The elliptical is a nice inclement weather back up, but doesn’t allow for reflection in the same way.

But, most importantly, I have learned to focus on people and not just tasks. Being a goal-oriented person, I have spent years working toward this or that end, and have enjoyed the challenges. However, over the past months, I have enjoyed the time for conversations with old and new friends. Connecting or reconnecting with friends has made me feel more fulfilled than spending long hours at work or trying to meet some goal I had set for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I will still strive to be an exceptional teacher, but I also want to live with balance so that I can also continue to be a good friend.

And regaining a sense of well-being after cancer means the lurking thought in the back of my mind that someday cancer might come back only makes me realize I have a limited number of days allotted to me and I need to make each day count.

Finding the New Normal After Chemotherapy

Finding the New Normal After Chemotherapy

During the past few weeks, I have been trying to find the new normal after chemotherapy. Although I am thrilled to be finished with ongoing treatments, I am not yet back to normal activities. With enthusiasm, I have increased and broadened my activities, while still maintaining precautions against exposure to illness or overtaxing myself.

Fatigue and Lagging Stamina

However, I have found my stamina has eroded over the past few months and if I become too ambitious, I need a couple of hours of sleep in the afternoon. It has been surprising how fatigue creeps into my daily schedule. Other cancer survivors have told me that I might need naps for a long time, but I have high hopes for a speedy recovery. Nevertheless, as I face the reality of going back to work and getting on with life, I wonder what unexpected physical limitations might crop up.

In Limbo

These few weeks between the end of treatment and being released to return to work and daily normal activities have become rather like living in limbo. My chemo treatment schedule no longer rules my calendar, giving me much more freedom to fill my days with other things. However, since I have not yet been released back to my regular activities, it has become a balancing act to try to find productive activities that allow me to regain a sense of normalcy in life while still protecting me from infection and fatigue.

Catching up on regular medical exams and dental care has filled some of the time, but I find cabin fever to be increasing as time marches on. Still, the dilemma of what I can do depends largely upon my energy level and whether or not an activity will expose me unduly to possible illness. For example, I used to drive myself to visit family or on road trips without a second thought. Now because fatigue sets in, I do not venture very far when driving myself, but instead depend upon the kindness of others to transport me here and there. It has been a limiting lifestyle adjustment that I hope will be short-lived as my energy level and stamina improve.

Lingering Side Effects

Finding the New Normal After Chemotherapy

May 2016

Many of the side effects from chemotherapy have abated over time. Happily, my hair has begun to grow back again, filling in the balding spots I worked to cover during chemo.  Still, a couple other side effects are lingering longer than I would like. While I still hope that they will go away eventually, and I realize it is early days yet, only time will tell if they remain or not. Chemotherapy Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (CIPN) is one side effect that continues to plague me. At times it seems less bothersome than others, but often in the evening, it seems to intensify and feels as unpleasant as ever. In my next appointment with the oncologist, I will ask him about trying some of the remedies others have suggested, in addition to the vitamins recommended. So, I am waiting to see what the new normal for these side effects will be.

Living Strong, Living Well

To help regain strength and stamina, I have registered for Living Strong, Living Well, a twelve week program sponsored by Stanford University that is designed specifically to help recovering cancer patients once they have finished treatment. Although I have rarely been a regular at the gym, I look forward to starting this program  in a couple of weeks at a nearby YMCA and hope to see noticeable improvement quickly. I want the new normal to feature a strong me.


Finding the new normal after chemotherapy in relationships is an ongoing process. Many have walked through this detour with me, enabling a new normal to develop in the process. We have already identified and adjusted to subtle and not so subtle changes that emerged during my cancer detour.

However, for those at work or others who were otherwise distanced, I will have to find ways to reconnect with them and to move forward without having to relive and recount every detail of the detour. Establishing boundaries will help me to resume normally activities and pick up relationships that have been on pause, while maintaining balance and perspective, as well as keeping me from constantly reliving the ups and downs of chemotherapy.

How to form new relationships authentically as a cancer survivor will also be part of finding the new normal. The cancer detour is part of my story and has shaped who I have become. How my experience impacts the development of new relationships will be part of finding the new normal after chemotherapy. I look forward to the adventure!


Thankfully, in addition to family and friends who have supported me throughout the cancer detour, there are many resources available to help in finding the new normal after chemotherapy. Both the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute offer online resources to support patients making the transition from active treatment to normal life.  And, the Silicon Valley is replete with resources, such as the Living Strong, Living Well program and plentiful Survivor Support Groups available through different agencies and non-profits, like Cancer CAREpoint.

Undoubtedly, there will be unexpected challenges as I am finding the new normal after chemotherapy, but I look forward to facing each challenge with faith and hope.

Thank you for your continued love, prayers, and support as I wrap up this cancer detour!

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