Wednesday, October 21, 2009

His Place

Last evening I attended a local Pink Ribbon dinner. There were more than 250 of us present, all breast cancer survivors. As I surveyed the huge dining area, instead of seeing a 'sea of pink' which typically represents breast cancer, this year's theme was Christmas in October; therefore many colors prevailed, especially glittery reds and vibrant greens.

My friend Gina and I arrived late, so woman of all ages were already seated at the tables. Some women were happily chatting with one another, while others seemed to be just sitting quietly and thinking. Still others appeared to be observing other women. Not that they were staring at one another. But you know the simple, brief looks that are shared between women as we all find ourselves somewhat plopped into chairs as we smile across the table at each other. Except for Gina, I didn't know anyone at my table. Gina is the woman I'd met three weeks ago, who I'd invited to join me for this event. We all introduced ourselves. We chatted warmly and then there seemed to be a temporary lull in the conversation. I wondered what the others were thinking about. I know what I was thinking.

"Karen, did you ever think you'd be here? Did you ever think that you'd find yourself at this place? And I'm not talking about the church. I mean this place. The cancer place. At a breast cancer dinner. As a survivor. As a mom with three kids who had breast cancer 3 and a half years ago. Every day, I still wonder when or if it will return. Two people at my table are currently undergoing treatment for recurrences. One woman said that she's been free of cancer for 19 years now. Nineteen years! Will I return to this cancer place again, or am I one of the lucky ones who'll never, ever, have to face it... again?"

I'll bet that those were some of the exact same thoughts shared by every woman in that room. In that place.

The evening represented celebrating life, blessings, and love. Gina is the survivor who amazes me because she smiles through her trials. (In fact, she's headed off to Philadelphia as I write this post today, to have her 6th dose of chemo for her 3rd - or is it her 4th? - recurrence.) At the end of the evening, as we walked to my car, she said these words to me, "You know what? I really think that this time will be my last time - my last recurrence." And she spoke with a smile. Again.

My thoughts of that place can't consume me. They can't hijack my life, or my family. Whatever comes my way, I'll handle it, with the help of God. That's the place - the only place - where I'll find my refuge and my strength! And it's not my place at all; it's His.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Where Have All the Nurses Gone?

I'm embarrassed. Very, very embarrassed. Yesterday, I attended the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition in Harrisburg, PA.. I'd previously registered for two sessions. One was called "Customizing Breast Cancer Treatment - Why We No Longer Treat All Breast Cancers Patients the Same Way," and the last one of the day was entitled, "Journaling to Help Healing." Both topics interested me, and they both proved to be very enlightening.

I had arrived at the journaling class a few minutes before it started and noticed an elderly woman, the only person in the room at the time, sitting in a chair located in the front row. I chose the seat directly behind her, said "hello" as I sat down, and we both started to chat. After only a minute or two into our conversation, she apologized and stated that she felt very ill. She immediately reached under her desk and pulled out a small glass dish. Then she began to vomit into it.

I instinctively stood up and walked the few short steps toward her, and then I gently placed my arm on her back as she heaved in wracking, guttural noises. When she'd finished, I asked her if she thought she'd contracted a virus or something. "No, it's the chemo," she responded. "I'm just so sorry ... and so embarrassed," she commented while wiping her face with a tissue.

I replied, as anyone who's been through the storm of chemotherapy would, "Oh my, PLEASE, don't apologize. We've all had this experience. Everything will be okay. Would you like me to find a place for you to lie down?" I asked.

She shook her head and replied that her husband was the speaker of this particular class, and that she really wanted to stay so that she could hear him teach. She drank a few sips of soda and said that she was feeling a bit better.

Her next words saddened me. "You know, I became sick in the bathroom earlier in the day today, and there were about four nurses who came in shortly after I did. They heard me getting sick, and not one of them asked if they could help me. Not one. And they're professionals! They just scurried out of the bathroom as fast as they could."

She began to say more along those lines, when I spoke up gently and said, "I have to tell you something: I'm a nurse, too, and..." I paused because I really didn't know just what to say at this point. I began again, "I hope you know that we're not ALL like that. I'm so sorry that happened to you." Just then her husband entered the room and proceeded to remove the glass dish from her shaking hands and carried it away.

She smiled and seemed a bit more relaxed by this point. The class began, and I'd glanced over to her several times during the discussion. Each time I looked her way, she seemed to be faring much better. As the class ended and I hugged her goodbye, she stated to me through shining eyes that her faith in the nursing profession was restored. I know that I'll never see her again, but I hope that I made her day a bit more bearable.

Throughout my cancer journey, I had plenty of opportunities to interact with nurses. Most of them treated me with dignity. Providing comfort to me seemed to be their top priority. But every once in awhile, I'd come across a nurse, or a receptionist, or a physician who just seemed to be going through the motions while caring for me, not really caring about me. There were, unfortunately, some professionals, who didn't even notice when I was scared, or hurting, or just plain tired of the whole cancer ordeal.

And you know what? Those were the times when all I really wanted was for someone to sit next to me, put their hand on my shoulder, and tell me that everything was going to be okay. It sounds like such a simple task, but I have to admit that today I am feeling embarrassed to even call myself a nurse. To all of you who've been treated poorly by a nurse in the past, please know how sorry - and disgusted - I feel.

I'm by no means perfect. But I have to ask: where have we all gone?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Savoring This Time

I just love Friday afternoons: no homework to check for tomorrow; no piano, art or any other lesson to race my children off to; no major commitments scribbled on the calendar for this evening; and especially, I love the anticipation of sleeping in on Saturday morning and enjoying a cup of coffee, sans the usual hectic school routine. It's been a long week, but thankfully, the weekend is approaching, and I feel more than blessed for all that I have. And for all that I am capable of doing. Every day. I'm savoring this time. Right now. Today. This minute. On Friday, as well as on each and every day, God is so good to me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lessons Not Learned from a Textbook

It was during the month of June, when, on one particularly warm day approximately two months after losing my hair from the chemo, I'd noticed that several of my hanging plants in my backyard were nearly dead from my own neglect. Extremely disappointed at seeing them, I immediately walked outside as fast as my chemo-laden muscles would allow, filled the watering can, and began supplying the limp vines clinging inside each basket with water. Within minutes, I became so warm (just another one of those wretched HOT flashes again) that I just HAD to remove that uncomfortable wig, which I'd previously placed upon my bald head as I anticipated leaving the house to run an errand or two. It was during this time that I'd refused to go out of the house without wearing my wig; I just couldn't bear to expose my cancer in public by wearing merely a scarf or cap on my head.

I thought that I could pull it off well, the cancer secret, I mean. "I'm not ever going to let people know that I have cancer," is what I though each time I donned that uncomfortable wig. Well, eventually, I did pull it off - the wig, that is - permanently. Here's how it all unfolded.

The increasing temperature of that day convinced me to remove that darned wig, and after surveying my immediate surroundings and deducing that none of the neighbors could possibly see me through the shade trees that lined the property, I took it off. I then placed it carefully on the patio table. Feeling much cooler, I finished watering the plants as I silently chastised myself for having had neglected them so severely. Then, looking at my watch, I nearly gasped because I'd remembered that I had a dentist's appointment scheduled within the hour. Snatching up my wig, I hastily replaced it on my head (after some previous practice in this feat, I had become VERY skillful at replacing and adjusting the wig without a mirror so that it looked quite natural).

While sitting in the chair at the dentist's office, my head seemed to itch more than usual. I'd scratched at my wig numerous times during that office visit. Each time I had felt the urge to scratch, while trying to adhere to normal social mores, I'd wait until the dentist turned his body slightly to adjust or retrieve something so that he wouldn't notice my incessant scratching. Just when I thought that the intense itching would drive me mad, my appointment came to an end, so I scooted to the nearest restroom as fast as I could.

Once inside the restroom, I didn't even waste time closing the bathroom stall door behind me before I ripped off the wig, and there, nestled inside my fake hair, I saw it: a completely dazed (I'm sure) Japanese beetle! It must have crawled into my wig - and staked its claim - when I'd momentarily laid the wig down on the patio table more than an hour earlier! To think that ALL THAT TIME I carried around a disgusting bug, provided it with a nice, cozy abode next to my warm scalp, and "massaged" its little exoskeleton repeatedly as I scratched! Well ... the thought of what it may have "deposited" while it enjoyed its little excursion atop my smooth scalp just sickened me. And, oddly enough, I felt as though I'd become an integral part of its food chain or something.

I never again wore that wig. And I felt so much more comfortable without it. More importantly, I smiled ... a lot more.

You know, it's amazing how doing some of the simplest things can teach you valuable lessons. Today, more than three years following that bug event, my daughter came home eagerly awaiting my assistance with her science homework, an exercise that was exclusively about beetles. And the funny thing is, I'd forgotten about that bug experience and it was only when Caroline mentioned it, laughingly, that those memories, particularly the insane itching, once again surfaced. I can surely laugh about it now; but I couldn't then. I've relearned an invaluable lesson: Life is just too short to take too seriously. Now that's a lesson that can't be taught in any textbook.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Insomnia, Depression, and Anxiety

Last week I attended a nursing conference entitled, "Insomnia, Depression and Anxiety," and I enjoyed gaining a comprehensive overview of these topics. The issues caused me to take a careful look at myself and reevaluate some of my own habits. I find myself at times falling headfirst into the "down-in-the dumps" category. Nothing serious, but I feel the effects of it, and I often seek current literature that addresses it. At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all (which I hope you don't think I am by writing this post), I thought I'd share some of the information that I've learned. I found the topics fascinating; I hope you do, too. Here's what I gleaned about depression:

First, exercise was the main "magic bullet." The speaker stated that "exercise can improve symptoms of depression faster than antidepressants in many cases." I couldn't help but ask myself how many billions of dollars are spent annually on the plethora of antidepressants available to us. Exercise improves circulation to the brain and enhances the production of endorphins. Give me a double shot of those endorhpins any day! An added bonus: exercise also helps promote sleep at bedtime.

Next, I learned that music has been shown to alleviate depressive symptoms, particularly symphonic music.

Also, and this one I really liked, the boon of animal therapy was underscored. "Clinical research confirms (not just suggests, but confirms!) that interaction with animals can benefit patients with cancer, (which was at the top of the list!), heart failure, depression, grief reactions, eating disorders, substance abuse, and cerebral palsy." Cats and dogs were both highly recommended by promoting happiness, but cats surpassed dogs in preventing heart disease. (I happen to be a cat owner, so this one made me smile!)

Spending time in natural settings helps to relieve stress and also promotes normal circadian rhythms. (This made me want to go for a long walk after the conference was over.)

Laughter contributes to a reduction in stress hormones and upper body muscle tension, improved oxygenation, and enhanced immune function.

Expressing kindness and altruism showed an increase in the happy hormone, serotonin, in both the giver and the receiver. (If you get a chance, read my "Fall Harvest Cake" post :)

Prayer and religious practice, such as reading scripture or participating in regular religious services, have been demonstrated to decrease depression in many individuals.

Nutrition was also discussed. Vitamins, such as folic acid as well as Omega-3 Fatty Acids found in certain fish, are very important in alleviating depressive symptoms.

What I found interesting and particularly relevant was that the speaker noted that Tamoxifen is being used to treat disorders such as bi-polar depression and Alzheimer's disease.

It seems that we do have some control over how we live our lives. Living with cancer is the one thing that won't keep me down; I just won't let it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gina's Smile

I met a woman named Gina the other day. We have something in common: we both have breast cancer. A mutual friend of ours invited Gina and me to her house for lunch. After talking with her for only about five minutes, Gina's soft spirit and endearing demeanor birthed a miraculous connection between us that was so strong it felt as though we'd been friends since childhood.

But in addition to her lovely personality, the one thing I cannot stop thinking about is Gina's smile. Even though she shared with us that this was her fourth bout with breast cancer (incidentally, she jokingly stated that the doctors had, in her own words, "lost count, but we think it's the fourth time now!"), Gina continued to smile as she described her cancer journey. Initially diagnosed in 2005, Gina said that her cancer was the triple negative type.

What I marvel about was her ability to see beyond the immediate circumstances. Even though she was gearing up, both mentally and emotionally, for receiving her next round of chemo drugs, which would be administered the following day in Philadelphia, a nearly three-hour drive from home, Gina focused on the things in life that are pleasant. Simple things, like book clubs she belongs to, and her interest in jewelry making. It was her smile, coupled with the seemingly effortless way she made us feel like there's so much more to life than the ugliness of cancer, however, that remain embedded in my brain. Although she is honest about her feelings concerning cancer and its impact on her life including constant pain and tingling in her fingers and feet, she will not allow it to rob her of her happiness.

Women such as Gina amaze me. They encourage me. They bring new meaning to the proverbial phrase "raising the bar" when it's fortitude that's being measured. And they bring to the forefront the true meaning of life: to live each day, as best you can, with a smile.