Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Be The Change You Want To See..

While reading the New York Times this morning, a particular article stood out. It was regarding God's presence in the world. It questioned where He was during times of great evil. It stated, as I believe, that God shows Himself through the mercy of others, through kindness shown to those in need. One theologian described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another." That's what we do, right? Or, at least, that is what we are supposed to do. Each day, in some form, we are given that choice to enter into someone's world and make a difference. 

During this last year and a half, many people chose to enter into my chaos. Some in the form of letters or calls or a quick text. But others truly immersed themselves and surrounded me with their love; ensuring that I would never feel alone. To me, they were God's mercy. They were the reason I didn't become angry and bitter. They were the reason I gave thanks. There were also some who stayed away, who didn't want to enter the chaos. I get it. It's been scary and ugly and difficult to deal with. In life, there will always be heroes and there will always be bystanders. In 2012 we have seen many examples of both. In Newtown there were teachers who gave their lives for their students. In Staten Island there were neighbors who wouldn't help a woman find her babies in a storm. It is the split second decisions that define us as human beings. 

I have learned a lot about myself during this period; who I was, who I am and, most importantly, who I want to be. Everyday I ask myself that question; "Who do you want to be?" Everyday I have the opportunity to answer it differently. Some days I want to be the person who gets everything done on her to-do list. Other days I want to be the person who is comfortable being alone. But always, I want to be someone who would enter in another's chaos to bring them peace. Not every act of mercy needs to be a grand one. It could be as simple as not being impatient with the elderly person in front of you, or helping someone with kids load their groceries in their car. Perhaps you know someone who is ill or grieving. Reaching out to them will make more of a difference than you can imagine. Instead of asking what this world is coming to, let's become the world we want to see. It starts within.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Needle and the Damage Done

Every two weeks for the past year and a half, Joe has disconnected my portable chemo bottle. But not today. Today I decided to go it alone. I laid out the saline and heparin. I took two alcohol swabs, a band aid and adhesive remover for my bandages. I put on the surgical gloves.  There was something empowering about doing it myself; taking charge of my own health. We've done it so many times, I knew exactly what to do. Clean the port, inject the saline then the heparin, squeeze both sides of the external port and pull out the chest needle. Then I am free to shower unencumbered by the port and the bottle and the need to keep them dry. But, again, not today. After the disconnect I stood there staring at the needle that 5 seconds earlier was in my chest. The needle that has delivered chemo to my body for the last 17 months. The needle that saved my life. 

"Is this really over?", I asked myself. A huge part of me can't believe it. Unless you've been through it, you will never understand how an experience like this changes you. It does more than shakes your foundation. It jackhammers it until there is nothing left but rubble. It is then up to you to decide what to rebuild. Right now, I feel like a shell of a human being. Everything is so raw. I sit out back and let the sun warm my face. This feeling will pass, I know. All I can do now is keep breathing. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Oh Please Shut Up...

What a great day I was having. The rain stopped, chores were quickly accomplished and, my God, did my hair look awesome. I promised Sean I would drop him off at his friend's house so off we went on the LIE blasting Rush. When we got there his friend's mom, whom I had never met before, came out to introduce herself and asked how I was feeling. Clearly, Sean told her what was going on. "I'm doing really well, thank you," I said. Then she gave me the look and reached out for my hand. "Oh Jesus Christ, here we go," I thought. She told me her best friend had fought breast cancer...and died. "But she had Stage IV and there's just no coming back from that," she said.  I sat in my car just staring straight ahead. I couldn't move. I didn't respond. "Well, best of luck with everything!" she said as she waved goodbye. "Thanks" I said. Thanks. That was the best I could come up with. I looked down and my whole body was shaking.

As I drove away, Joe called to check in. I told him what happened and began sobbing so badly I had to pull over. Then I did what I always do in times like these; I called my sister. We discussed at great length the cluelessness of people and the insensitivity most display at the worst possible times. This woman had no idea what she was saying, that much is clear. I know she meant no malice and would most likely want to crawl in a hole if she ever found out my entire story. But somewhere in her mind wasn't there a voice that said, Shhhhh....don't say that? If so, she ignored it. Obviously, her need to tell me superseded my possible need not to hear it.

I'm writing this because I know someone reading it will soon encounter a similar situation. 1 in 4 people in the US have some form of cancer. We're everywhere!!! So listen up. Are you with me? Good. When you find out someone has cancer tell that person you're sorry, but don't be dramatic. I've had acquaintances become so hysterical I was afraid my eyes were going to be permanently stuck in the upright position. Follow their lead. If they don't elaborate keep your mouth shut. Don't ever, ever say you knew someone who had it and they died. Don't talk about stages. Offer to help in any way you can, if you so choose, but then leave it at that. Remember what your mama told you growing up. If you have nothing nice to say...keep your big, pie hole shut! And back to my happy place.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Your Life Is Now...

Today during my meditation I broke down in tears. The realization that Wednesday is my last treatment hit me hard. It wasn't fear that made me cry though; it was gratitude. As I sat trying to quiet my mind, a thought came to me. How many people get a second chance in life? A chance to hit the 'do over' button and start anew. I've made mistakes in my life. I've been thoughtless and cruel, reckless and selfish. And, yes, everyone makes mistakes but most people move through their lives so quickly they often don't give their actions much thought. This year, I had nothing but time to think.

One night, about a month ago, I was suffering from major insomnia. It was 3:00 AM and I was feeling restless with no hope of sleep anytime soon. With everyone asleep and the house in total silence, I walked into my bathroom and locked the door. I stood in front of the mirror staring at myself for what felt like an eternity. I began to pray. I gave thanks for all I have learned since my diagnosis. The change in my approach to life, the strengthening of my relationships, the outpouring of love I have received; these have all been such amazing gifts. To truly love someone and to be open enough to accept someone else's love is the most incredible feeling in the world. I've never been more vulnerable yet felt so safe. I did have one request; now I need time. I prayed for more time to spend with those I love, time to dig deeper within myself so I can continue to grow, time to fully appreciate the life I've been given. A week later my scan results came back clear. I remember leaving Sloan and heading straight to St. Pat's where I knelt and cried and said thank you over and over again. 

While I am thrilled by the latest test results and ending treatment is a dream come true, I'm not delusional. I know the rate of re-occurrence for late stage cancer is extremely high. I've met many people who thought they were done, only to have it come back again. But I refuse to live in fear or be angry about my situation. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” I like the notion of breaking life down into minutes; it makes it seem longer. When you go through something that makes you realize our time here is finite, you want to make every moment count.Will you choose happiness or lose sixty seconds to anger? In one year there are 525,600 minutes. How will you spend yours?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How Time Flies...

 A year ago today I was prepping for the surgery I was told couldn't happen.The cancer was too far gone, the doctor told me. The tumors, too numerous to remove. Then I went to Sloan-Kettering and everything changed. Within the span of several hours I was given my life back. I met with surgeons who had seen cases like mine before and were sure they could help me. Pre-surgical testing was scheduled, instructions were given and an operating room was booked. I walked into Sloan that day a dying woman and walked out with hope.

I remember how nervous I was the morning of the surgery; unsure of what was ahead and praying it was successful. Me being me, I packed as if I was going to a spa retreat. A full suitcase of pajamas, hair products, makeup, some aromatherapy candles and several pairs of slippers. Even through the fear of surgery, I was concerned with proper footwear. That morning I showered with the anti-bacterial soap they told me to use and with no jewelry and no makeup I headed to the hospital.

Operating rooms are not like what you see on TV. They are white and chrome and huge, with one entire wall covered in computer screens. They are also freezing. The last thing I remember is my nurse holding my hand and having me countdown from 10. I don't think I made it past 8. I woke up in another room with Joe on my left and my parents at the foot of my bed. "You made it, Kathleen! They got all of it!", said Joe. I reached out for his hand, started to cry and fell back asleep.

The next few days were a whirlwind of visits and flowers, drugs and doctors. The thing I remember most is the nighttime. The silence of the night being interrupted by the beeps and alarms from patient's rooms. When I was strong enough to walk alone, I would take my iPod, roam the halls and think. Many times during my walks a memory would hit me so hard I would need to stop and compose myself. I missed Sean so much the thought of him made my chest ache. I grew angry at past mistakes, vowing to change. I also smiled a lot, thinking about all of the good times I've had. In the morning I would look out my window at the people passing by and wonder where they were going; if they gave a thought to those inside the hospital they were walking past.

The best feeling in the world was seeing the hospital in the rear view mirror of the car as we drove away. The recovery wasn't easy. I had countless sleepless nights. I couldn't take any stairs and needed help sitting and getting back up. Looking at my new body in the mirror took some getting used to. I was literally cut open down the middle of my torso and had about 50 staples holding me together; I felt like Frankenstein's monster. A hockey puck sized pump was placed below my left rib cage to deliver chemo directly to my liver. It's strange, I hardly think about it now but back then just touching it was enough to send me into hysterics. It's funny what we learn to accept.

A year later I'm still healing. But, this time it's not my body but my soul. For a year and a half I have been a cancer patient. Who am I now? Who do I want to be? I had my second to last treatment on Wednesday. As I was getting ready for bed I looked at a picture of me and Joe from 2006 and it made me cry. Joe held me and said, "We're almost done. Just one more." I screamed at him, "Don't you think I know that?" and immediately apologized. Looking at that picture made me long to be her again; just moving through life, unaware. But the truth is, I don't want to be her. She was always hoping that the NEXT THING would be the one to make her happy. The next job, the next boyfriend, the next anything. Today, I realize that it starts and ends with me. Nothing outside of myself is going to bring me the happiness I sought after all of these years. I have found a peace within I don't know I ever would have found without having had this experience.

No matter what happens from this point forward I won't be afraid. I am loved, I am happy and I am free.