Turns out that not having to take chemo every six weeks frees up a lot of your time and energy to do other things. It's been four years since my journey through cancer began, and I am beginning to feel as though I am finally to the other side. But it's not the place I started, in any way - it's brighter and much more open to possibilities. Each day is much less of "Here's what I have to do today", and more of, "I wonder what exciting things will present themselves today?" Some days, it's even, "Look what I'm creating today!"
This story illustrates my point best. Late last year, after having finished my chemo, I was feeling pretty lost - as miserable as taking poison to kill your cancer can be, it had been my routine, my job, for three and a half years. Then it was over - what now? I wasn't feeling well yet, but I didn't have the chemo to point to as an excuse for not getting on with life. As somebody who likes to feel useful, I helplessly watched our finances flatline, then bottom out right around Christmas - "the most wonderful time of the year". Holiday tunes, celebratory soirées and decking out our cabin in the woods did little to lift my spirits as we struggled with rent. I questioned whether my pre-chemo energy would return. And my little brain struggled to hold on to the lessons of cancer as real-world reality and all of its responsibilities returned. My spiritual studies were being pushed aside by fear, anxiety, and even a little envy as our bank accounts dried up.
So many things I wanted to do, but we needed money - fast! I could I sell my art, but I hardly had time or the creative juices to paint, much less find a place to hang them. I want to teach riding lessons, but no one is calling me for help with their horses. Maybe I have to get a job in an office, or making coffees, or waiting tables - I have hardly any experience with any of those things, but whatever I can to to contribute to our income...
In a last ditch effort to find work in horses, I went to a handful of Santa Barbara riding stables. Most of them were busy, but when I was able to speak with someone, "Sorry, we're not hiring instructors," was the most frequent response. That's okay - I'm not ready to get back into a show barn anyway. So I stopped in at the local therapeutic riding center, Hearts Therapeutic, Kirby at Hearts sat down with me for a few minutes and told me that their program only hires PATH certified instructors ($$$) and depends solely on volunteers for other jobs. She invited me to volunteer, because "there are a lot of folks from the local horse community who volunteer, and you might make some connections."
Volunteer? But I need to make money! True, but I might die of equine-deficiency disease in the meantime, rent money or not! I NEED horse time, so what's a horse girl without a horse (or lesson money) to do? So back to Hearts I went for Volunteer Orientation and Training. And I remembered - horses, learning, helping people - this is what feeds my soul! These are the reasons I was put on this planet, and I'm back at it!
And you know what? Two weeks later, I was already having the time of my life, learning lots of new things, meeting lots of new friends, and yes, making lots of connections, when Kirby pulled me into her office.
"I hear you're looking for a job," she said with a smile.
I am thankful for a supportive, loving, and kind life partner/boyfriend/best friend. We've been through a lot in almost five years together, and I am grateful to have him by my side through storms, rainbows, and sunshine. Love you, Eric.
I am thankful for family, both my own loving and generous family and my wonderful Boyfriend's family. I miss them all and can't wait to see them again for a big hug! I love you! Thank you.
I am thankful for all my friends, both local and too far away. I am so grateful for the love I receive from all of you, and I'm so lucky to count some really amazing, wonderful people as dear friends. Thank you.
I am thankful for the fabulous, peaceful place in which we live. I am grateful for the beauty that surrounds us, whether it be breathtaking views, the wildlife that brings us so much joy, sun shining in my window, or the spider's masterpiece that is recreated every day over my kitchen sink. I am so blessed to learn and grow among supportive teachers and friends in art, yoga, tai chi, healing touch, horses, and well, LIFE.
Especially thankful this year for the gift of health and the freedom from cancer!
Today, I am happy. Today, I am grateful. I am grateful to cancer for showing me my own reality. I am grateful for the Cancer Center for allowing me to uncover and discover myself, my gifts, and my happiness.
I am grateful for my family, my friends, my Love, and even my enemies, if there are such things. I am grateful for everyone I've ever encountered, for they are all my teachers, and today, I remember that.
Today, I am happy. I have been dusted off, rinsed clean, and toweled dry. I am clear; the world is sparkling and shiny, and there is so much to enjoy! I am grateful for the ability to realize that everything I see is mine to enjoy.
The world is beautiful! So much to appreciate - all the different greens in the trees, all the shades of gold in the grasses, and all the colors in the flowers! Have you seen how blue the sky is today? Do you know how amazing it is that the sun is shining on the mountains, but the clouds are keeping the lowlands cool and damp?
Today, I am happy. I have a new appreciation for conflict, because without it there is nothing to learn, nowhere to grow. I am grateful for growth, I am grateful for everything there is to learn. I realize I know nothing, everything is NEW.
A couple of years ago, I started carrying a notebook with me everywhere I went. I mean everywhere - doctor's appointments, grocery stores, to the kitchen for every meal, next to my computer, next to my bed at night. In my purse or in my hand in between. If I could have a holster made for it, I would. It started out as a necessity - all of the medicine made me forgetful, so I'd make lists. And lists and lists...I wrote down everything, there for a while, because I could remember anything without it!
Then it was a way of keeping myself sane, writing down thoughts and feelings to get them out of my head, so they'd stop spinning around in there and driving me nuts. I suppose that's sort of a necessity, too. Then it just became a habit to have it with me, and I'd get sort of lost without it. I'd panic when I couldn't find it, tearing the house apart, only to discover that I had just left it in my bag by the front door!
I write something in it every day to keep track of things: ups and downs, highs and lows. I tell people this all the time - write something in a journal every day, to keep a record of where you're at, whether battling cancer, or just life in general. I may not feeling like writing an elaborate account of each day, but I make myself write a sentence or two in my notebook every night before I turn out the light. My bedtime ritual has turned thoughts into stories and sentences into a record of events in my personal journey.
As I finished my journal entry last night, I realized I was at the last page. I had no idea when I'd started, so I flipped to the front, and whoa: November 3, 2010. A year's worth of journaling in one book, how cool is that? What was I doing a year ago, anyway?
I started reading and ah, yes, the crying. Lots of crying. I was pre-bankruptcy and the phone was ringing off the hook with angry creditors. Boyfriend and I still had no income or work and bills needed to be paid. How much longer would our landlord put up with us? Not to mention I still had a good sized brain-tumor. I had scribbled on one of the pages, "When was all this positive thinking going to kick in and turn things around?"
Then December came and things started to break loose. My December 2nd MRI was a pretty sweet Christmas gift. A few weeks later we finally got the web contract we'd been vying for for over a year. We caught up on our rent. We paid our bills. Then Christmas and the silly stresses that tend to go with it. I was happy and grateful that I could afford gifts and cards for those I loved, but didn't realize I wasn't up for the full-time "job" that the holidays really are and I was still exhausted two weeks a month with chemo! Hmmm... something to do better this year...
I kept going, so many ideas, stories, and lessons I may not have remembered without my little spiral-bound companion and trustworthy mechanical pencil!
When Boyfriend came to bed, I was still riveted. "This is the best book I've ever read!"
Cancer's a weird thing. For all the pain and distress it brings, I've found that it can bring equal amounts of opportunity, hope, and enlightenment for everyone affected. The avenue to health through cancer can be eye-openingly positive with the right kind of support. And my Yellow-Brick Road to this conclusion went directly through the front doors at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. As I've told so many people, "Santa Barbara is the place to have cancer, if you must, because of the Cancer Center."
The staff and doctors at CCSB took me in for treatment before I was qualified for any financial assistance, because I needed treatment "now, not whenever the state figures out that you qualify." The caring staff felt like a family by the end of my seven weeks of radiation. I was actually sad it was over, because I wouldn't get see them every day!
In addition to offering outstanding medical care, cutting-edge technology, and an ultra-caring staff; CCSB provides a vast array of classes, therapies, and counseling - all free of charge to patients through their CCSB Wellness Programs. I've been taking watercolor and yoga classes, receiving Healing Touch Therapy, and attending support groups at the CCSB Wellness Center for almost a year now. Their Wellness Programs perfectly complement the outstanding medical care provided by top-notch physicans with opportunities to heal mind and spirit while the physical body battles cancer. I can't say enough to express my gratitude for CCSB's emphasis on healing the Whole Person through Whole Wellness.
Through my activities at CCSB I'm learning new skills, keeping myself sane and happy, getting the help and support I need, and meeting lots of interesting new friends. There are a lot of amazing people with whom I may have never come into contact if it weren't for the common thread of cancer and the CCSB. I've met so many people through the CCSB's Wellness Programs: fellow cancer survivors and warriors, amazing staff, volunteers, teachers, and family members of my cancer peers.
One of my new friends is a fellow brain cancer survivor and watercolor student, Michael Orchowski. He is an inspiration: a bright, shining light to everyone he meets, and I'm super-lucky to get to spend time with him every Monday in art class.
Here's his remarkable story: Following brain cancer surgery, Michael embraced painting classes offered by the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. Losing strength and control on his right arm and hand, Michael learned to be left-handed. Inspired by his beloved Corgi dog, he began using his left hand to paint particular images and colors without making conscious decisions of what he was painting. Michael's cancer is no longer active thanks to the skills of surgeons and the wonderful medical and spiritual support of many medical staff, friends and family and the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara.
Michael donates most of his paintings to CCSB, and they've taken five of his doggie paintings and printed them on notecards to sell in 5-card assortment packs for $10 (All 5 cheerful images, shown above, right!). I've bought a pack, my parents have bought a pack, and I'm suggesting that if you like these cards, you do, too. Your purchase will help a tremendous organization continue to help people like me, when they need it the most. The cards will brighten the day of whoever receives them. Just like the smile of my friend Michael brightens everybody's day and lights up every room he enters.
Your $10 donation is tax-deductible and (much-needed) proceeds will be donated to the valuable Wellness Programs at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. To learn more, please email the Wellness Center Coordinator, or call (805) 898-2204. Please tell them that Lisa Tomlin sent you.
Okay, I'll admit it. In between thankfully longer and longer stretches of positivity, I still have plenty of bouts of uncertainty. So I keep a log of some of the best advice I receive from so many of the amazing people in my life, and check in with it when I need a boost. Here are some of the gems I've collected so far:
On getting back to life: Don't BE the disease. Get back to life. Get back to living. Got it.
On going back to work: Don't worry about going back to work just yet. You've still got 11 rounds of chemo, and I don't think you could work full-time until that's over. Just concentrate on staying well. Check.
On money: You will always have what you need, when you need it. Okay...
On stress: Cut yourself some slack - we've had a really hard couple of years. Right. It'll get better. Thanks, Dad.
On what to do next: You've been blessed with the opportunity to figure out what you really want in life. Take it! Yessir! Now's the time to learn something new. Take some classes, maybe go back to school. Doing it! Maybe you should write a book. Been thinking about that, actually...
On my horse career: You've got this crazy ability to read horses. Use it! Working on it! Why aren't you teaching riding lessons? You need to be teaching riding lessons! Yes ma'am!
On spirituality: When you remember who you are, and I remember who I am, we remember: We are ONE. YES!
On blogging: You might run out of stuff to write about on that blog of yours. Never!
I started this blog with the intention of sharing fun things that I was learning and doing, along with a little insight into "Life after Divorce" and my subsequent Relocation to California. I wanted to send a message of hope to women going through similar circumstances, maybe wondering what do do next after such a Major Life Event. Because maybe they had friends who chose the "other half" of the relationship, as I did. Maybe they had family members who were confused and hurt after someone they considered to be a member of their family was suddenly extracted from their lives. Maybe they were feeling guilty that despite all of their best intentions, they just couldn't make it work. Or maybe they were the half of the couple left standing there, wondering, "Wait, what just happened?" I wanted to reassure fellow divorced gals that they'd get through it and be happy again. Because I was living proof of Life After Divorce. Right?
Then, a couple of months into blogging, I suddenly had a lot more to write about. A lot more to learn. A lot more to share. Suddenly, I needed reassuring that it was all going to be okay, that I would get through it, and be happy again. I wondered, "What does Life After Brain Cancer feel like?" I had already survived the Big D and Leaving Friends and Family in search of A New Start in California, so I was sure there must be life on the other side of a silly old brain tumor! Right?
The last couple of years have certainly presented a series of hurdles, from further divorce drama to crappy cancer to the latest blow: bankruptcy. Jeez, what's next, Universe?When could I get on with it, already?
But I was starting to notice a trend: Stuff just keeps happening! One obstacle after another, then another? Get to "the other side" of one hurdle and there's something else waiting? Wait a minute - that can't be right! Could it?
So it struck me that maybe I had it backwards: You don't get through Stuff to get to Life, but Stuff is what makes Life. Maybe instead of looking at it as a series of hurdles to overcome, why not think of it as all just ONE CRAZY EXPERIENCE. Sort of a winding, connect-the-dots path, leading me from one (sometimes BIG) experience to the next; ultimitely writing the story of my life, creating the ever-evolving, new-and-improved, latest version of ME. Right!
So I hate to break it to everybody, but Stuff is part of Life, and Life, well, it just continues. As people have begun to ask me, "How's Life After Cancer?" and "How does it feel to be Cancer-Free?", I get a little weirded out. I mean, the "After" implies something is Over. Done. The End. But Cancer is a chapter of the story of my life and the story continues. It's a part of who I am, a dot on my winding path, and will never be something that never happened.
Life after Divorce? Life after Cancer? Life after Bankruptcy? There is always life after anything and everything. Because as it turns out, it's all LIFE, and it's up to us to choose how to LIVE it. I choose to live in humility, health, and HAPPINESS. With a side of rainbows and a chocolate-covered cherry on top!
I find it perfectly appropriate that Santa Barbara seems to be having the most cleansing powerwash of a Super Rainstorm today on the first day of Spring 2011. Seeing as how there's not much to do outside today, I'll sit inside, cozied up to the fire in my little cabin in the woods, listen to the rain on the roof (in the bucket under the skylight, too) and reflect on the messages of the changing season and cleansing rain.
Such a magnificent metaphor, Spring is, with the cleaning, renewal, rebirth, spring showers nourishing new growth, and fresh starts. I've been having a similar experience within myself, as persistent positivity continues to pay off in the way of increased opportunities thus far in 2011.
I'm preparing for my own rebirth of sorts as I approach my "cancer-versary". April marks two years since my brain cancer diagnosis, and while I continue monthly chemo as a precautionary measure, that nasty old tuber thankfully remains missing, nowhere to be found, in any of my scans since the December 2, 2010 MRI that had us all asking, "Where'd it go?" Best day ever...
So even though the posting has been light here on Girlbert.com, it simply means that I've had other things to do beside dwelling on that silly old tumor that isn't there! I'm finding myself getting wrapped up in other activities, you know, the stuff of life? Finding myself less hindered by health concerns (and the nasty anxiety that comes with them), I'm getting a fresh start with a new version of normal. Opportunities abound in 2011! It goes something like this...
I'm learning new things: taking watercolor and yoga classes at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara. So important to keep my brain taking in new information, my mind happy, and my body active; as I continue on my healing journey.
I'm getting back on the horse: riding, teaching, and training. Very important that a horse girl have horses to ride, pamper, and learn from. Many opportunities to do just that have recently presented themselves, making me think I could find work doing what I love, just as soon as I'm ready!
I'm gaining control over my financial situation: tackling my ongoing credit issues and thinking about what kind of work I can do that will supplement our income.
I'm going places: I'm looking forward to my first trip abroad this week - I'll be traveling to England with my Mom to visit my brother for the next two weeks! I'm flying to Chicago first, then Mom and I leave the next day for London. A couple of days there with my bro and then we're taking the train to Paris for the weekend! The second weekend we'll get to see Stonehenge, which has long been on my "Must See Before I Die" list! I'm bursting with excitement about getting spend time my parents and brother, but I'm over-the-top-busting-at-the-seams-giddy about seeing England and Paris! Lifetime opportunity courtesy of my amazing parents. Love you guys!
I'm making more time for social activities: Boyfriend and I are making a point to take ourselves out for "Date Nights" after two years of putting "Us" on the backburner for my physical health. I'm making new friends through all of my classes, support groups and horse activities; and reconnecting with old friends, too. Interacting with people and putting myself out there as a soon-to-be-employable horse girl again has been good for my mind and spirit!
I'm happy: I see everything I've overcome in the last couple of years and I'm smiling. A lot. I'm letting the creative, interested, smart, curious horsegirl out to play! And she's having fun, even in the rain!
I'm grateful: I acknowledge all of the help and support I've received in the last couple of years, and I'm humbled by all the love and kindness that continues to flow in from friends, family, and even strangers. Virtual hugs!
So - the messages of spring are reccurring, universal, and blatantly obvious. My brain tumor is gone, then my car breaks. My car is fixed, turned out not to be a big deal, but I have to file for bankruptcy. But that's life - your very own version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through a series of ups and downs, with the point being there is an up to every down. Realizing that is the biggest hurdle of all, so once you're there, the rest is easier and the lessons, clearer.
So weather the storm, because there's always something good on the other side. Waiting out the rain, no matter how torrential, is the only way to get to the rainbows, the flowers, the sparkling trees, green grass, and singing birds. And the storm passes more quickly if you learn to smile, laugh, and dance in the rain!
The last couple of weeks have been tough. Busy, busy, busy - like a hamster on a wheel. Going nowhere - really fast. Working all the time, feeling like I'll never catch up, and it was really getting me down. Last month I got this tremendously great news about my health, but I've been catching myself in the throes of negativity more often than I'd like to admit. I was certainly off-track of my normally positive outlook. How do you practice what you preach, Girlbert? The answer wasn't coming as quickly as I would have liked, so I wrote this little reminder for myself. Maybe it'll be helpful for some of you, too.
Here some of the tricks I use to stay on track in the practice of a happy, healthy life:
I meditate. Every day - even if it's just for a few minutes. I try to stop and focus on my breathing: Inhale...Exhale. So simple, and does wonders for my stress level!
I journal. I never know when I'll need to jot something down, so I keep a small notebook with me. I tell people that good or bad, it's better to get it out of your head and on paper than let it take over your mind. Then you can look at it on page and determine if it's worth more of your energy.
I stop what I'm doing when I'm hungry and make food for myself. I make a point to consciously feed my body healthy food.
I get outside and enjoy nature. I appreciate all of the earth's creatures and taking the time to admire them renews my sense of wonder and humility.
Find the humor and laugh! There's something funny in every situation (I promise!), and if you can do that, you'll get through anything.
I cry if I need to, then pick myself up and move on. But most importantly, don't bottle it up - let it OUT! It's okay to be angry/sad/whatever, as long as you address it and move on.
I make time for the things I love to do. It's important to have a hobby or creative outlet. I started taking a watercolor class through the Cancer Center this fall, and I'm having a blast learning how to paint! Learning something new is so good for your mind, and being an art student reminds me that we're all students in the lesson that is life! I've also recently begun to take more time for my horse and my horse friends and that's been good for my spirit and to reconnect with the horse girl inside me. Reminds me that I'm still a horse girl, just waiting to get back in the saddle.
I exercise. Okay, not every day, but I try to do something to get my blood pumping at least every other day. Then I yoga or do some pilates at home on days in between. I admit I'm not a big fan of exercising for exercising's sake, but I've seen the results of with vs. without: My blood counts (taken every week) are more stable, my mood is better, and I definitely have more energy with exercise. (Don't they have some research to prove that, somewhere, too?) Not to mention I look better with a little muscle on, and who doesn't like to look good? A shaman once told me, "if you look good, you feel good."
And I have to give credit to so many healers, friends (animals, too!), shamans, energy workers, family members, doctors, holistic practitioners, and some people I've never even met; for inspiring me to be better, learn more, and HEAL. So put yourself out there - you never know who you'll meet, what you'll learn, or what you'll get back. Know that your energy, love, and support will be returned, times ten!