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!
So there's more to the title of that last post - much more - but I opted to quit with just the facts last time. Just get everybody up to speed with the story, while taking a little more time to process and plan Part Two.
As I wrote the previous post, something struck me as I typed the words, "Believe It." They appeared on the screen before me, and I realized I had much more to share than "Just the facts, m'am". One of my mantras over my years of exploration into my own spirituality, my mission in this lifetime, on this planet; has been "If I believe it, well then it must be true," or "If you believe that, that it will be true for you." I'm always telling people: "There is so much power in what you think!" Also, "Write down what you want, and you'll have it."
I was really lucky to have this really great riding instructor, professor, and mentor in college whose mantra was, "There's no sense in practicing at all, if you're going to practice the wrong things. Practice correctly, or don't practice at all." She was, of course, talking about riding horses, but I've carried that mantra with me through all aspects of life. She's also one of the happiest, cheeriest people I know, so I'm pretty sure she applies this statement to her whole life, too.
I didn't realize how to apply it to more than riding then, but I see it so clearly now. I've been working for a long time toward the goal of being happy, and more recently, toward health. Obviously the two go hand in hand! So I practice happiness, instead of sadness. I practice making healthy choices, instead of unhealthy choices. This isn't to say I'm always happy or healthy, or that it's easy. But I make a conscious effort to practice correctly. If I get off course, I make a correction. And I learn from my mistakes. And I believe that I will achieve my goals. I write down what I want. I imagine myself succeeding. And I know anything is possible, as long as I believe it.
I struggle with doubt, sure. I have to fend off plenty of sadness. There will always be obstacles, but the point is to not let my mind be one of them. But I've made a practice of believing everything will work out in a positive way, provided that I stay focused on the positive outcome. I've had plenty of help from healers, shamans, and energy workers to help drive that point home throughout the years, and it's finally starting to stick. I'm still a student and life is one lesson after another, but practice makes perfect.
So yesterday was a monumental day. Make that a tremenda-mental day. Monumenta-mendous? Never mind...
It was BIG. It was GOOD. BIG news, GOOD day. GOOD news, BIG day.
What I'm getting at is: It's GONE! I think it's been around the world three times already via Spacebook, but in case you haven't heard - the tuber is gone. G-O-N-E. Gone.
I really never thought I would see this day. Ever. But if I were to see it, it would be years down the road. Years of struggling, waiting for the newest treatment, trying the next thing on my list of holistic therapies; before the day would come that my oncologist would speak the words, "the tumor is gone."
But it was yesterday, after a long week of chemo, not enough sleep, no Boyfriend to hold my hand during my appointment; that my Uber-Oncologist opened with, "Your MRI looks good - really good." Looking up from the report, he smiled and continued, "At first, I thought I was looking at somebody else's MRI - there is no longer a mass, just some scar tissue from the radiation."
"Wait, what?" I'm sure the look on my face said it all - NO FREAKING WAY.
Dr. G confirmed that I had heard correctly: "The tumor is gone, what's left is basically just a scar."
"Wow - really?" Dumbstruck. Jaw resting on lap.
"Yep. So your question from months ago about whether or not surgery would ever be an option - there's nothing to take out!"
"That's... "...words... " uh - mazing! I can't believe it!"
"Believe it." He proceeded to go over the images from the scan of my brain taken earlier that day, pointing out any light areas as "just scarred blood vessels from the radiation. Anybody's brain could have that - all we have is just have a guess of where the tumor was, at this point." Then the previous year's worth of images, all rock-solidly "stable" with a 5cm X 2cm mass in my right temporal lobe. Wow - where did the little bugger go?
Then my (pre-treatment) scan from July 2009 was on the screen, and the tears started. Point A to Point B was suddenly a blur, and reality struck - Will you look at that? The difference between "now" and "then" was stupefying. My poor little brain had been in bad shape, all squished off to one side, just over one year ago. We've been through the war, and we've won! I have a Super-Brain, and together, we kicked some tuber arse! Buh-bye, brain-vader!
IMAGE NOTE: The images at right are yesterday's scan (top) and my July 2009 scan (bottom). It was after the July 2009 scan that my Ninja Neurologist said to me quite frankly, "If you don't pursue treatment soon, you're going to die of brain cancer."
To which I arrogantly replied,"I'm not going to die of brain cancer."
"Then what are you waiting for?" he shot back.
I didn't have an answer. What was I waiting for?
So I stopped waiting and started healing and here I am, one year later, and it's GONE? Already?
I just turned 34. Yes, I know I'm not old - that's not where I'm going at all. One of the benefits to this whole Brain Cancer Thing is newfound perspective - every day is a blessing, kids. Birthdays have always been exciting, celebrated milestones for me, and this year was no exception: Boyfriend took me out to see Secretariat, brought me home and fed me delicious homemade pizza and some yummy red wine. The next morning he whisked me away for a weekend of camping, hiking and hot springs. Double-super-extra-credit for him!
Yay for another year well-lived...
I turned 33 shortly after starting radiation (seven weeks) and chemotherapy last year. I can hardly believe that was over a year ago. So if 32 was the year I was diagnosed with brain cancer, 33 was the year I began to beat the crap out of that little brain tumor! Not to mention the year I won my battle with MediCal. And got my ability to drive back. Every year brings new adventures - just what will the next year bring?
But let's not get ahead of ourselves...
I realize that I haven't updated you (healthwise) in a while, and some of you (so sweet!) have been asking. Others have made comments that they don't know if I want to talk about it, so they haven't wanted to ask. Well, I haven't wanted to bore you with it, but here's the quick update, for those of you who wonder:
The latest photo shoot: My most recent MRI was October 5th. The images show further reduction in "enhancement" (fancy medical term for irritation in the tissue) surrounding the tumor and the tumor's size remains stable. This might not sound that exciting, but they're both really good things. It means my continued monthly chemo is working, and it's keeping the tumor from growing back at all. Which means my brain is happy. Which means fewer seizures. Which makes me happy.
The chemo story: My monthly chemo regimen continues. I take five doses of the oral chemotherapy drug Temodar over five days, every four to six weeks, depending on how quickly my blood counts recover each round. I seem to be managing my chemo weeks a little better all the time. I didn't even need a day off or any naps this last round (last week). I just finished my eighth round of at least twelve rounds ("one year"). I may or may not continue for another year (or two...) after that, depending on what my doctors and I determine to be the best course of action.
Hello, hair: Have you noticed? My fabulous follicles are beginning to need regular taming! Washing and drying! Styling and product! I started growing it back this spring, so you're looking at about six months worth of grow, baby, grow! I kinda liked the pixie, but alas, this Girlbert has a few too many cowlicks to pull it off without just as much effort as having regular girl-hair, so I let it keep growing. Might stop soon, though - short hair is fun!
In other news: Boyfriend turned 40 in September. I threw him a nice little Birthday-Party-On-A-Budget at our Little Cabin in the Woods. Lots of his friends came, brought food and/or helped me stay organized; making it a really wonderful day for him. Thank you all!
Y'all keep asking: We're not moving to Marin County until I'm finished with chemo treatment, and that could be years. I like (okay, so I LOVE them!) my doctors too much, and they know my case too well, to change providers mid-treatment. I would also have to reapply for MediCal in Marin County if we moved, and I feel like I just finished that battle here in Santa Barbara! Oh, and we're really happy in Santa Barbara: we have lots of friends here, and our cat and horse are happy here, too. So we will stay.
Did I miss anything?
More answers to your most burning questions here, as well.
Okay, I admit it. Yesterday, I was way depressed. The calendar had turned over into October, and I realized: 2010 is three-quarters over. I must write something - I only have three months to catch up on most of a year of not writing as much as I'd wanted all year! How's that for a glass-half-empty kinda 'tude?
Panicked over the thought of providing my readers with another month of not much, I'd cleared my schedule with the intention to write. And not just anything, but something INSPIRED. Something GREAT. SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT! I'd finally made the time, and... nothing. At. All. Just staring at a blank, white text box on my super-deluxe-widescreen. Blink, blink. Struggling to flow was having exactly the opposite effect. As it always does. I was left with no choice, but to abandon the effort. Start fresh tomorrow, Girlbert.
This morning I was determined not to let it happen again. No expectations, combined with some good music, and a couple of cups of COFFEE, have my fingers dancing around the keyboard like a gay chorus line! Yay for COFFEE! And TALKING HEADS! HAPPY OCTOBER, EVERYBODY!
Sorry - I'll reel it in a notch...
So, October really is my favorite month of the year, and I want to sincerely welcome everyone to the month in which Girlbert was put onto this earth, 34 years ago. And I want to make sure that those who are interested realize how grateful I am to have enjoyed another year on this planet, even while feeling as though the battle was uphill some most of the way. I guess if the earth were flat, my calves wouldn't be nearly as defined, would they?
But back to my point - freaking out about not being inspired to write whilst feeling obligated to provide content is really not the point of this website, now is it? I was reminded of this earlier this week, when a friend emailed me to tell me how inspiring I am. I wrote back to tell her thank you, but I certainly wasn't feeling very inspired at the moment. She replied: "I know, I get the same way, too - but we shouldn't write unless we're feeling it." Ding ding! This website won't inspire anyone, unless the writer is inspired.
Which reminds me of something I read earlier this year: "Are you a human being, or a human doing?" Most people DO spend their time DOING things: rushing from place to place, checking things off their all-important "To-DO" List. When the point of life is to BE. Be in the moment. Be present. Just BE.
Ah, so, do I practice what I preach? Nearly never. Especially now that I have the ability, finally, to DO. With the reinstatement of my driver's license, in particular, I can actually get myself places and DO things.
So this week of frustration and self-imposed anxiety brought with it the realization that I really need to get back to BEING. Straight away! Chop-chop! I mean, Om...
I'd like to promise that I'll be posting more often, now that I've been reminded the importance of doing what I love, which is writing, creating, and being. But I can't, because despite the fact that I know how important it is to BE, I still have much to DO. As the work week begins, I'll be hitting the ground running with many items on the Girlbert Schedule: blood tests, an MRI (Tuesday, positive vibes are being accepted now!), an appointment with my oncologist to discuss aforementioned MRI, prescriptions to be called in, prescriptions to be picked up, and bills to pay (with what, I don't know).
But I'm going to make a greater effort to BE present, as I fit in some fun stuff, too: free painting and yoga classes at the Cancer Center, breakfast with my cancer girlfriends, biking with Boyfriend, and some hang-time with my horse.
It's still Sunday - plenty of time left to BE today. I think I'll brush up on the Art of Doing Nothing.
READERS: Please share your struggles with, or tips for, BE-ing in the comments. Any stories about being present or advice you have for those who can't stop 'doing', would be so greatly appreciated. I could use all the help I can get, and couldn't we all! Thank you in advance.