Conversations with Strangers

Lately, I’ve been experiencing glimpses into who a used to be. A younger, innocent, more naive me. A me not in my 30’s. Occasionally I’ve attributed this to maintaining long-term friendships and seeing old parts of me reflected back, but I’m starting to think it’s this new thing I’ve been doing.

Last Wednesday, I was at the grocery store to pick up a few things to get us to the weekend, and throughout my short visit I had three meaningful relationships with complete strangers.

The first was the friendly pizza sample lady, aka “the top seller in the region” as she boasted. Who, after a few connections shared some extremely personal health details she is worried about. Another, in the checkout lane was a dark man, wearing a leather hat, with even fewer items in his cart than mine. He asked me to read the price on a WWI magazine to him. From there, we started talking about the civil war and some other facts I had recently learned. Then, as I was checking out, I talked with the cashier, a junior in high school who was stressing about the ACT and starting to face the realities of growing up.

So what was it that lead me to really start talking with these strangers. I think back to my 20’s, and I was so open. So, happy.

I’ve started a new supplement / health program. My first two weeks I shed 10 pounds (and have kept them off). I’ve had more energy to finish chores. I feel sharper and clearer at work. I’ve been more happy and goofy in all aspects of my life, apparently even at the grocery store.

With my health history, I’ve tried several health trends. I was ‘athletic’ through high school and college. I got into distance running in my mid-twenties which led to a lot of knee and hip pain. I switched to a diet containing mostly juice and fresh vegetables when I was diagnosed, which left me weak enough I could hardly play sand volleyball, and led to sharp pain in my joints. I got into essential oils, and found only limited results compared to the prices charged. I have a cabinet of multi-vitamins and probiotics, which never really made me feel better, but did cause my pee to turn neon yellow. I spent almost a year home-brewing my own kombucha, and then read about how dangerous the bacteria growth can be, on top of not really feeling any different. Earlier this year, I was practicing fasting days, which usually involved me curling up in bed by 8 pm with no energy.

Now, just a week shy of starting this program, I can feel and see a difference. When picking out outfits, belts fall from my waist to my hips, skirts I ordered online that I failed to return after deeming them too tight actually fit.

So what is this program? From a high-level, it’s meal replacement shakes 6 days a week, and a cleanse day once a week (you don’t have to strictly adhere to this program). While being able to pull back on calories is a major player in the weight loss side, the program is about feeding your body nutrients to keep it balanced.Many studies are testing the quality of foods we eat now, and finding they just aren’t as rich as they probably once were. This program strives to re-add these missing nutrients. Throughout all my health endeavors, I’ve just never been able to get it right on my own. All these healthy things I thought I was doing weren’t making me feel any better.

The cleanse days are to give your system a rest to detoxify. Every day, there is an “elixir” – a shot of nutrients to feed your system. Sources of nutrients is important to the company, with the back of the bars boasting the products came from “happy cows”. There are bars and snacks to eat throughout the day to stay satisfied.

Are the product perfect? I don’t think so. But they better than me eating pizza and mac and cheese and adding a side salad so I can tell myself I ate something healthy. Do they have sugar? Yes, but less than a single-serve container of yogurt, and many granola bars. Do they taste good? I think so! But I’ve never been one to hop on board with a supplement/shake program like this.

It’s also been a burden off my shoulders to not worry about food. Getting groceries, planning recipes for every meal of the day. Prepping leftovers. Products ship right to my front door on a recurring cycle. I don’t get distracted by junk food at the grocery store, and know exactly what my budget is for the month. It keeps me accountable to not eat snacks throughout the day. If anything, it’s let Blake and I focus on enjoying our one meal a day together. We actually get excited to pick something and cook together, or cherish something new at a restaurant. I savor food, rather than trying to just satisfy hunger.

I would highly encourage anyone looking to feel better to consider trying this system out. Please reach out directly if you are interested!

I do have a website through this company to order from (prepare yourself for some tacky marketing pieces here). But please contact me first prior to ordering anything! I want to help you get the best deal and setup for your first go-round. Learn more and place an order online.

Scanxiety Round 1

Semi-exciting news: I’ve decided to get my masters degree from UNL. Although the this is great for obvious reasons, the significance of extends beyond just grad school.

I think back to around February of this year, I don’t remember where I was going, but I was riding in the backseat of my parents car. I was so irritated that they were pushing me to apply to UNL and get my degree. What I was refusing to vocalize, knowing I wouldn’t be able to spit out the one sentence without choking into tears, was that if I only had a couple years left to live, I didn’t want to spend them in a classroom, not being able to indulge in every fun thing that came my way. When I was on my deathbed, I didn’t want to think of the opportunities I missed, and the laughs I said no to, only to be locked up in a room with a textbook.

This summer, both my supervisor and the executive director at my work place left. They were such a strong support system for me. I felt lost in my place of work, and like I had lost a huge support system. As much as I wasn’t ready, this was the first big change I had to deal with since my recovery.

Although a part of me was bitter, another part knew this was just the right time for me to re-evaluate where I was going in the real world. I had to refocus on my mindset from last year: do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Career-wise, I figured I have a long way to go. I was beginning to hide behind cancer as a way to not push myself. Life was moving on, and I was trying to stay put.

I know how terrifying it feels to be stuck, helpless with little to no back-up plan. I will not be put in that situation again.

I’m also cleaning out places in my life that don’t make me feel good: people who bring out my bad parts, activities that make me frustrated and angry.

Which leads to another big change in 2015: no more volleyball. When I was in treatment, I missed it so much. All I wanted was to be back on the court. But now, I’m looking around and feel angry that I’m there. Angry when we play bad, angry I’m missing other events, angry it’s not what I remembered.

I’m now reserving my Thursday nights for professional/social activities. I want new friends, I want momentum. I want to be creating my future, not waiting for it to happen to me. I’m beginning to feel stagnant.

As good as it feels to be looking several years out again, a much closer threat looms: my annual CT scan.

I’ve convinced myself that my 3-month blood draws aren’t going to be accurate, because they’ve never been, so I’ve never gotten too worked-up about results. I could justify my CT scans the same way, but they will always be my big marker. I’ve brushed off worries until scan day, but now that day is very close.

January 6 to be exact. In an attempt to distract myself and look beyond, I’ve booked my port removal surgery for the day after on January 7. But, “scanxiety” still looms.

There have already been several nights when I’m just awake enough after my 4am bathroom run that my mind can wander. Usually, I can distract myself enough with a couple hours of netflix or reading and can fall back asleep. Occasionally, I get trapped in my head, anxiety taking over while I smother my sobs into a soaked pillow.

I calm down. I fall back asleep. I wake up and life goes on.

I’m revisiting the techniques I learned last year to calm my nervous and minimize my stress levels. I’m trying to get into a pattern of meditating, though I’m still looking for a decent place to clear my head inside my house. I drink night-time tea immediately if I wake up, while trying very hard not to look at a clock. I’m investing in ‘natural’ and less chemically-offensive cleaning products, and trying to stick to the organic produce. I bought a humidifier, which I can add ‘essential oils’ – anything to make me me feel like I can control what will happen in about a month.

My tactics seem to be working, I’ve been sleeping pretty soundly the last several weeks.

Maybe I shouldn’t have already signed up for the GRE. Maybe I’m just doing every thing I can to convince myself next year will be just as normal. Another motto from 2014: leave no stone unturned at the end of the day. If I find out I still just can’t do grad school, I know I tried. If my Thursday nights turn into a drag, I won’t be stuck in decisions every week.

No more waiting, let’s start doing.

Rock Climbing Collisions

I keep getting asked, “when are you writing your Moab blog?” I know, I’ve been dragging my feet.

There is just no good way to put that week into words. Think of your favorite day, and try assigning words to the things you felt, knowing the reader will never be able to fully feel what you experienced. I would almost feel a distancing of myself from the experience when rereading the words I tied together, focusing on my awkward writing, and failure to select words to properly illustrate the beauty of that week.

None the less, at a minimum, I suppose I owe a summary.

As I eluded – “cancer camp” (we can call it that, you can’t) was amazing! I’ve said several times (including to people while out there) that there probably isn’t a thing I could have changed to make the week better.

I hopped on a train from Amtrak to Grand Junction, spending the majority of the ride next to an older man, a traveling musician. When people asked where he was from, his response was always, “everywhere and nowhere.” We didn’t spend a lot of time in deep conversation, but we became companions, as occasional sightseeing spots were shared and we watched over each others possessions when we occasionally left our seats. We casually sent each other off with well wishes, him not sure what my week had in store. Me not minding I didn’t know his either.

I stayed the night in a hotel in Grand Junction and wandered the town the next morning. I stumbled across a church and attended service, whose theme for the week was, “We no longer have to live at the mercy of past disoriented ideas and narratives,” followed by a verse, ” Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

I confessed I had never met anyone that I was meeting to my shuttle driver between the hotel and the airport. I shared with him the purpose of this trip, and he revealed that he too was a cancer survivor, and many other illnesses under his belt. His parting words to me as he unloaded my suitcase from the van, “keep on the fight, and God bless.”

Honestly, I don’t remember much of the first night. “Glazed over faces” was one reference to the campers that night. By the end of night one, all 20 of us were united under one roof – nine ‘campers’, three climbing guides, two program representatives, two chefs, a camp mom and dad, a journalist, and a photographer. We all were given nicknames – and I’m still adjusting to seeing these foreign normal names show up on my feed – except ‘Coconuts’, who finally jumped on the social media bandwagon solely for the reason of staying in touch with us all.

We spent the next four days climbing, consoling, confiding, and celebrating. “Casual” conversation topics kicked off when Coconuts realized that poop schedules would be the least personal of the things we would share with each other during the week. Micro families formed around roommates, vanmates, and regions we originated from (I was the loner in this category, the only one not from a coast). We each told our stories as we felt comfortable, showing our scars, giggling over life after cancer, and learning about the journeys we had all taken and what still lies ahead. We were from all stages in life – I was the second youngest, with other singles, spouses and moms. I think I will always remember the conversation on the back patio the last day – it seems like everything was left on the table. So honest. So brave.

Climbing was much more fun than I predicted. I’m very jealous of everyone who was able to return to places… not flat. This is the description of the third google search result for ‘rock climbing Nebraska’:

“Welcome to Nebraska’s page at RC.com. Nebraska has been blessed with flatness. Unfortunately there is not much natural rock to conquer, but we do have some indoor gyms. If you are on your way through the state or watching our exciting football team, then check out some of those indoor gyms to keep you in shape. Keep climbing high!”

The second day of climbing, I had my a-ha moment, the one where I could feel myself falling for the adrenaline of pushing myself further than I thought. I could trust my feet to support my body only by gripping onto ledges only about 1/3 inch wide, and didn’t mind the tips of my fingers burning from clinging to any minor crevice. On day three of climbing, I wanted it all; I climbed until we had to leave. The last day we did a multi-pitch climb, finishing at approx. 350ft from the base, and finishing with a 180ft free rappel. I was later told by one of the guides, “you were really scared. We hadn’t seen anything like that from you all week!”

So many lessons were learned for each person, whether it was to trust other people to catch you when you fall, or in my case, to trust myself to be in control. We all agreed that the mixture of conversation and climbing was a complimentary combination of vulnerability and power. The journalist, Peanut, shared that she had emailed home a few days in and asked her mom, “what have I been doing with my life the last 27 years?”

So what does it all mean? What am I taking away from this?

I rode back with one of the campers to Denver to meet Blake. Though all the tears from saying good bye to everyone at the cabin and then the airport was over, I couldn’t help but think about all the other people I’ve said ‘good bye’ to recently. The good news is that most of them have been choices, either on my end or theirs.

In the last four months, I’ve said good bye to three of my closest constants at work, all of which had been there the entire duration of my job. My supervisors last day at work was my last day at camp, which I am happy worked the way we did. Neither of us are criers or ones to get too emotional, but it was really tough the last two weeks.

I said good bye to my grandma. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for almost 10 years. It was time, but I was still caught off guard by how hard it was.

Friends moving out of town, getting married, having kids. All different ways I’m saying good bye, not necessarily to them, but to the way of life I had with them.

I’ve recently been thinking of life as a timeline of intense bright flashes from other people colliding with us (Jupiter’s love for astronomy must be rubbing off on me), which is measured by the strength of impact, not necessarily of longevity. Eventually the flashes dim out and are replaced by another series of impacts and flashes. It doesn’t matter when or why people leave our lives, it doesn’t affect how long their glow stays with us. I will never forget these parting words from my executive director – appreciate every day you get to spend with people around you. You never know when that will change.

A blog recently surfaced and gained a lot of attention in the cancer community, regarding “dying with dignity.” While everyone else is scanning for celebrity gossip and sports updates, these are the things that fill my newsfeeds. The article details a young female who will use medical resources to end her life Nov. 1. She is using these months as an awareness drive to bring to light her struggles to gain ownership of her remaining time on Earth. She explains, “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”

I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation we had the last night at camp. One of the girls, who was diagnosed with the exact same cancer and staging I was, had recurred in her lungs. For those of you new to my situation, that’s basically the end of the line. As she painfully shared, “I wanted to have a career by now, I can’t die while I’m at this job…” She finally put so bluntly her and my worst fears, “I don’t want to drown in my own fluids, and the doctors said that’s what’s going to happen.”

Of everyone in the group, she’s been one of the few to not stay connected. Has her bright flash already dimmed? Did she say her final, “good bye” to us, moving on to her next collision? That was almost three weeks ago, and I’ve already met so many new people… the cycle continues. Never forgotten, but already dimmed.

When I got home from Utah, I unpacked a bookmark I forgot I found on a train. I jotted a quick note, explaining I had found it in my seat in Lincoln, and addressed it to the person whose address was on a sticker on the back of the cloth. Last Thursday, I opened a letter than man wrote me back. He explained that he lost this bookmark, after his book disappeared from his seat when he left to grab a snack. The bookmark belonged to his late father. He, his brother, and his son were traveling across the country together. He concluded, “Never expected such kindness from a total stranger, of course, reaffirming our faith in America and our many unknown neighbors.”

It’s the strength of the collision that determines the brightness of the flash.

CT Round One

Today would be my 13th round of chemo, if I was still undergoing treatment.

Today is my first day of freedom.

Yesterday I had my first post-chemo followup. I had my blood checked, and received my third CT scan.

All results came back clear.

I have a small infection in one of my lungs, but is nothing I should be concerned about. In the grand scheme of cancer vs. wellness, the infection isn’t anything to be concerned about.

My last week and half have been my “Chemo Rebellion” week. I’ve had black coffee, alcohol, sushi, and gone to the gym. If I get sick, there’s no worries about missing a chemo appointment.

Well, I got sick. But I don’t mind. It’s been worth it!