Monday, January 22, 2018

Learning to accept my physical limitations

It's hard to accept the fact that my body doesn't always do what I want it to do. You'd think, 3 1/2 years post cancer, I'd have learned what my body can and can't do but I haven't. I'm still of the mindset that I'm able to do all the things I used to do. But today, I was reminded of several things. One, I'm not as young as I used to be. Two, my energy level has greatly decreased, and three my body doesn't work like it used to work.

This weekend, we'd purchased some steel shelving units for our garage. I'd made a comment several months ago about how frustrating it was to see all the messiness of our stuff in the space our cars should be. Finally, after nagging and complaining for weeks, I managed to get my husband to agree to go to our local big box hardware store and look for ways to make our space a little neater.

Up and down the rows we went looking at various organizational options. There were cabinets, storage units, and many different types of shelving. We'd discussed our needs and had already determined we wanted this to be a once and done purchase so we opted for steel shelving. We found the perfect size and made our purchases.

We loaded three heavy shelving units into our van and went home. Hubby took the boxes inside and sat them neatly on the garage floor. I was puzzled. For some reason, I assumed he'd start putting them together as soon as we got home, but he didn't. When I asked when he planned to assemble them, he told me he'd do it the following weekend. He'd been working a good deal of overtime and he was tired, so I didn't push.

This morning, I had the brilliant idea to put the shelves together and surprise him when he came in from work. I had slept well and was feeling energetic. After breakfast, I got dressed and made my way into the garage. As I looked at the boxes, I didn't think it would take long to assemble the units. Boy was I wrong!

The boxes weighed just under fifty pounds each. I struggled to drag one box off the stack and fought to open it. After quite a struggle, I managed to slide the box so that one end was elevated and shook the contents out.

It took quite a bit of time to maneuver the steel pieces into place. One by one, I whacked the sidebars into place with a hammer and a piece of two by four. This was not a one person job but I was determined to have the shelves completed by the time he came home and I was going to figure out how to brace the shelves as I put first one end together and then the other.

The first unit took about an hour to complete since I was unfamiliar with the setup and the directions weren't very clear. As I put on the top shelf, I realized my arms had begun swelling. I'd forgotten to put on my compression sleeves before starting. Oh well, too late now. I kept working hoping the swelling wouldn't get worse.

As I began work on the second unit, I felt my energy level begin to dip. I'd been so full of energy only an hour ago. Why was I so tired now?

I made myself push through the fatigue and finally managed to get the second unit together. Now it was time to place all the items on the shelves and do some cleanup. I decided I'd save the third unit for another day. I just didn't have the strength to start on it today.

When I went into the house, after cleaning up the garage, I could barely walk. My back was killing me and my arms were really swollen. I knew I needed to slow down and take a rest. A hot bath with some Epsom salts should do the trick along with some arthritis strength Ibuprofen.

Downing the pills with a large glass of water, I realized I was more tired than I'd first thought. I wondered if I could make it into the tub and out of it again.

As I sat in the hot water soaking the pains from my exertion away, I had to face the facts. I'm not as young as I used to be but along with that reality came the fact that my body isn't the same as it once was a few years ago. My energy level has been greatly diminished since my bout with cancer. My body doesn't always want to do what I want it to do. It's hard to accept but I'm finding it necessary to listen to my body and heed the warning cues it gives me.

In the middle of a project, sometimes I find myself getting extremely tired. It's more of an exhausted feeling that I can't quite describe. When I start to feel that overwhelming tiredness coming on, I know it won't be long before I'll have to stop what I'm doing and rest. This is very frustrating to me. I've always been a doer. I like to stay busy. But now I attribute my body's slowing down to both age and post-cancer fatigue.

Learning to accept my current physical limitations has been difficult. I don't always stop when my body tells me to. When I don't, I suffer the consequences and sometimes, those consequences last for days.

It's challenging to understand and accept the trauma my body's experienced since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It's even more difficult to realize this will be a lifelong challenge.

Change is never easy and accepting post-cancer fatigue makes me feel very sad and frustrated. I want to be able to do the things I was once able to do. When I physically don't have the strength to do the things I want to do, I have to admit my life will never be the same. My body isn't the same. It's been cut open and stitched back together again. Layers and layers of muscle and tissue have been severed. Body parts have been removed. On top of that, my poor torso has been treated with radiation and poisonous chemicals.

When I think about the traumatic experiences my body has suffered as a result of breast cancer, it's a little easier to understand why my body has had to slow down.

I'm glad I'm finally learning to listen to my body instead of pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. I used to feel guilty about my lack of energy and would find myself apologizing for my inability to accomplish tasks. Now I know it's just part of my "new normal."

Yes, I'm getting older, too, but the majority of my physical limitations are a direct result of breast cancer. That was something I never expected and never wanted.

I'm thankful I can make the decision to stop when I need to now. I have learned the hard way to take good care of my body. Loving it and respecting its limitations is extremely important. And for those who think I'm using cancer as an excuse, shame on you. There's an old Native American saying that speaks volumes in this circumstance, "Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins." But I have to change that saying a little bit if you don't mind - I say, "Never judge a breast cancer survivor, you never know when or if you may be diagnosed in the future."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

After the initial surgical scars have healed, some women are making the choice to beautify their mastectomy scars with elaborate and colorful tattoos. While this is a very personal choice, I applaud the women who are brave enough to use their bodies as a statement of survival. Turning the ugliness of cancer into a form of body art takes guts. Finding a tattoo artist willing to work over the top of scarred tissue is challenging, but more and more women are making the choice to ink their chests. But is this choice a wise one? Can the beauty come at a cost?

When I had my breasts removed in 2014, I was unaware of the popularity of breast cancer survivors and chest tattoos. Although I already have many tattoos on my body, I never gave a thought to having my scars covered with ink. Having needles inserted into tender scar tissue wasn't appealing to me, in fact, it was downright scary.

I didn't realize, until I began to research more about breast tattoos, that inking our bodies could be dangerous. I never dreamed that the permanent ink I had applied to my body could travel, accumulate and lodge in my lymph nodes. But in an article, I discovered it was true. According to the article, published in September 2017, research suggested that tattoo ink can cause cancer. While this claim hasn't been proven, it does provide food for thought.

Apparently, the researchers on this study were from France and Germany. Tissue samples, from both people with and without tattoos, were obtained from a selection of deceased individuals. Various testing was performed to measure the levels of dye and metals stored in the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes from the neck, underarms and groin were examined. Scientists looked for answers to these questions:

Do organic pigments travel from the skin to the lymph nodes?
Do people with tattoos have more potentially toxic metals in their skin and lymph nodes?
What size are particles from pigments, and what size are the particles that travel to lymph nodes?
Do the particles affect surrounding tissue?

A specialized technique called spectroscopy was used. During this analysis, samples of organic matter were measured using the wavelength of light and documenting where those measurements fell on the light spectrum.

Researchers found, "strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments from tattoos on the skin into the lymph nodes."

While their studies were inconclusive, it does seem our bodies were made to filter out foreign particles and some of these, including pigments from tattoo ink, can be stored in our skin or lymph nodes.

The researchers explain how tattoo pigments are picked up as "foreign bodies" by the body's immune system and are then stored in the skin and lymph nodes.

Ink used for tattoos is generally sold in ready-to-use containers. These inks can contain a number of colorants, preservatives or fillers.

Toxicities may differ from color to color. In this article, a description of how inks are made causes some concern.

"To make black ink, for instance, manufacturers might use soot or powdered jet, or cinnabar and common rust to make red. Some of the ink ingredients, like the metal cadmium, are known carcinogens, while others, like carbon black, are "possibly carcinogenic", according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, this does not necessarily mean that these chemicals are dangerous to human health, said Hayley Goldbach, a resident physician in dermatology at UCLA Health, a health care system affiliated with the University of California at Los Angeles."

Pigments used in tattoo ink have not definitively been linked to causing cancer. However, some harmful metals or toxins could be present in them. Since the long-term effects of such materials haven't been studied, it might be wise to think before you ink.

But one thing baffles me. If there is a considerable risk of ink accumulating in the lymphatic system, why do radiation clinics often tattoo their patients with tiny dots used to help align them under the linear accelerator? Wouldn't the ink used, even if it was medical grade, pose a problem in the future? It just doesn't seem to make sense.

According to another article, nearly four of every 10 millennials have tattoos. Among Generation Xers, only about 32 percent have tattoos and among baby boomers, the number drops to 15 percent. In the US, nearly four in 10 millennials have tattoos, according to a Pew Research Center report.

According to Dr. Bruce Katz, a fellow with the American Academy of Dermatology and director of the Juva Skin and Laser Center in Manhattan, "For those looking to get inked, it's crucial to do your research: Make sure the artist is reputable, get references from clients, and ensure that they are using disposable needles and unopened ink to prevent infections."

After having read these articles, I had to rethink my decision to get tattooed. Maybe I shouldn't have done it. Maybe I should have done a little research to find out what types of inks my tattoo artist was using and where they came from.

I didn't start getting tattoed early in life. In fact, I got my first tattoo at the age of 50! It was on my bucket list. After my children were grown and I'd become a grandmother, I decided to finally cross that item off my list. I found a local artist and went in for my first ink. I didn't believe it when friends told me tattoos were addictive, but I quickly found out it was true. I had three more tattoos before my breast cancer diagnosis. When I was going through radiation treatment, I laughed when the technician asked if I minded being tattooed. She explained it would help them get me properly positioned at each session. After agreeing to be tattooed, she applied six tiny dark blue dots along my torso.

On my first cancerversary, I had a pink ribbon tattoo added to my right calf. Inside it, I had the date of my surgery inscribed. In subsequent years, I've had a small butterfly added to that ribbon for each year I've survived cancer. My children and grandchildren think I've got enough ink on my body, but I won't promise them not to get another just yet.

Making the choice to adorn your body with ink is ultimately your decision but if you currently have cancer or may be predisposed to it, please weigh your options carefully. Hopefully, in the future, there will be more medical research done on the lymphatic system and how it responds to the various types of tattoo ink. Until then, be wise. Think before you ink


Friday, January 12, 2018

Grey, grey, go away

These grey rainy days are getting to be a real drag! It's no wonder people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.) when the winter days are cold and bleak. There's a certain type of heaviness that comes with these types of days, like a shroud of emotional baggage. It can get heavy very quickly and too much to bear especially when grief is involved. I'm still processing my mother's recent death and it's been hard.

Grief is a strange thing. It slides in unexpectedly and oozes out orifices without permission. Processing it takes time and energy that I just don't seem to want to expend right now. But there will come a time when I can no longer ignore it. Someone said once that grief demands to be felt but grief is not linear. One moment you may feel you've moved past it and the next minute, it's right in your face. Grief never says, "I’ve been here long enough, I think it’s time for me to leave.” No. Grief crowds the heart, eats up all your energy, and chronically imposes upon your peace. But grief isn't some evil force that's only there to cause pain, grief is escorting deeper feelings, truth about your life, what you value and what you need. Grief conveys how deeply you cared about someone. Grief is almost always painful to come degree. As Mark Nepo so beautifully puts it, "The pain was necessary to know the truth, but we don't have to keep the pain alive to keep the truth alive."

Monday, January 8, 2018

Finding Gratitude and Other Lessons Cancer Taught Me

It wasn’t yesterday that I was diagnosed with stage 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma breast cancer, but it feels that way. I’m still adversely affected by that life-altering event. On a daily basis, I have to make a choice. I can wallow in the self-pity of what if, or I can choose to be grateful I’m alive.  

Cancer is a wonderful teacher. If you let her, she’ll teach lessons you never dreamed you needed to learn. Often, in the beginning, it’s hard to see and learn the lessons. As the days go by, it’s easier to become more aware of the important things cancer has to tell. But not everyone wants to discover the lessons. Not everyone chooses to look for the good in a hard situation. This is part of the lesson.

One of the first lessons cancer taught me was to give myself permission to grieve. I didn’t receive this lesson at first, although cancer tried several times to teach it to me. I refused to receive it. I didn’t think I was grieving. I thought I was okay. Losing my breasts had been extremely difficult. I didn’t understand why I’d been chosen to go through the trial of breast cancer. A deep sadness wrapped itself around me. I carried it with me everywhere I went. I didn’t understand anything other than cancer was robbing me of my femininity. One evening, as I sat alone in my room, I heard a whisper. That whisper said, “It’s okay to give yourself permission to grieve.” I internalized that statement and after mulling it over, tears began to fall. And then the dam burst. I was not only weeping, I was mourning. Deep guttural sobs poured forth and I was frightened by the raw power unleashed. I didn’t realize I had so much emotion pent up inside. As I allowed myself time to grieve, the tears began to subside. This did not happen suddenly. It took days and weeks and months, but gradually, the sadness grew less heavy.

The next lesson cancer taught me was how to process my anger. At first, I didn’t realize I was angry. I’m not normally an angry person. But as I thought about all I’d endured, I realized I was angry. I was bitter. I was hurt. I didn’t want to have cancer. I didn’t choose to have cancer. I didn’t deserve to have cancer! And, I didn’t want to have surgery. I didn’t want to go through treatment. I just wanted my old life back, the life I had before cancer came in like a wrecking ball to shatter my life into little pieces. Like a child in the throes of a full-blown temper tantrum, I pushed, kicked, and screamed until I’d worn myself out. But cancer told me it was okay. It was okay to be angry.

And then cancer did the unexpected. She taught me how to find gratitude. She said it could have been worse. I could have died. I was grateful I hadn’t died. That would have been terrible! Or maybe not. But cancer’s next lesson taught me gratitude can replace grief and anger. I realized that I’d taken a lot for granted before cancer. I hadn’t realized that every day is a precious gift. Cancer taught me to start looking for gratitude. She taught me to choose joy. This lesson, she said, would teach me not only to find gratitude but to remember I had a choice. It was my choice how I’d live each day. I could choose to grieve, to be angry, bitter or hurt, or I could choose to live and be happy.

My next lesson came as I completed radiation. After enduring 28 rounds, my body weak and tired, cancer said, “Push through. You’re stronger than you think.” And I did. I made myself get through each day. Little by little, I was determined to get better. I worked hard, even when I didn’t feel like it. It wasn’t easy but I’m glad I kept going. I could have given up.

Cancer is a good teacher. I can’t say I like her, but I do appreciate her. I’m grateful for the valuable lessons she’s taught and yes, I might have learned those lessons without her, but with her, I think I learned them a little better than most.

I still don’t understand why I got cancer and I don’t know what caused it. I probably never will. But, I can say, finding gratitude has been a blessing and cancer helped me discover I have so much for which to be grateful.

If you let her, cancer will teach you important and valuable lessons. Your lessons may be vastly different than mine, but I guarantee, they will be life-altering lessons. You may not be ready to learn the lessons right away, but give her time, and she will teach.

Many of my loved ones and friends have died from cancer. Many of them died in excruciating agony and pain. Not all of them would have appreciated the viewpoint I’ve shared but I certainly mean no disrespect to anyone past, present, or future struggling with cancer. It is by far, the most challenging and difficult thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life, but I’ve chosen to take this awful trial and learn from it. So I hope you’ll understand my heart. My feeling is that cancer, even with all of its horrible ugliness, can be kind in the lessons we learn from it. But we have to be willing to look for the lessons. They’re not always apparent but they do have a purpose.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

It's a New Day

"With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Seventh day of New Year. Outside, it's Winter. Barren trees stand. Frozen sentries waiting for first bud of Spring to appear. Tiny woodland creatures scurry searching for morsels. Doors and windows shield from cold. We wait. 

Winter is abhorred. Cold and I disagree. Cold hands, warm heart, if that be true, I win. 

Earlier, I rose. Sliding out of bed, I felt for glasses. Pulling on warmth, I dig into the Word. Hungry, I feast on manna. 

Quiet shattered. Doors open. Showers run. Coffee perks. They awake. It's a new day. 

Hubby sits. TV on. Preaching begins. Winter mornings dictate activities. Today is time for introspection and reflection. Sundays seem holier, but should never be. In Him, we live, and move and have our being...all days, all times. Always. A new day. A gift for the taking. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Some days you just need to lie on the floor

The after effects of breast cancer can be overwhelming. It's been 1276 days since the cancer was removed from my body. That's 3 years, 5 months, and 27 days. You'd think, by now, I'd be really feeling great - that my body would have completely healed and I'd be living the good life. Surely, after this length of time, all the scars have mended and my body has learned to adapt to the physical changes, right? But that's not necessarily the case.

I'm normally not one to complain. Most days, even if I'm in pain, I keep it to myself. Why bother involving anyone else in my agony? They can't do a thing to fix it. Oh yes, the "I'm sorrys" help and those sweet empathetic pats on the back offer a little comfort but the suffering is mine and mine alone.

Some days are worse than others. Between the Lymphedema and the Fibromyalgia, I struggle. Neither of these two conditions will ever go away and that's frustrating.

The Lymphedema can be helped by wearing compression sleeves and using a programmable compression pump. The Fibromyalgia is helped by medication and by exercise, but I just long for the days when I used to feel normal. I haven't felt normal in a long time.

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, my physical body was in fairly good shape. I did what I wanted to do despite the little aches and pains that came from daily exertion and growing older. I never really felt bad. Those days of good health were taken for granted.

So now I learn to temper my days and plan activities around how I feel. It's difficult to acquiesce to my body's needs, but I must. For some reason, I've always felt that I should be calling the shots, not my body but now, it's the other way around. My body dictates what I can and cannot do. Of course, I can always override the decision but it works out best if I listen and obey.

To be quite blunt, cancer sucks but even more than that, the after-effects suck. When I was told I had cancer, I was naive enough to think surgery would take care of the problem. For the most part, it did. The side effects didn't start showing up until several months later. Other than the physical and emotional scars, I never dreamed I'd have constant reminders of the trauma of breast cancer. Boy, was I dumb.

If you haven't been able to gather from my rant, today has been a difficult day. Last week, I decided to go off of the medication for the Fibromyalgia. I'd been experiencing some nasty side effects like blurry vision, loss of coordination, dizziness, and brain fog. There really isn't a specific medication that works for Fibro in case you didn't know. Doctors use various anti-depressants, anti-convulsants, or pain medications in an effort to alleviate the symptoms. While these medications help with serotonin uptake, overactive nerve endings, and sleep problems, they also bring with them their own parcel of side effects. It seems I'm always having to choose the lesser of two evils.

Lying on the floor seems to be helping. At least my body is prone and not moving. Tomorrow I think I'll start taking the medication my doctor prescribed for the Fibro again. It did help some with the physical pain and it did me have a more positive outlook.

If I could turn back the hands of time, I would have paid more attention to any and everything that could have potentially caused cancer to form in my body. But since I can't, I'll just have to learn to make the most of each day and be thankful I'm still alive.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Time thief

My lymphedema has gotten out of control lately and it's partly my fault. Daily I'm supposed to use this programmed compression pump to help alleviate the swelling but I haven't. Why, you ask? Well, sitting stationary for an hour is difficult. I don't enjoy my arms being painfully squeezed as I'm being held hostage but what's a girl to do. I can't function when my arms are swollen. I don't have a choice.

Breast cancer is the gift that keeps on giving. The surgery wasn't so bad, really. You'd think having both breasts removed would be extremely painful and while it was very uncomfortable, it was more of an emotional trauma than anything. But the physical wounds have healed. Rarely do I have discomfort in my chest. The lymphedema is a different story.

From the moment I rise til I go to bed each night, my arms begin swelling. If you didn't know the situation, you'd think I just had some really huge fat rolls in my armpits and upper arms. Through the day, the swelling increases with activity until I can barely function. Compression sleeves and gauntlets help but as soon as they're removed, I balloon.

Doctors prescribed a really expensive electric compression pump for me. It's been programmed precisely for me. You'd think I'd be grateful for this equipment that my insurance provided but it's just a constant reminder of what cancer took from me.

I use it because I have to but I don't like it. I've named the pump Time Thief and I think that's quite appropriate. Sometimes I think I should have name it Octopus or Straight Jacket because it's a huge tangled mess of hoses and once I'm zipped in, I can't get out by myself. That poses a huge problem especially when you need to go to the restroom...

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Oil of Joy For Mourning

The past few days have been difficult. Although the New Year has come and it should be a time of celebration and renewal, I've been in a season of mourning. My mother died on December 23. We'd been expecting her death but losing a loved one is never easy. I do take solace in knowing she was a believer and now that she's absent from the body, she's present with the Lord. That gives me great comfort and I know I'll see her again one day but in the meantime, the grief of losing her has come. Try as I might, I never know when it's going to overpower me. Everywhere I look, I see her. In my children's mannerisms, in photographs, in nature. Even though she's no longer here in bodily form, she'll always be with me. 

Some days have been harder than others. This morning, as I was having my devotional, I looked up from my Bible to see a red rose that I'd been given from her funeral service. The smell of it was heady. I took the rose in my hands and held it there. Each intricate and beautifully delicate petal reminded me of God's perfection and His handiwork in nature. Surrounding the rose was a cluster of Baby's Breath. Mama always loved Baby's Breath. We used to have it growing in a small section of yard behind our house. I'm not sure, but I think Mama said she got a start of it from my Great Uncle L.M. who often saved family heirloom plants. Beneath the Baby's Breath was another of Mama's favorites - Lily of the Valley. To this day, I can still smell the wonderful fragrant bell-shaped flowers of this plant. I even have a perfumed oil scented with Lily of the Valley. I bought it specifically to remind me of Mama. 

My heart was heavy as I continued my devotion. Thinking of the brevity of Mama's life consumed me but also helped remind me that we are all just vapors, here today and gone tomorrow. At 79 years young, she lived a full and happy life often revolving all of her time and attention on her children and grandchildren. 

I continued reading Scripture and was reminded of the verse in Isaiah where God speaks to Zion and tells the people He will comfort them their time of sadness. He promises to replace their sorrow with beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for their mourning. As I read the verse, I knew God was speaking to my heart, too. He knew my pain. He knew I missed my Mama and even though grief is part of the healing process, I felt He wanted me to focus more on the oil of joy He was pouring out to me. 

In the broken pieces of my heart, He was pouring in the healing balm of Gilead. All my hurts were being soothed by His gentle hand of comfort. As I cried out to Him in my brokenness, I felt the sweetest peace envelope me. I knew His Spirit, the Comforter, had come to minister to me. 

Sitting quietly at my kitchen table, eyes closed, I listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Words of love filled my mind and heart as let go of my emotions. Knowing my Heavenly Father is well acquainted with my grief, I rested. 

I'm sure there will be more days when the grief of losing Mama will be powerful but I also know God will be with me. He's promised to never leave or forsake me. And though I'm now technically an orphan by earthly means, my Everlasting Father will always be by my side to comfort, soothe and encourage me. 

Grief is painful but God wants to give us the oil of joy for our mourning. We only have to be willing to accept it. If your heart is hurting today, please turn to Him for relief. He wants to ease your pain as only He knows how to do.

"To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”
Isaiah 61:3New King James Version (NKJV)

Another Month is Almost Over

I was looking at the calendar today and realized we're halfway through the year already. Where has the time gone? It seems I blinked and...