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If you read my last blog entry – Vanessa’s reflections – you know I started this list last month. So now I’ve been 40 for almost a month rather than 9 days, but other than that, everything else still applies…

I have been 40 for exactly 9 days now and it was just when writing that headline that it started to sink in. Wow – I’m 40! There’s just something so different when you write it versus when you say it… Anyway, I won’t dwell in awe (at least not here). I’ve learned a lot in my 40 years – especially the last two spent in the cancer world – and thought I’d share some of it here. No, none of it’s brain surgery (and much of it’s splashed in pretty graphics on Facebook posts), but sometimes it’s nice just to be reminded of the simple things we all, hopefully, eventually come to realize. So here are 40* things I’ve learned in my 40 years:

  1. Smile. Even when you want to cry, scream, throw something, hit someone. Seriously, just smile. It does help.
  2. Don’t overanalyze. Anything. Men/women, doctors’ faces, actions, words, whatever. It’s doubtful you’ll figure out what they really think/mean/intend anyway. Why waste your time?
  3. If you don’t know, ask. Ask anyone anything. It’s the only way you have a chance at discovering the truth. And it’s the best way to learn.
  4. Never stop learning. Take a class, read a book, go to a seminar, join a club. I’m going to learn French (for real this time). And maybe even how to cook. (Nah, maybe I’ll leave that one to Cory.)
  5. There are at least two sides to every story. Even the one I’m telling right now. We all come at things from different perspectives, so can rarely see the full pictures ourselves. (Like Nick says I cook better than I give myself credit for, but I wouldn’t win any contests.)
  6. Speaking of – did you know that you have to enter contests to win?! That includes the lottery. Which probably explains why I haven’t won.
  7. It can take longer to convey your thought in 140 characters than it can in 500 words. (Just ask Jessi!)
  8. Listen. To everyone. Think about what they say. Consider. Absorb. Don’t just rush to respond, explain or prove your own point. Sometimes we need to just listen.
  9. I know that takes patience. Patience is truly a virtue. One I’ve often admitted in this blog that I don’t have. (Just ask Nick – he will confirm this.) But I am trying. If you see me taking lots and lots of deep breaths, you’ll know I’m trying to be patient. It definitely doesn’t come easy to me…
  10. Keep breathing. Literally and figuratively. Yes, there are some things beyond our control in this area – like getting the cancer diagnosis at 38. But there are so many things we can all do to improve our health and that will help us breathe a little easier – especially when walking up many flights of stairs!
  11. Any day can be your last. Or your loved one’s last. So make that day – and every day – count.
  12. Tell people you love them.
  13. Don’t hold grudges.
  14. Spend your time where it truly matters – with the people you love. Yes, we all have to go to work and other obligations, but…
  15. No one really cares if your house is clean. Probably not even your mother. She’d much rather you visit her than stay home scrubbing the tub.
  16. We don’t have to do everything for everyone. Even when we want to do it all, it doesn’t mean it’s the best idea – or even physically possible. So…
  17. Learn to say no. It’s really not a bad word. It’s not even four letters. You can say it nicely: “I’d really love to but…”
  18. Learn to ask for help. Or at least accept help when it’s offered. I was struggling to lug two suitcases and a giant purse the other day when a guy offered to carry one. What did I say? “No worries, I’ve got it.” Why? Why did I say that? Accept the help, Amy!
  19. Be kind. (That means to yourself, too!) Even when others are not. You never know what is going on in someone else’s life.
  20. Share. Share what you learn, share your experiences, share your thoughts, share your opinions. We all have a story to tell. And your story may just be the one that makes someone realize they’re not alone. That’s why I write this blog. If it can help just one person, it’s worth it.

*Disclaimer: I have learned more than 40 things in my 40 years. This is just a sampling of some of my favorite things I’ve learned, not an all-inclusive list.  And yes, I realize there are only 20 above. The final 20 will be in the next blog – an exciting two-part series! ;)

 

Ever since my birthday, I’ve been thinking about what to say in this blog about turning 40. Finally, last week, after the idea kept coming back to me, I decided to write “40 Things I’ve Learned in 40 Years.” I wrote 30 of them, decided that it was much too long for one blog entry, and split it into two parts. I was about to publish it when I decided I’d better write all 40 (both parts) before publishing one of them in case something that came at the end would fit better at the beginning, or vice versa. (You writer friends know what I mean!) Since at that point it was well past midnight on a work night, I pressed save and closed the laptop.Fast forward to the next day after work. It was my first night in a long time that I got to just go home after work (at a normal hour) and actually have a few hours to do whatever I wanted (rare, precious time). I decided what I most wanted was to go through the bags of gifts from my birthday and write thank you cards. (Kristen, you’ve taught me well.) More than anything, I love the thought put into the cards and gifts from my dear friends and family. And amongst them all, I found a letter that I hadn’t seen in the craziness of the party. I opened it and laughed out loud! It was from Vanessa: a list of things she’s learned since she turned 40! I figured it would be similar to the list I was making, but was surprised to find that it’s not. In fact, the things I’ve learned in my barely 40 years hardly overlap with the things she’s learned since turning 40. I thanked Vanessa profusely for sharing her wisdom and asked if I could include it here – and she said yes. Thank you, Vanessa! Enjoy all! (And I’ll share my 40 things later this week…)

February 3, 2014

Happy Birthday, Amy!

Hi there,

I’ve been thinking about what to buy you for your birthday for some time now. I thought about donating to causes and non-profit organizations in your name. I thought of milestone pieces of jewelry. I thought of kitschy-mementos to honor your birth year. They were all good, but they all rang hollow. Besides, what do you buy for the person who has everything? I mean, turning 40 is huge.

That’s when I knew what I would get you. Turning 40 is a distinct rite of passage. If you’re a woman, that journey is colored with complexities, shaded by doubt and confronted by bold dreams. I wish someone had told me that instead of texting me an unimpressive nursery rhymed, rhetorical “Lordy, Lordy, looks who’s 40” message.

So my friend, even though I’m only six months ahead, here’s what I’ve learned since turning 40:

  1. Life is just beginning; it’s not a cliché. Long before I heard Oprah bellow to her audience about turning 40 and hearing celebrity guests like the late Nora Ephron talk about using scarves to cover “your aging neck”, I never understood what the fear was all about. We’re fortunate to be alive at this time. Yes, the glass ceiling has cracked a bit and salaries of professional women have shown marginal increase, but our generation is not judged as failures if we’re not draped on some dashing Prince Charming’s arm by a certain “magical age”. No, women like us are leading the way. We may not have all gone on an 83-day-long cross-country-trip across the U.S., but we’re living by the rules we set for ourselves.  Sometimes there are stops and detours in that journey. When cancer threw you a curve ball, you stared that sucker down and kicked it in the groin—grinding in your stiletto for good measure. You have your whole life ahead of you. A life that’s yours to do what you want, and pursue your dreams and goals.
  2. It’s OK to rid yourself of toxic people. The key to enjoying the next 40+ years is peace. You can’t get peace if your life is full of toxic parasites who inject negativity and depression into your world. We all have them. They masquerade as fun friends, rational-thinking relatives and the occasional acquaintances maligning you with misguided, misinformed missives of mayhem. One of my friends at church reminded me I told her to be careful about who she allowed to “speak into [her] life” years ago.  It’s still true today and it’s a creed I live by now. Hurt and hurting people flock to those with similar experiences and/or those who seem to have it all together. That’s understandable, but it’s exhausting when those individuals drain their sorrows into your generous heart and are too caught up with their own needs to discern when you need an ear. I’ve learned to let them go. I need to be surrounded by people of like mind and attitude who know that friendship is a two-way street. One shouldn’t be forced into caring. Instead, true friends care and are there without being asked because they value precious people.
  3. I’m a big girl and can make my own decisions. For the longest while I felt like I needed to poll those around me, or get the opinion of those whom I respected, to help my decision making. As I’ve gotten older and my outlook has changed, I’ve come to the realization that no one will live with those decisions, but me. What galled me was people’s need to frequently correct and critique my decisions when they didn’t line up with what they would have done. I’m empowered now to kindly, and if need be, curtly thank them for their opinion and reinforce that as an adult I’m entitled to make my own decisions and choices. I may decide to revisit an old relationship or venture into something completely atypical from what my personality dictates. If my decisions come with mistakes, bring it. I’m a big girl and I can handle it.
  4. Turning 40 is empowering! Do you remember how you were in every past decade of your life? Did uncertainty and doubt overshadow decisions you made? Perhaps you found yourself subconsciously acting a certain way to fit in with friends, or saying particular things to impress peers or and even dressing to please a crush or a boyfriend? One of the many great things about turning 40 is you no longer feel pressured to do those things. I frequently hear myself saying, “I’m at an age and stage in my life where I don’t feel I need to (fill in the blank).” It is so liberating.
  5. Even though I’ve accomplished a lot, I still want to do more. Like me, you’ve done more personally and professionally than many people you know. If others were to view our dossiers, our lives would look successful, glamorous and extremely well-traveled. And that’s understandable, but I still feel as though there’s more to do. I still feel unfulfilled in some areas. For a while I listened to others who told me I “was too hard” on myself. Then I realized that I’m not hard on myself. There are things I want (or need) to do. And that’s OK. I’m constantly looking to expand my horizon and conquer new things. We shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting more from life.
  6. Put God first. I don’t consider myself religious, but I have a personal relationship with God. I pray or talk to Him as much as I can. I even have “date nights”. I know. It sounds hokey. Basically, I block off an evening, prepare a fantastic meal, key up some worship music on my MP3 or laptop and spend my evening listening to music, reading my Bible and pouring out my heart to Him. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I’m quiet. Whatever I do, I am always deeply satisfied after. You’ll find your own way, I’m sure. But who better to pour out my hopes, dreams and fears to but the One who made me? I couldn’t have made it as far as I have without Him and I tell all my friends the same. Put Him first and you’ll never regret it.

I’m sure you’ll receive numerous gifts and well-wishes. You’ll be surrounded by those you love and who love you just as much. When everybody’s gone and you’re left with your thoughts, I hope you’ll find these observations useful.  Like I mentioned before, we are alive in a time in history where the world is literally at our fingertips. All you have to do is pick up your phone or tablet and you will instantly have access to review opportunities and dreams before you pursue them. You’ll chart your own course, make your own rules, and live your own dreams. So happy birthday, my dear, the best is yet to come!

- Vanessa

With Vanessa at my 40th birthday party.

With Vanessa at my 40th birthday party.

Looking Back

At least once every couple of weeks, another person tells me a friend or family member was just diagnosed with cancer. And it’s often breast cancer. I honestly had no idea how common it was until I entered the cancer world nearly two years ago. I now know so many (mostly) women who are all at different stages of their cancer journey. I have one message for every single one of you, no matter what stage of treatment you’re at now: you will get through this!

Treatment will end – and, honestly, that will be one of the hardest parts. But you will move on. You will get your hair back – on your head, your eyelashes, your eyebrows, all of it. You will get (if applicable and you choose) new boobs. You will stop feeling so tired. You will start remembering things again. Your head will clear. The tingling will go away. Your visits to the hospital – your home away from home for so long – will grow further and further apart.

People will no longer be able to tell by looking at you that you had cancer. In fact, many will forget you had cancer. You will never be able to forget, but you will stop thinking about cancer constantly. You will go a full hour without thinking about it, then a few hours, and then even a full day! (I haven’t gone longer than that yet, but expect eventually I’ll even go a week or more without thinking about it – at least I hope!) Your life will resume a new type of normal, which, if you want it to, can at least resemble your old normal.

For my friends just starting their journey, considering their options and deciding their route: it may seem like forever, but honestly, one day (maybe about two years from now) you will be looking back, amazed at how much has happened in such a short amount of time – and happily moving on with your life…

Curt Schilling, the former World Series Champion Red Sox pitcher just announced to the world that he has cancer. Tears welled up in my eyes. Not because I know Curt personally, but because I know exactly how he felt when he heard those words, “You have cancer.” It was probably the same way my friend Monica’s mom felt when she was diagnosed. And Greg. And Lisa. And Patrick. And Bonnie. And Giuliana. It doesn’t matter if you’re famous, if you’re young, old, a guy or a girl. The world as you know it has ended.

Cancer doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. You can’t buy your way out of cancer. And the doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and I’m sure other hospitals, treat you the same regardless of your bank account. They want to help you beat it, whether your name is in the newspaper or not.  

I hate that anyone has to go through what I did – and some much worse. If I knew Curt, I would tell him the one thing that matters most: It’s all about your attitude. Stay positive, truly believe you will beat it, and (with lots of prayers, support and your dream team of doctors) you will. Be like Monica’s mom who, when she lost all of the hair on her head, simply said she’s happy to be saving money at the hairdresser. Because when it comes down to it, she’s no different from you, Curt. Cancer doesn’t care. But luckily people do.

Think and plan

There is never enough time to think or plan. There is always so much going on! When does it ever stop??? I guess that’s what I need to learn: to not let it get that way. To make time to think and plan. Otherwise it will never happen. Of course, we all know what happens to the best laid plans – things like my 2012. But  you can’t let that stop you.

There are such things as over thinking and over planning. I’m constantly coaching my girlfriends (and reminding myself) not to over-analyze things their boyfriend/husband/lover/dream boy does – we’re never going to figure them out, anyway. And sometimes when you over think a decision you end up with the wrong one – sometimes you’ve just got to go with your gut. Over planning is something I can definitely fall into. Nick was telling Cory the other night, “Just wait ’til you go on vacation with her! She’ll plan your every second and have you going so fast, you’ll never be able to catch up! You should’ve seen Gramma and me trying to keep up with her in Rome.” And my mom chimed in, “That’s why we just gave up and went to the pub.” I admit, I was bad on that trip – and I vow to never over plan a vacation like that again!

What I have to be careful of now is to not over plan my life. I am so thankful to have my life and energy to really live it (and my eyebrows, eyelashes and hair on my head), that I’ve had a tendency to say “yes” to most everything, and to try to fit everything in. I’m always going, going, going, when one of the things I vowed less than a month ago was to slow down. (I think I need to print my resolutions and keep them with me to make them actually stick…)

I did pass up a few things this week, like I resisted buying concert tickets to see shows I’ve already seen – I don’t need to see every country show that comes to town! What I didn’t pass up were things that really matter to me:

  1. I signed up for the BAA Distance Medley. That is the BAA 5k in April (two days before the marathon), the BAA 10k in June and the (GULP) half-marathon in October. There it is – I said it in my resolutions and now I have a date to work toward. And boy do I have work to do! I haven’t been running much since I hate the cold, and I found out that they have a mandatory finish time of two and a half hours. That means I will have to cut my 13 minute plus mile down to 11:45. We’ll see… luckily I have connections with a certain running team and trainer who I am sure will give me a few tips…
  2. The second thing that I didn’t pass up actually caused me to tear up. I received an e-mail from Olivia Achtmeyer inviting me to be a model at this October’s Runway for Recovery event! I don’t think I’ve been to a more moving fundraiser than Runway for Recovery 2013. Seeing all those women (and some men) with their families, celebrating the survivors and honoring those they’ve lost, in such a supportive, energetic environment – I can’t even do it justice trying to describe it. Go to the site and check out the  video. And mark your calendars for October 16, 2014 to see me walk (dance, strut, I don’t know – just hopefully not fall!) down the runway at the Revere Hotel in Boston, all to raise money for children who’ve lost their mothers to breast cancer. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my second year of survivorship.
  3. Finally, I am going to book a flight to Florida for a few days to see my Dad, Maggie, Steve, Kelli and my crazy handsome nephews. I miss them and don’t see them enough. And there’s never enough time or a good time – so sometimes you just have to make time!

These are the kinds of events I’d like to fill my calendar with…

 

I woke up and heard Cory telling his sister on the phone that it was going to be a rainy day. I reached over and grabbed my phone and saw that not only was it not raining yet (only 60% chance at 9 am – yes, I slept until 9), but it was 46 degrees out – woo hoo! Because today is the first day I’m allowed to start running – again.

I’ve had more starts and stops in this short running career since I was inspired by Tara and the Genzyme Running Team to take it up in the late fall of 2011. Ran my first 5k that December (the Jingle Bell Run – so fun!), then found the lump and got the breast cancer diagnosis in March 2012. Surgery quickly followed. No running for a long time. Start back. Chemo. A little running but not much energy to run – then afraid I’d fall with my numb toes and soles of my feet. Lymphedema set in – so glove and sleeve when running from now on until eternity. Then a bit of running, but winter and radiation and the combo was not my favorite – and still little energy and numbness. I ran my first 5k back, the BAA 5k, the day before the Boston Marathon – it was strange that I got to cross the finish line when so many of my friends and family didn’t get to the next day. I worked my way to my first 10k – the BAA 10k, their first event after the marathon. Since then it’s been some running, walking, a stupid fall – and then surgery again. (Oh and winter – which we know I hate to run in the cold.) But now hopefully the last surgery is done and I’m allowed to start running – again.

So back to realizing it was warm (relatively) out. I know me. If I didn’t roll out of bed and get in my running clothes and out the door right then, before the rain, it wasn’t going to happen. And I have new sneakers to break in!

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So I did. And the second after I got outside and snapped that picture of my new sneakers, it started to pour. Of course it did. I thought about going back inside, but thought “Amy, you just posted a picture saying you’re going for a run – you have to run at least a mile.” (Well, run/walk – remember, I do intervals.) Argh. Fine. I turned up my music, turned on Map My Run, tucked my phone in my sleeve and started to run. (Quick side note and shout out to awesome Matt O’Shea for sending me info on how to make Nike+ show my map while running – I remembered the tip halfway through, tried it and it worked! May switch to that app from now on. I like the cheering. :) Thank you! )

Luckily, after about a mile the rain stopped and it just remained… dreary, and at least not cold. And heck, I’d gone a mile – I might as well go another half before turning around, right? Which brought me to Kenmore Square:

20140111-104108.jpgAll the restaurants made me realize I hadn’t eaten anything, so definitely time to turn around. As I was running by a store window I caught a glimpse of myself and realized: it’s the first time I’ve been able to run with a real pony tail!

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Kind of silly, I know, but a milestone that made me smile… And as I ran I had various aches and pains – first my knee, then my hip, then my ankle, and always slight throbbing on the right side of my chest, but all things I can work through. I think my body is just shocked it’s moving again!

I made it back, slowly, but having put the first 3.1 miles on my new sneakers – so basically a 5k. Not bad for the first venture out. It will be a long road to my goal of a half marathon this year, but I know I can do it. And hopefully no more start/stops in the foreseeable future…

Lisa’s List

My friend Lisa had her first chemo session at Dana-Farber yesterday. I think I was more nervous for her than I was when I went through it! There was no need, though, as she is one of the bravest, most positive people I know. There is no way she’s going to let this stupid cancer mess with her and her fabulous family. Frankly, cancer chose the wrong woman when it entered her cells.

But because I was nervous, I wanted to make sure I passed all I learned through my experience on to Lisa. Not wanting to forget anything, I made a list (on a bright pink post-it note, of course):

Lisa

  • All different
  • Tired
  • Food tastes
  • Eating/weight
  • Eyelashes
  • American Cancer Society (Wig website/Look Good, Feel Better)
  • Wig fitting
  • Lymphedema (sleeve/massage)
  • Insurance
  • Nails
  • Super B vitamins
  • YOU

Pretty random, huh? That’s the thing – so many of the things that are a big deal in your cancer life, you’d never expect. And there is so much happening, so fast, so much to read and absorb, it’s hard to distill what you really need to know. So during lunch, I ran over to Dana-Farber to sit with Lisa and download what I found to be the most important, like…

  • The all important disclaimer that every single person is different. Everyone’s body reacts differently to things – while my arm would get cold while the poison traveled through the IV into my veins, it didn’t bother Lisa. While I loved having my girlfriends at every chemo session (kind of like Sex and the City / Hospital Episode), she may prefer to be alone or just with her family. I was really lucky and didn’t get as sick as I expected from the chemo, and hopefully Lisa will be the same, although I have friends who didn’t want to do anything but sleep through it.
  • You can’t anticipate if you’ll lose or gain weight. Right after my first chemo, my mouth got the metallic taste and I thought for sure I’d hate food and lose weight (yay!)… but of course that only lasted a couple of days, my taste buds returned and food was what made my nausea go away. So of course I gained more than 20 pounds. But you know what? It didn’t matter! My mantra was “whatever makes me feel better” – which included food and retail therapy. And yes, I’m still losing those last couple pounds and trying to pay the credit card bills, but heck it was worth it, because those things made me feel better.
  • Part of that retail therapy were my many wigs, which I passed on to Lisa yesterday – and encouraged her to let her children play with, to help them get used to the idea. She texted me last night that her youngest put on her Little Mermaid dress with the red wig – love it!!!
  • Along with the bald head, I reminded her that EVERY hair on her body will fall out – not just those on her head. I encouraged her to relish the time that she doesn’t have to shave, as it will be back before she knows it. And I also warned her of what was most traumatic for me: losing not my eyebrows but my eyelashes… I was so happy the day they started growing back!
  • Yes, the stupid cancer can do a number on your self-esteem, but it’s so great that there are programs out there like the American Cancer Society’s Look Good, Feel Better program that not only teaches you how to apply your makeup (including creating eyebrows after yours disappear), but gives you a fabulous bag of goodies! A must to take advantage of.

I could’ve gone on and on, but knew I could never tell her everything, and didn’t want to overwhelm her, especially during that first chemo session. (Luckily, Lisa is happily married, or I’d have had to give all my “single cancer girl” tips, too! ;) ) Really, everyone who goes through it has a different experience, and all we can do is pass on our experiences, hope the tips help you not feel like you’re the only one going through this and reduce the surprise of things people didn’t warn you about. And that’s the number one thingto remember: it’s all about you.

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