It’s Who I Am
During this past regimen of chemotherapy (January to July 2016), I felt like I had the flu most of the time. The way that my body absorbed that particular drug was very consistent… I felt the same degree of side effects for almost that entire six month period. I had treatment every Monday, and I didn’t feel major changes Tuesday versus Friday versus Sunday, neither was it dramatically different three weeks before or a month in. Physically I wasn’t ever in an acute situation; I felt weak, nauseous, exhausted, achey and drained. It was not debilitating but it was definitely a pervasive condition that affected the way I navigated my days. There was never a window where I couldn’t function at all, but there also was never a window where I felt good. A varying amount of grit was necessary at all times. A six-month “flu” really is the best analogy I can think of when I try to describe it. There were also other random side effects: hair loss was obviously one of them, but also weakening and detaching of some of my fingernails, and what I call “grip strength pain.” Anytime I tried to open a jar, squeeze hard, or pinch, my hand/fingers burned like they were on fire. Chemotherapy is weird, folks. I just learned to adapt to all of it.
I should add that I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I maintain my role as present and active mother in the lives of Maren and Greta. They are (of course) my priority during the day, and I honestly don’t think they remember I have cancer very often. They are used to my obvious symptom (baldness) and I fight hard to use my best energy for them. As I plan and prioritize I know that I am doing mothering well. Praise the Lord!
It helps that I know the chemotherapy is my best medical shot at keeping the cancer at bay. In contrast to the flu, where you want to get over it, I wanted to thrive in it because I want my body to be strong with and without chemo. I always view chemo as a teammate, and that helps my desire to thrive (and helps keep me from whining!).
Enduring significant chemo side effects was a challenge in lots of ways, but it also reinforced something that I’ve come to realize as an adult.
I have to be a good Jen before I’m good for anyone else.
My deepest desire is to love my family, and then my people, well. Like most of you, I want to offer something of myself to the world. And when I’m overcome, I simply can’t do that. Hot mess Jen is no good for anyone, and it was so, so easy for me to feel overcome for the first half of this year. It’s why I opened the door literally and figuratively to have so much help by way of house cleaning, mom blitz’s, laundry, and meals. Saying yes to all that help was me loving myself first so that I could then love my people. I could not (Could. Not.) have loved well during that season if it weren’t for all that help.
This picture sort of sums up how I feel about it: I’m running and fighting for the beauty. You can barely see the “run.” on my hat in the darkness because the sunset is so captivating. The dark threatens to overcome, but if I keep my eye on the joy, love, hope then it always wins. The brilliance is there: I just have to see it.
I’ve been fighting for me, for my Jen-ness, this year. So, ironically, during one of the lowest seasons of productivity and accomplishment in my life, I spent a lot of time thinking about who I am. It was necessary because when I began to think about my energy expenditures, I learned quickly that I had to spend on myself first so that I could be of worth to the people I love. Thus: a walk at sunset for me was the most right thing to do, rather than sharing bedtime duties with Brad. I scraped the back of the pantry more than once because I couldn’t afford to both shop for and prepare a meal, energy-wise. Another night going to girls’ night out was a better choice than going to soccer or volleyball practice. There were times that one friend cleaned my house in the same week I had coffee with a different friend. My neighbors washed my girls’ clothes more than I did this year. I didn’t even weed my own garden. Telling Brad I needed to go to bed rather than stay up and hang out with him was not uncommon. I bailed on social events I’d said yes to because I didn’t have the energy to both attend and enjoy it.
All of these trade-offs are SO WEIRD to me still because I’m saying no to life-giving things that normally fuel me. By the nature of my physical condition I was so very limited on what I could do that I consistently chose to do the best thing for myself, and boy, did it feel decadent, luxurious and gluttonous at times. Having someone else sweep my floor so I can swim a few laps? It sounds so selfish! But again and again I proved to myself that if I didn’t center myself with who I am, who God created me to be, I would fail and crash and burn and it was not good.
The village really propped me up during this season; thank you village! (You know who you are!)
So, who am I? I’ve been pondering that question in a new capacity since January.
The singlemost moment of clarity that I’ve experienced in that regard was a few weeks ago on my friends’ boat. After ski-ing on the smoothest water I’ve skied on in a decade, I exclaimed to my girlfriends, “Boat Jen is Who I Am!” They looked at me with a bit of confusion mixed with laughter and let me explain. I was glowing from the quality time and conversation, the wind in my “hair” (haha), the sun on my face, the ache of muscles from skimming across the water on skis, the view of standing behind the captain’s chair as I coached a new boat driver, the glory of the scenery around me, the encouragement and affirmation of my friends, and the freedom in my soul.
Oh, the joy! I kid you not, I felt all of those things in that moment. I that space I am strong, confident, fun, beautiful, leader, and fierce.
(This is a total side note, but you should know that it’s not the reality of the situation that I’m focused on, but rather how I view myself. The truth is that I’m an overweight, breast-less, bald, out-of-shape woman in a Costco swimsuit on a boat. I point this out because there are like six reasons there that I should NOT be confident, beautiful, strong, etc. But because I choose to focus on who I am as God created me, I see my worth rather than the measurements of the world.)
I point this out because I think half the people reading this probably focus on the world’s view with regard to themselves. Instead, call out your own awesome people! Forget the world, and KNOW WHO YOU ARE at your core.
I got home from that weekend away and I told Brad about this whole Boat Jen Is Who I Am revelation, and, well, he declined to buy me a boat. He did offer to get me a pair of water skis, though, and told me I could stand in them in our living room anytime I want. Ha! Seriously though, as I explained it to him, he began nodding right away: I think the reason he loves me so well is that he knows that is the girl he fell in love with thirteen years ago. He always treats me as that girl, even when my moment-to-moment daily life doesn’t personify those qualities. I’m still that girl, and all those qualities are still true. The first step is naming the qualities, and the second is drawing them out. One of the reasons Brad and I are so good for each other is that we always call out the awesome in the other person.
I called out my fun when I played with my family this week. We had a stormy day at the beach on vacation. Me — the person who has always despised(!!!) the cold — suggested a rainy beach-venture with the girls. My mom, sister, Brad, Maren and Greta went out into the rain with buckets and nets for catching sea life. We stayed in the ocean for a while because the water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature. All of us were shivering but it was majestic to see the sea and the storm come together. It gave me a thrill to see my girls as the adventurers they are and daring themselves to get outside of their comfort zone.
Brad took off on a run down the beach while we were out there; I think his motivation was both to warm up and to get a bit of a workout in. As I watched him through the driving rain, I was motivated to try it myself. I’ve been oh-so-slowly incrementally fighting for some endurance with walks, jogs and swims this summer. It’s been a huge effort for little actual gain, but I’m allowing the effort to be part of the reward in my brain.
After everyone had their fill of rainy beach time, I set off down the beach on a run: barefoot in the sand, wearing a swimsuit, cover-up, and hat. I probably looked ridiculous, but I felt fierce. The wind and rain was driving at my back. No one else was on the beach. As I ran I passed a loch-ness-sea-hippo that another family must have molded out of sand. I ran through one section of the beach where as the waves washed up they uncovered hundreds of clams that quickly dug their way back below the surface. I passed jellyfish and seashells and driftwood. The birds faced into the wind but moved backward as the wind drove them. I turned around after about a mile, wishing I had a waterproof device to track my effort, and began running into the wind and the rain. It felt like acupuncture on my face, but I kept running. I dug in, and made it all the way back to “our beach”. And as I ran, I thought this is who I am. My heart soared with the thought.
Feeling proud of myself, a sense of success, or an achievement is a gateway to gratitude and joy for me. I will fight for my Jen-ness, my God-given qualities, for all of my days.
I’ve had two rounds of the new drug, so I am still assessing how I feel on this one. It takes a few weeks to wash out the old one and build up the new one; it is an evolving assessment. So far, I can say that it is different. I will have “good days” and “not-as-good days” rather than the consistent blah from last time. My blood counts took a serious dive after my first treatment, so after my second treatment, Dr. Wonderful put the Neulasta shot back in the game. I’ve had it before but not in more than a year. This shot stimulates my bone marrow to produce white blood cells to help me recover and be less immune-compromised. The side effect for Neulasta is that it that I can feel my pulse in my bones. It hurts like the dickens for forty-eight hours, folks. During the painful window the first week in August, Greta came into snuggle me and I just held her little baby hand for a while as the spasm-esque feelings passed. I am grateful for the shot though, as it will mean I am less likely to end up hospitalized due to a run-of-the-mill illness that my body is too weak to fight off. Again, visualizing the good juju that the painful symptoms bring is key to how I endure it mentally.
With the new chemotherapy regimen including Neulasta, my fight for my Jen-ness will change. I don’t know what I’ll add to the help calendar; I was supposed to think about that over vacation, but I decided not to—I embraced v.a.c.a.t.i.o.n. I will probably think about it while I’m in the chemo chair tomorrow and make a plan for the coming weeks and months. Maren and Greta both start school this week(!), so we are in a transitional time in lots of ways. Incidentally, tomorrow is my thirty-seventh birthday, and the first time I’ve had chemo on my actual birthday. Spending the day killing cancer cells will be a pretty great way to spend my day.
Last year at this time I was committed and training for a half-marathon. I am leaning towards signing up again, even though it is 7-ish weeks away — what have I got to lose? With any event like this there is a cost with regard to time, money and energy, but I also view it as an investment in my Jen-ness. I’ll need new shoes. To train I will have to join the community center that has a pool because on my bone-hurting days, it will be a feat to walk from the parking lot to the pool to swim; any impact exercise is out of the question. Neither is it an option to only train on the days I feel good; I don’t have that luxury… there probably just aren’t enough good days for me train and then to run a half-marathon without getting injured. I must simply train and pray for the endurance and fortitude to do it well. Even if I walk the darn thing, it will still be an accomplishment (true confession: I have to talk myself into this last statement… I want to RUN it, but have to acknowledge that is a huge stretch goal at this point.) Methinks that this quest for the half-marathon is good for me in lots of ways:
- The social-ness of it was one of the highlights of 2015. I couldn’t believe how many people championed Team Do Today Well in various capacities. It made the whole thing so fun!
- Other runners on the team told me it was the highlight of their year — I love watching my people do amazing things!
- The fitter I am, the better. I have to think I am giving my body an edge over the cancer when I do this.
- Brad and the girls championed me at every stage; it was a family effort and a family victory. It was the gateway for Maren training for and running her first 5k last spring.
- It’s who I am. I’m an athlete, a competitor, a goal-setter; brave, strong, fierce.
- It scares me.
It is Who. I. Am.