Cancer Survivor

Winning by Losing

By on November 20, 2016

Change is such a tough concept for so many of us to grasp, and it becomes more and more difficult as we age. It seems that the older we get, the less we like change and the more angry we become when compelled to do so against our will. For some reason, change typically has a negative connotation; we tend to focus on what we’re losing, and not what we might gain.

Sir Isaac Newton taught us that no matter how you slice it, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Regardless of culture or demographic, the adages about this fact are true: Every yin has a yang, what comes up must come down and so on. Since nothing  happens in a vacuum (on Earth, at least), in every set of negative circumstances, there MUST be something positive out there to balance it. Still not convinced? Let me share a story.

Everyone has a Plan
It’s 2008. I had two real legs. One of them is consumed with cancer – so much so that it has broken through my skin. Yes, I literally met my cancer face to face – my skin could no longer contain its prolific growth and it just ripped its way through. We were at the end of the road of my leg-saving attempts. My life was on the line; my cancer had progressed and was causing major problems. My doctors and I developed a treatment plan to literally throw everything (radiation, surgery and chemo) at my leg in one last attempt to save it. If we could not, then we would amputate later that summer. And so we began “The Plan” in May with radiation treatments as we worked toward the July surgery that would debulk, or remove, my tumor and try to close up my leg.

Man, oh man, did we ever get a monkey wrench thrown into that Plan.

It turned out I wasn’t the only lucky duck in my family with cancer. At the end of June, we tragically discovered that my mother – my bestie – had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, The Plan to save my leg took second fiddle to THE PLAN to save my mother’s life. Things got crazy quickly. Suffice it to say, the next few weeks were terribly traumatic and filled with constant, unwelcome change. We had to move my mother from a small community hospital in Naples to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Once there, THE PLAN was to get her stabilized from all of the internal bleeding and start chemo a.s.a.p. The odds were completely against us, but we were not going to give up without a fight.

mom-and-dana-xmas-1

Me and Mom – besties. Christmas 2006.

What about The Plan for me?
Meanwhile, my own cancer was fully enjoying being ignored, and all the stress and anxiety – well, that’s its favorite type of party atmosphere. Amongst all the chaos, my mother insisted I proceed with The Plan and have my last-ditch effort surgery to save my leg. And how can you say no to your mom, let alone when she is quickly fading from pancreatic cancer?

As luck would have it, her first day of chemo and my surgery were coincidentally scheduled for the same day, July 17. Why not, right!? At this point, it had become too much for Jim and me alone to manage, so reinforcements were flown in. My mom’s sister, Betsy, arrived to tend to my mom. So off we went, my mom and me in parallel universes to fight the same fight – she at Moffitt with her sister in Tampa and me at University of Florida Health Shands Hospital with Jim by my side in Gainesville.

Our respective treatments proceeded without a hitch. My mom received her first of many potent chemo treatments and my surgery went smoothly. (Of course, we all know how successful that really turned out to be.)

Since my journey with cancer had begun, Jim had never missed a single doctor’s appointment with me. He had literally slept on the linoleum floors of countless hospitals, never leaving my side since the day he graced my life with his presence. But on the evening on July 17, after all that we had been through, I suggested that he head home to Tampa for the night, instead of sleeping on the floor in my hospital room. We were old hats at this by now, I told him, and, quite frankly, my mother’s critical health made my current situation look like child’s play. For once, Jim agreed and he retreated home.

A few hours after Jim left, an incredible sense of urgency washed over me. I felt in my bones there something was VERY, VERY wrong. I called Jim, but couldn’t reach him, which, for anyone who knows him, isn’t too strange. But under the circumstances, he would normally make himself accessible. Where was he? I tried our home number, which just rang and rang – the voicemail didn’t even pick up. That was really strange. Was the power out? My anxiety continued to build throughout the night – I couldn’t reach anyone.

Finally, at 5 a.m., Jim answered his phone. He sounded terrible as he uttered the words, “I burned the house down.” Then silence.

I thought he was joking. He whispered them again. I realized he was not.

While I went under the knife and my mom was pumped full of poison, our rental home in Tampa had been consumed by fire. Jim immediately took the blame, thinking he had left something on the stove. But that wasn’t the case. There had been an electrical short in a wall. It had NOTHING to do with Jim.

house-fire-kitchen-july-2008

The source of the house fire was a short in the wall behind the microwave.

Picking up the pieces
Our house had burned and our possessions were charred, but my mom had made it through her first few rounds of chemo and was living with us in our new rental in Tampa. I made it through my surgery and was released from the hospital and crutch-ing my way through the tragedy.

Our first order of business was to sort through our burnt, water-logged, smoke-impregnated items to determine if anything could be salvaged. We set up a great system: The ambulatory crew (my brother, who had also flown in to help, and Jim) would make runs to the ruined home, pack up what they could find and then bring the goods back to the sedentary crew (my mom and me) at the new home to sort through and clean. Sounds like a lot of change going on, doesn’t it? We were living in a sea of chaos and truly every day was tumultuous and unpredictable.

One afternoon, my mom and I took the burned boxes outside. There was a lovely breeze and she just wanted to be outdoors as much as possible, regardless of the sweltering, summer heat. We came across a box loaded with photos, which we quickly huddled over, recounting incredible memories. At the bottom of the box was a blue journal I’d forgotten existed.

Picking up the journal, I had no idea what I’d written about, but my mom couldn’t wait to crack it open. She flipped to a random page and immediately her countenance became focused and intent. As she read, I could see the tears well up in her eyes. The corners of her mouth began to curl up, while her her lower lip trembled. “Oh, Buggy,” she uttered. I wasn’t sure what she had read and was honestly terrified she’d discovered some story about a band member I was “dating.” Nope. Instead she’d found the motherlode of all journal entries.

Fourteen years prior to this fire, I was sitting on a mountain top somewhere in Australia when I had a major epiphany. I found my purpose that day. I realized that if I wanted to change the world, it had to be through education. Leading by example. Remaining positive even in the face of defeat. In that journal entry, I had written all about how I was going to launch my professional career as an environmental educator.

Personally, hiking always lends itself to some pretty introspective times. I decided yesterday that I think I am going to go into education. I want to do so much for the environment, but what good would all of my research do if it wasn’t coupled with my enthusiasm? If any research is published, it is easily ignored by the politicians. I’m not much of an activist, so politics and I are out. But I want to make a difference. The only way I see to change a politician’s mind is the change their attitude toward the environment. And the only way to do that is to educate them. So I think education is the answer. I am not exactly how and where, but I think that’s how I will get my message out.

I had written this in 1994 and it here it was 2008. I had been teaching for over a decade and Nature’s Academy was already a year old. The tears continued to flow from my mother’s eyes as she gushed. “Oh Buggy, I could not be more proud. Look at you – you didn’t even realize you had written about Nature’s Academy 14 years ago, and here you are DOING IT. THANK YOU BUGGY. THANK YOU. I could not be more proud in this moment. You have truly manifested your destiny.”

It was one of those surreal moments that I remember vividly regardless of the time that has elapsed.

journal-inside

Funny thing, I still draw those smiley faces. I guess being happy is in my soul.

When losing means winning
We all know that my mom later died and eventually my leg was amputated. Not the type of change most people would welcome right? At first glance, you would say we lost. A lot. But the key takeaway here is that WE are in control of our own minds. We control the type of responses we have to the change, which is constant, so my best advice to you is to stop resisting! Admittedly, in the midst of all of that chaos, I did not have enough perspective or patience to see the positive balance of the negative experience I was enduring. But somehow, I held on long enough to figure it out.

Sure, Jim and I lost a lot of stuff in our fire. Pretty much everything, really, except for our animals, some boxes of pictures and that blue journal. There is never really a good time to have a total loss of your home, you know? But that it coincided with two cancer patients undergoing active treatment – well, that’s really not a good time…or was it?

I hadn’t picked up that journal in fourteen years. It was stuffed in a box in the back of a closet. There is no way, no how I would have purposefully dug that thing out. I’d forgotten I even had it. Now couple the discovery of the journal with the company of my mom. Normally, our visits were filled to the brim with activities. Sitting at a table looking over old family pictures? That was never on the list. It was literally the perfect storm that created the perfect circumstances for this PERFECT moment to occur.

journal

My Blue Journal.

I will never, ever forget that afternoon with my mother. It was just her and me, outside with the breeze, the pictures, the family stories, and the journal. We were bonded. We were one. And it never, ever would have happened if we were not blessed with this perfect storm of her cancer, my cancer and the house fire.

Each one of these terrible, negative changes was riddled with loss. And yet these negative circumstances meant that I GAINED an immortal connection with my mother – an unforgettable moment that will remain irrevocably precious and irreplaceable.

better-pic

My shrinking tumor! Down 49 percent since 2013!

The old sayings may be cliché, but they’re true. Every yin has a yang. When something’s lost, something is gained. And my personal favorite: The darkest clouds hold the most sunshine. (That’s a scientific fact, actually!).

Still don’t believe me? Well, the official tumor numbers are IN from my last round of scans. It seems I have LOST another 2 percent of my tumor. Yes, another reason to celebrate a loss! I would never be able to feel the joy of loss without gaining cancer. That may sound crazy, I know. But somehow, if you can find the faith to believe that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, you can surrender your fear. Change is inevitable. That is the one constant we CAN count on. And when that change manifests as a loss, focus on the yin to that yang. Don’t let fear creep in and control your thoughts. Believe in the positive – look for it. Keep the faith that this is part of our journey. Choose joy over struggle. And then you, too, will be winning by losing.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday everyone! Be present and be safe. 🙂

Photo at top: The beginning of a beautiful friendship circa 1974 – Mom and Buggy.

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