Coping with a Cancer Scare and Covid Anxiety

Kelly is a writer, animal lover, makeup enthusiast and a cancer survivor.

Well, let’s add coping with a cancer scare and Covid anxiety simultaneously to my list of talents. Last week I had my annual oncology visit. I found a lump about a week before the appointment, and my HCP took one look and scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. This was on a Friday and the tests were scheduled for Monday. My doc was not messing around. Combined with my mild Covid fear, that made for an anxious weekend.

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Aluminum Free Deodorant Comparisons

The debate over aluminum being connected to Alzheimer’s disease and to breast cancer continues. Studies have suggested both, and both have been discredited. Regardless, many have kicked aluminum to the curb, just in case. I did, and now I’ve done some aluminum free deodorant comparisons!

Aluminum free deodorants. Native, Love Beauty and Planet, Arm & Hammer Essentials, Spit and Polish

I don’t want to be that TMI girl, but here we are talking about deodorant, so what do you think is going to happen? As a breast cancer survivor and having a family history of dementia, I want to err on the side of caution so I’ve done some aluminum free deodorant comparisons. Plus, I have the most active sweat glands I’ve ever met.

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Cancer Survivor’s Guilt

Cancer survivor’s guilt is real and it’s common. Not all survivors experience it, but many do. Some oncologists believe that most cancer survivors experience some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, cancer survivor’s guilt is a feeling of unworthiness that floats just beneath the surface and is triggered by the loss of someone I knew or admired, or anyone who seemingly lived a more meaningful life than I have.

Saturday was my 7-year cancer survivorship day–my cancerversary as I call it, but I didn’t celebrate this year. Someone I admired, who truly made the world a more positive and better place, lost her battle.

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5K in Every State – Minnesota!

Yep, another 5K in another state. That’s number eleven and the second this year…so far. Eleven! I’m well into the double digits. Ha! Before I give the deets on my Minnesota run though, and for the benefit of the folks just tuning in, I want to revisit why this lofty goal is even on my bucket list (lest anyone think I’m plain crazy).

11 states done, 39 to go!

In 2013 I was diagnosed with stage IIB invasive breast cancer, and understandably, I got way in my head about it. Even with the prognosis of a 93% 5-year and 83% 10-year survival rate, hearing the words “you have cancer” had me questioning everything. For the first time I seriously contemplated my own mortality, I mean seriously realized it could happen and definitely would happen some day. The good news is that it lit a fire in me to get busy living!

My treatment plan included lumpectomy, radiation, meds, healthy eating, and regular exercise. Physical fitness has never been my jam. Starting programs is my forte; sticking with them is not. But, I joined the YMCA LIVESTRONG program where a group of us survivors were instructed in workouts twice a week for three months. It’s a great program, and I thought after doing something for three months it would stick. No M’am. Within a few weeks of completing the course I was skipping the gym more than I was going.

Meanwhile, as I was avoiding the gym, I was working on my bucket list which included a vague reference to travel–something I used to do more often–and I was also racking my brain for an exercise routine that wouldn’t bore me to tears (no stationary exercise equipment please) and didn’t require me to go to a place (because when I get home from work, I’m in). Then it hit me: a 5K in every state would get me traveling again AND would force me to stay active because I’d have to train for each of the 50 races. And all I had to do was run out the door–no going to the gym. Genius! Except I wasn’t a runner. Aye-aye-aye.

Now you’re up to speed, and my most recent run in Minnesota was the 8th Annual Tanner’s Team Walk/Run which raises funds for the Tanner’s Team Foundation. TTF helps families with children fighting life-threatening illness or serious injury in 45 central Minnesota counties. Any time a charity involves children, it tugs at my heart, and seeing some of the kiddos at the race that have been helped by this group gave me all the feels. I was honored to run this one. Well, I sort of ran it. I was just a few weeks into the Couch to 5K program 11.0, so I did run/walk intervals (sounds familiar–same as the last race!) that got me 44:37. Safe to say this was not a personal best, but hey, I showed up and I finished.

The Tanner’s Team Foundation bear?

Finished! And not last!

The day prior, I flew into Minneapolis, rented a car, and marched myself straight to the Mary Tyler Moore statue. It’s Mary who reminds me that I’m “gonna make it after all,” so it wouldn’t have felt right visiting the city without paying homage to the Mary. If I had a hat with me…

I didn’t have long to poke around the city, but the tiny slice I saw was beautiful. At population 420,000, the city has two light rails, a commuter rail, and the Minneapolis Skyway System, which is seven miles of enclosed pedestrian bridges linking eighty city blocks. It’s ranked the 9th most walkable city in the nation. Not bad when you consider the average yearly high temp is 55.2 (that’s for the whole year–it gets into the 80s in July). There’s an artsy vibe downtown, and I stumbled upon some darn good food, too. Do you get the feeling I was absolutely enamored with this city? Me too.

The Mary. A true pioneer.

The Mercury Dining Room and Rail – awesome eats at the former Soo Line train station.

My final destination, however, was a family get-together about an hour and a half from Minneapolis, so off I went to see the brother and the sisters. And in-laws, and nephews, and nieces, oh my! One of my nephews I last saw at Dad’s funeral in 1999, and the last time the sibs were all together was at Mom’s funeral, so this light-hearted gathering with the perfect weather, the games, and more food than we could possibly eat was incredibly relaxing, needed, and good for the soul. My family really needs to do more socializing outside of funerals. These last two trips (I did New Hampshire in May) have made my heart smile.

The setting for our reunion could not have been more beautiful.

We each tie dyed a shirt as a family reunion keepsake, cuz we’re groovy like that!

My next race is to be determined, but I’ll keep you posted. I hope y’all have some fun stuff planned this year. It’s wonderful to get out and explore, and to quote the MTM show lyrics, it’s time you started living!

Cheers!
Kelly

2017 Komen Race for the Cure was #MoreThanPink!

Each year since my diagnosis, I reflect on what the Komen Race for the Cure means to me. It rolls around soon after my cancerversary, so it’s a good reminder of the sh-t that happened/is happening in my body and to so many others. I usually get sentimental, fearful, hopeful, and a million other ‘-fuls,’ but the first piece I wrote for this post back in March was dark and depressing. I’m glad I held that post and waited for the mood to pass, because I’d much rather share hope with you than what I was feeling a few months ago.

I’m a 4-year survivor!

Still, the bottom line is that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. One of the Komen organization’s goals is to reduce breast cancer deaths by 50% by 2026. Fifty percent! That is a serious goal for a serious disease, and I have every faith we can do this. To everyone who supports the Komen organization and groups like it, thank you.

By race day, I was feeling more upbeat. Even though I still cried during the survivor celebration, the weeks leading up to and the day of were fun! Fun, because I did a goofy thing (imagine that). To help reach my fundraising goal, I agreed to color my hair pink if I raised $2,000. Well holy Hubba Bubba, Batman, the cash came pouring in!

This is Katelyn. She’s magical.

Katelyn mixed up her potion…

…and did this! #pinktastic

Not only did friends, family, and some folks I don’t even know donate to the cause, one of my hair stylists (yes, I have two because I’m special like that) donated her primo coloring talent to make the pink happen. Can a girl be more blessed than that?

My niece flew in from Chicago to do the walk with me (squee!), so not only did I hit my fundraising goal out of the park with a grand total of $2,715, I also got to share the walk with two of my best lady friends and a little slice of family. I got to keep sister’s daughter here for a few days and spend some girly/family/let’s-eat-at-every-restaurant-in-town time like we’ve never done before. Color me delighted!

The team! I love these ladies!

We walk for hope and to never forget the beautiful souls lost.

Although the walk has been walked, Miss Niece flew back home, and the pink has faded from my hair, the funds raised and the work done toward finding a cure for cancer is indelible. We will cut breast cancer deaths in half by 2026, and we’re just getting started.

Cheers!
Kelly

Three Years in Remission and I’m a Nervous-Nellie

March 14 marked three years of survivorship for me…excuse me while I do my happy dance! But wait, what is this anxiety I feel? In 2014 and 2015, I made a big deal about my cancerversaries. My work peeps heard about it for weeks leading up to the big date, my friends were invited to celebrate, and I felt a sense of giddiness to mark another year without a recurrence. What happened to the party this year?

I’ve had a lot on my plate recently, and quite frankly the date nearly slipped my mind. Work has amped up, and Miss Grace and I will be moving soon to a new home. The process of house hunting, purchasing, packing, and moving is overwhelming in and of itself. Add the stress of transitioning Mom from living independently to assisted living, and watching the person I love most in the world decline, well it is heartbreaking.

But there has been something deeper than family, career, and domicile that has kept me from making a fuss. Most remissions occur in the three- to seven-year window. There it is.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation notes that most recurrences occur in the first five years. The American Journal of Managed Care refers to the three- to seven-year window. At 10 years after initial treatment, the recurrence rate drops drastically, which is why my oncologists are fixated on that 10-year mark.

Meanwhile, I’m living in the three- to seven-year space.

I’ve been asked if cancer is always on my mind. If I obsess over it. That’s tough to answer, because cancer is part of me. I didn’t ask for this. I had no choice in the matter, but I have to accept that it is, and always will be, part of who I am. I wrote shortly after my diagnosis in this post that cancer would not define me, but there is no denying cancer either.

It’s a little like asking if breathing is always on one’s mind. Yes and no. You know it is part of you, you don’t think about it every moment, but you are innately aware of the fact, on some level, that you are breathing at all times.

So, my answer is yes, cancer is always on my mind; and my answer is no, I do not obsess over it because it is often not intentional thought, it is an awareness. Except now I’m three years cancer-free. That three- to seven-year window just cracked open, and I’d love nothing more than to shut this sh-t down. But I can’t.

I’m dealing with my fear of being overconfident, of jinxing myself, and I will celebrate. I’ll rally my friends and do it up good. After all, regardless of health, wealth, age, luck, or lack thereof, you still only live once!

Cheers!
Kelly

Komen Race for the Cure 2015

First and foremost, thank you to everyone who supported me in the Race for the Cure this year and in years past. Your kindness and generosity are astounding, and I am humbled.

The topic of breast cancer is near and dear to me. The disease is near, well, because I’ve had it and am in remission, and the fight against it is dear to me because I would love for all the little girls growing up now to never have to worry about such things. How great would that be?

Each year the Race for the Cure seems to take on a slightly varied meaning for me, and this year was no different. I walked in memory of my brother-in-law’s mother who was lost to breast cancer too many years ago. Even though I never met her, I was honored to wear Carron’s name and bring her into this beautiful, pink army against breast cancer.

As always, I arrived in good spirits. Truth be told, I was giggling at myself for kindly, and pointedly, explaining that my VIP parking pass was never provided to me when the parking attendant asked me to turn my map over. It read “VIP Parking Pass.” Ha!

Laughing is entirely appropriate because the Race for the Cure is an opportunity to celebrate the fact that we are alive. There is music, there are concession stands, a sea of people, and there is an infectious, upbeat vibe. Yet every year when we actually begin walking, and I start reading the “In Celebration of” and “In Memory of” signs on the backs of thousands of people, I get choked up. I am overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, fear, gratitude, guilt, and hope.

Susan G. Komen Walkers
Each pink sign carries the name (some list several names) of someone diagnosed with breast cancer, either “In Celebration of” or “In Memory of”

Whether my friends notice how quiet I am for the first minute or two, I’m not sure, but it’s because I am on the verge of tears. If I speak, I will cry. I think of those who were not as fortunate as me, those whose battles have been long and painful, and the loved ones left behind. I give myself a minute to process that load of emotions, and I have the self-talk. Kelly, get it together–this is a glorious day. And then I walk.

Writing my message on the Susan G. Komen Wall of Hope
Writing my message on the Wall of Hope

Thank you for understanding why I walk, for supporting me with your generous and thoughtful donations, your well-wishes and prayers, and for walking with me. It truly means the world to me.

Cheers,
Kelly

Two Years Cancer-Free: Learning to Let it Go

In my imperfect home, surrounded by friends, I celebrated my two-year cancer survivor anniversary [she does the happy dance]! I feel so blessed and thankful for every day I am cancer-free. Two years under my belt; eight more to go. No complaints, but it sure feels a hell of a lot longer than two years since this journey began. I can’t say whether it is due to the stress, or because I took the living-of-my-life up a notch and am just plain wearing myself out. I suspect it is a little of both. Either way, the crow’s-feet and gray hairs are multiplying like a rabbit colony, but that’s all right with me.

After the initial shock, I armed myself with a determination that could not be matched. I was riding a high from my sheer will to expel this disease from my body, and that was actually a good thing. It jump-started a whole new attitude, an exercise routine, and a healthy diet. Every day I woke up was a day for which I was thankful. I saw beauty everywhere. I used the exclamation point excessively. Indeed, the “!” was out of control.

At one year cancer-free, I was still feeling that high. I hope by then I had backed off the over-zealous punctuation, but I’m afraid to look. My new, positive attitude was intact, and I was sticking to the healthy diet. I was slacking on the exercise (my couch potato ways), but I never gave it up completely–I walked the dog daily, occasionally did yoga or a few jumping jacks in my living room, and did a few 5K races. And, as if I weren’t OCD enough, I was decluttering and organizing the hell out of my condo. The purging of possessions was, and still is, therapy for me. Perhaps all the extraneous stuff I’ve been tossing is representative of the nasty cancer cells I so badly want out of my body. Hmm.

At two years cancer-free, I feel like I am falling into my stride for the long haul. I sprinted for two years; it’s time to settle into my groove and see this thing through. I am painfully aware that the rug could be pulled from under me at any moment, and every little ache and pain is quickly submitted to my physician for thorough examination, but I have maintained my good attitude. During the first year, I operated with panic-driven positivity and put into play all of the tangible strategies I could (surgery, radiation, diet, exercise, non-toxic products). Going into year three, in addition to the tangible strategies, I am also becoming focused on my state of mind, which is a little more than having a positive attitude.

While I’m keeping up the good ‘tude pretty well, I am also dabbling in the art of non-perfectionism. Non-perfectionism. For those of you who know me personally–GASP! Right?

Before you say there ain’t no way, listen to this. I hosted a little soiree at my home last weekend to celebrate my cancerversary. Remember when I said in this post that I don’t entertain often because I can’t seem to ever get my home perfect enough to have people over? And, if I’m being honest, because I procrastinate until the idea goes out of style anyway. Well, in addition to the usual frenzied people-are-coming-over cleaning, I had my pre-party punch list that I worked on for three weeks, some of which did not get done:

Punch List

  • paint door
  • paint entry way
  • paint hallway
  • install rack for scarves in hallway
  • caulk around HVAC vent and paint vent
  • measure, order, and install piece of granite along pantry
  • purchase screen door & hire someone to install
  • purchase & hang string lights on deck (3 trips to the store for the right extension cord)
  • plant flowers on deck
  • purchase and install hanging shelf in powder room
  • remove door from kitchen cabinet and paint interior
  • clean carpet
  • hang floating shelves in living room
  • hang guitar hanger in living room (for ukulele)

Clear string lights on patio at night
The lights on the deck are dreamy

I was okay with not completing the list, but the morning of the party, pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I’ll spare you the details, but my dog got sick (voluminously so). All of my bedding had to be washed. There was an issue with the making of the deviled eggs. And then there was the matter of the handyman who was running late, and who arrived in time to show me the door I purchased was defective. I told him not to worry, I’m a whole new person who is not a perfectionist and to install the door anyway–a little bit of crooked won’t bother me. But the door was not just un-square, it was warped. Simply put, the screen door could not serve it’s intended purpose of keeping the bugs out. Did I mention this is the day of the party?

I cleaned up the dog mess; I paid the gentleman for installing the door, and we agreed to deal with replacing it another day because it clearly could not be remedied before the party; and I prepared as many deviled eggs as God would allow. It turned out that was exactly the number of guests I was expecting. Yep, I had one egg per guest to offer (along with lots of other food). Of course, in the midst of all this I did phone a friend to vent a little, but I wasn’t losing my mind. I was okay. It was just a “can you believe this?” call. And you know what? The party was lovely. Nobody cared that I had over-purged my glassware and some were drinking Prosecco from whiskey glasses, and nobody stormed out in disgust because my screen door was jacked.

One question that came up a couple of times at my little celebration was whether I got another tattoo. I got my first one in honor of my one-year survivor anniversary (see that post here), and some folks thought I might make that an annual event. Look at that punch list. When in the world would I have time to get another tattoo?

Ha! (emphasis on the exclamation point)

Cheers!
Kelly

 

Why I have a tattoo

It was just about a year ago that I got my first tattoo. I say first, because if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s to never say never. I don’t plan to have any further artwork added to my body, but who really knows?

I ended up at Mad Ethel’s Tattoo in Raleigh last year after debating about it for a few decades. Seriously. I am among those who wanted a tattoo, but never had the cojones to do it. The permanent nature is what would invariably stop me. And thank GAWD, because the parrot, the phoenix, and, I’m ashamed to admit–Ziggy, would have me at the high end of mortified right now.

Ziggy cartoon
Remember Ziggy?

These were all things I thought were cute or, dare I say, cool. There was no connection between me and a parrot. Kim Basinger had one on her shoulder in No Mercy, so I wanted one. I thought a phoenix on the top of my foot would be the bomb, and the Ziggy thing, that was a hold-over from childhood. I still have the Ziggy Christmas ornament from my grade school bestie, but let’s all breathe a huge sigh of relief that the little bald cartoon man is not peeking over my belt line at you. Whew. I’d say I dodged one there.

Regardless of how relieved I was that none of the aforementioned ever made it SubQ, I still wanted some ink. For years I babbled about getting a cross on the back of my neck, which would be something with meaning for me, but it’s not terribly unique. Then, as my one year cancer-free anniversary was approaching, it hit me. My favorite church hymn had become my mantra while sorting through my feelings about cancer, living, dying, and what little control I have over all of it. I’m doing everything I can to stay healthy, but the bottom line is, no matter what the final verdict, it is well with my soul.

So there it was. A few weeks before my one year cancerversary I stopped at Mad Ethel’s, the place looked clean, and I threw down a deposit. I told a friend and, without hesitation, she said “I’ll get one with you.” Now that’s a friend. So the two of us spent the better part of nine hours with Anton, tattoo artist extraordinaire. Yep, nine hours. The guy I initially scheduled with walked out the day prior, and because it was incredibly important to me to get the tattoo on that specific date, Anton was kind enough to work me in. I got the feeling the other guy left amidst some drama and their entire schedule was thrown off as the dust settled. But, after watching my friend get her custom artwork sketched, transferred to her skin, outlined, then filled in, after going next door to Fiction Kitchen for some dinner (if you have not been yet, you must go), after unsuccessfully trying to convince Grace over the phone to come out of her crate for the neighbor, after running home to let Grace out, it was finally my turn. My single line of script was simple, took about 20 minutes, and there I had it. My life-long dream of permanent dermal graffiti was realized.

Dog looking over owner's shoulder, tattoo on back
My heart and my mantra, side by side (photo by InBetween the Blinks Photography)

Permanent dermal graffiti. I like that. And ironically, what finally got me to the shop was my need for something permanent–the very thing that kept me away for so long. For 30 years I had been living on the fence, fearing an irreversible mistake. My life was in total upheaval, nothing was right, and nothing could be certain. This tattoo was one thing that would just be. It would be mine, and no oncologist would stage this tattoo, tell me how to treat it or what my survival rate would be. It was a tiny little something that I could determine and I could have forever, regardless of how long forever lasts. My terms. And so it is.

It is well with my soul.

Cheers!
Kelly