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Thursday, September 12, 2013

How Cancer Has Changed Me

Cancer has changed me in ways I never imagined.  I think back to the person I was in the spring, navigating an over-scheduled calendar, reconciling baseball practices that overlapped with soccer games, arranging playdates, teaching ballet classes, driving carpools and checking off the grocery list. Overly concerned with keeping the house clean, I nagged the kids to put away their shoes, keep their toys in the playroom and their backpacks out of sight. My biggest complaint; not enough hours in the day to get the laundry put away, my biggest pain; a nagging case of plantar fasciitis which was hindering my running schedule. How quickly that pain in my heel dulled when I awoke from surgery, unable to move, fighting to keep a cough at bay as the pain ripped through the stitches inside my chest. How trivial an immaculate house seemed as I spent a week in a sterile hospital bed not allowed flowers to brighten the room for fear of introducing foreign germs.  How wasted the hours spent cleaning and folding leading up to my hospitalization seemed when torn away for my children for seven days, recovering from surgery while they were out on their school vacation week.  How petty my stress over how my boys had performed in tryouts, and worrying if they would have to miss a soccer tournament to make a hockey game, worrying did the girls have new matching outfits for Easter, and bows and cardigans, worrying if I had completed enough crafts and set out enough decorations to impress at the holiday gathering?  How quickly these stresses fade while waiting to find out what kind of cancer you have.  How quickly the five different colors of ink which marked up our calendar, blurred together while waiting to discover my prognosis and wondering how many more calendar pages I would be able to turn and if I would have a lifetime to celebrate those carefully circled birthdays and highlighted dates of recitals and play-off games.
Cancer has changed me.
There are the physical changes; new scars- one across my ribs, a smaller one on my stomach and this beauty which has left me still without feeling across much of my back, all from my surgery in April.

Then there are the two incisions on my chest from the surgery implanting my portacath and the noticeable bulge under my skin, evidence of the metal disk resting just below the surface.

There is hair loss. I have been slowly shedding since a month into treatment and with the amount of hair left on my pillow in the morning or the amount found in my hair brush after a single use, it's a wonder I have any remaining at all. I now understand why many patients elect to shave their heads before treatment begins to avoid the heartache of watching strands fall to the ground as your part widens and the paleness of your scalp peaks through. My hairline has receded and I never thought I would be the first in my family to inherit my grandfather's male-pattern baldness. My eyebrows are barely visible, elongating my forehead and distorting the familiar proportions on my face. Then there is weight gain. While I thought chemotherapy would lead to weight loss from the nausea, I was surprised to learn that quite the opposite would be true. A twenty pound weight gain is the norm for females my age going through chemotherapy, and unfortunately this has been the case, due to the steroids, the fluids and lack of strenuous exercise (and let's be honest- those delicious meals being delivered every night. If someone spent the time making me and my family a yummy dinner and dessert- damn right I will take the time to enjoy it)!

Being diagnosed with cancer has changed the way I conduct myself as well. I have become inclined to say "yes" more. Yes, we can go out for ice-cream again tonight. Yes, I will watch your dance show in the living room. Yes, I will watch you perform your magic trick which I taught you and yes I will pretend to be astounded as you pick the card I was thinking of. Yes, I will read one extra story. Yes, I will read it again. Yes, you can sleep in our bed. Yes, we can eat dinner outside, yes, we can eat it up in the tree house. Yes, you can wear that, yes, I know it's a costume. Yes, I will come sit and watch the movie with you, and yes, we can eat popcorn in the good room. Yes, I will walk with you to the bus stop.  Yes, we can play Monopoly, yes, I still hate board-games. Yes, I will paint your nails, yes, I will let you paint mine. Yes, I will try and do a cartwheel. Yes, I will pretend to be the baby in your game of house. Yes, I will hold your hand and yes we can skip down the street. Yes, I will wear the painted pasta necklace you made me while I go to the store. Yes, I will join you in the water for a swim, yes I know it's cold and yes I do know how to swim! Yes, you can take the cushions off the couch to make a fort, yes, I will help you make it. Yes, I will lie next to you and hold you until you are fast asleep...

Yes, let's go away someplace we've never been. Yes, let's go to a yoga class together. Yes to a girls weekend away, yes to date-night in. Yes, lets meet for lunch, its been too long...

This diagnosis has given me the strength and perspective to say "no" more often as well. No, I won't be able to make that meeting after all. No, I won't put away all the laundry right now, no I won't bother sweeping all the floors. No, I don't have time to listen to you complain. No, I won't give in to negativity. No we don't have to leave yet. No, no you don't have to go.

Cancer has a way of breaking you down to a point where you finally understand what is truly important.  It has given me a greater appreciation for life; the people around me and the beauty in the everyday.
While chemotherapy can cause vision problems, it has helped to give my eyes new focus.  I notice more around me; the shape of a cloud, the hue of the sky, the call of bird, the delicate perch of a bumble bee on a flower, the sound of the wind whistling through the trees in my yard, the shape of the moon, the texture of a sunflower stalk.
I have become a more perceptive observer of my children, noticing how many times my four year old says "um" in sentence, how her twin moves her fingers in excitement. I note my son's new callouses from climbing and the flecks of green in my oldest's hazel eyes. I notice how my littlest circles her feet like I do when falling asleep and clings to her blanket with the same hand the whole night through.

It has given me a more profound appreciation for all the good around me. I have become the recipient of so much good will from others that it makes me want to be a better person. After constantly bombarded with stories of injustices and all the wrong in the world, it has taken through going through something like this to recognize how much good still exists.
It is truly humbling how many people have reached out to me. How many people were compelled to write, email, call, send help in anyway they could. I have been touched to hear from people I didn't think would remember me after so many years, so many people who are friends of friends, and many I will never get to meet.  I am amazed how the initial outpouring of support has been followed up by continued expressions of concern. Knowing I am in others thoughts and feeling the power of their prayers has given me strength. Having others share their own hardships with me and inspiring me with their stories of victory has given me courage.  
I recognize we all have our battles, many struggling more than I, and we are all just trying to do our best with the circumstances we are given.  
Now, I am more determined than ever to do my best; in fighting this disease,  in being a better wife, daughter, friend, in following through with my dreams, in helping others, in raising my children. I am not a saint, I still look forward to my children's nap time everyday and will be clicking my heals when I can leave them at school for a few hours during the week, but, I will make every attempt to appreciate the time we do have together, thank God for their smiles, the ability to make them laugh, to feel their love. I am not a saint, I still roll my eyes in line, beep my horn at slow drivers, love me some gossip as much as the next gal, but I am more careful when passing judgement, knowing we are all facing our own hardships. I am not a saint, I still want time to myself, make demands on others and like things done my way, but since my diagnosis I'm more ready to help, go out of my way, and to give of myself. 
Just recently, at an outdoor event with my sister and some friends, a young man collapsed before us. A crowd stood around gasping and staring as he began to convulse then lie motionless on the ground.  Without thinking I jumped into action running over to him and his girlfriend who was kneeling at his side. I checked his pulse, when I was informed that he had been stung by a bee just seconds before.  I yelled for an epi-pen, began barking orders, instructing someone to call for help, pleaded for a doctor. Soon a friend produced an epi-pen and handed it to me. Everyone was counting on me to help save this man's life. I removed the cap on the epi-pen then hesitated as I realized he was wearing jeans, obscuring the place on the thigh where the shot of epinephrine is to be administered. Not certain the injection could go through the thick denim, I told his girlfriend to unbuckle his belt. She sat crying and helpless, seemed to be in shock, so I began the task myself. Here's the embarrassing part; just as I got the man's pants unfastened and pulled down revealing his boxers, he suddenly regained consciousness, sat up, out of it, but fine. Turns out he didn't really need to be saved after all.  Although an awkward few moments transpired as the man who had just come to was filled in on what had happened, why I was kneeling beside him and why his pants were undone, he and the girlfriend were most thankful that I was there and more than ready to help. Before my diagnosis I likely would have been sitting on the sidelines with the rest of crowd but now feel a greater urgency and purpose. I am compelled to be that person who goes out of there way, apparently, sometimes whether needed or not... 

Earlier this week while out for a jog, elated to be running again (barely keeping pace with the mailman, who was walking and delivering mail), I came upon a tow truck with a white car bearing a handicap license plate, already loaded up on the platform of the flatbed truck. A woman with two prosthetic legs was attempting to climb up the ladder and get into the passenger seat in the trucks cabin. I saw her struggle as her legs twisted beneath her, missing the step and getting caught under the medal rungs. Using her arms she continued to pull herself up holding on to the handrails. I was tempted  to look the other way as not to 'embarrass' her, justifying to myself that 'she wouldn't want any help', I would 'hurt her pride'. But after a few months with my own health struggle, I know how much those offers mean. I appreciate the smallest gesture, a nod of understanding, anything to lighten the load or help ease the pain. I now know what the right thing to do is and I am more inclined to do it. I walked over and asked how I could help. She was in quite the predicament, legs not able to bend to fit in the truck's compartment and  a seat which couldn't be pushed back. I supported her foot giving her some leverage, and guided her legs as the driver pulled her hands from his seat. She finally made it to the floor of the cab but couldn't lift herself onto the seat from that position, but she was not giving up.  I climbed up onto the steps and helped pull her up and into the seat. I untwisted her legs as she sat back, utterly exhausted- we were both exhausted, it had taken everything we had. She was out of breath as she whispered, "Thank you, I'm not sure what I would have done." I continued on my walk, feeling the fresh autumn air on my face,  I just wanted to scream, I'm alive, I have two legs, and I am walking today- Thank You God.
I am no saint, I loose my patience, I say things I don't mean, but I now take the time to talk to God more and thank Him for the gifts in my life.  And there are so many, and sometimes it takes going through something hard, something sad, something that challenges you, something that makes you question, something scary, something like cancer to make you realize that .


  1. So beautiful, Amanda. Thank you for this! I think I will be re-reading this one over the coming days and weeks. Now I will go wipe my tears and blow my nose . . . but you had me laughing, too!!!!

  2. Beautiful post, Amanda! You are reminding me, teaching me, and enlightening me through your wisdom. Know that your words are having an impact.

  3. You do not know ne but I am part of your Gallagher family in Philly. My mother and Robin's mother were sisters. I have come to know you through your lovely and heart-wrenching and very brave postings. You are in the palm of God's hand.

  4. Cancer is changing you, and your words, insights & wisdom change us - for the better. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for reading, commenting and keeping me in the fight!

  6. Amanda, you've left me speechless, and the only things full are my eyes of tears. Love, prayers, and hugs to you ALWAYS!