Sunday, October 2, 2011

Footsteps In The Sands of Time

This is an essay written and submitted for a contest in the Ladies Home Journal on "personal growth".  The winner will be chosen in Jan. 2012.  Prize is $3,000 if published!  Here is my story:

I have always been an overgrown child! Chasing dreams of music and art have been my motor for the whole of my life. As a child I remember at bath time my grandmother wrapping me in a towel lifting me out of the tub. As my feet touched the bath mat she would say that I was making “footsteps in the sands of time.” That phrase became somewhat of a motto for me for I believed I could make my mark upon the world.


Older now but no less ambitious in my dream’s desire, I never imagined the road I’d walk. The prints of footsteps down this road started many years ago.


I’ve had a successful commissioned art business painting murals and decorative finishes in residences and the odd commercial venue for almost 20 years. Always very physically fit and able to swing from chandeliers, climb ladders and scaffolding I’d never really been sick. Coming from a farm raised background you weren’t allowed to complain if you were. You were supposed to just pick up your load and carry it.


Having been trained in the scenery arts painting for films, theatre and television I was rather used to treating my entrepreneurial work as a full time job. Over the last few years however projects had become fewer and farther between. In the down time I always work on my own paintings in the hopes of finding a niche for myself in the fine art world. To put it another way, I love to paint, all the time!


Yet the draw back to doing something you love all the time is that there are parts of your anatomy that get overused. Late last year my right shoulder blade started hurting something fierce. Pinched nerve I suppose from waggling a brush for so many hours a day for so many years. The pain drove me to see a doctor. Not having one I borrowed my husband’s doctor. He prescribed a round of physical therapy and some pain medicine.


In the interim I had my usual woman’s exam. The only regular doctoring that I do. The doctor performed an “internal” exam and pronounced my abdominal muscles very strong.


Going on my merry way I returned to follow up about my shoulder but thought I might be constipated because my belly felt hard, making a mental note to ask the doctor about it. Hard enough that during my regular work outs a few times per week I had trouble doing sit ups. Not my favourite exercise but I could always do some!


The doctor felt my lower abs and made an “hmmmm” kind of face. He marched me into another room with an ultrasound machine. There the technician took a look at my abdomen. There for all the world to see in its boldness was a tumor the size of a ham, 8”x5”x2”. It was as if I had internal armor! The technician was very kind in saying, that I’d feel a lot better once it was taken out. Funny thing though, I had never felt bad! Didn’t even know the damn thing was there!


In a flash everything changes. In a head spinning 24 hours I saw an OB/GYN and had a cat scan and was told that I probably had ovarian cancer. I kept protesting by saying that how could they be so certain when they hadn’t operated yet? The OB was especially frustrating as all she said as she patted my hand, “it doesn’t look good”. What does that mean? Am I going to die?


It was a week before Christmas when I got this news. To add misery to the mix I had to wait until after the holiday’s to have surgery. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


Surgery was performed 7 January 2011. I was terrified. I had never been under before. I had never had surgery before. I tried to make light of it as the nurse gave me reams of information and preparatory instructions. There was so much to think about yet there was nothing to think about until you got through it. To help myself bare the fear of the unknown I completed a painting called, “Into The Mystic” and planned on what I’d do the day of the surgery. My husband had purchased a bicycle helmet for me for Christmas so I wore that to the ready room at hospital. I thought the nurses would understand what a big baby they were getting. I also put a note on my belly that read, “Dear Doctors, Please be careful! Signed, Kate’s Innards”!


Thankfully I woke up.


I woke up to an incision that started at my diaphragm and ended at my pelvic bone. My care at hospital was wonderful but I got myself home in 4 days. Once at home I was surrounded by friends, so many friends. I was taken care of and lifted up by the love of my family and friends. They came into my life from everywhere, the present and the past. There were cards and flowers and emails and meals and time spent with me. So much love surrounded me. I knew I was going to be just fine. Standing in front of the full length mirror one day soon after surgery I looked at the row of staples and knew I could do this. I started pulling them out before a week had gone by.
While there were plans being made behind my back I was mostly concerned with healing from surgery. I had not thought much about what would come next. When a friend brought a gift of a basket of supplies for going through chemo I cried. I wasn’t yet ready to think about that step.


The next step was sitting in a conference room at the surgeon’s office with a research nurse giving me a choice of being part of a clinical trial for chemotherapy. The paperwork she passed to me could have wallpapered a room!


By February I was on chemo. They don’t tell you anything about what it’s like to go through chemo. The nurses say that “everyone goes through it differently”! Well, I’m here to tell you that that may be true but there are certain commonalities that would be nice to know! I think they think that some women are susceptible to the power of suggestion if they start mentioning common side effects. I think this line of thinking is ridiculous, giving women no credit for knowing their own mind! It’s an antiquated idea at best. Instead I found through phone conversations and emails with women referred to me by friends (everyone knows someone going through cancer) a wealth of information about what to do going through chemo. Not everyone’s experience and remedies resonated but there was enough in each woman’s story that helped me so much more than anything the medicos were telling me. I learned how to mitigate nausea and regulate my bowels and how to deal with skin issues and taste issues. So many little things I had to learn and they were so kind and open to helping me by telling me of their experiences.


The internet was no help as only to scare me to death with statistics. There were lots of forums but I really needed to talk with women one on one through referrals. To all of the women I never met but talked to I am supremely grateful.


By now the idea that I can work in the studio or climb a ladder was not an option. I was at the mercy of chemo and its schedule and how it affects you. All I could do was ride it out. The worst thing to do was to try and think. I didn’t serve me to think about anything, the past, the future, anything. It required me to be still. Not a state of being that I was much used to! I became a “couch weight”. I scribbled in a sketchbook whatever came into my head. I watched the days pass over me as sun and shadow. I thought as little as possible. Helping me in that endeavour, daytime television. I had never watched much daytime tellie and now I know why. It’s a mind numbing thing to do which is exactly what I needed to get through the 18 weeks of being poisoned. I watched cookery shows so I could convince my brain that I wanted to eat. My husband would fix anything I craved. It turned to sand in my mouth after the third bite. But always, always I knew I would be alright. Not once have I ever felt “why me” or “poor me”. Why not me? You get what you get. While we’re busy making the world, making plans and being in control, it’s the invisible forces of nature that have their way with us. It is the invisible forces that make you take a look at where and what you are.


There is so much magic in the world if you take the time to be aware of it. My body must have really had to make a point of getting me to someone who would notice my tumor as my shoulder never hurt again once I was diagnosed with cancer. Odd, isn’t it?


As I progressed through chemotherapy my lab numbers came down as predicted. I got off the toxic portion of chemo in mid-June remaining on the trial drug once every three weeks. To me this was like having a part-time job, quite manageable. However, the side effects that came with the end of the toxic chemo threw me a bit. First the chemicals lodged in my fingernail beds making them discoloured and misshapen. Very odd! They were so tender. I feared my nails would have to be removed. Torture! Then the retinas in my eye swelled making it seem like I was looking through a glass of water onto the world. Thirdly, my feet became numb (neuropathy). I had heard that this was a side effect. Various people told me that it was a 50/50 chance that the nerve damage was permanent. Through it all I kept my own council on all of this information, prefering to believe that my body knew how to right itself given enough time. There were other women opposite me in the chemo room that did not have a schedule. Their chemo was indefinite. Having a beginning, middle and end to chemo in my head helped me get through it.


I still do believe in the power of positive thinking, so much so that I think you can make yourself well by how you feel about yourself. The idea of belief so strong that it becomes personal truth. Much like religious fervor or extreme political beliefs we can convince ourselves of our own unshakeable truths based on a premise we believe in strongly. I think it comes from the circumstance we may find ourselves in as well as what is taken in from the outside world of information and opinion.


Our arguments can often times be swayed by a new piece of information that we take on as our own personal "gospel"! Just as likely we can be so stubborn as to not take in new information no matter how relevant the change might affect current status. This is my current conundrum.


My belief is that these chemo treatments are the "clean-up" after a cancerous tumor was removed from my body. It really hasn't been part of my view that the cancer will ever come back once these chemo treatments are complete. However, if my circumstance were to change by the lab numbers going up instead of down would I still have this unshakeable belief? I'd like to think so, but we all know that things change. The only thing certain in life is change.


I entertain this question at present in an academic way, but don't know how I will feel later. There is still this drive in me that "believes" that I will be right as rain and never look back. I'm actually thinking that if I believe hard enough THE force of my belief will become physically manifest. What I mean is, if I believe in my own health so much that it can actually become physically possible to not have cancer return. It’s a radical and somewhat "cosmic" idea but one that intrigues me.


Extreme belief has never been part of my make-up. I've always bent to new information and changes to try and keep peace and see all sides of the wonder of how we all work in the world -- our behaviour in circumstances and how we change as we grow. So this is rather a departure. But owing to the severity of this new change in my life I really like the idea of being "radical"! It might be viewed as a "head in the sand" approach, but if it works and makes me feel good, why not? I have such a strong conviction about myself now that I think will carry me into the future. I've become my own religious zealot it seems, but I promise not to start a new fangle church of the insane believers. Yet, think on it for a minute.


In a world where fact is being replaced by opinion and the fickleness of our changing sound bite opinions I can see why there are such extremes in thinking. I want there to be reason and heartfelt contemplation and critical thinking, but I think that in certain quarters there is room for the belief in the power of life and perpetuating ourselves into the future. At the very least, if my circumstance were to drastically change I would like to think that I'm laying the ground work for being able to pass this life with grace.


It’s September now and I’ve been kicked off the trial as my numbers have changed. One of the numbers that’s used as a marker continued to go up after the end of toxic chemo. I ignored it, thinking that it was a “fluke”, especially after 3 different scans and biopsies confirmed that there is no cancer present in my body. I won’t see the doctor for 4 weeks with a Cat Scan just before. It is my firm belief that all will be well. I’m actually planning on convincing the doctor of my health scan after scan so that one day in the not too distant future he will remove the IV port from my body.


In telling my story this seems like the place to stop, but isn’t quite yet as I think there is more to say. The case for how all this has changed me besides becoming more centered in my belief of life. This experience has taken me to my knees, taught me how to crawl before walking again, physically and emotionally. In that humble position I have learned that fear is the mind killer and should be sent packing before you find yourself standing on the brink of your mortality. Hope, help, love and redemption aren’t abstract concepts but dwell in the hearts of all those loved ones that surrounded me and gave to me. Their devotion should be enough to hold me up for a lifetime. I also discovered that as an artist there will never be an end to the well of things I can pull from to make art. Art saves me by giving me a voice. Art gives me purpose. Admittedly it is also my need to be loved that drives my “show and tell.” In leaving my own footsteps in the sands of time I want all the years I have, to make visual images that might contribute to the world in some positive way. For we all want to leave our own footprints in the sands of time, to be remembered and to have mattered.

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