Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Five Mile Hike

My family went on vacation together for the first time in twenty years. We ventured to the gorgeous Smokey Mountains. There's just something about the mountains. They're so beautiful, breathtaking actually. It was so lovely to sit on the deck in a rocking chair and sip on a cup of coffee as I soaked in the view of the mountains each morning. On the last day of our trip, we decided to take an up close and personal look at the mountains. So we ventured out to Cades Cove. And wow! So beautiful. We saw black bears, deer, old cabins and churches. And the view was spectacular from every direction. My brother really wanted to see a water fall, so we decided to do the hike to Abrams Falls. It was a five mile hike through the mountains. The sign said that it was "moderately difficult" and would take three to four hours to complete. For some stupid reason, we didn't really believe the sign that was posted in the National Park...that was not my finest hour.

The hike was difficult. Really difficult. I wanted to quit so many times, but I didn't want to be a quitter. I felt like I had something to prove. So I powered through.....I haven't been active really since I had my surgery. I was scared that I wouldn't be able to work out or run or be active anymore. That I had lost the piece of myself to cancer. As we got into the hike, it got more and more difficult. The hills got steeper, the trail got rockier, the sun got hotter. I kept thinking, "How am I going to get back? I'm never going to be able to do this. This is too hard. What was I thinking? I'm so out of shape." Well, after three hours and fifteen minutes, I did it! I completed the hike. I was sweaty and thirsty and sun burned and exhausted and sore, but I did it!!!

On our way back from the water fall, we decided to go at our own pace. So I was hiking the trail on my own. I was left with my own thoughts to enjoy the view and process things as I hiked along. I came to a point in the trail that was the most difficult. This hill seemed to never end and was nothing but rocks and roots to climb over and maneuver around. Once I reached the top of this hill, I would be halfway back to the car. As I was struggling up this hill and doing my best not to twist my ankle on the rocks, I started crying. Part of those tears were because of exhaustion, but most of those tears were because of a realization.....

I realized that this trail I had been hiking on for hours was a lot like my life this past year. I started off this past year blindly naive and ignored all the warning signs. And as I navigated through life, it got tough. There have been so many peaks and valleys this past year. And when you're in a valley and look up and see how difficult it is to climb out, you think you're just going to be stuck there. That there is no way out of the valley. And the road is difficult. The path is anything but smooth. It's filled with rocks and roots that cause you to slip, to stub your toe, to lose your footing. Sometimes the path is so difficult that all you want to do is cry, throw your hands up, and quit. And as I was hiking up this hill, crying every step of the way, thinking I was never going to make it, I suddenly realized something. I was at the top! I made it. It was so very hard, and I was out of breath and needed to take a break, but I made it. And as I continued my trek back to the car, I realized how much beauty was around me. The river, the rocks, the flowers, the trees, the butterflies. There was so much beauty along this trail if I just took the time to look around. And yes, the last year of my life has been the most difficult year to date. I have endured so much pain and heartache. But it has been filled with so much beauty too. Beauty I would not have been blessed with if I hadn't endured the pain. And as I came around the last turn and saw the bridge that ended the trail, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The end was in sight. The path became smooth.  I made it. I finished. I survived. I did it.

And just as I completed that hike - filled with peaks and valleys and rocks and roots - I know I will complete this rocky path that has been laid before me in life. And I am in a very deep and lonely valley right now, and it doesn't seem like there is a way out. I want to quit. I want to just throw up my hands and cry "Uncle!" But.....I know what I am made of. I know that I am strong and courageous and brave and lovely. And I know that I can do the hard work to climb out of this valley and find a smooth path again. I just have to trust myself and trust the process and look for the beauty around me.










Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Silent Disease

I have attempted to write a post about my life since January 13, 2015. But every time I start to type, my mind either goes blank or emotions flood my mind and heart and I can't write. My beautiful sister, Mo sent me this blog post written by Jessie O'Donnell and her experience is a bit different than mine, because cancer is like snowflakes - no experiences are the same....so until I'm able to articulate my own experience, I'll leave you with Jessie's words....

Do you know who Hakaru Hashimoto is? Of course you don’t. Do you know all the functions of your thyroid? More than likely not. Have you ever even thought of your thyroid health? Probably never.
Two years ago at 29 years old, during a routine visit to the gynecologist, my life changed forever. My doctor decided to feel my thyroid and thought she felt a nodule. She passed it off as something that was ‘no biggie’ but suggested that I find an endocrinologist to have it checked. What the hell is a thyroid nodule?They are growths that appear within the thyroid gland. Why? Well, no one really seems to have the answers. They just do.
That one little ‘no biggie’ turned my life around and upside down in a short amount of time.
My endocrinologist ordered an ultrasound and blood work to see what was going on. We discovered that I had three nodules on the right thyroid lobe and an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis where the immune system attacks the thyroid causing the thyroid to become inflamed, essentially forming a goiter. Ugh…a goiter. I’m going to be honest. The word goiter freaks me out. I remember being a child and seeing women with very large goiters and not understanding why their necks looked like that and feeling scared because no one explained to me what it actually was. Now here I was, sitting on a doctor’s table being told that is exactly what I have going on. GREAT. SUPER. What now?
Well, Ms O’Donnell, your blood work is normal and all within normal range. And the more nodules the better. If there is only one singled out nodule that usually means cancer.
Okay…bring on the nodules then.
Every 6 months I would receive an ultrasound and have my blood work done. The nodules were slowly growing with every ultrasound but my blood work was normal and my doctors didn’t seem to be alarmed so I tried to not be as well. I started to suffer from mood swings, sleeplessness, depression and started to have major problems with my cycle. My next appointment I decided to inquire about it. That is when my doctor seemed to become alarmed. After many tests and questions, I was then diagnosed with PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome). She also thought that I may be insulin intolerant adding to the causes of PCOS. Those tests were also positive. I was put on Metformin, a Type 2 diabetic drug to help suppress glucose that I need to be on for the rest of time especially if I would like to have children. After being on Metformin every day, twice a day, things in that department seemed to be figured out.
But what about the discomfort in the right side of my neck? Why was I waking up some mornings with a voice of a woman who smoked for the past 20 years? Come to find out, my goiter was pressing on my vocal nerve. I would have one sided conversations with my thyroid…why are you doing this to me? What caused you to turn into this? Please stop hurting me. Why does it seem that I am the only one at my age suffering from this?
I went in for my ultrasound May 2013. The technicians seemed to be alarmed and tried acting like they were not until I demanded what their wide-eyed expression was for. They showed me the comparison of my ultrasound 6 months prior to the present moment. I didn’t even know what I was looking at but my jaw dropped. Something was very wrong and not one person in the room could tell me what the problem was and I had to wait a week to find out…ugh.
The ultrasound showed that the nodules grew much faster than they had in the months before but it also showed that the Hashimoto’s was getting pretty severe. But my blood levels were still in normal range. If they were in normal range then why did I feel like ‘hulking out’ on people for no reason or why did I want to crawl into a corner for weeks in the dark? During all of this medical confusion, I was dealing with serious stuff in other areas of my personal life. My boyfriend of two years who lived with me dumped me leaving me with rent I couldn’t afford on my own, my father receiving emergency open heart surgery, my Auntie passing away suddenly, I had to move for the what seemed like the 100th time and while doing so scrape up whatever positive energy I had left to celebrate 100 milestones of the people close to me whether being engagements, babies or weddings. The only thing that helped me not crack and being put into a crazy house was yoga. Not just any yoga; hot fusion yoga. The only time that I didn’t have to think about anything in life for a glorious sweaty hot 75 minutes but me and my well being which I realized needed to be my number one priority. My yoga practice flowed into my daily life helping me deal with negative thoughts and negative events.
A biopsy was ordered to have my nodules tested which came back as benign. A voice in my head kept saying that something was wrong. I was traveling up to Boston in June and got an appointment with the best thyroid surgeon, Dr Randall Gaz at Massachusetts General Hospital. After examining all my reports and a physical, he suggested on calling him when I could not handle the pain anymore. Because the biopsy report came back as benign, my situation was not considered an emergency. I went back to south Florida with the voice constantly repeating itself in my head. It was no joke. I would be having conversations with people and this voice kept interrupting my thoughts. I couldn’t take it anymore and the pain I was dealing with every single day. I called Dr Gaz and scheduled surgery for December 2013.
The plan was the removal of my right thyroid lobe since that was the only problem area. He was very confident that the left lobe would take over the full function of the thyroid. I get to keep part of my thyroid?! Yippee!
December 9th, 2013 at 5:30 am, I walked through the doors at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary. I was prepped for surgery and waited with my parents by my side. We said our goodbyes and was told I would see them in about 2.5 hours.
I woke up in recovery very confused. The clock that I could barely see said 5pm. I became even more confused, especially when I started to heave and vomit up stomach bile. My body did not handle coming out of anesthesia well. To vomit right after having your neck cut open is a pain I can’t describe to anyone. My surgery took 9.5 hours. The thyroiditis got so bad that it was sticking to everything and would not let go of my vocal nerves. Dr. Gaz was determined to save my voice and he did.
The next morning Dr Gaz came to take my stitches out to then put butterfly bandages on my incision so the scar would be minimal. With a calm and concerning voice he said to me “I had to take out the thyroid and give you a full thyroidectomy.” My eyebrows came together and bunched up since I couldn’t really speak. “You had cancer and it was pretty bad. I had the pathologist test the right lobe before we closed you up and when that tested positive, I decided to take out the left lobe as a precaution. We won’t know the results with that until a week from now. So that means you developed a large amount of cancer within 5-6 months. I want you to see Dr Ross downstairs for treatment to get rid of any cancer cells that are left that we cannot see. Ok?” I shook my head as if I understood.
What the f*ck was happening to me? The pathology report on the left lobe came back positive. I had cancer all over my entire thyroid. I knew something was very wrong and thank god I listened to that annoying voice inside my head. Now what? I’ll tell you what….the most agonizing weeks were in front of me. With everything I read about thyroid surgery, I thought this recovery would be a piece of cake. Far from…so far from. I battled with debilitating migraines to the point I honestly didn’t care if I died. If I had to cough or sneeze, it felt like my neck was being torn open and exploding. Sleepless nights and days for that matter. Emotional states that were so to the extreme my stomach turns just thinking about it. The fatigue I dealt with was like nothing I have experienced in my life. It wasn’t about not sleeping, it was about my body almost feeling like it was shutting down. But life had to go on. I had to be back to the grind in 4 weeks. I looked through my closet and found a smile somewhere back there and slapped it on. I had my auto-answers to the same questions ready; How are you? Getting there. How does your neck feel? Better. Are you getting rest? Trying to. And all those answers were said with the smile I found in my wardrobe.
It is all silent pain. Silent suffering that no one understands except for the other people who may be suffering similar problems. I wish I found the Facebook pages that support the millions of people suffering from thyroid problems and diseases. It would of helped me in so many ways leading up to my surgery. All the reading I have done shows that every single patient’s problem is unique and needs to be treated that way…not by a ‘one size fits all’ type of prescription.
I don’t feel like myself because I am not myself. So many things feel like they are missing besides the obvious. If there is someone in your life who may be suffering from thyroid problems or other silent diseases please support them. You may not understand it (hell, I don’t even understand the things I feel at times) but they need you. They need you to just listen and be aware of what they are going through. And most importantly, DO NOT take there severe mood swings personally. If they snap or seem to take a step back from all their relationships, let them. Show up at their door unannounced with a smile and hug. Hugs are really important and sometimes that is all the person needs. Don’t point out their scars, they know they’re there. I don’t care how curious you are about it. That one question may bring a person back to a difficult time they are trying to move on from.
This month I have to get a heavy duty radioactive iodine treatment back in Boston. I’m hoping after I am done glowing in the dark I can become myself 100% again.
I will be on prescription for the rest of my life to do the job of my missing thyroid gland. It has been 9 weeks since my surgery and I’m still trying to figure out when my body will balance out or if it really ever will.
I have no thyroid because of cancer.
I had no clue how important that butterfly shaped gland was until I lost it.
And I didn’t even get to say goodbye.
If your body is making changes that no one seems to be able to figure out, get your thyroid checked.
With everything that happened to me in the past two years, I had no choice during that time but to roll with the punches. One after the other and getting back up. We have all heard the famous phrase “Good things come to those who wait.” How about those who also deserve it and shouldn’t have to wait anymore?
I was blessed with someone who has been nothing but loving, caring, compassionate and understanding for who I am and what I am currently going through. He may just be one of the most beautiful human beings I am so fortunate enough to have entered my life at the perfect time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

C is for Cancer

It's amazing how your life and the way you hold things can change in the matter of moments. Things that once concerned you, don't really matter anymore. And you suddenly find yourself noticing all the things that you seemed to overlook until that one moment. Well, I had once such moment a week ago today.

I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last Tuesday morning. I have a cancerous tumor the size of my pinkie nail on the left side of my thyroid.

I will be having surgery at Borgess Hospital on Wednesday, January 28th at 8:00am to have the cancer and my thyroid removed. I have to be off of work for a week to ten days in order to heal and recover. And some time after my recovery from surgery, I will have to have a form of radiation treatment called radioactive iodine. And I will now be taking medication every day for the rest of my life to compensate for not having a thyroid.

The surgeon and all the things I have read say that if you're going to have a type of cancer, this is the kind that you want. It's treatable and it doesn't spread. So that's good. And my diagnosis has made a lot of things I've been experiencing this past year make sense. Thyroid problems can result in depression, tiredness, miscarriage, weight gain. All things that have been a part of my struggle this past year. Things that have rocked my world in huge ways. So I'm glad to now have a bit of perspective and know that I'm not crazy or weak or too emotional. I didn't cause my miscarriage. My body was just trying to tell me something was wrong.

I’m not sharing to get sympathy or pity – I may hurt you if you extend either of those toward me :) lol – just kidding (mostly). But I’m a big believer that we live in community, and we all need each other to survive and live well and be happy and whole people. We are to rejoice with each other when things are good. And we are to support/encourage each other when things are bad. We are not meant to venture through life alone. We need each other.....

It's not easy for me to admit that I need people. I'm the woman who pulls herself up by her bootstraps. I'm tough. I can do it by myself. I put my head down and power through. It's scary to admit that you need people, because what if they don't show up? What if they let me down? What if they decide they don't love me anymore? What if I'm too much for them? What if they think I'm weak?......But what I've been learning this past week is that I am blessed. I am so very loved by amazingly wonderful people. People have been angry with me. People have cried with me. Encouraged me. Shown me love through my love language (notes and cards). My friends are beautiful people with precious hearts who know how to love well. And I am so very blessed to receive their love and support.

As I have been calling and telling people the past several days they have been asking what they can do to help…..the short simple answer is nothing. And I know no one is satisfied with that answer, so here’s how you can help :)……
* Pray, however you pray or to whomever, doesn't matter to me….please pray! Pray for the surgery to go smoothly and without complication, for quick healing, for me to have peace, etc.
* As you all know, I love words. So words of affirmation, support, strength are always welcome. I love music, quotes, words with powerful meaning, etc.
*I need all the joy and laughter in my life I can get right now! So please feel free to make me laugh whenever you get the chance.

This feels like the darkest time in my life. And it's not easy. I'm still processing all of this. But with the darkest hour comes the dawn....so light is coming. I may not be able to see it right now, but it is coming.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reflections on Peaks And Valleys

I love the way she survived. Survival looked good on her. There were no dark marks under her eyes. Maybe deep inside, but I liked the way she looked through them and laughed at life. She did it gracefully. She'd walked over glass and through fire, but still smiled. And, honestly, I'm not interested in people who haven't lived and died a few times. Who haven't yet had their hearts ripped out, or known what it feels like to lose everything. I trust those people, because they stand for something.

2014 was a year. Wow! There were some amazing peaks and some dark valleys. It really has felt like a roller coaster. I have met some amazing people this year who have changed me and the way I see the world. I grew my faith in some huge and personal ways. I struggled. I lost. I triumphed. I grieved.

- I rang in the New Year with the love of my life, having someone to kiss at midnight for the first time.
- I had a valentine to celebrate love with for the first time.
- I suffered from SAD in a big way this year. Gaining weight and losing confidence in who I was.
- I almost lost my job.
- I almost quit my job.
- I was introduced to Native American spirituality. I learned how to pray, how to connect with God, my community, and the earth in ways I never thought possible.
- I trained for and ran my third half marathon.
- I created many lasting memories with the man I gave my heart to.
- I traveled across the county and went out west for the first time.
- I participated in my first Sundance Ceremony where I was inspired, changed. I prayed more fiercely in those four days than I ever have before.
- I left my love in Texas.
- I was in a long distance relationship for the first time.
- I found out I was pregnant.
- I had a miscarriage.
- I fell into a deep depression.
- The love of my life broke my heart and told me he wasn't in love with me anymore.
- My friends and family rallied around me, hugged me, made me laugh, drank with me, fed me, sat with me, cried with me, wrote me notes of encouragement, loved me.

I'm so thankful for the new family I gained this year. Margie, Tylene, Gloria, Ismael, Kim, Dan, Josh, and the rest of my beautiful El Paso family. Barbara and John. Frank and Michelle. Kathlene and Jeff. Mark and Erica B. Ronnie. Ken. The rest of the lodge community. Erica J. You all are the best gift this girl could ever ask for. Thank you for choosing me, for loving me, for standing for me, for praying for me. You have hanged me. And I am forever grateful. 2014 is a blessing because of you.

This year rocked me to my core. I lost the two things I have waited my whole life for - the love of my life and motherhood. I had them. For a moment....I loved him so fiercely. Maybe too fiercely. And now I have scars to remind me of what risking, vulnerability, loyalty, love, and sacrifice look like. The scars run deep. But knowing what I know now, I would do it all over again. I would still choose him. Being in love with him changed me. Forever. I shared pieces of myself with him that I'd never shared with anyone ever before. Pieces I was ashamed of. Pieces I now see as beautiful and want to share with the world. I'm forever thankful for that....And I now have a little poppy watching over me and her dad. Loving us and bringing us light in the darkness.

The title of my blog is Beauty From Ashes. I thought I knew what it meant to go through the fire. I have known deep wounding, loss, betrayal, pain in my life. But nothing like this. I have been burned down to cinders and ash. And in my moments of weakness, I can't imagine how I'll ever be anything other than dust. But every once in awhile, I feel a wave of hope and peace wash over me. And I'm reminded of my giant phoenix on my thigh. Her name is Leoma, which means brave woman. And it is only from ash, cinder, and fire that something new and beautiful can be created and a new phoenix is born out of that fire to live again. And I have to have faith and believe that God will bless me. That he will use these ashes, this fire I am going through, to make something more beautiful than I could ever have hoped or imagined.

So what's next? What does 2015 look like for me? Honestly? I have no idea. But here is my hope. My hope is that this year I would be made whole again. That my wounds would be healed. That my friendships would flourish. That I would find hope, faith, joy, and peace again. That my relationship with God would be unprecedented and more intimate than ever before. And I'm still holding out for that one. The man who deserves my love and who will treat me like the precious jewel I am.

This biggest lesson I learned this year is what mercy really is and what it really means to extend it to someone else. What a sacrifice it is to be mercy to another person. Mercy is this....I love you, even though you hurt me. And I will never hurt you, even if you never love me back.

I am not a perfect person, and boy, have I made my fair share of mistakes in all of this. But, I am so proud of me. I have stayed true to my stand to love. I haven't wavered. I have loved the way I promised to - through the good, the bad, and the ugly. I now know better what I am made of. I am strong. Brave. Beautiful. Loyal, Compassionate. Grace-filled. Love.