Monday, March 31, 2014

MOVING ON AFTER CANCER: SUE (SECOND IN A SERIES)

The Rubies are back! Diagnosed with breast cancer within weeks of each other, we were a string of strangers that met via breastcancer.org. We jelled like a good marmalade, forming a cohesive support system for each other that saved our collective sanity. We grew close, as real besties do, and I have since dubbed them The Rubies (read more about them here). 

As you can imagine, each Ruby has her own unique breast cancer story to tell, and I want to give each Ruby space to share her story on my blog. My first guest blogger was the marvelous Melanie, our youngest Ruby. (You can read Melanie's story here.)

Today I am introducing you to my second guest blogger, SueYou'll soon see why Sue wears the "inspiring" crown in our group for making the most changes since her diagnosis. Sue is a military spouse who took stock of her personal circumstances, pushed through her limitations and pursued her dreams in the face of breast cancer. I'll let her tell you how she did it. So without further ado, here's Sue!

"One thing that being a military spouse has taught me is to take control when I can, and give up the desire to control when I have no other choice. We learn to just deal with it, uncomplaining, silently carrying on. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I sucked it up and decided to just deal with it like I did everything else. No one told me that was impossible. You don’t just deal with cancer...

In my 14 years as a military spouse, I have lived wherever we were sent, giving up my 'suit career,' my beloved hometown (Boston), my friends, sometimes my husband for months on end, and my sense of what is normal. It wasn't easy. Sometimes I thrived, and sometimes I was broken. Some days I just wallowed in my brokenness.

But with every military move came hope. I told myself: I can do this. I'll stand up again. I’ll make new friends. My kids will adjust. I’ll adjust. I'll find a reason to like our new life in our new ‘home.’ Again.

In 2010, my family and I were sent to Ohio on assignment with the Air Force. After three overseas assignments 
in Belgium, Hawaii and Japan, Ohio was the biggest culture shock of all for this Boston girl. We shipped the contents of our entire house, packed up 14 suitcases, and flew out of Belgium in a snowstorm. We bought a home in the Ohio suburbs, and nestled our two kids (ages 10 and 12 at the time) into a great school system. 

Then a reminder that I had absolutely no control crept in as silently as a freaking fighter jet. 
(2010) Here we are at a ball game
a week before my husband's deployment.
I was tired of looking and feeling tired
all of the time. My diet was horrible,
I didn't exercise at all, and I had no passion.

The bombs came swiftly, and repeatedly. First, there was an unexpected military rule-change which forced my husband's earlier-than-anticipated retirement. (We never would have moved to Ohio if we had known we'd only be there a year before he retired.) Then we learned that half of my husband's final year with the military would be spent deployed on a ship with the Navy. 

For all the non-military folks out there, a deployment is not like a business trip, nor is it an assignment; deployment means your spouse is gone for months or more at a time, in a remote (and often dangerous) location. We have no contact with each other for long stretches. Deployments are unimaginably stressful.

During our settling-in period in Ohio (before my husband shipped out), I had my first mammogram — sort of a catch-up on medical needs of the family before he left. The radiologist was not comforting. 'I see something,' he said. 'Hop up on this table and we can biopsy it now.' 

Oh no you don't! After a battle of wills, the radiologist conceded that he had no baseline to compare this mammogram to, and he was unsure whether the irregular cells he saw were active or not. We decided to have a re-do mammogram in six months.

I was worried, but I put it out of my mind. Half denial, half too busy to think about it. I told my husband, but I brushed it off as nothing; after all, he was deploying soon and I had a lot to do. 

We sent my husband off with great fanfare, and I resumed the lioness position, which is really what it’s like to be the spouse of a deployed airman: awake half the night, waiting for anything to happen so you can pounce.

Over the next few months, I dealt with the settling in part and tried to find new friends. I also lost 20 pounds by attempting diet and exercise for the first time ever. (This was so my husband would come back to a sexy new wife, I thought.)


Begrudgingly, I went back for my six-month follow up mammogram. I was sure it was nothing. Even when the nurse said, 'We need you to come back for a biopsy,' I still thought it was nothing.


It was something.


 (Nov. 2010) Homecoming.How do I
tell this man 
what's going on

inside my body? What a heartbreak
to come home to breast cancer.
Tough, tough times.
November 4, 2010, three weeks before my husband's return, I had that biopsy. I didn’t need the followup appointment with the breast surgeon to tell me what was written all over everyone’s faces. The cells were incredibly active. The area was growing. Yet I still had to wait for that followup to hear the inevitable: 'We have to act NOW.' 

There was that Charlie Brown Teacher voice: mwa mwa mwa survival rate mwa mwa mwa mastectomy mwa mwa mwa questions? 

Three weeks until that long-awaited reunion with my husband, and all I could think was: They are taking my breast away

Welcome home, honey, and by the way, I have cancer. Happy retirement.

I won't bore you with the details of my cancer, but I will tell you that, like so many others, I didn’t fit the pattern. I had no risk factors. No one can tell me the ‘why’ of it all.

When you live overseas with the military, you learn how to make friends fast — but the friendships aren’t terribly deep. We generally have just three years between each move.

I was still in that 'make friends quick' groove when I met a nice group of women in Ohio. But that was before cancer. After cancer these relationships became intrusive. Everyone wanted to help me so much that I felt claustrophobic, embarrassed, and overwhelmed by all the attention. I shut away these new friends when I realized I was the one consoling them about this whole cancer business! 'Oh, I’m OK, really,' I'd say. 'It’s not that bad. I don’t have to have chemo.' (As if not having chemo takes the sting out of having cancer!) I consoled all the concerned looks. 'My survival rate is really high,' I found myself mumbling after a worried sigh from a new friend. 


What bullshit! Why am I consoling everyone but myself? Cancer was much too hard of a topic for these new friends to deal with. It was much too hard for ME to deal with. I just couldn’t do it. (I have very healthy friendships with these people now, but that was another hurdle after recovery — and another story for another day.)

Treatment-wise, I decided on a unilateral mastectomy followed by reconstruction, and the process took what felt like forever to heal. My incision split open, I developed poor range of motion in my shoulder, and a brand new pain in my arm (that still plagues me today) developed. I had pulled back from all my new friends in Ohio (a state I didn’t even want to be in). Now what?


Thankfully, I found Breastcancer.org (BCO), and the women there became my Bosom Buddies. We could vent it all to each other. Whatever the problem, there always seemed to be someone else on BCO going through something similar. There was the 'military spouse' friend, the 'split incision' friend, the 'WAH-I-have-no-friends' friend, the 'this-sucks' friend. On BCO, I always had someone to bitch with, someone I didn’t have to console about my situation. And I didn’t have to apologize for how I was feeling.

(2011) My first ride event ever,
3 months after my second surgery.
It was the day that I learned,
27 miles into a 52-mile breast

cancer ride, that my arm could feel
searing pain while riding.
I sobbed for miles, but I finished. 
Change came again six months after my mastectomy. I was sitting in my recliner at home in my jammies, wallowing in my brokenness, my family afraid to speak to me, no nearby friends to call. Suddenly I realized: This. Has. Got. To. Change. I needed to start feeling powerful, not powerless.

I took my power back the day I saw my oncologist. 'Your risk of recurrence is about 7 percent,' she said. 'You can take Tamoxifen for five years and reduce your recurrence risk by 40 percent, or your can start exercising and really watching your diet, and reduce your risk by 30 percent.' 

Stop. Right. There. She just said that I could take something or I could do something. I could keep taking it or I could actually DO something about my situation? That was my AH-HA moment: It was MY choice! I have control over my choice! What an amazing moment. Thanks Onc — and no thanks to taking drugs. Nothing she said convinced me that Tamoxifen was a good idea for me, so I made peace with my decision to take matters into my own hands.

Then and there I decided I was going to live out loud. I heard my mother's voice in my head: 'You can do anything you put your mind to.' So I did. 
(July 2013) Celebrating a 1,000-mile biking
season and defiantly lifting my bike a day after
searing arm pain kept me on the couch all day.

I bought a bike. 

Simple as it sounds, I bought that bike so I would feel powerful. I could go places. I could be by myself, ride as long as I chose, and feel free.


My arm pain still tries to derail me, and one doctor even told me, 'If it hurts to ride, don’t.' Um, wrong answer! I kept riding — until my arm could handle longer distances. First it was 8 miles. Then 10 miles. 20 miles. 50 miles. A metric century. My arm was in agony many days, but it was my choice. 
(June 2013) A family affair: Our new family tradition of
 doing this ride together. We decided to do it for
all of the moms who CAN'T ride with their kids.

I had power in my decision to thrive and not wallow in my brokenness. 

Now I do charity rides with my family. And I even started running — not only as a dare, but because I CAN.

I do everything now because I CAN.

I have always wanted to be a librarian. After my surgeries were complete, I applied for every library job I could find, eventually taking a 15-hour-per-week clerk job.
(Nov. 2013) My first running event,
 The Turkey Trot: Five miles in 18-degree weather.

Six months later, I applied (and was accepted!) to Kent State’s Masters of Library and Information Science program. Two months after that, I landed a position as a part-time Youth Librarian. Less than two years later, I was offered a plumb job (one I thought I would have to wait much longer for) as a full-time youth librarian in an excellent library not far from home.

Now I put on my virtual cape and mask every day, and I live out loud to the best of my bad-ass-librarian ability!

Thanks to inspiration from my Bosom Buddies, I started a blog called Library Village and developed such a following that I'm now recognized as 'Miss Sue' in library circles. And I just debuted a second blog, Librarian Out Loud, named after my living-out-loud mantra. 

Living out loud is working for me.

(2014) My latest library digs.
Last week, I was offered a new position as Head Librarian (which is unheard of for someone still working on her MLIS degree!). Passion. Drive. Living out loud.

My advice: If it works for you, and you're happy with it, keep doing it — whatever it is. But if you find that you're spinning in the wallow of your brokenness, stop. DO SOMETHING instead.

I could spit out a thousand clich├ęs of motivation that keep me going, but I'll tell you two that drive me: My Mom’s 'You can do anything you set your mind to' (by Ben Franklin, my favorite librarian) and 'Whether you think you can or you think you can't — you're right' (by Henry Ford).


Go live out loud!
(Aug. 2012) Nearly two years after my breast cancer diagnosis,
and I felt brand new. This was taken at our oldest daughter's wedding.
Diet, exercise, a new career — and an entirely new attitude.

10 comments:

  1. What an incredible story made me cry, inspired me and made me feel grateful :)

    That last quote is my favorite quote of all time too.. Whether you think can or think you can't you're right... (Very true)

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    1. Attitude is everything, but like that object in motion, it keeps going and going. Glad you liked my story. Thank you.

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  2. You've put you finger on it: loss of control and wanting to take some of it back. That is what we all struggle with. I had to keep telling myself to have courage. There are few choices with cancer, but at least you can choose your attitudes. To some extent anyway, if you try hard enough.

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    1. Of course, the article doesn't talk much about the full evolution of the attitude adjustment. Its hard to keep the good attitude at first because of setbacks, but I learned to celebrate the small things and give myself a break sometimes. Thanks so much for your comments! Stay strong!!

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  3. I've been on this journey with you and I feel encouraged and motivated all over again. =)

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    1. Thanks GF. Your journey has been inspiring to me too!

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  4. WOW...that's all I can say - WOW!! I, too, found BCO to be a life saver! Good for you - I am SO proud of YOU!!

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  5. there is so much in your story, miss sue, I know I will read it over and over again. no wonder you are a "ruby" to renn! and please - offer my sincere thank you to your hubby for his service to our country.

    much love ands light,

    Karen xoxo

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    1. Thank you Karen! Your comments mean so much!

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Your comments are encouraging — and encouraged!