Centering mind & body with family & pie

I hope that everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving holiday! Hopefully you did not have to rush off to work just yet (sorry Jacque! Retail is a buzz kill).

Thanksgiving this year was different than usual. Because I was scheduled to receive chemo the day after Thanksgiving, it would just be too much for me to drive back to Torrington and home again in 24 hours. Despite the gracious offer to join my cousins, my parents and I had a modified low-key Thanksgiving together on the Cape. We had a phenomenal four course traditional meal at the Daniel Webster Inn. Afterward, my mom and I whipped up a delicious apple pie and a loaf of banana bread using the secret family recipe. I have yet to eat banana bread that rivals my mother’s so it was nice to share this piece of our family history with her.

We ended the night with a marathon of Rummikub. To keep things interesting, I forced my parents to adopt silly rules and claimed them to be “new house rules”. This involved making by parents flap their arms like birds and yell “caw-caw, caw-caw!” whenever they had two tiles remaining.

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I adore my family and do not get to see them often as we are a bit spread out in a few states. As much as I would have liked to share this holiday with my extended family I think it was in my best interest to have a quiet break from life for a couple days in Mashpee. I was able to decompress and recenter myself. I can honestly say I feel much better than when I last wrote.

As I mentioned, today began yet another new cycle of chemo. I received both Taxol and Avastin. I am thrilled that W&I was able to fit me for an early afternoon infusion so that I did not have to rush back from the Cape early in the morning.

**Bonus** There was a therapy dog today! So many kisses and snuggles were had by all!

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Today I receive the updated CA-125. The numbers came back as just over 600, meaning it has doubled since the last reading. Considering the infection that I’ve been fending off, stress, and feeling rundown I am not at all surprised that my numbers shot up. That said, I’m not upset either (and no, this isn’t one of those times where I’m putting on a brave face but secretly sad on the inside. I’m very legitimately okay with this). I chalk this one up to a ‘not-great reading’ and hope that my body is in better condition for the next one.

In the interest of remaining focused on a more positive frame of mind, I want to share a gift from one of my students:

(I appreciate Kim providing me written consent to share her name as well as this gift with you.)

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Relay for Life 2015- Nelly (left), Kim (center), Me (right)

The context surrounding this gift is that before Kim became my advisee, we had crossed paths through Relay for Life and the Izzy Foundation. We bonded over our common experience of being young with cancer and that evolved into her joining my caseload in Advising. She is a stellar student and has a big heart for those around her. I can happily say that she is now cancer-free.

Through Kim, I met another wonderful girl named Nelly. Nelly was a patient at Hasbro with Kim and they became the best of friends under horrible circumstances. Nelly had been fighting Ewing Sarcoma but her suffering came to an end last weekend when she earned her angel wings.

Kim was the first to share the news with me and all weekend I worried about her. When someone close to you passes it is quite obviously devastating. When someone close to you passes of a disease you can relate to there are complex levels of emotion- fear, anger, mourning, survivor’s guilt, etc. It can be hard for some to process.

On Monday afternoon I returned from lunch to find a purple gift bag on my office chair. It contained a card and the framed picture above. Kim had written on every square inch of this card. It then dawned on me that while I was worried all weekend about her, she was also concerned for me.

Below is an excerpt from her card. It helped me to find perspective and I think it can speak to all of us on some level:

“I made this frame myself. There are many flaws and even some scratches, but they represent scars. When I first made this frame, it gave me issues, so I re-did part of it. I didn’t start new because I felt as though the scars (scratches) tell a story, just as all of our do. I kept it like this to show how perfection isn’t everything. Our lives are far from perfect, but we still manage to survive and get through every day.”

I think we can agree that my student is wise beyond her years. There are no accidents in life and this card arrived at a moment when I needed an influx of reminders that it’s okay not feel strong all the time. Beauty still exists within our imperfect worlds.

I consider myself so lucky to work with students with such heart. When people say to me: “I don’t know how you work through all of this!” I wish I could let them be flies on the wall for these kinds of moments packed with such genuine human connectedness.

So in short (HA! Right…) I feel that I am slowly returning to a more centered frame of mind. I am not currently feeling the stress and sadness that lingered over the past few days and I am getting excited for the weeks to come both in and out of work.

Cheers friends, have a happy and safe weekend!

ENJOY ALL OF THOSE LEFTOVER TREATS!

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Three Years

About 20 days ago I posted a letter to myself in the form of ‘Dear Former Self’. It was an emotionally charged tribute to success in light of illness caught at a moment when I actually felt like I had my shit together. I meant every word of it and I am glad that ’20 days ago’ Jessica wrote it because ‘today Jessica’ really needed a reminder.

Today marks exactly three years since the diagnosis that re-charted my future. I can and do frame this anniversary as a celebration of life and thriving in spite of adversity. Honestly though, ‘today Jessica’ and ‘yesterday Jessica’, and ‘day before that Jessica’ are feeling pretty run down. Exacerbated by another week of chemo and an antibiotic in my system, I feel weak and worn out. My body aches, I’m exhausted, and my stomach is torn to shreds. Moreover, strong emotions float to the surface of my mind.

I left work a little early, curled up with my favorite blankets and watched a mind-numbing amount of Netflix. It turns out this was the best decision I could have made to honor myself today.

 

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(My friend Kerri emailed this to me at work today and it couldn’t have been more well timed)

If I try to pull myself up by my bootstraps any harder I’m going to put my entire foot through the sole. So today, I take the advice of my parents, Cory, my friends, co-workers (and all of the other highly perceptive people that have nudged me to be kinder to myself).

On this third anniversary I do three things:

1.) Re-read ‘Dear former self’ and pat myself on the back for making it this far in spite of crummy circumstances.

2.) Allow myself to be sad (for now). This disease has a thousand silver linings but actually replaying delivery of diagnosis in my mind is incredibly painful and can be difficult to ignore. If only I could use ‘chemo brain’ to selectively forget that moment.

3.) I rest. I shut off my work email, silence my phone, and just allow my body to be still and comfortable. It is working on overdrive to fight the disease and super-overdrive to keep up with the unfair demands I put on it constantly.


 

On a final note, I cannot thank everyone enough that has stood by me over a long three year period of highs and lows. Through the fear, successes, disappointment, and hopeful moments I have never once felt truly alone. I thank you for every pep talk, prayer, or kind “how are you holding up?” check in.

From the bottom of my heart,

Thank-you 

 

Drop it Low

I’m going to be perfectly honest.  I have hit a wall today where I am beyond exhausted. I’ve spend the majority of the day sleeping during and after chemo. SO I’m going to keep this short and sweet:

CA-125 decreased from 455 to 337 !!!!!!

Dear former self…

Three years. If you can believe it, I have now been treated for cancer for nearly three years. In 20 days another canceriversary will come and go. I am still living with disease, yes. But I am still very much alive and thriving.

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of the cancer diagnosis have me feeling reflective. It brings about strong feelings but not the types of feelings that one may expect. I probably should be more angry that this happened, but as I’ve said before I’m just not. Sure, cancer isn’t fair, it isn’t right, it isn’t deserved- it just is. So instead- look at the mountains we have moved. Look how far we (yes, not just me) have come together since that horrible day in November.

I wish the terrified 24 year old girl in the hospital bed at Charlotte Hungerford could have looked into a crystal ball and saw herself now. At that time I thought nothing could ever be the same. I thought that I’d be let go from my dream job, unable to maintain a romantic relationship, unable to see the world, stripped of all independence. Although there have been many points in the last few years when I’ve been forced to hit pause or slow down, I’ve never been fully stopped.

After nearly three years with cancer I think it’s important to reflect less on what was lost and more on what is:

  • This girl with cancer can work full time, even through weekly chemo.
  • This girl with cancer can find a boyfriend and build a relationship surrounded by unconditional love
  • This girl with cancer can educate students on their academic paths and help them follow their passions.
  • This girl with cancer can give presentations and tell multiple corny jokes in the process.
  • This girl with cancer can articulate her thoughts through writing
  • This girl with cancer can sign up for a 3 hour DDP yoga workshop on a whim (No, seriously. Fellow 1990’s WWF fans, this is not a joke)
  • This girl with cancer can cook for herself…when she feels like it.
  • This girl with cancer can clean her apartment…again, when she feels like it.
  • This girl with cancer can co-advise Colleges Against Cancer to support students touched by illness
  • This girl with cancer can travel out of the country on a (desperately needed) tropical vacation with said boyfriend (who also desperately deserves a vacation)
  • This girl with cancer can crush dead lifts and squats (with lots of encouragement from Weese Fitness)
  • This girl with cancer can travel to Chicago to attend the National Collegiate Honors Council conference
  • This girl with cancer can band together with friends and family and raise a crap-ton of money for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition
  • This girl with cancer can poke fun at her buzz cut and dress up as 2007 meltdown Britney Spears for Halloween (and dance the night away!)
  • This girl with cancer can volunteer at a children’s hospital to support other families facing illness
  • This girl with cancer can suck down a cocktail (occasionally) with her favorite nurse
  • This girl with cancer can speak honestly about her experience in a public forum
  • This girl with cancer can binge watch seven seasons of Parks and Rec without shame or regret
  • This girl with cancer can find her voice
  • This girl with cancer can accept that it is okay to ask for and accept help from loved ones (even if it kills her)
  • This girl with cancer can accept that she is not superwoman and cannot do it all, and that’s okay (even if it kills her x2)

My understanding of cancer is not black and white. It has been a continuum of ups and downs, struggles and successes. I accept that I cannot be everything to everyone. I accept that I have limitations. I accept that I may drop the ball or have a bad day, or week, or month. But every new day on this green earth brings another set of accomplishments.

Even if the list above was more like:

  • This girl with cancer can binge watch seven seasons of Parks and Rec because it makes her smile (yep using the same example. It’s that special to me.)
  • This girl with cancer successfully had a bm after surgery, finally (I’m not sorry, this is a real struggle SO real for many)
  • This girl with cancer had an appetite today and ate half a bagel and some peaches!

…it would still be a list of accomplishments from each and every day that something improved in the slightest.

So allow me to please hop in the Delorean and travel back in time to my former, newly diagnosed, self-

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Dear 24 year old Jess Sultaire,

It’s going to be okay. Not because I know the outcome of this disease but because I know that the life you will live over the next three years will be full of far more successes than failures. The life you will live beyond the next three years will challenge you immensely and be one that brings you joy and pride. Hang in there kid.

Love always,

Jess Sultaire of the past and future

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