Telling people

You’ve been told you have cancer, now you have to tell people that you have cancer. There is no easy way to do it. When we did it we tried to do it in stages. It is tiring, so stages work much better.

First, I told my brother over the phone, he is out of town–well all my family is out of town and they all would hear by phone. He had the best response, he would rather have heard that I won the lottery much more than he wanted to hear I had cancer. He was pleased with the prognosis, he is a good big brother, definitely in the top two of my big brothers. We talked for a minute or so and then I was done. I mean done for the day, I needed a nap maybe to go to bed for the night, maybe go to bed until this was over.

Instead of taking a nap I told my neighbor, in person. That was when I realized that while I like hugs and people and human interaction in general, it was kind of easier over the phone. My neighbor is wonderful and kind and the best next door neighbor, best neighbor on the street.

After telling the two of them I came to some realizations, we weren’t alone and I was going to have to pace myself. I mean really pace myself while telling people, hence the stages.

I tried groups. That has its pros and cons. I tried individually in person, same. Tried phone, same. Email, same. Text, same. Basically, there is no one completely good way to do it, they all have cons. You have to weigh the pros and the cons and do what works for you, and then accept that there is nothing that really works because you are telling people you love and who love you that you have cancer. Or you are telling people you care about that care about you that you have cancer.

Or you are telling your source of insurance and income that you have cancer. Interestingly, this wasn’t as difficult once the conversation started. They are professionals dealing with this all day every day. I could slip comfortably into clinical mode and just the facts from a distance and it was ok. They told me what I needed to do, what they will provide and what would happen. It was another clear path, like the medical path/flow chart. It turns out that I really like clear, well worn paths that lead to success.

Every now and then I would run into someone that I forgot to tell, or that I thought I told but didn’t. Depending on when it was determined how draining or energizing it was. I enjoy running into people I haven’t seen at work in years who tell me I look great, thin, love my new hairstyle or some such compliment. It turns out I just say thank you, hug them and leave it at that. No need to go into the details, its all over and it is nice to have a moment where I just get to be me, no cancer history, just old pre cancer me for a moment.

Every now and then I run into someone that I thought I knew, that someone in my life would have told and then talk about the entire journey to date. I am embarrassed that I didn’t tell that person. Then talking through the experience is great, I get to be grateful for everything all over again. The nice part of that is the person I am talking with is often grateful, too.

Telling people now is so much better than telling people in the beginning. Just practice, do the best you can, each time do a little better and then be nice to yourself, naps are a good thing and a good way to recharge emotionally.

Thanks and Silver Linings

You know the song–you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have the facts of life. I grew up watching that show. I liked watching it but didn’t really identify with any of the characters, but I would sing that song all the time, everywhere. As a kid its a catchy tune, as an adult, well, it can be something else altogether.

It’s not easy finding the silver lining in some situations. The doctor told me and my husband that I had cancer on September 11, 2018. The tiny silver lining was that another day of the year wasn’t ruined, all of us could be sad together on a sad day.

Thankfully diagnosis was early, increasing the odds of a positive outcome. That is a huge silver lining. I recommend that you write a thank you note to the people that helped diagnose you. It isn’t easy but I really think it helped to put me in the right frame of mind to really start the fight. Send a thank you note to the mammography tech and the ultrasound tech because if they would have missed the signs it would have delayed diagnosis and the odds drop. Thank whoever else helped get you to a diagnosis and a treatment path, writing the notes are almost meditative.

Thankfully all of the medical professionals I dealt with are highly skilled, kind and compassionate people. That is also a huge silver lining. Each one took the time to explain what was going on, what was going to happen next and where the next decision point would be. They took the time to make sure I understood and was processing the information properly. As odd as it sounds, under different circumstances I could picture them all being friends I would have chosen to hang out with.

Thankfully my job has excellent benefits and an excellent short term disability policy. Again, a huge silver lining. I cannot imagine what it would have been like without insurance and trying to work full time through the whole treatment process. I even had a case worker that navigated that side of the process for me. She also took the time to make sure I understood what was going on, coming up and how to deal with everything. She made sure that I was doing well, considering, on a personal level. She, too, is someone I could imagine being friends with had we met differently.

Thankfully we have an amazing support system here in Louisiana and all over the country in family and friends. The biggest silver lining of them all. People cooked for us, made sure the kids were safe and where they needed to be. They kept us involved in life outside of cancer, which is also bigger than you can imagine. About the time the walls started closing in someone would call or come over and remind us there was life outside. About the time the girls were feeling isolated someone would invite them to a birthday party, outing or play date. It was very kind and allowed the girls to be girls for some time before coming back to reality. About the time everything would feel overwhelming someone would send a care package that was just perfect for the moment to remind us that we weren’t alone in the fight. It was truly humbling to experience and taught me so much about kindness and compassion.

Thankfully my body was strong enough to handle the treatments and fight off cancer. Thankfully my family was able to deal with and become closer because of cancer. Thankfully I becoming stronger and stronger each day. The list goes on and for that I am infinitely thankful as well.

It is important to remember what the silver linings are, and what to be thankful for, for me the lists are intertwined. There are days during treatment that the silver lining is that the chemo-tantrum ended, the crying stopped, the vomiting ceased, the pain pill lasted until the next dose. While these sound negative, in the moment they are gigantic positives and completely worthy of celebration. Give yourself credit for finding the silver lining, no matter how small or tarnished it may be, shine it up a little and go with it.

Recovery, Rehab and PT

Treatment is over, how many days until I am back to normal, the pre-cancer, pre-treatment, pre-runaway train normal? Well, the answer I have gotten from every medical professional is that it is different for everyone. Every person is different, every body is different and every circumstance is different, so it is different for everyone.

One day during treatment, one of the dog days of chemo we were watching Good Morning America. Robin was interviewing a marathoner or tri-athlete who was talking about how hard it was to keep training during chemotherapy. I was inconsolable. What do you mean training for that level of endurance event while getting chemotherapy? There were days where putting laundry away was the best I could do in terms of physical activity.

I never was an athlete, I did athletic things as a means to an end, but have never been an athlete. Maybe that is why I couldn’t understand this woman. There were days where I could not walk up the stairs, maybe if I had no choice I would have made it, since my bedroom is on the first floor, I didn’t have to, so I didn’t practice or do it. But this woman, she was training for an endurance event during all of this. I couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful she was and how not wonderful I was. Obviously this had an impact on me, not to make me train for a marathon, but an impact on my opinion of myself.

Treatment ended, thankfully. Another surgery came and went. I went back to work. One day I caught a glimpse of a reflection of myself when my hair started coming back and wondered who that little old lady was. She looked a LOT like my mother.

Maybe I couldn’t do a marathon, but I could do something about my posture, I shouldn’t have the posture of a little old lady just yet. Woman’s Hospital has a program for cancer rehab. I went a few times a week after work to get my strength and posture back through a grant at the fitness center associated with Woman’s Hospital. They ask you to set a goal. My goal was to complete the Freedom Mile on July 4th 2019, with good form and posture.

We worked on upper body strength, opening up my chest and arm strength. It was a lot of work, but it appeared to be paying off. My posture improved, my overall fatigue level lessened, in general I was feeling better. I ran a good bit of the Freedom Mile, did it faster than I did it in 2018. It wasn’t pretty, it is hot in Louisiana in July, but I did it. My opinion of myself was becoming a little more positive, something about working hard for a goal and meeting so many people in the same boat I was in was very helpful.

I graduated from rehab and moved on to medical exercise. Once again you have to set a goal, this time the goal was to complete the St. Jude 5K at the end of September. We worked on upper body and leg strength. Again, you could see the results, I was getting stronger, feeling better, fatigue was still decreasing–all good and positive results. I completed the 5K, not in the time I was working toward, but I did complete it. Again, my opinion was tending to be less harsh and more positive. Working with the folks toward the goal of the 5K and getting better in general was very empowering, a very positive experience overall, like maybe the runaway train was slowing down.

When I went back to the oncologist, she didn’t like the way I held my head and started feeling around on my neck. She said maybe I have a bulged disk or compressed nerve and to get an MRI. After the MRI she called and said there was no cancer in my head and neck. Good information, not what I thought we were looking for, but still very good information. I should get physical therapy for my neck. Not excited about PT, but I was kind of excited to see the ladies again, show them I kept improving and working on my posture at home.

Neck PT hurts, and is kind of a bummer. Not a lot to see improving–except I had gotten a a heart monitor at the advice of the medical exercise ladies and it has a sleep monitor. It showed that the quality of my sleep improved by leaps and bounds, according to Polar anyway. Again my opinion was getting more positive about myself, there were some results to see, more people to bond with and improve with. I would like to see a program like couch to 5K, but maybe a cancer to 5K. I would totally join that group, especially if we got T-Shirts, I’d be so in for the 5K if we got medals, too!

I am still heading on the path to becoming more like my pre-everything-surrounding-cancer-self. Each day I am a little bit less hard on myself for not being an endurance athlete who continued to train during chemo. Then I smile a little and say someday, someday I will start training for something longer. First 1 Mile (check), then 5K (check), maybe a 10 K in New Orleans on February 9, 2020. I may not be an athlete, or even become one some day, but I can keep trying to improve my overall health and decrease the odds of cancer coming back by keeping active. That is the key, to keep active and mobile with good posture and form to avoid the need for chemotherapy, rehabilitation or physical therapy in the future.

The power of YES and AND

How many people in your lives do you know who seem to enjoy saying no. Like for some reason denying you your request is a power play, a complete and total display of their personal power. They often have the off shoot of OR as well, they bargain, I can give you that OR I can give you this usually significantly lesser thing. I am on team yes and and, and work hard to stay energized around the no and or team.

My whole life the no and or people have brought out my sympathy. For a very long time I couldn’t articulate why. Then one day my oldest daughter asked me why we couldn’t buy something she wanted at the grocery store, it isn’t on the list didn’t work that day. It was one of those kids yogurts that is like 90% sugar and artificial colors. I straight up said no, it isn’t on the list and most likely made a scrunchy nosed face as I said it. She asked why, and I paused for a long moment and said because I think we can make it much more healthful at home and have some fun with it.

We went home and looked up a recipe–this was before smart phones. We made an adventure out of making the yogurt and she was supremely happy, this became a staple in her life for quite a few years. It was an amazing feeling to be able to do something for her, with her, that satisfied both of our wants and needs completely.

Maybe that is why I have sympathy for the NO power players, because maybe they don’t know the feeling of saying yes and making it happen. Maybe they don’t know how to discern between a will-he-nil-he way of saying yes and the informed way of saying no or the reverse, an informed yes and the will-he-nil-he way of saying no.

Another day my youngest daughter asked if she could go to a friends house on a day where we had a lot going on that afternoon and evening. My knee jerk reaction was no, we have a lot going on, instead I said yes AND be back by a specific time so that we can do the other tasks as well later. It worked out nicely, we completed a few more tasks at home without the kids under foot a bit more efficiently. I have often viewed this as time management, a skill the girls need so that they will get the most out of life. Today, my energy is still not back to where it was pre cancer, so time management is very important and the ANDs become even more valuable.

The huge AND in my life right now is having energy for work and coming home and having energy for my family. There are days at work that drain my energy completely. I am sure you know the days where you don’t sit down at home because you know you are going to fall asleep. I have not mastered a nap AND an activity on a work day, if you have please share! There are other days at work that fuel my evening beautifully, those are the days when I get a couple of ANDs in!

I started really paying attention to my work days and what it is that drains versus fills the tank. Then I amended my sympathy, perhaps the NO and OR power players don’t have a lot of tank filling days. In that moment I realized my elevator speech for what I do in a work day. In my role in continuous improvement I help people have better days at work through teaching, modeling and coaching continuous improvement tools and methodology in an uplifting way. Days when I get to do that and when I get to experience a lightbulb moment with someone are the tank filling days. Days where I don’t, well, the tank empties. The same is true at home, days where I get to experience a lightbulb moment with the kids, or when they apply something in a new and exciting way and I get to learn, oh man, those are the days where the tank, or cup, runneth over.

I don’t respond yes or no to indiscriminately, especially now. When I want to knee jerk either response, I ask what getting what they want will that do for the person asking. Out loud, I ask the person directly and out loud-not in my head-because I have found the better dialog the better the results. I keep going with the next question of what do they get out of it. Often times the discussion turns my knee jerk no into a very different yes that is satisfactory or better to all parties. Or it stays a no, but we discuss why it is a no and discuss other options when appropriate. That happens with a yes as well. It is easy to do at home, less so in the work place, and even less so with the medical professionals in my life, but when it happens, no matter where it happens, YES and AND is a beautiful thing.

I am still trying to figure out where my sympathy comes from the NO power player. Maybe they haven’t experienced the feeling of saying yes and making it happen, maybe they don’t know what the real goal is because they don’t know how to have an effective dialog, maybe they aren’t effectively managing their time and haven’t experienced a satisfying AND, maybe its all of those things and they don’t know where to start. If you have a knee jerk no power player in your life, try putting together a statement that incorporates all of the above making the AND a win for them. Don’t make it a yes or no question–make it a when style question. Make it a when would you like me to start solving this problem for you this specific way AND you get to have more time to do the thing you want/like/need to do. It doesn’t always work, but it usually results in a much better dialog and you have increased the opportunities to experience a YES and an AND with that person.

Public Display of Processing

We were watching the second season of the new Carmen San Diego on Netflix the other night. I was sitting there thinking about how when I was a kid I needed a second 5 1/4 inch drive for my Tandy computer to play ‘Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” I was thinking about how much has changed in technology since then. I wondered what the girls were going to marvel over with their kids thinking about how when they were kids they used thumb drives and the cloud, how ancient that was compared to what their kids are growing up with. I reached over and kissed my youngest on the head and she snuggled in a little closer.

That was a public display of affection. Or was it an affectionate display of public processing?

I was in a meeting where a woman became visibly frustrated, she was trying to take a third brain storming session into action items, maybe a road map, but definitely some sort of actionable direction. Someone else in the room who was very resistant angrily verbally demeaned her attempts. She teared up and choked up a little, no tears fell and it was over the instant it happened, but it happened. As we were walking out of the room the most senior person in the room said that he hated that public display of weakness and that she needed to be stronger if she were to succeed in a manufacturing environment. But he said nothing about the demeaning comment, or the other anger expressed expressed in less than professional fashion in the meeting. All very emotional responses, yet only one was considered a weakness.

They were really all just a public display of processing. She was processing her anger and frustration her way, instantly and without harm to anyone else. The others were processing their emotional situations, only they actually did harm. One way was considered weakness, the others were considered acceptable, dare I say, strength.

The interesting thing about all of this, if you were to watch an ethics CBT video on acceptable workplace actions, which one was acceptable in the video? Which one was actually rewarded in real life? This isn’t just a gender issue, I’ve seen plenty of tantrums and angry outbursts in meetings from both genders, and I have seen the same basic frustration, emotional silence reaction from both genders. Its closer to 50/50 than I thought when I first started really watching for it in meetings. Although, the tantrum outbursts get rewarded at an alarmingly higher rate.

This is what I hope my kids view as a thing of the past, a thing their parents dealt with in the workplace that they no longer need to. I know that there are things my parents dealt with that is just plain illegal in the workplace today. In their time they just had to suck it up and deal with it and keep their silence if they wanted to get ahead or be able to support their families. I hope for my kids, being demeaned in a meeting for getting frustrated becomes illegal, that people have the emotional intelligence to see what is happening and take positive action before it gets to that. I know what I have to keep my silence about, and I feel complicit, I am complicit. I hope my kids won’t have to know when to keep their silence, or have to feel complicit. I hope for them that public display of processing will be much more informed, much more aware, much more useful to solution instead of silence and judgement. I hope that workplace silence and judgement become the 5 1/4 in floppies of their time.

Comfort and young entrepreneurs

Ever hold onto a pillow or a stuffed animal looking for something comforting? That soothing feeling? Where you are looking for the feeling that lets your shoulders come down from your ears a little and the tension in your neck relaxes a little. Its because you like hugs, like Olaf from Frozen, you like warm hugs.

We stumbled upon an idea for a pillow. It was a pin cushion, we saw it online and we figured it would be comfortable as a full sized throw pillow. We got to work. We knew what we wanted to make and why. This project was likely to be finished!

I have been a part of scale up projects, from lab scale to pilot plant to full production. This was one of those times where there was no issue with scale up. None at all, we took it from hand held pin cushion size, in an image, to about 20 inches in diameter in physical form. Nothing went wrong, it was cool to be a part of a scale up without any unplanned opportunity. We made one for each of us, 5 in total. All wildly different fabrics and stuffing level. We were happy with them!

We saw in a local magazine that there was a mini makers fair about 4 months away. So we decided to make some star pillows for the fair. We scaled up the product, now we were scaling up production. We knew the time we had and what we wanted to accomplish and divided the work up accordingly, both by person and by week. We even allowed time for a family vacation!

It as nice to have a job where we could see our very tangible progress, there is something very satisfying about seeing a pile of fabric and bags of stuffing turn into a pile of finished pillows. We even shortened our time to make the pillows because we were approaching marching band season (other people call it football season) and our high schooler, 20% of the workforce, is part of the band.

We all had a star pillows made before we knew anything about cancer coming into our lives. It is great for hugging, for putting under your head and supporting your neck. It is great for putting between your knees while sleeping. It is both comfortable and just all around comforting. That is how we were going to sell it at the fair “Comfort Star Pillow”.

Meanwhile, the first step after diagnosis for my situation was mastectomy. I was very worried about being hurt by the seat belt in the car and when I coughed or sneezed. Of all the things to be worried about, it is strange what makes the radar during a critical time. This made my radar for some reason. I will talk about the refrigerator in another blog.

It turns out the star pillow, being three dimensional was perfect for both. The grooves between the rays of the stars fit the seat belt nicely and the shape was perfect for my torso, no worries at all. My husband never jammed on the breaks, I cannot tell you if it will protect from that, but it did help with pot holes, railroad tracks and other less than perfectly paved roads to keep the belt from tugging and rubbing me the wrong way. It was the perfect shape for coughing and sneezing too. It helped stabilize my torso and chest from such a violent bodily movement. This pillow did the job nicely, very nicely.

The fair was about two weeks post mastectomy, since all of the pillows were made in advance and this was something they were really looking forward to, we decided to attend to try to keep some normal in our lives and maybe a little fun. Normal and fun are something to be prized during the runaway train of an adventure called cancer.

Oh my goodness, the girls had so much fun at the fair–it was great. They learned how to speak with people they didn’t know. They learned how to talk about something they cared about with strangers, without stranger danger. They all developed their own little elevator speech. They learned the difference between being authentic and being inauthentic. I was pleased to see them learn quickly that authentic is way more likely to be rewarded with a sale. I am hoping they learn to be authentic individuals without a reward, but for now, the reward was nice.

We made everyone who came up to the table hug the pillows. It was great, they all experienced that moment where their shoulders went down just a little, and they closed their eyes and smiled. Every single person that hugged the pillow had that reaction. I wish I had a camera to take a picture of all of their faces. It was good therapy for me to see everyone react that way. We sold quite a few of the pillows. It was crazy!

We decided that we would do it again in 2020 and made a bunch of pillows in anticipation over the course of the year. Again following a plan with an informed division of labor instead of a best guess. We had a good time making them Unfortunately, the mini maker fair was the same day as a band competition. We have 13 pillows waiting for people to love them as much as we do! This time we put pockets on them with a little heart for essential oils to get a little aromatherapy along with the snuggle therapy. We put a Survivor Sherpa label on them, directing people to the survivor-sherpa.com site. Some of the pillows have rays made from pink ribbon fabric. All of the proceeds are intended to support the mission of Survivor Sherpa!

The girls have a great entrepreneurial spirit as well as a great desire to help the community, it was their idea to have the pillows support Survivor Sherpa. You can too, https://www.supportful.com/survivorsherpa . I am amazed at all of the things they learned and applied along the way. I was amazed how excited they were to turn an idea into reality and then grow the reality into something bigger than we imagined at first. All from the desire to have something that gives you a little comfort while hugging it.

Truth, kindness optional

Several years ago we got caught in a massive rain storm after grocery shopping. My husband ran for the van while leaving the four of us with the groceries under the awning. Another couple was there and the woman looked at her male companion with that look that clearly said that he should run and get the car while she wait. He looked at us with a rueful thanks random folks and took off running. She yelled after him “its not like you are going to melt.” My middle daughter looked at her and said “dissolve, you don’t melt in water, you dissolve, and the human body doesn’t dissolve in rain, it would take a LOT of water and time-lots of time, right mommy?” That was the truth, we don’t dissolve in water, which is a good thing for the human form.

I was proud! As a PhD chemist, I was proud of my second grader for knowing the difference between melting and dissolving and the proper application of the two. I absolutely scored that as a mom win.

Fast forward four years and the same daughter is in the guidance counselor’s office. We were two surgeries and one chemo infusion into my treatments. She was adjusting to a new school and switching classes and a much larger population. When a boy said to her that she shouldn’t be so mopey just because her mom was going to die of cancer. She replied “My mom will die, she says that she won’t die any time soon from cancer, but everyone’s mom will die. The human body has a 100% failure rate, we all die at some point.” This is where the boy doubled over and fell to the ground crying. Thankfully no one thought she punched him or anything, but the closest teacher heard the exchange and sent my daughter to the guidance counselor.

The counselor called us, not to tell us she was in trouble but to find out if she needed to do more to help. We initially called her to make her aware of what our daughter was going through, what we as a family were going though and please keep an eye on her. She wasn’t in trouble, she was just being checked on because that was a rough encounter.

She spoke the truth, the human body has a 100% failure rate. But was that boy and those around her ready to hear that? Did they need to hear that ever? Is the truth always the right thing to share at any time? Is there a right time? So many questions. This didn’t feel like a mom win.

When she came home from school we talked. She said that she was fine, that she felt bad that he cried, but didn’t he deserve it from his comments? We talked about how she felt when he said that. She felt bad for him, bad for herself and bad for the situation and that she wanted him to know that truth hurts. This was the mom fail, truth as a weapon, a retaliatory weapon, but a weapon none the less. Mom. Fail.

I have a personal button, a serious button where I lose my stuffing, for people who say cruel things and follow up with ‘but its the truth’ like that somehow excuses it, like a little thoughtfulness would be a hardship. I don’t want her to be that person, and I certainly don’t want to be the model of that person for her. I did a lot of soul searching. That moment when I was so proud of her for the melting vs dissolving comment, did that reinforce the wrong thing? How many more moments were like that?

She looked at me and asked if I was ok? I told her my concerns and what I was thinking about. She apologized and told me that she wished she could take it back, that she wished she would have realized that she didn’t know what he was going through that would cause him to say something like that to her. She would like to write an apology to him, but she is pretty sure he would make fun of her for it. She wrote an apology to him and I let her decide for herself if she should give it to him. She chose to a few days later with help from the guidance counselor. They are actually friends now.

I would call that a mom win, but I didn’t really do anything except process my own insecurities and fears in front of her. I do call it a humanity win. I know that the world is a better place for her being in it and that is the truth.

Fierce for answers

We told our daughters about my cancer diagnosis over a long weekend. We had come to some level of acceptance and presented the girls with the facts and that the prognosis was all good. Surgery to remove all cancer, not likely to need radiation, chemotherapy may happen depends on what they find during surgery.

Then came the questions, that was the reasoning for the timing of the long weekend. Are you alright? Well, not really, there is cancer and it needs to go, but when its gone I will be alright. Does it hurt? No, no pain at all. Will surgery hurt? How long will you be in the hospital? Will we have to move? And so on and so on until they were done.

Well not quite, there was another as the evening wore on asked in a small, quiet voice while staring off into space. What if you die? I held her tight and said that was not likely, however, I understood her concern and reminded her we believe in God and heaven and that I would watch over her and send something like pennies to remind her she had a loving fan base up there.

That was HARD. I figured and hoped that sharing the positive prognosis because of early detection would avoid that question. She was not pacified, reassured or eased by that response. It was also much harder to be clinical with the answer. We constantly reassured her, had the doctor reassure her later, I don’t think it was until my hair started coming back that she felt any level of comfort in the prognosis being real.

Another question that night was equally fierce. Do men get cancer? She had her hands in fists on her hips, she looked me right in the eye, chin tilted up, feet in a clear fighting stance. She was clearly ready to add cancer to the gender equality movement with the powers that be! I reminded her that her grandfather had a few rounds with cancer and he is doing just fine, cancer is an equal opportunity affliction. We talked about how there were body part specific cancers that were not shared between genders, but she was mostly ok with that. The powers that be could rest easy that this little warrior wasn’t going to come after them for this tonight.

The last question of the evening was the one I was dreading the most. Will I get cancer someday? How do you answer that? We chose to answer with that we hoped not, that there were things they could do. That we were going to help them do, so that they would have reduced odds. There was no way we could know now if they were going to get cancer in their lifetimes. Medicine and knowledge gets better all the time and we just have to pay attention and deal with it early should it rear its ugly head, just like we are dealing with this.

Of all the things we did to prepare the girls for what was coming, I think the question and answer sessions were the hardest and what brought us closer together as a family. We revisit the questions and answers frequently, even now, and check in often to see if they are still happy with the answers or need more detail or information. We do that so that they won’t be tempted to look up information on the internet alone. We also kept that rule for ourselves, loved ones don’t let loved ones Google symptoms!

Rote versus Elegance

I have taken two business math classes in my life. I am positive I missed something, couldn’t tell you what, but I could work the problems and come up with the right number, but it didn’t make sense, I didn’t internalize it, own it, or try to make it elegant. I just did it by rote, and got my A and moved on.

Knowing that you are somewhere on the path to a cancer diagnosis from initial discovery to waiting for biopsy results forces you to reevaluate things, re-prioritize things. Start taking inventory of the different areas of your life what is rote versus what is elegant, what you internalize and what you just move on from. What gives you energy, what steals your energy.

The most recent thing is the colors of the walls in my house. They were earthy greens and browns. I didn’t mind them until one day when I did. We decided as a family that we wanted the color palette from a series of pictures we took on vacation, blues and teals with sun bleached white. Voila! The walls and ceilings were painted, new curtains were hung and the house resembles those pictures and we love it.

Other areas, like work, are a little harder to re inventory and re prioritize. While out for six months, there were a couple of projects at work I stayed current with, they were with people I respected, admired and aspired to be like. That’s not to say the other projects weren’t all of those things, they just had a high degree of politics and drama associated with them, who needs that while dealing with cancer and chemo? I don’t care for politics and drama when healthy, why deal with it when sick. Can you avoid drama and politics in the workplace? In life?

I truly believe that a job well done is a job well done, doesn’t matter who does it. I also believe that leadership should remove barriers for a job in order to be well done, doesn’t matter who does it. I have seen in jobs where leaders remove barriers and espouse certain people’s projects over others. I understand it, its politics, and I do what I need to to get the A, but by rote, but I don’t internalize it, make it elegant or make it my own. It consumes my energy to be part of these projects.

Same with the excessive drama, I don’t believe that shouting, yelling, or demeaning is the way to bring out someone’s best. I don’t believe that projects done under fire while firefighting are the way to do things. I understand that is the modus operandi of some people, I do what I need to and get the A, again by rote, but I don’t make it elegant, or my own and I certainly don’t internalize it, I just get it done. These projects consume significant amounts of my energy, too.

The projects I stayed aware of, make no mistake there is no staying on top of projects while experiencing the dog days of chemo, infections and surgeries, it was an awareness level at best. The projects I stayed aware of were the projects where I tried to make elements more elegant, not just a simple answer, but one that truly included the most important, necessary and controllable factors. I made it my own, every document I sent out was a we succeed type document, never a they-did type list. These projects were a part of me, I completely internalized them. They gave me energy, never consumed it. I got way more energy from them than I put in and I put in a lot!

I’d like to make all aspects of my job like those projects. We talk a lot about standard work and leader standard work on the job. When I came back I took a long hard look at mine and made some serious notes, interestingly enough I can’t change it. But…When I am part of a project and something is lagging, I ask questions now. What about this is difficult for you to do? Drama, politics, fires-something else? What is going on so that I can remove those for you? I take stock of the facial expressions, what caused frowns, sudden stone poker faces, rote responses or staring at the floor? What just happened to cause those things to be visible? I take stock in the positives, what caused ownership, elegance, energy, energetic facial expressions? What can I do to make more of this happen for the folks?

If I could remove all of the drama and politics from my life I would, I would do it in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t miss it for a second. If I could do it for everyone I would, I really mean it. That is the impetus for Survivor Sherpa. I want to carry the burden and remove the barriers of the crap associated with daily life for those people dealing with cancer so that they can focus on what really matters to them, what gives them energy, what they have internalized so that they can thrive after treatment and become a more elegant version of themselves when all is said and done.

Jackson Pollock and the first days back to work

I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared at all. There was no way to prepare, I can’t give you any advice on how to prepare for the first day back to work except know that you won’t be prepared at all. Even then you won’t be prepared.

I love hugs, the first few days back I got more hugs at work than I have ever gotten at work in total. That was wonderful not only because I love hugs, it was nice because I didn’t have to see the expressions on their faces for a few moments. I wasn’t prepared for the total outpouring of emotion from the folks I work with. I work in a chemical manufacturing plant with mostly men and mostly engineers and production operators. They don’t really do emotion in a big way in the work place like me and my family do at home, they tend to be more reserved.

There were so many people who were worried while I was gone and were so glad that I was back. It was written all over their faces, all over their typically reserved poker faces. It was in their body language, in their word choice, it was palpable and huge. Everywhere I went people all expressed everything about this all the time. It was a lot. It was wonderful, humbling and exhausting and a lot.

I really wasn’t prepared to go back with my hats or my shirts. It felt like people were either looking/ trying to avoid looking at my bust line or looking/ trying to avoid looking at my chemo caps. Eye contact was intense and fierce with emotion and difficult.

I wasn’t really prepared to go back with my energy level/fatigue, it was better for me but still low for regular people. I wasn’t prepared to go back with the chemo memory issues that led to speaking issues. It was hard to find words with all of these intense emotions and insecurities all running through me at the same time.

I was a Jackson Pollock painting. I understood EVERY Jackson Pollock piece ever.

I wasn’t prepared. I would go to work and come home exhausted and sleep. This was my life for the first 9 weeks. Thank God for safety videos. I would excuse myself from the occasional intense conversation to watch computer based training safety videos and ethics videos. Never thought, let alone typed, those words before in my life.

It was a lot, it was intense, it was humbling, it was amazing, it was exhausting, it was tremendously reassuring, it was scary, it was a lot. Nothing could have prepared me, even as I read through this there should be a disclaimer that this is like a picture of Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, it is so much more in real life than it ever could be in print.

There was a second round of intense emotion when I came in for the first time without a hat on, when I was comfortable enough to come in with my hair all short, curly and white gray. This was much much easier to deal with, plus I got more hugs, which I LOVE, workplace hugs should totally be a daily thing for me. This time was so much shorter and much less intense and exhausting, you will totally be prepared for it and handle it like a pro.

When you are ready to go back to work, know that you are not really ready, you are at the best place you can be and if you find it to be everything described above know that this too shall pass. Life will return to normal, a new normal, or at least something manageable, I promise. On your cancerversary buy yourself a Jackson Pollock print, if for no other reason other than to celebrate that you are no longer there and are grateful to be here!