Tuesday, February 03, 2015

88 - 9 Years Later - Wife/Mom/Survivor/Worker/STUDENT!

It’s been two or three years since the last time I updated this blog. About time! Right?

I’ve been busy. Blissfully, happily, meaningfully busy. I went back to school in 2013. I continued to work full time and added one class per quarter to my life. I’m enrolled at Northwestern University in an online masters program for a predictive analytics degree.

You see, I went to the O’Reilly Strata conference two years ago and discovered my heart’s desire for where I wanted to go with my career: data science. Then I looked at different programs at different universities and figured out that Northwestern’s MSPA program was a perfect fit. I applied, got accepted, and learned a whole lot of lessons from the school of hard knocks on how to manage my time better.

These days I’m staring at my 9-year cancerversary coming up in exactly one month. Nine years from that heart-wrenching surprise while I was pregnant and full of dreams.

Now I’ve got new dreams, and my healthy little baby boy has become a healthy third grader, and my husband is still awesome and my family is still the center of my world. But I’m a healthy 40-something with 25 or more work years ahead of me. I might as well invest some time and money now in doing the kind of work that excites and fulfills me. So that’s what I’m up to these days.

For me, nine year after my diagnosis, I no longer hold a large part of my identity as being a cancer survivor. I’ve retained the lessons and still stand up for myself medically and personally. I just try not to be obnoxious about it as maybe, perhaps, I started to be (at the time I wrote the last blog entry).

I’m still a certain kind of coward, too.

At my son’s school earlier this year, I was waiting for him to emerge and I saw a mother enter the building. She had the telltale baseball cap on her bald head. She had thinned eyebrows. She was obviously in treatment and I wanted to approach her and tell her “I’ve done that, too. I made it to the other side and life is good! There is hope for you, too.”

But I couldn’t bring myself to approach her. To speak to her. First of all, she didn’t appear to need condolences or a pep talk from me. Secondly, I had no idea who she was or what her situation was like or where she was in her journey.

Talking to strangers is difficult for me. Delivering a timed, rehearsed presentation to a room of a thousand people? No problem! But initiating conversation with a stranger when I’m not sure what to say? Big trouble. Good intentions. No dice.

I just feel grateful that I didn’t have the reaction of many years ago when I saw a bald woman in public and started crying from the terror of even thinking I’d have to endure that misery again.

I joined a karate studio. I attend classes once a week though I know I need to go at least twice if I’m to keep up with my cohort. I can’t keep up and I missed the last belt test, but that’s okay. I’m getting a bit of exercise that is fun and that’s what matters to me.

So I went to karate for about nine months as a white belt before I took the test to move up to my first colored belt.

I dreaded going through the belt test process because I knew from watching my child do it that it would be exhausting. I had a team project to work on for a class. The morning given to the belt test was a real sacrifice for me in terms of time and energy.

They told me, “A belt test shows you what you’re really made of!”

I thought about what it was like to go through 8 rounds of chemotherapy every other week, and all the nasty side effects that accompanied treatment. I remembered being pushed to the brink of exhaustion, coming back just a little bit with a few hours of sleep, and then going to that limit again and again.

“I survived chemotherapy,” I told them. “I already know what I’m made of.” My instructor had the grace to look chagrined. I survived the belt test, earned the belt, felt really proud about doing it, and then focused again on my schoolwork.

Time is precious. Priorities are essential.

I got promoted recently. I’m going to become my company’s first ever data scientist. I’m thrilled, and scared, and excited, and happy. I’m grateful to I have a future filled with goals and optimism.

Is my life perfect? Nah.

I’m determined, though. Determined to make Life After Cancer a life devoid of regrets for what I should have done.

Instead, it’s a life of what I’m pleased to have been a part of and what I’m planning to do. It’s a life of being actively present in my child’s growing up, and a full partner to a supportive, loving spouse. It’s a life where I make an effort to make time for friends, even though I’m super busy.

Last year I took a chance and did something new. My company held a talent show and I did stand up comedy. I had no experience with stand up whatsoever. Not even a single open mic. But every time I enjoyed listening to a comic I imagined what I might say if given the chance. So I slaved over writing the 7-minute routine and rehearsed and refined it until it shone. I delivered a performance that my co-worker audience loved. I didn’t win a prize, which I thought unfair considering the popular support, but I proved to myself that I could conquer this scary thing and have fun with it.

Less than a month later one of my best friends committed suicide. She had had serious, chronic health problems. She had been very unhappy for a very long time, and had apparently given up hope of getting her pain under control. I’m still struggling to understand her choice, but I can remember her without condemning her. That’s more than some who knew her.

I drove home last week from the annual company sales conference awards banquet, held at the same venue as the company talent contest and my seven minutes of fame the year before. I had gotten permission to sneak my friend into the talent show back then, and the drive home the other night reminded me of driving her home after my comedic triumph that she helped to make possible. She had helped me refine the act; let me rehearse in the halls before the show, adding last minute changes to polish it better and tease out the best effects.

Her husband ended up selecting for her memorial service the one day I had scheduled for my child’s birthday party. I ended up having to leave the service early so that the party could start on time. It made me sad to have to sneak away. It felt weird to attend a sad event and a happy event in the same day. And then I had to turn down time to get together with a mutual friend to remember and to grieve because I had to finish a paper for a class that was wrapping up that same weekend.


I think I came across as insensitive to one mutual acquaintance my friend and I shared. I’ve survived some awful experiences, though. I know that sometimes there are no easy answers and you just have to navigate the best you can with the least awful choices you can put together. I don’t have the room in my heart to worry about the possibility of someone else’s condemnation when I know I’m doing the best I can.

I’m still not grateful for the personal growth I experienced at the hands of cancer.

The nice part is that these days the personal growth I’m experiencing is coming from the choices I make for myself rather than horrors thrust upon me.

And I still believe that finding balance in life is like sailing a boat, tacking left and right to achieve the straight line rather than balancing upon a tightrope. I still believe in the power of one – that one person can make a tremendous difference.

So there you go. Nine years. Back to school at middle age. Loving my life. Loving my family. Cherishing the friends who remain and the memory of the ones I’ve lost.

I may not write again for another two to three years, but know that it’s not because I’ve reached the end. It’s just because I’m happily busy engaging in the joy of living.