Sunday, June 2, 2013

Reflections of the heart

Today is National Cancer Survivors Day  

Three weeks after my last surgery to remove the plague on my eye- my radiation treatment for ocular melanoma- I sat on my front porch stairs attempting to navigate phone calls to doctor's offices to schedule further scans while trying to read through and understand the mountainous insurance claims coming in the mail daily.  I burst into tears.  I was overwhelmed and exhausted.  And alone.

So many survivors know and clearly remember that moment when bravery has been used up and all levels of emotion rise to the surface like high tide.  No matter where you turn, you can't hold it in anymore and the flood gates are opened.  I always put on a brave face for my children and my friends but secretly, I had never been so scared and so overwhelmed in my life before.

I once had a friend play a practical joke on me at night.  I had run over to my apartment quickly and as I was running back to a friend's place, he stood in the pitch dark car port and waited for me to appear.  He then started this low growl which increased in loudness and intensity as he slowly approached me.  I had no idea what the sound was nor could I tell where it came from.  My first instinct was to curl up in a ball as my heart started racing a mile a minute and I stopped breathing.  Previous to cancer, this was the nearest I had ever gotten to being scared out of my mind.  Now, as I sat on my porch, my instinct was to curl up in a  ball and stop breathing.  My world was spinning and I had no idea what was coming next.

So, what got me through that moment?  A dear, non-judgmental friend with a heart of gold and the patience of a saint.  While out running errands, he popped in to see how I was doing.  Little did he know that he would be my angel for the day.  He let me cry while holding my sobbing shoulders.  He never looked at my swollen eyes, now matching in redness and try to tell me to be strong or peptalk me into feeling better.  He let me cry.  He listened and he allowed me to move through the release of emotions I had bottled up in order to stay strong.  A brave face is really just fear with a smile.  I needed this cry as much as I needed radiation.  It was what I needed to refocus and keep moving forward but for that moment, I needed him and I needed to cry.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to drive to Corolla, NC to be a part of an unofficial Latter-day Saints singles weekend in the Outer Banks.  I love the Outer truly is my oasis.  There I met 25 brand new friends and we spent the weekend learning about and appreciating one another.  We all had gifts, talents and stories to share and it amazed me how we bonded so fast although we all came different walks of life.

This weekend, I had another similar experience but with a different group of people.  We all had Ocular Melanoma in common.  Each and every one of us had a story to tell.  Each and everyone of us were bonded instantly by circumstance.  As I sat listening to them share their experiences, I could hear the emotion in their voices and soon my own emotions came back.   Bravery is merely fear with a smile.  The emotions are raw sometimes and as hard as you try sometimes to put on that brave face, you are always on the edge of spilling over into tears. I listened to a young mother, whose husband was diagnosed 3 years ago and who lost his battle 8 months ago, leaving behind a coping young wife and 3 children and my heart broke for her.  She just wanted 6 more months and has questioned every step of her experience as to whether or not she did everything she could.   As another friend shared about her first conference with other ocular melanoma patients, it becomes overwhelming for her. I was overwhelmed 7 years ago and still am sometimes.  It took me 7 years to feel strong enough to share my story.  It took me 7 years to feel brave enough to face other patients and be a pillar of strength to them.  It took me 7 years to be able to feel strong enough to read other people's stories.  And in one 2 hour lunch, I was brought back to the raw and unexplained emotions I felt back then as if time had stood still.  As I sat at this table surrounded by other warriors, I knew I was  the one with the longest history of cancer.  Seven years ago, not a single one of these brave women knew of ocular melanoma or even dreamed they would be diagnosed or have a family member diagnosed with such a  rare and deadly cancer.  Seven years ago, I was living that experience.  Alone and overwhelmed.  Today, we are each other's support network.  I am no longer alone.  I am surrounded with love and support and together, we are reaching out to others so they are not alone and overwhelmed.

Caregivers of those with cancer are SO vitally important to their healing process.  Equally important are the angel friends who come hold our hand, send us texts and emails of love, advocate for our care and love us unconditionally through our pain and fear.

So although today is National Cancer Survivors Day- in my mind and heart, it is also National Cancer Support Day...we are survivors because we have been loved through the good times and the bad.  And those who lose their battle to cancer and are called home all too soon, their families are the survivors.  The one who put on the brave faces everyday and know all too well these same raw emotions just as much as do the patients themselves.  So hug a Cancer Survivor today...and tomorrow and the next day.  We need each other.