Category Archives: Kicking Cancer’s Ass

Let Challenge Transform You

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PHOTO LEFT: This was me, 3 years ago this May, age 29, three months into chemotherapy…and super blonde! I weighed 119 pounds, my hair was thinning, exhaustion and fatigue were relentless daily adversaries, intent on defeating me.                                                                                          PHOTO RIGHT: Fast forward to today, this photo was taken Feb 2017. I now weigh a HEALTHY 145 pounds (fun-sized at 5’4”), am letting my natural auburn/brunette hair color come shining through and have never felt healthier or stronger!

When I began chemotherapy in 2014, I was told that my treatments would more than likely cause muscle loss in my body. That alone made me want to cry. For ten years I struggled to gain weight, no longer the thick curvy girl I was in my early twenties. I weighed 119 pounds, on some days 117. Bi-weekly doses of toxic chemicals, poisonous to the point of killing my healthy cells too, flooded directly into my blood stream in hopes of destroying the cancer cells.

Being told I may lose even more weight was the turning point for me. I became angry. “NO…FUCKING…WAY!” I told myself. I was determined to let this dis-ease in my body break me open, not break me down.

I joined the gym. I started slow. I could barely do three sets of squats with a ten plate on each side, with a Smith Machine. Now I squat with a free bar, 5 to 7 reps per set with 140 pounds…155 or a little more when I have someone there to spot me.  Miraculously, I gained about 18 pounds or so by the time I finished all of my treatments. Then another 5 or 6 pounds a few months after that. Now at a solid 145 pounds, I have my curves back and then some. My self-confidence and self-love are through the roof!

The thing is, it’s not the results that gave me back my confidence. It’s the promises I’ve kept to myself as a result of deciding to take value in my own health and well being. It’s the self-respect I gained through eating healthier, being active, staying committed to my workouts even when I’m tired, even when it’s easier NOT to go to the gym.

Being diagnosed with cancer saved my life in so many ways. It brought me closer to my family, to my children, guided me to going on a week long women’s retreat where I made lasting friendships and healed the relationship I had with myself. It brought me more compassion and understanding for the human condition. It gave me the gift of loving deeper, laughing louder and knowing just how sacred the precious commodity of time truly is.

It led me to a day where I said “ENOUGH” and joined the gym. That decision alone has led to so many new friendships and experiences. It’s led to fitness becoming part of my children’s lives early on, something I hope stays with them as they grow into adults of their own. It’s led to me becoming an Ambassador for the supplement company I’ve been using for about two years now.

Cancer could have destroyed me. Instead, it acted as a catalyst – transforming my mental, spiritual and physical states beyond the parameters of what I knew to be true. It accelerated my soul’s growth and brought me to a more authentic version of myself.

If there is something in your life – a fear holding you back, don’t let it.  I never would have thought that joining the gym could change my life so dramatically. My life, and who I’ve become, are practically unrecognizable from where I was three years ago. But it’s only because I took that first step. You are always one decision away from a completely different life, YOU have the power to make it a masterpiece!!!

(Shot out to Unico Nutrition!!! Use promo code Amber7 for a 15% discount at http://www.uniconutrition.com/shop/team/Amber.Strong )

You can also follow my new IG Fitness account at Amber.Strong.Journey

THANK YOU so much for reading! 🙂

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#5WordsToCancer #StrongerThanCancerISurvived

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In one of my usual bouts of insomnia tonight (this morning?) I decided to scroll through my Instagram feed before studying for an exam I have in one of my classes.

If you’re reading this then you know I’m clearly hard at work…

blogging…

but I digress.

In the midst of my thumb swiping, I fell down the rabbit hole into the Instagram page for the I Had Cancer website. It’s a great social networking site for those of us affected in some way by cancer; be it survivor, relative of a cancer patient or someone mid-treatment. It’s also a kickass social platform for people to share their angst, victories and everyday battles with cancer. Our cancer journeys don’t end when treatment does. For many of us, it’s a lengthy journey to take back our life and what little control we have over it.

“I Had Cancer” has launched their #5wordstocancer campaign again. It got me thinking… What if cancer was this tangible entity I could write a letter to? What would I say? What would my five words to cancer be?

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Dear Cancer,

You may not remember me but I will never forget you.

We met, officially, in December of 2013. You’d been watching me for some time, though only you would know how long that was before we became acquainted. Was it months? Perhaps years?

I had an inkling something wasn’t right. I could feel your presence lingering around me, dropping hints, robbing my curves of their soft flesh for years, leaving behind a frame comparable to that of a pre-pubescent boy. 

When you made your debut into my life that summer (2013), you didn’t introduce yourself properly. You told me your name was stress. But what’s in a name right? So I reserved doubt about your true nature only for conversations with overly concerned family members. 

Apparently their concern was warranted.

By the time you revealed your true nature to me, you had already begun infesting my life from behind the scenes. My colon, my rectum, my lymph nodes. You were a literal pain in the ass. I thought major colon resection surgery was enough to evict your sorry ass from occupying my temple. But being the persistent little fucker you are, I was wrong. 

Too many lymph nodes were tainted by your indecency and overexposure to the healthy cells in my body. So you introduced me to Chemotherapy and Steroids. I hated all of you but I never questioned why you (Cancer) chose me. I never wondered why in all the healthy people of the world you wanted me. You’re a selfish prick, why not me?

 Your friend Chemo took my energy. The steroids brought insomnia, and also an unbelievably strong desire to rotate furniture and clean at 2 a.m. (Who would have guessed right?) My sleep patterns are still somewhat fucked.  Being the bully you are, you taunted me by letting my hair thin just enough to make me self-conscious, but not enough for anyone else (but my hairdresser) to notice. Guess what fucker? It grew back in twice as thick and healthier than ever. 

And my curves? They’re back too. In one year, I’ve gained more weight than I could have hoped for. I fit into my jeans in all the right places. My thighs are so sexy they can’t stop touching each other 🙂 I finally feel like the beautiful woman I am. The warrior. The survivor.

I should really be thanking you Cancer.

You brought me closer to my family. You’ve given me new found friendships that continue to change my life for the better. I’m inspiring those around me and taking better care of my mind and body than I ever thought I would. I’ve tapped into an inner strength that I didn’t even know existed. You tried to take it all from me, but in the end Cancer, all you did was give me everything.

I know there’s always that slim possibility we’ll meet again someday. Just know if we do, I’ll be ready for you. You’ve been warned.

Never or truly yours,

Amber

#StrongerThanCancerISurvived

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Gratitude Challenge: Days 6 and 7

DAY 6: Time for Me!

My true “aha” moment for Saturday, rather my “ahhhh” moment, was at the end of the day. Saturday was another busy day. Is there ever really a day that isn’t busy when you’re raising two children?

It was the end of the night, probably around 9:30 p.m. or ten. Both Thing 1 and Thing 2 fell asleep entirely on their own after a day of hard play. My son had been a human ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth between our house and the neighbor’s for most of the day. My daughter had been helping me sort through the endless pile of laundry, following me around as I did some light housework. I decided to take it easy after feeling pretty wiped out Friday night.

There’s this quiet moment, that as a mother, you learn to cherish–just as much as the noisy, rambunctious play of happy children. That was my gratitude moment. The house was completely quiet, not a peep, nor a snore or a creaky floor board. I was actually able to sit silently through an entire movie! An entire movie! The last time I was able to do that was months ago when I went out to the movies with one of my friends. To be able to pick a movie, one that doesn’t involve me having to say “cover your eyes,” “don’t watch this part,” “cover your ears” or “We can’t get this one, it’s not appropriate for you guys to watch.” HOLY HELL BATMAN! It was fantastic!

I love cuddling up to my munchkins and watching movies together as a family. But there’s something about that sacred time of silence and having time for yourself as a mom that is truly invaluable. You have to nourish yourself in healthy ways, otherwise you have nothing left to give your children. Between school, helping my son with his homework/school related assignments, my own homework, chemo, doctor’s appointments, family and everything else in between–it can be incredibly difficult for me to carve out time for myself. I get to go out and experience quite a bit but 99 percent of those times, my children are always in tow. It can be a real energy-drainer if I don’t take time to recharge my spirit.

Sunday morning the kids and I were able to sleep in for the first time all week. Heaven! It was sheer Nirvana. The only drawback to sleeping in is that I don’t always have the opportunity to meditate in the morning. Once my children are awake, they’re ready to take on the day…full throttle. But I knew I needed to start my day off right. Since both of my kiddos woke up in such a great mood, I figured I would seize the opportunity. I let my son know that I needed about 15 minutes of alone time to meditate. Being so used to my “not your typical mom” antics, he said “oh okay, let me know when you’re done.” My daughter is the tricky one. I never know if she’s going to be understanding or climb all over me like a human jungle gym.

“Mommy is going to meditate, so you need to be very very quiet. Okay?” She looked at me with those big brown eyes, long curly lashes and said “Okay Mommy” in her raspy little Michelle Tanner voice. Which brings me to my gratitude moment of Day 7.

DAY 7: Many Blessings

I lay in bed, settling into my zen place Sunday morning. I was about half way through my meditation, totally in my happy place. I could hear the pitter patter of tiny feet stomping heavily upon the floor as my daughter ran back and forth between my room and the living room. About halfway through my meditation, I felt the tiny tickle of a button-nose on my cheek. My eyes remained closed but I could feel my daughter begin to smile as I started laughing. The more I laughed, the more Eskimo kisses I was given. Then a big “Muah!” as she kissed my cheek, followed by more of her hearty giggles. I could hear her over the music playing in my earbuds, “This is so much fun Mommy!” Laughter truly is the best medicine!

She lay down next to me, took a few deep breaths, then dramatically threw herself on me. She wrapped her chunky little arms tightly around mine, squeezed me with a bear hug and smiled. “I love you so much Mommy.” My heart melted like plasticware stuck to the bottom of the dishwasher rack.

That was how my day began. There were so many beautiful instances of gratitude yesterday. The weather was perfect–clear blue sky, beams of warm sunlight shining down. A cool breeze blew through the patio wind chimes, making my heart smile. After using, and slightly altering, my older brother’s cinnamon pancake recipe–I disconnected my son from his X-Box console. He reluctantly got ready to go to the park with his sister and me. Once we got there though, he didn’t want to leave.

Another gratitude moment from Sunday, was having the strength and energy to run around the playground with my children. Some days, especially during the week of chemo, it can be really hard for me to keep up with the kids. All I want to do is sleep or lay on the couch for hours. But I don’t always have that option unless my folks are around to help out. Fatigued or not–I still have to cook dinner, do laundry, help with third grade homework assignments, buy groceries, have tea parties, play board games. If I don’t do most of these things, my kids are missing out. Just because I’m a cancer patient, doesn’t mean that my children should have to sacrifice their childhood. It’s bad enough that they’re going to have memories of me being in the hospital connected to IV lines, seeing me tired, dizzy, nauseas and grumpy. They should get to play, have fun, enjoy their childhood no matter what. You blink and then you’re grown, it’s time you can’t get back.

Hopefully they know how much I enjoy spending time with them. How loved they are. I always explain it to both of them. When I’m too tired to play a game or read a story before bedtime, “It’s not that I don’t want to do those things with you because I really do. It’s just that mom is too tired right now but we’ll (play that game, read that book, go to a particular place) as soon as I’m feeling rested again.”

My son has been incredibly understanding for an eight-year-old. My daughter has been as well, even though she’s three. The nights I’m too exhausted to read, my daughter will say “It’s okay Mommy, I’m going to read to you. Is that a good idea?” Both of my children are such old souls, though, beyond their years intellectually. My mom used to hear the same thing about me as a child, so it’s no wonder I guess.

My daughter interrupting my morning mediation was by far the best gratitude moment of my day, though there were several others. One of my aunts, who I haven’t seen in years, came to visit. My mother cooked up an amazing meal. Double gratitude there because we had ribs, mashed potatoes and Lebanese style green beans…and I didn’t have to cook any of it. My mother took care of everything, It was so nice being served for once. It’s tiring when you have to do the cooking, cleaning and dishes every time you cook. Which, for me, is three to four times a week.

It was a great weekend, spent laughing and reminiscing with family. This week, I’m supposed to finish up my twelfth and final chemo treatment on Wednesday. I still have sessions seven through eleven to blog about, luckily it’s all written down in my writer’s notebook. It’s been one mind-blowing, spirit-enlightening journey for certain! I’m eager to see what the week will bring 🙂

“Fight Like a Girl” Explained

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My tattoo bears a navy blue ribbon in the center of the butterfly for Colon Cancer. I chose the blue Morpho Butterfly for it’s color, as well as a symbol of transformation. The “Fight Like a Girl” quote embodies my belief to stand strong against adversity.

Less than a week before my first chemo session, I decided it was time to add some new ink to the living canvas of my body. At this point I have somewhere around thirty hours of tattoos, but this new tattoo is incredibly significant. Not that my others aren't, each and every one of them marks a specific event in my life or belief. This one is just a tad more special to me.

It commemorates the most challenging battle I've had to face yet. This tattoo was inspired by something that has guided me to an inner strength I didn't know existed: being diagnosed with cancer.

When I was first diagnosed, I did so much research online. I wanted to know statistics, data, treatments, alternative therapy, holistic approaches, survival rate, support group info, the best oncologist, the best surgeon. I found a great website "The Fight Like a Girl Club" where you can link up with other cancer fighters, survivors and their families. It's a completely free website that allows you to blog and also read the blogs of others. More or less it's a community for anyone who knows anyone battling cancer of any kind.

Finding the website was great, but my first question was "What does it even mean to fight like a girl?" This is what I could find. And please, if you feel it means otherwise then, by all means let me know. This is just from my own perspective what I found it to mean.

The term Fight Like a Girl is heard being chimed out in the country song, of the same name, by the group Bomshel. In the song, the duo proudly exclaims that to Fight Like a Girl means to "hold my head high...never let it define...love yourself, give em hell..."

I'm honestly not sure which came first, the country duo singing it or the cancer community adopting it. But either way it's a motto--a mantra--that many cancer fighters, survivors, their family and friends have come to be familiar with.

My own personal take on what exactly this statement means? As someone battling Stage 3 Colon Cancer, it's at the core of who I am. I'm not letting this cancer define me. I'm not going down and I'm damn sure not going down without a fight.

It means that no matter how exhausted I am or weak, I will always always give my children the best I can give to them. I will not use my cancer as an excuse for not being able to turn in homework. If I'm legitimately tired from treatment that's one thing. But I absolutely refuse to become someone who constantly says "fill in the blank here...because I have cancer."

I truly believe that there is so much potential to be unlocked within the human mind. Staying positive and optimistic is one of the most important weapons that cancer patients have against kicking the disease's tooshie. Yes I said tooshie, I am a mom after all, it's a habit :)

The first response that people typically give you when you say you've been diagnosed with cancer is "I'm so sorry to hear that" or "That's terrible." Or any of the negative, "thank you for making me feel like a walking corpse statements." To which I usually reply "Thank you, I appreciate your concern but this is just another thing for me to overcome."

Everyone deals with these kinds of things in their own way. I think it's a very natural human response--when someone we care about tells us something devastating--to say that you're so sorry for them. It's just our way of showing empathy for what they're going through. Honestly, telling someone we love "I'm so sorry" really isn't such a bad way to respond.

But when people start to tell me how to live my life and that I'm pushing myself or in denial of my circumstance, that's where I very diplomatically have to draw the line. If you're not in this body, thinking with this brain, please don't presume to know what's best for me. I'm the only one that can make that judgement call.

There were many people that felt I shouldn't be making an overseas journey to Sicily with my travel writing class this past March during our spring break. Those people included my nurses, some family members, a few acquaintances, not so much my friends--who know that I'm going to do what I want to do regardless and that I'm strong enough to do it.

My mother was my greatest advocate, telling everyone that she thought it was the best thing for me. Before I even found out whether or not I was accepted into the class (there was a very selective application process), then once I was accepted--whether or not I was awarded the scholarship I applied for--my mother had already offered to watch my children so I could go.

As soon as everything was set into place financially my mother put her slip in at work to request the time off. She knew just how much I needed to go. Not only for my physical health but for the well being of my soul.

Going to Sicily was the healthiest thing I could have done for myself. The memories, the experience, the bonding time I shared with my classmates; I will never ever forget any of it. Last night I found Aranciatta Rosso at the grocery store and nearly jumped out of my shoes with excitement! It's a carbonated version of succco d'aranciatta, juice of the blood orange. The fruit is native to Sicily, extra juicy and extremely tasty. Opening the bottle and taking that first sip, I was immediately transported across the Atlantic Ocean, being reunited with the rest of my soul...which remains in Sicily until I physically return again.

So to me Fight Like a Girl means to never give up, never back down. To stay optimistic in the face of adversity. Be true to yourself, even when those around you may doubt what you're doing. Sometimes the ones we love can, unintentionally, project their own fears onto others in hopes of protecting them. Follow your intuition, it's a very powerful ally. And if you don't have keen intuition then get into the practice of quieting down your mind so you can listen. Meditation, yoga, Reiki, fill in the blank here, are all also great tools (not for everyone but extremely beneficial for those who are interested).

Fighting like a girl means you don't let your circumstance define you. You defy it, you empower yourself, you use the circumstance as an opportunity for growth and not as a casting call to play the role of victim. This doesn't mean you go completely numb. There are going to be days when you need to cry, you need to break things, scream, eat that bowl (eh hem, not pint) of ice-cream, call that friend or relative and tell them how miserable you are that things have changed in your life so drastically.

But then you get yourself back up. You affirm everything that is good in your life by giving thanks. Yes, your health might not be 100% or even 50% of what you want it to be. But if you sit down and really think about it, you will find that you have more to the thankful for than you have to complain about. Life is too short, it can still be beautiful in the face of adversity. After all, even when the most severe of storms hit, the sun is still shining if you get above the clouds.

Now I'm not usually a country music fan, but there's no way I could post this blog topic without giving credit to the women who sang this song:

Chemo: Session One (February 11, 2014)

 

My first session of chemo. I was scared and anxious but ready to take on whatever was waiting at the end of that bag of IV chemicals.
My first session of chemo. I was scared and anxious but ready to take on whatever was waiting at the end of that bag of IV chemicals.

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My mom (left) and I (right) at my first session of chemotherapy Tuesday morning. The nurse walked in on us taking selfies! Judging by the ages of my fellow chemo comrades, I’d say that she isn’t accustomed to pictures being taken in the “Infusion Suite”.

Oncology Consultation, Pre-Chemotherapy

The initial consult with my oncologist, post surgery, left my head spinning by the time I left the office. So many questions were left unanswered. The oncologist went through everything so quickly–text book style. My Uncle had accompanied me. My aunt, his wife,  wanted to be there as well–but had come down with something the day prior. It kept me grounded having my uncle there with me. The way a dancer finds some immovable object to focus on as she spins around and around, my uncle was my emotional focal point.

In the office I was given a five or six page printout, to read when I got home, about the side effects of the chemotherapy agents I would be given. Seriously? That many pages in eight point font? My knowledgeable oncologist had overlooked the fact that I’m a full-time student, single mother of two, chauffeur for after school/weekend activities, home chef, laundry connoisseur and all around busy person. My frustration levels rose once I got home and began to realize all of the unanswered questions I had. Info packets are great for childhood vaccines and what type of pet insurance you need to purchase, even cancer diagnosis, but not for cancer treatment. I’m a very social person by nature, I thrive upon human interaction. I need my oncologist to go over everything and then some with me, so I can ask questions then and there.

It took a day or two to get my bearings but I was back to normal in no time. Once I started thinking logically, I had a different mind set. Read the packet, this is your health, your body, your life. Highlight, underline anything you have questions about. On a separate sheet of note paper, write down your questions, your concerns. Take back your power, not from the oncologist, but from the fear of having to go through chemo by asking more questions than a two-year-old beginning to speak.

Monday, February 10, 2014, rolls around–this is the beginning of bi-weekly meetings. Ready with my list of questions, I eagerly listened to what my oncologist had to say as I  patiently waited for my chance to interject. He let me know how my treatments would need to be scheduled for the next six months. Our oncology appointments would be every other Monday, followed by blood work the same day. Every other Tuesday, the day following my appointment/blood work, chemotherapy would be administered through my power port–“Penny” my good luck charm, my little life-saver as I like to call her.