Tag Archives: Survivorship

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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What me and Old Blue Eyes have in common…

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This past December, I celebrated my 1 year Cancerversary, one week after my Aunt lost her five year battle with aggressive lung cancer. What happens after you survive cancer and you lose a loved one to the disease? That’s something that I don’t think even the best doctors and nurses in the world can prepare you for. I couldn’t remember being so angry at the Universe when I was going through chemotherapy or even after being diagnosed. But after my Aunt Anne passed away, I wanted to high five the all mighty creator…in the face, possibly with a closed fist. All I could think was, “Why? Why did she have to leave and I’m still here?” I could have screamed it through hot tears at the Universe if I thought someone would answer me.

The night I celebrated my Cancerversary I wore a purple lei, her favorite color, in her honor. What I hadn’t realized until just days before was that my very special day also happened to be the 100th birthday of Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

I fell in love with Sinatra as a child, first seeing him as a cameo on an episode of an old classic cartoon I was watching with my grandmother. She sat next to me in her rocker, eyebrows wiggling up and down as she said “That’s Frank Sinatra” with a mischievous smile. Luckily my grandfather was asleep in his recliner.

Sharing my special day with Sinatra, made my heart smile. I like to think of it as the Universe’s way of letting me know my grandparents were with me in spirit, proud of all I had overcome.

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As though that in itself weren’t special enough, my 1 year Cancerservary also turned out to be the Day 3 Hawaiian Luau celebration of the Matthew Hussey retreat I was attending in Florida. The energy I experienced that night was like anything I’ve felt. Perhaps, only parallel holding my son and daughter for the first time. Yeah, that good.

The energy between all of us High Value Women attendees and the GTG team was indescribable – 130 plus strangers, united by a desire for change. The kind of change that happens within, on a core level.

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(Left to right: Me, Epic Emma (above), the Lovely Lindsay and the Extraordinary Emmylou)

The luau celebration ended only after half of us (myself and three closest soul sisters; Emmylou, Lindsay and Emma included) jumped into the pool fully clothed with the GTG team…actually it ended once we all jumped back out of the pool and started dancing again!

I’ve used that night as my emotional button for joy at least a million times since returning home. Okay, maybe only half a million…because I love the feeling it gives me to think of those women and the bond we all share.

I can’t think of a better way to have spent my first Cancerversary – on my favorite musician’s 100th birthday, with some of the most inspiring souls I have had the pleasure of becoming friends with.

 

 

#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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Rise and Shine Pumpkin!

I’m exhausted. What most (non-cancer having) people don’t know is that the effects of intensive chemotherapy treatments linger on for months and even years after treatment has ended.

I can remember picking up the phone to call my mother to ask her a quick question a few months ago. In the time it took for me to dial her number, let the phone ring and hear her answer…I forgot what I was going to ask her. Once we started talking I finally remembered what the question was. It was like that feeling you get when you walk into a room to get something – but completely forget what it was in the first place until you retrace your steps.

Usually big events or scheduled dates on the calendar I can remember. I also have literally about three calendars I plan everything on but I know my brain cells aren’t quite the same since chemo. Brain game apps are great training exercises and intense reading for work and school helps. But I still often wonder how much longer the effects will linger in my body.

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Fatigue is another thing that comes and goes. Sometimes I have energy for hours on end; cooking and cleaning, doing homework and running errands. Wake up at 4 to work out for two hours and then go home, get myself and my kiddos ready for our day.

Then there’s days like today when I’m wiped out. I have the motivation to do what I need to but lack the energy to follow through. Or maybe I give myself that jumpstart and motivational self talk to get my ass out of bed on time to get moving, but halfway through I lose the energy to get everything done. I also think I try to accomplish way too much in a day since it’s just me who’s here to do it.

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I also wonder if it’s the chemo, being a single mom of two high-energy munchkins or a combo of the two.

Either way, right now I need to get my ass in gear and get these babes of mine up and ready for another busy day.

Happy hump day!!!

And for my next trick…

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This is it! The last photograph that will ever be taken with my port in the photo 🙂

And for my next trick ladies and gentleman…I shall make this port disappear!

In about ten minutes I’m heading to the hospital for a quick day procedure/minor surgery. Today my chemotherapy port-a-cath is being removed!!!

Getting it removed is much easier than having it put in place, according to my surgeon. When I called to ask the receptionist if I would need someone to drive me to and from the hospital, she replied “It’s just like going to the dentist and getting novocaine.” They numb the area, make an incision, remove the port and glue me back together. Not quite like going to the dentist but I understand what she meant.

No more port, no more chemotherapy.

When I dropped my four-year-old daughter off at preschool this morning I told her that when I picked her up later, my port would be all gone. We had this conversation yesterday as well but I wanted to reiterate it to her again just to be safe. She smiled at me when I told her this morning. Then she brushed my hair aside and moved my sleeve to the side of my arm, exposing the port. She looked at it for a second then looked back at me, smiled and gave me the biggest hug. Her way of saying “be brave Mommy!” after leaving a kiss on my cheek and telling me she loved me.

I’m ready.

The Journey

Sometimes it feels like I didn’t have cancer, like it was all this surreal dream I coasted through. It’s been nearly nine months since I finished my last chemo treatment. My port is still in place. My surgeon has been bugging me to have it out for months now but I’m attached.

It’s the one tangible reminder I have that my battle with cancer was real. Sure I have pictures and memories, cards and sentimental keepsakes collected from diagnosis to survivorship. But every time I look down and see that port, I’m reminded how real the journey was and still is.

d5a71ae31a5d494ba5f5c32a7e1a54d3It’s the strangest feeling now that I’m healthy and cancer free, even more so than when I was going through chemo. Although there was that one time I tried watching “The Fault In Our Stars” a few months after I completed treatment. It hit me like a hundred pound weight to the chest. Overwhelmed by emotion, I shut the movie off not quite half way through. Still haven’t finished watching it.

Thirty-years-old, student, single mom of two, writer, blogger, Stage III Colon Cancer patient, survivor. Crazy.
My sleep schedule is still all over the map. There are times when no matter how much sleep I get, I feel exhausted. Some nights I fall asleep around nine. Only to wake up around three a.m., unable to sleep.

8ce32765c7cb09009ab72f6e64a379d1By the time six or seven a.m. rolls around – I’m tired – but can’t go back to bed.  Two little humans need me bright eyed and bushy tailed. There’s work, school or sometimes both to get myself ready for as well.

About once a week, I feel fluttering in my chest. It usually lasts for a few seconds, then subsides. I’ve had several EKG’s, all perfectly normal. I didn’t lose my hair during chemo. It thinned out some but it was so thick before, no one except for maybe my family and hair dresser knew. It came back twice as thick as before so no one really knows now.

That’s just it isn’t it? On the outside, you’d never know.

I’m at the gym at least four times a week and work out just as hard as any able-bodied, healthy person can. I almost always take the stairs at work, up and down three flights everyday, several times a day.

You’d never know that just a year and a half ago – I was told by my surgeon that waiting even six more months would have been too late.

4e5a6016beed964fbb4b9c58393536d8I wouldn’t change a thing…I take that back. I definitely would have gotten my symptomatic butt (pun intended) to the doctor sooner. Cancer doesn’t look at a person and say “Oh hey, you know what? You’ve got a lot going on in your life. I think I’ll give you a Mulligan and come back around in about twenty years when you’re older.”

Cancer could care less about the amount of money you make or what your age or gender or social status is. Sure there are steps we can all take to prevent certain types of cancer. But sometimes shit just happens.

531px-Blue_morpho_butterfly - Version 2One thing I can say is that I wouldn’t be the woman I am right now without that journey. I learned to value myself more, tolerate less bullshit from the world around me and take much better care of myself physically and emotionally.

The days I start to feel myself coasting again – becoming complacent, caught up in the Groundhog day scenario of life on repeat – I take a step back and remember what it felt like when I could barely take care of myself. Nothing like a quick self-evaluation to give yourself perspective and a solid reality check. So yeah my kids are bonkers most of the time, my schedule is crazier than a patient in Arkham Asylum and I’m constantly on the go. But I’m without question healthier, stronger and better able to handle everything on my plate now than I was last year or even a few months ago.

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If I’m Bloggin’ – I’m Happy!

Or in my case tonight, by my giant nine-year-old
Or the “almost as tall as me” nine-year-old

It feels like I’m on holiday right now; even though my nine-year-old is restlessly karate chopping me in his sleep while his sister strategically positioned her feet  near my head. I’m happy. They’re both sleeping and I finally have a moment to breathe, relax and blog.

I’ve been craving to write a good blog entry for weeks! About anything, everything and nothing at all. So much is happening everyday. If I don’t take time to write it down, type it out; I feel like these moments will be lost forever.

85bfcd7befabe015abeb3a1570349c48 - Version 2In January I stood in the middle of seated room of 300, in New York City, to have a fifteen minute conversation – live, in front of everyone, while being video recorded – with one of my everyday heroes; dating and life coach Matthew Hussey. Hussey told me point blank if I continue to sacrifice my love life for the sake of my children’s happiness I’m going to “fuck them up” and cause more damage than good in the long run. His rationale was that they would see their “mum” putting them first and never putting my own romantic happiness in the forefront. Leading my kiddos to believe it was what they were supposed to do as adults. Food for thought. Thank you for that Mr. Hussey, you’ve given me plenty to think about.

Two weeks ago, I traveled from Virginia to Maryland to Massachusetts in one day…by car…toting my children along for most of the journey. One of my best friends crossed the stage at her college graduation in Virginia Beach. I was not only there for moral support but to embarrass the bajeezus out of her by screaming out “I LOVE YOU KRISTIN!” in a very crowded, semi-quiet, stadium size, campus auditorium. Because hellerrrr, that’s what best friends do woman!

It was no small feat for a single mother of two to graduate with honors. I’m still so proud of you Snookum Snookums! When you’ve been friends as long as we have, and know as much as we know about each-other, you come up with silly nick names. It’s out of love, don’t judge.

Mama's first Sox game at Fenway, woot woot! #SOXNATION
Mama’s first Sox game at Fenway, woot woot! #SOXNATION

In April, I finally attended my first Sox game (SOX NATION!) and with the only person in this world I could imagine being there with; my son. I also started a kickass internship with quite possibly some of the most intelligent, interesting and charismatic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – acting as an intern and conservation writer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service WordPress blog.

This past Saturday, I pet a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Or as my threenager (about to be four) put it, a “kissing hockroach.” My son rocked it out at both of his soccer games this weekend. My daughter painted her little heart out designing faerie houses for our garden.

Some of our faerie garden supplies, my daughter walked off with the rest. And that glue...definitely got returned. Warning labels about hazardous fumes should probably be written on the FRONT of the bottle somewhere...not on back behind the packaging.
Some of our faerie garden supplies, my daughter walked off with the rest. And that glue…definitely got returned. Warning labels about hazardous fumes should probably be written on the FRONT of the bottle somewhere…not on back behind the packaging.

My 2015 memory box is already flooded with so many invaluable treasures from beautiful moments. And it’s only June 2. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds!

A beautiful life isn’t built in a day. A beautiful life, to me, is made moment by moment – when you do that thing you’re afraid of doing, say the thing you fear being criticized for and expand your mindset beyond society’s limitations.

One moment can lead to even greater moment, a connection with a person you may not have met which can lead to a job and/or career choice you never thought you’d have the opportunity to make. It’s all about choice. Will you choose to stay within the boundaries of your self-inflicted comfort zone? Or will you break free and shatter the parameters of your own fears?

Check Out My Port! (part 2)

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Between cooking Chicken Marsala (I’m just saying, it’s kind of a big deal. If I could marry my marsala, it would be on like Donkey Kong) and the weather becoming much warmer–I quickly changed into a tank top as the kitchen started heating up tonight. 

Looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, seeing my bare shoulders in a tank top again, with that protruding triangular shaped mound just sitting there; really got me thinking. My surgeon has given the go ahead for port removal; it’s been in place for 15 months now. I’m already 7 months out from completing treatment…7 months!

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Change is the evolution of life right? But I’ve become attached to my port. It’s just as much a part of me as my hair or skin. What’s it going to feel like when I don’t have a port anymore?  What will it be like looking in the mirror to see a fading scar where an obvious prominence used to be? To not have to wear my seatbelt a different way for comfort? For my daughter to say “Mommy, where did your port go?” To not get stared at in public by total strangers who don’t always know what a port even is? To not see my oncology nurses every 6 to 8 weeks for a port flush? To go to the lab for routine blood draws, instead of to the nurses in the infusion suite?

Port removal is a major milestone as a cancer patient. When your oncologist and surgeon are in agreement that it’s time to take out the port, it’s this hopeful intention that you’re going to be healthy long term. It’s their way of saying a patient is in a good place of survivorship.

Having my port removed isn’t just letting go of what was, it’s moving forward into what will be. Living my best life, one day healthier and stronger at a time.

chemo-portCheck out my port! Pretty gross and extremely fascinating at the same time. Especially when you consider that it’s sitting under my skin at this very moment. Having a port is kind of like having a tattoo, you forget that it’s there. Except, unlike a tattoo, I get reminded each time I buckle my driver’s side seat belt, get dressed in front of a mirror or get hugged way too hard. The hugging doesn’t hurt, it just gives you this feeling of “Oh hey I remember that! The chemo thing my surgeon stuck in a blood vessel X amount of months ago.”

Present Day; Post Chemo Moving Forward

Where have the last two weeks gone? A book signing event, an Abraham-Hicks workshop, a children’s birthday party, Canadian Thanksgiving celebration, day-trip to Salem, Mass., classes, homework, housework, third-grade basketball signups; pre-workout, reps, set, repeat, protein shakes, homework, doctor’s appointments, housework, massage therapy, Reiki, doing laundry that multiplies quicker than jack-rabbits, group meetings for class assignments, redecorating, parent/teacher conference, catching up on “The Vampire Diaries”… (breathe!)

Life is always an adventure when you’re a single mom. Especially when you have two, high-energy, extremely bright children.

My life is almost back to normal; my body feels stronger than it has since my cancer journey began. I’ve gained nearly 15 pounds since I was first diagnosed, since surgery, since chemotherapy treatments started. I am so thankful for the weight gain (as the song says, “I love my butt and I won’t shut-up!”). Thankful for chemo being over, thankful for my son…who just sat down at the table with me, and his laptop (my old computer) and said “Oh look at me! I’m all type-typey, nerdy-nerdy like my mom!” Then he began to button mash the keyboard, like a mad man playing the organ,  causing a fit of hysterical laughter. Love that kiddo of mine.

In the months to come, I have several follow-up appointments; oncology, surgical, nurse-practitioner of oncology, GI specialist, an ultrasound, a colonoscopy and lab work.

(Side rant: to those of you who keep putting it off…get it done! It has the potential to save your life, it saved mine. You don’t feel a thing. If you’re scheduled to have one or your doctor is recommending you do so, get ‘er done!)

To be sitting here with my son, watching my daughter play; it’s the greatest gift I could ever hope for. Cancer has taught me to prioritize, live fearlessly, love with my whole heart and make each day count.

Cancer was a much-needed catalyst for me.  I never would have pushed myself so hard to do so much. It’s unfortunate that it took getting diagnosed with cancer for me to change my life so drastically. But I am (and will always be) grateful that I’ve been given the opportunity to do so. I’m one of the fortunate ones.

I never once questioned “Why is this happening to me?” But I do question so much else about it. When I see other cancer patients suffering, losing hair, losing hope; it breaks my heart. Especially pediatric cancer, it’s unbearable. When I look back at this year, it’s easy to admit just how difficult it was. Yet the energy has changed so much since the beginning of the year. There’s so much more than a road to perfect health before me.

Recently, I attended a book signing for “Buried Beneath the Words” author, Betel Arnold. We connected instantly. There were so many parallels in our lives. She saw herself in me; a young woman with hope and dreams bigger than the sky. She made direct eye contact and without blinking said, “You are destined for great things. I can see it all over you! I’m so happy for you and the path you’re on. You’re going to accomplish so much and I would really like to be part of it.” Her words moved a mountain within my spirit.

For the most part, I think my life is in pretty good order. It’s taken some time to find myself. Everyday is a learning process but living with gratitude has become a way of life, a state of being. I’m no super hero. Yes I have battled cancer, gone through chemo and am raising two children on my own while obtaining my bachelor’s degree. But I have my days just like anyone else. Having tough days is important for contrast. It gives me greater appreciation for the moments of joy; for the days when everything just seems to flow.

After going through chemotherapy for nearly eight months, even the bad days are a blessing. For every toddler temper tantrum and eight-year-old melt down, for every sink full of dishes and pile upon pile of never-ending laundry needing to be done; I’m truly thankful. These are days that I still get to be here for, experiencing the gift of life. The good and the not so good. Even when my children make me want to pull my hair out, I have to be thankful there’s still hair on this head to pull. It’s all about perspective.