On Finding Courage.

If my life were the Wizard of Oz, my sister would be Dorothy and I would be the Cowardly Lion. I resonate with his path, the journey he took with Dorothy, the fears that made him cry out loud, even when it made him feel vulnerable. I relate to his irrational fears about noises, the darkness in the sky, the unknown. I know what it feels like to be paralyzed with fear. I have been there. I have walked the line between irrational and reasonable most of my life and wonder how much of my life I spent searching for courage. I wonder too, if it will continue to be something I choose to strap on each morning, or if it will one day become part of who I am.

When I was 5 years old my mom made a beautiful Cowardly Lion costume for me. It actually made it into the local newspaper that year. I can’t remember how I felt wearing the costume, but I sure do look frightened. Maybe she made it because it was an adorable costume, or maybe because I was in need of some courage as well.

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I had ridiculous fears growing up but as I grew older, I became a well-spoken woman who wasn’t afraid to share her opinion, a single mother of 2 boys, an established teacher, a successful small business owner, and I fought my way through fears I couldn’t make sense of. Things like being afraid of the dark or of being left.

It became clear that my practice as a Life/Business Coach gave me just what I needed to walk straight into my fears. Flipping them into triumphs rather than tragedies as I transformed into a Triathlete. The more I helped others gain perspectives on their fears, the more mine began to slip away.

But had I actually found courage?

Some fears weren’t as easy though, like when my son left for college with his own bag of worries on his back. It was then that I realized you could feel fears that weren’t even your own. That the silence in the night, texts not returned, calls unanswered…could signal all different kinds of fears and helplessness as a mother.

I feared cancer and death but had to face them head on as my mother fought and lost her battle to Pancreatic Cancer. Was it courage when I told her it was alright for her to stop fighting? To let go and be free from her pain? Or was it just that holding onto my fear of her dying seemed too selfish?

I felt fear when I found out that she had the BRCA (breast cancer) gene, and that it meant her children had a 50% chance of having it as well. I feared for my life. I feared for my children losing me to cancer before it was my time. I wallowed in my fear and said I didn’t want to know if I had it. And then tested positive. I wallowed in my fear again demanding I was not going to undergo surgeries just to prevent cancers they didn’t know for sure I would get. I read articles, books, changed my diet, starting meditating. I felt in charge of my life. I felt in control of my destiny. But I still felt afraid. Very afraid.

A 40% chance of having ovarian cancer is high. It made me more fearful than any fear I had ever felt, but I knew having the surgery to remove my ovaries was a simple one and could squelch my fears. I felt courageous again after that. In control of my destiny.

But deep inside, even as my little voice croaked and wallowed like the Cowardly Lion’s did, I wept that I would not destroy the rest of my body, just because I ‘might’ get cancer. I wanted to believe I was brave for taking that stand, but when we found out that my sister’s healthy breast tissue was tested after her preventative bilateral mastectomy and revealed precancerous cells, I felt nothing but fear. Just fear. They said she would have gotten breast cancer in the next 5 years.

I didn’t want my children to suffer like I did watching my mom. I didn’t want my kids to lose me to cancer because I believed I could outsmart my destiny.

I thought I had done a great job after the first surgery, taking my odds of getting breast cancer from 85% down to 40%. That is, until my son heard it.

“Forty percent?” he asked. “

“Yeah,” I replied, feeling good about that new statistic.

“That’s pretty high mom. That’s almost a 50/50 chance.”

His words stung as they floated ins the air. 50/50. Like the possibility of me having the BRCA gene in the first place.

“Fifty/Fifty” he said again. “Unless of course you get it. Then it’s 100%.”

The fear in his voice echoed in my head and I could hear the Cowardly Lion sobbing underneath my coat of armor. It was then that I was ready to strap on my badge of courage even as the Lion yelled from down below…because some fears needed coddling and others, well…needed the kind of courage you could simply step into and zip all the way up. This was the courage I found. And for today, it was going to have to be enough to get me through this surgery.

Surely there would be some rainbows on the other side.

Survival Mode.

I have never had cancer. I have not been tortured through radiation, suffered the exhaustion and breakdown of chemo, nor has death knocked at my door. Not technically, anyway.

Yet I can’t seem to shake the odd feeling that I am a survivor before anyone has even told me I have anything to survive.

My mom, who should have lived to the age of about 98, given her healthy history of a 74-year-old with the internal and external body of a 60-year-old, was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. PC. PC does not care how healthy you are. It does not care that you haven’t eaten a piece of candy in 40 years, that you didn’t smoke, drink, eat red meat or that you had a diet written by a nutritionist for over 30 years. It does not care that your ancestors had lived healthy lives into their 90’s. It does not care that you are a long distance runner and have the face and heart of an angel.

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Instead, it will offer you a few months of life. Which my mother did not take lying down, but instead through aggressive treatments, hours on the elliptical and a pocket filled with optimism.

She was my best friend. Even on the days when I was consumed with my own world and questioned this. I still knew it. There was no one in my world remotely like her.

She lived with this disease for 2.5 years. Not just staying afloat, but really living until she could no longer take another day. She was a survivor. She might not have beaten PC, but she sure did thrive in the life she lived.

But cancer is affects the whole family. Every single one of us. And I feel like I have been in survivor mode since the minute she was diagnosed. I spent the first 5 months in denial about the power of PC and believed that she would beat the heck out of it and land an interview with Dr. Oz.  I then moved into my eternal optimist state for the next 2 years with an acute awareness of each present moment. As a family I think we all did an amazing job at that, pulling together as only our home team could, yet it was the aftermath of discoveries once my mom passed away that had kept me stuck in survival mode.

With my mom gone, we were not technically fighting the fight any longer, yet I began my own battle as I found out that my mom wasn’t the only one with the BRCA (breast cancer gene)…as I had it as well.

I began to turn the corner of almost age 50, healthy as can be, training for triathlons in the summer, preparing to marry an incredible man, celebrating life with 4 amazing children…and then this.

BRCA. So basically, my odds were stacked against me with an 85% chance of breast cancer, 40% chance of ovarian and 7% chance of pancreatic cancer and changes would have to be made. More than changes actually, I was going to have to be proactive and make harsh decisions based on the fact that I might get cancer. In fact, the probability was so high that some might say, yea, you probably will.

I now see doctors every 3 months, while just 3 years ago I had one primary O.B. I have had my ovaries removed, am scheduled for a bi-lateral mastectomy and have a yearly abdominal MRI since there is no way to be protected from Pancreatic Cancer. Hormone replacements are not an option due to the estrogen adding to my cancer risk, and am on my 3rd round of MOH’S surgery for Basel cell spots, since apparently the BRCA gene makes you more susceptible to that as well.

So yes, that is why I am still in survival mode. I mean, I am trying to survive cancer…before I get it. I awake with that thought each morning, not as a resentment, but as my truth and remain grateful. Grateful that I know about the demons just beneath my skin allowing me to be proactive and make decisions that might protect me from cancer in the future. Decisions that might prevent my beautiful children from becoming a survivor as well.

So I do as my mom did. Carry on. Live. Manage each week around the hassle of doctor appointments, the aftermath of surgeries, some time off from the gym…and the heartache of losing my mom. But I am clear that some things cannot be taken away. They can cut away at Basel cells, keep my ovaries, and man-handle my hormonal balance, but they can’t take away my spirit and they can’t take away her spirit that lives deep within me.

So actually,  I am lucky to be living in survival mode. Lucky to be surrounded by the most supportive and loving family a woman could ask for and lucky, that for today, I do not have Cancer.