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Did I reinvent me? August 30, 2009

Posted by PAS in survivorship.
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Evolution quote on Starbucks cup
Image by Colin Purrington via Flickr

A couple days ago, Kairol Rosenthal asked this question on her ‘Everything Changes’ blog: Did you reinvent your identity to accommodate illness?

I answered that the person I became during cancer wasn’t a wholesale reinvention, but more of an evolution. My evolution is still a work-in-progress, as I hope it will be until I die. As I move through my dance with cancer, I’ve discovered more things that I do differently. There are things about which I care more strongly and things which no longer matter as much. But to be fair, some of those changes started four years before cancer when I had a completely unexpected intracerebral hemorrhage.

Before the ICH I used to work 7:30 – 4 Monday through Friday, and alternate weekends — 12 days on, 2 days off. I’d applied to a part-time grad school program where I planned to earn my M.Ed. in Adult Education by taking 6-credit courses that met every other weekend (on the weekends I had off.) I trained dogs four nights every week, teaching classes in obedience and agility and taking a class with my own dogs when I could fit one into the mix. Casey was 4+; I was showing him in open obedience, and novice jumpers and open standard agility. Reuben, my lovable-but-intense second Gordon Setter, was barely 13 months old and right in the middle of crazy adolescent boy-dog behavior.

After the hemorrhage, I was incapable of being a morning person (a failing with which I still struggle today…) I was put on no-overtime/no-weekends restrictions by my neurologist, and although I liked not having to work the extra hours, I really missed the overtime cash that had partially supported my dog-show hobby. I also struggled with details, and until I developed better coping skills, was frustrated on a daily basis by the quirks of my new brain. As a dog trainer, I didn’t have the energy to teach private lessons, and I found I couldn’t focus in the club training building to teach public classes. I experienced visual and aural ‘flooding’ whenever I was in big, loud ‘busy’ spaces with high ceilings. And as a writer, I experienced what James Spader’s Boston Legal character Alan Shore experienced in the episode ‘Word Salad Day.’ Like Shore, I couldn’t control my words, but my word-salad showed up in my writing. In almost every written sentence, I would mix up words, mis-order sentences, and write the closing paragraph first. I used to joke that it took me three edits to compose a three-line email. But it was no joke, since writing has been my defining passion for as long as I could remember. It was as though I’d lost touch with a major part of my skills, and I had to work very hard to get them back.

So if I re-invented myself, it was that fall of 2000 when I returned to work. I didn’t want my co-workers to think that I was sick, so after 12 years of going makeup-less at work, I began wearing Bare Escentuals Bare Minerals so I had a bit of color. I’d always been a list-maker; soon I moved my lists to Palm PDAs, reinforcing my geek status at work. I did take the first course in my M.Ed. program, but didn’t feel that I’d be able to continue. I switched to training my dogs at home and in private lessons; it takes longer, but I still manage to get them to their titles. After a year at my old job in the drug safety testing, I accepted a job offer in computer application support that was (sometimes) less intense…at least the overtime was more controllable and I could work from home if needed. In a lot of ways, the major changes in my life had already happened by the time I was diagnosed with cancer in 2004.

To be sure, cancer forced some changes. I couldn’t exercise the same way I’d exercised before cancer. I could still walk (most of the time) — and throughtout treatment, I walked dogs three times a day. I went camping (with friends) and traveled to some dog shows (with friends). I entered the 2004 State Fair, and even though chemo was messing with my palate, I won or placed in four of my classes. But I couldn’t walk around at the Fair or spend more than an hour in the busy environment. At camp at a local dog show circuit, I stayed in camp — my one foray up to the show grounds was a dizzying disaster. I ended up placing Reuben in a more active home because I knew I couldn’t manage his energy level for much longer. I went to a user conference for the software I support (with my boss) and did a co-presentation with my friend Jon, a trainer who works for the vendor. But while the others partied at the conference, I went back to my room and crashed. For awhile, I was afraid to travel by myself, afraid to make plans further ahead than a couple of weeks. My first chemos were all marked on the calendar and I never planned anything on chemo weekends or the Monday and Tuesday right after chemo.

Now, five years out and more, I’m more confident about traveling by myself. I don’t have to plan my show schedule around chemo weekends (but I do have to account for follow-up trips to NYC.) I can’t travel to NYC for the weekend in a backpack; I’ve got the smallest possible rolling pilot case because sometimes, a full backpack is too much strain on my ab muscles and the hernia near my stoma. I get too tired to spend the day walking around NYC neighborhoods. But I can travel, and do, trying to make the most of public transportation and cabs so that I can get to the things I want to do. I still enter the fair — although I can’t be up all night cooking and I still feel like my palate was irrevocably changed by chemo. I have noticed that I do best at the fair in years when my health situation is the most dire — years when I feel relatively healthy, I can’t seem to win an honorable mention.

I’ve worked, hard, on the word-salad problem, but I still write most of these posts in Word, spell-check them twice, and then edit them again once I publish. Finding mistakes in grammar and spelling still annoys me, but I’m learning to cope. I’ve even been brave enough to start two other blogs: Kitchen Jam, where I share my improvisations with jam and other recipes, and Dog Trainer’s Log, where I share notes about living with now-senior Casey and training my new dog Madison. Yes, I’ve got a new dog, and I’m finally putting my own writing front and center, and focusing on the things I like best (food and training.)

The evolving me is still me — only better (I hope.) I’m happy with who I am, and where I’m going, even if at times I’m impatient with the development process of the moment. As I replied to Kairol’s question, with or without cancer I’d probably be a little different today (in a good way) than I was on April 30, 2004 when I was diagnosed. If I wasn’t a little different, I wouldn’t have grown at all, and standing still is no way to go through time.

What has happened in your life to make you look hard at what you’re doing, and where you’re going, and course-correct as needed? Are you happy with who you are today? Where do you want to be next year at this time?

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1. azahar - August 30, 2009

How curious… my blog post today is also about the “new me” and finding my new “normal”.

Interesting what you said about travelling. I was so nervous going off to the beach alone for ten days this month, and during some of those nights I seemed almost hyper-aware of all the aches and pains that I don’t usually pay attention to. And I worried about stupid stuff like my port suddenly blocking up and dying of a heart attack. Back home again with my cats and my friend & roommate Peter I feel less nervous, but it was a good experience to go away and face those fears.

I think I have changed a lot more in the past year or so (since May 2008) than I would have without cancer. It’s weird to think that having cancer has somehow “enriched” my life, but I think you will know what I mean when I say that. At worst it’s been a hellish nightmare of operations and chemo and being almost constant FEAR, and at best it’s been the biggest challenge of my life that – I think – has helped bring out the best in me.

2. Twitter Trackbacks for Did I reinvent me? « Life Out Loud [gaelenscafe.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com - August 30, 2009

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3. dog training tips - September 6, 2009

Great experience to read this post….thx for share

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