Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The People Who Make You

It's been a while. I apologize, but I've been busy living the last few days of precious summer vacation to their fullest.

Amidst runs, bike rides, swims, hurricanes, and earthquakes, I made time to visit some people who are very important to me. My Nani and Pop in Florida, and my medical team. My weekend trip to Florida to visit the grandparents was sandwiched between seeing my medical oncologist and my dermatologist. All three were good visits.

I've encountered many amazing people who I would never have met if I hadn't gotten cancer. Among these are the ones who get paid to inspect, poke, prod, and stick me. If your lucky, these people do more than what their job requires, they get to know you, care, and view you as more than a thick manila folder filled with facts. I've been very, very lucky to meet many of these people. They've become part of my life, some staying longer than others, but all shaping me into who I am now.

When I went to see my oncologist, who I've seen on a daily, weekly, monthly, and now biannual basis, he did his usual exam, and the entire time discussed with me what my plans were for the coming school year. And when he was done feeling for lymph nodes, we continued to talk, about his son, daughter, and vacation. I recently had a parallel conversation with an old friend; the only difference was that we were in a restaurant.

Then there's the dermatologist. I. Love. Him. Aside from the fact that he saved my life, he calls the next day to check in and see how I'm doing if he removes something for testing, he sent me flowers on my first cancerversary, knows my entire family on a first-name basis (and has examined all of us) and perhaps made an extremely generous gesture on my most recent cancerversary. He does way more than look at my skin.

But these people aren't the only individuals I've come across who go beyond what is required; when I developed lymphedema the first time, an physical therapist who was not covered by my insurance gave me free treatment until I was able to see someone who was covered. She gave hundreds of dollars worth of supplies I needed to treat the condition, and didn't bill me for any of it.

Then there was the nutritionist who I went to see when I regained an appetite and thirst upon beginning treatment for my failing thyroid. I didn't know how much to eat since I hadn't been hungry in so long. She saw me twice, and took my credit card information. She told me she'd send the bill. It never came.

Then there was the cancerversary party. I threw a rather large party for my five-year cancerversary this June. I knew I wanted to do this for months, so I priced venues, saved my money, put down a deposit, and invited my twenty closest friends and family...and two doctors who have always done more than their jobs. Unfortunately, the docs weren't able to come, but the rest of us had a great time- appetizers, drinks, dinner, and a very special cancerversary cake later, I went to pay the remaining balance for the party. The manager gave me a blank piece of paper. Then he explained that I owed nothing. Someone, who wanted to remain anonymous, wanted to do this for me. I tried not to cry as I explained that I wanted to know who it was, because I needed to thank them for this. The manager still wouldn't tell me, but I have my suspicions about who the mystery beneficiary was.

There are people who do their jobs, and there are people who go above and beyond. These people inspire me, because they don't just do, they do more, sometimes for nothing. These encounters have given me an appreciation for the kindness of strangers- and strangers who become part of an extended family I never thought I'd have. These people have made me who I am through their kindness and genuine caring. They inspire me, because without them, I would not be who I am...or possibly here at all.

Hope, Love, Run
Marathon Girl

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tri, Tri Again

For the last few weeks now, I've been seriously following a new training plan in anticipation of completing the Skylands Triathlon on September eleventh. I actually abandoned the Women's Health plan because I felt it wasn't enough activity compared to what I'm used to these days, so I found a new one created by Hal Higdon. He offers a few different plans and they're specifically for runners who want to try a tri. I'm using his Triathlon 2 program, and so far, so good! I've been doing longer workouts that incorporate two of the three activities I'll be doing for the tri. I especially like the program because it also includes strength training, so I feel like it's a well-balanced plan, which was the one complaint I had about half-marathon training.

I've been absolutely loving cycling, and last night I completed another brick workout (bike, then run) and I felt really good when I was running, which was a big improvement over the last time when my legs felt like, well, bricks. Enjoying running goes without saying. Swimming, however, is another story.

I don't hate swimming, but I don't love it, either. Just like I used to regularly buy new running clothes to motivate myself, I got a sporty new bathing suit last weekend, along with a shiny new pair of goggles. They're making it easier to enjoy the pool, but sadly I will not be completing the swim for the triathlon in the chlorinated aqua paradise offered at the gym. I'll have to run from a sandy beach through shallow water before embarking on a murky half-mile journey in a reservoir. Yuck. So in anticipation of the reservoir swim, I've been making weekly trips to the reservoir where the tri takes place and practicing tracking buoys and staying in a straight line when there isn't a tiled line of black below me for tracking.

I am actually feeling confident in my ability to do well on the cycling and running sections of the tri, however, since the swimming is first, my main goal is simply to not drown so that I can give my all in the other two events. It is humbling to feel the angst of an unknown competition again. I felt this way about both my first 5Ks and half marathons, but it's been a while since I've had a big first like this, and I'm looking forward to the unknown, and seeing what I can do in my first ever competitive swimming experience!...Here's to not drowning!

Hope, Love, Run,
Marathon Girl

Thursday, August 4, 2011

'Wen' will my hair look healthy again?

I've written about my hair on here before. Mostly about losing it, and eventually being able to donate it. I haven't really discussed how my hair has changed. Some cancer survivors report that their hair grew back a different color, or they had a major texture change; straight hair that came back super curly, or curly hair that came back bone straight. My experience has been a bit different, probably because I wasn't treated with traditional chemotherapy agents. The drugs I was exposed to interacted with my central nervous system, essentially making it go haywire for twelve months...and beyond. My hair never completely fell out, but it became so thin that I cut it very, very short. Losing your hair is physically painful, and as a girl, it's emotionally excruciating.

It's been four years since I finished treatment, and I'm still waiting for my long, thick, beautiful hair to come back. When my hair grew initially, it was thin and coarse. This might be chemo-related, but I think an aggravating factor was a late-effect of my treatment- a thyroid malfunction that went undiagnosed for a few years. Since I began treatment for the thyroid issues, my hair has progressively gotten thicker. As recently as a few months ago, I began sprouting new hair on the top of my head. When it was an inch or two long, it stood up straight and I had to tame it with an arsenal of products every morning so I didn't look like Alfalfa a la The Little Rascals. It was not cute.

But more frustrating than the thinness is how broken and brittle my hair has been since treatment. My stylist tells me it's 'old' hair. I basically have the hair of someone twice my age. I've switched shampoos and conditioners more times than I can count and I've continually been looking for something to fix my hair.

I think I FINALLY found it. The conversation when I go to the salon usually goes something like this:
Stylist: How much should I take off?
Me: how much is damaged?
Stylist: Um, all of it.
Me: Take the split ends.
Stylist: Sure (Nods, frowns, and pretends this is possible. Takes off a few inches).

But the last time I was in, I heard the usual about how my hair, while gaining thickness, is still like that of a sixty-year-old woman. But then something new...Apparently another client with hair like mine had come in and looked very different. She claimed to have started using something called Wen.

That's right. Wen. Maybe you've seen the infomercials at 3:00 AM. It's endorsed by Chaz Dean, a celebrity stylist. I have a strict rule against buying anything that can be bought in my living room without a computer, but I went home and did my research. The stuff comes with a money-back guarantee, although the reviews of post-purchase support were mediocre at best. The other catch is that to get the stuff at a somewhat reasonable price ($30.00 for a 30-day supply, which I'm confident I can stretch for one-and-a-half to two months) you have to enroll in an automatic monthly delivery and billing schedule. However, I called the customer service line and after a truly short wait, I spoke to a rep who assured me I can put my account on hold and not receive shipments or be billed until I call and authorize it. I think a lot of the people who complained about 'unauthorized billing and shipping' didn't read the fine print.

So the verdict is in. My hair is looking better. I wouldn't say I'm Goldilocks or anything, but for the first time in more than four years, my hair was not a frizzy mess when I left it down and let it dry au naturale. I used the product again today and blew my hair out, and again: significantly less frizz. My hair feels much softer, and while it's not perfect, I feel hopeful that if I keep using it, maybe I can have 'normal' twenty-something hair again.

I don't know Wen, but soon, I hope!

Hope, Love, Run!
Marathon Girl

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

FD 70: Day 5, The Last Day

The last day on the water at First Descents, we returned to the site of my breakdown Wednesday. It was cold that day. For July, it was freezing. I wore about three layers of clothing underneath my waterproof suit. A few of our guides donned button down collared shirts and ties over their waterproof suits, under their life jackets-after all, it was graduation day for us. Before we got in the water, the rain started coming down, and there was nowhere to hide. Not from the rain and not from what was about to happen. I was going to run the rapids that gave me so much trouble two days before.

Once we were all in the water, I focused my attention on maintaining spacing between myself and the other kayakers in my group. My careful reflection over the past two days led me to the conclusion that I flipped the first time because we were too close together. The one boat I wanted near me was that of Pleaza, the guide who had accompanied me through several rapids after my freak out. Just as much as I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this, I wanted to show him I could do it, too.

I rode out the first several rapids without any trouble, including the first one that got me on Wednesday. I felt empowered when I eddied out after finishing that rapid, and cheers from the safety raft echoed through the canyon as it passed my group. I don't know if they were cheering for me, but it felt like they were.

As we continued, I also conquered the second rapid that swallowed me up. After that, we pulled into an eddy and the guides informed us that we were now going to run graduation rapid. This is the challenge for the day, and normally for first-time FDers, it's just about accepting the challenge and attempting a class III rapid. But for us, it would be more than that. The guides would meet us at the bottom. We would run the rapid on our own, devising a plan as a group of kayakers, choosing our own lines, and running the rapid, not as campers, but as true kayakers.

As we discussed our approach getting through the rapid, which was hidden around a bend and out of sight, I realized this was the rapid I freaked out on. The one I ran latched to Pleaza. I had no memory of the rapid, no idea what features it contained. Luckily, another group member did. Butta confidently described the rapid to me and explained what her approach would be. There were large rocks, water running over them and creating a hole in front- a place you don't want to flip. She said to stay in between the rocks, although it would be difficult because of the bend, the water would suck us to the right. I wasn't completely sure I understood what the rapid would look like, but Butta seemed so sure, I decided to follow her.

What happened next was amazing. I kept my distance but followed Butta. Other boaters took different lines, one flipped, another got sucked into an eddy before the rapid. The water was so loud. I couldn't hear anything over the roar of the river. The water pulled me hard to the right, like Butta said it would, so I fought back as much as I could, but the current moved me quickly toward through the fast water moving over the large rocks. I couldn't get between them, so as I went into the rapid, I owned my line and flew over one of the rocks, splashing into the swirly white water below. I paddled hard and entered an eddy where the other boaters who had just graduated sat. We were all grins and buzzing about our lines. Who boofed the rock? Who actually went between the rocks? Had anyone flipped?

As we sat there, I noticed the mountain goats watching us from the cliffs above, and then realized- the sky had cleared the sun was shining on us. It was perfect.

The next curve brought us to a rocky shore where we stopped for lunch- not sandwiches like usual...The guides grilled us steak on the beach. A true graduation celebration.

The rest of our journey was a breeze- we had run these waters before. We were graduated kayakers. When the guides signaled us to shore, there were already a few out of their boats. The majority of the cars were not there, they were further downstream. As it turned out, our lunch and the wind moved us more slowly through that stretch of water. The cars were a few miles downstream at the alternative take out. As all eleven of us slid into shore, we sat in our boats. None of us got out.

We wanted to keep going. It was almost five, the guides said, and we wouldn't get off the river until 8 if we kept going.
We all looked at each other, continuing to sit in our boats. So what?
The guides continued to get out of their boats. Can't we keep going? We're real kayakers. We don't really need you to go with us, if you want to go back...
After much convincing, we all got out of our boats and the other vehicles arrived to take us back to the ranch.

The rest of the night was a blur of dinner, awards, packing, and savoring the last hours of our week together. At 6:00 AM the next morning, my suitcase was packed. My mind replaying the memories of the week, in awe of the magic that can happen when 11 strangers from across the country come together, sharing on day one just a single common trait: Cancer. But leaving six days later with a myriad of memories, an appreciation for nature, our bodies' ability to conquer the river, and a familial bond that didn't exist just a week before.

If you are a young adult cancer survivor, go on a First Descents trip. It will change your life. Forever. If you're not, support the organization- join Team FD and challenge yourself physically. Better yet, volunteer for a week. See the magic first hand. I promise, you will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

FD 70: Day 4, Kayaks and Bikes

After the on-water debacles of Day 3, Day 4 served the purpose of reinstating my confidence in my abilities as a kayaker. The day began with seal dives into the river, which involves sliding off a ledge, down a rocky incline, and splashing into the current of the river. I was nervous about this, but after watching a few others do it, I also took a seal dive into the water. I didn't flip over, and the day continued just as smoothly. I rode the rapids, read the river with the help of two expert kayakers- Crabs and Pleaza, and by the end of the day I was disappointed when the guides in the front of the group started signalling us to the take-out location.

As we waited on shore for the shuttle to bring the rest of the vehicles to where we were, a rumor circulated about what was in store for us the next day-graduation day. When I heard the news, I think the individual telling me was curious to see my reaction- would I freak out? I didn't. When I heard that we were going back and paddling the same treacherous stretch we did the day before, my reaction was, "Really? Good. I want to do it again. I want to do it right this time!"

Despite how upset I was on Wednesday, I really was looking forward to going back. I'd never actually run a stretch of water more than once, and I liked the idea of having another chance to conquer the rapids that scared the confidence out of me.

The rest of the evening was spent enjoying dinner and sitting around the campfire. We had some unusual guests that night, and I really appreciated talking to them. It was a group of four guys- who called themselves Team Gillette, and a former FDer who you can look up on Facebook under the name Mike-On-A-Bike. All these guys are riding bikes from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. The crazier part is that they didn't set out together, it just happened that the four guys met up with Mike-on-a-Bike and they continued together.

I really enjoyed talking to the guys about their journey and how they came to be riding bikes across the country. I think about them now when I ride, which has been pretty frequent since I returned home. I aspire to do something like that...Maybe next year :)