Trusting your "Sixth Sense"
by Linda Nielsen
Sometimes life can be normal. At least we think it is. Everything happens as it should. Maybe not perfect but normal with the usual ups and downs. Sometimes bright happy times, and maybe some you'd rather forget. But none-the-less normal.
I use to think my life was normal, or at least normal for me. I had quit my job of 15 years in a medical laboratory to return to school for an art degree. When my husband bought his first Harley Davidson, I thought I was entitled to a a mid-life crisis too. So I quit my job and decided if I was going back to school it was going to be for something I truly enjoyed. It wasn't easy. I use to think walking into that classroom, after so many years, was one of the most difficult things I'd ever done. If only I'd known much more difficult days were ahead. Five years later and just weeks before I was due to graduate I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 41. It wasn't a large lump, but one I'd known was there for over a year. I'd done everything right. Gone right in when I'd first discovered it. ''Fibrous tissue, most women have it you know'' was what I was told. Don't worry, you're fine.
To this day I do not know what made me call the surgeon's office, on a Monday morning, for an appointment I didn't think I needed. With normal mammograms why did I insist on a biopsy when my surgeon echoed my family doctors opinion on it being nothing to worry about. A guardian angel in the shape of a big brother perhaps? I have since learned to trust this ''sixth sense''. I believe it is an inner voice and I will be forever indebted to it. With any cancer diagnosis comes choices. Most people do what they have to do then get on with their lives. I did more then I had to do then got on with a very different life. With positive lymph node involvement, I choose to treat my cancer aggressively. While it was upsetting to learn the recuperation time after my surgery would necessitate my leaving school, I forged ahead anyway. I choose a mastectomy with tram-flap reconstruction. (I also needed a reduction on my good breast for symmetry purposes. I envisioned myself walking around in circles and bumping into walls if I didn't have it done). After spending a week in the hospital and one week at home, I returned to school. Nothing was going to keep me from graduating. I'd worked too hard for that degree.
Unfortunately I started chemotherapy the day before my graduation ceremony so I wasn't able to attend, but I treasure the diploma I received in the mail shortly after. Chemotherapy is not a walk in the park, but it is do-able. I volunteered for a trial research study through the University of Wisconsin's Comprehensive Cancer Center. The study involved double doses of Adriamycin and Cytoxin. I felt strongly, and still do, that these studies are very important to the future of cancer treatment. Gain as much knowledge as you can about them. I did my homework and with the help and support of my husband Dave and my wonderful parents, I did the aggressive chemotherapy and don't look back. I was very lucky to have such wonderful support of family and friends. It is something I continue to be thankful for every day.
Humor has and continues to be one of my coping mechanisms. While Chris was complaining on an on-line support system we were both on about loosing her hair, I logged on with the thought of using duct tape to hold my wig down on the water parks we were visiting that weekend. We clicked and instantly became friends. We share the same sense of humor (much to our husbands chagrin).
We also share a deep longing to see an end to this disease. It breaks our hearts to see more and more of our friends loose their battle with cancer. It is why we formed ''Choose Hope, Inc.'' and why we pour our heart and souls into it daily. It is why we've marched on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and it is why we mentor to those who are newly diagnosed.
Never having to deal with a life threatening disease before, I have certainly found it a challenge. There have been periods of gut wrenching fear followed by great hope. I've been physically altered. The body I once knew is gone. But in it's place is a man-made version I've learned to love for it is still me. Nothing has changed on the inside. No one can excise my femineity. Chemotherapy may have momentarily robbed me of my hair, my stomach contents, and what I hated to loose the most, my eyebrows and eyelashes. But it cannot take away that which is me. My humor, my compassion, and my love for my family and friends.
With "Choose Hope, Inc." my degree has certainly been put to good use. When I left the classroom the day before I started my chemotherapy, I truly did not know if I ever would utilize that which I had worked so hard to learn. I can only say that now I am even more grateful then ever I made the decision to go back to school.
Having just celebrated the "five-year" anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I continue to do everything in my power to fight this disease. It was a promise I made to my daughter, Kara, and one I hope will make a difference so she need never fear for herself.
I am "living" with cancer and I am not unhappy. Without breast cancer I never would have known inner courage. Nor would I have met some of the nicest, caring women, willing to give of their time and their compassion. I never would have realized who my true friends were, and I would never have really, one-hundred percent, appreciated my family. I have parents who need me and a husband who's anxious to travel the country with me on the back of his Harley. I have a beautiful daughter I want to see succeed in life. I have a lot of life to lead and I plan on leading it as "normal" as I possibly can.
No matter when I die, I hope the Angels say, "we are proud of you".
An update of Linda's story: Spring 2003
As I write this update I think back on how much my life has changed since my breast cancer diagnosis. Not only my physical body....that's REALLY different, but my whole outlook on life. I'm a stronger person now and part of that strength came from my dear friend and business partner Chris McHugh. I can't say she gave me my strength but she certainly encouraged me to look inward for it, bring it out, and use it. She pulled me, petrified, up to that first podium and together we spoke out on issues close to our hearts...Faith, Hope, Love, and Healing. With her at my side there was nothing I wouldn't try. Rallying at the State and National level became second nature. Dressing up in silly costumes and walking through the chemo rooms, we did it all together.
Last spring we were so fortunate to celebrate our five year cancer "anniversary" together with our CHESS support group at Walt Disney World. Oh the fun we all had. This past March I celebrated my "six" year anniversary quietly. Chris was very ill, bed-ridden, and in much pain. How I wished I could turn back the clock...make her well again. But instead I watched this person who had become like a sister to me slowly fade away. She will not be celebrating her own six year cancer anniversary this year.
So many people have asked how we are are going to manage Choose Hope without Chris. Paula and I made a commitment not only to Chris, but to ourselves. We WILL continue. We will once again reach inward and find the strength needed to carry on in her name. If not, a great big arm will reach down from the sky and slap us upside the head.
Someone once asked me how I can stay so active in the cancer community. Wouldn't it be easier to just walk away from it all and get on with my life? This IS my life! As long as my health remains good, I will continue with this journey. I have met and made some wonderful friends along the way. While I have never cried so hard in the last six years, by the same token, I have never laughed as hard either. I will remember all that laughter and think of Chris. And I will thank God daily that she came into my life at just the right time.
Where has the time gone? It's hard to believe I have just celebrated my 11th year of being cancer free. Where once cancer, surgery, and subsequent treatment totally consumed me, now it's seems like just a blip on my life's journey. Never did I imagine those years ago that I would be on the path I am today. Choose Hope continues to grow and it is exciting to see the expansion. I think Chris would be proud of how we have gone forward with her idea. My hope is that things continue well, both my health and Choose Hope, and we are part of the reason cancer treatment continues to improve.
In Faith, Hope, Love, and Healing.... LINDA
As I approach my 14th year of survivorship I have to really dig deep to remember those early days of fear and confusion. I suppose that's a good thing, it being something I don't dwell on. But the memory is still there. I can, and always will, remember what it felt like to hear those words "you have cancer." Did I think I would still be here 14 years later? Not hardly! I remember thinking though.... if I do make it I want to be a positive presence to those newly diagnosed. I sincerely hope I have succeeded in this. Not only by the fact that I'm still around, but more importantly by the work we've accomplished through Choose Hope. I never in my wildest dreams thought we would reach so many people all over the world. Cancer has no boundaries. It creates the same emotion in everyone it touches. If we can be a positive presence in some way, then I'm accomplishing what I set out to do. YAY!
Stay positive... Stay hopeful! LINDA
As I walk out of the doctor's office for my annual oncology check-up this year, I'm surprised that I'm feeling just a little annoyed that I have to take time out of my busy schedule for these appointments. My how things have changed! Once I ran to those same doctors for every little thing out of the ordinary, now I feel kind of out of place there. Is this a good thing? Maybe not. I should never let myself feel too complacent. While time has a way of glossing over the rough times, I must always remember those early days and stay alert. Cancer is one of those things that always lurks in the shadows and, while I feel great, I need to keep it that way. So today, 16 plus years later, I'm happy to say I'll jump through all the hoops my doctor wants me too. I'll try to never, ever, forget that cancer is a part of my past, but hopefully not my future.
Staying strong! LINDA
Decisions! It seems like that one word defines my life the most lately. My biggest quandary these days (or should I say months) is to walk away from a business that I love. A business that I helped create from the ground up. A business that I totally, 100% believe in and am proud of. A business filled with people that I love and know I'll miss terribly when I leave. My dilemma: I am an only child with aging parents. I've tried to do it all for so long and I'm tired. My drive tells me to stay but my heart wins out. At the end of April this year I will officially be retired. I will spend more time with my parents which is the one bright spot in all of this. I can never get these days back. They are gettting older with numerous health issues. While I love Choose Hope dearly, I love my parents more. This whole "business" experience has been a whirlwind. I have loved every minute of it. I've grown so much and found courage and strength from so many of you. Thank you all for the part you've played in making me who I am today. I am grateful! I leave Choose Hope in Paula's capable hands and I know she'll do a tremendous job of keeping, her's, Chris's and my dream going. Thank you Paula for continuing to carry the torch!
And so the second chapter of my life begins.....
Keep going... Keep Hoping! LINDA
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