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Riding on survivorship

June 23, 2013

Wrapping Spring 2012

I’ll be wrapping my leg like this every night for the rest of my life … but it could be so much worse. (Photo by Patrick McPartland)

   Since the Ride for Roswell, so much has happened. The best of it all – Patrick proposed to me! St. Patrick’s Day 2013 will live forever in my heart as the day my coach and confidant began the process of becoming my husband. He could not have done a better job of planning the day and blind-siding me. The week before St. Patrick’s Day, I was sick with a horrible winter cold, so I was not my usual alert and observant self. I didn’t notice the day Patrick and Billy went off to my parents’ house so Patrick could seek their blessing because I was in bed by 7 p.m. each night. I also didn’t put together why Billy was avoiding me that week (he was afraid of blowing the surprise, so he hid in his room more than normal). A.J. was away at school, so the secret was safe with him.

   Each year, Patrick takes photographs at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, and for the second year, I was his assistant, despite the cold still nagging at me. In 2012, the weather was beautiful – sunny, 70s – but this time, it was a typical Buffalo wintry day. By parade day, the cold was heavy in my lungs, and with each breath, I felt icicles scratching at my lungs. After more than an hour of pacing the parade route, carrying three layers of clothing, a puffy green winter jacket, a camera around my neck and a tripod over my shoulder, I was spent. Patrick had reserved a room for us at the nearby Adam’s Mark Hotel for the night, and all I could think about was climbing into a king-size bed and passing out. As I bugged him to head back to the hotel, he told me he needed a few more photos, but we’d have to go back across Niagara Square, which I refer to as the scary traffic circle at the intersections of Niagara Street, Delaware Avenue, Court Street and Genesee Street. I normally avoid driving through such circles – traveling miles out of my way because they terrify me – but I would have sped through it this time just to get to the hotel faster.

   As Patrick looked around for another subject, he stopped in the middle of the square, in front of the McKinley Monument, the 96-foot-tall obelisk that serves as a centerpiece of the Buffalo skyline. I walked a few steps farther, but when I realized he wasn’t moving, I turned around to see him as stony still as the monument and City Hall in the background. I walked toward him to ask why we were stopping, and he was seemingly staring into the distance, over my head.

   “You know how much I love you, right?”

   We have a standard answer for this. When one of us asks, the other pulls the right hand up to the face with the index finger toward the nose and, with the left hand, circles from front of the hand to back. This signifies from the front of the hand, around the world, and then to the back of the hand.

   I replied, “Yeah,” made the motion, and asked, “Can we get to the hotel now?”

   Then Patrick went into a speech that he later admitted was nothing like he planned. He repeated his love for me, adding that he wanted to surround me with my favorite color – green – because he wanted me to be around everything I love.

   And then he dropped to one knee. I yelped when I realized what was happening. He pulled out this beautiful emerald flanked by diamonds. I nearly tackled him with my YES!

   It was about a month later when I realized what my next project would be. Instead of having a bridal shower, I planned my fourth Stick it to Cancer in its place, with proceeds going to Roswell Park and the annual Lymphedema Walk in New York City. Why amass more pots, pans, dishes and towels when we can raise money for these great causes?

   It hasn’t been all roses since my bike ride. I hurt my back at work again, but, luckily, the pain lasted about as long as it did three months earlier. My fear of losing my job was realized, as I was laid off when the coalition’s grant funding wasn’t renewed, but I enjoyed being a stay-at-home mother and would-be author until finding my next employment opportunity. It pained me to move further away from the journalistic endeavors about which I dreamed since I was in seventh grade, but getting back to work to support the family took priority over waiting for the perfect position. Besides, after applying for about 120 positions and sitting through about two dozen interviews, it was becoming quite demeaning being told that I had too little experience for some positions or too much education for others. Hearing the latter was just baffling. It makes you want to lash out at the interviewer, “You think I don’t know I’m overqualified? How is too much education a BAD thing?” Their loss, right?

   After ranking highly on a Civil Service exam and being canvassed for several jobs, I decided to accept a position in the Erie County Probation Department. Union representation, free health coverage (for now) and a regular 9-to-5 schedule certainly are attractive qualities in a position. After being in a business that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s refreshing to be in a place where I’m required to take breaks and lunches. As a secretary, I’ve learned many interesting facts about the department that outsiders wouldn’t know, including the fact that writing is a large part of the probation investigator position. This got me to thinking that becoming a probation officer in an investigative role would be an excellent way to build upon my writing and reporting experience. This coupled with a freelance role at the local daily newspaper has kept me enthusiastic about my career path.

   After losing my job, my workers compensation claim from the back injury was challenged as illegitimate because the insurance company’s investigators and lawyers found the television video of me riding my bike while preparing for the Ride for Roswell and tried to link it to my back issues. As difficult as it is to ignore the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” reaction, I’m still wondering what my next project will be. Sure, I’ve spouted off about these life challenges a bit, but it is so difficult not to look for the silver linings after surviving cancer.

   As I wrote on my Facebook page: “What doesn’t kill you makes you have even more great material for when you decide to write that book.”

   Health-wise, I also try to remain positive. As the humid summer gave way to the chilly autumn, I noticed my leg reduce in size significantly and the burning, cramp-like pains return overnight. A quick e-mail to Roswell Park confirmed what I had deduced; during the summer, the heart pumps out more arterial fluid to cool off the body, causing more fluid to flow through the lymphatic system and into my damaged leg. The larger amount of fluid takes longer to expel, so this, in turn, creates a larger buffer between my bandages and the nerves underneath the fluid, causing me to experience less pain in warmer weather than in the colder weather, when there is less fluid to move. After experiencing a year’s worth of weather changes with the condition and being able to contact the therapists at Roswell Park about my observations, I am calmer about coping with my condition, and I am grateful to know what to expect moving forward.

   A lesson I learned in one of my MBA classes still keeps me focused. The class coincided with my fifth anniversary of survivorship, and its main message was to have a purpose in life, complete with a vision and mission statement. When I was younger, my goals centered more around using my extreme assertiveness to be a strong parent and aggressive journalist than being helpful, whereas my purpose is now to be helpful in all that I do. Perhaps this tough little cookie continues to soften, but for the better.

   When I feel myself beginning to stray – when feelings of self-worth diminish – I turn to the pages of past term papers and review my vision and mission statements and reflect on their meaning.

   Vision statement: I will employ compassion, patience, leadership and the ability to accomplish anything to be helpful in the context of family, friends, work and community. 

   Mission statement: I will provide strong, patient love and leadership in raising my children to become strong, productive, helpful adults by living through example. I will create, implement and/or join volunteer projects that address needs in the community. In all aspects of life, I will demonstrate excellent abilities with working with others by showing patience, compassion, understanding and respect to all. I will strive to think before I speak, empathize with others, be thankful for what I have instead of decrying what I don’t have and enjoy all I have in life. I will understand that the past can’t be changed and that the present and future are of my own making and no one else’s. 

   It is odd to think that the same methods that keep the likes of Fortune 500 companies afloat can also keep me in check when life gets difficult. But it really works. These are the lessons that should be taught to young children before they are subjected to the moments in life that will test their feelings of self-worth.

   The lessons of learning a new trick at my older and wiser age are many, but perhaps the most significant one with which I’ve ridden away is that it is never too late to change directions in order to help others. Aside from motherhood, nothing has been as fulfilling as dedicating my time, energy and talents to raising money and awareness so that others might someday benefit from better treatment options and, possibly, cures.

   I’ve been a cancer survivor since 2004, but I didn’t understand the true meaning of surviving until 2009. The old saying goes that “just surviving” isn’t living. I’m sure most cancer survivors would take issue with that, and we all have different methods of showing gratitude for getting through it all. When I realized that I was doing little to show appreciation for my great fortune or to assist those around me, I felt I was taking my survival for granted, and I needed to do more with my second chance at life. When selfishness became selflessness, giving trumped getting and “What’s in it for me?” transformed into “What’s in it for others?” – this is when I discovered true survivorship.

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