High Atop the Rockies: I Found Myself Deep in the Search for Gratitude
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
How ovarian cancer gave Janet an attitude of gratitude that she will carry with her throughout her life
Gratitude. How often do we think about it? How often do we practice it? How often should we? Gratitude wasn’t top of mind for me as a child or young adult. Now, gratitude is always on my mind. On a daily basis I go through my list of “things” that I am grateful for in my life as a mom, wife, daughter, teacher and more. And what I have come to realize is that it’s not about “things,” it’s about ATTITUDE. So that is what I am most grateful for -- my attitude toward life! I am grateful that I have developed an Attitude of Gratitude. I didn’t always have this attitude, but when I needed it most, I dug deep to find it. This is how my gratitude attitude became core in maintaining my health in daily life.
I am grateful that I have developed an Attitude of Gratitude. I didn’t always have this attitude, but when I needed it most, I dug deep to find it. This is how my gratitude attitude became core in maintaining my health in daily life.
On February 20, 2019, I was in my happy place -- the mountains, skiing with my family! This was the vacation that I looked forward to all year long. Nature, family, friends, skiing -- it’s my JAM! After a full day on the beautiful slopes, I began to experience a pain in my stomach. It was not terrible so I went on with our usual evening post-ski activities until later when the pain was disrupting my sleep. I took myself to the ER. I had to go alone. My husband stayed in the hotel room with our kids.
At the hospital I had a CT scan and an ultrasound that revealed an ovarian cyst, which was causing my ovary to twist. This was the root of the pain. The ovary was not twisted enough to require surgery -- at the time -- and the cyst was not dangerous either. I was offered and refused pain meds because I was scared and alone, and I didn’t want anything to alter my decision making. I was released from the ER and told to follow up with my doctor as soon as I returned home. I rested in my hotel room, and when I felt better the next day, I joined my family for a few hours of skiing on what was the last day of our vacation. It was an awesome day, and I was so happy to be back on the slopes.
That night, the pain returned with a vengeance. And I was back in the ER! This time the doctors would not let me leave without the consultation of the on-call gynecologist. From there it was a whirlwind. Another ultrasound, and I was admitted to the hospital. My ovary was dangerously twisted. My husband woke our dear friends in the middle of the night and asked one of them to sleep in our room so that they would be there when our children woke up in the morning.
When my husband arrived, we met with the gynecologist who asked me a slew of questions about my history and explained to me that my case was pretty straight forward. He told me that all the images looked normal, but I would have to have my ovary removed as the twisting was more severe since the previous evening, and it was threatening my health. The doctor was warm, kind, confident, and we agreed to proceed with the surgery. In addition to removing the twisted ovary and fallopian tube, he offered to remove my other fallopian tube as a form of birth control.
Overwhelmed with fear, I immediately agreed to the surgery. At that moment, it didn’t seem I had a choice. I needed to be alive for my family! We had no plans to have more children. I didn’t realize at the time how important this decision would be -- this relatively spontaneous decision was pinnacle to how my future would be told. The surgery was textbook, perfect, no complications or issues. The doctor told us to go home as soon as I felt well enough to fly and to have a wonderful life. Two days later, that is exactly what we did.
When my phone rang five days later on February 27, 2019, I was happily at home recovering. I never would have imagined hearing the words spoken on that phone call from the doctor who had saved my life just a few days ago: “Janet, I am sorry to have to tell you this but the pathology from your surgery showed Cancer on your ovary.” I will never forget this sentence and the way it changed my life forever.
I screamed and I cried, and I just kept saying the word Cancer over and over again. Telling myself in my head that this prognosis could not be real. I begged the doctor to confirm -- I was so healthy and so young, it must have been a mistake! Funny thing is that he also thought it might be a mistake, and he had requested a second pathology before calling me. It was not a mistake. It was real. It would be confirmed again and again as my ovary traveled across the country for second opinions and follow-up genetic testing.
I called my husband and my sister, in that order. The screaming and crying continued. Next, I received a call from my gynecologist of 13 years who had been with me through the challenges of pregnancy loss and the miraculous birth of my beautiful children. She was calm, compassionate and collected. She walked me through my next steps and told me that she would see me in her office at 8 a.m. the next morning. Before we hung up, she asked for a favor.
She asked me not to get online and start researching my diagnosis. She told me that everything I would find would be scary, and that the information was not about me and that I needed to get my information from medical professionals. I was so grateful for this advice. To this day I have never Google searched my diagnosis thanks to her advice and the fact that I did not want to be inundated with cancer-related news and stories as a result of my search history.
The next days and weeks turned into a rat race of calling doctors, scheduling/attending appointments, consents to release medical information, and reaching out to family and friends with connections to the best specialists. In the end, the recommendation was the same. I would have to receive six rounds of chemotherapy with a drug cocktail that would cause me to lose my hair. I would also need an additional surgery, a full hysterectomy.
When I finally had my medical team in place (with both eastern and western medicine practitioners), I was offered the most incredible piece of advice by my oncology team. They said: “Janet, you need to follow the treatment plan, and you need to live your life. You will be ok and in five months this will all be behind you. But today, and every single day, you need to live your life.”
At that moment something clicked. I decided right then and there that cancer would never define me. I had to live my life in the present. I had been so obsessed with the why and the how. In that moment I realized that it didn’t matter. What really mattered was my attitude going forward. My ability to find gratitude. My ability to look at the entire situation with the “Attitude of Gratitude.”
Like many of us, I always associated cancer with sickness, but I was not sick. I was determined to never feel or look sick. I did not want my young children to worry or be fearful of losing their mom. This was the real challenge: How was I going to live my life, get cancer treatment and protect my children? And how would I do all of that while my hair fell out -- my long, reddish-blond hair that most definitely plays a role in my physical identity.
When one of my oncologists shared with me that there was a method called “cold caps” that would prevent hair loss, I was intrigued.
This is a scalp cooling system that works by narrowing the blood vessels beneath the skin of the scalp, reducing the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles. With less chemotherapy medicine in the follicles, the hair may be less likely to fall out (http:///www.breastcancer.org). I decided to use the cold caps. With the use of the caps, my chemotherapy sessions became long, 10-hour days. Aside from the side effects of the chemotherapy, there were many restrictions and guidelines to follow to ensure greater success of limited hair loss with the caps. It seemed daunting until I realized that it was only 6 days. Six days would be so insignificant compared to 41 amazing years that I had already lived.
I pushed through my treatment and surgery going about my daily activities. I may have moved at a slower pace, but I was still determined to live my life. I continued to work when I was not in treatment and feeling strong. I carpooled my kids to their various activities whenever it was possible. I attended social functions with our friends and family -- all of these things helped me keep a sense of normal, and they helped strengthen my Attitude of Gratitude.
My husband and I learned how to meditate together. This beautiful practice helped me endure the cold caps and chemotherapy. I found the health and healing benefits of traditional Chinese medicine with the most insightful and holistic Eastern medicine practitioner. Every day I felt the love and support of my family and friends who constantly checked in, stopped by for visits, sent thoughtful gifts -- the list goes on and on. I was living my life!
I did have to put some of the things I enjoyed on hold. I found joy in walks in place of my usual strenuous workouts. Most importantly, I knew this was all temporary, a small hiccup in my journey. Yes, there were days when I could not get out of bed due to the physical side effects of chemotherapy but looking back, I can count all of those days on one hand. I realize now what a huge blessing that is -- a handful (or less) of really bad days in exchange for the rest of my life.
In the blink of an eye it was August 1, 2019. My last day of chemotherapy. It was over. The day was filled with emotion and positive energy. I had found something in myself during those five months that I never knew I had. Looking back now, it was probably always there. I was blessed to let it lie dormant, and when I needed it, I just had to muster the courage to use it.
It has been nine months since my last chemotherapy. Some days it feels like a lifetime ago, and I question that it actually happened. There are also the days when it feels so raw that I find myself gasping for air. Cancer changed the person that I am and the person that I will be in the future. I have learned to focus on my family and my health with a renewed passion. I have returned to my challenging exercise routine with even more drive and determination. I have made several significant positive changes to my previous healthy eating regimen. I have become a mentor to a woman going through the same diagnosis and treatment that I went through. I am so grateful that she came into my life, and I find that our conversations help me just as much as I know they are helping her. I have joined a woman’s cancer group that has become a safe and positive support system. Doing all of these cancer-related things post-cancer sometimes even surprises me. I went through this focusing on not being sick, looking at the prognosis as an event, something to be treated and put behind me.
My husband and I even made the conscious choice not to use the word ‘cancer’ with our children because we know, too well, the stigma that carries. And the fear. They knew I was having treatments regularly, they knew I didn’t feel well on some days, and on others we’d walk and talk and laugh and play.
For us, cancer was a heavy word while it was happening. Now, I fight with others facing cancer, and I own it, to some extent. I am a private person, and while my beautiful reddish-blond hair is a badge of who I am, I don’t need cancer carrying that same weight. I kept this experience very close within my family and my inner circle.
With it behind me, I use the experience in different ways than I would have imagined. I am more forgiving in my friendships and interactions. I realize and acknowledge that everyone has a story. They may not always be wearing that story on their sleeve, so I choose my words and reactions with care and deep consideration.
What did cancer teach me? The lessons are numerous but there is one that stands out based purely on simplicity. When people hear the word cancer, they associate it with a death sentence. I felt exactly the same way -- until one day I didn’t. That day has made all the difference. I am not a cancer survivor. The word survivor means a person who copes well with difficult situations, or a person who survives in a situation where others have died. I am not just surviving. I am living and thriving. That is my intent, that is my future. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose our reactions. My reaction is gratitude every single day.