You.

March 19th, 2017

Dear Ryan,

Last year I was in my own hell. Every day I woke up and immediately looked forward to the day being over, because it meant that I was that much closer to being done. Aside from the physical pain and losing all my hair, the mental and emotional exhaustion of the unknown was more toxic than any of the chemotherapy. After ten months of consistently smiling through the pain and protecting everyone around me from negativity, I was simply tired. Tired of having to take care of myself day in and day out. I will never forget the feeling I had after receiving my last treatment…pure relief. I could finally continue living my normal life.

Although my treatment was over, I knew that it would take some time to find true happiness in my everyday life. All I wanted was an external source of happiness that wasn’t my own doing. Someone to put a smile on my face when I needed it and take care of me when I am too tired to take care of myself. At that point, I knew I was okay on my own…but I wanted someone who could appreciate the person I am and find beauty in me when I can’t see it. And then came you.

You have shattered my idea of love into pieces of happiness that I never knew I could feel. The fact that we met when I was balder than a baby’s bottom demonstrates how easily you have seen through my flaws and appreciate the person I am. My physical identity was stripped out from under me, and I’ve consistently had to convince myself that hair doesn’t define who I am. On days when I look in the mirror and miss my long, beautiful hair… I think about you. Not one day has passed without you telling me how beautiful you think I am. You make me feel more special and beautiful than I’ve ever felt. Each time I’m with you its as if you strip all of the worries that are locked in my head away and remind me to enjoy the moment and take one day at a time.

There were times that my own reflection terrified me. I didn’t recognize myself without a follicle of hair on my entire body. I became very good at avoiding mirrors…but there is one thing I consistently did when I felt like my world was collapsing. In the moments when I felt like I was losing myself, I would stare at myself in the mirror until I could see past the ugliness and find the old me. The only way I could do this was by looking straight into my eyes…my eyes helped prove to me that I was still in there somewhere. They were the only part of my body that hadn’t changed. I’ve never told anyone that, and honestly never thought I would. The only reason why I’m telling you this now is because of your obsession with my eyes. Sometimes when I talk, I know you aren’t listening because you are literally lost in my eyes. It may sound crazy, but even if you had never said the words…I know that you love me. One of my favorite things about you is that ever since our first date, you have never looked at me differently….and I don’t think you ever will.

Before you…the future terrified me. Negative thoughts crept into my mind thinking about the chance of ever having to go through treatment again. Even though it is still a possibility that I avoid thinking about, it simply doesn’t matter anymore. Every time I’ve hinted at this fear, you have buried it with ease and reminded me that there is absolutely nothing I can do about my future. Everything will happen as it may, and regardless I will be okay. You will never truly understand how much I appreciate and cherish your view of the world. Out of everything you’ve taught me, seeing beauty in the future is a lesson I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life.

I love that I could write this letter for hours and hours and never get tired of thinking about all the reasons why I love you. If I could flaunt you to the world, I’d do it in a heartbeat just for everyone to know what it truly means to love someone. Everyone deserves a reality that is better than their dreams, and every girl deserves to be treated like the queen they are. Thank you for the smiles and the laughter, the sighs and happy tears, the kisses and hugs, the adventures, and most importantly… the crown on my bald little head.

Words aren’t enough,

Eileen

IMG_1493Love is this letter.

Breathe.

Breathing is one of our many instinctual actions at birth. Our body systems automatically synchronize in perfect unison to produce one simple breath. Although the biological explanation is complicated, for the most part breathing is an unconscious and easy task to perform. However, the frequency of our breath can change with each emotion, movement, and stressful situation we face. In moments of fear or surprise, we gasp in a deep breath of air. In moments of sorrow, finding a breath sometimes feels like an never ending marathon. Breathing is a pretty simple pattern that can drastically change in the absence of our control.

After being dealt a consistent flow of anger, sadness, and confusion for ten months.. breathing has literally and figuratively saved my life. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the strong, smiley, and unstoppable person you’re used to seeing. I have my moments of weakness, because I’m human. It is in these moments, when I feel like my world is collapsing, that I simply remember to breathe.

I’m not talking about little, shallow, infant-like breaths. When you feel like the world is against you and nothing else could go wrong, try taking three long, deep, and desperate breaths… I think you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel. Obviously this won’t solve all your problems and kiss your sorrows goodbye. BUT, I can promise that it will calm you down and allow you to regroup your thoughts.

Our strength is tested by the reaction we have to adversity. I know if my mind is filled with negative emotions, it completely masks my ability to rationally handle a situation. Instead of turning to anger, sadness, or denial… take a moment to breathe, calm your emotions, and focus your mind on finding the strength you need to overcome the crappy hand that life has given you at the moment.

Not only did this help me throughout my treatment, but I know it will continue to help me in the future. Although cancer does not define who I am, it has obviously altered my ‘normal.’ There are still many reasons why I need to remain patient with my life. I have to be patient for my hair to grow back, I have to be patient for the nerves in my feet to fully regenerate, and most importantly I have to be patient with my body to recover from being internally mauled by a bear. I know I will still experience these moments, and I’m thankful that I’ve found the simple task of breathing to help me. It may sound strange, but the next time you find yourself in a cloud of negativity…give it a try.

I started this journey with a breath of fear. Now, while walking across the Virginia Tech Drillfield, a smile consumes my face followed by a huge sigh of relief…I did it. I can finally continue living my life instead of just surviving.

A thank you letter

Dear cancer,

First off, I want to make it apparent that this letter is in no way, shape, or form, a compliment to you in any way. This thank you letter doesn’t discount the fact that you are scum on this earth, and deserve to rot in hell for all of the lives that you have ruined. Even though I could sit here and write this entire post cursing your name..I think I’ve done enough of that. You may have taken a few pieces of my spine and made me miss almost an entire year of college, but here is a list of the reasons why you have changed my life in so many positive ways while I proceeded to kick your ass…

Thank you for…

  • letting me throw away all my razors.
  • allowing me to consistently experience the hidden kindness of strangers.
  • showing me the true meaning of community.
  • creating an indescribable bond in my family.
  • teaching me what it means to be a reliable medical practitioner.
  • making my Mom and I live in Baltimore and experience their amazing calamari.
  • challenging my patience.
  • forcing me to be confident in the person I am.
  • saving me money on hair supplies.
  • highlighting the value of friendship.
  • teaching me how to be there for someone who has to deal with you.
  • making me relate to the elderly population while using my grandma’s walker for a month.
  • reminding me to appreciate the little things in life.
  • making me a germaphobe.
  • giving me the opportunity to impact other lives.
  • making my skin softer than a baby’s bottom.
  • reminding me that things could always be worse.
  • giving me the opportunity to help other families whose lives are screwed up by you.
  • giving me the confidence to write these blogs.
  • solidifying my passion to give back to the medical field.
  • reminding me that humor truly is the best medicine.
  • making parents teach their children that they shouldn’t yell… “MOMMY SHE HAS NO HAIR” in public. 🙂
  • letting me catch up on my Netflix shows.
  • strengthening my makeup skills.
  • putting me on national television.
  • allowing me to contribute to research..so that one day you’ll finally disappear.
  • making me look like an emoji.
  • reminding me that this world is a truly beautiful place.

The list could go on and on.

No, you do not define who I am…no, I will never forgive the pain you made me experience..and no, I won’t apologize for being stronger than you.

I’ll forever be proud of the person you have driven me to be. After dealing with you, I know there is nothing I can’t handle.

Sincerely,

Your worst nightmare

The three p’s

 

Proactive, patient, and positive. These are the three most powerful adjectives I’ve held onto throughout this nine month journey. These words have strengthened my confidence, solidified my values, and challenged me on countless occasions. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this post, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for them too.

~proactive~

Never be afraid to ask a question. Each of us are culprits of letting fear take over our ability to ask someone a question. Personally, I think not knowing the answer to a question is worse than knowing the answer…even if it is not the answer we want to hear.  I’m not trying to sound like a motivational speaker here… but it’s true. Asking questions is one of the healthiest and most proactive things you can do. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a sign of weakness or immaturity, because it’s not. The only way we can learn and be proactive individuals is if we continue to ask questions.

Here is a perfect example of how my proactive mom significantly impacted my future:

While my mom was waiting for my ambulance to arrive at the LewisGale Medical Center in Salem, VA, she was told several important details: 1) I was being transported to Salem to see a specific neurosurgeon; 2) The name of this neurosurgeon; and, 3) Surgery was a definite possibility to remove whatever was compressing my spinal cord. After receiving this news my mother Googled his name and somehow found his direct contact info. He miraculously answered the phone and she immediately asked if she could meet with him before I arrived. She learned that he was the on-call surgeon for that night, meaning he was not physically at the hospital. He explained that he knew my case and would come to see me the next morning. She refused to wait that long to see him and explained how much worse the nerve damage had progressed in my legs in just one day. Once I arrived in Salem, I was placed in an ICU room. Before we knew it…in walked my neurosurgeon.

If my mother had not been proactive in asking those concerning, uncomfortable questions, I probably would have lost full feeling in my legs over night and be living in a wheel chair today.

~patient~

I am currently in my last month of treatment and it’s surprisingly been the most difficult out of all nine months. The resilience my body has shown in the face of trauma has been overwhelming. Despite basically getting internally mauled by a bear every week, my body always manages to fight back and return to normalcy. My mental state, however, has been tested beyond measure and this final month will be no different. Staying patient continues to be my hardest battle.

As a result of this experience, I have developed a renowned sense of appreciation for what it means to be truly patient. Our patience is constantly tested in our every day lives and all of us are forced to exhibit some restraint. But, there is an entirely different level of patience required when thinking about the future.

The best analogy I can think of is a bruise. When a part of our body receives hard impact our skin turns several shades of blue and is very sensitive to the touch. With time it heals back to normal and the pain subsides. I like to compare my patience to a bruise. But, instead of having time to heal, this bruise receives impact over and over and over again. Never giving it proper time to heal. If I picture my patience as a bruise, it would look like a disgusting mass of black and blue, with a glorious hematoma resting beneath my skin…sorry for the details.

As difficult as this battle of patience has been, I know how close I am to being a normal human again. If I have already experienced and overcome more than eight months of this…what’s another month?

~positive~

Surrounding myself with positivity is one of the main reasons why you see a smile on my face every day. I can confidently say that I have always made an effort to be a positive person throughout my life. Sorry, but pessimistic people are the worst. There is a difference between being a realist and simply always finding something negative in a situation.

People constantly ask me, how do you stay so positive? Well, I guess my answer would be… negativity just simply is not an option. Just imagine how difficult it would have been for everyone to watch me be consumed by this disease…Yes…I had emergency spinal surgery. Yes…I lost feeling in my legs and had to re-learn how to walk, run, jump, etc. And, Yes…I have been through hell and back enduring nine months of chemo. As terrible as all of those things are and will continue to be… my life could still be worse.

Most importantly, being a positive person has helped me process and accept what has happened. It has also given me the opportunity to do amazing things and meet some amazing people. It has been a goal of mine to not let this define who I am. Instead, I’ve grown from these challenges and allowed these adverse experiences to shape me into the person I am today. As I have always said…in the midst of this terrible storm, I am choosing to dance in the rain.

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Surviving vs. Living

One of the hardest things I’ve had to accept, is that my only true job for the next five months of my life is to survive. While that sounds super intense and a bit dramatic..its true. No one, besides myself, expects me to accomplish anything of substance during my treatment besides getting better. I’ll be the first to say that IT SUCKS. Although I’m trying to be as productive as possible, the fact that I don’t have the ability to truly LIVE is simply miserable.

There is a HUGE difference between surviving and living. It is very easy to get caught up in our routines and societies expectations for success. I am not saying that a drive for success is a bad thing at all. Without this drive, I would not be handling my situation very well. But, with the passion to succeed comes a new responsibility. We have to remember to remove our blinders every once in a while to see the world in a new light.

We have been placed in this amazing world with endless possibilities, and you should never find yourself just settling for what works. Your only true responsibility in life is to live a HAPPY life. Instead of being content or comfortable… be obsessed and passionate about your lifestyle. If you had to write a paper about your life, make your life a novel and not a 10 page paper.

I hate to put it this way, but think about if what has happened to me happened to you tomorrow. Of course I would never wish this upon ANYONE. But, it may be helpful for you to realize that it is pretty easy to just survive in the life that we have. Instead, think about the type of life you could have if you reassessed, stepped out of your comfort zone, and took a risk to do what makes you happy. I can’t guarantee that you won’t hit bumps along the way, but it is better to experience diversity than to always wonder what could be.

Be passionate, be optimistic, and be obsessed with the life that you live.

kind•ness

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“If we all do one random act of kindness daily, we might just set the world in the right direction.” -Martin Kornfeld

Ever since I lost all of my hair, I have received much more kindness from strangers than in the past. I could probably count on two hands the number of times I have opened a door for myself in public in the past three months. If I drop something, someone picks it up for me before I have time to bend down to get it. If I cross paths with someone, they are the first to move out of the way before I can react. I’ve had at least three different random people pay for my Starbucks, and I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been complimented out of the blue by someone I don’t know. No one, I mean no one, has been rude to me. Every single positive interaction with a stranger has uplifted my spirits in many ways.

The unfortunate part about these acts of kindness is the fact that I’m surprised. I wish I wasn’t surprised when strangers are nice. I wish I wasn’t surprised when strangers do favors for me. And most of all I wish I wasn’t surprised when strangers give me compliments.

Just think about it.. when’s the last time you complimented a stranger.. or bought someone Starbucks because you just felt like it? The next time you find yourself standing in a silent elevator, instead of burying your head into your phone..consider breaking the silence and interacting with the people around you. By doing random acts of kindness, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how much happier you feel by the end of the day. Odds are you will have some fun and interesting stories to tell in the long run.

Clearly these things happen all the time, but I think it would be a wonderful thing if it wasn’t so rare. I’d love to live in a world where I don’t have to lose my hair in order for strangers to consistently do and say kind things because they pity me. I’d like to think I am partially responsible for the happiness of strangers. It is amazing how a simple act of kindness can impact a person’s life in a tremendous way.

Obviously I don’t think the earth is only filled with nasty people. If anything, this journey has highlighted the existence of many genuinely kind and beautiful people. But a world with more pleasant interactions with strangers would simply be a healthier and happier world.

As Ellen would say…. “Be kind to one another, BYE.”

 

Let it go.

I used to be one of the most type A people I knew and, unfortunately, it got a little out of control. (So, for my friends and family who have ever wanted to punch me in the face….thanks for putting up with me.) I was the annoying roommate who changed the thermostat from 69 to 68.. because, of course, that would save us SO much money. I kept a daily calendar in my computer and blocked out individual slots for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (I wish I was kidding). I wouldn’t let myself spontaneously go out to eat with friends on a Sunday night because I HAD to study for an exam that was on THURSDAY. Anyways, I thankfully realized recently that, not only were some of these habits completely ridiculous and uptight, but they were holding me back from living a balanced (let alone exciting) life.

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After my surgery/diagnosis I reflected on some of these old habits and my perspective has changed entirely. I now find myself just letting the small things go. I’ve hit a reality check,
and realized that life could always be much worse. Whether it be letting my sister borrow my shoes the first time she asks and genuinely not caring, or randomly going to a winery with friends instead of studying for the GRE..I have simply learned to relax. We all have our own unique type A tendencies, and yours might not be as extreme as some of mine. But, the next time you’re stressed out, consider asking yourself this question…

Will this matter five years from now?

Most likely the answer will be no.

Relax.. If your sister ruins your shoes when she borrows them, I promise your life isn’t over (she can buy you another pair). Be flexible.. If an old friend asks to get lunch at 11:00am and you were just about to go grocery shopping, change your schedule and go enjoy a nice lunch. Let it go..If you’re sitting in traffic and some moron decides to cut you off, honk your horn, be angry for a minute, and consider the possibility that he’s having a really hard day. Imagine a world where everyone let the small things go… I bet it’d be a pretty happy place. Five years from now you probably won’t even remember the pair of shoes your sister ruined; however, chances are, you will remember that one lunch you had with that old friend from college.

Let’s all be like Elsa and just let it go (sorry.. had to).

Be confident.

We all worry about what other people think. Whether we like it or not, our lives are surrounded  by the opinions of others. As much as you try and convince yourself that it doesn’t affect you, it does. It is human nature to want to be liked and respected by those that surround you. I hate to say it, but if you constantly base decisions off of other peoples opinions, you will most likely find yourself unhappy and lost down the road. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that worrying about what other people think is a bad thing. It is clearly necessary to a certain extent. But, it is important to find a balance between simply being a people pleaser and finding who you are.

001 (1)Clearly none of us know exactly who we are, or life would be pretty boring. We are constantly presented with conflicts and controversial scenarios in each of our lives. It is our job to figure out what we believe about those situations, in order to eventually build a strong belief system. It is extremely easy to follow the majority without looking into the fine details and building an opinion of our own.

We are all culprits of answering a question in the form of a question.  You could be caught doing it while talking to your boss, answering a question in class, being questioned by your friends, or simply trying to offer your opinion to your family. Unfortunately, this says a lot about how much you believe in yourself as a person. I’m here to try and break you of this habit. BE CONFIDENT. Answer questions confidently and firmly stand behind your beliefs. If you don’t have an opinion on a particular topic, then own up to it and do something about it. Research, read, watch, ask..do something and make your own opinion before you let the opinions of others take over who you are.

I have always been a strong person. But, I will be the first to say that I have always worried about what other people think. Ever since my life hit a small speed bump, I have realized how important it is to be confident in who you are. Instead of trying to give people the answer they want to hear, I try my hardest to answer questions genuinely. If I don’t know what I think about a certain situation, I take the time to absorb the facts and figure out exactly what I believe. Of course I don’t know exactly who I am. But, I will say that I’m happier today than I ever have been..despite the circumstances.

Bottom line is..

Don’t let something bad happen to you for you to realize that you are an amazing person. Be confident in who you are and flaunt your bad ass ways.

Follow your gut.

We all have it. A gut, intuition, instinct..whatever you prefer to call it, we all have it. This tiny little thing inside of us that tells us what we believe, whether we like it or not. Each and every one of us is faced with hundreds of decisions to make on a daily basis. I don’t know about you, but I’m not the best at making decisions. In the past two months, I’ve made more decisions than any 20-year-old ever should. Aside from all of the people that have supported me so far, I can thank my gut for where I am today. Here are a couple of examples of when this tiny little thing came in handy..

The first night I had horrible back pain, I knew something was wrong. Despite taking a muscle relaxer and pain medication, the pain only worsened. Two ER visits later, I was diagnosed with bronchitis and had apparently torn a muscle in my back from coughing. As an athlete, (or so I like to think) I know what muscle pain feels like. About a week had gone by of minimal sleep, (and studying on narcotics) and the pain just wasn’t getting any better. The minute I woke up feeling tingling in my toes, I didn’t care what the doctors were telling me..there was no way I had only torn a muscle. Loooong story short, I followed my gut. I made the appointments, saw who I needed to see, and found the problem.

Our society places doctors and medical practitioners on a throne where no mistakes can be made. In reality, everyone makes mistakes. I’m not writing this to blame those doctors for the nerve damage I still have in my legs. I’m writing this to tell you that if you ever have to make a difficult decision, listen to your gut. Because honestly, I probably would be paralyzed right now if I hadn’t.

The neurosurgeon looked at my mother and me and told us that this “thing” in my spine needed to removed in the next thirty minutes. Immediately my mother started rambling off..Who is this doctor? Do we need a second opinion? Why does it need to be removed tonight? ..all normal questions that I wasn’t allowing myself to ask. I think that was the first time in my entire life where I knew what was best for myself before she did.  To this day I will never understand how I looked at my mother and told her I would be okay. I guess you could say I lied to her face, because clearly I had no idea if that was true. With the surgeon waiting for the go ahead, I told my mother exactly what she needed to hear. Thirty minutes later, I was in Bora Bora (as I informed my anesthesiologist) enjoying a margarita with my feet in the sand.

Keep it simple. Follow your gut.