You are your best Quarterback

You are your best Quarterback

Patty Murray

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

I learned this valuable lesson 21 years ago, just after finishing six months of intensive chemotherapy treatments, while at my radiation Oncologist’s office being fitted for my foam radiation cradle. It all began when I asked, what I perceived to be, a very straightforward question, “Where are we going to radiate, doctor?” With a puzzled look on his face, he paused, backed up and blurted, “That is a very good question. I really don’t know.” My husband and I were stunned.

It was my understanding, up to this time, that the medical community had treatment protocols for every ailment and disease. When they were confronted with a particular malady, they would apply the protocol and a certain percentage of success would be achieved. What I slowly learned during my eleven months of treatments is that there isn’t a consensus of opinion among health professionals as to how to treat any particular medical condition.

The reason I had asked the question in the first place was that there were varying opinions as to whether my excised tumor in the axilla (arm pit area) and the affected lymph node was a secondary tumor and that the primary tumor was still in my breast, which couldn’t be found during pregnancy due to a number of factors. After delivering my son, I had a breast MRI and they were convinced that the primary would be found in my breast. However, it wasn’t found because either the chemotherapy eliminated it or the primary was in the axilla which was removed during my lumpectomy. So the question, “Where to radiate?” was a reasonable one. He pushed his rolling chair away from the examination table and said that he was going to a Radiation Oncology National Conference that weekend and would consult with his colleagues. Meanwhile, he directed us to, “Go onto OncoLink and do some research. When you give me a call next week we can collaborate and see what each of us came up with.” Inside my head I was screaming, “OncoLink, a website, I don’t even have a computer.”  He advised us to go to the nearest Public Library. Thank God that the doctor’s back was to us, as my husband and I exchanged quite an impolite look.

After our initial anger, we realized that we had to become our own health quarterbacks; to take our health decision into our own hands, which took three full weeks.  We decided to phone or visit every doctor and medical center that we ever came in contact with and ask their opinion. The opinions varied greatly- from full breast radiation to a double mastectomy. Finally, we asked my medical oncologist and agreed with his decision to continue with four more rounds of a different chemotherapy and follow it up with six weeks of full breast radiation.

What we learned from this was three-fold. One, that you must take an active role in guiding and managing your health care. This is your life and you are the best one to manage your care. Otherwise, many medical mishaps could occur.

The second lesson is that once you make a decision, never look back. When you research, ask questions, weigh all the options, and then make an informed decision, embrace it and know that it is right.

The third lesson is, instead of being angry that no one has become your quarterback, realize that it is in your best interest to happily don that jersey. Instead of being a passive bystander, you are now an active participant in your healing. This fosters both your physical and mental healing. I am not unique when I say that when I was diagnosed, I was thrown into a tailspin, sensing that I was out of control. I was like a ship without a rudder, without a captain, in a sea of chaos. Once you become the quarterback or captain of your ship, you begin to feel more in control. You are now a part of the team where you transform from the passive angry patient into an active director whose actions and attitudes effectuate positive outcomes.

These lessons and the word captain reminds me of the famous scene in the movie DEAD POETS SOCIETY, starring Robin Williams, where he was a non-conformist English teacher in a New England boarding high school. He quotes Walt Whitman’s poem about Abraham Lincoln which begins, “O Captain! My Captain!” He emphasizes that words and ideas can change your world. I believe, like he, that you can change your world when you become the captain of your own ship. Williams finishes with, “Listen, you hear it… Carpe… Hear it… Carpe Diem… Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Until next time, seize your life, because it is so EXTRAORDINARY! ✿

You are your best Quarterback

“What if”- Our Invisible Thief

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

Patty Murray

ALL of our negative “What if…” thoughts are personal thieves, stealing our peace of mind and ability to live in and enjoy the present. You know them on an intimate level. Thoughts such as, “What if I can’t take my next chemo session if my white blood cell count is too low?”; “What if my teenage child gets lost and gets into a car accident?”; “What if my company is downsized, and I lose my job?”; “What if my cancer comes back?”; “What if I do not heal?”; or, the ultimate thief, “What if I’m not here anymore- what will happen to my loved ones?” I use the word “negative” because we generally don’t obsess over the positive thoughts such as, “What if I win the lottery?”, or “What if I kick the butt out of this disease?” to our psyche. The positive ones are not problematic. Perversely, however, our mind appears to be so singularly drawn to the negative like a magnet.

Therefore, a strategy must be formulated to combat those thoughts that rob our peace of mind. If we don’t, we can become figuratively and literally paralyzed by fear. It begins with mental stagnation when all you can concentrate on is the “what if” scenario. This obsession rewires your brain causing a mental fog in which you become unproductive; a feeling of “paralysis” sets in. Each one of us will have to personalize our plan of attack since we are all, as my daughter likes to say, “special snowflakes.”

First, we must be reminded that, as human beings, we possess free will and the ability to think intelligently. When these negative thoughts appear, realize that we put them there, consciously or not. That same YOU that placed them at the forefront of your mind can eliminate them. Use the mental imagery that works for you-whether it be an image of Pac Man gobbling up all the negativity or a strong wind gust which effectively forces the “what ifs” out of your mind.

However, old habits die hard and we must continually guard against returning to our negative fixations. The most effective defense is replacing our destructive musings with positive thoughts. For instance, replace, “What if my cancer metastasizes,” with “I am cancer free now and am going to enjoy my life with my family until my next medical appointment.”

Then substitute every other negative “what if” with a positive affirmation. If you don’t, your entire life may be defined by misery. Why would you do that to yourself if you possess the ability to positively change your outlook? That is insanity! It is worth emphasizing, once again, that this alleged hell-hole that we are living in is a creation of our mind. As such, once we rid ourselves of these negative mental constructions, we are free to enjoy the beautiful lives that we have been given. Dig yourself out and see the sheer wonder of life. Take a walk in the crisp fall air; breathe it in as if for the very first time. Go outdoors just as the sun is setting and be awed by the golden hue the sun casts over the bronze and russet autumn trees.

Until next time, let’s banish our invisible “what if” thieves so that we can live in peace and truly appreciate how fortunate we are to be alive. ✿

You are your best Quarterback

We are braver than we believe and stronger than we seem!

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

Patty Murray

A year or so ago my 20 year old son Patrick, who I was pregnant with when diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, gave me the idea for this article. He asked, “Was your pregnancy a great incentive to fight even harder than you might have otherwise?” I have tangentially touched upon this topic, when I shared with you my mantra, “I have no option but to live.”  Each time one of those fearful thoughts would creep into my mind, I would repeat that phrase over and over again. In the middle of the night, I would peer into my two little children’s bedrooms, stare at them while they were sleeping, and know that I just had to be around to be their mom. But I have never really attacked the question that Patrick posed. The answer is a resounding, “Yes, I fought all the fiercer because I was pregnant!-” Each time I rubbed my belly I said, “I have to make it because I so want to be his mom forever!”

Once I got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant and processed the fact that what should have been one the happiest times in my life became a virtual nightmare, I began to view it as a blessing. This realization then became a source of strength.  I heard similar views from many Hope for Two members. They say, “If it wasn’t for my pregnancy, perhaps I wouldn’t have listened to my symptoms and been diagnosed so early.” Or, “Thank God I was pregnant because the pregnancy hormones speed up the cancer’s growth and it may have been left unnoticed for years.” Some may think that this is a Pollyanna-like approach- wearing rose colored glasses, but I think not. When given a choice between thinking positively or negatively, I always choose the positive option. If you are wrong, then you lose nothing. But if you choose the negative option and then are wrong, all the damaging effects of negativity-higher blood pressure, depression, mental fog, increased pulse rate- have unnecessarily harmed you.

Also, being diagnosed with cancer while pregnant only heightens what all mothers wish for themselves and their children- to dream of their child going to school, graduating from high school, and other wonderful milestones. When my son was five months old, a nurse tried to rob me of those dreams, but I wouldn’t let her. When I was done with my last chemotherapy, I marched into my surgeon’s office to have my port removed.  That nurse said that I would have to keep it in for at least a year, because with my grade and stage of cancer I probably will have a metastasis within the year. I told my husband, “This thing is coming out today!” It was the will to be there for my children that gave me the strength to fight and to be so convicted that day.

Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with my second breast cancer, my daughter Molly shared with me the following saying on a card that I carried with me for over a year.

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember-
You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” 

 -Christopher Robin to Winnie to Pooh

I hung onto those words during the initial dark days and I turn to them today as I once again defeat cancer.

May we keep on tapping into that strength that breaks through during times of struggle; and when we find we have some extra, may we share it with others and bolster those that are running a bit low. Until next time, be strong, and always remember to hope! ✿

You are your best Quarterback

The New Normal: Learn to Embrace

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

Patty Murray

Immediately after my treatments ceased for breast cancer nineteen years ago, I remember saying to myself, “I couldn’t wait for my life to get ‘back to normal’.” Since that time, I have heard that refrain hundreds if not thousands of times, both while carrying out our mission at Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network and as a keen observer of humanity. I’ve realized that while a person is in treatment or undergoing a life crisis, they long for their past life, before the storm. They sometimes even romanticize those “normal days” as idyllic. However, if they truly took off their rose colored glasses, they would realize that their “normalcy” was dotted with troubles and worries as well.  Still, the yearning continues until a realization slaps us in the face- that you will never return to your past life again.  This is your new normal!

At first, you are resentful. Yet, you slowly learn to accept the new norm and with a tweak here and there in your attitude, you can truly embrace it. I’ve come to appreciate that nothing ever stays the same anyway. So why torture yourself to strive for something that you can never obtain? In a college Philosophy course, we read from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who stated that, “the only thing constant is change itself.” Furthermore, in our science classes, we studied the term entropy, which is the concept that there is a lack of order and any sense of predictability in physics. So change is a constant. Likewise, Biological research has shown that some tissues in the body replace cells at different rates and that most of the cells largely replace themselves every seven to ten years. Natural law, Philosophy and the sciences conclusively show that we are constantly changing and regenerating.

Despite this perpetual change, we humans continue to resist and wish to retreat to our old comfort zones. This is self-destructive thinking because not only does it fail to mirror reality but it consistently violates our laws of nature. Therefore, if our crisis, health issue, or loss modified our circumstances in life, and if change is the constant, then we should accept that our new normal is “normal.” This is what logicians call a tautology, or a sound logical argument.

But I would call it one of life’s lessons. I am now grateful to be afforded a new life, different though it may be. Until next time, may we be thankful for our lives, however altered they are, and realize how truly lucky we are to be alive. ✿


You are your best Quarterback

No quotas in life – Be vigilant

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

Patty Murray

When driving home after my initial cancer diagnosis 20 years ago, all of the trials and losses in my life flashed before my mind. I silently screamed, “God, didn’t I endure enough? Didn’t I meet my quota?!” But what I had only begun to learn then and KNOW now is simply stated… THAT THERE AREN’T ANY QUOTAS YOU FILL FOR EITHER THE BAD OR GOOD EVENTS IN YOUR LIFE. That is why I believe follow-up doctor visits and scans are vital.

While in a waiting room at a major cancer center where I was seeking a second opinion for my next course of treatment in 1996, I overheard a secretary making phone calls to patients who have missed their follow ups. When it was my turn to be summoned to the window, I asked her if it is a common occurrence that so many people either forget or choose not to come back. Her answer of “Yes, it is sadly more typical” made my head reel. Why would people miss appointments? At the time, my doctor visits and treatments were my lifeline. I was physically doing something to eradicate the disease.

After completing 11 months of treatments, I felt like a raft out to sea- lost. However, the check-ups began. For the first 3 years we either had a physician’s appointment or scan practically once a month. At first these visits were comforting- I was doing something again to prevent recurrence. Slowly, however, as time passed, the comfort was replaced by near paralyzing fear prior to each visit. Finally, my patience wore thin one day after waiting over 2 hours for a medical test and doing this check-up routine for 36 months straight. I stood up and began to walk out. My husband caught up to me but not before I blurted, “Why am I doing this?  All they are going to tell me someday is that I have cancer somewhere.”   I expressed these feelings to my oncologist but he compassionately disagreed with me. He said that generally one of two things will occur at a follow up- be told that you are cancer free or that, since you have been consistently going to appointments and scans, you have an early stage cancer and can be cured again. So for 18 years I trekked to each one and was advised that I was cancer free.

However, last April, after a routine breast MRI, they called me into the radiologist’s office. Her initial remark was revealing, “When did you have your first breast cancer?” I knew I had breast cancer again- Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. It never showed up on the mammogram that followed. Instead of feeling shocked or depressed, I was ANGRY. I had already done the breast cancer thing- right?! Since I had a lumpectomy and radiation in the same breast before, I needed a mastectomy. No chemo or radiation was recommended, and, since it was estrogen positive I will be on a hormone suppressant for either 5 or 10 years.  This didn’t seem to make sense to me as I was robbed of most of my estrogen by being thrown into chemotherapy induced menopause at age 35. Shouldn’t this count for something? Although I had minimal amounts of estrogen floating around in my body to begin with, the tumor was ironically estrogen positive.

Again, no quotas for anyone and sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. But humor and perspective help you get through it all. Ironically, my husband and I shared a deep laugh at the breast surgeon’s office last May. The doctor had made 10 minute DVD’s of each type of breast cancer to be viewed before seeing him. While popping in the DVD for Stage 0, which I didn’t have, the nurse added, “If you are to have breast cancer, you want this one since it is totally curable.” Minutes into the tape the nurse bolted into the room, “Sorry this is the wrong tape.” After she left, we laughed out loud. It was either that or to cry. But there was no need to be upset. I beat it once and will do so again.

Fortunately, I was given a strong dose of perspective days before my surgery. I had already had the requisite tests performed at the hospital such as an EKG, blood work, etc. when I received a phone call from my primary physician’s office. They wanted me to have an additional blood test. This seemed strange. I did so and in the opening moments of my Doctor’s appointment, my nurse said, “Too bad you are going to have to cancel your surgery.” “What?” I cried.  My doctor came in and told me that the initial blood work from the hospital showed a very high white blood cell count and evidence of “smudge cells.”  “The cell count has to go down considerably before performing surgery,” he said. He explained that my blood results were consistent with a type of leukemia. My world went spinning again. I had to wait 30 long hours for the results of the second blood test. The doctor personally called and said that the white cell count, while still high, was within the acceptable range and no smudge cells. Surgery was still on. I was so happy just to have breast cancer and not leukemia as well. Funny, huh, to be happy to only have one type of cancer- but that was my reality. The high counts were probably attributed to an infection I had while visiting my son while he was studying abroad; I had just come home. Perspective helps and so does carrying on with “Life”.

So, life does not have a quota system, where once you’ve met a threshold of trials in your life, the rest is clear sailing. It doesn’t happen that way. But, thank God, it doesn’t happen that way with the happy events either. Therefore, keep up with your follow-ups and check-ups. Life is truly an amazing journey. Some trips are filled with beautiful sunsets and memorable events and others are dotted with the occasional flat tire or something worse. We are lucky enough to be on the ride. Until next time, we should all “be happy we’re here,” as my Mom used to say to us as kids.  And isn’t she right? ✿

You are your best Quarterback

Buoys of Love

By: Patty Murray, Chairwoman and Co-founder of Hope for Two…The Pregnant with Cancer Network

Patty Murray

I am penning this article while sipping on my afternoon homemade espresso and nibbling on a coconut macaroon. My mom recently gave me a few packets of these cookies after hearing of the possible health benefits of coconut for a colon infection that I developed subsequent to taking strong antibiotics after a recent surgery. This article is about the macaroon, the notes, dinners, prayers, flowers, and the small and thoughtful gifts. They are the loving life buoys that not only keep the receiver afloat but lift up the giver as well.

Several weeks back, when I was beginning to feel more like myself after my illness, I had lunch with a longtime good friend. Once into our conversation, she said, “I didn’t know what to do when you were ill so I emailed you periodically and sent good thoughts and prayers your way.”  Her voice trailed off and up as if to ask if that was OK. I emphatically said. “YES!” If the spirit moves you to act, then do so. It doesn’t matter what form your kindness comes in, so long as the receiver knows you care. People are not aware of the many ways their acts of kindness aid a person going through a difficult time, no matter what her case may be. Little acts help not only in the present, but also during the course of the person’s difficulty, and in the long term as well.

Obviously it aids in the moment: a dinner is provided for them or they smile when they see that someone sent them a note, text, email, or small gift, and they grin even wider when they read the kind words. Also, seemingly insignificant gestures assist during the course of their adversity because these niceties help them maintain a positive attitude. They truly buoy their spirit, which is scientifically proven to assist in the healing process. As a bonus, these buoys additionally help out long term because each time the person uses the gift, remembers the dinners, emails, and texts, and looks at the saved notes she is lifted up once again. As a result, these loving acts have such far reaching effects on a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I still have the eight inch high stack of notes from nineteen years ago and the notes from my most recent health issue are still gracing my kitchen hutch cabinet. Those memories of the thoughtful kindnesses are reminders that people love and care about me, which give me the strength to persevere and have hope for a complete recovery.

Interestingly, those same acts of kindness also benefit the giver. The giver genuinely just wants to give out of the goodness of her heart. Yet as a by-product of her kind act, she in turn receives a “helper’s high,” which is a sense of euphoria, followed by feelings of calmness and serenity. Also, many studies have shown that altruism greatly diminishes stress and two neurotransmitters are released in the body in greater numbers: endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and serotonin, which imparts feelings of well-being and happiness. Nineteen years ago when treated for Breast cancer, I was very reluctant to accept any help. When asked if I needed anything, I would quickly say, “No thanks, we have everything covered.” But, I learned two things. One is that no didn’t always mean no. Sometimes, inside I was screaming yes but said no. Also, I was finally enlightened, that by denying someone the opportunity to assist another person, denied them those great feelings which result from giving. So the “gift” is basically a two for one deal.

I feel that Hope for Two is a life buoy. Our mission is to walk with our women, to give them important information, and to lift them up during their cancer journey. Our hearts truly jump with joy each time we are sent a testimonial telling us that we have made a difference in the lives of our members. Until next time, let us all continue to send out love to others, in whatever form it takes, so they know that they are not alone and to give them Hope for a better tomorrow. ✿