Sunday, May 29, 2011

Vanity Can Be The Death Of You: This Is My Story…

When I was a child, my brother, sister, friends and I spent most of our summers at the local swimming pool. Through the week there were swimming lessons in the morning, public swimming in the afternoon and, on occasion, public swimming in the evening. Between dips in the water we would spread our towels out on the black asphalt, lie on our stomachs and bake in the afternoon sun, trying to see who could get the darkest tan. I have to admit that I was in it to win it. The sun felt good on my skin and in my soul, and I could almost feel my skin darken more and more with each passing day. As a child, I didn’t sunburn so I didn’t have to wait to heal before lying out in the sun again. I didn't get my first real sunburn until I was 16 years old.

When I started my first full time job, I spent my summer lunchtimes walking the few blocks to the park with my sun tan oil, and soaking up as many midday rays as I could. (I loved the smell of my coconut scented tanning oil.) I’d go to the beach in my bikini to make sure every possible inch of me got good and brown – that ‘healthy’ glow. I got a few ‘good’ sunburns in my twenties as the only sunscreen I knew of back then was the umbrella sticking out from the centre of the patio table.

Just before I turned thirty I went to see the doctor…what about, I can’t recall. Before I left the office I happened to mention to her that I had a mole on the back of my right thigh that was so itchy I would scratch it until it bled. On examination she immediately made arrangements for a biopsy. It was fortunate I hadn’t ignored it.

I got the diagnosis four days after my thirtieth birthday; malignant melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers. I was in shock. It’s not that I hadn’t understood why I had had the biopsy, as I knew she was testing for melanoma, it’s that I hadn’t really believed it could possibly be cancer - that happened to other people…it couldn’t happen to me! So many things ran through my head at that moment that I don’t think I heard half of what the doctor said following the diagnosis. Many people in my extended family had had cancer, most of whom had died, and I thought, “I have cancer, what now? How bad is it? Will I need Chemo or radiation?  What will happen to my two young children if I die?” I also wondered how I would tell my husband, whose youngest sister had died of cancer, that now his wife had cancer. I didn’t want him to have to go through that again.

It would be a week before I saw the oncology surgeon and learned what I had in store, and I found myself dwelling on the fact that I had cancer. I had a Halloween party planned for my two young children and their friends to take place in three days time and I didn’t know how I was going to manage it. No matter what I did or to whom I was talking, in the back of my mind I was always thinking, “I have cancer, I have cancer” it was like a mantra…I was obsessed with the thought.

It was Halloween day when I saw the surgeon for the first time and learned my fate was not as dire as I had dreaded; it was stage one. I had never realized the truth in the expression ‘Like a weight lifted off of my shoulders’ until then. I literally felt lighter.

I had surgery a week later in which the surgeon excised a one inch area around the biopsied site and used a skin graft from an adjacent area to cover the wound (Rhomboid flap). I was scheduled to see the surgeon one week after the surgery, and then every three months thereafter for the first year before it was cut back to every six months. I have had three other suspicious moles removed over the years, all of which proved to be non-malignant, thankfully.

It’s funny, for a long time after my surgery, even though I had always gotten a clean bill of health, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hadn’t had chemo or radiation and I felt that I had gotten off to easy; like I had cheated at cards and won and soon someone would yell ‘Aha! Gotcha! Now pay up.’ I didn’t feel worthy of calling myself a cancer survivor, I felt I hadn’t earned that title. It wasn’t until I heard other cancer survivors speak that I realized I had been thinking about it all wrong. My body had been invaded by a potentially deadly growth. It had been cut into, a piece taken out and a large scar left as a reminder. The sun which I had worshipped all my life was now my mortal enemy. And the fear of recurrence was ever present. Cancer had affected my life in a very real and substantial way.

Now for the part which I know some of you will roll your eyes at…just as I would have back in the day. The preaching.

Melanoma can kill you. Vanity is not worth your life. Sunlight is important for good health, but even a light tan is a sign of skin damage, even after the tan fades the damage remains and builds with each subsequent tan or burn. Not everyone who tans will develop melanoma just as not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer, but the risk is increased. And if a family member has had it, your chances are, yet again, increased. At the very least it will age your skin and who wants to look older than you should?
Scar, nineteen years later

Skin cancer is now the fastest growing cancer, and one of the most preventable. More educated minds than mine have done the work and have concluded that the best way to avoid the possibility of skin cancer is to limit direct sun exposure by covering up and using sunscreen of 30 or more. (I personally like the Neutrogena with helioplex, as it is the only one which I have tried so far that feels light and non-greasy.) And eighty percent of UV rays travel through clouds and fog, so don’t forget to cover up on cloudy days. For those of you who believe sun beds are better, all I can say is that some tanning beds expose you to five times the amount of UV rays than the sun and that the World Health Organization has upgraded the classification of UV emitting devices, such as tanning beds, from a probable carcinogen, to a KNOWN carcinogen. Remember, any tan (not from a bottle or spray) is skin damage.

Everyone has free will and can decide for themselves what they are willing or not willing to do to protect themselves. And some people will continue to tan regardless of what anyone says but, as far as I’m concerned, I will cover up and protect the largest organ of my body…my skin. I don’t intend to be the corpse with that lovely cancerous glow.

*This is a great blog, check it out

*Another melanoma warrior has lost his battle. RIP Uncle Floyd.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Mother's Pride, In The Name Of Love! (My apologies to U2)

If pride really is a deadly sin, then I must be dying and going to hell, as I am bursting with pride for my daughter. After four years of university - with its poor eating habits, all night paper writing sessions, stressing, studying, studying and more studying - my daughter recently made her way across the stage to receive her diploma. It is a particularly proud and exciting time for me as she is the first in her family to get a degree - her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins inclusive.
I did not attend university, so I could not advise my daughter as to what to expect during her post-secondary schooling. One of the schools which offered the program my daughter wanted to pursue was one my older sister had attended for a time and had enjoyed. It was a great school, not far from home, so the choice was made.

When my husband and I moved our daughter into her dorm room on that first day I encouraged her to engage in the frosh week activities so as to meet new people. And I was glad she had a roommate to keep her from becoming too homesick. Unfortunately, her roommate was even more homesick than my daughter and spent the first few weekends of school back home with her parents. Eventually, her roommate settled in and they became good friends, but those first few weeks were hard, as I worried about her being away from home, and homesickness had her emailing every day.

Her independence grew through the years. In her second year she had her own dorm room, her third year she shared an apartment with a friend and this fourth and final year, her own apartment.

So now, four years later, it is the time for her, and a multitude of other university students, to step into the real world and find out if the student loans were all worth it. After seventeen or more years of schooling, they face a future without a classroom. It is a time for them to ponder, “Now what?” They may wonder, “Do I use what I’ve learned to begin my career? Are there any openings in my chosen field? Do I go back to school? Can I afford to go back to school?” My hope is that a degree will give my daughter more choices and make life a little easier for her. Isn’t it the hope of all parents for their children to have a better life than themselves?
It was the thought of this hope and pride for my daughter that made it hard for me to hold back my emotions on that special day as my daughter went from graduand to graduate and I said to myself, "I am the mother of a university graduate." I find that tears well up in my eyes even now as I write those words. If pride is wrong, then I don't want to be right.
As she hangs her hard earned diploma on the wall, my daughter’s first thoughts are to kick back and de-stress for a bit before heading back into the work force. I suppose she’s earned a little time to relax and decide what to do next, after all, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up!

Stephanie, we are all very proud of you! xo

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Put Them All Together They Spell Mother…

‘M’ is for the many things she gave me,

‘O’ means…Ow, I’m telling on you...MOM!!
They say that ‘the’ is the most used word in the English language, but I am willing to bet that ‘Mom’ is up there. From the time that baby utters his or her first word, Mama - or some variation thereof – it will be his or her most spoken noun throughout his or her formative years.

As young children, we saw our mothers as our constant companions, teachers, nursemaids and nose wipers. They dressed us in snowsuits, undressed us, helped us to the bathroom, and then re-dressed us in snowsuits. They were teddy bear menders, peanut butter and banana sandwich makers, birthday party throwers and monster-busters. When the monsters came out from under the bed, it was Mom who chased them away - apparently, moms are scarier than monsters. Whatever the problem, Mom could fix it. They were our life.
As we began our journey into puberty our mothers began to change. They became homework enforcers, facts-of-life tellers, “Don’t fight with your sister” beggars and training bra buyers – training bra…what were we training them to do? Sit pretty? Stay? Our mothers ceased to be our whole life. Sure, we still depended on them for the basics, but they lost some of their ‘cool’ factor. Our friends became more important.

When our teen years arrived our mothers’ transformations became complete. They were curfew setters, wild party going deniers, dress code givers and “I was your age once.” Insisters. They seemed to morph into a completely alien species that didn’t understand the important things in life at all.  
As we kicked and screamed our way out of adolescence and into adulthood we, once again, began to see our mothers in a different light. They were human after all.  They became, sounding boards, comforters, encouragers and friends. When we were teens, who could have known that mothers understood so much.

Now, some of us have become mothers and have entered our own stages of transformation; your children’s everything, their safe place to come home to, the bane of their existence, or their font of experience.
And we appreciate our own mothers so much more. We thank them for our lives, for nurturing us, for disciplining us, for trying to steer us in the right direction, and for comforting us when we make a wrong turn. We apologize for the sleepless nights, the anxiety and the grey hairs. We hope it’s all been worth it.
‘M’ is for mothers. They are the first people we love and, if we are fortunate, we get to love them for many, many years.

I love you Mom. Happy Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What's On Your Mind?

Most people take it for granted that they will get up in the morning, shower, eat breakfast and take on the day. But what if you couldn’t get out of bed? Not because of any physical limitation, but because you just couldn’t force yourself into believing that it was worth it. Or, what if you managed to get up, but it takes you three hours to get ready to go anywhere because your brain forces you to perform rituals over and over again. It’s hard for most “normal” people to understand what it’s like to suffer from mental illness, but millions of people endure this kind of challenge every day of their lives.
One in five Canadians will, at some point in their lives, suffer from a form of mental illness. That means that you or someone you know, a friend or a family member is or will be affected.

Unfortunately, the stigma attached to mental illness keeps many of those suffering from seeking help, even though mental illness is a real illness just like any other medical condition. If a loved one had diabetes you wouldn’t tell them that it’s all in their head and to get over it, you would take them to a clinic where they would be taught how to cope with the condition and, if necessary, get medication. The same needs to be done for those with mental illness.

There are many forms of mental illness, but the one with which I am most familiar is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). When you have a chronic illness in your family you become more familiar with it than most. Many people, when they hear the term OCD, think of a germaphobe who washes his hands constantly, but It is not as simple as that. Hand washing is only one of the compulsions with which the OCD sufferer may or may not be involved, there are many others which may include opening and closing doors, or turning on and off lights. Whatever it may be, the compulsion to repeat a specific action a certain number of times is preceded by persistent, unwanted, obsessive thoughts that trigger anxiety, leading to the compulsion. And it is not a matter of telling the OCD sufferer that it’s silly and to just stop it, they already know that it is illogical, but imbalances in their brain chemistry forces them to do it - imagine a skipping record.

At particularly tough times, when the OCD seems to be winning, the depression is enough to keep a person in bed all day. Concentration on everyday activities, when these other thoughts run through their mind all day, is not an easy thing. And the guilt of not being able to do the things expected of them negatively affects their self-worth. It is easy to see how it can make someone feel helpless and overwhelmingly sad and tired. Even thoughts of suicide are a possibility without help. But it can be treated. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication can help to control the symptoms, but rarely does it go away. It is not a cure, it is ongoing treatment and like insulin to the diabetic, it gives them the chance at a rewarding, happy life.
One of the major obstacles in the life of a person with mental illness is prejudice. We live in a society where many do not understand it, and ignorance of anything can lead to fear and ridicule. Placing a stigma on those with mental illness is no different than racism, homophobia or sexism. Once society understands that it is a legitimate illness, perspectives will change; as Oprah says, “When you know better, you do better.”
So, tomorrow morning, when you are out taking on the day, remember that not all disabilities can be seen and compassion toward everyone will go a long way.
*Mental Health week, May 1st-7th, 2011.*