Rhonda Cagle

I’m Still Here, Dammit!

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2016 at 5:04 pm

I get it – 2016 sucked for a lot of people, including me. For most of the year, I fought cancer. If anyone has the right to bitch about a bad year, I’m at least toward the front of the line.

But is it worth bitching? And was it really a bad year?

Cancer treatment left me with large gaps in my 2016 memory. The scraps I do have are mostly filled with pain and loss. My family, who acutely remembers all the things I don’t, tells me it’s probably best to leave the gaps unfilled.

But this past year also holds other bits and pieces of remembrances, memories worth noting and keeping. Friends who brought me food and gifts to help make the fight bearable – and winnable. My husband, who put his political and professional life on hold, to help me fight and win my battle. My children, who saw me at my weakest and worst, and loved me in spite of myself.

And then there are the memories of me. Me finding my voice and being an advocate for my own health and life – even when it meant changing doctors and, at times, pissing off the ones I kept. Me choosing to continue working through treatment, even when my doctors told me to take some time away from my professional life. Me staring down the demon of my late husband’s death from cancer and determining that my story, by the grace of God, would be different.

To say that 2016 was a hard year is an understatement. But it offered some hard-learned lessons – ones that are worth mentioning.

Make the pain pay. Inevitably, hard times come. Loss can be overwhelming. Disappointment can be bitter to the point of being disillusioned. Then what? For me, the answer is cry, curse, spit, rant – whatever it takes to get through the deepest and darkest of the pain. But then make the pain pay. Turn back around and use every hard-learned lesson to help someone who doesn’t yet know they, too, will emerge on the other side of darkness.

Work as though your life depends on it. Doctors don’t know everything, but they sure as hell like you to think they do. I frustrated my doctors because I refused to stop working during my treatment. What they didn’t know is that my work was sometimes all there was between utter despair and me. My work is full of purpose. It gives children who are too often marginalized and minimized an educational choice that results in a second – and sometimes an only – chance in life. I worked in order to survive the brutality of my treatment; otherwise I might have given up. Whatever brings purpose and joy to life is something worth doing, regardless of what anyone else says.

Don’t “should” on yourself. Should have, could have, would have serves no good purpose in life. Would my cancer have been caught earlier if I had been more diligent about screenings? Maybe. Then again, my sister was diligent and she ended up being in treatment longer than I for the same kind of cancer. Could my late husband have survived his cancer if the doctors had taken his warning signs more seriously? I don’t know – won’t ever know. The truth is that we all do the best we can with what we have to work with at the time. To “should” on myself only brings negativity and wasted energy into my life. Reflect, revise, and move forward, failing a bit better every step of the way.

Know what sustains you when all else fails. When body parts are cut off and poison begins coursing through your veins, you decide what you truly believe in a hurry. More than ever, my faith holds firm. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… The disappointment, pain, and fear of 2016 makes my faith more sure than ever.

I’m thankful to be turning the page and beginning a new year. But I’m strangely thankful for 2016. I’m keenly aware that its hard-learned lessons will be needed more than ever, come January. For all the brightness of a New Year, storm clouds are on the horizon. There are more battles to come.

That’s okay. Thanks to 2016, I’m ready. I’m still here, dammit. Still standing. Still fighting. Still believing.

Ain’t it something?! Cheers.

2017

Survivor

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2016 at 9:45 am

Today, I finish my last treatment for breast cancer. Almost nine months to the day after my Stage IIIB diagnosis, I will walk out of the hospital cancer-free. Bloodied. Bruised. Burnt. Battered. And very weary from the battle. But cancer free.

In a few weeks, I return to the hospital to talk further about post-oncology life and reconstruction surgery next spring. Already, the doctors have been talking about survival rates and what that means.

Due respect to my doctors, but they don’t have a clue. I am already a survivor. In more ways than they can ever define. With the grace of God, the miracle of medicine, and the love of my family and friends, I beat cancer. And I was not broken in the process.

Being a survivor is not measured in months or years. It is measured in moments. It is measured in the pieces of life I refuse to let cancer overtake.

Over the protests and advice of my doctors, I have continued to work fulltime through treatment. My job is more than a job. It has purpose in giving children who live in poverty a choice and a chance at an education that affirms their infinite worth. It offers students equity and an opportunity to rise up to overcome the challenges of poverty.

Each day that I advocate on their behalf – even in the midst of treatment – is a day I survive. It is a piece of life that cancer cannot break or claim.

A few days ago, Lorenzo and Roman pulled plastic tubs of fall decorations out of the garage. I spent the weekend turning our home into a fall landscape worthy of Norman Rockwell. I put pumpkins, leaves, pilgrims, and cornucopias on anything that doesn’t move.

Fall is my favorite season and our home once again reflects this. Surviving means filling my home and world with beauty, color, and grace. It is a piece of life that cancer cannot break or claim.

It’s cliché but it’s true – it is the little things and the singular moments that suddenly aren’t little at all that make me a survivor. Every day that I have the energy to bake pumpkin muffins or cook dinner; the moments when Lorenzo and I can sit quietly holding hands and watching the sunset; every phone call and text with my daughter – these are all moments that cancer cannot break or claim.

In just a few hours, I will walk back into the hospital and complete my last radiation treatment. I will walk out having undergone a mastectomy, eight rounds of dose dense A/C and Taxol chemo, and 30 rounds of radiation.

And then I will meet Lorenzo for dinner and a Bonnie Raitt concert tonight. Her song, “I Will Not Be Broken” has become my anthem and inspiration through this ordeal.

 

survivor

Tonight I get to hear her sing this live. This makes me a survivor.

Monday I get back on a plane and get back to advocating on behalf of kids who deserve a chance. I get to see my daughter while I am on this trip. I will have the gift of hugging her and telling her I love her face-to-face.

And next weekend, I get to plant fall flowers in my yard and cook dinner to eat with my family. I will find ways to give Roman a hard time, our code language for expressing love. And Lorenzo and I will sit and hold hands, watching the sunset; feeling like it should be a sunrise on a new season that is dawning. This makes me a survivor.

In a few weeks, I will meet with my doctors and I will listen to what they have to say. Then I will quietly tell them what I already know: I’m already a survivor – and I will not be broken.

 

Redemption

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2016 at 12:21 pm

This morning, September 11, I watched as people gathered at the National September 11 Memorial, site of the new One World Trade Center. I noticed the water in the two fountains streaming down beneath the names of those lost on that horrific day. I couldn’t decide if the waters symbolize continuing tears of sorrow or healing rains of hope.

September 11 is a hard day for our nation, a difficult day for me personally. It was September 11, 2007 when my beloved husband Dennis was officially diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The doctor’s words tore into my life – my world – causing catastrophic damage to all we had built and shared. Eighteen days later, Dennis was gone. And my world came tumbling down.

Finding myself surrounded by nothing but rubble, my first instinct was to search for every piece – any shred – of what had once existed in an attempt to rebuild. I wanted what was familiar. Known. Comforting. Loved. I wanted my life back. My husband back. My world back.

With a newfound appreciation of their grief and heartache, I found myself thinking of those who had lost loved ones in the attacks on the twin towers on that other devastating September 11th. I remembered their faces, streaked with tears and etched with grief, as they posted photos of their missing loved ones, desperate to find the lost who had defined their lives and colored their world.

After days, weeks, and months, the finality of Dennis’ absence hit the core of my being. He wasn’t coming back. Neither was the world we had known and shared. It had been true for those who survived the hell of our nation’s September 11th. It was now true for me.

For a season, death and life coexisted, battling for preeminence. On many days, I didn’t really care which won.

But day-by-day, piece-by-piece, I did the only thing I could, clearing away the rubble left in the aftermath of Dennis’ death. Finally, when the last pieces were gone, I gazed at…. nothing. A blank slate, an empty canvas. Insert your own metaphor here.

In that moment, I realized redemption would not be found in rebuilding the life we had shared. That life, that world, was gone. Irreplaceable.

Instead, redemption was possible in building a new life. My own life. A life that draws from the well of all Dennis and I held dear, raining down hope for a refashioned life – one filled with purpose and people whom I love; who love me in return.

Dennis

My beloved husband, Dennis Cagle.

I’m still thinking about the images of the fountains at the National September 11th Memorial. Waters flow down, even as the new One World Trade Center reaches toward the heavens. The truth is, those waters symbolize both tears of sorrow and healing rains – sorrow and hope springing from the same well.

This is what redemption teaches.

 

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