Rhonda Cagle

Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

Held

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2016 at 6:50 pm

My hands shake a lot these days. Whether from chemo, meds, or sheer fatigue, my hands often betray the intensity of the fight taking place at cellular levels to kill off and overcome cancer.

In many ways, it seems fitting, really, that my hands are the telltale sign of the battle. To win requires choices on a daily – and sometimes moment-by-moment – basis of what I hold onto; what I let go of; and for how long. It is humbling – and sometimes humiliating – to acknowledge that my hands are simply not big or strong enough to hold it all. At least not all at the same time.

More than I care to admit, I find myself grasping and gripping, trying to hold all the bits and pieces of life in my hands without letting anything slip through my fingers. It’s a false illusion of control. As if my hands are ever really big or strong enough to keep a firm hold on all of life all at once. Yet this particular illusion I cling to seems particularly difficult to let go of.

These days, I find myself noticing the hands of so many others who are wrapping their hands around mine. Collectively – together – they are ensuring that I am held. Nothing that slips through my fingers is lost or forgotten. Their hands are there to catch it. Hold it. Hold me. It is the gift of us. An us defined by too many individuals for me to name separately. It’s a stunning and tangible investment into my life too extraordinary to put into words.

Countless friends have come alongside me – and my mom and sister who cook for my family and me on chemo weeks – to help with meals. They show up carrying Tupperware full of minestrone soup, chicken and dumplings, and chicken potpie. Incredulously, these gifts are often coupled with an apology that it’s just simple food. As if there is anything simple about nourishing both body and soul with a tangible expression of love.

On chemo weeks, my mom arrives with three days of casseroles, soup, and other dishes that conjure up simultaneous emotions of childhood comfort and present day gratitude. My sister, who is still fighting her own battle with breast cancer, also lends her hands to feed not only her own family, but mine. Love on a plate, as I describe it.

My friend Anne somehow knew my initial chemo treatments were nothing short of disastrous. When we met for dinner the last time I was in Washington D.C., she brought me a handmade bracelet with an angel charm which sways delicately when I wear it. When I returned to chemo, I instinctively grabbed for her bracelet to wear. It brings comfort and renewed determination as I spend my days at the hospital with her angel swaying to catch my attention, bringing me back to focus on those who are praying, supporting, and lending the strength of their hands to mine. Angels, indeed.

A few weeks later, I opened a package in the mail to discover a note from Anne. She had written it from her family cottage in Chincoteague. She described walking along the Atlantic and the sand she had carefully scooped up and placed in a tiny bottle – another addition for my bracelet. In it, she had tucked two Swarovski crystals. She described how turning the vial would make them play hide and seek. Such a perfect metaphor for life these days. There are always treasures to be found. Sometimes we just have to dig deep to find them. Or look for them as they unexpectedly wash up on life’s shore. I pictured Anne’s hands scooping up the sea and sand from her family home to share this treasure with me and was suddenly, profoundly, grateful.

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My friend and colleague Nancy does not let a week pass without a note of encouragement arriving in my mailbox, or a vase of flowers delivered at my door to brighten my week. Despite a travel and work schedule that is worse than my own, she calls almost daily, usually beginning with something work-related but always ending with personal words of love, encouragement, and the assurance that I will come out on the other side. Her words remind me of truths I cannot see in the heat and weariness of this present battle. Her words bring me comfort in knowing my professional colleagues and personal friends are right there with me to help hold me together, whether with work projects or personal encouragement.

I could fill volumes describing the thoughtful acts that offer practical help and emotional strength. My friend Nicole arranged for a WNBA Mercury 2014 Championship ball cap bearing the signatures of the players to be delivered to me courtside while I attended a recent game. Something to help cover my bald head; something to remind me of her love and prayers.

And it would take pages to describe the countless ways my husband and family lend their hands on a daily – and often minute-by-minute – basis, to hold me together. Large and small pieces of life slip through my hands these days. Lorenzo and my children make sure they are caught and held. Every single one. Even when I am angry or sad. Even when I am too fatigued or ill to notice. Even on my good days when I am aware of and grateful for their hands, which never let go of mine.

I am held. Collectively. Figuratively. Literally. Call it faith. Community. Friendship. Family. I call it the wondrous, miraculous gift of us.

Lessons From My Dad

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Sometime around the age of eight, my family had moved for what seemed like the 78th time in my short life. I found myself living in a little farming town in Washington, 20 minutes south of the Canadian boarder. It was winter and my bright red coat was in sharp contrast to the drizzly gray landscape. I channeled its cheer as a badge of courage as I set off on my bike down a country lane to explore my new surroundings.

It wasn’t long until my bike ride had inadvertently attracted the interest of a neighbor’s big dog. As I rode past his home, he broke into a full run, barreling down his driveway, heading straight for me. Terrified of his barking and growling, I did what any eight-year-old-city-raised-girl would do: I screamed at the top of my lungs as if the dog was already pulling me limb from limb. I pedaled as fast as my feet would go, careening dangerously through the unfamiliar twists and turns of a muddy country lane.

There was only one thought in my mind: If I could just find my way back home, my dad would be in the driveway waiting for me. He would protect me from the snarling teeth and menacing growls of the monstrous dog that was nipping at my heels.

I was right. My dad had heard my screams, as had most of the neighbors on that long country lane, and was already running down the road to meet me. In what seemed like an instant, he had pulled me off of my bike, into his arms, high above the dog’s head where I felt safe. Where I could breathe again. Where I knew I was protected.

Then my dad did something unexpected. Unwelcomed. Instead of chasing off the dog to make me feel better, he began interacting calmly and invitingly with the beast, encouraging the dog to come nearer to him. And me.

In a matter of minutes, my once growling, ferocious enemy had turned into a tail-wagging, wiggling, slobbery friend; wanting nothing more than to roll over onto his back so I could scratch his belly. At my dad’s insistence, I reluctantly obliged.

With my dad’s help, I quickly warmed to the dog and established a physical connection with him. My dad taught me how to read the dog’s signals, adjust my responses, and to trust.

As I think about Father’s Day this year, this memory of my dad has taken on new meaning. The beast snarling and nipping at my heels at this moment in life is breast cancer. Its teeth are real. Painful. Dangerous. Disfiguring. At times, demoralizing.

Unlike the dog of my youth, my dad can’t lift me up and out of this current harm’s way. There are some things that even the best dads can’t do.

Dad

Instead, I am choosing to remember the lessons my dad taught the eight-year-old-me on that long-ago day. I can’t always outrun danger. Sometimes, I have to stop in my tracks, turn around, and look that beast squarely in the eye. I have to channel faith and inner strength to push back my own fear so I can see the situation for what it truly is, not what I imagine it is – or could – be.

I didn’t go in search of cancer; it found me; came chasing after me. But day-by-day and treatment-by-treatment, I am stopping it in its tracks. I am remembering to see beyond fear, accurately read the signals, adjust my responses, and to trust. My dad taught me that.

Thanks, dad, for teaching me how to face down the dog of my youth. It’s prepared me to win not only my battle with cancer, but also the war with my own inner demons. Important lessons that I continue to learn in new and more profound ways. Just one of the many gifts you’ve given me.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day. I love you.

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s A Good Dog?

In Uncategorized on October 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

My latest column for the Arizona Republic pays tribute to the life of Emmy, my dog. She is the reason I said yes when my husband asked me out on a date.

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Without question, her life changed mine, so it’s only fitting that I chronicle the pain of saying goodbye to this beloved friend with four floppy paws and a perpetually happy outlook on life. http://t.co/l21tzoygSz

Grace Is the Answer

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2013 at 7:58 pm

The hardest questions in life are those to which there are no answers. We spend a lot of time asking why. I’m trying to remember that the better question is how. And, when there are no answers, the best response is that of grace.

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I’m writing about hard questions, hard circumstances, and the profound impact of grace in my latest column for The Arizona Republic. Follow the link to read more, http://t.co/s0rTot5LI9

Dark Waters

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm

It’s the cloudy days I love. Gray, overcast skies with clouds that billow and swirl make me think I’m watching the tides of an eternal ocean from the underneath. If I peer intently enough, I might just catch a glimpse of the toes of a sainted loved one wading and splashing in the tides on the sunny shores that lie just on the other side.

These were the thoughts jumbling in my mind as I set off for a quick walk around Friendship Park on a rather overcast day. Rain was threatening but my need for fresh air outweighed my need of staying dry so off I went.

As I walked I took in the sight of empty sports fields, their grasses withered with our Southwest’s version of winter. Come the weekend, the fields would come alive with the energy of soccer and football leagues, but for now the yellowed grasses were a good fit for their barren condition.

Continuing my stride, I made my way to the pond and I stopped to peer into waters darkened by the weather. Usually the Valley’s endless sunlight skims the surface, throwing sparkling diamonds upon the waters like a benevolent king. But today those waters were dark and brooding, their surface still.

My mind turned to several friends who are facing dark waters in a season of life defined by foreboding gray skies. Cancer has claimed a husband and father. His wife and young children find themselves awash in stormy seas, with grief rolling them over and under in its powerful tides. Another friend, self-employed and self-insured – the only provider in her family – has just been diagnosed with cancer. Surgery and treatment and its staggering costs swirl in the waters as dark, cold wetness laps at her soul. Marriages coming unraveled, RIFs and pink slips causing financial crisis, and sons and daughters facing mental illness and addictions evidence the ominous clouds of this winter season.

A mom and her daughter making their way to the edge of the pond interrupted my thoughts and I stopped to watch their movements. With the delighted abandon known only to a young child, the little girl began throwing breadcrumbs to the ducks and geese living in these dark waters. In an instant, the darkness parted thanks to dozens of webbed feet breaking the surface of the waters and moving frantically toward the direction of the child’s shrieks of happiness. She giggled and laughed, watching the gaggle of life swimming and diving amidst a pond of darkness. Oblivious to the storm, she became my ray of sunshine to a gray day of introspection.

I’m determined to be the emotional equivalent of that little girl in the lives of my friends. I can’t change the seasons or the dark waters. What I can do is stand at the edge of the darkness, throwing breadcrumbs of hope and help to attract to the surface the life that still swims amidst watery midnight. That’s what I can – and will – do. That, and look up; knowing if I peer long enough, I’m likely to see the saints and the sunshine that lie just above the clouds.

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