Finding Happiness When Life Has its Own Plans

johnsonfamilyRecently, a bright, lively, beautiful, capable, involved and all-around amazing woman in our community received the shocking diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. True to her nature, she immediately began to face this unforeseen challenge with strength, courage, calm and even humor.

Openly and honestly, Diane has shared details and feelings about this experience on her CaringBridge website. (Click here for access.) While all of Diane’s posts are engaging and thought provoking, her thoughts on appreciating kindness and finding happiness “when my life is not what I had planned” could benefit all of us.

We are so honored that Diane agreed to share excerpts from her inspirational posts with PermissionSlips readers.

May 1, 2014, 9:26 pm
I have been diagnosed with Adenocarcinoma Stage 4 lung cancer and it has metastasized to my spine in my C4 vertebrae. We were totally and completely shocked at this diagnosis.

[I am undergoing radiation treatments] to shrink or eradicate the existing tumor in my C4 vertebrae. It is not feasible to undergo major surgery like lung removal when another tumor could resurface in another spot immediately thereafter. [Also], this tumor is in a very difficult place to reach, making it nearly impossible to remove. The hope is that chemotherapy will reduce the one existing lung tumor and halt the progression of anything else that might develop.

Will this cancer and chemotherapy be the fight of my life? Yes. I welcome your prayers and wishes for improved health. I will need all the help, miracles, luck and good medicine that I can find.

May 10, 2014, 1:40 pm
I am calling [this] a full offensive attack. I plan to use every means possible to fight against my opponent. I want to meet people who were diagnosed with STAGE 4 LUNG CANCER, [given a 5% chance of survival, like me] and beat the odds. I want to get their advice on what to do as I wage this major battle.

I want to say one huge THANK YOU to so many people who have sent texts, cards, emails, phone calls, visits, etc. with kind and loving wishes for me and our entire family. I can honestly say that the only good thing that has come from this cancer is the touching of hearts I have experienced.  I wish I had been living my life showing my affection and appreciation for everyone in it as much as I am experiencing now.

It is so easy to overlook and rush past a kindness, while forgetting to mention it to the giver. I am going to make it a point to not save these appreciations, compliment and affirmations silently inside of me. We would all be better off if we tried to express these warm thoughts to others more often.

June 9, 2014, 12:09 pm
Well, life has stabilized in the last few weeks. I had my second round of chemo. For the first five days, I didn’t feel well and had a heavy taste of salt in my mouth. I really couldn’t eat. Hah! I guess I was carrying around this spare tire on my waist for a good reason – it was sort of like “nourishment from the mother ship” for a while there! Anyway, after five days, the horrible taste and fatigue decreased dramatically and I reentered the world of the living. Since then, I have felt good and have surprised myself with [my] energy.

The bulk of my thoughts have been on a subject that is rather new to me: HOW DO I FIND HAPPINESS WHEN MY LIFE IS NOT WHAT I HAD PLANNED? I think we ALL deal with this to some degree – maybe we are waiting for a promotion, or for our house to sell, or waiting for school to be over, or WHATEVER you want changed in your life. Right now I just have a REALLY BIG subject that is not what I wanted or planned in my life. After interviewing cancer survivors and reading extensively, I am seeing that the most successful cancer warriors simply accept this unplanned life change and look for all the love and goodness around them. As trite as it sounds, it boils down to actually LIVING each day with love, happiness and appreciation.

For me, [what I call] OPERATION 5% involves utilizing all the drugs and treatments from traditional western medicine, and incorporating various whole-body health modalities like massage, visualization, acupuncture, meditation and energy healing.

The last component of OPERATION 5% has been my appreciation for the absolutely overwhelming love and support I have received from my family, friends and extended community. I can’t thank people enough for all the love you have sent my way – meals, dog walks, cards, texts, drive-by hugs, prayers, outings, jokes, jokes and more jokes, kind words, invites for my family, inspirational messages, flowers, emails and so much more. I am feeling the love and channeling all that energy to my T-cells to attack this cancer. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be fighting this with support from all of you!

June 20, 2014, 10:50 pm
[My first CT] scan showed there has been no advancement of the cancer, my lymph nodes are no longer inflamed and the bone tumor is either greatly reduced or gone and showing healthy bone regrowth. I am tolerating the treatment quite well, and looking and feeling good. Overall it was a very positive review. . . I believe I convinced my doctor that with my personal battle I [call] OPERATION 5%, I INTEND to be one of his cases who beats this cancer back and I INTEND to continue a normal life for much longer than what the textbooks [predict]!

Now I am continuing to be very realistic with my prognosis. . . BUT… I’ll put it this way…when you are given an unexpected, short-term, terminal prognosis at age 54 (while you still have young kids to raise)…and you can beat this thing back a bit…well, I am going to take my five minutes in the sunshine and celebrate.

I am a FULL BELIEVER that all the good karma from my friends has contributed greatly to my OPERATION 5%. I want to ask you to expand that support to someone else in your circle who is fighting their own battle (whatever it may be). Believe me, anything helps – a note, text, hug, joke, book, errands, food, prayers – it all builds up the person in need.

– Diane Johnson for Permission Slips, 23 June 2014
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Husbands and Fathers in Pink Tutus

I can’t imagine my husband or three sons strutting about in pink tutus, but then again, I’m not sure anyone imagines that breast cancer will impact their family.

So far (knock wood), that particular cancer has not touched our clan.

Nevertheless, most years I choose to join thousands of runners in the Race for the Cure, which raises funds for the breast cancer awareness and research activities of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Yesterday was no exception.

RFTC pink moustacheAnd as I neared the site of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, with the Jetson’s-like Space Needle in view, I couldn’t help noticing that each year the race seems to attract more men…in pink tutus.

As Martha would say, this is “a good thing.”

I can’t recall how many runners joined me in New York’s Central Park for my first Race for the Cure, back in 1991, but I don’t remember seeing many men or much pink. In fact, that race was where the Komen Foundation, which held its first race in Texas back in 1983, debuted its iconic pink ribbon.

Here in Seattle, for several years our local lacrosse team encouraged players and their families to sign up for the RTFC as a group. I distinctly remember when our group’s top finisher was a high schooler whose mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He didn’t don a tutu, but he certainly ran for a reason.

Yesterday, apparently about 6,000 of the 8,000 participants in Seattle’sRFTC tutus and carriage
RFTC events ran or walked for a reason, too. According to the Komen Foundation, three-fourths of those who participate in RFTC events – something like 1.6 million people in 150 cities around the world – have survived breast cancer or have a close friend or family member impacted by the disease.

At the Seattle Center, I saw very fit runners in short shorts and tiny singlets, competing for  medals and personal-best times. I also saw red-faced, sweat-drenched athletes who had not trained adequately for the event, and slow, but smiling, walkers of all ages and shapes.

I spotted elderly and ailing people in wheelchairs, kids in strollers and wagons, babies in backpacks and women from all “walks of life” wearing “survivor” shirts and scarves over their hairless heads.

Groups of runners and walkers gathered in coordinated outfits, such as tutus and feather boas and funny hats, with signs on their backs naming the women they were honoring.

Yesterday, instead of focusing on my 5K time, I took note of the diverse crowd, smiled at the survivors, chuckled at the costumes, cheered for the children and felt compassion for those who had lost loved ones.

I headed back home feeling happy that we humans value, and gather strength from, community.

-Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 2 June 2014
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#Hope and Spring

Hope is an essential characteristic of the human psyche. It’s a common feeling or emotion, but sometimes we need a reminder, or permission, to believe that hope can help affect outcomes.

While one dictionary states that hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen,” and “grounds for believing that something good may happen,” Wikipedia tells us that “hope is an optimistic attitude of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.”

I was riddled by hopeful sentiments as I tried to fall asleep last night:

–       Hope that my 18-year-old son would return from a party safe and sound;

–       Hope that my large Golden-doodles would let me sleep in;

–       Hope that my son in California would heal quickly (he had ACL reconstruction surgery last Saturday) and find direction for his next steps;

–       Hope that the weather reports would prove wrong (which is often the case here), and that the sun would shine on Memorial Day. The garden needs attention!

–       Hope that our country would renew its focus on gun control, so tragedies like the one in Santa Barbara won’t reoccur;

–       Hope that friends who suffer from cancer will find serenity, and perhaps miracles.

I am certain that the cup of coffee I ordered in the afternoon wasn’t really decaffeinated.

photo-5This morning, however, I still feel hopeful, and have found some wise, encouraging words on the internet.

I am reminded of the innocent hope that young children feel. Hope that they will feel special on their birthdays, that Santa will deliver on Christmas, that when a new school year begins, they will find good friends in their classes, and hope that they will perform well in sports.

I recall the song my friends and I used to repeat at the corner playground, while climbing the jungle-gym:

Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie
In the sky hopes…

(To hear Frank Sinatra’s rendition, click here.)

Often, I hear the encouragement my mother offered when I struggled to learn how to read and ride a two-wheeler, repeating the words from The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”

And, of course, I recall the oft-quoted stanza from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (ca. 1733):

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come. 

I am reminded that the swallow is a symbol of hope, as it’s one of the first birds to appear each spring, and I think about the promise that crocuses and chirping birds and budding trees bring each March.

And let’s not forget Obi-Wan Kenobi, who in Star Wars serves as Princess Leia’s “only hope.” We all know how that story turned out.

This morning, I am devouring information on hope in a Wikipedia essay. I learned that Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson argues that hope comes into its own when crisis looms, opening us to new creative possibilities. Positive thinking like the “Little Engine’s,” she says, “bears fruit when based on a realistic sense of optimism, not on a naive ‘false hope.’ ”

The essay tells me that psychologist C.R. Snyder links hope to the existence of a goal, combined with a determined plan for reaching that goal.

I read that followers of Hinduism make a strong connection between karma and hope: “In Hindu belief, actions have consequences, and while one’s effort and work may or may not bear near term fruits, it will serve the good, that the journey of one’s diligent efforts (karma) and how one pursues the journey,[41] sooner or later leads to bliss and moksha.”

As I pull weeds today, I resolve to contemplate how hope can comfort and motivate so many of us to move forward, yet in so many different ways. I am mindful that hope is embodied in:

  • The man using the last $10 from his paycheck to purchase a lottery ticket;
  • The feeble widow carrying cups of quarters from one slot machine to another in Reno;
  • The child trying to fall asleep on Christmas eve, anxious about what he will find under the tree;
  • A woman who has discovered she is pregnant, hoping that the little being will grow and thrive and emerge as a healthy baby;
  • The new father imagining his newborn’s future – perhaps better than his own, perhaps following in his footsteps;
  • The proud parents, aunts and grandparents at commencement ceremonies over the coming weeks, hoping that the graduate will find happiness and success in life;
  • The recent graduate, preparing her resume, making connections on LinkedIn and perusing ads on Craig’sList.com;
  • The rainbow that appears at a low moment, convincing a sad, lonely, sick or depressed person that all will turn out well;
  • The crowd at a baseball game, when it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the home team is losing by several runs, the bases are loaded and the beloved slugger is up to bat;a
  • The brain-trauma survivor, continuing painful therapy;
  • The destitute family in Mexico, watching a team of church-group youth build them a small home. (Thanks to Dylan Sullivan for this amazing video.)
  • The political prisoner or prisoner of war, continuing to believe he or she will be released. I think of Louis Zamperini – the 1930s track star-turned Navy pilot-turned lifeboat- and Japanese POW camp survivor, whose life was documented in Laura Hillenbrand’s amazing novel, Unbroken, and his own memoir, Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian’s Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II: “Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.”
  • David Sheff and his son Nic, whose years of drug addiction, sobriety and relapse were chronicled in David’s best-seller Beautiful Boy and his latest novel Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, and who said in a recent interview: “I…realized how lucky we were. After multi-treatment programs when we were hopeful, and then multiple relapses, when we were once again terrorized and terrified, Nic was doing great – now he’s been sober for five years.” 
  • The local friend with Stage 4 lung cancer, who writes witty, heart-wrenching, grateful, honest and hopeful updates on her Caring Bridge website: “I want to meet other survivors in the 5% Club – those people who were diagnosed with STAGE 4 LUNG CANCER, and given very poor odds, yet beat the odds.  I want to speak to these people and get their advice on what to do as I wage this major battle.”

Today, I give myself permission to focus on wisdom from the esteemed writer Anne Lamott: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.”

–       Linda Williams Rorem, PermissionSlips, 26 May, 2014
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I Walk in My Mother’s Socks

Note: Permission Slips is grateful to present this guest post by Lisa Bell Pachnos, a Chicago-area native, Northwestern University graduate and mother of three in New Jersey. She wrote this in August 2012, nine months after her mother, Sue Bell, had died. (The photo is of Lisa and Sue.)

Towards the middle of her life, my mother became a fitness freak. Beforehand, when I was a child, she told me that she rarely gave a thought to exercise. “My legs were just there to hold up the rest of my body,” she told me on a day when I had complimented her on the muscles that were now bulging from her calves.

blog - lisa and momOnce she began an exercise regimen, my mother was remarkable in her dedication. She rose before dawn most days and drove herself to the fitness center. Or, on days when she elected to stay at home, she could be found in the basement lifting weights, rolling on an exercise ball, executing complicated lunges or using the elliptical trainer. Even on weekends at Lake Geneva, she worked out with an exercise ball in the living room or took brisk walks around the neighborhood. Amazingly, she could carry on a conversation while in the midst of these exertions.

All of us have a part of ourselves, physically, in which we are disappointed. For my father, it has always been his thighs (a story for another time). For my mother, it was her “tummy.” Try as she might, she could never achieve the six-pack abs that she desired. Years later, it was that awareness of her abdomen that alerted her to the cancer growing inside of her long before it would have been detected by someone less self-aware.

Now, nine months after my mother passed away, I treasure everything that I inherited from her, such as jewelry, clothing, trinkets, and strangely enough, some of her socks. Oddly, it is the socks that I use the most often and that evoke the strongest memories.

Unlike many people, I find summertime extremely challenging. While working from home during the school year has countless benefits, working from home during the summer months creates stress. It’s a constant tug-of-war between the needs of my children and the needs of my workplace. Person time is fleeting at best.

So lately, to carve out that time, I have been donning my mother’s socks and rising during the gray light of dawn. I stride outside in those socks, plus my own sneakers and other clothes, of course, and start walking along our quiet street. Occasionally, I am joined by other two-legged creatures on bikes or on foot. However, I am usually accompanied by critters with four legs or wings.

This quiet time allows me to plan my day, ponder my weaknesses, make notes to myself–which I email to my computer via my phone–and otherwise breathe.

I am grateful for the lessons my mother continues to give to me — even through something as inconsequential as the socks she wore during exercise.

– Lisa Bell Pachnos, for Permission Slips, 28 April 2014
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