Last August my wife Kim and I took our three kids, Will (10), Mollie (8) and Graham (6) on vacation to the National Lakeshore which runs along the bottom of Lake Superior. We spent the first week sailing in the Apostle Islands which was totally fantastic. The second week we moved west and camped just off the beach with a beautiful view of the lake. During this second week, Kim noticed a small lump in her left breast. I didn’t pay too much attention to this, largely because she was only 43 and in great shape; seriously, she runs, swims, eats well, is a vegetarian, and is not over weight. In short, she’s in good physical condition. What’s more, Kim’s parents are both healthy, so what was there to worry about?
After we got home, Kim went to see her doctor and learned that she had breast cancer. I remember her calling me from our local hospital and saying “you should probably come over here, it’s more serious than they thought it was.”
Over the next several weeks, we learned more than we ever wanted to know about breast cancer and how to treat it. We also learned that even with all the advancement in medicine over say the last thirty years or so, there’s still a lot that is still unknown about breast cancer, especially why some woman get it and some don’t. The latest figures from the American Cancer Society are that 1 in 8 woman will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life, that’s a whopping 12%. To put that into perspective, It was estimated that upwards of 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in 2011 and more in 2012; that’s a boat-load of breast cancer running around!
After wandering around like a couple of deer in the headlights for the better part of September trying to decide on the best course of action to take, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that if we had any chance of licking this thing we needed to go the conventional route which meant surgery followed by chemo therapy or as Kim put it “when in doubt cut it out and then spray RAID on it;” charming thought I know. We decided to go to Johns Hopkins Medical Center which wasn’t far from where we live and where we would have first-rate medical care.
Kim had a total mastectomy on her left side in the last week of October and began the first of four rounds of chemo in November. By December, she had lost all her hair but she never lost her drive or her sense of humor. As a family, we trudged through January. Thankfully our friends and neighbors helped us out and before we knew it, it was suddenly the end of February and her treatments were over. She felt pretty crummy most of March but by early April she was sprouting new hair and beginning to feel like her old self again. She began running a few miles every other day and then at the tail-end of April, with some help from her good friend Margaret Osborne, she ran the Iron Girl Half-Marathon and finished. Two weeks after that, she was back at John Hopkins for reconstruction surgery.
Over these past many months, I’ve had a variety of different thoughts and ideas of how we should lead our life so that as a family, we are healthy, happy, and prepared for the unexpected. As a result, I came up with these 10 points:
1. Stay Fit: It’s always amazing to me how many overweight, out of shape people there are in America. Last time I checked exercise wasn’t a dirty word. Granted, it’s not always easy to find the time to get to the gym or to go for a run or take a bike ride but it’s so good for you in so many ways and your body is craving to be worked out on a daily basis. In the best-selling book, Younger Next Year, authors Chris Crowley and Harry S. Lodge state very matter-of-factly that you can turn back your biological clock if among other things, you exercise at least 6 days a week for the rest of your life. I’m game, who’s with me?
2. Eat Healthy: This is easier said then done I know, but for all you people running around slugging down gigantic cheese burgers with extra-large french fries, you’re killing yourself, really! Want the straight dope? It’s simple, eat more fresh fruit, vegetables and grains. The pepperoni pizza with extra cheese is good I know but the question is, is it good for you? Let’s move on.
3. Don’t Smoke: Talk about an easy basket! They put those large warning labels on the side of the cigarette packs for a reason you know, smoke too many of them for long enough and they will KILL you. Breathing fresh air is a gift, don’t squander it by deliberately filling your lungs w/ poison… hello!
4. Watch the Alcohol: Drinking too much will make you fat, dumb, and lazy. Kim and I love our wine, we admit it. We usually have a couple of glasses of good Cabernet or Pinot Noir every night. I had to fill out a health form recently and there was a question asking me how many glasses of alcohol I drank each week, I lied and put down 14 (It was probably more like 20!). When my doctor saw that he looked at me and said, “WOW, really?” Bottom line, go easy on the booze!
5. Unplug: Too much TV, video games, game-boys, cell phones, iPhones, iPads and handheld electronics in general are a bad idea. It’s a big world out there and most of it is still 100% natural so unplug now and again and live a little. We did this for a week last year while sailing in the Apostle Islands and it changed our life, seriously, try it.
6. Take a Break: As Ferris Buhler said, “life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. “A good vacation away from the stress and strains of the daily grind will put a fresh breeze in your sails and give you a new prospective for what’s really important.
7. Laugh More: We try to laugh a lot in our house and not take ourselves too seriously. I remember one time when Kim was going through chemo, she was taking an excessively long shower. I yelled through the door, “what are you doing in there baking bread?” My daughter Mollie piped up and said “well she’s definitely not washing her hair!” We all cracked up over that one, especially Kim. Bottom line, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and it’s all Small Stuff.”
8. Marry Well: Like so many people, I was impressed with Angelina Jolie’s New York Time’s article, My Medical Decision which detailed her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. One of the many good points she made was how important it was to have someone by your side to love you and help you through the storm. When Kim and I got married, we stole a quote from Life’s Little Instruction Book that said “a successful marriage depends on two things: (1) finding the right person and (2) being the right person.” Having the right person by your side when things go sideways can make all the difference. Choose your life’s partner well and stick with them.
9. Have Kids: Making the decision to have kids was one of the very best decisions Kim and I have ever made. We have three but knowing what we know now, we would have had more. Having kids allows adults to enter into a whole new world that without them you would never be exposed to; dance lessons, baseball games, soccer tournaments, school plays, sleep-overs, pumpkin carvings, father-daughter dances, beanie weenies, it’s all part of a magical ride called parenthood. Go for it!
10. Live Large: Just before Kim was diagnosed w/ breast cancer, I surprised her w/ the purchase of a 2006, black, BMW convertible with a tan interior and a 5-speed manual transmission. The car was mint and was exactly what I had been looking for. At first, Kim saw the car as an unpractical, unnecessary addition to the family. And I had to admit that the car did look a little out-of-place parked next to our 2004 minivan and our 1993 Volvo wagon with the dent in the side. However this quickly changed the first time we dropped the top and went humming down the road, shifting through the gears on a perfect summer’s evening. We were living large and knew it. After Kim’s diagnosis, she said that one of the things that she was most thankful for was that we had bought the BMW. It was unpractical for sure, unnecessary no doubt, but it was also fun and if you can’t allow yourself to have fun, what’s left? Live large, especially in small ways.
That’s it, these are my thoughts and the way I see things in this post-cancer world. Will any of these 10 pieces of advice keep you healthy? It’s hard to say but one thing is for sure, if you do get sick or have an accident, you will be much better equipped to deal with things and recover from it, if you’re in good physical and mental shape and hitting on all cylinders. I have always believed that life is meant to be lived on the balls of your feet. That way, when the unexpected comes your way, you can easily adapt to the new tempo and dance to the new beat wherever it may take you.
On we go….