The Significance of a Dog

We added a new member to our family this week. Meet Willy, the Australian Shepherd rescue.

At his foster mom's house

At his foster mom’s house

I recently have thought about how I spend a lot of time alone on the trails. I never used to think twice about going out on the trails solo, but as of late, have been hesitant to do it. I wondered why I suddenly got spooked while out alone on the trails. Was I just getting wimpy? What has made the difference? I thought back to when I first started running a lot of the more remote single track trails in our area and realized that I used to run with my big white German Shepherd, Klondike. He was my companion on my solo adventures and I never felt frightened or alone when we were together.

Klondike

Klondike

Klondike was my best friend who went everywhere with me. I still miss him, even though he died years ago. While I know I cannot rely on a dog for protection, I just feel safer and more secure with a canine by my side.

So I began the process of looking for a running companion. The dog would ideally be between 1-2 years of age, and of a breed that is built for the long haul. This brought me to the Western Australian Shepherd rescue organization.

http://www.westernaustralianshepherdrescue.com/

I filled out an application and we were matched with Willy (originally known as Riku, but he did not answer to that name). Willy was a stray that was found wandering the streets of Houston. He was brought north to Denver and lived with a foster family for 2.5 months. They kept getting lots applications for him because he is beautiful, but most of the people who applied had no understanding of the amount of exercise that this type of dog requires on a regular basis. Then we came along. I sent in an application that said I was looking for an intelligent and energetic companion. Soon, a match was made.

Willy & Riley

Willy & Riley

Willy came home with us Sunday afternoon and has settled in well so far.

Willy & Peyton

Willy & Peyton

He and I have developed a running routine already, which thrills me. He loves to run perhaps as much as I do.I  know over time he will become the best running partner.

It occurred to me after we got Willy and brought him home that there is something significant to my adopting a dog at this point in time. It means I am not putting my life on hold to see if I will be well long-term. It means that I am confident about my health and my future. It means that I have let down my guard enough to stop wondering about the “what ifs” everyday. In fact, I now rarely ever think about my cancer coming back. I would not have adopted a dog if I thought I might be too sick to care for it properly. I thought for a brief moment, “What if I have a recurrence?” But, I immediately put that thought out of my mind. It is not going to happen. We will be OK. Adopting Willy means that I just know that I am going to be fine.

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My heart feels happy and whole. Welcome home, Willy.

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Confessions of Christmas 2014

I have enjoyed Christmas week. I am grateful that I got to celebrate the holiday with my immediate family, though this week has not been without pain. I barely remember anything from Christmas last year. It is amazing how trauma can rob you of your memories. My husband does not remember much from last Christmas, either, and he was not the one who had surgery. That time was a blur for all of us, so celebrating Christmas this year was all the more important to me.

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I was married before. While I consider the end of my first marriage to be one of my biggest personal failures, I am glad that Riley’s dad and I continue to have a very amicable relationship. Riley spends every other Christmas with her father, and on the years that she is technically with me, I still encourage her to spend a good chunk of the vacation with her dad. I think dads are hugely underrated in our society. I think their presence and guidance is critical to the emotional growth and development of healthy boys and girls. It is very important that Riley spend time with her father and his family, and I do not ever want to stand in the way of those relationships.

Last year, it just worked out that Riley was with us on Christmas Day. I was thrilled, of course, because I really was unsure as to how many Christmases I might have left. But since I really do not remember much from last Christmas, it was harder to let her go this year. I cried after her dad picked her up. It really is OK. She is having fun and enjoying time with her relatives. I just cannot help look at Riley and wonder how many holidays she will be spending at my home, with our family. She has one-and-a-half years of high school left and then she will be off to college. How long will it be before she forms her own family and then they start their own holiday traditions?

Between my cancer experience and watching my daughter grow so close to adulthood, I want to slow down time to make every experience last longer. It seems that I keep wondering…how much longer? How much longer do I have on the planet? How much longer do my husband and I have together? How much longer will my kids be coming home for the holidays? How much longer will I have Riley around to enjoy our deep and meaningful daily conversations? She has grown into so much more than “just” my daughter. How much longer will Peyton still be my little girl who loves dolls and Lego’s? How much longer will Peyton still want to hold my hand and have me tuck her in at night? I know none of these things are permanent. I have to savor these moments when they occur.

So, we spent the week making memories that I hope can sustain me when the time has passed.

On Sunday I ran 16 miles in Cheyenne Canyon with my husband. This is my favorite place to run in Colorado Springs. The temperature in the city got up to about 50 degrees. It grew colder as we climbed past the 9000′ elevation mark, but was still pleasant. The few inches of snow on the trail made the climbing slow but the run down playful and fun. This is my favorite kind of adventure.

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On Monday, I did a six-mile loop with Riley on the Section 16 trail in Colorado Springs. I wanted to do something special with just the two of us. More snow had fallen over night, which made the trail absolutely beautiful. I am so incredibly happy that my 17-year-old daughter really enjoys being out in the woods. To get to share the trails I love with Riley is such an amazing gift. We hiked up the steep side of the trail and then ran down the long downhill, while marveling at the beauty of the fresh snow on the trails and in the trees. This will be one of my favorite memories from our Christmas break.

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The girls and I made approximately 10,000 gingerbread cookies on Monday. We celebrated Christmas with Riley on Tuesday. Riley had asked me a while back what I wanted for Christmas and I jokingly said, “A new pancreas.” So, she embroidered one for me. Yes, she is an amazing young woman.

My New Pancreas

My New Pancreas

On Wednesday, after my teary good-bye to Riley, Peyton and I did our last-minute preparations. We played a bunch of board games and then we took Greta to Petco to get her a Christmas present. Greta had a blast and Peyton and I enjoyed seeing her so happy.

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On Christmas Day, Stephen, Peyton and I opened up our gifts. We ate our Christmas meal and spent hours playing games together. It was a simple and yet wonderful day.

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On Friday, I took Peyton to “City Rock” so she could try out rock climbing. It was right up her alley.

Peyton rock climbing.

Peyton rock climbing.

Yesterday, Steve and I ran 18 miles. It was still cold, but the sun was shining and I felt good until the final mile. Maybe I am making progress!

Smiling because our run is complete!

Smiling because our run is complete!

While I have been a little sad that Riley is not with us this year, I am thankful that we have been able to create some memories with the time that we have had. I have gotten to spend individual time with each member of the family this week. While I had hoped for a little more quantity, I got what I hope is plenty of quality. Last year’s celebration felt hampered by fear and uncertainty. This year feels happier and more promising for all of us. Last year, I wondered if I would be here for this Christmas. Now, I am wondering about what future Christmases will hold for our family. While some things make me a little sad, getting to see my daughters grow up and move forward with their lives is a gift and a blessing. I remember my good fortune every single day.

Running, Hiking & Raising Young People Who Can Think for Themselves

After a few days in Breckenridge last week, it was back to our regular lives in Colorado Springs. The kids have less than one month left of their summer vacation, so we are trying to make the most of our time off.

I don’t know if it was spending a couple of days living and breathing at 10,000 feet or if I am starting to really recover from chemotherapy, but I felt energetic the first few days of the week I started my running week with a 17 mile run on the Santa Fe trail. This is the farthest I have run since before I had surgery in November. It seems like a lot of hardcore trail runners around Colorado Springs like to make fun of the Santa Fe trail. They say it is not a “real trail”. While it most certainly is true that it is more like a dirt road than a trail, the Santa Fe allowed me to continue running through chemotherapy. The soft surface was very forgiving when I developed wide spread pain. Also, my breathing was so labored that If I had tried to run hills through chemo, I would have been reduced to walking a whole lot more. While I love walking and hiking, I did not want to be a walker. I wanted to be a runner. The rail trail allowed me to continue to be a runner through treatment.

So, I set out to run whatever I had time for on Monday, and that ended up being 17 miles. I actually felt good and really ran the entire distance, which pleased me greatly. My legs felt good and I felt like turnover is improving. Getting out for a good steady state longer run just makes me feel good. I love to run long no matter if it is in the hills or a straight out and back. It is the experience of getting out and working hard over that extended period of time that makes me feel alive, strong and healthy.

On Tuesday, I went on a hike with my daughters. We did Section 16. I have run Section 16 more times than I can count, but it was fun to bring my kids out and see the beauty through their eyes. They seem to enjoy hiking and I hope we can enjoy many more ventures in the woods together in years to come.

The blue Colorado sky never gets old!

Tuesday night, Steve and I went down to Jack Quinn’s and ran the 5K together. On Wednesday and Thursday I ran at the Garden of the Gods. I ran an 8 mile loop with Tracey on Wednesday and was still feeling pretty good. There was minimal walking involved and Tracey, who wore her garmin, said we were running faster than we had been previously at the Garden. By Wednesday afternoon, I was starting to feel my energy level dropping off. My run at the Garden with Debby on Thursday was as fun and therapeutic as always, but my legs were feeling like lead and my breathing felt too labored.

My husband and I set off for Cheyenne Canon early Friday morning. Our goal for the day was to go as far as we could knowing that I had to come home by late morning to take one of the girls to a doctor’s appointment. We parked at Stratton Open Space and then ran up the road to the Columbine Trail. We had done this same run two weeks ago, covering 15 miles. This time around, it was much warmer and I was carrying 100 oz of water. The climbing on the Columbine trail is never easy because I am very slow to warm up, but this week it felt much more difficult than it had two weeks ago. Considering how much I have bumped up the difficulty of my runs over the past couple of weeks, I am not entirely surprised that I was working harder. My ability to climb seemed to improve as the morning went on and we ended up finishing 17 hilly miles. The good news is that the downhill felt much less punishing than it did two weeks ago. That is progress and I will happily accept it.

This was a good week of running. I am happy with the increase in mileage and the fact that I have been able to start adding hills and harder efforts back into the mix. My goal is to continue to push the envelope enough so that my fitness improves but not so much that I get injured. I would be devastated to have run all through chemotherapy and then derail my comeback by doing something idiotic and getting hurt.

In non-running news, my time and conversations with my kids have got me thinking a whole lot about my parenting style. Maybe it is because I had zero experience taking care of younger kids prior to have my own, but I have developed my own somewhat unorthodox parenting style. I believe in talking to kids about everything and repeating those conversations often. I believe in bringing humor to even the worst of circumstances. My kids often comment that they bet none of their friends have the dinner conversations that we have. Even though this may or may not be a compliment, I am proud of the fact that we enjoy some rather “unique” conversations.

I have always thought of my children (and all children) as inherently intelligent beings who need to be guided rather than directed. It always makes me sad when people make comments about teenagers “being stupid”, as if that is the automatic default setting for teenagers. I believe teenagers will do foolish things, of course, because they are biologically wired to take risks and chances as they grow towards independence. This does not mean that they are “stupid”, or that they are incapable of making smart, informed and intelligent decisions. Young people do need guidance, and they need people to encourage them to think about things much greater than themselves, and that their actions have consequences on both themselves and others.

I do not believe that it is possible to control another human being. I am not interested in controlling anyone, including my children. Parents often think they have control over their children, but dealing with a colicky baby or one full on temper tantrum from a three year old should convince us otherwise. We have control over how we respond to their behavior, but we do not have control over their thought processes or over what they ultimately choose to do. I communicate my own expectations to my daughters and try to help them navigate their lives as they grow up. If we set up the expectation that our kids will behave intelligently, then hopefully they will rise to the occasion. This does not mean that they will not make mistakes along the way. Of course, kids need to know what their parents’ expectations are, but I never assume that just because I establish a rule that it will automatically be followed. I remember having a conversation with Riley when she was in 8th grade where I told her that SHE would choose how much freedom she had growing up. If she was making wise choices, there would be few restrictions on what she was allowed to do. If she made poor decisions, then she would spend her adolescence at home reflecting upon her choices. So far I have had to set few limitations upon my 16 year year old because she has set the bar of expectations high for herself.

Maybe I have just been lucky so far. My kids are not grown yet and I know things can change in an instant (plus Peyton is only 11 so she could really give me a run for my money). I would like to think that allowing them to have a voice, to make independent decisions, and to have viewpoints that may differ from my own encourages them to really think about who it is that they want to become and what is truly important to them. I want my kids to develop their own opinions and determine their own value system. I do not want them to become little mirror images of myself. While my daughters definitely know what my beliefs, values and standards are, they also know that I expect them to develop their own as they move from childhood to adulthood. Debate and discussion are a healthy way to encourage and challenge all of us to think more deeply, and I try to encourage respectful critical thinking in our home. I love the young people with whom I share my life and I thoroughly enjoy the times we spend talking and exchanging ideas. Hearing their opinions and seeing them grow up into their own is my favorite part of being a parent.

Obviously, having cancer has brought forth a lot of soul searching and reflecting upon what kind of parent I have been over the years. November 18th changed all of our lives instantly. We will live with a sense of uncertainty about the future for a while. I hope that the knowledge, guidance and lessons I have tried to provide to my children will stay with them no matter what happens in the future. My wish is that they will remember the respect we gave one another, even when we did not agree. I hope that they will always remember how I encouraged them to show respect for themselves and for others. I hope they always remember that I love them for who they are and that their opinions truly mattered to me. I want them to remember that they have to answer to themselves at the end of the day. They will know in their own hearts whether they did the right thing, and that is what matters most. I hope that they remember my telling them to go out in the world and be good human beings. We cannot fix the big problems of the world on our own, but if they each do their small part, the world will be a better place. They are already well on their way towards making that happen.

Breckenridge Getaway

rarely ever say the words, “I deserve”. I do not think the world owes me a good time or a reward. However, I have felt that after enduring more than nine months of the world revolving around my surgery and chemotherapy, my family does “deserve” some time to relax and have fun together. We have earned the right to set aside regular everyday lives and worries and to escape together to rediscover the simple joys in life, and to set aside the day to day stress and fear. This past week, we escaped to Breckenridge for a couple of days. A good friend who knows everything that has transpired over the last few months graciously offered us her space in the mountains for a few days, and we gratefully accepted it.

We loaded everyone in the van and drove up late in the week.

Just seeing how excited my kids were made me so completely happy.

Even our dog was beside herself with excitement!

Our first day in Breckenridge, we spent time walking around the shops and down by the riverwalk.

Having limited internet connection was actually pretty awesome. We played board games in the evenings and just relaxed, read and talked.

Our second day there, we went for a hike. We decided to hike a 6.8 ish mile hike that goes by old mining cabins, waterfalls and two mountain lakes. The hike has approximately 1900 feet of elevation gain. It starts at 10,400 ish feet and goes up over 12,300 feet. I picked this hike because it sounded like it would be a workout for everyone, but more importantly because it sounded beautiful. One thing I have learned about hiking with kids is if you can motivate them by having specific landmarks as goals, it is a lot more fun and manageable. Just as distance runners learn to do, kids break things down into smaller attainable goals (1/2 mile further to the first cabin! One half mile to the waterfalls!) Also, when the young hiker starts to grow weary, bribing with chocolate works miracles.

We were on the trail before 8 am to try to beat any potential afternoon storms. It was a chilly 40 degrees when I first got up, but had warmed to 45 at the start of our hike. The first two mile segment of this hike is a gradual uphill. It’s a good thing, too, because it has been a year since I have been at elevation. Just sitting around in Breckenridge, I could feel my body working harder due to lower availability of oxygen.

During the first two mile stretch, you can see and hear cathedral falls in the distance. Our hike would eventually take us to and then above the falls. Here is a close up of the falls. The picture below shows how far we actually were from it at this point.

A close up.

After two miles, we crossed a jeep road and then continued up the trail. This is where the trail gets steeper. There was only about 1.5 miles left to go, but most of the climbing is in this segment. Fortunately, there were lots of cool sights. This is the first old mining cabin that we encountered.

Waterfalls.

Another mining cabin.

Mining car pulley system.

Finally, we reached lower Mohawk lake.

We ventured up the last bit of trail to upper Mohawk lake.

A marmot came by to say hello.

An old mining car.

It was very windy and cold at the upper lake, so we hiked down to the lower lake to eat lunch. We then ventured back down the trail and into town, tired and happy and in search of chocolate.

Our last day in Breck, my husband and I went for a short run in the morning. We ended up at this lake.

After our run, we took the girls to the Breck adventure park. We rode up on the gondola and tried out a few of the attractions. Aside from the rides, I think the most enjoyment came from the ability to play on a big pile of snow in July. No one loves snow more than Peyton and Steve.  They both had to take turns sliding down the hill before getting into a snowball fight.

After lunch we had to pack up and come home. I loved being away for even a short period of time without the intrusions of every day life. It was a quick trip but it was a reminder, as Riley said, of how fun it is to just hang out with our family. There has been a lot of fear and sadness in our house. Taking even a short period of time away without distractions can at least temporarily help us leave all of that behind.

Now it is back to reality. My husband had to work on Sunday. I did a training run with Vanessa, then went grocery shopping and took the kids to do some school supply shopping. Today I have to return to the cancer center for the first time since my last day of chemo to have my port flushed. I am glad I have some good memories to hold in my heart.

 

Treatment #13 knocked me down, but people pulled me back up.

Monday morning, my husband and I did what has become our standard pre chemo ten mile run. It was warm and sunny and beautiful. After facing months of treatments, chemo Mondays now seem to cause stress for both my husband and me. Since each week brings something different, the whole experience keeps me slightly off balance. I know Steve now worries going into Monday about how I will feel for the rest of the week. At the start of our run, I had butterflies in my stomach. I wanted to go home and crawl back into bed and hide out under the covers. By the end of our run, my stomach had settled down and I had regained that calm that I get from running.

Treatment went fine but nausea hit me shortly afterwards. Monday night I missed yet another landsharks meet. Tuesday brought some of the most intense nausea I have felt thus far. I felt like I was going to throw up all Tuesday afternoon and evening, and in fact, did get sick a few times that afternoon. I do not know if it is the fact that I am recovering from last weekends race at the Greenland 25k or if it is just the cumulative effects of chemo over months or both, but I felt so very tired all week.

This week has been marked by probably as much hiking and walking as running. I enjoy hiking, but I see myself as a runner not a hiker. Feeling like I am not capable of running on certain days makes me frustrated and honestly even sad. But I physically just had to slow down this week. Slowing down a bit gave me the gift of spending time with both a long time friend and with a new friend who I enjoyed getting to know better. Slowing down allowed me to visit new trails I have never been to and truly appreciate the scenery. I also got to enjoy the beauty of one of my favorite trails more fully because I was not staring at the ground the whole time the way I typically do when I am running something technical.

I had two days this week where I felt like I was actually able to run my planned mileage. One of those runs I had arranged to meet a friend. For another, I had planned to run alone and happened to meet up with one of my regular running partners in the trailhead parking lot. Right now I am really enjoying company on my runs. Somehow through this whole process, I have continued to meet and make new friends and deepen existing relationships through time spent out on the trails together.  It is remarkable to me. Some people get overwhelmed and frightened by an illness and yet there are so many people in the running community who have embraced me during this really difficult period in my life.

As a runner, I know I have been told after a race in which I ran well, “You are amazing!” While I appreciate the compliment, of course, I never quite understand the wording. More accurately, maybe running a specific time or distance is what we find “amazing”. No one is “amazing” just because they run fast or far. That being said, I think that there are a whole lot of “amazing” people who also happen to run. Theses people are amazing not because of their running, but because of their kind, caring, compassionate nature. There is a big collective heart among many of the runners I have had the pleasure of meeting. That I continue to derive my emotional support from other runners, even on days when I can no longer run, is what I find amazing.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I am not one for pomp and circumstance, but right now every day has taken on a new significance. Illness brings an intensity to every day circumstances. Every moment becomes important because you no longer have the luxury of believing you have an unlimited number of those moments left. I still do not want a fuss made over me. I often tell my family that I do not want presents. I do not want flowers or jewelry. I have always been a person who treasures simplicity and the gift of time. Yesterday I went for a run with my husband in the snowstorm. I told him that there weren’t too many men who would have been willing to run and walk when I needed to walk these days, especially in driving wind and snow. Despite my circumstances, I know how “lucky” I am. Our family spent the rest of the day snuggled inside of our house. My teenage daughter baked. My husband grilled salmon in the snow because that is what I had requested. We watched a movie together and then had cake.

Riley gave me this present.

It was a jar with phrases she had taken from things I have written. On some of the slips of paper she had written snippets of my own writing and in some she added her own thoughts. As parents we try to give our kids the wisdom that comes with age and life experience. We do not always know if our kids are listening or absorbing what we say. Knowing my daughter has been reading, listening and hopefully tailoring my advice to her own life circumstances means more than anything to me. We want to know we are making an impact on our kids, even if it appears that they are not listening to us. I appreciate my daughter being willing to listen and hear me, as I hope she feels that I have listened and really heard her over the years.

On a run this week, I asked a friend how he and his wife had gotten through a particularly difficult chapter of their lives. He said, “It is really simple. We just loved each other so much”. This simple but powerful thought has stuck with me all week. That is exactly how my family will get through our current obstacle: by just continuing to love each other so much. Tough circumstances can either tear families apart or bring them together. I know that in our home, and in our lives, there is more than enough love to carry us through this time. I want my daughters to always remember how much I have loved them and to lean on that knowledge to get through whatever life throws their way. No matter what happens in the future, no matter where life takes us, my love will always be with them.

My first week off from chemo

This was my week off from chemotherapy. Last Friday I didn’t have to go in for blood work. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to skip a week of chemo because this was my first week off. What I found was I was less nauseous, but still feeling pretty exhausted.

    Nevertheless, I have tried to pack in as much fun stuff as possible. Last weekend, it was a pleasure to watch my daughter and her friends perform in Ramantics, the variety show at Rampart high school.

On Sunday, Steve, my friends and I went and ran the Super half marathon. It was 10 degrees at the start and there was snow on the ground. I ran with  my very good friend while my husband raced and won second in his age group. Running with my friend was exactly what I needed to do right now.

Debby and I after the race.

Steve and I.

Steve and his award.

The Broncos got crushed in the Super Bowl that night, which was a bummer, but we enjoyed some amazing food with great friends.

     On Monday, Steve and I hiked and ran in the snow on Section 16.

The rest of the week has been so cold, with temps near or below zero. The kids had two snow days so we got to spend some quality time together.

      I woke up with a sore throat and cough today. I haven’t had a cold in a few years so I hope I can just shake it off. I know my immune system is working over time, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that this is just a minor irritation. This afternoon, I had to go back to the cancer center for a blood draw and an appointment with my oncologist. I really like my doctor and the people who work in the cancer center, but I enjoyed having the week off. Cycle two starts on Monday.