I had to Fake It

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to fake it? A couple of months ago, the circumstances were a little awkward, but I really felt backed into a corner. I had no choice. I had to smile. I had to pretend.

It was December, 2017. I knew going in to my oncology appointment that all would be fine as far as my cancer was concerned. I was unafraid.

My oncologist said, “Hey! Great news! You are four years cancer-free!” He was smiling. My husband was smiling. I felt nothing. A couple of awkward seconds passed and I realized I needed to DO SOMETHING. So, I smiled,nodded my head and said, “Yeah, that’s great! Awesome! Thanks so much!”

Four Years is Awesome! Can I Please have Four Easy Years Now?

Four years is pretty damned amazing, especially for pancreatic cancer. I know so many other people have been denied the opportunity to experience four years after a cancer diagnosis. I am not ungrateful. I know exactly what pancreatic cancer means for most patients. I knew what it meant when I was diagnosed with it.

I mean, how could I NOT fake feeling ecstatic? That would be horrible. That would make ME horrible. I felt guilty and ashamed for not genuinely wanting to do cartwheels up and down the hall. I knew the people in the full waiting room were not likely getting good news. Yet, I had a very long list of other things which were weighing heavily on my mind. It is a little bit of one of those post-cancer bullshit realities: even when you face cancer, other hard things continue to come at you.

pancreatic cancer

Four years cancer free. Smiling because that’s what I am supposed to do.

When I was diagnosed in 2013, cancer was not on my ‘worry radar’ at all. I really did not think about it. I never was angry about having cancer because I do not think I ever fully moved beyond being stunned by my diagnosis.

Like many young(ish) people who have never been ill, I thought I would have cancer, get treatment and I would either die from it or I would go back to living life as it had always been. I am grateful the first option did not happen. I was surprised when B also did not happen.

Cancer comes along and creates upheaval for everyone in its orbit. It impacts the things you see as well as those things beneath the surface which have yet to make an appearance.

Earthquake, Aftershocks and Tsunami

For many survivors, cancer is the 8.9-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake which comes out of nowhere. After a period of terrifying rumbling and shaking, you and your loved ones are left huddled together (if you are lucky) in the rubble, tasked with rebuilding something which will hopefully make you feel safe and protected again. You take the pieces, patch them back together as best as you can, but there is no longer any illusion of real safety.

You know another earthquake could roll through at any time, and you know your structure is probably not strong enough to withstand more destruction and trauma. In fact, waves of aftershocks keep occurring and no matter how well you feel you have braced yourself, the shaking chips away endlessly at your foundation.

All you can do is hang on to one another and hope for the best.

Four years of survival. It sounds glorious, and in many ways it has been; however, it has also been four years of aftershocks and tsunamis. I am still here, but I feel like I have been shaken and nearly drown.

The first aftershock came in the form of a scare two years ago. The scare was a large lymph node in the celiac plexus area. I went in for a biopsy, knowing that if my cancer was back it would be extremely difficult to fight. The celiac plexus is a difficult area to reach and it is surrounded by major blood vessels. So, it is hard to remove anything there and with the blood vessels in the area, it is easy for the cancer to travel to remote parts of the body.

It was terrifying, obviously to go through a couple of months not knowing if the cancer was back. One of the hardest parts for me was not being 100% transparent with my kids about the situation. Steve and I knew we were terrified, and I did not want to shake my children’s’ foundation unnecessarily. We would tell them what we knew when we knew it. Ultimately we did not know for sure until after the biopsy and more CT scans.

There were other things that happened during that time, and I found myself sinking into a deep, dark pit of depression. Ultrarunning was what kept me literally and figuratively moving forward. I spent the summer of 2016 training for the Run Rabbit Run 100. I put one foot in front of the other, day after day after day, trying to keep the panther from eating me alive. (You can read more about that Here)

As fate would have it, the race brought me the joy I needed, but a few months later I realized I had an injury I needed to address. I needed a delicate and possibly run-ending hip surgery. I had a hip labrum repair at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, CO under Dr. Phillippon. I had the right hip operated on March 30, 2017, just under a year ago. (Read more HERE)

My recovery was going extremely well until A)I hurt my shoulder swimming during rehab and B) my foot started to hurt. I had some foot pain off and on prior to RRR 100, but it was never enough to stop me. As soon as I started running again and adding hills into my training program, my foot started hurting. It hurt so badly I walked with a limp.

EVERY SINGLE DAY I woke up and told myself, my husband, my friends, “Today is the day! I am going to get out there, have a great run and turn this around!” I did not want this foot injury to sink me mentally after everything else I had been through.

After months of positive self-talk which did nothing to help me, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Or if I was delusional…or just plain old stupid.

Tonia Willy Williams Canyon

For the last six months, I have tried different things to fix my foot, as I have slowly watched my identity of being a runner disappear over the horizon. I would not care so much if I could hike or do anything without being pain. But that is not where things are for me right now.

Dear God, NOW What?

In the meantime, I have been diagnosed with two other significant health issues, one being an issue I caught on my cancer CT scan report and brought to my doctor.  (People, always read your reports and ask your doctors what stuff means. If you do not get good explanations, go somewhere else!) There is another issue I am still trying to figure out.

In addition, a very dear. very much-loved family member is also having significant health issues. It kills me to be far away because I cannot hug him during his own aftershocks. And, of course, I can never forget the impact my cancer had on my children.

Who am I and Why am I Here?

The constant stress of the last four years have indeed triggered a chain reaction of problems.

I MISS the old me. I miss being a person who took for granted the fact that I would live to be 90 or older. I miss my strong, uncut body. I miss the body which rebounded from illness and injury quickly. I miss not being in pain.

I miss the unquestioning faith I had in my physical abilities. I miss the belief I once had in myself that ‘anything was possible’.

Tonia Smith Pancreatic Cancer

Tonia & Steve

I miss having a body that was imperfect but dependable. I miss taking for granted there would be more running and more races for years to come. I miss believing with every fiber of my being that I could conquer every mountain and finish every 100.

And I miss how running protected my mental health and emotions. I miss knowing I could go spend a couple of hours in the mountains and come back better for it.

Maybe it will all come back. I have not give up all hope, though there have been some extremely difficult days. I keep thinking that after battling cancer, life should guarantee you a couple of relatively easy years, but it does not. For now, I will just hold my loved ones in the rubble and hope we can all keep hanging on. And I hope at my five-year appointment, I no longer need to fake it.

Tonia Smith cancer

With my Aussie, Willy, a couple of months ago.

EEG

Advertisements

Six Months Post Op Goal: Rosa & Ohio Mike

Six months ago, I had surgery to repair a rather large tear my right labrum caused by cam and pincer impingement. I am not going to recount all of the details of the past six months because you can scroll through previous entries of my blog for that information.  Suffice it to say it has been a long recovery requiring a great deal of humor, patience, humor, help, humor, cake, love and more humor. In addition, I spent a lot of time swimming (hated it and hurt my shoulder), walking, hiking, riding my bike in front of documentaries on Netflix, doing my PT exercises, stairmilling, ellipticating and eventually working my way back to running.

Being a goal-oriented person, I soon needed to set a personal goal, a milestone I could attempt to achieve following my surgery. I did not want to sign up for a race because I knew I was not physically or mentally ready. I thought about it a few times, but I knew it was just a bad idea. After hip surgery is not the time to get caught up in race fever or any short-term goals. I needed to think of something challenging but attainable. Something that would not hurt my long-term success or health.

The Goal: Mount Rosa

I looked up at the mountains on our Colorado Front Range and decided I wanted to hike Mt. Rosa by my six-month surgical anniversary. Rosa is a peak that stands 11,500 feet tall and is the third tallest peak in our area. It is much less well-known than our local 14,115 foot Pikes Peak, but I kind of like it that way. I have hiked and run the trails up and down Rosa a few times before, and I always think it is beautiful. Some of the trails are pretty darned steep, making for a reasonable challenge. The loop would be about 15-16 miles, I estimated, so that was a decent amount of mileage.

Mount Rosa

Steve on top of Mount Rosa in 2016. We were last there in 2016 while I was training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

Climbing Rosa was not a ‘stretch’ of a goal. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been as long as I was careful and respectful of my body while I recovered. Too much running or high intensity work could set me back, but if I stayed on track, it was certainly within reach.

All summer and into early fall, I concentrated on two things: keeping up a good rehab protocol and exploring the trails. I promised myself that since I wasn’t training for any particular race, I would take more time hiking in new areas. I did some trails which were new to me and really enjoyed it.

Tonia and Willy

With my faithful companion, Willy

It’s Been a Long Six Months

For the most part, I was good about mentally focusing on the immediate issue at hand, which was simply to do the best job of rehabbing my injury as possible. When I started having some new medical issues, I really missed being able to relieve my stress through 20 mile runs in the mountains. That was hard. Long runs have been my coping mechanism for years and I have struggled with some depression in the last couple of months.

Fall in Colorado

My favorite time of year in Colorado!

Would You like Another Crap Sandwich?

How do you cope when you life hands you a crap sandwich while you are already sitting on top of a pile of crap? Runners cope by running. Distance runners cope by running stupid distances. But, I couldn’t run ridiculous distances. I was tired, my body was beat up and I had other symptoms and things to be concerned about. I had to just sit on top of the pile of crap that was already there, while holding my crap sandwich, hoping dessert would maybe turn out to be more appealing. (I have to say that I am using crap metaphorically here. There is no actual crap involved in my current situation, and that’s about all I want to say about it for now).

While I always thought Rosa was possible, I had about a month of physical issues which really made me doubt it was ever going to be within the realm of possibilities. There was one day we started going up a trail where I thought I was going to have to go back down and have Steve take me to the hospital. Another day we went up to 11,000 feet and the altitude kicked my butt. Moving slowly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I doubted I could make it up the additional 500 foot climb to the top. As we descended the trail, I fell on my face, hard.  Steve was horrified, but I was just happy my hip seemed to be OK.

Still, I persevered. We chose a date where Steve and I could summit and where the weather looked like it would cooperate. It was going to be special! It was going to be a date! Just the two of us achieving my goal together.

Enter Ohio Mike.

We saw Mike getting dropped off in the parking lot as we set out on our path to Rosa. His mom and brother were in the car. Mike was already started off down Gold Camp Road as we gathered our stuff and headed out behind him. Mom rolled down the window and asked if her son would be safe out there alone. They were here from Ohio. Mike wanted to go on these unfamiliar trails and Mom was worried. I reassured her the trails were safe, but being a mom myself, I understood her worry. I told her we would probably see him on the trails and we would look out for him.

Steve and I started running up Gold Camp Road and there was Mike. I stopped and asked where he was headed. He told me Mt. Rosa and I said he we were also doing Rosa. Ohio Mike was going to do an out-and-back, but we told him we were doing it as a loop. I knew this was supposed to be a ‘special date’ with my husband. I knew Steve wanted it to be just us out alone for the day. But…Mike…and Mike’s worried mom. I couldn’t just pass by and leave. We spent the next seven hours showing Ohio Mike the beauty of our local trail and mountains.

Ohio mike scenic spot

The day started off for Steve and me as a way to celebrate the first six months of my physical recovery, but it turned into something else. I love our local trails. It brings me great joy to share Colorado’s beauty with people new to the area or just new to a particular trail. In fact, Steve calls me the Tour Guide. But I have gained so much happiness out on those trails and I want to share it with others.

I told Ohio Mike to text his mom that he was with company when he had a phone signal, because I did not want Mom worrying about him being eaten by bears. Soon I found myself sending Ohio Mike off onto some of my favorite photo spots so I could take his picture. I took pictures as he hit 9,000 for the first time in his life. And 10,000, and 11,000 and, of course, on the summit of Rosa.

Mike summit

And it wasn’t just me playing tour guide. I saw Steve call Ohio Mike over to scenic overlooks to point things out to him. I knew Steve had been looking forward to our time together, but when I saw him standing there pointing stuff out to this stranger we picked up along the trail, my heart got all squishy and I loved my husband even more.

Tonia Mount Rosa

Tonia, Steve & Ohio Mike at 11,000 feet.

Mike was quiet, but he kept up with us admirably well. He never complained. He was all smiles, even when I knew he was feeling the elevation. He was very well-prepared but he was carrying a very large pack with a lot of ‘stuff’, not traveling lightly as we were. He was being smart and cautious and I admire that, but I know it had to make climbing that much more difficult.

We stopped on top of the mountain for some photos and snacks. I told him this was my six month post hip surgery celebration. I gave Steve a hug and a kiss for always being my biggest cheerleader.

We came back down the mountain, enjoying the beautiful fall day and safely returned Ohio Mike to his family. On the way home, I thought, ‘Well, OK, I guess I checked off my goal’. But I didn’t really care. All that mattered was the sense of joy I felt from having shown Ohio Mike some trails and helping him celebrate a new experience. Sharing that happiness was what made the day special.

Mt Rosa

Ohio Mike with his tour guides

Ohio Mike would have made it to the top of the mountain, I am sure. But he wouldn’t have seen the cabin remains we showed him. He wouldn’t have seen the bridges we went over. He would’t have learned the names of some of the other mountains. And I would have missed out on the chance to tell the other hikers we passed about how ‘Mike is from Ohio and he is climbing Rosa!’ And everyone we saw was impressed, because dammit, that IS impressive.

Just thinking about it still makes me happy. Goals are wonderful and it feels good to reach goals, but not this time. Of course, it did not feel BAD to achieve my goal. It just felt irrelevant. I could not have cared less about MY goal, but I did care about Ohio Mike’s goal. All that mattered was sharing the beauty of our mountains with him and celebrating his success. I am thankful our paths crossed and I got be there to see him summit and return safely to his family. Thank you, Ohio Mike, for giving perfect strangers the opportunity to share a day and a goal, to enjoy some conversation, but also some peace and to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Finally, I am so thankful for my husband who knows and understands my heart…And for Willy, who never knows what the hell we will get him into but always goes along happily.

Supermodel Willy

Willy the Supermodel on Mt. Rosa.

 

 

 

The Panther or the Rabbit

I last posted at the end of April, 2016, following a disappointing finish at the Cheyenne Mountain 50 K.  Throughout the spring and summer, I had plenty to say but simply could not give voice to my thoughts. These last few months have been filled with change, uncertainty, beginnings and endings. As the numerous stressors mounted, many of which I am choosing to keep private, I felt my suit of armor cracking. And so it was after several months of facing an ongoing series of challenges, I found myself staring over a literal and metaphorical abyss, facing an existential depression, wondering, “Why did I survive my cancer? Why am I here?”

Depression

After being told by so many  for so long that I was ‘strong’, I at first failed to heed the warnings. A bad day. A bad week. A stressful month. Finally, I could no longer avoid or ignore the reality. It felt like I was being stalked by a stealth black panther. At first, there was a sense that ‘something’ was lurking in the background. Then I could see glimpses of it, far off between the trees. It drew closer, watching and waiting, until finally it pounced, knocking me to the ground, with claws drawn and jaws wide open. Would it snap my neck? Would it rip my heart out? Would I, could I, fight back?

To the outside world, all was fine. I kept up appearances and took care of all of my responsibilities. But my contact with most people dwindled. Instead of reaching out, or calling for help, I moved more deeply into dark recesses of my inner world as I tried to make sense of what I thinking and feeling.

Finding a Way Out

In January, 2016, I signed up for the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Located in Steamboat Springs, CO, the race is actually over 100 miles. The website says that it features about 20,000 feet or ascent and descent. In other words, it is quite challenging. After my 50k in April, I not only considered not running the 100, I contemplated never racing again. My foot had hurt for months. Maybe I was too old to keep running ultras. After facing cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, maybe I just needed to give myself a break and take it easy. Or maybe the truth was that I just no longer cared or had the drive to train. I specifically remember being out with my husband on what was supposed to be a flat 20-mile run. I had thrown in the towel and was walking down the trail saying, “I think I am done, not just for today but for good.”

My emotional state was chipping away at my physical well-being. Once an every day runner, I was now even questioning that part of my identity. I could jog a few short, flat miles, but I had lost my interest in going farther or faster.I had been dealing with foot pain and endocrine issues. Running just did not feel fun anymore. I always swore that when I stopped having fun, I would move on to a new activity.

Embarrassed and ashamed of feeling as I did, I kept my thoughts between my husband and myself. I have since learned that it is very, very common for cancer survivors (and survivors of other significant medical conditions) to go through a period of depression following their illnesses. We put everything we have into fighting for so long, that when the clear and present danger passes, the bottom can fall out on everything else. I felt frustrated with myself. I was alive and OK. Why did I feel the way I was feeling?

Running

As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

north slope

Running Ultras

In April I wanted to quit racing. Within a couple of weeks, I fully committed myself to training for Run Rabbit Run 100. I felt that I needed it desperately. My life, physical and my mental health depended on it.

 

I have finished two other 100 mile races. The first time around, I just wanted to see if I could do it. The second time around, it was a very public experience. I wanted to have a big comeback from pancreatic cancer. I raised money for charity and wrote a lot about the training process. This time around, my journey to running 100+miles has been deeply personal. I have spent hours alone on the trails trying to discover just how much I am willing to suffer and endure. That probably does not sound fun, and it often isn’t. Was I trying to run from something? Was I trying to run to something? Was I trying to make the physical pain feel as intense as the emotional pain felt? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

elk

Along the way, I found that even when it felt like the world was cracking, shifting and imploding around me, I could eventually find peace in being alone, pushing myself, feeling my heart exploding out of my chest, and feeling my muscles and lungs burning. I kept myself alive and moving forward, with each challenging step.

As I learned during my battle with pancreatic cancer, sometimes it is the most difficult battles that we face that bring the deepest sense of meaning to our lives. Sometimes the battles take place in the public sphere. Sometimes those battles are internal, away from even our closest friends and family.

7 bridges

The hardest part of an ultra endurance event is usually not the race itself, but the training process. When you sign up, you commit to train and make sacrifices towards reaching your goal for months at a time. With each ultramarathon training cycle, I have learned something new about myself. This time around, I am redefining what ‘strength’ means to me personally. I am not afraid of suffering and sacrifice. In fact, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes through incredibly physically and emotionally demanding hard work. I needed to spend days, weeks, even months, exploring my own ability to endure, even embrace, suffering. In life, after all, we will suffer. Sometimes it seems like we have to endure way more than our fair share of suffering. But that is life. We all will face hardship and must learn how to endure pain. As I pushed myself, I knew if I could endure, I could survive not only the difficult trails, but what I was facing in my life.

Though it has not always been easy, my countless miles on the trail have been a much-needed time of learning and reflection. In times when I felt alone and lonely, I found peace, contentment and a sense of self-reliance on the Colorado trails. I did not find a quick fix to any of the issues I was trying to sort out. Instead, I found that sometimes what we need is not a solution or a quick-fix but trust and patience in ourselves and the process. Gradually, the laughter and joy began to emerge again. I learned that I can look out into the abyss and question my purpose but that does not mean that I will disappear into the depths and darkness.

dawn