Run Rabbit Run 100

I had the opportunity to complete the infamous Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race this weekend. The course was both brutal and beautiful. The volunteers were absolutely fantastic. I was challenged, uplifted and beaten down at various points over the course of the race. There were many high and low points over the 31 hours and 19 minutes it took me to finish the race. Ultimately, what I remember most is the purity of the connection to the people on the course. When you are tired and cold and nauseated, you cannot hide who you are. You must be open and be both strong and vulnerable. You must rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help keep you moving forward. In a world where we can be guarded and jaded, the experience of allowing all of the barriers to slip away and be really present in the moment and open to those around you is unique. When it all comes together, it is refreshing and life-affirming.

I signed up for Run Rabbit Run 100 way back in January, 2016. At the time, I was not really sure why I signed up, but as winter turned into spring, I found myself sinking into a depression. As the weeks and months of training marched on, I realized that spending time running in the mountains was what I needed to save myself. (You can read more about that here: https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-panther-or-the-rabbit/ )

In the past couple of weeks as I stared down a daunting 100-mile mountain race, I felt a familiar mixture of excitement and foreboding. Every time I mentioned what race I was running, people would respond, “Wow, that’s a hard course!” or some version of that sentiment. Looking at the course profile, it isn’t hard to see why Run Rabbit Run has a reputation for difficulty.

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In addition to the long, steep climbs and the significant elevation change, runners face extremely cold temperatures at night time. I had been warned that many people DNF due to hypothermia. I packed so much cold weather gear that my husband asked me if I thought that I was running in Antarctica. I know that anything can happen over the course of a 100 mile race, but I would not drop out due to not packing the right gear.

The race, which has a 36-hour cut-off, started on September 16, 2016. I had assembled a team of three adults and one teenager. My husband, Stephen, would serve as crew chief and would pace me for approximately thirty miles. Laura, who I had been Facebook friends with for years but had never met in person, surprised me by buying a plane ticket so she could come pace/crew me. She has ultra experience, but lives at sea level, so I was not sure how she she would feel with the altitude and elevation gain. She would run either 10 or 14 miles, depending upon how she felt. My friend Larry, who is a very experienced endurance athlete, would therefore do either 20 or 25. Peyton would be on hand to help crew and keep my spirits lifted.

I chose Run Rabbit Run 100 in part due to the race’s proximity to Colorado Springs. I knew we could drive up in a few hours and I figured it would be relatively easy to get people to come help crew and pace. In fact, there was a large contingent of runners from the Springs area, which made for a warm and welcoming environment.

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With Jenny and Denise.

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Tonia, Peyton & Stephen

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At the race start (Photo courtesy of Ann Labosky)

We started up the ski hill promptly at 8 am. The course sends runners straight up Mount Werner, gaining approximately 3,500 feet of elevation in the first 4.4 miles. Even though I did a lot of steep training runs, I had a moment of wondering what in the hell I had signed up for. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I had sweat dripping off of my face. Nevertheless, I knew that we would essentially be headed out on a net downhill for the next several miles. I chose to try not to think too much about what was to come later in the race, instead just opting to enjoy the scenery. I spent some time shaking out the nerves and chatting with people, knowing that it was very early and I had to keep the pace conservative to save energy for the big climbs that would come later in the race.

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Long Lake

The Long Lake aid station is at mile 10.8. I was still feeling good and the trails, which had been crowded up to this point, began to open up. We headed to Fish Creek Falls, a section which starts off with fabulous single track that becomes quite rocky and technical. I was running alone at this point, listening to music and enjoying the scenery.

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My sunglasses were bugging me a bit so I took them off. While I was messing with them, I tripped and fell, hitting both knees on rocks. I had only gone about 12 miles into the race. The hard hit stunned me and I had blood streaming down both legs. I walked for a minute, assessing the damage. Nothing appeared to be broken, so I shuffled back into a run, hoping for the best. From Fish Creek Falls, we ran along a four-mile section of trail back into Steamboat Springs.

Olympian Hall

I came down into the Olympian Hall aid station with a considerable amount of blood and dirt on my legs, but was thrilled to see Steve, Peyton and Laura. After stopping briefly to restock my gels, I moved on and headed up the next section of trail.

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(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

As we moved on towards Cow Creek, the general consensus was, “Wow, this hill didn’t look this big on the course profile!” I spent several miles with a guy who shared some interesting stories from his years of dirt-bagging. Eventually, we parted ways and I ran into two runners I had been talking with earlier. Neither were feeling well at this point. One was injured and the other was sick to her stomach. I tried to give them both a pep talk, reminding them that they would likely feel good, then bad, then good, then bad, for the rest of the race. I think I was also trying to remind myself of that fact, because at this point my left knee, which had taken the brunt of the earlier impact, began to stiffen up. Every step hurt as I made my way down into the Cow Creek aid station. In addition, I had switched water reservoirs in my hydration pack and something had been digging into my back for the entirety of the section. I kept running with one hand between my pack and my back to eliminate any more damage.

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Arriving in Cow Creek with Peyton and Steve (photo courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Larry had made it into Steamboat, and several other local friends were at the aid station waiting for their runners, so Cow Creek felt warm and inviting. Even though I was in a lot of pain and wondering what the future would hold, everyone assured me that I looked strong and was running between a 27 and 28 hour pace. This was ahead of what I thought I could do, so that lifted my spirits. Aside from my knee and back, I felt OK, so I headed back of the aid station feeling hopeful for the rest of the race.

The next segment back to Olympian Hall was a rolling 12-mile section. My knee loosened up and I was able to run quite a bit. The sun was shining and the scenery along the single track was lovely. I was enjoying this section tremendously until my right hip flexor started to tighten up. I tried to adjust and loosen it up, hoping the pain would fade. We ran down the long steep downhill section back into Olympian Hall. Here the plan was to pick Laura up for the four mile uphill road section to the Fish Creek Falls trail head, where I would meet Larry for the night. However, shuttle issues forced a change in plans. Now Larry, who had been mountain biking but not running all summer, would be forced to cover nearly 25 miles with me.

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With Larry, headed off into the night.

I had been warned by many runners to grab warm clothing at Olympian, because as soon as the sun goes down, the mountains get extremely cold. Last year, the temperature on the course had dropped down to 8 degrees. I had been running in shorts and a tank top for hours, but threw on a long-sleeve shirt and grabbed another warm shirt, gloves and tights to put on as it got colder. We ran through town, and within a few minutes, I was hot. I stopped and took off my shirt in what would become the first in a night of many wardrobe changes. We ended up hiking much of the uphill back to the Fish Creek Falls trail head. From there, we headed on another six-mile climb back up to Long Lake.

Friendship and Inspiration

One of the things I love most about running ultras is having the opportunity to talk with people and hear their stories. People open up in a way they might not ever under other circumstances. While the scenery of a race makes the time alone special, the discussions are a big part of what makes the night memorable.

I first met Larry a few years ago when I happened to see him running close to where I live. He had on a Team Crud (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances) shirt, and I was just starting to get into ultras. I stopped him and asked some questions about races and CRUD. He humored me, answering a few of my questions. He probably thought I was a crazy lady, but that’s OK because I am forever thankful for that chance encounter.

I ran a few ultras after that meeting and then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As I struggled to come back to my previous form following surgery and chemo, I stumbled across Larry’s blog. I read a post where he talked about some of his own medical issues. Feeling very much alone at the time, I wrote to him. I did not know if he would remember me, but he wrote back and gave me a pep talk. Even though our issues were different, I finally felt like someone might just understand what I was going through. He encouraged me to be patient and gave me hope that things might be different but they would get better.

During the last couple of years, Larry has been an tremendous source of inspiration to me. He is an incredible athlete who has completed the Leadman series several times, but, more importantly, he is an amazing human being who gives so much to others. Larry coaches a local high school mountain bike team, spends his free time volunteering to maintain local trails and still finds time to crew/pace friends at races throughout Colorado. I followed him as he ran Burning River 100 mile race as a fundraiser for the Akron Children’s Hospital (coverage of this story can be found here:  https://www.akronchildrens.org/cms/sharing_blog/deac461c4d31a0e9/)  Knowing how much slower I am than Larry is, I was extremely humbled and grateful when he said he would pace me at Run Rabbit Run.

Running Through the Night

Larry spent most of the night sharing stories with me. I was so wrapped up in his tales that I temporarily forgot to eat. This led to a blood sugar issue as we headed uphill on the Fish Creek Trail. As we picked our way over rocks and up the climb, Larry watched me stagger and stumble like I was drunk. Because he coaches a type 1 diabetic, he knew exactly how to remedy things. He made me eat a gel every 15 minutes until I started to feel coherent again. This is why I have a pacer. I knew I was in good hands and I am grateful he was there with me.

It was at this point that the temperature seemed to plummet. I was shaking, my toes went numb and I knew I needed to get changed immediately. I plopped down on the side of a swampy section of single track and pulled off my shorts. Larry, ever the gentleman, looked the other way as he dug through his pack for a jacket. Several runners came through as I was changing and asked if we were OK. This was a reasonable question, as we had recently seen several runners throwing up along the side of the trail. I just laughed and said, “Yes, I am just getting naked…You’re welcome.”

We headed up a long uphill section that took us back to Long Lake and then to the high point on the course at Summit Lake.I was once again freezing. I grabbed warmer tights, stepped about a foot away from a crowd at the aid and changed again. I just did not have the energy to be modest at this point. I started joking that it was goal to flash every runner on the course. We headed down a 2100 foot drop into the Dry Lake Aid Station, where I would be picking up Laura for a ten-mile section. Once again, my knee started to stiffen up. I was running when I could and hiking when I had to. It was frustrating, but I maintained my sense of humor about it. As it turned out, Larry didn’t have to worry about not having run much over the summer. I told him I wouldn’t break any speed records and I as right.

We got into Dry Lake, where we met Steve and Laura. I gave Larry a big hug and told him to get some sleep. Laura and I headed off onto a section that featured several bridges and most likely would have been beautiful during the daytime hours. Fortunately for us, there was a bright spectacular full moon and very few clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful crisp night and we chatted, alternating walking and running through this out-and-back section that was fairly crowded. We got to the Spring Creek aid station, got a bite to eat and then headed back to Dry Lake.

Heading to the Finish

When we arrived back in Dry Lake, Stephen was ready to get me to the finish line. We had roughly 30 miles to go at this point. I had just gone uphill for 4.5 miles and we were facing another 8 mile climb back to Summit Lake. I knew we would be hiking most of this and was fine with that. I was tired but my spirits were still high. We laughed and joked as we made our way up the jeep road. The moon went down and the sky began to lighten. I knew 27 and 28 hour finish times were long gone. I also knew that a sub-30 was pretty much out of the question. Normally, I would be upset to slow down as much as I did, but I honestly did not care one bit. My knee and groin had been hurting and my back hurt where my pack had rubbed it raw. I knew, however, that i had more than enough time to walk it in to the finish line if I had to.

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When we finally got to the Summit aid station at mile 81.5, I was looking forward to jogging downhill for a bit. As I started to run, however, my right ankle hurt so badly that I immediately had to stop.I tried to jog again and just couldn’t do it. I felt the ankle and determined that it was probably just an angry tendon, so I resigned myself to walking. We walked back to the Long Lake aid station for the third time. I changed my clothes once again, putting on shorts in preparation for warmer temperatures.

The rolling but mostly uphill section to Mount Werner seemed infinitely longer than it actually was. I was getting passed by plenty of people but I did not give a second thought to attempting to chase anyone down. All I wanted to do was finish. I did not want to injure myself but I knew if I kept walking I would cross the finish line with minimal damage to my body. We rolled quickly through the aid station and then hit the 6.4 mile road that would take us to the finish line.

My husband is an amazing man who not only supports me in theory as I tackle these adventures, he is always there with me as I take those final steps to the finish line. Throughout the last miles of the race, I asked him to talk to me, but I could only give one word answers. This was the first time in my life that I ever got sleepy during a race. I became frustrated when I found out that he had told me I had 12 miles to go, but it was really 12.8 miles (Hey, it MATTERS!) Despite the fact that I was exhausted, I would never take my exhaustion out on my husband. He is the man who stands metaphorically and physically with me as I struggle through the most difficult times in my life.He is my rock and my hero and I come away from these races feeling more in love and connected to him than ever.

Dropping back down 3500 feet over the stretch felt painful and cruel. Many people remarked that they were unable to run at this point, and I was definitely in this camp. It was hot and I was hurting. Even Stephen was hurting at this point and wondering where the finish line was. Finally, we saw it.

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Peyton ran out to meet us and I gave Larry a hug as we made it down the road. I was completely spent physically but emotionally ecstatic. We got to the grassy section before the finish line and pathetically jogged over it.

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I got my 100 miler buckle and a beer mug for my efforts, finishing in 31:19. This was my slowest 100 mile finish by nearly five hours, yet I was not remotely disappointed with my finish time or placement. I was simply ecstatic that I finished the race and, despite some aches and pains, had a truly spectacular time.

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It was so wonderful to be greeted at the finish line by two of my favorite female runners, Tracey & Meghan.

After the race, we went back to the condo we had rented. I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open. I was also too sore to sleep, so that made for an interesting night. When I awoke at 3 am the next morning, I was in a state of deep emotional happiness and gratitude. Yes, I was proud of my finish, but more importantly, I was filled with intense appreciation for all of the people who had supported me along the way. There is something so uniquely special about running through the night with people. I find that people become the essence of who they truly are over those long nighttime miles. We talk about things that we might never discuss under different circumstances. The stories, the images, and the memories will stick with me forever.

I spent the summer training for this race, often alone in the mountains for hours, trying to work my way through my own issues. Over those 31 hours and 19 minutes, I was grateful to be there in the midst of the outstanding scenery and to feel fully alive. I am thankful for the opportunity to dig deep, to work through the problems and to connect with other human beings. When people have asked me why I do ultras, I have often said it is because I enjoy the challenge. While this is completely true, more than anything, I embrace the chance to learn about not only myself but those who are around me. I am forever grateful for the selflessness of others, for friendship, for the shared stories, for love and for the opportunity to fully be my perfectly flawed self. After struggling for months with my own inner demons, a 103+ mile trek through the mountains of Colorado finally brought me the sense of connection to others I desperately needed

Finally, I had the opportunity to work with Paul Nelson and his amazing crew, John Uibel, Marina Polonsky and Shawn Brown, at Run Rabbit Run.

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They are putting together a documentary about the race and they chose to feature me as a ‘human interest’ story. They followed several elite runners as well as a few of us regular folks. I am honored to be a part of this project and am pleased that they chose to feature a variety of runners. Look for this to be coming out by the end of 2016!

https://www.facebook.com/paulmichaelnelsonphoto/?fref=ts

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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No Air

I felt secure in my health. Invincible. I knew I was not immortal but I pictured a long, active, healthy life surrounded by people I love. I had a follow-up appointment scheduled with my doctor on a day when my husband had training for his job. He offered to change his training days, but I was so confident all would be fine that I told him not to bother. I would go alone. It would be fine. I would be fine.

As I  waited in the oncologist’s office, I had some mild pre-report jitters, which is normal.. The doctor came in and we engaged in a couple of minutes of idle chit-chat. I was waiting for the words, “Everything is fine. I will see you in three months.” But, instead, he opened his mouth and told me there was a lymph node near the celiac plexus that needed to be biopsied. As we looked through my scans together, he showed me another spot, this one on my liver. He emphasize that both could be nothing. However, he was recommending further testing to be sure.

As I listened to him, I kept a half-smile on my face, because I don’t want to show that I am rattled. But, I can feel the air leaving the room. I have a deja vu. I am back in 2013  when I first heard bad news about a tumor in my body that needed to be checked out further. I feel the same half-smile on my face, nodding in agreement to a voice that sounds a million miles away. No air. I hear the tumor board will discuss my case and let me know what will happen next. I think: I am alone. WHY did I come alone? Because I thought I was fine. I AM fine. But I thought I was fine in 2013, also. I don’t know what is real. I cannot trust my own instincts. I am afraid and so very alone.

I think, ‘What am I going to tell my daughters?’ I cannot tell them everything is fine, but I don’t want them to worry needlessly. After all,  I am going to be fine.

I leave and am, fortunately, able to speak to my husband. He sounds like I feel. A punch to the stomach. Fear. Disbelief. We are both desperate to be together, but are over 100 miles apart. I cry on a bench by the hospital elevator and I don’t care who sees me. I can’t drive. I can’t breathe. He has to return to class. I drag myself downstairs for the ride home but I just can’t do it yet. I sit on another bench and cry for 20 minutes, watching the rain pouring down outside. What am I going to tell my daughters?

Eventually, I pull it together enough to drive home. I talk to my parents. I talk with a couple of very close friends. I get home and sit on the floor, unable to move for 20 minutes. I am so thankful for Sadie, my Boston Terrier, who is licking my face. When my daughters come home, I tell them I need another test, but I do not elaborate. We have too little information. I am scared but I do not want to cause them unnecessary stress. There is no point. It seems cruel. They will know as soon as we know for sure one way or the other, good news or bad.

Sadie on my lap

The doctor calls the next day and says a biopsy is recommended. I vacillate between thinking I am totally fine and feeling fear that comes from seemingly nowhere. It consumes me on a visceral level. It does not seem to be triggered by anything in particular. I can only assume it is a response to the old wounds and fears coming back. One minute I am fine and the next I feel like the earth is swallowing me whole.

I cannot think about possible treatments. In fact, I don’t. I think about the test and just want to get through that. But when Stephen and I start discussing plans we have…races we have signed up for and trips we will take to see family, I become choked up. “But I have PLANS,” I think. “I have so much stuff that I want to do!”

The waiting is the hardest. Neither of us sleep well. We walk around, distracted zombies, trying to go through the motions and fulfill our daily duties and obligations. There is no time to emotionally deal with our personal crisis. We are so busy, we wish we had time to just sit and hold each other. When there is a moment of down time, our thoughts become our own worst enemies.

Steve & Tonia Santa Fe

I have the test. They biopsy enlarged lymph nodes. I go home and I wait and wait and wait. i try to figure out what it means. Why haven’t I heard anything? Is no news good news or does he not want to deliver bad news over the phone? I over analyze.

I actually think that I am healthy and fine. The logical side thinks I will be OK, but since I thought I was fine prior to my initial diagnosis, that leaves the door slightly open. Wednesday comes and I am supposed to see the doctor. A blizzard arrives, shutting down essentially every major road on the Colorado Front Range and I am stuck at home waiting to see if I will learn any news. I work and play games with my kids, but I am anxious and distracted. Finally, my phone rings and I get the news: I am fine. There is no sign of cancer in the lymph nodes.

There is relief and joy when I tell people, but after two-and-a-half weeks of living in some alternate universe, my own personal little time in hell, I am mentally exhausted. The news comes to me not as a surprise, but as a confirmation. I am fine. I knew it.

Today, as everything sinks in, I celebrate a new day of continued good health with a run. There is air. I can breathe again.

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Two Year Cancerversary

November 18, 2013. That was the day I had surgery for pancreatic cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. I could have surgery. Most people with my diagnosis cannot. Half of my pancreas and my whole spleen were removed and then shortly thereafter I went through 18 rounds of chemo. It was a long road that I have previously chronicled here, but I made it through. Most pancreatic cancer patients do not survive the first year. In fact, 80% do not make it to the one year mark.

When I planned my surgery, I did it strategically. In our house, November is a busy month. Our oldest daughter, my husband and my father all have November birthdays. I remember scheduling my surgery between my daughter’s 16th birthday and my husband and dad’s birthdays. I knew my illness cast a dark cloud over all of our celebrations that year, but I wanted to try to give enough time so that we could celebrate everyone else’s special day.

Last year, as the birthdays and my cancerversary approached, I admit that I thought a lot about my own anniversary. I was excited for the birthdays and so grateful that I got to be there for them, but I thought a great deal about my own anniversary and what it meant to me. I thought about everything that it signified and all of the stuff that we had experienced over that past year.

This year, as my cancerversary has approached, I have been aware of it, but in a significant mental and emotional shift, it has become less important to me. I have been more focused on other stuff in my life: Riley’s 18th birthday, my husband’s 50th birthday, my daddy’s birthday, my work and the race series that I am currently wrapped up in co-directing.

Still, it is an important anniversary and one that bears marking, because so much in our worlds changed two years ago. At this point in time in 2013, our worlds were rocked by my diagnosis. We did not know how much time I would have with my family. I think about the things that I have gotten to take part in over the last two years that I might not have had I not been so fortunate throughout my diagnosis and treatment. There have been birthdays. The girls were 10 and 16 when I was diagnosed. Now they are 12 and 18. Riley is legally an adult. Riley got her driver’s license. The college decision has been made (Go CSU Rams!) There have been homecomings and a prom. For Peyton, there have been karate belts earned, selection for a club volleyball team and a number of other successes in athletic and academic areas. She moved from elementary to middle school as I finished chemotherapy.

With Riley & Peyton on Riley's 18th birthday

With Riley & Peyton on Riley’s 18th birthday

Steve and I celebrated another year of wedded bliss. My family and I took an amazing vacation together, where I also happened to run a 100 mile race.

The family crossing the finish line with me!

The family crossing the finish line with me at the Bryce 100

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

I ran a full marathon and a half-marathon with Project Purple charity teams.

With Elli & Dino

With Elli & Dino in Lincoln, NE

With Jenny

With Jenny in her home state of NE

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

I ran a 50 mile race this fall at the Bear Chase Trail Race.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

I ran a mountain race with my husband and friends.

Breck Crest with my honey

Breck Crest with my honey

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

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I race directed a charity 5k for Project Purple and continued working with our local club, the Pikes Peak Road Runners.

Having fun after the race!

Having fun after the Project Purple 5k!

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

We gained a new family member when we adopted Willy in January.

Our newest family member, Willy

Our newest family member, Willy

And last week, we said good-bye to the Grand Dame, Greta, who passed away..

She was a natural beauty

Greta, the Bullmastiff

I got to spend time with our wonderful extended family back east over the summer, which is something I never, ever take for granted.

Through all of this, I have met so many amazing and wonderful people that I simply cannot name them all. I do hope they all know the positive impact they have had on my life.

I often think in long-term thoughts now, which is something I did not always feel that I could or should do. I wonder what college will be like for Riley and what high school will be like for Peyton. I wonder what new adventures are on the horizon for Steve and me as our kids grow and prepare to move on to live their own lives independent of us..

Not everything is easy or joyous, of course. You never get through cancer without any long-term repercussions. I saw an endocrinologist recently and  we agreed that it was time to try a medication to help stabilize my blood sugar levels, which have been all over the place. I have not felt like my normally energetic self for a while now and I am hoping that this will help return me to where I used to be. I am still trying to make peace with this recent turn of events. I would never have been in this position if I had not had half of my pancreas taken out. While I know that I am so very lucky to be here, I am also frustrated by how I have been feeling. If pancreatic cancer had not chosen me, I would not be facing the health issues that I am facing now.

All of the above being said, I know that pancreatic cancer gave me many gifts, too. One of those gifts is the gift of friendship from so many people I would not have otherwise met. I will relay one story now because it demonstrates to me the serendipity of life. In September, I was running the Bear Chase 50 mile race. I was wearing my Project Purple shirt which says “Survivor/Running with half a pancreas” on the back. I passed a woman who was running the 50k (different courses that converge over time) and she asked me, “Why are you running with half a pancreas?” I told her my story and she told me that she was a type 1 diabetic. We chatted a bit, but eventually parted ways. I had hoped that I would see her again after the race was over, but I did not.

Three weeks later, I was working the Project Purple booth at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon expo. Guess who stopped by?

With my new friend, Jen.

With my new friend, Jen.

Jen and I were meant to meet. I believe that fully in my heart. As it turns out, she had a friend who was battling pancreatic cancer. Sadly, her friend passed away shortly after we met in Denver; another tragic loss to this dreadful disease.

When I met with the endocrinologist a couple of weeks later, he told me to make friends with Type 1 diabetic athletes. I believe we met because we both needed each other at this point in our lives. She needed to see someone living beyond PC and I needed to meet someone who could show me that distance running and diabetes can co-exist. It all seems overwhelming right now but I know that I will figure it all out in time.

So much has happened in the past two years. I am so grateful that I am still here. I have been given the gift of more time with my family, and I have been given the gift of new and meaningful friendships. This year I look forward to seeing my eldest graduate from high school and go off to college, and to seeing my youngest enter her teenage years. Even though it has not always been easy, I am excited to see what year three brings!

You can read last year’s cancerversary remembrance here:

https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/remembering-on-my-cancerversary/

The Bear Chase Trail Race 50 mile 2015

The month leading up to the Bear Chase Trail Race 50 mile has been a difficult one. The last race that I ran, I had an altercation with a bike and ended up with a concussion, whiplash and a separated shoulder. It hurt too much to run a whole lot for a couple of weeks following that accident, so my running was sporadic and uninspired. I could not do core or lift weights because of the shoulder, head and neck pain. I had to really rest. I hate resting. Then, the week before the race, two things happened. On Monday, I was throwing up and sick from some bug that I had acquired. On Tuesday, my daughter, Riley’s friend passed away unexpectedly. My heart ached for her. I found myself consumed by her grief. Running suddenly seemed pointless.

I watched Riley grieve and did the best I could to comfort her. But this weekend was also her final high school homecoming. I wanted her to mourn her friend and keep him in her heart. But, I also wanted her to go on with her own life. She needed to go to homecoming and I needed to go run my race.

On race day, I woke up at 1:30 am with my stomach not feeling well again. I have had issues with reflux off and on since my surgery for my pancreas, and so I was feeling bloated, full, a little nauseous and I could not stop burping. Food was not at all appealing. This is not how you want to start a 50 mile race.

My husband, Stephen, was running the 50k. We packed up our stuff and were out the door by 4 am, so we could make it to Denver in time to board the race bus.

On the bus to the race start at 5 am

On the bus to the race start at 5:15 am

We got to the race with about 45 minutes to spare before the start of my race. The 50k started an hour later. We set up shop and chatted with some of the other runners. Finally, we lined up just prior to the gun going off at 6:30.

At the start with my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k!

At the start with my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k!

At the start receiving my annual pre-race hug from RD extraordinaire, Ben Reeves

At the start receiving my annual pre-race hug from RD extraordinaire, Ben Reeves

At 6:30 am, the 50 milers and 100kers were off. Right away, I knew I was off my game. A lot of times, I taper and go into a race feeling sluggish and stiff, but then am fine once I warm up. My hips were so tight that I could not run with my normal full range of motion. Add to that the fact that I felt full, bloated, flabby, weak and heavier than my normal racing weight, and it was a rather inauspicious beginning to a very long day of running. I really hoped that those feelings would pass.

The course is four 12.5 mile loops. Some people hate loops, and truthfully I think my favorite courses are out and back or point to point. However, the nice thing with loop courses is you do not need to carry much. I had a small water bottle and that was all I took. I knew there was plenty of aid on the course, and I could access one drop bag at the start/finish area. Traveling lightly is nice in a long race.

My reflux was in full swing, so I kept belching and feeling classy. Then, within the first mile, I had to pee. Badly. My hips were still not moving well. I could not run remotely fast. I was not feeling like myself. I started wondering if I was going to make it 50 miles.

Since I had to pee so badly, I started looking for a place to go. The course was set up slightly differently this year, so I was a little confused as to where we were. I saw that we were going to be headed up a very exposed Mt. Carbon shortly, so I pulled off into the trees quickly. Feeling extremely relieved, I hopped back on the course went up & over Mt. Carbon and soon had to pee again! I went on to pee three times in that first loop. Nothing seemed to be going well. Towards the end of the first loop, two other women and I went off course. After a couple of minutes, we saw another runner and figured out where we needed to be.

I saw Stephen as  I was coming to the Boat Launch aid station! I got very excited because I was not having much fun. We ran together for a bit, thinking that we could maybe finish out his race together, but then the 50k and 50 mile courses split up again. It was fun while it lasted. I started wishing that we had decided to run the same race as a “date run” and that maybe I wasn’t really a competitive person any more. I also thought that while it was nice to have company, I would have DNFd had I kept chatting while running. I just did not have the energy for it.

I had not been able to get any food down and barely drank any water for the entire first loop. It is not good to get behind on eating and drinking so early in a long race, and I knew it. But I was afraid if I ate or drank, I would throw up. I started thinking about quitting the race somewhere early on in that first loop.

Coming through the start/finish after the first lap. Photo courtesy of Ali Smith

Coming through the start/finish after the first lap. Photo courtesy of Ali Smith

After a while, I ran into my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k. We ran and chatted for a few minutes, but then eventually parted ways, too. My stomach took a turn for the worse as the heat cranked up. I had to stop and walk because I felt like I was going to throw up. If I started puking, I would have to drop. I was having an internal debate. The devil was on one shoulder telling me it was ok to quit. The angel on the side kept telling me, “You don’t quit. You are not a quitter. You have never DNF’d. Suck it up and find a way to finish.”

I kept thinking about quitting. Every mile, I tried to convince myself that it would be ok to drop. I could run three loops. The would be 37.5 miles and technically be an ultra, even if it wasn’t an official race distance. Who cares, anyway? 37.5 miles is a nice distance to run for fun.

After the third lap, I saw Ali Smith and asked her if she could find me some tums or rolaids or something to help settle my stomach. I grabbed a couple of gels and some salt pills, ate the tums that Angel Ali found for me, and headed back out.

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It was hot and I was not heat acclimated. I have been running with Willy as early as possible because he gets hot quickly. As a consequence, I was not handling the heat well at all. I walked a lot of that third lap, especially the long section by the golf course, which has zero shade. I continued debating quitting. I had picked up my ipod at the start finish to help motivate me for the last two laps of the race. When I dumped water on my head, some of it must have gotten into the ipod. It kept stopping every couple of seconds. I would restart it. It would stop again. I debated throwing it into a drainage ditch. It was infuriating to me but I desperately needed something to take my mind off of the pain I was in.

At each aid station, I packed my bra with ice. I was suffering in the heat. I kept battling waves of nausea. I was afraid if I kept going that I would have to walk the entire final lap. I started trying to play mind games to try to convince myself that I could keep going. I told myself, “You only have 5 more miles to the start/finish. You can make it there. Then you only have to do one more loop!” While I generally feed off of my own internal happiness when I run, I was not feeling particularly happy. I told myself, “You know there are people who would love to see you fail. Don’t give them the satisfaction of throwing in the towel.” After a whole lot of internal dialogue, I found some motivation. I was able to start running again.

Eventually I made it to the start/finish area. I did not allow myself to think of quitting. I had no doubt that I would now finish the race. Steve had finished his 50k about an hour prior and was sitting in a chair, not feeling too well. He had made it to the final mile of race but then threw up four times. This was a bit of a setback, but he managed to finish in just under 6 hours. Ali Smith and RD Ben Reeves came over to help me get my stuff together for the final lap. Race Timer and friend Lonnie Somers of Hallucination Sports announced that I was second female in the 50 mile. I thought, “There is NO way.” But, this lit a fire under my behind. I had to suck up the discomfort and run as much as I could. I ran and caught up to Marianna, whom I had passed going into the start/finish, but who had passed me on the way out. She was ahead of me going up Mt Carbon, but I pulled ahead on the downhill. It was my goal to get as much distance on her as possible, because she had been strong and steady all day. Marianna inspired and motivated me, particularly over the last two laps.

I ran until the Fox Hill aid station, which marks the long exposed section by the golf course. Here I knew I would be mixing in walking and running until returning to the wooded section. My legs were cramping at this point. My ipod kept shutting itself off. I was frustrated but knew I would finish at this point. My goal was to just not get passed. I ran as much as i could and walked when I absolutely had to. I looked behind me to see where Marianna was, an instead saw a new woman behind me. Where the hell did SHE come from? I could not afford to goof off or walk unnecessarily.

About three miles from the finish, my glasses fell off my head and broke. The lens popped out. I briefly tried to fix it but knew that I couldn’t waste time on my glasses. I shoved the lens in my bra since I had no place else to keep it.

I kept moving forward and eventually came up on the finish line. My official time was 9:52, a PW on this course by far (PR is 8:39). But, I had made it. I was so incredibly relieved. I also held on to second place female overall. This was in many ways the hardest day I have ever had on a race course. I usually do not think about quitting. Instead, I spent the entire day thinking about quitting. I had to talk myself into finishing. It took me a while to find reasons to keep going, but I did and I am so glad. I would have been very upset with myself for dropping.

Why was this particular race so difficult? There are many reasons. Since finishing 2nd at the Bryce 100 in June, my training has been completely unfocused. I signed up for a high altitude mountain race and the Bear Chase. My training was not zeroed in one particular course or goal, so I was all over the place. My mental motivation was also somewhat lacking over the last few months, too. I never fully came out of 100 mile recovery mode. I need to drop a couple of pounds to get back to my fighting weight. Some of this was due to lack of discipline but some of it was due to the fact that I still don’t have my half-a-pancreas digestive system figured out. I was getting hypoglycemic, so I was eating more than normal to prevent myself from having scary bonks. I was not heat-trained. I did not taper properly. I ran more than I should have two weeks out, then the final week I ran very little due to my stomach issues and Riley’s friend’s passing. I have a typical protocol that I follow and I did not follow it at all this time around. I will be running the Denver Rock & Roll Half-Marathon with the Project Purple team, but I am going to take a couple of months to focus on recovery and fix all of the things that I did wrong this time around.

I may have run a Personal Worst, but I am so glad that I did not give up.

Crossing the finish line. So happy!

Crossing the finish line. So happy!

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

With Kathy, who finished her first ultramarathon! So proud of her!

With Kathy, who finished her first ultramarathon! So proud of her!

With Stephen, who had to hold onto my awards because I physically could not do it.

With Stephen, who had to hold onto my awards because I physically could not do it.

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http://www.bearchaserace.com/

My New World

In the weeks since my last post, I signed up for three races. I will be running the Breck Crest full with my husband at the end of August. Next up will be the Bear Chase Trail race 50 at the end of September. Finally, in October, I will run the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon with my Project Purple team. These races could not be any more different, but I am looking forward to a late summer/fall of running in beautiful places with my husband, my friends and teammates.

In the meantime, we have been keeping busy with travel, work and important milestones.

Riley got her driver’s license yesterday.

Outside of the DMV

Outside of the DMV

If we had been on target, she would have had it a while ago, but when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family suffers consequences. When I was sick, I was not well enough to practice driving with Riley most days. So, while her friends, one by one, posted happy pictures outside of the DMV as they got their licenses, my daughter had to wait patiently for her turn. Sometimes she was distressed by the fact that it was taking so long, but she never made me feel guilty about my own limitations. It took us a long time to get her mandatory driving hours completed. But we finally did and the big day was Tuesday of this week. We waited for close to four hours at the DMV but I would have waited in that office for a week just to be there with her for that special rite of passage. It was one of those moments that happens once in a lifetime and I got to be there to witness it.

I know this is an exciting moment in most families, but for me, it was a joy that I can never fully convey. As I lay in the hospital after my surgery for pancreatic cancer, I wondered whether I would get to witness all of these milestones. I said to myself repeatedly, “I just have to make it to graduation.” Every dance, every ceremony, every college visit, every “first” or “final” day is something that I celebrate with an enthusiasm that I probably would not have had before. For every significant moment in my kids’ lives, I think to myself, “I didn’t know if I was going to get to be here, but here I am!”

After we went through the paperwork at the DMV, I teared up. Standing in a sea of people in the dirty and crowded room, I cried and hugged my daughter. I didn’t care who saw or what they thought. The truth is that I cry a lot these days. These tears are not from sadness, but are from a place of profound gratitude. Really feeling every single emotion has been one of the gifts of the last 20 months. I have always been an intense person. Whereas I used to try to downplay intensity, now I celebrate it. It is such a gift to fully experience love and joy and excitement and even sadness in this new post-cancer phase of my life. I never thought that my emotional world was muted before, but now it feels like it most certainly was in ways that I did not recognize. My emotions are often right at the surface. Simple things bring such profound joy. I see everything through a new, different and clearer lens. I went to sleep in a world filled with blacks, whites and grays. I woke up to a world that was an explosion of vivid and vibrant color.

Could this have happened without having experienced something so life-altering? I do not know, but I do think it is a fairly common phenomenon for some of us who have been affected by a life-threatening illness. Just last night, I spoke to a friend of mine who has been battling lung, adrenal and brain cancer. He shared with me that he experiences the same raw emotions all of the time. Neither of us feels ashamed of our new heightened emotional state. The biggest similarity I see between the two of us is the profound sense of gratitude that we have for every minute we get on the planet.  Every time I look at my kids, my husband, my dogs, or the beauty of nature in my home state of Colorado, I feel like my heart may just burst with joy and love. For all of the difficult moments from the last 20 months, I do not think I would change a thing. I get to be here on this beautiful planet for another day. How wonderful is that?

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Leaps of Faith

We make decisions every day. Some are major decisions that can affect our lives forever, while others are rather insignificant. When we make the potentially life-altering decision, we can never really predict with certainty if we are making the correct decision or not. At some point, we have to let go of the intellectual side of our brains and take a chance. We must make a leap of faith.

How we get to that leap of faith is different for everyone. Some people turn to God and trust that He is guiding them. Some people rely on their gut instincts. Some people defer to fate or some other outside force. We intellectualize and weigh options for as long as we can. Contemplating options is good, but over-thinking can leave us paralyzed and unable to act.

Sometimes these seemingly smaller leaps cause a significant amount of angst. So it was this past week, when I started contemplating when it would be safe to allow Willy to be off-leash. He has caused us significant consternation in the 12 weeks we have had him. The transition has not been easy. He was a stray, after all, and was not used to being with a family. He seemed to like us well enough, but the couple of times he got away from us, he sprinted off. Those moments of him fleeing at a gazelle-like pace felt like an eternity, and I was incredibly lucky that I was able to get him to come back to me. I wondered if he would ever settle in and want to be with us, or if there would always be a part of him that wanted to be a stray.

We had been making so much progress that I was beginning to think he would be off-leash at some point in the near future.  But I was still incredibly terrified of losing Willy. When I adopted him, I was making a promise to protect and care for him to the best of my ability for the rest of his life. As we ran and hiked along a trail on Tuesday, I thought about how much nicer it would be for him to be able to go at his own pace. He could roll in the snow and smell the marvelous odors of the forest. But, I wondered, was this truly the right time? Had we had enough time to really develop enough of a bond or would I possibly never see him again?

After contemplating all of the things that could go wrong over the course of several miles, I dropped his leash. He stayed with me. He flopped and rolled in the snow. I kept walking. I looked back and he watched me quizzically before following me down the trails.

First day off leash!

First day off leash!

Eventually, I took his leash off altogether. He still stayed with me. It was truly an amazing sight to behold. This wild-eyed feral creature WANTED to be with me now. Every single day since then, he has gotten some off-leash time. I am over joyed with how well Willy is doing. Our bond has deepened over this past week, as we have been able to learn to trust one another and fully enjoy our time outside together.

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Every major decision in life eventually involves taking a leap. At some point, we must throw some caution to the wind and hope that our decision leads us on the best path. With any major decision, we cannot know with 100% certainty how things will work out. I thought about all of the times in my life which involved letting go of a sense of control and hoping for the best: Deciding on a college. Selecting a major. Every job I have taken. Getting married. Moving across the country from my family, twice. Getting divorced. Getting remarried.Sometimes I have made great decisions and sometimes I have not, but I would not be the person I am today if I had not made each and every one of those choices along the way.

Raising children requires constant leaps of faith.From the time they are learning to walk, through the time they are learning to drive, to every time they walk out the door, we have to hope that they will be ok as we learn to let go, to trust, to drop that proverbial parenting leash.

Falling in love may be one of the ultimate examples of taking a leap of faith. Loving someone demands that we place our hearts in another human being’s hands with the hope that they do not abuse or destroy the gift of our emotions. It is human nature to want to protect ourselves from pain, but to truly love someone, we have to learn to let go of our defense mechanisms and completely and implicitly trust another human being.

With the guy who I choose to trust every single day of my life.

With the guy who I choose to trust every single day of my life.

Even going on with  my life after having had pancreatic cancer has required a huge leap of faith. I live with the uncertainty of knowing that my cancer could return with a vengeance at any moment. Yet, I would never move on and attempt new things if I did not actively work to convince myself that I will be fine. I have seen the statistics. I know fully well what could happen, but I have to live my life with assumption that I will be healthy for many years to come.

What is life without risk, without trust, without taking those leaps of faith? Each time I have taken a leap, there has been so much that could potentially be lost. The thing I always try to remember is that there is so much more that could potentially be gained. I appreciate how the newest member of our family has taught me patience all over again, and has reminded me to have faith, even when I feel overwhelmed by my circumstances. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on how many instances in my life have required letting go and trusting that things will work out.

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