Photo of Lynda Peterson taken by Jeanette Weeks
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Lynda Peterson continued, “I was consumed with memories of loved ones who we had sadly lost to cancer and their long and difficult battles. I saw my life pre-cancer and post diagnosis as two different lives, one light, full of hope and dreams and one dark and destructive. Fear enveloped my mind while the cancer controlled my body. I had feelings of guilt and shame – what was I doing to my family? All I really knew about cancer was that people threw up, went bald and died anyway. But I knew that I had two choices, put my head in the sand, feel sorry for myself and wait to die, or hold my head high, summon the strength and courage that was deep in my soul and fight with everything I had. As a teacher, I was always teaching my students about the importance of a positive attitude and I knew that if the worst happened and I didn’t make it, I wanted my own two children to remember me as a women of courage and determination, someone who even in the face of cancer, put her best foot forward and never gave up. I made the decision that no matter what happened or how long I had, I would do everything in my power to survive, and I knew that if I was going to help my family through this, I had to put on a brave face and be strong for them.
Early on in my diagnosis, I felt lost in the sea of tests, procedures and appointments and while I recognized that everything was obviously being done to me and for me, I felt strangely that it was somehow all being done without me. That is until I regained my composure and started to take back the control. If this were the road I was on then I would be the driver behind the wheel. I asked a million questions, recorded everything and tried to bring with me to every appointment my day planner, address book, a binder and my journal. By simply being able to keep track of everything, I felt empowered and I began to feel better about my new reality.
The night of my first chemotherapy treatment I felt the expected side effects such as nausea, weakness, dizziness and fatigue. But I also experienced the strangest sensations of popping, exploding pains throughout my body, and what I can only describe as how it might feel to swallow poison. I could almost feel the chemo making its way into every cell of my body and I decided right then that it was not to be feared because it was doing what it was supposed to do, it was healing. From that moment on I called it my healing juice and although I hated the side effects, I welcomed the chemo.
I had another 5 rounds of full chemo followed by a protocol of 2 years of maintenance chemo once every 3 months. During that time, life went back to normal and I went back to work, and after the 2 years a CT scan showed that while I was not quite cancer free, I was considered to be in remission and we were ecstatic!
That summer I went on two amazing trips, one a fabulous trip to France with my husband, and the other was a bucket list trip with my father where we hiked the Grand Canyon. It was fantastic.”
Lynda described Cancer’s return, “Unfortunately 5 months later, in January 2010, a lump in my neck showed that the cancer had transformed and turned into something called Diffused Large B Cell Lymphoma, which as I understand it, is essentially a faster growing cousin of the original cancer. It was decided that I would have a stem cell transplant using my own stem cells. That meant that I had to have another 3 rounds of full chemotherapy to cleanse my body of as much cancer as possible before extracting my stem cells.
Once my stem cells had been collected I was admitted to Vancouver General Hospital and underwent 6 days of high dose chemotherapy, sometimes twice a day. On the 7th day my stem cells were reintroduced to my body, and then the real work began.”
Her darkest hour, “I hit rock bottom in June of 2010 during my transplant when my white blood count measured 0.0. It was frightening and exciting all at the same time because it meant the chemotherapy was working to essentially wipe the slate clean so that my stem cells could produce healthy bone marrow. But, each day was an unbelievable struggle - extreme, relentless nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; mouth sores, intestinal infections, pain, fatigue and hallucinations. I was afraid to fall asleep at night in case I didn't wake up, and my heart burned with sadness seeing the faces of my family as they watched my grey and withered body.
As horrible as it all was I’m one of the lucky ones because today, with the exception of two stubborn nodes in my lungs I am cancer free.
I now guide my life by making quality of life decisions. I stress less and laugh more, I appreciate life and people on a completely different level than I did before, and realize that looking after myself is an investment in time spent with my family."
She talked about achieving balance, “I still battle with fatigue and a somewhat compromised immune system which unfortunately have rendered me unable to work. Overdoing it comes very quickly for me and I have to really be careful about how I spend my energy. For a long time after my transplant, I fought with it trying desperately to get back to normal and ended up taking two steps forward and several back. I have learned that my new normal requires me to monitor that energy knowing that I only have so much physically that I can give in any day. In order to protect myself and invest in a happy and healthy life, I do what I can to stay healthy:
· I’ve made a conscious decision to try and live a balanced life which means that I prioritize my activities in each day all the while listening to my body and making sure that in each day I have time for me, time for my family and time for my work (which right now consists only of book promotion given my health issues). I eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and do things I enjoy. I choose not to concentrate on things over which I have no control. Which means that I stress less and laugh more. I want less and simplify more. I’m not afraid to say ‘no’ to requests of my time, and I don’t feel guilty about it.
· I have learned that spending time with people I love and doing things I enjoy is much more important than how clean my house is or how much money I have in the bank. I guide my life and consequently bring balance and happiness by making quality of life decisions.”
Her advice for others suffering illness, “Take ownership of this. You need to choose life and begin immediately to fight for it:
· Ask a million questions! What exactly is your diagnosis? What are the treatment options and the pros and cons for each? Why are the doctors recommending one over the other? Second opinions, specialists, medications etc. etc. Ask, ask, ask and record everything. With organization comes empowerment and by simply keeping track of all the details you will begin to feel better about this and know that you can handle it.
· Medical science will get you so far in your healing but don’t put all your eggs in that basket. Develop your own healing strategies: Firstly you need to explore how you got here and what you can do to aid in your recovery and change your life. Were there diet or other lifestyle factors that contributed to your illness? If so make the changes now, don’t wait until after treatment – research the nutritional/healing properties of foods, exercise – even during treatment, bring balance to your life etc. Secondly do your research then check with your doctor, are there alternative therapies you can use in conjunction with modern medicine such as herbs, supplements, vitamins, massage etc.”
What she attributes most to her transcendence, “I think it basically boils down to my attitude. I know that I’m living with uncertainty and I am passionate about the fact that I not waste a moment of my life. I don’t know how long I have (hopefully decades), but I refuse to spend the time I have worrying about the time I may not have.
When it is my time I want to have no regrets and know that I’ve lived my life with passion, love, humor, faith and a positive attitude. In my book I refer to it this way: ‘I chose, and I still choose, to never give up; to fill my heart with the love that is within me for the people and places that hold special meaning; to take control of the new journey I find myself taking and embrace every day.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t, and don’t, have bad days where the fear envelops my mind and my body like wearing a noose around my neck. Some days the noose is tight and I feel cold chills as I can almost feel the fibers scratching my neck and my own paranoia mounts wondering if the newest little pain or dizzy spell is a sign of the cancer returning and flooding new places in my body.
But, most days the noose is gone and in its place is an awakening of the senses. Colors are brighter, smells are sweeter, the chill of the winter air is inviting and I feel the healing warmth of the sun. I take nothing for granted; not a person, a moment, the sight of a tiny Finch perched in a tree or a squirrel scavenging in my bird feeder. I am inspired by the youthful exuberance in my students. I’m rejuvenated and invigorated by the sound of my children’s voices and the deep love I see in my husband’s eyes, and I instantly relax at the smell of my dog’s feet when she sleeps. I laugh more and stress less.
I think I just appreciate life on a level I have not done before. Not that I took it for granted, but when you live with uncertainty I think you just are that much more aware, and that much more determined to make the most of every day.’
The Healing Journal: Taking Control of Your Journey Through Cancer, my book, is a comprehensive guide and detailed record book designed especially for cancer patients and their caregivers to keep track of all the information that will suddenly become important in their lives.
It begins with the story of my own journey, complete with thoughts and raw emotions as I fought to both come to terms with, and learned to embrace life with cancer. It is intended to inspire the reader, to bring them hope and strength and the courage to never give up.
It continues with a journal section for patients to reflect as they progress through their own cancer journey, as well as sections for recording medical history, appointments, contacts, treatments, personal 'to do' lists and travel arrangements for those who must travel for treatments, all with enough space to record questions, special instructions and other pertinent details.
There is also a section entitled Healing Strategies, which covers such topics as counselors, diet, faith, relationships, wigs and more. It provides key information and references intended to guide the patient along the path to identifying and managing their own personal healing strategies. It is appropriate for all types of cancers and both men and women. Patients and caregivers who use this journal will find it to be an invaluable tool in their journey through cancer.
It is also very user friendly, being a compact 6 x 9, spiral bound with colorful tabbed dividers making it easy to flip between sections. It has a photo pocket in the front cover for patients to pop in a photo of loved ones to remind them of why they’re fighting so hard, and a handy file pocket in the back cover for prescriptions, business cards and lab requisitions.
Lynda’s closing words, “The Healing Journal: Taking Control of Your Journey Through Cancer has been recognized by International Book Awards as being the best new Health Organizer and Planner. It can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuxw05YoDH0.”