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Gin Schaffer is a former higher education administrator and works part-time at MWHC's Regional Cancer Center as the Coordinator of Integrative Medicine. She lives in downtown Fredericksburg and enjoys walking and biking with her husband and 2 kids (especially if coffee is involved).

Pink Ribbon Journey

Holiday Hustle

A little update on my Pink Ribbon Journey and an observation of my holiday-planning ways.

 

My family and I will be heading to Pittsburgh to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws. I’m excited for Jack and Anna to spend time with their cousins.  I think the change of scenery will be good for all of us. I know we will all be most thankful for my having completed the tough stretch of chemotherapy - my hair is starting to show signs of returning!

 

I start radiation on December 1st and continue drug infusion therapy until July.  I go for radiation every day, Monday-Friday, for 7 weeks.  Fatigue is my main enemy right now and radiation will pile it on.  So, I find myself trying to jam pack as much holly-jolly holiday into our schedules now.  What I find funny, and of course, not surprising, is that just a few weeks ago I swore I would take it easy this holiday season - does this sound familiar to you?

 

As I look at the calendar and see the various notes on tree lightings, Santa sightings, concerts, and photo ops, I realize that I’ve probably filled the calendar up because I have a guilt complex.  It doesn’t really matter whether it’s justified, it’s just there.  That’s the crappy thing about guilt, you see it, feel it, and probably even smell it and taste it.  Getting rid of it? Well, that often feels like an epic battle and it ends up looking like one busy-ass schedule.

 

This fast-tracking to attend concerts, tree lightings, and other events may be because I feel like this holiday just has to be special. I think I’m fearful that if I don’t plan these things, I’m letting my cancer control our first Christmas in Fredericksburg. Also, I worry for Jack and Anna.  I always worry about them, but this is that special kind of worry that just hates how things are different right now.

 

All of our holiday decorations are in storage and I’ve been agonizing, panicking really, about how we are going to bring Christmas to this apartment, this obvious departure from holidays past.  Although I know Steve will take care of the logistics, he's great at that, it's the realization that it can’t be the way it was and that makes me a bit sad.  I miss that settled feeling that just makes a house a home, it’s the little things.  If only Extreme Makeover - Storage Unit existed and I could get Ty Pennington to “move that tree” for me.

 

I’ve approached my cancer one day at a time and so, I guess I'll take the same approach and keep moving forward, keep hustling this holiday season. I think it's that fear of missing something and wondering if I'll have another chance. But, by now, we all know the answer to that problem...I swear, that “Let it Go” song from Frozen is so ridiculously right.

 

This picture below was taken at The Depot in Culpeper. I wish you and your family peace, love, and joy this Thanksgiving.

 

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A Mother-load of Thanks

Earlier this fall, I started volunteering at Mary Washington Hospital’s Women’s and Children’s Center LDRP (labor, delivery, recovery and postpartum unit).  I walked the very same halls back in 1994 when I was a Patient Services intern at the hospital (MWH); how bizarre to return as a married mother of two.  Volunteering seemed like one of the best things I could do to a) connect back to the Fredericksburg community and b) not let my cancer turn me into a couch potato.  I help moms know about an important online service and inevitably a little conversation takes place about our respective journeys in motherhood.  What I really love about volunteering is that it reminds me to appreciate life, to be thankful for my story and to be supportive (not judgmental or one-upish) of others and theirs.

 

Twenty years ago, I was, probably like many college students, hoping to have a successful career (in what, I hadn’t quite figured out) and building a life with a partner (mine was named Steve).  It didn’t take much time for Steve to figure out that he had met someone with a maternal instinct.  I was volunteering at MWH as well as other community agencies related to women and children -- I was actually known as “Den Mother” in the residential hall.  I don’t recall really having to discuss whether we were going to have children, it was just a matter of when.  That “when” can get so unexpectedly complicated, right?

 

Steve and I had a couple of brief moments in time, prior to our move to New Hampshire, that we had considered starting a family, but money, jobs, and the feeling we weren’t ready prevailed.  I’ve heard it said before that “you’re never really ready and there is never enough money”, but we did what we thought was best for us at the time which led to starting a family 14 years into our relationship (10 years post marriage).  Yes, it can feel weird to watch friends with kids preparing for high school, visiting colleges, or even attending college, but that’s their story, not ours.

 

In late 2004/early 2005 we decided to try to start a family, but I wasn’t getting pregnant, I was in a lot of pain and we learned my right ovary was the culprit.  Cysts and endometriosis had caused blockage; I had a laparoscopy in 2006 to remove the blockages and a shunt was placed to temper the movement of the “angry ovary.”  Then, I underwent bi-weekly Lupron Depot injections for about 8 months (a medication that is given to women to help cease formation of ovarian cancer and to men to prevent prostate cancer).  I became pregnant after a 3-year project and thankfully, on June 17, 2008, Jack (pictured below) was born.  In a twist of fate, I conceived Anna in 2 months in the fall of 2010.

 

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It was early morning on June 17th and I felt the common contraction pains that usually start the labor process.  We called the doctor, drove to the hospital, and everyone agreed that the time had come.  Unfortunately, after about 13 hours of labor, that angry right side of mine just wasn’t being hospitable to Jack and his ability to push through.  All of a sudden, 1 nurse in my room became about 8 nurses and doctors and I was quickly prepped for a C-section; the situation had become too risky to continue with a pelvic birth.  I prefer the term pelvic birth because I think our need to categorize women into natural childbirth mothers versus non-natural childbirth mothers is toxic.  All deliveries are natural regardless of how the baby was born - technically, babies are born by expulsion or extraction (sometimes with medications, sometimes without). I had a planned extraction on May 10, 2011, the day Anna (pictured below) was born, because no one felt like tempting my body's volatile side again.

 

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Being at the hospital working with patients and being a patient myself, is a humbling reminder that we all have a story to tell.  No one mother’s story of conception, adoption, labor, or delivery trumps another.

 

Now that we’ve entered the season of Thanksgiving, I hope you will take a moment to be thankful for your story, your journey to parenthood, regardless of what it looks like, and appreciate those around you just the same.

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The Honeymoon is Over

When Steve and I told the kids we were moving to Virginia, we figured the best way to “get them on board” was to make it sound like an adventure. Given we were moving during the summer, it wasn’t too hard to get them excited because we had many family and friends scheduling their time with activities and “camp-like” adventures.  Then, school started and we had some minor bumps, but a routine got under way and all seemed well. 

One key part of this adventure is living in a temporary apartment where the kids have to share a room - we even bought a fort-like bunk bed to sweeten the deal.  I think Steve and I got lulled into thinking that the kids were still accepting that part of the adventure.  This past week definitely signaled for us that the adventure is over for Jack; I guess in some ways, we are all feeling that way. 

Tuesday, October 21 marked the one year anniversary of Steve’s mother’s death.  I expected for us to go out and do something, take a walk, grab some dinner, anything to just spend time together.  As soon as Steve and Jack walked in from the bus stop, it was clear Jack had a very bad day at school.  A mixture of events had occurred that were bullying actions on the part of his classmates, but understandably, it was hard to get the full story from Jack, so I requested to be contacted by the teacher. 

We decided to go out to eat where, of course, due to us being out of sorts, none of us were aware that Anna had left her beloved Periwinkle from Blue’s Clues in the restaurant. We were so sad, Periwinkle is her class mascot - she “watches” over everything.  We tried to cheer ourselves up by hoping she brought joy to a kid who found it.  Luckily, the restaurant manager found it two days later, and yes, I had already gone online to purchase a replacement with Magenta included as a new friend. 

On Wednesday, I was thankful to receive a telephone call from Jack’s teacher informing me what had occurred and what action had been taken to resolve the issue.  Two of Jack’s classmates had been disciplined for taking his snacks and Jack had used marker to color his shoes (I think because of anxiety) and didn’t tell the truth, at first, that he had been the one to do it.  That issue felt resolved, but there was more going on with Jack. 

Jack’s teacher reported to me that although he is doing well on graded tests and homework, he is not finishing in-class work, as though he is overwhelmed by it.  He was also unusually disrespectful to her on Thursday.  His teacher said that he has mentioned to her that he doesn’t like sharing a room with his sister.  I found that interesting in that he had just said to me on Wednesday evening, “I don’t think I can be a brother anymore.”   

As his mother, I did the best I could to convince him that he’s a great brother and that he is needed.  But, I have a lot of self-doubt as to whether he believes me.  He frequently asks, “when is this (my cancer) going to be over?” and since I don’t have a definitive answer, I can’t blame him for questioning what I say. 

I’ve scanned the parenting books and there aren’t any guides for how to raise your 6-year-old boy, when you have cancer, in a new town, in a temporary apartment, with his dad and 3-year-old sister.  But, there are about a million of them that you can pluck ideas from that address each topic separately! 

Right now, there is literally no space for Jack to call his own - for his schoolwork or his emotions.  Steve and I often recognize when Jack and Anna need time apart, but that is usually at the end of the week or during the weekend.  Now, we have to re-tool the weekday evenings to address Jack’s need for some alone time as well as adjust Anna’s expectations. 

And, what could be better than changing routine as we enter the crazed Halloween-Thanksgiving-Holiday season!  But, that’s what we do as parents.  We constantly adjust schedules, diets, medications, and make decisions as new information becomes available about our children. 

Realizing that the adventurous honeymoon is over is probably a good thing, there are always new adventures ahead of us.

And with these superheroes, what could go wrong? 

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Just Like Me

Before heading to NYC for the Today Show's special program, #PinkPower, Steve and I talked to the kids to prepare them for a) my time away from home and b) the possibility that I would be on TV.  For as much as they could understand, Jack and Anna seemed equally excited for me and disappointed that they wouldn't be able to come.  I definitely owe them a train ride. 

The Saturday before I departed for the show, we went to Maymont Estate in Richmond; a beautiful historic property with lots of trails, a nature center, and a farm.  It was hot that day, so I took my head-wrap off to cool down.  Jack instantly said, "Mom, put your hat back on, the kids are going to laugh at you."  It caught me off-guard and I knew I had to respond, but not chastise him.  I didn't do such a great job at that.  I sharply said to him, "Look, Jack, I'm hot, I decide what I wear, and I'm sure there is some other bald person here." 

I think that was just too much emotion and information for Jack to process, so he made sure to find an alternate path to hike - preferably with his non-bald dad.  He didn't mention the hat to me again and overall, the day was quite nice, but that moment shared with Jack crystallized for me how hard it must be for a 6-year-old boy to have a hairless mom with cancer.  There is palpable anxiety when I'm at his school (we can't get out of there fast enough).  When meals get delivered to our house by a parent from his school, he's highly vigilant about who is delivering it (I wonder if that's because he will be horrified if the meal is from one of his classmates). 

In Anna’s 3-year-old mind, I think she’s thinking that she just has to be with me as much as possible.  Getting her to school in the morning is not easy and she doesn’t let her dad help her with anything.  I have to do just about everything with her and for her.  This is awfully hard when all you want to do is lie down because your head is spinning from the intense nausea.  Since control is a very big thing at this age, I can only assume that she figures as long as she’s with me, she can make me better and really, who can resist all that snuggling? 

I know it's probably crazy to try to make my cancer an everyday, "normal" thing for the kids, but that's what I try to do, so that I can also make it "normal" for me and survive it...you know, and not totally lose it. 

The exciting and nerve-wracking part about heading to the Today Show was not knowing how it would all work out.  I wanted my mom and sister to have a good experience as well, even though I know those two can make any situation fun.  Like going to Guy Fieri's American Bar because touristy, basic food seemed the way to go for my chemo-controlled stomach.  Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.  If only we had his cool red convertible too! 

I thought it would be great to get on camera with other women who were bald so that I could say to the kids, "see, those women have a booby problem just like mommy."  Of course, if I got to spend time with the hosts or any celebrities, that would be icing on the cake.  From the moment I heard about the event, I just knew I had to go and I'm glad I never second-guessed myself, even when I got nervous or anxious.  The entire experience was exactly what I needed, what my family needed as something positive and energizing to reflect on whenever we lose our way. 

The cast of hosts spent time with us and were so very kind to us all.  I’m really glad I got to spend some time with Carson Daly.  Our sons are both named Jack and we had a good laugh about watching The Voice with them.  His grace and kindness really shined through given he truly understands a mom's fight.  And, he lost his father to bladder cancer when he was only 11.  Carson may be a celebrity, but he's also just a boy at heart, a son who has lived with the roller coaster that is having a mom with cancer (his mother has been in remission for over 10 years).  I was so glad I got to show Jack this picture and let him know Carson's mom was "Just Like Me" and her doctors helped her and she's doing great. 

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Being able to stand beside Joan Lunden and ask her a question on national television was pretty surreal. Like anyone with cancer, you are thrown into a new life you didn't plan for and not only is she fighting for her own recovery, for her family (she has 7 children and just became a grandmother), she's a tireless advocate for everyone else.  For me, #PinkPower was an event that then turned into a state of being.  We can use our #PinkPower to keep fighting, educating, and empowering with hopes of eradicating.

 

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Jack and Anna ask to see me on TV just about every day now and are far more comfortable with my appearance.  I kind of wish every month was Breast Cancer Awareness Month because it definitely helps keep the conversation going with them. 

I met so many wonderful people and heard so many amazing stories, but there is one person in particular that will stick with me.  Our trip had come to an end and we were getting on the elevator to head to our car at Union Station in DC.  A man in the elevator with us simply lifted his wrist to mine, he had a pink "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" bracelet and said, "My Grandmother, 1956-1957, she lived until the age of 98. Keep Fighting.

I get up each day knowing that I have so many wonderful people helping me with this journey, this marathon of fighting one ugly disease. Whatever you have going on in your life, don’t hesitate to ask for help, hope and inspiration can come in the most mysterious ways. 

Please remember to schedule annual exams and encourage your loved ones to do the same.  In case you didn't get to see the #PinkPower segment on the Today Show, you can view it at: http://www.today.com/video/today/56155141

 

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#PinkPower

These days, a weekday morning in the Schaffer household is my husband Steve waking up to ESPN (the television is programmed to turn on that way) and waking up the kids with the promise that Nickelodeon's Peppa Pig and Max & Ruby will be waiting for them.  I want to be part of the morning process, but sometimes I can't; sometimes things like nausea, a bloody nose, diarrhea, well, all that is my cancer, interrupt what it means to be part of a "normal" Schaffer morning.  

On one of those crappy mornings (Tuesday, September 23), I was in bed, asking myself, why am I watching ESPN? I wonder what's on the morning shows?  So, I changed the channel to NBC's The Today Show and found myself listening to a telephone interview with Joan Lunden.  She just had her lumpectomy the day prior and was planning to kick off Breast Cancer Awareness Month on the Today Show the next week.  They were inviting people to the plaza for this event.  It was one of those moments where I was reminded that while my cancer does really suck, I want this year to be about taking chances, taking opportunities to make a difference.  

IMG_20141001_084237__1_.jpgSo, I got up out of bed, opened my laptop, and checked out what the October 1 #PinkPower event was all about (an educational segment and a celebration of fighters, survivors, supporters, and those we've lost to breast cancer).   I submitted an e-mail with my information and as exchanges with a representative from the show became more concrete, it became clear to me that I had to do this, I had to go to NYC.  I knew the trip would be truly special if my mom and sister could come with me and I'm so very thankful that they joined me on the adventure.  Sara Ann (my mom) and Mary Susan have the ability to keep me laughing through my fears and anxiety. In this case, my fears revolved around this: we were to arrive to the Today Show at 6:30am and would not be able to access any bathrooms until probably 9am.  I was terrified that my nose would bleed, that my stomach would get upset, that my cancer would have the nerve to show up at the #PinkPower event!       IMG_20141001_061034.jpg

 

As I followed each instruction of the Today Show crew and talked with so many terrific women, I just kept taking deep breaths to enjoy the experience.  I wanted to make sure I didn't lose sight of the fact that a mere four months ago, Steve and I sat in an office in Boston and learned about my cancer diagnosis. On October 1, thank goodness, my cancer gave me the morning off!  Every single person at the Today Show, including the hosts, were gracious and kind.  Matt Lauer shook my hand with care and thanked me for coming.  I said, "Thank you for doing this!"  Hoda Kotb is exactly as she appears on and off camera - full of love, life, and laughter (made me wonder if she hits the box of wine at 4am).  As a breast cancer survivor herself, she spent so much time with all of us (at 6:30am and throughout the show).

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It was an honor to meet and stand with Joan Lunden; I loved her and David Hartman on Good Morning America!  It was amazing to see her less than two weeks after surgery with such fierce advocacy.  I'm heading into the toughest part of my chemotherapy treatments soon - I'm so glad I took the chance to be part of something so positive, so inspiring.  I listened to that little voice and I just did it!   You can view the Today Show segment: at http://www.today.com/video/today/56155141  Check out Joan's website at www.joanlunden.com.  There are some simple things we can do to be our own best health advocates.  Here are some suggestions:

1)  Set an alarm in your phone to get an annual physical.

2)  Make an appointment with a gynecologist if you haven't met with one before.

3)  Know your insurance benefits.

4)  Select a health organization or foundation to support through fundraising, volunteering efforts.

5)  Encourage your mothers, sisters, and friends to do steps 1-4.

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