No Fear – One Year Later
A year ago this week, I wrote my first-ever blog post “Taking the Latest Treatment Plunge” while on a first-ever family ski vacation celebrating Eleni’s 4th birthday in Park City, UT. It was a time period with a lot of unknowns. My maintenance chemo (5-FU + Avastin) was failing and I was entering 2015 with a lot of medical and treatment uncertainties while fighting against the fear of the unknown. Would I enter a clinical trial? Would I start harsher standard of care chemo? Would my cancer not respond to my next treatment as well? Were my days of “feeling good” numbered? This first post ended with the words: Live life always. No fear.
It was against that backdrop that we took our vacation – and against that backdrop we had a great time including a very meaningful first-ever ski down a 10,000 ft “real” mountain for me. A skiing achievement separately matched by my then 7-year old daughter Amelie on the very same trip.
A year ago I wrote:
Although I have zero symptoms of cancer and feel 100% healthy, my lung tumors are slowly growing under standard chemo – i.e. they are not responding to treatment.
I … skied over to the almost empty ski lift going up to the summit. I got on an empty 6-person lift by myself… I crossed my chest, took a deep breath, thought to myself “no fear” and pushed off the snow to begin the biggest ski run of my life. … It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, descending almost 3,000 ft down a mountain on my own. … Even at high speeds and concentration, the parallels with my cancer treatments did not mentally escape me as I barreled down the slope, barely in control of my own destiny, regardless of how hard I worked to gain that control.
Here is the photo I took last year after successfully racing down the mountain on my own, without fear:
Fast Forward to January, 2016
12 months later, we just finished our second-ever ski vacation, this time to Mammoth, CA – a new family tradition. As the march of time & milestones continues, this time we were celebrating Eleni’s 5th birthday as well as having a fun getaway with close friends before I returned to relatively harsh biweekly FOLFIRI chemotherapy.
We Were Planning on 2-4 Inches, Not a Blizzard
Last year in Utah, the weather had been serene. The sun was shining brightly all of the days with the glistening & beautiful snow acting as an interesting external setting contrast to my internal worries. The weather forecast when we arrived in Mammoth this year said there would be 2-4 inches of snow the following day. At dinner that night, our waiter asked if we were ready for the “approaching storm”. Approaching storm??? I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and lived for five years in Buffalo, NY! 2-4 inches of snow counts as a “nice winter day” in those places. We mentioned the forecast to the waiter – he said, “oh that’s what they claimed before the last big storm – I think this one will be a lot bigger than that one…”
We woke up the next morning to a new weather forecast. Up to 20 inches of snow. Wind gusts up to 100 mph on the peaks.
It reminded me of last January’s post where I ended my writing by making a positive forecast about planning to start an exciting clinical trial. Instead, I was walloped just a few days later with an out-of-the-blue surprise melanoma diagnosis. Goodbye clinical trial. Hello worrisome forecast. We hunkered down inside for Tuesday’s storm.
Waking up on Wednesday, the storm was continuing but diminished. They forecast an additional 8-12 inches of snow but wind gusts on the peaks now down to at most 50 mph. We decided to try for the slopes – keeping plans flexible dependent on the conditions as they developed. Looking at the conditions, we decided that Eleni would stay home with Mom – 8-year old Amelie & I would go for it along with two close friends of ours.
Thriving in the Eye of a Storm
Going up the chairlift surrounded by swirling snow in the wind gusts – not riding up the mountain alone like last January but instead this time with my quickly growing-up daughter at my side – I started having doubts and actively thought that we were possibly biting off more than we could chew. I wasn’t afraid but I was nervous… probably it would be best to ski the slopes once, call it a day & return the next day when it was forecast to be sunny. The wind wasn’t a continuous gale but it was certainly gusting pretty ferociously. The snow was falling in waves – not quite whiteout conditions but not that far off.
The four of us started down the mountain. While skiing, I realized that yes even though the storm looked intimidating, once we were traveling down, both Amelie and I found ways to handle the challenge, surprising both of us. At one point she lost a ski under feet of snow. We found it & she didn’t give up. As we slowly went down the mountain (being very safe & cautious in the conditions, not attempting to break any speed records!), we were surrounded by swirling snow but there was always a small pocket of good visibility surrounding us. No we couldn’t see far but we could see near – and by focusing on our immediate surroundings, the problem of getting down the mountain safely became very tangible and doable. The surrounding “big picture” storm wasn’t scary when we focused on our immediate here & now.
We not only made it down the mountain safely but we ended up going back up and doing it again. And again. And again. And… each time we became more confident and as my friend Leta says, we became less focused on “surviving” and more on “thriving”. By the end of the next day (this time in the sun), we were starting to race down the mountain! Last year I felt a sense of accomplishment. This year I had a blast. Have you ever skied through 2 foot deep fresh powder drifts? I never had until this trip. It is amazing!
No matter how scary or intimidating a big picture problem may seem, focusing on the here & now makes that recede into the periphery – allowing not only the achievement of minimal goals but before you realize it, also surpassing them in ways previously unimaginable. Finding ways to thrive, not just survive.
Surviving & Thriving Together
Look back at the top of this post where I quoted my ski down the Utah mountain in 2015. Did you notice how solitary it was? I used the word “I” throughout the passage. It was indeed a very solitary moment in my life. Me against the Utah mountain. In my passage I paralleled it with my fight against my cancer. This year, I skied the mountain not alone – but with Amelie and friends by my side, further deepening the experience.
I think last week’s Mammoth ski trip can also be paralleled in many ways to my cancer fight. In even broader ways than I attempted to compare them last year. In the past 12 months since that trip, I encountered many things in my “cancer life” but one of the greatest was becoming very actively involved in the CRC patient community. Through that, I have joined the fight with countless CRC Brothers and Sisters. As I found with skiing with Amelie, this togetherness deepens the moments more than any solitary run is able. I can’t thank my fellow CRC survivor community enough for being there with me!
Looking Forward to 2017
On this trip, Eleni celebrated her 5th birthday and Amelie was racing with me down a mountain – quite the achievement for both her and I. What more could a Dad ask for to see approaching 4 years into a currently incurable cancer diagnosis? I predict on our next January 2017 ski trip, Eleni will be going down the mountain with us and Amelie will win the race against Dad 🙂
Exactly a year ago I was facing failed maintenance chemo and a very unsure year. A full year later after a number of treatment changes, two lung RFA surgeries (causing one collapsed lung), two ER trips & a return to relatively harsh FOLFIRI chemo – here I was racing down the mountain along with my 8-year old daughter, both of us exhilarated in that moment by the challenges & successes of life. Of life itself.
A lot happened in the 12 months following last year’s first blog post! The sentiment contained within it continued and guided me to live without fear no matter what happened over the course of the year – but in other ways things changed: I enjoy a larger focus on the here & now regardless of the storm swirling around the periphery; I am less alone than ever before & my goal is not only to survive but to thrive.
As I closed my first blog post one year ago… Live life always. No fear.