Is This What “Surviving” Feels Like?

It’s been a year and 10 months since I finished what I like to refer to as the “intense” phase of my chemotherapy regiment. Intense meaning being pumped so full of poison that you can’t find one hair on your entire body, spending days on days on days driving an hour (there and back) to the outpatient clinic, and all of those wonderful hospital stays for silly things like the common cold or a blister on your foot.

It was a blessing and a curse to be done with it. But I wasn’t really finished. As part of my treatment plan I had something called “maintenance therapy.” Small doses of mostly oral chemo to be administered over the next year and a half as a way of regulating the restart of my newly healthy immune system. It was during this time that I was able to start recovering both physically and mentally. My hair began to grow back, I regularly met with a  physical therapist to regain my strength and I reveled in the blessing of remission.

I was a bubble of positivity, I felt like I’d been to the end of the earth and back. I was a completely new and better person than I’d been 8 months before. My illness gave me fresh perspective and the ability to appreciate every moment. I was so excited to live. And so thankful to be alive.

Fast forward.

It is now November of 2015. I can’t remember the last time I went an entire day without considering relapse. It’s been three months since I finished my maintenance therapy and lately having no poison in me feels like the biggest poison of all.

It has been suggested to me that I am suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Stress. I feel constantly on the edge of a breakdown. I feel anxious. I feel isolated. I feel scared. More so than I ever felt when I was actually sick. It was different then, I was already sick then. All I could do was sit back and let it all play out. I was either going to be cured or I was going to die. Besides getting to my appointments and taking my medicine the only thing I could do was choose to be happy or miserable. It was easy to be happy then.

Now I worry. It has occurred to me that there is nothing keeping me from relapse. No more little maintenance pills regulating the production of my cells. I know that it is illogical. I know that it is unhealthy. I know that I should not, but every ache, pain, lump, bump, bruise, funny feeling, bout of tiredness, sends me spiraling out of control.

I have dealt with anxiety my whole life but never to this extreme. My arsenal of coping mechanisms developed over the years is no match for this level of paranoia. It kills me that I can’t seem to fix it myself. I beat cancer, shouldn’t I be able to keep these poisonous thoughts from my mind?

And because I can’t I feel guilty. I don’t feel guilty for surviving, I feel guilty for surviving and not enjoying it. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am finally free from all chemotherapy, my energy level is at its peak of the past three years, yet I can’t seem to find a way to make the most of it. I am struggling to be happy, something that should come so easily to someone so blessed. And it feels horrible.

At first, I thought cancer made me special. I felt strong and inspired. I survived. I wanted to share my experience and be an inspiration or at least a friend. But lately I’ve shied away from all things cancer. This blog, the people that I’ve connected to through it, I can’t even listen to the ads on the radio. I don’t want it to be a part of me anymore. I’m no longer proud of my experience, I wish it never happened.

And I am tired. I’m so tired of carrying this burden.

But I’m strong. And I know that for damn sure. And I am confident in the fact that this is a phase in my recovery. Maybe its the worst phase. Is it over yet?

xoxo Kathy

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I took this picture one day after chemo. I was sitting on the counter in the bathroom looking at my reflection but not seeing myself. That girl is not me, but I see her today, just like I did then. Who is that sad girl? How can I help her?

Relay For Life 2015 Speech

For my 20th birthday, my best friends threw me a surprise birthday party. It was the first of many surprises that year and in the years to follow. Surprises that lead me here, speaking to all of you, and as you might have guessed, not all of them were as happy as a surprise birthday party.

I imagined my 20s as any young woman probably would. I would have my first alcoholic beverage, graduate college, and begin my career. Maybe I would even meet that special someone, get married, settle down, and start a family of my own. Instead, I had to face the very real possibility that I might not live to experience any of those things.

Five months into my 20s, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. I woke up one morning in my apartment in Los Angeles where I was attending school, and by that night I was in the emergency room at Swedish Hospital, in Seattle. I will never forget that day. [Pause ­ Look at audience]

I was quickly transferred from Swedish to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where I endured 8 months of outpatient chemotherapy and 10 days of radiation. One month into treatment, I was declared in remission, and thankfully have remained there ever since. Although I was comforted to know that my body was responding well to treatments, the following 7 months of infusions, procedures and isolation did well to remind me just how fragile life really is.

I lived every day of that eight months as best I could. Some days I was almost normal, I would throw a wig on, some of my “real clothes,” and some makeup, and I would be, almost, me. Of course, that version of me had to sit down often, be out for shorter lengths of time and constantly have crackers, water and nausea medication on hand, but beggars can’t be choosers. Those days quickly became known as, “the good days,” and though there weren’t as many as I would have liked, there were far more than I expected.

Unfortunately, along with “good days” came “bad days.” Days where I was too tired or too sick to get out of bed, days where I experienced the “rare” side effect of a new chemo, and endless days spent in the hospital being told that my blood counts were not high enough for me to go home. Besides my physical challenges, I mourned my old self. I was sad to be missing out on the life that I should have been living, sad at the thought of maybe never being able to live it, and sad because I missed being me.

Gratefully, I am now 22 and have been in remission for just over two years. I have been finished with my intense treatment for almost a year and a half, I will finish my two years of maintenance chemotherapy in August, and aside from this hip I’m about to get replaced, I feel amazing. I feel like me. Not the old me, the me that I was before I got sick, but like a new me. Just as familiar as the old version, but so much better.

Yes, I said better. I went through this horrible ordeal at a rare and critical time in my life, so how could I possibly be better than I was before? I will tell you. The old me did not understand or appreciate life the way I do now. As a result of my illness I was abruptly forced to mature, I felt catapulted into adulthood. Instantly, it was as if I could actually grasp the worth of all of the life lessons I had ever heard, and I could finally see how to put them into practice in my own life.

The new me, the new Katherine, appreciates the world and all of its beauty and blessings. She stares a little bit longer at the moon on a clear night, or the mountain on a sunny day. She knows the strength of a community, and the power of a few kind words from a total stranger. She understands how infinitely lucky she is to have the undying love and devotion of her overwhelmingly supportive family and friends. And more than anything, I know how blessed I am to still be here and be allowed the opportunity to appreciate all of those things.

I am still here because of people like you, and events like this, that raise money for cancer research and resources. As of now, there is no cure for cancer, but I am living proof that things are getting better. Slowly, but surely, research and funding have been improving cancer treatments and improving survival rates. And although, as some of us know, all too well, the treatments don’t always work the way we want them to, we know that with continued support of foundations like the American Cancer Society,

and participation in events like Relay for Life, we can play a part in ensuring that the result of cancer treatment is what we want it to be, every single time.

xoxo Kathy

Monday

Tonight, I am tired. Tired because I just kicked my own butt at the gym! It has been a challenge to get myself back in to a workout routine after lying in bed for so long, but I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere. And it feels amazing!

I’ve made a goal for myself this week to post something every day. I hope to be able to address real topics in my posts in the future, but for this week I am focusing on getting in the habit of posting.

I spent the better parts of my day today with Val. We went on our favorite long walk and I came up with some great ideas for TKD content. Being that it was actually nice outside today, I decided to take Val over to the dog park. There’s a really great one in our area that has a pretty big area designated to small and shy dogs, both of which are my dog. On the short walk over to the dog area from the parking lot, I ran into a nice woman who wondered about Val’s breed. She asked me specifically if Val was very good at being alone during the day. This just so happens to be the only thing that Val is absolutely horrible at. I had to explain to her that Val wasn’t a very good example of the breed because I got her to help me through chemo, so we have always been together all day, resulting in separation anxiety (for both of us).

I always love these little conversations that I have with complete strangers, where I’m forced to reveal that I am battling cancer. Everyone reacts differently to hearing it, but the best is when people react like this woman today. It’s like they immediately drop the stranger pretenses and join your army of supporters. They usually ask how things are going and I reassure them that I am doing great, and then they finish off by saying something encouraging like, “stay strong” or “keep up the fight” or something like that. Today, the woman said, “I hope that you have a great present and future.”

This reminds me of another sort of similar story. Sometime amidst all of my intense chemo I felt well enough to go shopping with my Godmother, Beckie. We were in one of Beckie’s favorite stores, chatting with one of the managers who knew Beckie, while she checked out. Somehow we got onto the topic of my cancer. Meanwhile this grumpy looking woman came to stand in line behind us. Beckie’s purchase was taking a while and we were being sort of leisurely since we knew the woman helping us. I figured this would only make the grumpy lady more angry. Finally, a second cashier came to help the grumpy lady. Grumpy finished getting checked out before us, and then she did something that shocked me. She grabbed my arm and said “stay strong” and then she turned and walked away. It was AWESOME. I will never forget that.

It’s so cool that people can relate to me, and to my struggle, like that. I feel so blessed to be able to experience these little moments of connection with people and I hope that they know how much of an impact that there words have.

Hope you all enjoyed these little stories, hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to come up with something a little more organized!

xoxo Kathy

One Year Later

A year ago today, I was trapped in the hospital in Seattle, occupying my time with Pinterest which I was using to inspire the redesign of my childhood bedroom. I remember sending an image of a window seat to a family friend who doubles as a woodworker in the hopes that he might be able to construct one for my sanctuary. I’d always wanted a window seat in my room. There’s this perfect nook for one that I was always trying to fill with other furniture when I was growing up. But nothing ever fit like this window box, the one I’m sitting on now, writing this post.

I’ve finally finished the bedroom remodel that I began as soon as I got out of the hospital last year. Looking at the finished product now, it’s pretty remarkable how closely it resembles the inspiration images, even with the extra dressers needed to contain the vast amount of unnecessary clothing I own. And I am absolutely in love with it. Even as a visual designer, I have never noticeably experienced the impact of my surroundings as strongly as I have since creating this environment for myself. It hurts me that I will have to leave it so soon!

Continuing down my list of “Projects I Thought I Could Handle While Going Through Chemo,” I come to this blog, The Kathy Diaries, a domain that I purchased the rights to shortly after getting out of the hospital. Originally, I wanted to document my cancer experience in real time and share with everyone my life, thoughts and perspectives. I quickly realized that this was not something that I was capable of doing. It takes a lot of  work to establish yourself as a blogger, especially the caliber of blogger which I intended to be. No one going through chemo needs such high expectations to be placed on them as what I was trying to place on myself, so I let it go. Along with pretty much all of my other outlets (besides television, there was a lot of television).

As I’ve been recovering (on maintenance) these past few months, I’ve been able to start replacing some of the pressures that I relieved during intense treatment. Especially the good pressures, like exercise, design, work, running errands, participating in family activities, living life and travelling! This is what allowed me to finally complete my room, which involved finally unpacking boxes of my stuff from LA that had literally been in the garage for almost a year. And it is allowing me now, to begin dedicating the time, energy and passion to this blog that I have wanted to all along. I can’t document chemo in real time, but I can document the process of getting back on your feet and restarting your life. I can demonstrate how a positive attitude and thinking about things from the right perspective can create a happy and fulfilled life during and after cancer. I can strive to inspire those who are struggling and spread awareness for our cause to those who are too afraid to pay attention.

So stay tuned everyone, because I’ve been sitting idly for too long, and I’ve got a lot of exciting things coming your way in the near future!

xoxo Kathy

PS Here’s a pic of my lovely window seat! And I’ll throw in one of Val, and one of me holding a baby for smiles!

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Photoshoot with Kate E. Photography

Hi Everyone,

I recently did a photo shoot with an old family friend and aspiring photographer Kate E. Photography! Check out her work here and be sure to like her Facebook page here! Kate has avidly supported me with encouraging messages throughout my entire cancer experience. She approached me a few months ago about doing a photo shoot but I was too sick until recently to actually do it! I really wanted us to be able to capture what was left of my cancer experience before too much of my hair grew back. We also did some more edgy, fashionable type photos for fun! And a few with Val! Overall it was a lovely day with a great friend and photographer! Special thanks to Daniel Ross Salon for styling my makeup and hair!

Here are a few of my favorite shots :)

*Please keep in mind that I am not a model and suffer from chronic bitch face*

2923BW363234BW133311152038BW Thanks for looking guys! Hope you like them!

xoxo Kathy