The loneliness of the long distance runner

When I was in 8th or 9th grade, we were given a list of books and asked to choose three and write book reports on them. Word rapidly spread that “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” was the shortest book on the list and we all tried to get it from the library as quickly as possible.  (Remember those days?)  I don’t know why it was so important to read the shortest book when I pretty much read books all day every day anyway, but I successfully got the book and wrote my report.  I don’t remember the book at all, but that’s okay because I’m not here to rehash my middle school book report.

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No, the title is more literal than that. I’ve been feeling lonely and sad lately, and I really don’t know why.  It started with running.  This training season, I’ve been on a different schedule than a lot of my friends – I either had more miles to run, or had the same number but because I’m slower I needed to start earlier in the Texas heat.  Sometimes they’d make plans to go to breakfast afterwards, and while I was always invited, I ended up declining because I knew I couldn’t finish my run in time.  Obviously, this wasn’t anyone’s fault, but soon I found myself feeling left out of my running buddies group and feeling like I was destined to just keep running alone for the rest of my life.

The feeling of being left out of various groups of friends bled over into the rest of my life and interactions until I felt the edges of depression trying to creep in.  I’ve struggled with depression off and on for most of my adult life. I’ve taken anti-depressants before: once for a few years after the end of my first marriage and again for a month or two right after diagnosis.  I prefer not to take them because they end up leaving me feeling sort of numb – not sad anymore, but not happy either.

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Photo by Joey Kyber on Pexels.com

So now what?

Well, for me, it starts with self-care.  The very first component of that is to remind myself that it’s okay to feel bad, and it’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault I’m sad.

It’s not my fault I’m lonely.

It’s not my fault I feel left out.

It’s not my fault I’m angry.

And I have to tell myself that, because otherwise I spiral down.  I tell myself that it’s my fault I feel bad, then I feel worse, and so on.

Instead of worrying about why I feel bad, I need to figure out what would make me feel better.  Sometimes it’s as simple as calling or texting friends to make plans, whether dinner or drinks or just hanging out.  Sometimes I feel left out of a group because I’ve stepped back and removed myself from it, and I just need to throw myself back in.  That helped a little this time, but I needed more.

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So I thought about it and tried a few things. It turned out after experimentation that I needed more running, more sleeping, more meditation, more reading, less time on social media, and (yes) more time with people IRL.  And while I’m not 100% back to my regular badass self, I feel the clouds starting to lift.  (And if they don’t, I have the number of a psychiatrist given to me by my oncologist in case I think I need the medicine again.  I promise I’ll use it if I need it.)

A few weeks ago I was running alone and my friends were also running at the lake.  At mile 11, I got run over by a bicyclist.  In a lot of pain and pretty sure I had broken my hand (I didn’t), I called my friends to see if they were still at the lake.  No, they said, they had just arrived at Taco Joint for breakfast.  Never mind then, I said (not wanting to inconvenience them). I’ll walk back to the car (about three miles) and call my husband in the meantime to meet me there. Ten minutes later I got a text. “We are at the dog park.  Where are you?”  They left their breakfast plans and drove back to the lake, even though I told them not to bother.  They picked me up, took me to the McDonald’s drive-thru for ice and a Coke, and waited with me until Tony got there.  Then they helped drive my car to the hospital so it would be there when we finished at the ER.  See, they were there all along. I was the one who thought they wouldn’t be.

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My rescuers! (and me, with last year’s broken finger).

I’ve been planning this post for a while, but I hesitated to actually write it.  It’s pretty vulnerable to admit that I have been feeling this way.  But when I posted in a Facebook support group last week that I had been sad, I got so many private messages.  Lots just to say they cared.  And lots that said, “I’m sad too.  I feel lonely and left out too.” So I decided to write this blog post not just for me, but in case anyone reading it feels any of those things and doesn’t know how to say so.

Yesterday when I was running a song from Dear Evan Hansen came on, and it reminded me of that day of the bike accident so much.

Even when the dark comes crashing through, when you need a friend to carry you,          When you’re broken on the ground, you will be found.

If you feel sad, I hear you.  I see you. You will be found.

Love,

Queen Badass

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Have a heart

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while because I want to write about my running and eventually get back into (at least weekly) training posts, but I need to write this post first and I’ve been procrastinating because it upsets me.

Around the start of the year, I was ready to start training again after my last surgeries.  When I got my half PR, it was as a result of heart rate training and I wanted to use that method again (for more about that, read here – https://www.runnersworld.com/beginner/a20812270/should-i-do-heart-rate-training/ )

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Chest straps are sexy.

So, I went and had a new VO2 test performed, and found out that my VO2 max had actually dropped somewhat, despite all the training I’d done since the first test 2.5 years ago.  Also, I noted both during the test and while running in general that my heart rate was spiking up a lot and taking a long time to come back down.  Around this same time, a cardio-oncologist came and spoke to our cancer support group. When I told him about these issues, and the fact that I had done both left side chest radiation adriamycin/red devil/tiger’s blood chemo, he thought it wouldn’t be amiss for me to come see him.

So I did.  And, after an echo, we found out that my heart is indeed damaged.  To be clear – I don’t have heart damage, but my heart is not as good as it was pre-treatment.  My ejection fraction has gone from 65 to 57.  As the doctor said, “that is a real change.” We tried a half dose of a blood pressure medicine to block a stress hormone in my body, but I couldn’t tolerate it and felt like I was going to pass out all the time, so I stopped taking it with his approval.  So for now I just watch my blood pressure to make sure it stays normal and go back to see him in six months.  He emailed me the other day to ask if I’ve gotten back to my pre-chemo running speed and all I could do was laugh. I’m about 5.5 minutes per mile slower than I was before diagnosis.

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Truth: slow and steady does not win any races.

Both my running coach and my husband have told me not to be mad at it, that it will take time and if I run another slow race at NY in November then so be it. I’m running NY to raise money for research for breast cancer, not to PR or prove to myself that yes I am indeed capable of running a marathon in less than 7 hours.  That the important thing is just to finish.  And I get that.  I do.

But I don’t like it.  It’s almost a year since I finished active treatment, and relying on heart rate I’m still running around 17 minute miles.  People still walk past me. I’m still too slow to run with anyone else.

A few weeks ago, I thought about giving up on running and maybe even dropping out of the marathon.  That very day, I got a message from one of the coaches at Fred’s Team saying he had read my story and would it be okay if they maybe dedicated some miles to me?  Here was someone that was impressed by my ability to run even as I was denigrating it.

I told him sure.  And then I once again headed out the door and started training.  Maybe I’ll never run like I did before cancer, but I can still run.  Maybe I can’t go fast, but I can go far.  For now, that will do.

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Even slow runners get this morning view!

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Fear of falling

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About a week ago I had “five miles of rolling hills” on my running schedule.  I hate this workout.  Now, no one in their right mind actually enjoys running uphill, but I’d run uphill all day long if it meant I never had to run down one.  The whole time I run downhill, I have to tell myself “don’t shorten your stride, don’t brake, don’t brake, let the hill carry you.”  See, I’m really, really, scared of falling.

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There is no way I would run down this.

So last week as I was running down the hills I added additional self-talk.  “If you fall, just tuck and roll. You won’t necessarily hurt yourself again.”  And out of nowhere I hear my brain respond, “I’m not scared of hurting myself.”  I mean, what’s falling going to do, give me cancer?  So I mulled that over for a minute.  “Well if you’re not scared of hurting yourself, what are you scared of?”  Silence.  Then a few minutes later, “I’m not scared of LANDING.”

Right.  Of course.  I’m not scared of landing, I’m scared of falling.  I’m scared of not knowing what’s going to happen in between the time I lose control in mid-air and the time I regain control lying on the ground.  It always comes back to that with me, doesn’t it?

I’ve been struggling a lot lately.  I’ve been having a lot of anxiety, not related to cancer or illness, but just related to random life and work stuff.  I’ve been having panic attacks somewhat more regularly than I’m comfortable with.  So I called and got a prescription from my doctor and a referral to someone to talk to about it, and we’ll see if that helps.  Because ever since I was diagnosed, I feel like I’m on the precipice of falling, that I’m teetering and could lose control at any minute and that I won’t know what to do next.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But once again recognizing the problem helps to solve it.  Sunday I ran the Rock n Roll Dallas half-marathon 5 minutes slower than I did 2 years ago, which I was really bummed about.  It’s a really hilly course (I know – Dallas – but seriously, it’s more hilly  than the half I ran in Seattle).  My time may not have been what I wanted, but I have to tell you, when I got to those downhills, I flew.

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Car talk

Yesterday a post popped up in my Facebook feed informing me that 8 years ago I had purchased a 2 year old Saab.  I got a really good deal on it and I loved that car.  I don’t drive very much, so it only had about 60,000 miles on it at the end of last year.

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Nonetheless, I had started to think about getting a new car in the fall of 2016.  It was starting to have small problems, and fixing an 8 year old Saab was getting pretty expensive since they no longer made parts for it.  Then I was diagnosed with cancer.  Car buying was the last thing on my mind until I got in an accident on the way home from my first meeting with my surgical oncologist.  I was sure it was totaled (remember, 8 year old Saab – no replacement parts).  To my surprise, my insurance company disagreed and thanks to my friend who owns Twisted Wrench, the car was fixed and looked better than the day I bought it.

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Seriously, like the day you find out your cancer is stage 3 and aggressive and you need a mastectomy isn’t bad enough.

Honestly, although I think my insurance company paid more than the car was worth to fix it (but thanks, USAA!  You’re the best!), I was so happy I didn’t have to buy a new car in the middle of everything else that was going on at the time.  Dealing with the repairs around the time of my surgery was bad enough.  And since it looked like new I was totally happy to keep driving it for another year.  But after my final two surgeries in December, I was once again faced with the reality that I was driving a (now) ten year old Saab and if something big went wrong with it, it would be very expensive to fix.

Why am I telling you all of this?  I guess because I was surprised how scared I was to buy a car.  In the past, I wanted or needed a new car and I went to the dealership and bought one. I didn’t even really haggle all that much.  This time I spent a solid month getting offers on the Saab and looking for EXACTLY the car I wanted and refusing to pay for a navigation system or LED headlights.

But even before I got to that point, I worried about getting the car I really wanted.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy a basic Ford or a Chevy or a Honda?  Or a used car?  Or to pay cash for it?  (As is, I put a ton down on it so my payments would be low enough to make me comfortable.)  It’s not that I can’t afford the car.  It’s not that I have any reason to think my job is in jeopardy or that I couldn’t get another job if I wanted or needed to.

No, I finally realized what my problem was the night I asked my husband, “but what if my cancer comes back? What if I can’t work any more and have to go on social security?”  He looked at me blankly.  “Why would you think that would happen?  And if it did happen wouldn’t your car payment be the least of our worries?”  Well, yeah.  Once I said the fear out loud, it dissipated in the light of day.  I have to remember that.  When I’m scared, or sad, or having a pity party – what’s the cause of it?  And who can I talk to about it to make it go away?  (Or, can I journal about it on my blog?)

I’m glad to say that my worries about the car did indeed go away and I am now the very happy owner of a 2018 Cadillac XT5.  Take that, cancer.26056142_10211269269507049_1137633804363924647_n

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An ode to lists

I’m a list person.  I still keep a handwritten calendar with a list of things to do on it that I either check off or put an X next to if I don’t get them done that day (I know, I’m very, very cool.)

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My husband says “wow, you do a lot every day.”  Truth:  I include things like “fold laundry” and “email so and so about that thing.”  

Similarly, when we are getting ready to go on a vacation, I make a packing list. I’ve probably been doing this for 20 years, at least, and I have a folder full of old handwritten packing lists in a folder in the filing cabinet (you know, in case we go to that place again on another vacation).  Now I’ve slightly modernized this system by keeping packing lists in Word – I have a master packing list but still save all my old ones by location.

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Yes, like I said, I’m very, very cool.

So when we were getting ready to go to Banff, I pulled up the list from the last week-long ski vacation we went on (Breckenridge with my sister’s family 2 years ago).  We drove that time, so I took off most of the liquor and food on that list, but there was still something wrong with it.  It took me the better part of the day to realize what it was.

That packing list was pre-cancer.  See, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I have to take on trips now that I didn’t before.  The compression sleeve and glove I’m supposed to wear on the plane to help prevent lymphedema in the arm where most of my lymph nodes were removed (I actually forgot that.  Oops.)  I need to be extra sure to carry my health insurance card, of course. I also need to carry the card about my clinical trial and the warranty on my breast implants.  Just for good measure I tucked in the handwritten list I finally created (after the 18th time I was asked last year) of all the medicines and supplements I take and of every surgery I’ve ever had.

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(Not mine. I don’t have pretty pictures.)

And no more getting on the plane with just my purse and a kindle – I need a decent sized tote bag to carry my medicines. The clinical trial drug has to be in its original container (a bottle inside a box inside a bag), and then I have to carry every prescription in its original bottle to show that I do indeed have scrips for valium, ativan, hydrocodone, percoset….I rarely take any of these, but I never know when I’ll need them.  So it’s kind of like how I used to take Advil, Sudafed, and Immodium “just in case.”  Now I take all of those plus about 8 prescriptions.

Once I added all of this “cancer stuff,” my packing list was done. And I quite honestly was a little bit exhausted.

I don’t know what the point of this post is, except that even when you least expect it, life has a way of whacking you in the head and reminding you that your life has changed after cancer.  It’s not necessarily bad or good — it’s just different. (I know, “the new normal.” I still hate that phrase and am looking for a different one.)

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MRI

During treatment last year, I had a couple of really bad headaches — high fevers, vomiting, and pain behind my eyes so bad I couldn’t bear to look at anything.  While my oncologist and I both figured that these were a side effect of treatment and of me overdoing things, she recommended we get a brain MRI just to be sure and to have a baseline in case of any future issues (I also have a history of headaches, and in fact had an MRI four years ago which was all clear).  The only problem was that as of this summer, I still had tissue expanders that contained metal, and an MRI would have pulled them right out of my body.  I figured neither my plastic surgeon nor I would appreciate that, so we delayed the MRI.  I could have gotten a CT scan, but I’m allergic to CT contrast and so getting one of those requires steroids and Benadryl in advance.  Not worth it.

One reason we didn’t think anything was going on in my brain and there was no rush to scan me is that my headaches come and go.  If there’s a tumor or anything else in your brain, apparently the headache is going to be constant at best and more likely worsen over time.  Still, because I had maxed out my co-payments on insurance this year, we decided to do the MRI after my exchange surgery  in mid-December just to be sure.

I fully expected the call to say “your MRI came back all clear,” and it ALMOST did, but then they said “there is a 2 mm nodule that we don’t think much of.”  Of course I needed to know why they didn’t think much of it, so I made an appointment with my oncologist to review the scans and the report.  The “nodule” is in an area where a solitary tumor would be unlikely to develop, and it’s so small that neither of us could even see what the radiologist saw.  Then again, that’s why he’s the radiologist and we’re not.  So, the plan is to do a follow-up MRI in 12 weeks just to be sure it hasn’t grown or anything like that.  Otherwise, it’s not something we need to worry about.  The nodule is also too small to be causing my headaches so it’s just one of those random things.

Interestingly (to me),  treatment for my type of breast cancer no longer calls for these kind of scans as a regular follow-up once your active treatment is over.  My doctor says it’s because it causes patients unnecessary anxiety and that any return of the cancer would cause symptoms as soon as they could see it on a scan anyway.  While I suspect that insurance companies have something to do with this change in “standard protocol,” I suppose I can see the wisdom in it.  My oncologist said she will get a scan approved any time I think I want one, so we’ll see.  I’m still slightly uncomfortable not getting completely checked out every year, but I’m glad they’re keeping an eye on my brain for now.

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Badass no more?

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When I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer and decided to announce that on Facebook, I also started using the hashtag “team badass.” One of the terrible things about my diagnosis was knowing that other people would worry about me.  The knowledge of that broke my heart.  I didn’t want people to worry about me, and I could only imagine their fear.  My husband.  My mom and my dad.  My sister.  My friends who had gone through cancer.  My friends who had known Angi.  I remembered how that felt, and so I reminded you all how tough I was by deciding on the moniker “team badass.”

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Me and Wonder Woman, badasses. Right?

And I also wanted to remind myself who I was.  A year of treatment?  Fine.  I was going to put my head down and badass my way through it.  Surgery.  Chemo.  Radiation.  Two more surgeries?  Extra biopsies and scans?  Bring it on.  I was going to keep working full time and being tough on opposing counsel and, you know what, I was going to train for a marathon too.  And I did.  And now all of the treatment and surgeries are over, and so I figured I’d go right back to being my normal badass self.

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I had no idea how round my face was from the steroids.  But still wearing my badass head protector!

I mean, I had heard about “the new normal.”  And I even understood at some level that physically I wouldn’t be 100% right away, and that mentally I might still be a little foggy.

But here’s what I didn’t understand:  I’m emotionally raw.  I’m aware of my vulnerability in a way I wasn’t before.  For the past year, I’ve been given so much grace and so much love and at some level I’m afraid that all of that is going to be taken away.  That people are tired of me and my “cancer journey.”  That my co-workers are sick of me being out of the office or being too fatigued to stay late.  That my friends and family are tired of doing things for me.  And more, that my wanting those things — wanting love and grace and people to take care of me — means I’m not such a badass after all.

But you know, I didn’t use the hashtag “badass” on that first Facebook post, or on my subsequent posts about cancer.  It’s always been “team badass.”  I don’t know why I did that, but maybe there’s a lesson in it for me. Maybe it’s okay to need other people, to lean on my family, to allow my friends to support me, and even to ask opposing counsel for an extension of time when I need one.  Maybe keeping my team around me is in fact the most badass choice of all. #teambadass

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