Thursday, June 13, 2024

Having a Terminal Illness Really Is Like Fighting in a War…


 Who knew cancer could unite so many people? I’ve been open about my fears and even peace with it all, and what’s happened in return is astounding.


I’ve met cancer survivors and those still battling. We’ve forged unbreakable bonds. I’ve seen people miraculously healed, and I’ve also met people who have since died—but luckily I remain close to their surviving relatives. I wrote about my doubts with religion and discovered I wasn’t alone. And after two decades of feeling like a “bad” person because of doubts, peace came by meeting likeminded people. That’s what cancer has taught me: I’ve never really been alone . Even when I thought I was... family and friends stayed. G-d was ALWAYS there, too.


I’ve received good AND hard news since this journey started. Just when I’m starting to win, there might be a sobering setback that momentarily buckles my knees.


…I didn’t want to say how tough life is but rather how beautiful love and support can be. Laying everything bare, although terrifying, is liberating. I thought people might shun me for some of the things I’ve shared, but instead, people have selflessly shown kindness—and acceptance.


I guess the point is that no one knows what the future holds or if we’ll even wake up tomorrow. And that uncertainty can be scary. But when we have the love and support of each other, life is so much easier. If you’ve read my posts, you know I’m more flawed than most, but the fact that people have accepted me regardless is one of the greatest gifts of my life. (I’m so grateful to see it while I’m still alive, and I wish EVERYONE could experience this.)


It’s cliche, but fighting cancer really is a battle; and I guess war isn’t meant to be easy. I asked for God to refine me in 2020, ten months before my cancer diagnosis. And here I am, still struggling. But when cancer takes hold, it can be hard to shake, so I’m handling what I can personally control: trying to be the best version of myself. But apparently—for me—refinement is gonna take a LOT more time! 😅


Note: *This text is from shortly after my diagnosis. I’m so glad I read it today. I needed that reminder to be strong.

*This picture is from April of 2024.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

We Better Make the Most of It

We really can grow complacent when given enough time… In fact, I've been sick for so long—since 2020—that my family and I have almost grown accustomed to it. This is both good and bad. Sure, doctors say I have terminal cancer, but I'm still here... alive, living much longer than expected. This has given us such a false sense of security. I've even thought, "Maybe I'll get better. Maybe I will actually beat this." But then, with a poor twist of fate, we can be shocked back into reality, plunged into the truth that this is how I will die. Unfortunately, that's what happened this past weekend.

It's normal for me to get fevers, feel nauseous, and struggle to keep food down, but for a fever to persist for hours upon hours, well, that's abnormal. Mike rushed me to the hospital, where they appeared stunned that I hadn't passed out.

"60 over 40," the nurse said, removing the blood pressure cuff. 

"Also, your white blood cell count is well below what it should be," the doctor added, looking from me to the nurse. "This could be for many different reasons, but we need to run some tests."

So, I got hospitalized for days after that. I met a plethora of new people and felt amazed by the kind medical staff and fellow patients. I even got to have art time with a volunteer who travels from room to room, just brightening people's days with paper, glue, and some rocks.

But after a couple of days without answers, home sounded like Heaven. I consequently fixed my makeup and hair before donning a fresh pair of clothes. "Hey," I said to the nurses as I sauntered past their communal desk. Surely they'd realize that I could be discharged. Look how capable I was!

"Isn't she a fall risk?" a nurse whispered just loud enough that I could hear her. Then I was escorted back to my room!

"We've discovered why you're fevering," a doctor said to me moments after I'd been forced back into the hospital bed. "We also know why you're experiencing such extreme pain and why your white blood cell count is so low."

"Why?" I could hardly breathe. This felt too reminiscent of years before when a spinal surgeon actually stood in that same spot—ironically in that exact room—announcing that I only had two years to live.

"The cancer in your lower spine is growing, and I'd say it's significant." She paused, letting the words sink in. "Your oncologist will most likely recommend radiation again, and we'll need to change your cancer infusions because your current regime isn't working. You know this is terminal?"

I nodded. "Yes. That's what I've been told." And then all hope momentarily left me.

The point is that there's no reason to get upset after so much time. Doctors have said this is terminal. They've claimed that the cancer will continue growing until I die. But it's also true that I've lived a year and a half longer than expected. It's amazing that I'm still here to enjoy my husband and my children. THAT feels like a major win. 

It might sound silly, but after the doctor left my room, I imagined myself standing in a grave. As someone dumped dirt on me, I could either stay in the hole, motionless, getting covered and accepting death, or I could step on the dirt as it got poured in, until the ground level grew higher and higher. I could rise above: Even now, I MUST find the good.

"You want to go home?" the doctor returned to my room, looking worried.

"Yes," I said. "I would love that more than anything. I just want to hug my kids and my husband."

After leaving the room, I held my Mary Poppins bag tightly to my chest and prepared to leave the hospital with the help of an aide. A couple stood beside us. They complained about having to visit the cancer center once a year. The man is in remission, but they still need to do yearly checks, and they hate coming back because of bad memories. I didn't mean to listen, but I couldn't help it. They were right next to me.

The elevator took forever, so I finally turned to the two of them. "How are you guys doing?" I asked, trying to brighten their day... somehow.

"Quite frankly, terrible," the woman said. "I don't know if you'd even understand."

She looked me up and down, and I knew the lady assumed I hadn't a care in the world. My makeup probably shone, and my clothes looked fresh despite my recent discharge from an inpatient room. Unfortunately, my insides don't match my outsides. I might look normal and happy, but cancer threatens my brain and is eating away at my spine. It doesn't care that I'm 41. It doesn't worry about how young my kids are or that all I want is to see my children grow up. Cancer is the worst of enemies: a sociopath. 

"How is... your day?" the man asked, somewhat hiding behind his wife.

"Well," I forced myself to find the good—to rise above, "today has to be the best day ever. I just found out that the cancer in my spine is growing, BUT I also got discharged from the hospital. I get to see my husband and children again. I get to live another day, even though doctors are saying I'll die from this. I better make the most of RIGHT now. I'm just the luckiest, and I better enjoy today."

I don't know why, but their resolve totally cracked. Tears brimmed the woman's eyes, and the man nodded. "You're totally right." The woman studied me differently then, with understanding and kindness. She must've finally realized I was fighting too.

So, the aide helped me out. And although I left the hospital with devastating news, I felt a burgeoning resolve to enjoy every single second that I can. Tonight I keep wondering about the couple though. I hope they'll get good news despite how scary returning to the cancer center must be. But I also hope they'll enjoy whatever time they can.

This is simply a reminder that I really am lucky to be alive. I better make the most of my time. We all should.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

A Catastrophe on Mother’s Day

Top Row (left to right): Indy, Trey, Sky, Ruby

Bottom Row (left to right): me and Mike



Mother’s Day has historically been a tough day for me because something catastrophic always seems to happen. From my youngest kids unlocking a childproof window—and getting onto the roof—to a blowup raft popping halfway down the river, the list goes on and on. This Mother’s Day was no exception.


Everyone came to our house that afternoon, and for the first time in years, I thought we’d evaded catastrophe. To give some background, I’d asked my kids to clean our home instead of getting gifts for me. They actually loved this idea, and just like “Game of Thrones,” it went great until the very end. 

“I gotta sit,” I said. I’d done much more than I should have. The problem is that cancer and treatments are exhausting. My body is fighting so hard just to live that sometimes adding anything else is too much. I suddenly thought about death and how doctors keep saying melanoma will kill me within the next few years. My biggest desire now is to simply have more time with my husband and our kids. I don’t worry about money, travel, accomplishments, degrees, material excess, or promotions. I just want TIME. This is because I want the people I love to have good memories of me, and I desperately HOPE they’ll look back and say, “Hey, Mom was a great person. She really loved me.” But I don’t feel like the memories I’ve made so far are enough. Not really…

These thoughts hit so hard in that moment; I could’ve started crying. But I told myself to PULL. IT. TOGETHER. My kids had come to do something nice. They didn’t need to see me cry about cancer. 

“Mama, it’s Mother’s Day,” Ruby said. “You shouldn’t be doing anything. Go rest.”

“I’ll sit here,” I said, pulling out chair, and that’s when the day turned like a bad gallon of milk.

While Trey sprayed off the back patio, Ruby’s dog laid a massive load on the floor. I don’t like dog poop on a good day, but this was the mother of all poops—which makes sense on Mother’s Day. Anyway… Right after the poo landed, that’s when the basement flooded.

I felt so shocked that you could’ve picked my jaw off the gross floor. My fists clenched as hot tears filled my eyes. And although some people claim I look like a prude, that gigantic dog-poo river made me swear like Samuel L. Jackson. What in the f-ing f-er.” A piece of poo floated toward my shoe, bobbing left and right. “Are you f-ing kidding me? Jesus—”

"Is lord?" my youngest daughter interjected, and I’m sure my face turned the color of crushed tomatoes. But it was petty witty; that kid can make anything better, brighter. And I slowly deflated a little. “Mama,” she said, “we're gonna get this figured out." Indy reached out and held my hand. “We’re gonna be okay because we have each other. AND we have towels.” She laughed.

"Turn off the hose," I yelled to Trey. 

"What the..." Ruby walked into the room, and as another poo boat sailed onward, she looked whiter than Edward Cullen. “Artemis!!!” She yelled for her dog. “Artemis!!!”

"Mike," I nearly whimpered. I’d quickly gone from the swearing stage to victim mentality. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I just have one nice Mother’s Day? ONE! “Mike…” But he'd escaped to his favorite store in the world: Ace. (What is it with men and Ace? Mike goes there multiple times a day—and I’m not even kidding.)

I shoved several towels to the floor as the kids went to get more. In that moment, I realized Ruby's dog had stayed by me. You know how infants smile when they’re farting? Well, Ruby’s dog did that! She practically smiled, creepy A.F., frolicking in the mess AND farting with every step. What in the heck had she been eating? "Go outside! This isn't fun. Artemis. Now!" I love that dog, but what in the poo?!

"Why did this happen?" Indy asked. "We were doing so well for Mother's Day."

"A pipe must've busted when it froze in the winter. It only flooded when the back hose was on. Mike'll find it. If he knows how to find anything, it's expensive wine and any excuse to visit Ace.” Now he could go back and get a new pipe.

Trey deposited some towels on the floor, and as he bent over, Ruby’s dog darted past in a gas cloud. Water shot everywhere, and I'm still not sure how, but a huge splash of poo-water hit Trey in the mouth and chin. My kids and I stared at each other. None of us dared move except Artemis. She wagged her tail, that sadistic jerk. That's when Trey wailed like a banshee. "Why??? Why???” He stared at the water sloshing by his feet. “This… THIS is THE WORST Mother's Day I've ever had."

Sky and Indy laughed so hard, wheezing, but I hurled myself toward the bathroom, trying to find mouthwash, rubbing alcohol, baby wipes—anything. When I returned, Sky held a bottom of hand sanitizer over Trey's mouth. "Gargle with this. Okay?"

Ruby and I looked at each other, horrified. “You're gonna kill him.” I bellowed.” OH. My… Jesus—"

"Is lord," Indy blurted as I knocked the sanitizer to the ground like a live grenade.

After using every SINGLE towel we own and two tattered blankets, we cleaned up the water. It wasn't until dinnertime that we talked and laughed. The kids brought up previous Mother's Day disasters, laughing so hard. "Remember when that raft popped, and mom fell in that hole in the river?" Trey asked.

"That was hilarious!" Sky said. “Or the time we went to Lake Powell and the Coast Guard had to come rescue us because of that storm!” It was terrifying in the moment, but I had to admit, we’ve made some absolutely hilarious memories.

"You're such a good mom," Ruby said out of nowhere, and then Mike and the kids each brought up a different memory they love about me. And not even knowing my worries or how all I want is for them to remember me well, what my kids gave me this Mother’s Day was a lot more than a clean house. They gave me peace that even if I die tomorrow, my life has been enough. Although I’m incredibly flawed, somehow they think that I’m enough. And that is one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received. Poo water and all, that was a day I wouldn’t change for the world.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Learning to Pivot

 Last year, around this time, doctors found a new mass in my brain. I remember thinking, "This is it. This is the one that will kill me." It's just that oncologists keep saying I'll die from melanoma since it's gone to my brain. Despite this, it is astounding that I'm here at all. That mass has hardly grown because of cancer treatments, and I'm fortunate to even be alive and writing this article in the spring of 2024.


While sitting here today, I remembered the word "pivot." A man spoke about that word during a business meeting several years ago. He said, "We must see things from new perspectives so we can overcome obstacles and be problem solvers. If we don't learn to change and evolve, other companies will happily take our clients. We need to PIVOT." I enjoyed his speech so much that I couldn't stop thinking about the word and even wondered what pivot originally meant.


After getting home, I flipped through several etymology books and Googled for answers. Everything said the same thing: pivot originally referred to "a pin to spin on." Without that pin, the object could never hope to spin. It seemed to be all about foundations. And everyone knows that without a good foundation, it's hard to pivot, let alone build things. (Try spinning OR building something on quicksand! :) )


Thinking about this now reminds me of my family and friends. I am so incredibly lucky to have them. The wonderful people who have stayed by my side, they help me remain strong. They are my foundation.


Thinking about the memory, I swiveled in a tiny blue recliner that I got from a yard sale. Mike didn't originally agree with the purchase, but it's become my favorite place to sit—and apparently everyone else's too. If I get there first, I'll sit and look out the window. We get a lot of deer and other wildlife where we live, and if I'm not amazed by fuzzy animals, I'm pondering anything from music to spring to etymology. My eyes fell on the blooms outside. Although I love winter, seeing new life coming like magic out of the ground is nice. Different seasons remind so many people of life and death. That's what I think about, too… and cancer. It seems like winter has come to my life, and although I'm so grateful for the knowledge it's brought, sometimes it's nice to focus on spring—and life. I've needed "spring" to come so badly.


As I "pivoted" in my blue chair, I turned my focus from the window so I could study something else for a change. 


I smiled at our piano, a place where Indy spends countless hours. That's when I spotted something unusual: Just beneath the sustain pedal, something stuck out from under the piano.


Quit a while ago, amid cancer treatments, radiation, and surgeries; a picture went missing! It used to hang above the piano. Although it didn't have a frame, I loved it and couldn't believe someone had taken it down. I asked everyone, but no one confessed. "It gave me hope," I pled. "Something to strive for." But after time, I finally stopped looking—and now I feel like an idiot. All this time, the picture had been underneath the piano. It had fallen off the wall.


I gingerly pulled it from its hiding place and stared at the details of cherry blossoms I had painted when I first got sick. Despite experiencing the winter of my life… I had painted spring. I had painted hope. 


I know this might sound silly or trivial to some, but this moment felt like some sort of sign. I don't think it means I'll necessarily get better or beat cancer, but it is a reminder to find joy in every single day. After all, that makes life worth living: spreading joy to others and experiencing it ourselves.


I'm so glad I turned my attention from the window, even for a moment. I love seeing wildlife and enjoying nature from the warmth of my front room, but it is true that when we look at our lives from different perspectives, the view can be extraordinary.


Hoping for More Than a Bite on our Lines


 “It was the hardest year of my life, the year I found out you had stage 4 cancer,” my teenage son said.


My heart dropped. Having terminal cancer is one thing, but seeing how it’s negatively affecting everyone around me, that’s another.


It became hard to say much, and I turned toward the lake. “I just know you’ll catch something,” I said, motioning to where his line punctured the water. And as we sat there, quietly watching, I remembered something from years before.


When Trey was only 8, he came home with a shocking story.


“Mom, during recess the popular boys started picking on Jeremy. They kicked and punched him. They even picked him up and swung him into a pole.”

    

I blinked, stunned.

    

“I yelled and asked why they were hurting him. Carter said it’s ‘cause he's a wimp. Because he’s different from the rest of us.” Trey gazed down. “I stood between him and them—I got so mad. And for some reason, I screamed, ‘He’s SENSITIVE. So what?!’”

    

“Did they stop after that?” I asked. “Did someone tell the teacher?”

    

Trey explained that another kid told the teacher while Trey stayed inside with Jeremy, making sure he was okay.


“I was 7% popular,” Trey sighed, “but after this, I’m back down to 0% again.”

    

I hugged him, this big ol’ hug. “I just know it’ll all work out,” I said. “You did the right thing.”


Trey shuffled at the lake’s edge, bringing me back to the moment. He was no longer an 8-year-old fighting adversity but a teenager facing a parent’s mortality.


“Mom, you’re gonna get better, right?” he asked.


“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “But I’ll tell you what; I’m gonna fight like hell for every second I can get with you guys.” Then I set down my fishing pole, and even though my hands smelled like fish guts and mud lined my fingernails, I put my arms around my big, strong boy. “I just know it’ll all work out,” I said, echoing my exact words from years before.


Trey rested his head on my shoulder for a moment, and there we remained, fishing our hearts out but hoping for a lot more than bites on our lines. We simply wanted more time.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

There’s Some Kind of Plan


 Somehow There’s a Plan

By EC Stilson 
ECStilson.con

I had a deep conversation with my father-in-law and told him that I still hoped I’d be in remission someday. “It might sound ridiculous, but without hope what else do we have?”

“That reminds me,” he said. “I have something for you to read and something for you to keep.” After leaving the room and returning, he handed me a faded envelope that said “June 2007.”

“You’re only the second person to read this,” he said, then slid the envelope across the table.

So, I held it gingerly—sacredly—since I knew this was important to a man I respect so much. After all, when I’m having a tough time making it through treatments, radiation, or surgeries, I think about my dad and my father-in-law. They both had cancer and were brave enough to continue fighting so they could somehow beat this and survive.

I opened the letter, and it suddenly felt hard to breathe. His written words detailed the story of how a strange peace came to him in his darkest hour, and somehow he knew that one day he’d be okay. It’s amazing knowing this happened to my father-in-law because he’s not overly religious, yet this is a true testament of his unyielding faith. 

He  beat cancer not long after writing about this moment, and he’s been cancer free for almost 17 years.

I handed the envelope back. “That’s pretty powerful. I hope I’ll always remember it—to keep my own hope alive.”

“Well…,” He procured something he’d been holding behind his back. “This is for you to keep so you’ll remember what happened to me. Maybe you’ll need this reminder when times are hard.” Then that softhearted Italian smiled, his eyes lighting with wonder. “I carved it for you.”

My eyes swept across the foot-tall hand-carved violin. And as my eyes discovered every intricate detail, I couldn’t help remembering something from over two decades before.

I was 16. The group had asked for a violinist to help them with a play. “We’ll tell the story,” the woman said, “of a battered violin an auctioneer tries selling. But no one will want it. And when the auctioneer is about to just give it away, someone will step from the audience and play the violin to show its true worth.”  

They picked me to play the violin during the play. After my performance during each show, numerous actors would bid on the violin, and then it would “mock-sell” for thousands upon thousands of dollars. It was such a beautifully touching show, and the people in attendance really did seem enchanted as I played the violin and walked among them before actors “placed their bids.”

I thought about this as I studied the little violin my father-in-law made for me. And just when I thought I’d seen everything it had to offer, I noticed a laminated note by the violin.

“What is this?” I asked.

Then my breath caught in my throat because it was the story from the play I’d performed in: The Touch of the Master’s Hand. I could hardly believe my father-in-law had printed out the story and hooked it to the violin he’d carved—almost like he’d known…

—————-

We’ve been given so much by so many people. I don’t even know how to begin thanking everyone. But just know that it’s this kindness and strength that are buoying me forward. And through it all, I’m seeing how awesome life is when—even through the heartache—we have the courage to see that G-d has a plan. Thank you for bringing so much joy to my life as I continue getting through this.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

An Inspiring Mother

It seems no matter where one might look, people are eager to impose limitations or expectations on others. They want us to do more and do better: become doctors, lawyers, or architects... But then, as we grow older or become ill, they demand that we do less. "Are you sure you're still safe while driving?" "How can you be so active when you're getting older?" Or, in my case, "It's not normal to be happy while fighting cancer. Elisa, you're living in denial." 



The silly thing is that I have both good and bad days. Just because people see one moment of our lives, that doesn't make them experts.

Last week, I spoke with my mother about this. "I refuse to act like I'm dead while I'm still busy living." Sure, life has changed, imposing its own limitations. I use a wheelchair for long distances. I can no longer go hiking, and I sleep an ungodly number of hours each day. I'm 41 years old, and certain things I loved are no longer on the table, but that doesn't mean I can no longer enjoy what I CAN do. Life is change, right? So we can either pivot... or fall. 

"I read an article the other day," my mom said. "It claims certain people are biologically equipped to handle hardship." She paused, then whispered something so quietly I had to ask her to repeat it. "It's just," she said, "if anyone was built to handle hardship, it's you."

My parents are wonderful, loving people, but compliments like this are years in the making. It made my heart swell.

They've worked hard to get where they are and expected me and my siblings to do the same. My dad built a drilling company from the ground up, and my mom was a successful musician (drummer) and later worked as a bookkeeper for many years. But things haven't always been easy for them, and knowing how hard they've fought to continually find the good—through my dad's battle against stage 4 cancer as well as the death of a grandchild... They had businesses go under before finding success and have braved other trials that somehow made their marriage stronger. Knowing all of that made her words resonate. "You're my hero, Mom. Really." 

My parents are in their mid-70s, and they rock climb nearly every day. My dad goes trap shooting and golfing every chance he gets, while my mom enjoys teaching line dancing lessons. I remember several years ago when someone tried imposing boundaries on them. "You're both getting older. You should slow down." But I'm proud that my parents didn't listen. They knew what they wanted and decided to simply go out and enjoy their lives.

"You've been through so many tough things," I said, "but you smile through it all. And you do it with such grace." Before fighting cancer, I never understood how much strength it takes to be gentle, good, forgiving, and hopeful. Those are the strengths I see in my mother. Those are the things I wish to find in myself.

"You won't believe what someone told me the other day." I knew she'd have good advice for me. "They said I must not be 'that sick' if I can make breakfast for the kids every day, smile, and do my makeup. You'd think doing my makeup is harder than raising the dead!"

My mom laughed. "Well, you're doing your best with what you can control." She took a deep breath. "I wish more people would get out and enjoy life." Then she told me how she recently attended a band audition AND got the job. "I'm playing gigs and everything, Elisa. I'm in a band again!"

I couldn't help smiling because every day is a surprise with those two. They were so good to me while I grew up, but now they're leading by example. I've realized more and more that I need to let go of the expectations and limitations people might want to impose on me. If oncologists are right and I'll die from melanoma at some point, it would be tragic to quit living before I'm even dead. So, I'll keep doing my makeup if I want to. I'll go for strolls with my family—whether walking or in a wheelchair. And I'll smile through the pain. 

If we can't muster even a bit of gratitude and enjoy what we have, what's the point? I'd rather make the best of my situation and learn how to enjoy every last moment of life that I can.

Monday, April 15, 2024

What is Happiness?


Top (left to right): Mike and Elisa

Bottom (left to right): Trey, Ruby, Sky, and Indiana

Service Dog: Artemis

Friday, April 5, 2024

A Full-Circle Moment

My grandma always taught me to treat absolutely everyone with respect because you never know what someone else might be going through. When I was 11, my grandparents actually brought me to Hawaii, and when everyone else fell asleep, my grandma decided to take me out so we could see the ladies of the night. I had no idea what these women actually did until my grandma told me. "See her clothes," she said, "she has a good sense of fashion." Then, my grandmother smiled kindly at each woman as they passed and always offered an uplifting word. She gave several of them money, but I honestly think her kindness meant far more than anything else. Some of those women even seemed surprised. Anyway, we didn't return to our hotel room until my grandma and I had counted 100 women that night. Later, the whole thing seemed hilarious as an adult, but I didn't realize until now that my grandma had actually been teaching me an unforgettable lesson.

 


It's been over 30 years since this happened. My grandmother passed away over a decade ago, but I still find so much comfort in these memories. Now, when I'm having tough days fighting cancer, I read inspirational cards she placed in her "happiness file." I pulled one out a couple of years ago and wondered how my grandmother must've felt when she wrote it. "Treat everyone with kindness," the card read, "it really does come back around." 

Whenever I walk toward my main oncologist's clinic, I pass a man who helps with insurance claims. He doesn't appear to have a regular office and instead is tucked away in a dark corner. He faces patients who pass by, but his desk is a bit too far away for us to really say hello. I've seen people awkwardly skirt past, and the man also never looks up. Remembering my grandmother's words, a couple of years ago I decided to walk all the way over to this man's desk to try brightening his afternoon. "Have a wonderful day," I beamed. The poor man appeared visibly shaken, mumbling something as he stared at his computer and went back to work. Instead of quitting there, I vowed to do this every time I walked past—both before and after my visit. After months, he began waving back, always seeming surprised no matter how many times I've done this. I never missed a time, always remembering my grandmother's words: Treat Everyone with Kindness.

This week, though, something changed. I grew so sad, unable to remain happy despite my circumstances. I spent most of the week at the cancer center, growing more and more exhausted. It's just that this whole journey can sometimes feel endless. Anyway, after I left the clinic, preparing to pass the man in the corner, I decided not to say hello. What was the point in always saying hi anyway? He probably didn't even like it. I couldn't stomach this journey anymore. What was the point of anything?

But just as I was about to round the corner without acknowledging him, the man yelled out, "You didn't say hello! So... Hello!" Then he smiled brightly, waving to me with so much animation that a humongous laugh built up inside of me, and I couldn't hold it in anymore. We just smiled at each other so widely. And I'm not quite sure why, but his kindness made my eyes well with tears. That man changed the climate of my entire day, and suddenly my journey felt surmountable again.

It's so funny thinking about my grandma and the lessons she imparted even on the Waikiki strip. Maybe she was right after all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Keep Looking for the Good, Especially Here


Have you heard of Chinese water torture? An Italian/Chinese psychologist first wrote about this in the 15th century, explaining how a dripping machine would erratically send very cold water onto subjects’ scalps and foreheads over an extended period of time. After a while, those being tortured would mentally deteriorate so fearful of the next drop. This is often how cancer feels. 


I’m currently writing from Utah, missing my family in Idaho because I’ll spend the next few days near the cancer center in another state. I undergo brain imaging every six weeks and get cancer treatments every month. This week I’ll also get a bone infusion—which (to me) is almost as bad as radiation. But what hurts more than anything is time away from my husband and kids. 

Today, before a 60-minute MRI to monitor a certain brain mass (as well as necrosis), I shook on the MRI table. “It’s all begun to feel like too much,” I whispered, but I don’t think the tech heard me. He’d just seen how I quivered like debris at the end of an especially harrowing storm.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I used to be brave,” I said. “Before all of this… Before terminal cancer I was different.” But on days like today, it feels like too much. Unless people have been through it themselves, they don’t fully understand. And sometimes, as the person undergoing treatments, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the bad times better.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He looked at me with such kindness. “You’re worried because you’re claustrophobic?”

That wasn’t all of it, but… “Yes. I’m claustrophobic.” 

“Over half of the people who come in here are claustrophobic.”

“Are you?” I asked. “You’ve had an MRI?”

“I went in a machine once for training. The tube pushed my arms into my sides, and I hated the mirror on the face cage. You’ve had brain MRIs before, so you know that mirror I’m talking about?”

“Yes. The mirror is the worst!”

“I would’ve preferred just looking at the tube’s ceiling!” he said, and we both broke out laughing. 

Despite previous fears, I’d stopped shaking. It just felt nice being validated by someone who understood. “Can you do me a big favor?” I asked, and the young man quickly agreed. “An hour in that tiny tunnel is a long time. Can you tell me something you’ve learned from working with cancer patients—something I can think about in the machine?” I’ve gotten so philosophical that all I seem to do is think. 

I hate admitting how being alone with my thoughts—especially in MRIs—has become laborious. Or how I’ve talked with several counselors about mortality but even that has become my own brand of Chinese water torture.

“I just finished school. I’m officially a magnetic resonance imaging technologist!” the man gushed, prying me from my thoughts. “I’ve learned so much from cancer patients that now I just want to help them. These MRIs save lives, and now I’m helping save lives too.”

I couldn’t help smiling.

“I think most of us want a chance to help other people. This is my way of doing that.”

“Congratulations. That is so incredible!”

And when I went into the machine and after, I thought about Joel’s words and how he just wants to help people. I guess that really is the gist of what most people want to do with their lives... Simply help.

So, as I prepare for two more days at the cancer center in Utah, it seems a little bit less grueling. I’ve felt myself smiling broadly at strangers in the elevator, and I’ve even started up cheerful conversations with everyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.


Sure my cancer journey might feel like Chinese water torture at times, but “hell” could actually be heaven if you just escaped from the desert. So, it’s all perspective again, and I just need to keep looking for the good, especially here.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Has My Life Mattered?


 It seems when people hear they will most likely die from cancer—and soon—they ask themselves one question: Has my life mattered?


I’ve thought a lot about this lately. To make this somewhat tangible, I decided to find five exact moments when “I” felt of value.


For yourself, can you think of five moments when you really felt of value? 


This has not been easy for me! Was it giving birth to my children, owning successful businesses, hitting a million views on my blog, landing the lead in a play, or running a newspaper? While nice, stacked against “value,” each and every “accomplishment” seemed hollow, maybe even rooted in pride. 


“How’s your search for value going?” a friend asked. 


“I just keep thinking of standing before God, trying to brag about my bachelor’s degree or being a physician liaison, and it sounds completely inane.”


“Elisa, don’t downplay your accomplishments.”


But she clearly didn’t understand. 


That night Mike and I made a fancy dinner with the kids. We laughed and joked. We played ping-pong on the kitchen table and tried the new kind of Coca-Cola. It was the most fun I’ve had in months. Then, when the kids went to bed and Mike sat reading a book about Eastern philosophy, I sneaked downstairs. 


It’s rare for me to have enough energy to get extra things done, but I knew I could do something small that night—and it would have a huge impact. 


In my sewing room, there’s a stack of clothes that need patches, buttons, and other adjustments. So, like a little elf, I fixed everything. It didn’t take a terribly long time, and as I sewed, I felt so much love pouring through my tumor-ridden body.


“What are you doing, sweetheart?” Mike whispered. “Oh, my gosh! You fixed everything!”


He picked up a pair of his pants, and I suddenly felt like I had value. I could hardly wait for the kids to see what I’d fixed. 


“You look tired… But you seem so happy,” Mike said.


I grinned. “It sounds cliché, but it just hit me. It’s the small things. When I stand before God, if He asks me why I think my life mattered, I’ll say it did because I tried to make a difference for the people who mean the most to me.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Quilt Before G-d



Cancer is different than I expected. I remember staying with my dad when he underwent treatments over two decades ago. He seemed far more concerned with the medical staff than about himself. He'd always ask how they were and try to brighten their days.

"Isn't this hard on you?" I finally asked one day.

He laughed. "I'll be all right. Don't worry about me." And that was it. My dad didn't want me to worry. And that actually turned out "all right." He lived through stage 4 colon cancer—something his oncologist said hardly anyone lives through.

Now that I'm fighting terminal cancer, my dad has spoken with me candidly about the hard days he experienced (needing to know where the nearest bathroom was and feeling tired beyond words). He has become an inspiration as I've fought through this. Maybe that's why I asked Mike if we could visit my parents in Arizona. "Somehow, my dad helps me keep fighting. Doctors say I'll never beat this, but my dad gives me hope. He beat it, so maybe I can too." Despite that, after arriving at the airport and waiting at the gate, I felt more tired than ever.

A service agent walked over, helped tag my wheelchair, and said he'd like to move my seat to one with more room.

"I'm okay. Don't worry about it," I said, not wanting to put him out.

But he insisted, and unfortunately, when everyone walked onto the plane, we realized he'd made a mistake. A family with two young children no longer sat together, and my new seat replaced an elderly woman who wanted an aisle seat. Mike and I no longer sat together, and another couple had also been moved apart. This delayed the plane's departure, and to get seated, several passengers quickly moved so the young family could sit together and the older woman had an aisle seat. The rest of us stayed where we were.

But planes scare me and without Mike near me...

I used to be quite a thrill seeker before cancer. I loved cliffdiving and even joined a training program to help civilians lost or stuck while spelunking. But now, entering an elevator puts me into cold sweats. Being in a crowded area brings on claustrophobia. And being on a plane, well, the only way I've previously gotten through it is to close my eyes, lean on Mike, and pretend we're in Jamaica. Yet, I had more legroom than most people on the plane, but I couldn't lean on Mike. 

I closed my eyes. The motion of the plane and clunking of the equipment prepping for liftoff somehow reminded me of brain radiation, where they inserted a mouthpiece over my tongue and screwed a face cage to the table. I couldn't even cry for help as the techs left the room for nearly an hour. How strange that I can be more fatigued than ever before yet still get so terrified over the silliest things. 

If I could just feel peace about this: terminal cancer, fatigue, living in this new normal... 

I finally turned to the woman beside me. Her husband sat a row up from us. "What is peace to you?" I asked.

"Peace..." She smiled, and I'm unsure why, but I knew she'd give the most brilliant answer. Maybe the entire seating mixup happened so I could sit by her. I honestly think it did. "Peace," she said, her ethereal eyes gleaming, "is like a river."

"What does that mean to you?"

"Well, rivers twist and turn. Sometimes, they're fast and slow, but we have to trust that the river will take us where we need to be."

Trust. I really think peace is connected to trust... and acceptance. But it's still hard to accept this new normal. People talk about making a difference, but often, I feel too tired to do much of anything—weary, exhausted, worn.

I told this woman about my journey with terminal cancer and how tough it's been. "I'm trying to find peace with this, but some days are good, and others are hard. I just feel so worn out."

"I want to tell you a story," she said.

Imagine hundreds of people standing at the gates of Heaven. They each hold a quilt to show G-d. Every square displays a moment from their lives so G-d can see everything—the good and bad. But toward the back of the line, a woman stands with an incredibly threadbare quilt. It's been through more than she'd like to admit, and she almost shakes, waiting for her turn. Finally, only one person stands in front of her. That particular woman holds up the most beautiful quilt with achievements and accolades depicted in every scene. "It is quite beautiful," G-d says, "but you need to remember that unless you've made a positive difference for the people in your life, nothing else really matters. What matters is love." He lets her into Heaven, and it's time for the woman with the threadbare quilt to step forward. 

She thinks G-d will tell her that her quilt wasn't good enough. And feeling more worry than ever before, she holds up the frayed ends.

A smile slides onto G-d's magnificent face. "This is the most perfect quilt I've ever seen."

She touches the worn fabric. "Really?" she asks, her voice quivering. "But it's so worn..."

G-d gently asks if he can take the quilt from her, and then He holds it between them. His face shines so brightly even through the fabric.

"Through everything in life..." He smiles, still gazing at her through the quilt's worn fabric. "Through everything, you always saw me."

After the woman on the airplane told me this story, renewed strength filled my bones. I didn't worry about my upcoming treatments the following week or the airplane cabin that had previously felt so oppressive. Instead, I looked at my new friend and grinned. This seemed like another breadcrumb from Heaven, showing me that G-d is in everything. He's looking out for all of us—through the good and the bad... waiting to pick us up even when we might feel the most weary and worn.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

It's Okay Not to Be Okay

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

My Friend, Jerry Russell



Sometimes we meet people and instantly know that they will change our lives. It can be a lasting friendship or a simple exchange, but from the get-go we immediately feel different. That’s how I felt with Jerry Russell.


I first heard about Jerry from a mutual friend, Scott Hancock. He described Jerry to be a larger than life legend with otherworldly kindness and charisma. I knew Jerry would be at a book signing, and I thought I knew what to expect. But when we finally did meet, he was much more than Scott could’ve ever described. Jerry—as the saying goes—was truly larger than life itself.

He shook my hand with such warmth and kindness. I remember him holding my hand and looking into his eyes. I wondered, “Did he see into my soul? Probably!” And yet he still wanted to be my friend. Soon after meeting him, Jerry explained that he was twice my age, and I balked because he skipped around like Tigger and seemed far more spry than I am.

We talked about how quickly life can go, and change, and throw unexpected obstacles our way. “You just have to keep going and trying to make the best of things. You’re a bright light, Elisa. You really are. I see that in you.”

Tears filled my eyes because Jerry seemed like the bright light to me. I couldn’t be around that man without smiling. A month later when my liver started failing from cancer treatments and doctors said I would die unless they got things under control, I thought of Jerry’s words, and I tried to be a light in that hospital. I asked the nurses how they were doing and commiserated with them about their long shifts. “You’re the one who’s having liver problems,” one nurse said.

“That doesn’t make what you’re going through easier. But at least we can smile together. That lightens everyone’s loads.” Because that’s exactly what Jerry would do.

I first heard about Jerry in 2020, but I finally met him in person in 2021. After that, he’d email me quite frequently, telling me about his days, sending me beautiful pictures, or trying to make me smile with something inspirational. I’m not sure at what point it happened, but he began ending his emails with “Your friend forever.”

At one point, I wondered if Jerry either previously had cancer or knew someone who had it. He just worked so hard to make sure I wouldn’t give up until it’s my time. “You’re so strong,” he said when I saw him again. And he really did make me feel like I could keep fighting. Despite how hard cancer can be and how tough it is to repeatedly drag myself to cancer treatments, Jerry made me feel like I could overcome.

Finally, I got the gumption to ask, “Did you have cancer? Or… did you know someone who had it?”

That’s when Jerry told me a story that filled him with both joy and sorrow. He talked about his daughter, Lana, and how much he loved her. “You would’ve liked her,” he said. “I see so much of her in you. The moment I met you… You reminded me of her. She was a wonderful daughter with your courage.” He wiped a tear from his eyes. “She died at the age of 59 from liver cancer.”

I didn’t know what to say. You could feel the pride Jerry felt for his daughter, but you could also feel the tragic sadness. Jerry had that gift. He broke your heart down to its core, and made you really “feel” the life around you.

Being like his daughter, well, that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. 

Not long ago, Jerry sent me a picture of a rainbow that he’d spotted in town. “I’d like to bring you here this spring,” he wrote.

In the spring of 2024, my husband, kids, and I would go with Jerry to see this special spot where he’d found the rainbow. I could hardly wait. But life had other plans, and Jerry passed away this February. It broke my heart knowing I wouldn’t get to see his bright eyes again or read one of his wonderful emails. But as I looked out my window today, wind blew the snow at just the right angle and I swear I saw a snow rainbow from Jerry. 

I opened my email and read the last lines Jerry ever wrote to me: “Elisa, you are a special entry in my memory book never to be forgotten.” I cried as I read his final words.

Jerry, YOU are a special entry in my memory book too. Thank you for giving me the courage to keep fighting like Lana. Please tell her “hello” for me. 
Until we meet again,
Elisa

(Left to Right: Scott Hancock, Jerry Russell, and me)

Monday, February 26, 2024

An Opportunity All of Us Should Have

 


"Of course you're strong," the woman at the party persisted. "But HOW do you do it, Elisa? We ALL want to know?" Several people clustered around, and I wished we could leave. The woman asking the question, Lynn, doesn't really like me. Quite a while ago, we applied for the same job, and I ended up getting it. After I took the role, she treated me with distain. But maybe she meant well this time? I couldn't fathom someone being so unkind to someone who’s fighting terminal cancer. That would be amoral and unconscionable. 

 

"I don't feel particularly strong," I replied, then glanced from the fireplace to Mike. "But Mike and the kids... They're my reason to keep fighting. Other than that, I think it's the Godwinks. They're like breadcrumbs from G-d, miracles along the way... I even had one happen last week. It seemed like the neatest—" I paused, suddenly wishing I hadn't said anything. In hindsight, that particular story would sound ridiculous to someone like Lynn.

 

Jessica, the host, smiled with pure joy, her luminous eyes lighting. “I love your Godwink stories, Elisa.”

 

“Well,” I felt my face flushing, “it's gonna sound stupid, but this Godwink... is about my eyebrows. I got my eyebrows tattooed on last week."

 

In that instant, a few women in the room admitted to having their eyebrows tattooed on as well, and this confession astonished me and Mike.

 

"I hate spending money on myself," I went on when it had grown quiet. “What cash we have should be used for the kids, car repairs, Mike, or our house. But an esthetician gave me a really great deal since brain radiation messed up my left eyebrow.” Part of that brow still refuses to grow in; I've tried to fix it every morning, but this is not a skill I boast. Mike never knows if I'll look perpetually surprised, or angry, like Bert or Ernie. 

 

Everyone shared stories about their own eyebrows, and I remembered what the appointment had felt like. I drove to Precision Line Beauty in Idaho Fall, and before starting, the esthetician said it would probably hurt. 


It really didn't at all though.

 

"Well, I guess you HAVE been through a lot. It makes sense that you're not in pain. You know, I had cancer too."

 

Her words shocked me. She knew how tough treatments can be. She'd given me a good deal because she'd been there too. We shared stories from both of our journeys, and I found hope that maybe someday I'll be in remission like she is. After her diagnosis years ago, she decided to travel and live to the fullest. "How about you?" she asked at one point.

 

"I've done the same. We went skydiving together and then to Italy as a family. I can hardly believe I've played my violin all over the world now."

 

"Do you ever play around here?"

 

I smiled. "Well, I played at a big doctors' party over the holidays." I suddenly thought about that party. I'd charged them $94, but they never paid. It's strange how things like that can happen. People you expect to pay sometimes don’t, and those you don’t think would tip, do.

 

Anyway, it took about two hours, and after she finished, I paid her a little bit of cash, and then put the rest of my card. $185. 


I glanced at Lynn and our friends at the party. “It was an amazing deal for brows, but that still felt like a fortune!"

 

Mike broke out laughing at this point. "Once, Elisa bought a coat for $30 and nearly had a breakdown. So, you can imagine... She called me on her way home from Idaho Falls, just so worried."

 

“Yeah, the guilt seemed to eat me alive, and I even told Indy—our youngest daughter—all about it when I got home.”

 

"You know, Mama, it's good to see you actually doing something nice for yourself because you never do. It helps me know that sometimes I should do nice things for myself too. We're all so happy you're still alive. I think you should enjoy life while you’re here." She handed me the mail, and then gave me a hug.

 

I rifled through letter after letter. “But you've gotta admit... I put $185 on the card. That's a lot of money."

 

I suddenly stopped speaking and stared at a letter in disbelief. The return address boasted the name of a fancy medical organization in town. I pulled a check from the envelope and gaped at it. "Indiana, you aren't gonna believe this!"

 

"Woah." She pointed to the numbers. “$186. Just a dollar more than what you put on your card."

 

"I'd only charged the doctors $94. Why would they pay so much? This is the weirdest thing." 

 

"It's one of your Godwinks, Mama. See! You shouldn't feel bad. Just enjoy."

 

After setting the check on the counter, I read a note from the woman who'd paid the invoice. “You never realize how precious time is until something is threatening to take it away. We decided to pay you a higher amount because you were amazing, and you deserve it. Thanks again for playing at our holiday party."

 

Once I’d finished relaying this story, Jessica beamed, Mike winked at me, and Lynn appeared irate. I didn’t understand the latter’s reaction until later that night, when I went to the bathroom. 


Not long after closing the door, I overheard Lynn’s voice as she waited for the bathroom. "That story Elisa told was so shallow and stupid. She spent all that money on eyebrows when doctors have told her she's dying. And she thinks it's some big sign from G-d. It's just idiotic.”

 

"Lynn! She has terminal cancer. If that's what she needs to hold onto to keep fighting for her family, then let her hold onto it.” I held my breath, hoping they'd get tired of waiting for the bathroom and leave, but they didn't. And I had to walk past them.

 

Although it's not worth harboring rejection, I thought about this a lot the following days, until Temple Emanuel's service. Rabbi Sara gave the timeliest speech. "You can light a candle, but it can quickly go out. At the hardest times, when we feel like it's too much, those are the times that we must go find the light and keep it alive. Even if it's a tiny, tiny thing. If you go outside and see a flower in the snow—even if it's a small thing—we must strive to find goodness in the world AND each other."

 

As I rested in those words, it suddenly didn't matter that I'd splurged for once. Priorities became sparklingly clear, and I no longer cared that some woman had said cruel words outside of a bathroom door. Instead, I closed my eyes and decided to cultivate the light that dwells inside of me. I thanked G-d for breadcrumbs, expressed gratitude that I have family members who want me to have a good quality of life, and then I said a very long prayer for Lynn. 


I desperately hope her eyes will be opened to the miracles around her. It's like seeing colors for the first time; it’s an opportunity all of us should have.