After a 30-year hiatus, I returned to college in 2018 to get my AA degree and a miraculous thing happened, I loved it. Growing up I never enjoyed school, I dreaded going back nonetheless investing in myself was important and has been an incredible experience. I hoped it would push my career forward, which it did as well as, helped improve my self-confidence (which was severely lacking). The road to getting my AA degrees didn’t come without obstacles though. Eventually, in 2021 I was all done, or so I thought. Fast forward to 2022, and my work offered a new type of tuition reimbursement through UAGC and I wanted to move up in my role, I decided it was the right time to get my BA in Organizational Management; however, life had other plans.

Initially, my plan was to start UAGC in February 2022. I ended up having a medical issue and had surgery in early February, by the end of the month, I was diagnosed with two types of Thyroid Cancer, Papillary cancer, and Follicular cancer with vascular invasion. Two weeks later, I had a second surgery to remove the rest of my thyroid, cancer, and lymph nodes. Recovering from surgery was hard, it affected my emotions, energy, and there were other additional symptoms I wasn’t prepared for. I was determined and wanted to stay focused on getting into school., However, my cancer journey wasn’t done, and I found out I had to have radioactive iodine therapy. In May, I had treatment, a body scan, and was sequestered in my room for several days while my daughters (23 and 15) ran our household. Honestly, they had really been doing this since my first surgery in February. Oh, did I forget to mention….I also fell down the stairs in May and broke my ankle? Because of this, I had to go through treatment with one of those big boots on my leg! Eventually, I got better and was able to start school in September of 2022, and currently plan on graduating in January 2024! In November, I had to have Anterior Talo-Fibular Ligament (ATFL) reconstruction surgery on my ankle (my ATFL was torn when I broke my ankle in May). Taking a couple of weeks off from school was something that I didn’t want to do (it wasn’t part of the plan), it was necessary though. I was required to not put any weight on my ankle, until January of 2023, let me tell you, those knee scooters are not comfortable and don’t get me started on navigating it in Bath and Body Works what a nightmare! The pain from this surgery was excruciating and recovery deeply affected my mental health, making it through this was difficult. I did it though with the tireless help from my girls. Needless to say, 2022 was a year that will rest deep in the pit of despair (yes, I’m referencing Princess Bride, a true classic).

Even though I had a rough time, I learned a lot, about myself, cancer and my ability to be resilient and push through those rough patches. It wasn’t easy. I’m not going to lie; there were many times, as a single parent, I laid in bed scared and crying that I might have to leave my girls. Being sad and scared just isn’t my style though, and I’m hoping to share my story to remind you that if you are dealing with anything hard, scary, or tough, you can persevere and make it through. It may take a little work and grit, but it is possible.

First, I have to tell you, we don’t like to use the word cancer in my household. My girls found it to be a very scary word, so we named it. Yes, we named it. We thought about the worst bad guys in all the movies we watched, and out of all of them decided on one: Voldemort, he who shall not be named. Even though we aren’t huge Harry Potter fans, Voldemort seemed appropriate given the circumstance. My eldest daughter had a tough time when it came to talking about my radioactive iodine treatment. Yes, we also made a lot of green jokes because of the radioactive pill I had to take, and secretly I hoped I would look like She-Hulk, which sadly, I never did. Anyway, my daughter decided to call my treatment the “exorcism”. Anyway, I digress….

I’m incredibly independent, self-reliant (to a flaw), and am proud that I can get stuff done on my own. I learned very quickly that Voldemort doesn’t care how self-reliant or independent I am, and it quickly wiped out my energy along with my positive attitude. All the things I normally did on my own, I was too tired to do, and I needed help, which is something I never asked for before and was never really good at in the first place. “No thanks, I got it” was a phrase that was a normal part of my vocabulary, or the classic “thanks for the offer, I’ll let you know”. One of the first things I learned was to give myself a break and accept help when I needed it. My daughters were cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and maintaining the yard, and it killed me that I couldn’t help. I realized, though, those around me, my daughters, friends, and coworkers all felt helpless too. One way they found their purpose was to help me and my family. Allowing others to help gave me the breathing room I needed to rest and heal. It also gave them purpose and the ability to see me getting better, which made us all worry less and lean on one another more, which strengthened our bonds.

As an Executive Assistant, I am the proverbial planner. I have everything lined up on what needs to be done for the week if not longer. I identify things that must be done months down the road and am always making tentative plans for DIY projects, road trips or just making sure we have our dinners planned for the week. I quickly realized that Voldemort has its own timeline and as the famous Poet Robert Burns wrote, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry! I had plans, and Voldemort derailed every single one of them. Needless to say, I was screaming on the inside because I couldn’t even stick to the plan. So, what’s the point you ask? Well, the point is, planning is overrated. As much as I love it, all that planning can have a negative effect when you can’t stick to it. There is a place for planning sometimes all that planning without flexibility adds a tremendous amount of guilt, stress, and pressure. The second thing I learned was that giving myself the grace to let things happen on their own timeline helped ease all those negative feelings. I mean let’s face it, I was already under stress from working, managing a family, and Voldemort, I certainly didn’t need to add to it. Letting go of all my planning made me happier and more at ease it also helped my family too. It didn’t matter if laundry waited, and the girls didn’t care if we were going on the road trips we had planned. Honestly, they were just as tired and stressed as I was and letting go of planning really helped all of us.

I don’t know about you, I come from a long line of worriers, it’s in my DNA (along with the stubborn gene) and should have been my middle name. When Voldemort entered my life, the worries grew exponentially and began to negatively take over my life. I began focusing my worries on the big stuff: What if I die? Who will take care of my youngest? Where will she live? How will they pay the bills? I think you get the idea. All that worrying was bad and counterproductive. I began to not be present in the moment, physically I was getting better, however mentally I was deteriorating. I was good at hiding it, my eldest daughter saw it, no one else did though. I hid it from people who cared, and when anyone said how are you, I put a smile on my face and usually said fine. The problem was my mask slowly began to crack. I started breaking down in the lamest places, and embarrassingly, it was usually on video calls at work. However, something wonderful happened, though; those people I broke down in front of cared because they were my friends. At times, they cried with me because they were scared and sad too. It was incredible to me that they listened, reached out after work, and gave me pep talks that I didn’t feel like I deserved. Another amazing thing happened, they started opening up about stuff going on in their lives, and we leaned on each other. Another thing I learned is that being vulnerable isn’t necessarily bad, being able to connect with each other helped us realize we aren’t alone or totally on our own. It also opened the door to having meaningful conversations about what we mean to each other. I’m a firm believer in not leaving anything unsaid.

In time I realized all that worrying was making me fixate on all the wrong things. I needed to stop focusing on the negative and live my life as positively as I could. I needed to live in the moment, enjoy my girls, my work, and be grateful that I was healing, to do that, I had to change my mindset. It wasn’t always easy. Well, let’s face it. Changing any kind of habit much less a mindset is never easy. In the end I made a conscious decision to push out those negative thoughts. I’m not saying I lived in a fairy tale and pretended I didn’t have Voldemort; that isn’t healthy either. What I did was when those negative thoughts crept in, I made a decision to try to find the exact opposite of that negative. I purposely searched for an equal positive. At times it was easy; for example, I used to LOVE a good salad, after treatment, lettuce tasted like metal, and I really got bummed that I couldn’t enjoy any type of salad. Do you know what I could enjoy? Ice cream sandwiches. OMG, those were the best things I had eaten in ages. I know, I know, you can’t live in ice cream sandwiches, but I sure did try! In all seriousness, though I found an alternative that brought me joy. It wasn’t the same joy, it was different and those little differences along the way helped change my mindset. Lastly, I began to approach negative things that I encountered differently. It didn’t matter if it was Voldemort related or any other obstacle, I searched for the positive. It is surprising how many positives you can find in a tough situation if you take a step back and breathe; it’s usually there, you might have to look a little, but I’m confident you will find it.

What’s next? Well, I still have Voldemort, I probably will continue living with Voldemort, and I might have to go through another exorcism. I can tell you I’m ready for whatever comes my way. I’m ready to tackle school, work, raising my family, and Voldemort. I know I can tackle it because I can ask for help when I need it, give myself the grace to let things happen naturally, and focus on the positives (even when they are hard to find). If you are in a tough spot and something is bothering you, or you need help, it is important to reach out for support. Occasionally my daughter would talk to me and say “my problem isn’t Voldemort big” but here’s the thing, if you are thinking that, stop and I’ll tell you what I tell her. Your problem is your problem, and it matters because it's yours. Please don’t minimize what you are going through because you might think someone is dealing with a bigger problem. In my opinion, my Voldemort is no bigger or more important than anything you or my daughter is dealing with.

I look at it this way. My plate is full. It is full of all the yucky foods I hate and yummy foods I love. However, the food on my plate is no more yucky or yummy than the food on your plate. My plate and the food on it matter and yours does too! Try not to minimize your plate or what’s on it, because it’s important. You matter. If you need help, there is usually someone nearby who is willing to lend an ear or a hand. Hell, they may be willing to carry your plate for you!

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