Religion of the Rocks

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Now that I’ve regained use of my hands (for some reason my forearms were pretty much paralyzed last night after climbing. Trying to ride a bike home was….interesting.) I’d like to share all my thoughts about climbing last night…

So, I joined a climbing gym.

Since I went to Moab, UT in September to climb with first descents I haven’t climbed. When I got back from my VERY emotional week, I told my parents I probably wouldn’t climb again. At the time it felt too emotional and I was pretty much a wreck and I couldn’t understand why. You can read about it here.

Last night, I was afraid.

Afraid because I didn’t have the insular, protective unit that was First Descents and their expert guides. Afraid I might have another breakdown or do something embarrassing in front of a gym full of strangers (Which I did, but whatevs). Afraid I wouldn’t know anyone and wouldnt have anyone to climb with.

One thing I learned is it’s never as bad as we think it’s going to be.

Last night as I climbed again, I dealt with a multitude of insecurities all of which I quieted. My therapist has been trying to get me to be more social and do more meditative, spiritual practices and I thought that rock climbing would be perfect for my goals.

Rock Climbing as a spiritual practice?

Yes! To me it makes perfect sense. What is the main tenent of religion? Faith. I have to have faith that my belay partner will catch me when I fall, faith that I can reach the top, faith that I won’t fall and die, faith that my equipment won’t break. It’s a practice in trust and working with a partner. It also forces me to make new friends and push my own boundaries with socializing (In environments I’m not comfortable I get a little quiet and stay to myself. I also feel less comfortable in mostly male dominated spaces like climbing gyms). It forces me to believe in myself and to push myself to accomplish my goals. To endure. To figure out HOW to accomplish this goal.

After taking a beginning instruction from a teacher there, they put out the call for a partner for me over the loudspeaker. Within seconds, I had a partner. One of the things that prevented me from joining touchstone since Moab was my insecurity finding a partner. When it comes to socializing and meeting new people, It’s challenging for me. My life has been built around me being independent and not needing anyone. I also did not think they would help me find one. That was a really cool perk.

My partner didn’t care that I was new, inexperienced, attractive, cool, thin etc – all things I typically feel self conscious of at gyms. At the gym I felt older than everyone else, heavier, not as hip or cool and inexperienced. I also didn’t have the emotional support that I got at FD – people from down below cheering you on and high fiving when you get down. There was a point I screamed at the top of my lungs when I slipped and fell halfway up a 5.11 climb. As I swung back and forth over the crowd clinging to the rope I saw everyone looking up at me and my face flushed red. I got lowered down and almost cried. I took a few deep breaths and tried again.

“Is this your first time?” My partner asked me after my almost melt down. I told him yes and he showed me where some easier climbs were and told me everyone starts there. I climbed a 5.2 and it built up my confidence more.

I’ve decided that this gym is going to be my play time. As a kid we get recess. I’m treating the gym as my recess. I’ve decided I’m going to ask myself each day “What fun thing do you want to do today?”. Since I have rock climbing, TRX, Yoga and Cross fit to choose from I have options for how I’m feeling.

I think I’ve been converted to the religion of the rocks :)

The Angel of Death

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Anyone who reads my blog will probably recognize I have sort of a preoccupation with death. In our western, American society death is considered taboo to discuss and for most, to even comprehend. Because I’ve lain on my death bed, I have what feels like a very intimate connection with death.

As a teenager, my one place of refuge was an old cemetery that nobody ever visited anymore in the small town I grew up in. It was always quiet and I was always the only living human being there, yet I never was alone. I sometimes would read or draw, but mostly I found solace in reading the headstones and imaging the lives of the people. Death was my friend in some form.

As an adult I’ve done hospice work. At 25 I was trained to be a patient counselor and I sat with the dying. I’m currently rereading a lot of material on death and grieving for the volunteer hospice work I’ll be embarking on again. One thing I agree with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross with is that it’s harder for us to comprehend death and therefore to deal with it because we deny it.

Death is never possible in regard to ourselves. It is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life. -Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

I’ve done a lot of work around my own personal fears of death and recognition that it will come to me. When I was diagnosed with cancer I made a vow to go into death with no fear. I wanted death to be just like the angel of death from American Horror Story – a benevolent figure who brings peace and ends suffering to those who are in pain. I am more skilled on coping directly with death and with those who are dying than dealing with the aftermath of death. It is one reason I wish to die before those I love. So I don’t have to deal with grief. Perhaps my work with death is done. Perhaps now I start the task of dealing with the grieving and how best to serve those in mourning to grow myself.

In knowing a lot of people with cancer one thing I’ve found is a general fear of death. We talk of it rarely because we are scared of it. Some of us don’t talk about it and for those people I usually worry. The people who feel a need to deny death I want to comfort the most usually. One of my goals in working with hospice patients is to bring peace and help end suffering. I think if they have someone who they can discuss death with who isn’t afraid and who can do so joyously, that has to be worth something, right? I tend to think of myself as the angel of death sometimes – one who brings peace and comfort to the pained. I think back to a story Kubler-Ross shares about dying of a farmer in the local village in which she grew up…

The story exemplified how at the end of his life this farmer was allowed to stay home and die. He was allowed to have sips of his favorite wine in lieu of pain medications and smell his wife cooking savory food that motivated him to eat a little instead of a saline drip. How he was able to call his friends over and say goodbye. He was able to speak with his children and divide his properties up. To sort out his affairs. To be buried on his own property by his own loved ones. Not being made up like some doll and preserved with embalming fluid.

It saddens me that how we deal with death in our modern society is basically to be removed from it. About 1.5 years ago there was a small movement to have dinner parties with ones friends to specifically discuss death and how we viewed it. I always wanted to have one of those dinner parties. I feel if we discuss it, deal with it and make it a normal part of life, we can reduce it’s power over us. We can remove fear. We can have honest interactions with our loved ones when the time comes and with ourselves.

I’m still reflecting on these feelings and they are indeed dynamic. But I would welcome any discourse on this topic.

3 Years Ago Today

For the last two Christmas’ I’ve blogged on this day. This day holds significance because it was today that I was wheeled into the ER and later admitted to the hospital. Tomorrow, they will have found the cancer.

I like to reflect back and see how I’ve changed and grown. This year has been no exception for either change or growth.

One of the surprising finds this year brought was that I feel less like a cancer patient than ever. I actually feel relatively normal again. I wondered when this feeling would come, and it has indeed come back. I no longer finding myself worrying that the cancer will recur. I logically know it could and if it does, I’ll deal with it then. But for right now I don’t find myself all that different than my urban hipster peers who’ve had perfect health.

I started participating again in a community I used to be very active in, but have been away from for many years. It has felt really good remembering that part of who I was and why it was important. Meeting people who normalized my feelings and made me feel a little less like a misfit.

I’ve discovered that I really like working in health care. That I’m also good at it. I like leveraging my strengths for the betterment of others. Work feels effortless in part because it doesn’t feel like work. I enjoy every day that I am there. It’s also made me shift my career aspirations a bit and realize there are communities I’ve been a part of my whole life that I’ve chosen to never participate in. That there are more people who could benefit from my experience that I’m not offering. It’s opened my eyes that people who have an illness that I’ve always had and regarded as being not that bad really suffer. Some suffer as much as I feel the cancer inflicted upon me.

I’m also filled with gratitude. I’m grateful for the friends who checked up on me today or invited me to gatherings. I’m thankful for my family standing by my side supporting me. I’m thankful for my health. For my dog who loves me. That I have a roof over my head. For all the new experiences I’ve had this year. For getting to do work I love.

I find it interesting how we change and grow. I still remember Christmas of 2012, when I was still early on my in remission and wondering how long it would take to come back and kill me. Back then, I was convinced my days were numbered. It felt like I couldn’t really celebrate the remission because it was so temporary. My body still was wracked with physical and emotional pain and I could barely walk. Today, I am nearly pain free – save for some weird neuropathic pain in my left arm and my legs when it gets cold.

I can honestly say I look forward to what the rest of my life holds. I wonder who I’ll be next year and what adventures lie in store for 2015.

Happy Holidays everyone.

A Long December

A long December and there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last

This month has been rough. This month marks the third Christmas I’ll have survived since my initial diagnosis in 2011. The first half of 2012 was about saying goodbye to a lot of things and being surrounded by love. I and many of those who knew me I don’t think expected me to live past that year. While I’m glad to be alive, there is a lot I am also sad for.
I can’t remember the last thing that you said as you were leavin’, Now the days go by so fast
   I recently experienced a break-up. Even though it was me that did the official breaking up, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that relationship was over. What pains me about break-ups is not so much the loss of the romantic affection, it’s the loss of a friend. All the breakup’s I’ve been through that is what hurts the most for me. Over the 3 months we dated, I spoke to her mother who is a cancer survivor quite a bit – even skyping in with their family for Thanksgiving at her mother’s behest. The kindness of that gesture was not lost on me as I was alone for that Holiday. Today, I noticed her mother defriended me on facebook. I understand why, but it hurt me. It hurt me because in an instant I am no longer likeable. I am no longer a human being who also went through cancer that shared some things in common. Perhaps now I’m the horrible person who hurt her daughter. Now, I’m the villain. Now, I’m no longer even considered a friend. Now, they don’t care how much pain it will cause me to be alone during Christmas. Now, there are no invitations.
And it’s one more day up in the canyons
And it’s one more night in Hollywood
If you think that I could be forgiven I wish you would
   Whenever I feel this kind of intense pain, I always go back to the relationship that pains me the greatest : my marriage. I don’t regret leaving that marriage, it was the right thing to do. I wish he would forgive me for doing so. When I was going through cancer treatment and was pretty sure I was going to die, I had my mother find my ex-husband and write him a letter asking him to please call me. Then I wrote him telling him I was dying, hoped he was well, but badly wanted closure before I died and to please call me. That I did not want to upset his life or any of his relationships. He never called. I have recurring dreams still begging him for forgiveness…almost a decade later. In my loneliness, I remember when we loved each other. How we would spoil each other during the holidays. How we would make tamales together and eat them. How we would drive up from Los Angeles to Sacramento to visit my family listening to When Soul Meets Body, by Death Cab for Cutie when Death Cab was brand new.
The smell of hospitals in winter
And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls
   The scary thing about this type of melancholy is I’ve gotten very good at hiding it. I still go to work at the hospital with smiles on my face and am productive. I’ve paid particular attention to the suicide prevention emails that have gone out recognizing that this time of year is difficult for many of our patients. I wonder when or if anyone will notice it is also a difficult time for me. I think of suicide often. But I don’t talk about it with my friends or family. I don’t reach out. I find it incredibly difficult to ask for help. Firstly, I know I will not actually commit suicide. I don’t want to scare people or have people think I’m threatening suicide to gain attention. I discuss my feelings with my therapist because she’s really the only person I trust to know what to do and what to say. Friends are well meaning but typically friends and family want to tell me how to change it instead of just listening and asking questions. These types of topics are uncomfortable for friends and family. I also don’t feel I’ve been a good enough friend to ask for help. I never call them to ask them how they’re doing – why should I expect them to give to me when I’ve not given anything? I think to myself “It’s not their responsibility, it’s my own.” These are the thoughts which drive me further into my prison of isolation. I’ve genuinely tried to do a lot of good work in these 2.5 years since I’ve gotten better. Right now, it feels like it’s all been in vain. Now matter how good of a person I try to be I will never be loved by people.
I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass
   Since my divorce in 2006, I tend to be hyper present during moments I want to cherish and hold onto as they are happening. This line from the song resonates with me deeply. Especially concerning people. When I’m around someone I care about I’m trying to hold onto them while they’re still in front of me. I study the lines in their faces, how it feels to have them in my arms, the smells associated with them. Because I know there will be a time that comes when I can no longer see them. I remember doing that with Britni. It’s one more year without her. One more year without a lot of people I’ve cared for in my life.
   I wish I could make this a more upbeat post. In the early days of this blog, I was very real about my experiences. I intimately detailed my fears, my sorrows and my joys. Now, as I’ve turned this page into a space for advocacy, It’s become a little less personal. A little more polished. There are so many people who suffer through depression silently. I can’t do it anymore. With the death of Robin Williams (Which affected me deeply), I can’t keep silent anymore. This is my experience and I need to honor it. I know it will slowly get better, but right now it’s awfully difficult just to get through the minutes.
I hope this Christmas will be better for all of you out there.

November Survivor of the Month: Kristen

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I first met Kristen back in April at a swank party in the Palms hotel 55 floors up above the neon lights at the OMG conference being held in Las Vegas. She was a New Yorker and we spoke for a while about our cancers. I remember her honesty in discussing her cancer and admiring her for her openness and honesty with a virtual stranger.

Kristen’s journey began in February, 2013 when she was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer. It’s scary as hell to ever hear the words “You have cancer”, but to have them followed up with “late stage” is unimaginable. But Kristen has not let that stop her. She still worked, went through her treatments, flew across the country to dance on an invisible floor 55 stories above Las Vegas and more. I feel Kristen really embodies the spirit of what it is to truly live. In her blog Kristen speaks candidly about her experience. I highly recommend reading it.

Here’s what she had to say about receiving the Britni bag from Cancer Babes:

After the week I have had, to come home to such an incredibly thoughtful, practical gift brought tears to my eyes. From cancerbabes, my friend Sarena's organization. This package came with a beautiful card with a picture and story of a young girl who has passed- her name is Britni. Reading her story in the card....just what I needed to remind myself I have a responsibility to those we have lost to get my ass back up and fight this disease with strength and hope. Thank you Sarena- I couldn't imagine something I needed more today than this.

After the week I have had, to come home to such an incredibly thoughtful, practical gift brought tears to my eyes. From cancerbabes, my friend Sarena’s organization. This package came with a beautiful card with a picture and story of a young girl who has passed- her name is Britni. Reading her story in the card….just what I needed to remind myself I have a responsibility to those we have lost to get my ass back up and fight this disease with strength and hope. Thank you Sarena- I couldn’t imagine something I needed more today than this.

kristenshirt

She expressed feeling moved by Britni’s story and I am so glad it helped to make her feel better after going through a rough week. I consider her a friend, an ally, and an insaneful brave human being. In her spare time she volunteers for organizations such as Stupid Cancer in New York City.

If someone you know or yourself could benefit from a Britni bag, please send us your story or the story of the person you would like to nominate to sarenaperez@gmail.com. Bag criterion: the person must be a young woman diagnosed with any stage and type of cancer between the ages of 18-39 actively engaged in treatment. Individual also must consent to being featured as a survivor of the month on this blog and having their likeness shared on social media.

October Survivor of the Month: Rose

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I know this is very late, but better late than never – right?

This is Rose. Rose has stage IIIc ovarian cancer. As someone who was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer, her story really hit home for me. She was told her had cancer earlier this year at the age of 37. She’s embodied the spirit of what it means to be a cancer fighter and I am so happy a bag found it’s way to her.

Her best friend Heather nominated her and I sent her the bag to give to Rose. Here are some photos from the surprise Britni bagging:

roseandheather rosebag rosebag2

Rose is currently going through chemotherapy and has had surgery. If you’d like to contribute to her Give forward fund please go here.

If you’d like to nominate someone to receive a Britni bag please email me at sarenaperez@gmail.com.

All nominees must be between ages 18-39, female, and have been diagnosed with any form of cancer. If chosen to receive a bag they must consent to be featured as the survivor of the month and remit photos of themselves with the bag. All bags are free. Survivors may nominate themselves or friends/family of survivors may nominate as well.

Blood on the Rocks

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I’m standing backwards on a red rock 350 feet above ground in the middle of the desert near Moab, Utah about to rappell down. I’ve just scaled it’s thin side with 9 other campers and some guides. The view is beautiful from that high, but I can’t see it. The only thing I can do is look my guides in the eyes to seek reassurance that I’m not about to commit suicide. It is deathly quiet save for the hollow breathes being shakily yet shortly exhaled from my terrified frame. The only thing saving me from certain death is some rope.

This is graduation day from First Descents.

A week before I had flown into Grand Junction, CO to spend a week rock climbing with this Nonprofit organization that helps AYA cancer survivors gain confidence and positive life experiences from outdoor adventure sports. Prior to leaving I rummaged pinterest and instagram looking for photo’s of climbs & rappells hoping to see some examples of what I might be in for. One photo in particular seemed amazing : a guy dangling off of an arch in arches national park. In the comfort of my living room that seemed exciting and fun. In my mind I would run up that arch and swing wildly and freely without a hint of fear.

Ha, silly rabbit…

In my regular waking city life I have forgotten a bit what real, visceral fear looks like. In fact, I am pretty much known in my circle of friends for being fearless. I regularly scare my girlfriend by stepping in front of speeding cars in crosswalks. I race down hills on my Specialized semi-professional racing bike. All my cancer treatments I bravely faced and really didn’t talk about being afraid. Back then, I wanted to accept whatever the universe had in store for me. If it was death, I didn’t want to be fearful as I crossed that great abyss. I wanted to be filled with love and so focused more on cultivating that.

But now, I feel fear. Real, genuine, visceral fear.

It all started the first day of climbing. We were learning to climb from the professionals at the Colorado Mountain School. The guides were compassionate, skilled and came with years of experience under their belts. My first climb was on an expanse of rock called ‘Wall street’, so named for the towering wall of rock that lined the street next to the Colorado River. As I looked up from the ground it looked very much like the cliff’s of insanity from The Princess Bride. I couldn’t help but picture Andre the giant climbing a rope with Buttercup on his back. The climb that day was small: 50 feet. On the ground my ego was not sweating it. In my head I would tackle this with ease.

About 10 feet off the ground I froze with fear and started crying.

I had no clue where these tears were coming from. There was no negative self talk telling me I couldn’t do the climb. There was only a feeling of being afraid to fall. One of the instructors, Lil Bit, climbed up and talked me through it. The camp photographer, Dickey, had already climbed up to the top to catch our images. I had supportive words flowing from above and below me. The tears ceased and I quickly shambled up the sizzling rock to tap the top bolt signalling victory. When I did there were shouts of encouragement from both campers and staff alike and I felt good. The second time I climbed that day I was rescued by Double. He climbed the entire way up with me. It felt good knowing I was not alone in something that to me felt like a struggle. Every time I completed a climb the guides would come over and hug me with proud looks in their eyes. It was incredibly validating.

The next day the tears only got more intense. Each day we did different, more challenging climbs from the day before. From the second day on I could feel the tears welling up the minute I saw the rock face. Instead of being excited like the other campers, I felt grim. Doing these climbs felt like work. I was also embarrassed because I was the only one weeping like La Llorona each day. I kept asking myself “what is WRONG with you???”. I heard campers talk about being afraid of heights but from the way they climbed you would never know. To my eyes, everyone else seemed unafraid and having fun.

Support is essential in environments like this and there was certainly no shortage of it. By the second day my hands were covered in blisters. On the third day we climbed a rock face called ‘ The Ice Cream Parlour’. I was on a craggy, crack climb when the tears started flowing and feeling very defeated when another camped who was rappelling down appeared next to me. Her name was Crush and her comforting voice and peaceful blue eyes got me to calm down enough to finish the climb. Even though I literally had snot seeping from my face, I didn’t feel judged. On that climb the blisters on my hands popped and as I climbed I would notice blood. I was giving everything I had to finish that climb – literally blood, sweat and tears. After I finished I actually felt good enough to climb another one, this time sans tears.

My entire experience with First Descents was overwhelmingly positive. I was impressed with the staff’s experience, knowledge and humility. I had one of the founders offering to carry my bags for me on hikes. I learned from these leaders that leadership is about making yourself a servant to the people. That great leaders are not only strong in body and mind, but compassionate and humble. Our camp mom and dad were a couple whose son had attended FD camps before he died at 22. I didn’t know it until the last day of camp but ‘dad’ was a relatively famous motivational speaker. This man exuded a calm, quiet wisdom and I enjoyed hearing about the places he had gone in his life. His counterpart was every bit the loving mother to all of us that week. When I left, I left feeling I had learned much.

If you have not gone on a First Descent’s trip yet, I highly recommend you check them out. Aside from making memories you’ll cherish, you’ll come away with new friends and experiences that challenge your worldview in a good way.

Since coming back home, I’ve noticed that old scars feel like they have are powerless now. I feel more joyful and present in my daily interactions. I also feel empowered to tackle my life.

Thank you FD, all my fellow campers, wacky & cricket, Daryl, Honeybucket, Dickey & peanut and all the guides. You all made a difference in this person’s life.

 

 

September Survivor of the Month : Toni

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For our survivor of the month of September, I would like to introduce you all to the amazing Miss Toni! She is a friend of my friend Lauren, with whom I attended the OMG conference in Las Vegas this year.

Toni’s sister Pam nominated her and told me how positive Toni was in the face of adversity. Toni was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer on October 31, 2013. She has created friendships with other cancer survivors but would love to connect with someone that has beaten late stage stomach cancer, so if any of you have – please message me and I will put you in contact with Toni.

toni

Toni and Lauren! It also happened to be Lauren’s birthday. Happy Birthday Lauren!

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One of the other things Toni’s sister Pam said about her was how stylish she is. I have to say she is right! I never looked that good going through chemo. Beautiful makeup job Toni and lovely head scarf!

If any of you have a loved one that is a female between the ages of 18-39 that you would like to nominate to receive a Britni Berner Cancer Bag worth over $200 and highlighted as the survivor of the month on this blog please email me at cancerbabesgroup@gmail.com.

Alex & Ani Benefit

alexandani

September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and to do my part to help fundraise I will be hosting a party at the Alex & Ani store in Emeryville, CA.

In case you have not heard of Alex & Ani, they are simply amazing. They make bohemian inspired jewelry and they have a rabid cult like following especially for their bracelets. Their jewelry is made right here in the USA so they help to contribute to their local economies. The brand was started by a 3rd generation Jewelry designer named Carolyn Rafaelian. Carolyn really believes in using recycled materials in all of her creations and the company strives to be as green as possible. I personally have several of their stackable bracelets and the thing I really like about them is that they are an expression of who you are. Each bracelet represents a part of who you are and slowly tells your life story.

The party will start at 6pm and go until 9pm. We will have lite bites and non-alcoholic beverages. I will be educating people about ovarian cancer and sharing my story. 15% of all the proceeds sold during that party will benefit the Circle of Strength ovarian cancer foundation. Come support women in your local community. Shop AND give back!