Holding Space

With Shelly Vaughn


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Pink Sisters

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This weekend turned out to be pretty sweet! I was lucky enough to meet this woman, Sally Gary. She is a Christian and fellow breast cancer survivor. In fact, her treatment has been just about a month behind mine. Some women refer to us breast cancer survivors as “pink sisters”. It’s cutesy, and comforting to some. I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m not one to love labels anyway… and I do try to avoid defining myself by my breast cancer experience. But I suppose it’s a simple way to show comradery and connectedness during a challenging time.

Our church hosted Sally’s visit which included 2 nights of dinner and some excellent, loving discussions at church on Sunday. She’s an amazing woman and if you ever have an opportunity to meet her or hear her speak you should do it without hesitation. She’s an author, too, if you’re up for some meaningful reading in the future. Hearing her speak about sensitive topics within the church was something I have been craving as a Christian. I’m so thankful to be a part of a church family who welcomed the discussion. But even more striking to me was seeing how she has gracefully accepted her cancer experience and not let that overshadow other parts of her life. And she is one heck of a listener. Though she does not have young children herself, she seemed to understand how deeply my role as mother has affected my thoughts and actions through treatment. So I guess if we are choosing labels here, I do proudly call her a “pink sister”; lovingly call her “sister in Christ”; and humbly call her a “friend”.


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Within Normal limits

I never know these days what might trigger some random memories or negative feelings for me. On Tuesday, it was during a training at work where we had to review protocol including how to put on sterile gloves. And it immediately took me back to my chemo treatments when I would stare at the nurses while they put on their gloves (secretly making sure they stayed sterile and didn’t accidentally touch something they shouldn’t). I wanted to leave the room because it suddenly felt suffocating and uncomfortable. But I quickly reminded myself that I just needed to get through it and get out of there to get it done. Today, it was during a follow-up visit (which is at least a little more predictable). When I first got there, I had to fill out the SAME paper I fill out every time. It’s the paper that every woman getting a mammogram or ultrasound fills out. The problem is- it has a ton of questions about breasts! And I don’t like having to answer those after my mastectomy. I know, I’m probably just being overly sensitive. But I did put an asterisk by the upsetting questions with a paragraph explaining suggestions for how they could make the form more sensitive to women after mastectomies. I know… chill out, right? But the stress level is always a little elevated there and I guess today I was in the mood to share my sensitivities. The poor tech who took me back to prepare- she got an earful of my suggestions. Then we went into that same room with awful mustard-colored walls where I had my first ultrasound. (Sidenote: I wonder if it would be ok to contact a manager and suggest they change the paint color? I’m not kidding. That’s how much it bothers me.) Although this time, i immediately got a report back with great news and that’s when my feelings did a 180. My paper from the dr said “right axillary lymph node within normal limits”. There it is folks- “within normal limits”!! I didn’t know how much I loved those words until I heard them about my lymph node today. This was the reactive lymph node that they’ve monitored since surgery. And after today’s report, I don’t have to have any more follow-ups for it!

And then… (it gets better)…. I left to get a haircut!!!! Can you believe it?! My hair was long enough to need an actual cut! I guess technically it was a “trim” but at least now it has a shape. The girl who did it specializes in cutting curls- and shared a wealth of information about how to take care of this new head of hair. Who knew there was an entirely different world out there for maintenance of curly hair?!? So, turned out to be a good day. 🙂 I am having some pain in my right arm where scar banding has formed. It runs up under my armpit down to the inside of my elbow and makes it pretty sore. So I’m heading back to PT tomorrow to try to loosen it up and see what stretches I need to be doing again. Other than that, I can’t complain. Moving right along…

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Gray Area

I love the color gray! Almost all the walls in our house are gray, half of our furniture is gray, my favorite coat and shoes are gray. If I go shopping for clothes, there’s a 90% chance that I’ll come home with a new gray shirt. I just feel so comfortable in/around that color in my environment.
However, I’m learning that I do not feel so comfortable in the emotional gray space that is this “life after cancer.” Yes, I’m “cancer free”, but I’m not done with procedures. Yes, treatment is technically over, but I still go to so many follow up visits so it doesn’t feel over. Yes, I feel better than before, but still nothing like myself yet. Nothing is black and white and I miss that. I’m in the middle of my 6 month wait for reconstructive surgery… and it’s (again) something that I need to be patient with. I’m uncomfortable with this unrecognizable body… it looks and feels so different than what I know. I’ve been slowly working out more, but it’s hard to see how much my body has weakened. I caught a virus from the girls last week and it took me SO long to recover from. They did bloodwork and made sure I was fine… it’s just that my history and my current medication makes it hard for my body to recover. And, an especially weird, potentially depressing issue of bathing suit shopping consumed me last week. Please friends, do not ever complain to me about how hard it is to find a comfortable bathing suit. There is nothing that compares to shopping for one after a bilateral mastectomy. Good news though- I found one! And, in time these physical issues will continue to improve. The emotional things will too, I presume. In my attempt to be thorough and address some emotional things, I attended a survivorship support group last week. Yikes. I still don’t know how to put into words what I felt there. I know I cried the whole way home. Nobody was mean or insensitive… I think it’s just living in this reality of post-cancer life. And every time I think that or write that, I am reminded how grateful I am to be able to include the word “post”. But my heart is still sad that I’ve had to live through this… with the gripping fear of hearing the word recurrence. Although I didn’t love the group, I did hear a good take-away point that I’ll paraphrase: Don’t live in the past- it’s too depressing. Don’t live in the future- it’s too anxiety provoking. You can only live in the present. So that is currently my main goal to focus on. If you’re looking for words to encourage any survivor- I highly suggest those ones. And as I sit here and think about the present, I’m reminded of some beautiful things. Rob turned 40 on Saturday! I’m so thankful that he’s 40 and thankful that I’m here to see it happen. I’ve been lucky enough to be his partner for 23 years!! And, as always, right after his birthday is the day that Amy went to heaven. So that is what we remember today. It’s a day that anyone who knew her will never forget. It’s the day our hearts broke open in a way that could never be filled again. Oh how I miss her and miss having her guidance in life. She left this world when she was just 29. So her loss reminds me to be grateful to be here at 37; and makes me appreciate Rob’s milestone even more. If she was here I wonder if she’d tell me that instead of trying to be comfortable in this gray space, maybe I should change my perspective by changing the colors around me. I think next time I buy a shirt I’ll be thinking of her and I’ll pick one that’s as bright blue as her eyes and the sky… because that’s true beauty. And I’ll never forget how comfortable I felt in that space with her.

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Stretches And Racquetball

I’m not sure when it happened, but somehow our oldest daughter, Olivia, has grown up enough to start working out with me. She’s 10 and very active with dance classes, so I know she’s in decent shape. On Monday as I was leaving for the gym, she asked if she could come with me. It caught me off guard, but I realized it sounded like a great idea. So off we went- we walked/jogged the track together; we played racquetball together (Sorry, Ms. Jenkins for forgetting the rules you taught me in gym class); and we did stretches together. She was leading me in the stretches getting a kick out of watching her mom try to do a split. And she definitely has more range of motion in her arm for a solid racquetball swing. As she’s getting older, she’s not as playful at home like she was when she was younger. Her downtime is typically filled with cartwheels or DIY crafts (which she really does herself without our help). But on Sunday, I felt the joy of playing with her again… in new ways that I didn’t even know she was ready for… or I was ready for. I think she’s growing into a pretty cool kid. I’m so thankful for our time together, and hope to spend many more years keeping our bodies and minds healthy together.


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Never Be Alone

This date last year was my first chemo treatment. I’m so grateful to be on this side of it and be able to say that it’s over. But, man, that was the beginning of something so much harder than I anticipated.

As usual, this morning started out busy getting the girls off to school. I had a meeting and then had a chance to work with a boy who makes me smile and laugh for a full hour. Then as I had my first moment of reflective downtime, I noticed the sweetest text on my phone from my friend- which totally reminded me of how lucky I am to have such great friends; to have a God who has carried me through this; and to be here today to be able to reminisce. The timing of the text was perfect. Just like the timing of a phone call from my sister while I was having a little meltdown in the middle of the gym earlier this week. (I’m ok now, but those moments of feeling upset and not like “myself” still happen.)

This afternoon I was able to volunteer in Olivia’s classroom for her Valentine’s party. Again- it left me feeling so grateful to be able to be there and participate this year. And as I sit here reflecting on how this week went, I realize that’s pretty much the emotional roller coaster that is my life now. Mostly grateful, very sentimental, sometimes sad- and constantly reminded that I have never, and will never, be alone in this life- even when no one is around.


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What a difference!

What a difference! The girls’ dance studio performs at the halftime show at a basketball game every year. Last year, it happened to be on the evening that I got my port placed. I remember going there with my arm bandaged up and only a handful of people even knowing the road I had started down. I remember thinking how lucky everyone else was because they didn’t have cancer and they weren’t going through what we were (I now know that perspective is skewed.. because everyone is going through something challenging- different but sometimes just as hard). Olivia performed so well last year and I was so proud… and scared to be uncertain of how my own story was about to play out.

Last night both of our girls performed together in the dance. I know I’m biased, but Liana’s little hips shaking were just about the cutest thing I had seen all week (and I witnessed a lot of cute moments at work this week). I felt joy in my entire body watching those girls dance. To say I was beaming would be an understatement. It was only 3 minutes, and it was probably a pretty average dance number. But it felt so good to be sitting there seeing it through these eyes again.

This entire year, my friend Hannah Springer shared a gift for reminding me how my girls were doing. She texted me many times when she knew I was struggling… and she would tell me how she noticed Olivia smiling with her daughter, or heard Liana laughing with her friends. She would remind me, when it was most appreciated, that my girls were ok. And she’d remind me that she was praying for them and our God was keeping their hearts safe. (Side bar- I know so many of you prayed specifically for them like this, and it has been appreciated more than I could ever say.) Last night, she compared them to the bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego- three men who were thrown into a fiery furnace but came out unscathed because they were protected by God. In a most meaningful way, she compared our two little girls to those men- because those sweet souls have walked through a fire this past year and they are thriving and doing so well now. Deep in my bones, I hope that they are unscathed and unharmed. I know they cannot be same as they were before it all… none of us can. But I’m so hopeful that the changes within them are positive and not negative- that they are more brave, determined, faithful, appreciative and loving than ever. We all find ourselves in a fiery furnace at different points in our lives… and we have a God who will be right there with us through every step. I’m so thankful He has been there to protect my little dancers.


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January 17, 2017

January 17, 2017- the day of my biopsy last year. Remember when I said that a mammogram doesn’t hurt? A biopsy does. It’s not bad- comparable to a bee sting for the shot to numb the area. But it’s a sensitive area so it’s not comfortable.
Then they insert a needle instrument that grabs a microscopic piece of the mass and removes it from the breast. And they leave behind a tiny metal pin so that they know where they removed the piece from. It’s a quick procedure, but unnerving nonetheless. As with the ultrasound, I was trying my hardest to read the doctor’s face as she was doing it- looking for any eyebrow raise or head tilt or even a deep breath that would indicate if I was in the clear or not… but nothing. She was perfectly poker-faced in the nicest way. She had a calming voice that you’d imagine being the voice of the “nice friend” in a Pixar movie. She’s the perfect person for that job.

The results of the biopsy would come in 3-4 days- which meant either on Friday or Monday. I already had a follow-up scheduled for that Monday. The doctor gave me the choice to automatically wait until Monday follow-up to discuss the results in person. Or they could call me with the results on Friday if they came in early. Tough call- if it was good news, I’d love to hear it on Friday so that this weight would be off my shoulders over that weekend. But, man, if it was bad news I would not want to hear it over the phone on Friday. Remember the previous appointment when my surgeon said he was “optimistic”? That’s what I used to make my decision. I told them to go ahead and call me if the results came in on Friday… I wanted this over with so I could enjoy the weekend… at least that was the plan.