It takes two

A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend about our blogs. She said that she never writes about her husband; some readers didn’t even know she was married. I don’t directly write about my husband Clarke often. I’ve written endlessly about his mother Barbara’s sudden death in a car crash in 2009 (if you want to read more about her, please click on the tag “Barbara” on the lower right of the page) but not about Clarke. Clarke is private, and I respect the fact that he doesn’t want to write or discuss topics that I do.

Clarke wrote a piece that I treasure. In 2009 he nominated me as a “Brave Chick” for a website that celebrated women who had tackled adversity (www.onebravechick.com). The interesting thing to me as I re-read the essay now is how much more has happened since then. We’ve had many medical and emotional challenges since this letter was written. I like to think that the seeds of strength were sown during some of these experiences.

I am re-posting this today not to celebrate myself, but rather to celebrate my husband. We are a team in this thing called life and I couldn’t do it without him. I hope I will get him back here on the blog sometime to write about some more of the issues we have dealt with; I think hearing it from his point of view might be helpful for some readers. But for now I will let his words sing, and hopefully honor him by doing so.

 

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“The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man (or woman) struggling against adversity.”
-Seneca

“Let us do our duty, in our shop in our kitchen, in the market, the street, the office, the school, the home, just as faithfully as if we stood in the front rank of some great battle, and knew that victory for mankind depends on our bravery, strength, and skill. When we do that, the humblest of us will be serving in that great army which achieves the welfare of the world”
-William Makepeace Thackeray

My wife Lisa and I met for the very first time at the George Foreman / Evander Holyfield fight in the spring of 1991 when, in a scene straight out of Rocky, a forty-two year old Foreman went the distance with the undefeated Holyfield. We met again at a Halloween party later that year and began dating. We got engaged in 1995 and married in the summer of the 1997. Over the course of our 18 years together and in particular the last three, it has become clear to me that my wife possesses more than her share of courage.

As with any 18 year period we have had our ups and downs together but mostly it has been up. We have three beautiful and intelligent children, loving and supportive families and great friends.

In the grand scheme of things, our life together was pretty smooth which is why I think we were completely unprepared for what the last three years have brought us. In August of 2006 we learned that our five month old baby boy was born with a condition that required immediate open heart surgery. He also had complex problems with his cervical vertebrae and the muscles of his hands that would require a significant ongoing investment of time and energy in medical care and therapy.

Since Lisa is at home with the kids when I’m at work, the day-to-day heavy lifting of running the house and managing the often crazy logistics of our lives naturally fall to her. In addition, because she is the medically savvy one in our family (her father is a surgeon and her mother is a psychologist), Lisa ended up quarterbacking and supervising Tristan’s care which included (and still does include to some extent) coordinating treatment with four or five different specialists (neurologists, pulmonary specialists, pediatric cardiothoracic and orthopedic surgeons, etc.) in three different cities. Juggling all of those competing priorities was extremely challenging and time-consuming. It seemed like fate was piling on hardship in January of 2007 when Lisa was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.

Lisa spent much of 2007 aggressively treating her cancer with a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. I’m sure many women who read your website are acquainted with the harsh reality of how tough a cancer treatment regimen can be on one’s body and, just as importantly, one’s psyche. I must confess that I wasn’t really prepared for what was to follow. Like many things, cancer treatment seems much simpler in the abstract or on television than in the messy reality of real life. It is a process where you are forced to make life-changing and often heartbreaking decisions while in possession of only limited information all the while dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional side effects of disease itself and the treatment. If adversity is the test by which character is revealed then I’m proud to say that my bride has passed her personal test with flying colors.

At least by the romanticized ideals of literature or history you don’t get to see real bravery very often when you live in Darien, Connecticut (braving the long lines at the local Starbucks doesn’t really count). However, there was something quietly heroic in how Lisa handled the myriad of issues she was dealing with in a thoughtful and calm (with some exceptions) manner all the while taking care of the thousand little details that go along with being a mom to a young family. No matter how much personal pain she was in, the kids’ lunches got made, their homework got done, their boo-boos got kissed, and their very real fears addressed and soothed even on the very worst days. Tending to young kids isn’t easy on your best day but being able to do so and face the world in the midst of cancer and chemo and all that implies is something else altogether.

Looking back, the amazing thing to me is how little impact the whole period had on our children; that speaks to how much of her energy and force of will Lisa put into ensuring that that was the case. We had lots of help from our families and our amazing group of friends, but at the center was Lisa getting up each day and doing her best to move forward with grace and determination (kind of like a 42 year-old George Foreman coming out of his corner, taking his licks and getting in some good shots of his own). In my book, that is all any of us can really expect of ourselves and defines what bravery is all about. When my test comes, I hope I do as well and face up to it with as much strength as Lisa did.

A friend whose wife had just gone through the breast cancer experience told me when I learned about Lisa’s diagnosis “the thing about breast cancer (pardon another tortured sports metaphor) is that you never get to spike the ball in the end zone and say you are done. There is always something else.” I thought I understood what he was saying at the time, but I appreciate it much more now. Although chemo ended in the summer of 2007 and her breast reconstruction finished shortly thereafter, Lisa has been dealing with the often frustrating regimen of drugs and side effects that come along with being a cancer survivor. While things are certainly better than they were, it has been a constant challenge and adjustment for both of us.

As I said earlier, one of the most difficult things about having cancer, even a cancer that is as common and well known as breast cancer, is that you really don’t have any idea what is ahead of you as either a patient or a spouse when you begin the process. There are reams of data and academic studies available but despite that fact, it is difficult to distill and digest all of that into a coherent picture as to what you as an individual (or the spouse of one) will experience.

As part of her life as a cancer survivor, Lisa has taken it upon herself to make understanding the long road of treatment, recovery, and being your own best advocate a little easier for women who will face the same challenges she did. She spends hours and hours speaking to women in our community who are just beginning the process about what she has been through in the hopes it will help them be prepared. As an extension of those conversations she began writing (and later blogging) about her experiences and feelings about cancer and posting them on the web. She sometimes writes clinically about the nitty-gritty medical realities of treatment and recovery which are based on her personal experiences, extensive research of the available medical literature, and her own conversations with her doctors.

Other times she examines the darker, emotional, frustrating, and deeply personal places that being a cancer survivor can sometimes bring you as young woman and a young mom. Her writing is often beautiful and poetic and is always thoughtful and enlightening. She puts it all “out there” for public scrutiny. She posts regularly under her own name to help her fellow women (our moms and sisters and daughters) understand and deal with a path that all too many of them will walk down at some point in their lives. I believe this is noble and selfless and courageous.

So as a very small and modest way of acknowledging her daily efforts and recognizing her achievements, I would like to nominate Lisa Adams (age 39), loving wife, wonderful mother, caring friend, talented writer, and strong cancer survivor to be a featured brave chick. I would invite those members of your community who are interested to check out her writing at lisabadams.com.

Thanks for your time and dedication to Brave Chicks everywhere.
Clarke Adams

July 7, 2009

If You Knew Me

If you knew me, you would know I am resilient. Tough, even in the face of the worst news. You would know I rise to the occasion every time. I might break down before, I might break down after– certainly after. But I will meet the challenges at each and every turn.

If you knew me you would know I smiled my way through many of my hard times, lied and smiled and said “fine” when many a person asked, “How are you?”

If you knew me you would know I am not a negative person, that I am not a pity-seeker, nor a martyr. You would know that I just do the best I can, and want to be dignified and strong, but am not in denial.

If you knew me you would know I love to do things for others, moreso than myself. You would know that in this turbulent portion of my life I have done what I can to show others what they mean to me, and how much I appreciate the kindness of strangers… how the smallest encounters can stay with me forever.

If you knew me you would know that I tried my best to make others feel at ease with my cancer. I always took pride in looking the best I could with what I had left. I created outfits around my scarves, and learned how to draw in eyebrows so that it wouldn’t be too obvious I had none. I tried to set a good example for my children, being honest with them about what was happening, loving them as much as I could, and asking the others who loved them to help them feel special and safe.

If you knew me you would know I care for others. When fellow cancer patients have asked to see what reconstruction looks like, I place my pride and embarrassment aside to honor their needs, their fears, their emotions. While some might (and do) hide their illnesses, I cannot. I have chosen for myself, and for my children, to be open about what cancer is, what it does, what price it demands. I believe that being this way will reduce the shame, the fear, and the confusion for them. Nothing has been more important to me than making sure my children understand what is happening and what the scientific reasons are. That honesty does not come at the expense of hope. Of optimism. Of sheer will. To remain mum about these feelings, these thoughts, these explanations of my experience, is to deny my life for the past four years. To do so says the suffering, confusion, and fear were ill-placed. To avoid talking about the reality of the dangers, the problems, the down-times is to not only be in denial but also to assert that my fears are irrational.

If you knew me you would know that I write not because I wallow in darkness, or think negative thoughts all the time. If you knew me you would know I write so that the emotions can be explored, pushed, pulled, twisted, and shared in order for me to be positive, optimistic, and strong for the rest of the world to see. It is the sharing of these ideas on paper, and sometimes reaching the hoped-for connection to people who read them (whether because they resonate with you, move you, educate you, or make you thankful that you have no idea what the cancer experience is) that keeps my words flowing.

If you knew me you would know I’m just a person, doing the best I can with what I’ve got.

Maybe it’s a bum rap, but it’s my bum rap.

It’s my chance to show what I can do:

Just watch me.

On Resilience: Thoughts on Elizabeth Edwards, my mother, and me

Doctors diagnosed my mother with breast cancer the exact same day Elizabeth Edwards heard those words in November, 2004.

Two years later, I too received a diagnosis of breast cancer.1

After my diagnosis I went for consultations with two oncologists. Each doctor handed me two pieces of paper displaying bar graphs of the risk of my cancer returning and the risk that I would die from my cancer. These risks were broken down and calculated for four separate conditions: 1)  if I did nothing, 2) if I received chemotherapy, 3) if I received hormonal therapy, and 4) if I received “combined” therapy (chemotherapy + hormonal therapy). On the top of the stark white pieces of paper in my doctor’s writing it says “Survival” on one and “Recurrence” on the other.

I made my decision rather easily: to treat my Stage II cancer I opted for a double mastectomy2, chemotherapy, and adjuvant hormonal therapy3. I had a husband and three young children; I wasn’t taking any chances– I would do whatever it took to get me into remission and give me the best possible chance of survival.

My mother, because of the particulars of her Stage III cancer opted for a lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy.4

And so, my mother and I had different treatment plans. But while our treatment protocols differed, we both required the same character trait to get us through: resilience. Appropriately, this is also the title of Elizabeth Edwards’s book.

Resilience has carried me through my mother’s diagnosis and mine. My son Tristan’s surgeries and treatments for congenital spine and hand deformities. The sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law in a car crash one year ago.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back, the ability to find strength and reserves when you think there are none, the guts to wake up each morning and, knowing something else might be just around the corner, say, “Okay, world, bring it on. I can take it.”

It’s also the manner in which you take it. Do you feel defeated? Resigned? Depressed? Angry? Do you channel those negative emotions into something positive?

Some people believe that negative things like cancer and grief are gifts. Books I’ve seen preach that you should change your thinking: these events are not traumas or tragedies; they are gifts, positive intrusions into your life.

I don’t think so.

I don’t think cancer is a gift.
I don’t think grief is an opportunity.

I think these things suck.
I think they hurt.

There’s a difference between thought and action: what you do with those feelings is what counts.

People don’t need to have the same beliefs or think the same way to feel a magnetic pull to one another.

Resilience is like a magnetic pull to life, a force that keeps me coming back for more
with grit,
determination,
heart,
hope.

Resilience whispers in my ear,
“You can do it.
Just keep going.
One foot in front of the other.

It will get better.
And, if it doesn’t, well…
you can take it.
Bring it on.”

Elizabeth Edwards reached many people because she was in the public eye, but inspirational people also live quiet lives. We can be inspired by Edwards’s grace and courage as she dealt with the challenging parts of her life in the same way we can find inspirational people around us each and every day. These are all people we can connect with and learn from. In doing so, we better ourselves. In doing that, we honor their struggle.

My mother is alive, and in remission. And the joy that I feel about having my own mother here is shared in equal measure by the sorrow I feel for Ms. Edwards’s three living children, Catharine, Emma Claire, and Jack, over the loss of their mother.5

  1. genetic testing later showed I do not carry the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genetic mutation []
  2. I also opted for recontruction with silicone implants []
  3. first, Tamoxifen, then later, after surgical removal of my ovaries and Fallopian tubes, Arimidex []
  4. because her cancer was HER-2 Neu positive she also received Herceptin []
  5. her 4th child, Wade, died in a car crash in 1996 []