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Posts tagged with: cancer

Stalked by a Real Life Villain

stalker

I’m a writer. I write romantic adventures fraught with disasters, at least one hero, and a villain or two. My stories are usually set in the past and don’t resemble my normal world at all with its kiddie soccer games, birthday cakes, and trips to the pediatrician. Once my kids are at school and the dog is napping and my three guinea pigs are settled in for the day, I usually dive into whatever journey I’m currently writing, losing myself in my characters’ adventures. So I was completely shocked when three years ago I fell into my own disastrous adventure.

 I, a relatively normal mom, wife, writer, dog-runner, and soccer player was being stalked. A villain, just as deadly as the ones I create on the page, began to silently infiltrate my life. With expert stealth and vicious cruelty, this villain marked me for death. I didn’t even realize I was in danger until at a doctor’s visit I mentioned a pinchy pain in my side and my skinny jeans being too snug. I chalked it up to a slowing metabolism (I’d just turned 40) and sharp ovulation pains (that had strangely lasted for weeks).

A pelvic exam, an ultrasound, a blood test, and then surgery a week later to remove all my girlie parts confirmed that I was wrong, very wrong. In fact I had just lived my own “inciting incident” in a romantic misadventure of my own. I had ovarian cancer.

P8300024

Heather & Amazing Oncology Nurse, Donna

Just in any disaster, things move fast as we panic and realize we better flee from the villain. Unfortunately my villain was killing me from the inside. There was nowhere to run. I could only fight.     

My first plot turn came with the start of 15 months of chemo, dosed in my surgically implanted port-a-cath. Two powerful drugs and an investigational drug were in my arsenal of weapons. Tactical experts (my oncologist, top-notch nurse, nutritionist) kept me as strong as they could so I could deliver punch after punch to the microscopic assassins running through my body. Friends and family became my army of loving teal warriors with a bounty of casseroles, rides for my kids, shared tears and laughter, prayers, cards, and hugs.

Teal Army General Keri

Teal Army General Keri

 

 

Enter the hero.Jacqueline's wedding (2)

“For better or worse.” We are all familiar with the oath. Yet some of us who take this oath don’t really get what it means until all hell breaks our normal worlds into little bitty pieces. Sometimes we find out that our spouses aren’t up for the job of being a hero. I met a woman whose husband left her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I met another whose husband flirted with pretty women when she was bald and suffering. When pressure hits it can bring out the worst in people or the best in people.

I’ve always loved my husband. Our twenty-year anniversary is coming in November this year. He’s been my friend and lover, a comfortable companion. But…after he faced my cancer and the fight to keep me alive, right by my side, I love him a thousand times more. Not only did he literally carry me at times when I was too weak to walk, but he made me laugh, held Beach Baldyme while I sobbed, and told me I was beautiful even when I looked like an Idaho potato (bald, moon-faced, and 40 pounds heavier on the steroids). All of this while suffering the memory of his own mother dying of breast cancer when he was a boy of nine.

For those of us lucky enough to find our soul mates, there is sometimes an incident that cements the thought within us that this love might truly last for all time. One night when I was in one of my really hard chemo cycles, my hero and I stood in the kitchen. He noticed that I was standing on one leg. I did that all the time because my feet hurt so badly, like someone beating the bottoms with a baseball bat (neuropathy). I’d switch between feet every so often to relieve the other foot. So he made some joke about me being a flamingo or something. Now – when a person on eight different drugs laughs with a full bladder, there can be problems.

“Don’t make me laugh. I have to go to the bathroom,” I giggled. So he, in his charming way, said something else funny and I started doing just that.

“Noooo!” I yelled as my bladder gave way, sending pee soaking down my legs in hot rivers. I looked at him and he looked at me…and we both erupted in huge, tear-inducing, doubled-over laughter. I threw up my hands and gave into the amazing feeling of laughing with the love of my life as I totally wet myself, throwing us both into hysterics the whole time. When we caught our breaths, he cleaned up the puddle while I limped my way upstairs to shower. I don’t know if that will end up in one of my romance books, but it was the turning point where I knew that no matter what happened, I had my hero by my side for life.

Braden encouraging Heather to complete a mud run after 6 months off chemo

Braden encouraging Heather to complete a mud run after 6 months off chemo

So I had my villain, sneaky and with no regard for human life. I had my hero (he even wears a kilt occasionally). I had my slew of fabulous secondary characters (kids, my mom, my girlfriends taking me to chemo each week). Now I just had to become the heroine.

There aren’t too many cancer patients written as heroines in romance books, probably because we don’t fit the look of the beautiful, brave, undaunted heroine we all want to be. But beauty comes in all forms. Courage is fighting on the outside even when you’re screaming on the inside. My husband e-mailed me this quote from Winston Churchill, and it became my mantra. “If you’re going through Hell, KEEP GOING!” So I did.

I turned the tables on my villain and made my cancer work for good. I knitted hats for patients, offered smiles and hugs, wrote inspiring blog posts, and handed out thousands of symptom cards, spreading the warning through our grass roots campaign called SHOUT Against the Whisper. We hatsraise money for research at the annual Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk in Raleigh, NC (here’s the link if you’d like to contribute: SHOUT Against the Whisper Team.) P9140051

 

I am thrilled to say that I am currently in remission and hope to stay that way forever so my story can truly be a romance with a happy ending.

Inspiration for stories surround us every day. Maybe you’ll see it in your own life story. And please make certain to keep watch for villains in your life, not just in the shadows of dark streets but also inside our very mortal bodies.

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. It is the deadliest of the GYN cancers with 43% of women dying within 5 years of diagnosis.

By the Numbers

Here are some stats that, well, suck. But with continued funding, research, and warriors fighting for their own happy endings, we will change these numbers for the better. Part of that change is up to you, listening to the whispers in your own body. Early self-detection is your best defense against ovarian cancer since there are no good tests for it (yet). Read the symptoms, memorize the symptoms, and love yourself enough to go to the doctor if you have any of the symptoms every day for more than three weeks.

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Bloating in the abdominal region

Eating less and feeling fuller

Abdominal/pelvic pain

Trouble with your bladder (pressure, incontinence, frequency)

Other symptoms may include: fatigue, constipation, back pain, pain during intercourse, unexplained weight loss or gain, indigestion and menstrual irregularities. If you experience any of these symptoms everyday for more than three weeks, please see a GYN for a pelvic exam and possibly a trans-vaginal ultrasound and CA-125 blood test.

For more information about ovarian cancer, you can check out this site: National Ovarian Cancer Coalition 

And you can certainly contact me for support or a fuzzy hat (free to all cancer patients) at Heather@HeatherMcCollum.com. My blog entries, written during my treatment, can be found by clicking on the link on my web site here: OC on Heather’s Web Site

Thanks for reading. Thanks for helping us change those horrible numbers by listening to your own body. Have a fabulous, happy-ending kind of day! Heather

One Hell of a Journey

Happy 4th of April! Are you wondering if you’ve missed some obscure holiday? Don’t worry, there’s no need to remember this day unless it’s your birthday or like me, have some anniversary to acknowledge.

Heather & Kids 2010

Heather & Kids 2010

Three years ago today, April 4th 2011, I woke up in a hospital room from surgery to hear, “I’m sorry, but it’s ovarian cancer.” Link to OC Symptoms I call it my most horrific before-and-after moment. From that moment forward, every time I think about my past or see a photograph, my mind instantly files the memory in the “before cancer folder” or the “after cancer folder”. April 4th is the demarcation line.

Everything changed for me that day. I went from running my dog daily to barely being able to walk. I lost my hair, my GI health, my taste buds, my eyelashes, eyebrows, size 6, my long, white fingernails and my ability to write fiction. Life-saving poison (chemo) reached every part of my shocked body. Neuropathy numbness and then constant pain battled against my hope that I would one day again know what it was like to step out of bed without crying with the agony.

“Will I ever wake up again and not think ‘I have cancer’?” Will I ever be able to sing my kids to sleep without silently crying over the idea I might die and leave them motherless? Will I ever believe in happy endings again?

In chemo

In chemo

Surgery to remove all my internal girlie parts, 3 weeks to recover and get my port placed in my chest, 5 months of weekly kill-every-fast-growing-cell chemo, 10 months of kill-any-blood-vessels-forming clinical trial chemo, and 6 more months of detox before the pain ebbed. I gained forty pounds in 3 months with the steroids. I acquired the “moon face” and slight hunch in my back as if my body was collapsing in on itself under the pressure. Constant hot flashes from no estrogen and dizziness and insomnia from medication added to the on-going challenges. Are we having fun yet?

Baldy on the Beach

Baldy on the Beach

I feared that I would never again feel normal, think normal thoughts, have a normal day, and think about my kids all grown up without crying.

But then time moved forward. As did I. And here I am.

I’m here to tell you that I’ve come out the other side. Three years later I now wake up without thinking “I have cancer.” I talk with my 15yo about a prom she might go to in two years without tearing up. I plan my 7yo’s birthday party without wondering how many I will get to see. I nurse my 13yo without worrying that his cold could put me in the hospital. And, I once again believe in happy endings. Wow – what a difference three years can make.

My body has gone back to relative normalness although the scars remain. Marks that reach far deeper than the white scar tissue lines where my port and incisions had been. I have a 3-month exam today and will find out if I’m still in remission (coincidence that it’s on my anniversary? Yeah, weird). Ovarian cancer has a nasty tendency of coming back and killing swiftly so they will watch me carefully for a total of 10 years before they consider me cured. I have worried quietly all week. Even when I’m not thinking consciously about the results, my stomach feels tight and I’m slightly nauseous all the time (which is a symptom of ovarian cancer returning so that doesn’t help me feel better at all).

Heather 2014

Heather 2014

So although I look similar to what I looked like three years ago before April 4th, inside I am very different. I could easily let fear rule me completely. I could continue to cry over the thought of my kids growing up without me. I could spend each night begging God to keep me in this world. But is that living?

I’m writing the sequel right now to my first YA paranormal romance, SIREN’S SONG (which just came out 3/25 –Link to Siren’s Song). The heroine in the sequel deals with paranoia (rightly so considering what she’s been through, which I can’t tell you or I’d give away the first book). I’ve been using the screenwriter’s how-to book called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder (which I highly recommend) to help me with pacing, etc. To follow the advice in the screenwriter’s book, I had to write out the theme of my WIP. This took me awhile to put down in words even though I’d already written 200 pages of the novel. Finally it became clear as I reviewed my motivations, plot turns and my planned resolution.SIREN'S SONG front cover -200X300

The theme: You can’t fear death or you won’t really live.

Yikes! So much of what goes into a book comes from a writer’s subconscious thoughts, feelings and experiences. I wrote the first 200 pages without even truly realizing what I was trying to teach the heroine, what I am trying to teach myself. Now I do, and I made sure to go back in the WIP and state the theme plainly.

So yes, writing is my therapy : )

Look at my pictures in this post. From pre-cancer (2010), to during treatment (2011, 2012), to now (2014). In three short years I’ve changed six dress sizes. I’ve gone from thick wavy hair to straight thin hair. I’ve gone from worrying about my teeth being white enough to being happy they have finally stopped aching constantly (from the neurotoxin). I’ve gone from being “super-mom” to letting people help me and forming amazing friendships because of it. I’ve gone from worrying about my house being clean to leaving the dirty dishes to sit on the back porch and watch the birds.

Three years can change everything. Do not give up hope if you are on a journey after a horrific before and after moment. Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through HELL, keep going.” It is the only way to get to the other side. One step at a time moving forward.

I continue to move forward with my outside and my inside. The scars are deep, but with time, I am healing. Once again I believe in happy endings and my writing is helping me sift through my fears. I’m blessed, no matter what the outcome of today’s tests are.

at swing1 (585x640)

So April 4th, for me, is a day to honor what was, the journey I made, and the person I am slowly becoming again. And it’s a day when I remind myself of something very important. I can’t fear death or I won’t truly live.

Have you found any lessons in your books that you were trying to teach to your heroine and realized you were trying to teach it to yourself?

Have you been through life-changing journeys, taking steps forward, and coming out the other side?

Hugs to you all! Heather

Cross-Self Promoting Thoughtfully

What are your passions? Writing has been one of mine since my 2nd grade teacher published my Christmas story in the local paper. Eventually I became a mom and my priorities shifted to include my growing family. I became supermom, ready to turn frowns upside down with my arsenal of homemade puppy-dog-face cookies and castle cakes. Other interests crowded in, but for the most part, family and writing remained my top passions in life.

Castle Birthday Cake

Castle Birthday Cake

Two and a half years ago I was given a third. I woke up in a hospital room to the words “it’s cancer” and life thrust me onto the most brutal topsy-turvy rollercoaster ever imagined. Teal ribbons, weekly chemo infusions, pills, doctor’s appointments, mouth ulcers, CT scans, shedding of ALL hair, a mailbox filled with get well cards, casseroles, flowers left on my doorstep, pain, panic, “who will you play with in heaven, Mommy, if I’m not with you” became my life.

When I first saw the chemo ward at the hospital, and all the bald, tired people hooked up to beeping machines with bags of drugs snaking into their bodies through various tubes, I cried on my husband’s arm. “They look dead, and I’m going to be one of them.”

Hooking Up

Hooking Up

What I didn’t realize at the time, but discovered quickly, was that those people are warriors, battling with everything they’ve got. I was proud to get to know them and to become an Ovarian Cancer Warrior, fighting for my right to live and be a mom, daughter, friend, and wife, fighting a beast that stalks women silently.

OC is the deadliest of the GYN cancers as it is the hardest to detect. I was diagnosed because I happened to mention some pelvic pain and mild bloating to my general practitioner when I went in for a possible broken hand. So I was diagnosed at stage IIc with a 70% chance of living 5 years. If I’d waited a couple more weeks, it could have easily moved to stage III with only a 20% chance to survive 5 years. So early detection of these whispered symptoms is crucial to survival.

Suddenly I had a new passion. My husband and I started the SHOUT Against the Whisper campaign with a mission to educate women about the whispered symptoms of this terrible beast. So…I have three passions in my life: writing, my family (although I’ve retired my supermom cape), and OC Awareness/Cancer support.

Me & my Highland Hero

Me & my Highland Hero

One thing we can do, as passionate people, is to blend our passions together in a way to enhance each one. But doing so must be done thoughtfully.

My third book was about to release when I started chemo. Part of me wanted to scream “I have cancer; buy my book!” But the sane part of me knew that wasn’t appropriate (unless perhaps I was writing cancer books, which I plan to do BTW).

I swore to God, the universe, and to my friendly kale juicer that I would use all my talents to educate and help save women if they would keep me alive to do so. I am a public speaker and I write, and I plan to use my skills in any way I can to spread the warning, not just because I swore back in those grim days, but because I’m genuinely passionate about not letting cancer win.

So in the back of my books, I list the whispered symptoms. When I do book signings or workshops or interviews, I give out symptom cards and ask for articles to list them. This type of cross-promoting is very appropriate.

However, this doesn’t always work in the reverse. When on the chemo ward, if someone was reading a romance, I would tell them about my books, quietly and in conversation. I donated some to the ward. At my OC Awareness events I might give away books for collected donations to OC Research or Education, but it is a minor part of the big push of alerting women on how to save their lives. Every time I try to cross these two passions in my life, I must be thoughtful, because promoting my writing in the face of suffering can come across as crass and just plain wrong. Which can completely turn people off to your work, something that should be avoided, obviously, at all costs.

Some passions hit around the same level on the emotional/life importance barometer and can be intertwined easily. If you are passionate about wine and wine features in one of your books, touting your book to wine lovers, on Twitter or FB or in person, can be appropriate after you’ve set up a friendly relationship with them. You still must remain thoughtful so as not to come across as only being an advertisement, but the promo is less tricky than trying to sell romance books to someone who is fighting to stay alive.

Healthy Mom Again!

Healthy Mom Again!

I am now finished with 15 months of chemo and am getting my life back in order, though I will never be the same. I’ve learned too much, felt too much, to be the same. Actually I think I’m better for the experience. In some ways cancer has connected me to readers. One woman wrote to me after reading the acknowledgments at the end of CAPTURED HEART where I detail out the symptoms. She was an OC survivor herself and thanked me for putting the symptoms out there in the world. I think she will be a reader of mine for life now. Sometimes there is cross-promo between very different passions, even passions that fall on very different levels. But it is something that cannot be forced.

So when you take stock of your life and your own passions and interests, do think of ways to use them to help promote your writing, but please remember to do so thoughtfully. What ways have you been able to cross-promote your passions?

Since it is Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and because I think it is appropriate, below is a list of symptoms. They are mere whispers in a busy woman’s life, but you must slow down long enough to notice when something doesn’t seem right. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me at Heather@HeatherMcCollum.com or on my Ovarian Cancer Awareness FB page: https://www.facebook.com/SHOUTagainsttheWhisper or through my web site www.HeatherMcCollum.com .

Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer:

Bloating, Pelvic Pain, Feeling Full quickly while Eating Less, Urinary issues.BEATsymptoms

Other symptoms may include fatigue, constipation, pain during intercourse, menstrual issues, indigestion, and back pain. If you have a symptom for 3 weeks or more, see your GYN for a pelvic exam.

If something feels abnormal, a trans-vaginal ultrasound and a CA125 blood test should be ordered. If you have a mass to be removed, your #1 way to survive if it is cancer, is to have a GYN Oncology Surgeon remove it.

Reaching Your Goal

We are almost half way through November – National Novel Writing Month. Have you been writing frantically? Or has life dropped boulders all over the road, tripping you up and slowing you down?

Let’s talk about goals. I have writing goals, but they fall second on my list. My #1 goal is to get my life back. My old life was taken from me in April 2011 when the “you have cancer” bomb blew up in my face. Major surgery to remove all my girlie parts (that’s what they do with ovarian cancer), fifteen months of chemo, and lots of teal t-shirts later – I have beaten it.

Yes, victory is wonderful, but even with victory there is collateral damage. I gained 40 pounds from all the steroids I took to keep my body from freaking out while being poisoned by chemo. One of the chemo agents was a neurotoxin, so I have total body nerve damage and inflammation. I went from running with my dog everyday to hardly being able to walk. Each step hurts like someone has beaten my feet with a baseball bat. Some nights I wake several times because the pain, from regenerating nerves, aches so badly in my teeth, legs and shoulders that I can’t sleep.

Make sure your goals are really important. My #1 goal is to reclaim my healthy body. It is something I don’t just want to do, I must do it. I can’t be the mom I was to my three young kids without it or the woman my husband fell in love with. I can’t be a helpful daughter or a drop-everything-when-you-need-me friend. And I totally suck at dealing with constant pain. So I must reach my goal.

Each morning I wake knowing there will be pain. So I’m prepared. I keep special slippers by my bed so I can step right into them. I still end up wobbling to the bathroom like I’m walking on hot coals, but they help. I lay my work out clothes out the night before so I just put them on. If I had to walk back across my room to find them, I might not do it. I get ready before the kids get up so I have some time alone while I work the worst out of my shoulders and legs.

 I have a routine. Yoga. I both love and hate yoga. It hurts – enough said. But when I get through the slow stretching movements, amazingly I feel better.

 I have a back-up plan. Once the kids are off to school, I walk the dog unless my feet hurt too much and then I ride a stationary bike. When you have a back-up plan it is easier to stay on track.

 Accountability. Twice a week, on set days, my friend helps me work out with weights to build up my muscles and strength. Having a partner, who knows your goal and is willing to help you reach it, is golden. We are also friends on a calorie/food tracking free app (My Fitness Pal) so we can e-mail each other encouragement.

 I learn and read to stay on track. There are tons of people out there who know more than I do about maintaining an über healthy lifestyle. So I read what they have to say, and I try some of it. Yes, I’m a juicer. I juice kale and fruit almost every day (and I drink it : ). I’ve brought toxin neutralizing plants in the house and managed to keep them alive. I avoid nitrates, tephlon, and pesticides like they could kill me (because they could!). I do everything I can NOT to invite cancer back into my cancer-prone body.

I do even when I don’t feel like it. That would be the discipline part. I don’t feel like getting out of bed every single day because it hurts every single day. I don’t feel like starting the yoga DVD and I don’t feel like juicing the whole veggie aisle at Whole Foods all the time. But I do anyway. When you have a goal that you really, truly want to reach, you must follow your plan even when you don’t want to. You put on your big girl panties and just do it.

I reward baby steps. I’ve lost twenty of the forty pounds I gained and my strength has improved. That there is reward in itself! My pain is still here – damn blasted nerves! But at least I’ve taken twenty pounds off my poor feet.

I also take time out of my busy day to enjoy life. If I do my routines and eat well, I reward myself with a hot bath or some dark chocolate (which is also healthy for you BTW). Today I took the dog and kids to walk under the autumn foliage at a park. I LOVE doing that but never have the time. So today, I stole the time. Yes, I got less writing done, but that comes second on my goal list.

 

1. Okay, what are your goals? Write them down or know them by heart. Make sure it is something you REALLY want to accomplish.
2. What is your plan for reaching your goal? Be prepared, have a routine, learn how others have reached the same goal.
3. How can you measure your progress? Is it pounds, inches, words written, bulbs planted, grades?
4. Do you have a back-up plan and a partner to help you maintain discipline?
5. How will you celebrate as you reach each wrung on your ladder to success? Don’t forget this part or you won’t last to the end. Every good manager knows, if you want people to push the limit and reach a goal, you’ve got to pat them on the back on the way there. Praise and celebration is good for the soul and the goal : )

Reaching a goal requires determination and discipline. Beating and recovering from cancer teaches you both, although I truly can’t recommend it. A less painful way to learn to reach your goal is to follow the above steps. Just put one foot in front of the other and climb, and I will definitely see you at the summit! I’ll bring the celebratory chocolate (and kale juice)! Hugs! Heather

The Latest Comments

  • Tina Joyce Beckett: Rhymes, we sure have them. Not to mention those haikus. A talented crew. (Ha…I’m...
  • Elisa Beatty: This is just amazing….and even your pile of dirty dishes looks way more aesthetically appealing...
  • Elisa Beatty: Congrats, Rita, and WOW WOW WOW….what a gorgeous cover!!!! I salute you for taking this big leap,...
  • Louisa Cornell: SO printing this out! Absolutely brilliant. Love goofy villains. (To the tune of Jingle Bells)...
  • Bev Pettersen: Brilliant, Hope! Thanks for the grin.

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