Each month this year in our Monthly Message email, we’re sharing a writing prompt with our readers. This month’s prompt had to do with “bucket lists.” We select a few entries to appear here on our blog, and each month we will also draw a random entry to win a $20 Amazon gift card! If you don’t receive our Monthly Message program news email and you’d like to sign up for it, visit our website hereforthegirls.org and scroll to the bottom. Below is one entry we selected from this month. Note: Veronica's post originally appeared in her blog, "Solar Gypsy," and is shared here with her permission.
Not long after I finished surgery, chemo, surgery, radiation, surgery, surgery, post-op infection with emergency surgery, surgery, and final surgery... I was faced with the dreaded “new normal.”
If you are someone who has:
- earned your unofficial medical degree in preparation for doctor’s appointments,
- saved up for new flooring in your old house, only to find yourself spending all the funds on co-pays for prescription medications that cost more than a used car, but don’t really take away all your symptoms,
- learned to recognize a stranger in the mirror who keeps changing, or,
- all of the above,
then you probably know that rushing river called the “New Normal” flows throughout everything during all the cancer activities, but gets especially choppy after active treatment ends.
The river New Normal swirls with a mix of fluffy white water that’s fun and comes in the form of relief that the grueling torture (read treatments) are over or that you now have energy for a short vacation, but around the bend, that same fun white water changes quickly and nefariously traps you under the rocks of anxiety when a symptom shows up and you don’t know if it’s a headache because work is driving you crazy or brain mets. Sometimes the river of New Normal is calm and pleasant as you drift along just happy to have hair again and then other times there’s some storm, like laboratory tests, that causes the waters to change when the results are unexpected or slightly abnormal becoming big tree limbs in the water that you have to carefully steer around them as they could be dangerous.
For me, navigating that New Normal river required finding a sweet spot in the boat that’s my life. I had to discover that delicate balance needed to navigate the ever elusive “living for today, while still planning for tomorrow.” After active treatment and surgeries ended I was unsettled and, like many of my cancer friends, I came in and out of a few philosophies to inspire resiliency while picking my way through the rocks, rapids, and eddies of the river of New Normal. One thing that came into focus for me was the idea of a Bucket List.
People regularly talk about bucket lists and fantasize about trips or purchases and those sorts of things, but when it comes down to it, many people don’t really act on those ideas. In my opinion, people usually don’t act because of two main reasons: (1) deep down people are scared of change/the unknown and/or trying daring things, and (2) they always think there will be more time. However, if you are like me, and you have really studied to understand those SEER survival statistics and made life decisions based on those at an oncologist’s office, signed a 20+ page release about all the bad things that might happen in the future as a result of the treatments intended to cure you today (hello heart failure and leukemia as not-so-rare side effects), and your on-line support group friends start dying, you really start to re-evaluate the things that truly scare you and the idea that there will always be more time.
While that overall thought process was beginning to dig its way into my brain, like most every young adult facing a serious health condition, I was just trying to keep a normal life together. I never really wrote down my bucket list before cancer because, let’s face it, I was just working, raising my son, getting groceries, going to soccer games, etc. Having had a child when I was only 20, I also felt that I was a long way off from getting the freedom from day-to-day life to even really daydream about what would go on my bucket list. Was it an interrupted afternoon nap or an epic trip? I think that most of the time one’s current life sort of dictates the dreams one believes are even remotely possible. I mean, if I was only dreaming of a house that stays clean for more than a few hours, then I couldn’t even begin to fathom setting up a loftier goal like trekking in Nepal to Everest Base Camp (yes, that made it to my Bucket List & got checked off!).
However, it was during this period of coming to grips with the fact that I might not really have plenty of time left, but I also still had to keep my normal life in tact that I decided: 1) I really did need to figure out what I really did want and literally write down some bucket list items, and 2) my bucket list didn’t have to be stable, it was fluid and I was allowed to change my mind to remove things that no longer drew me in or add things that were newly discovered passions or ideas.
So I decided to make my Bucket List in PENCIL. To me that felt like a compromise and a way to be able to erase things that might prove too difficult if my health failed and they wouldn’t mock or hurt me. Now, 11+ years post diagnosis, I’ve checked off about half of those original items. I’ve removed some entries over the years that no longer interest me and I’m always adding things that spark my interest.
Meeting and marrying my current husband is one of the best things I’ve checked off my Bucket List although it wasn’t exactly worded that way on the list. Moreover, he’s helped me check off a bunch of things on the list too so he’s had a multiplier effect. A few years ago, I made one of the biggest additions to my list after several daydream-type talks with my husband: to take off work for a year or so after he retires from the Navy to travel the US and Canada in an RV. This item on my Bucket List started as a tiny seed about what it would be like to travel uninterrupted for a while, finally considering that one day I might make it to a real retirement age. That seed flourished into a real item on the list and plan with my husband that we would travel the US and Canada in an RV. But that nagging river of New Normal coupled with my age and BRCA1+ mutation had me thinking: could we really wait until we were in our 60s? We pondered the pros and cons of all sorts of ways to accomplish this item on my Bucket List. My experience with cancer, helped us land on the decision that we really couldn’t wait for many reasons, but mainly because good health and physical strength was necessary to pursue the work involved and assure the activities we would want to do along the way.
Today, we are now less than 160 days away from departing on this epic Bucket List adventure that has spawned its own sub-bucket list of places to go and things to see and do. That sub-bucket list isn’t written in pencil in my old purple journal, it’s a spreadsheet with links and dates and ideas but still maintains the spirit of being flexible as if it was in pencil.
If you are reading this as a newly diagnosed person or as someone trying to navigate that swirling river of post-cancer life, I hope this gives you some insight into how I approached a Bucket List and you can take time to figure out what works for you and know that your Bucket List can be as rigid or as flexible as you desire. You list crazy adventures like caving (yup, did that too!) or really achievable regular life things that others my take for granted (like seeing my son graduate from high school – yes that was a big item to check off!).