Saturday, March 17, 2018

No-Body is perfect!

I was at a LulaRoe party recently, trying on fun skirts and dresses. In LulaRoe, nearly all the patterns are unique, so if you love a pattern but it isn’t your size, most of the time you are out of luck. One of the prettiest skirts was a small size, but fit me alright. One of the girls who admired the item but couldn’t fit into it said “you just have the perfect body!” While I was flattered and accepted the compliment, I also couldn’t help but feel she was comparing her own body to mine. I didn’t tell her in that moment that I’ve had a mastectomy, multiple reconstruction/implant surgeries, that I can’t feel either breast, that one of them will always be misshapen and scarred, or that my spunky haircut is essentially a product of a drug that made me lose all my hair. While I’ve come to terms with all this personally, I wouldn’t wish it upon this honestly beautiful girl who said she wanted to lose a few pounds.

A friend of mine who excels in sports and seems constantly admired by men recently shared with me that she is in continuous pain because of the way her bones are formed. Another friend who runs, bikes, and hikes faster and better than me, and who builds and creates beautiful things with her hands, had to have a hysterectomy. One friend and her husband, who are practically model status, are so far unable to have children. A friend that is light-years better at the piano than me (not hard to do) and is always going about doing good is allergic to nearly everything.

Nobody’s body is perfect! When we compare, we not only miss our unique design, but we miss out on learning from those around us because in the end, it is our “imperfections” that force us to find our strength, that stretch us past our limits, that make us who we are.

I am not enough

Often I find myself overwhelmed with my duties as a teacher, my church responsibilities, trying to date and be a good person etc., and I tend to be pretty hard on myself.  Often I find myself trying to meet the demands of perceived high expectations of people around me, and it's tough to keep my center.  To encourage myself, for a while I had a line on my mirror that I've seen floating around that I tried to believe: I am enough.  I tried telling this to myself, but somehow sensed there is a lie in it.  I cannot be all things to all people, and frankly, I'm not kind enough, I don't have enough energy (physical or mental) to meet the needs of the people around me, I don't have enough time to complete everything I think I 'should' do.  I'm not always (or even often) the inspiring teacher I want to be. This phrase never satisfied me.

The past couple weeks have been a bit challenging: my enrollment for orchestra is down, and I've had to work to keep up my morale despite the fact that I will have 1/3 less orchestra students and 1/3 less contract at one school.

I find it comforting that the scriptures do not teach us we are enough.  In fact, they tell us God intentionally gives us weakness! It's a relief to know that while it's true I am not enough, I am supposed to be this way.  Instead, we are taught to rely on the Lord.

"...the Lord spake unto me saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; ...I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." -Ether 12:26-27

"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is His grace sufficient for you, that by His grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God." Moroni 10:32

"Our divine nature has nothing to do with our personal accomplishments, the status we achieve, the number of marathons we run, or our popularity and self-esteem.  Our divine nature comes from God. It was established in an existence that preceded our birth and will continue on into eternity" "Discovering the Divinity Within," Rosemary M. Wixom, Oct 2015

WE are not enough, HE is enough! And the more I learn about Him, the more I see that He works by touching one life at a time, one instance at a time. We are not expected to do great miracles, just to have faith that if we trust God, He will make great miracles out of our small and simple efforts. 

"And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls." Alma 37:7

Gratefully, we have a God who is more than enough :).  If we just keep doing the small things the Lord will make our efforts into more than we can even imagine! Love you! 

Sunday, October 2, 2016


So one day in the doctor's office my oncologist hesitantly asked me if I might be interested in being on a commercial for the cancer center. First of all I was incredibly flattered that he thought of me at all!  On the other hand, I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. 

Emotionally, I find myself fighting against being known as a "cancer kid." And I always get a weird feeling when I hear or see advertisements related to breast cancer, probably because it forces me to recognize how necessary cancer centers are and how many people are struggling through it. And you may have noticed "pinktober" is upon us (October is breast cancer awareness month). I'm grateful that it makes us mindful of the need to do our checks (it saves lives!). But it makes me uncomfortable when some companies wrongfully make money off other people's disease (like the companies that sell pink shirts and keychains because they know people will buy it, but don't have any intention of donating to the cause). In the end I decided that supporting the companies I know are really helping and blessing people's lives is worth my time and effort. Besides the fact that I would do just about anything for this doctor, I have had an remarkably positive experience with my all my doctors and would recommend them to anybody!  Due to that and my own vanity, I agreed and was later contacted by the marketing people.

Yesterday was the shoot, and I learned that filming a commercial is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. But I had a great time getting to know the other women! They brought in six breast cancer survivors, and one of them is a friend from my online support group! It was so fun to reconnect and nice to know someone so I didn't feel SO awkward. 

I came to the realization that my wardrobe may need an overhaul.... I thought I was pretty decent at dressing professionally until I had to choose something to wear for the shoot. All I could find in my closet was 8 different colors of my favorite $3 Wal-mart t-shirt! (it really is a great t-shirt). I promise I have a grown up job. Our make-up artist Giselle helped us all look glamorous. It was so nice I've decided to hire someone full-time to follow me around to powder my face every time it gets shiny!

I didn't find out until the day before that our doctors got to be there too! I was SO excited to see them because they're some of the most amazing people I know.  It was kind of weird to see them outside the office! I don't know if I'd ever seen my surgeon out of her coat and all fancied up.  One of us commented that it would be odd to share a changing room with the lady docs and another remarked "well they've already seen it all anyway!" Haha too true. Too true. I laughed as the doctors were the ones getting told what to do for once, and as they jibed each other incessantly. 

So here I am fan-girling out trying to catch my two doctors behind me (and I just realized the shadow on my face makes me look appropriately creepy). These are the people that told me I would be okay,  treated me like a daughter, and saved my life. Then to my surprise my doctor had us to turn around to take a picture of us! In my head I'm thinking "my doc is totally fan-girling over us!"

So this is probably thinking too deep, but I decided this is exactly how I want heaven to look! You know, the all-white thing was nice. But I mean surrounded with people that we survived the journey with and all the people that helped us make it through. I can't tell you the joy I experienced with them yesterday.

If "pinktober" is hitting you in the feels and you want to donate to a place where you know your money is going to real people who need it, the Provision Project started by my friend Jan James (a survivor herself and founder of my support group) is an organization I trust and respect. Even $5 helps and goes to women currently battling breast cancer that are unable to stay on top of medical bills.

Or share your support by hugging a cancer kid, and remind them that their life was once never about cancer, and that in a future day they will remembered by something besides just surviving it!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Home Again

For the first time in many years, nobody in my family is on a mission, pregnant, engaged, or with a new baby.  And there was this magic one week in July that nobody was in school and everybody managed to get off work and find babysitters so we could take a family trip to Hawaii!

When I tell people we went to Hawaii I feel like we're one of those families that just gets to do that all the time haha. This is the first and only time we have ever been anywhere exotic as a family but it was amazing! I tell people that we went to celebrate the death of 2015, because it was the most hellish year for all of us.  Not only was it a dream trip with my siblings, but it was a really healing trip for me.

For the past year and a half my body has been through a lot! It has been constant battering from the chemo, radiation, and several surgeries.  I have been on restrictions from swimming and lifting and a lot of other things.  Don't get me wrong--I still worked as much as possible and sometimes my doctors laughed at me for trying to do too much! On the other hand, I have had to be careful for so long that I think I forgot how to be my lighthearted, adventurous self. Using all my energy for my job, I didn't have any left to be social. I moved into a new ward in the middle of all of it and I didn't tell very many people my story. It isn't that I didn't want people to know about my cancer, I just was tired of being the 'cancer kid' and I was tired of talking about it.  I wanted people to know me as me instead of the girl with cancer.  But because I wasn't being open I had a hard time connecting with people!

So fast forward to our Hawaii trip. My doctor told me that by the time I left for the trip I wouldn't have any restrictions left!

Our very first day I put my new swimsuit on my new body and I have to admit I was pretty uncomfortable at first.  We found some pretty cool tide pools that you could jump into from a pretty short rock.  I really hesitated! It had been so long since I could play in water and jump from things!  But I finally jumped in and thus began a part of my healing that I didn't know I needed.

Throughout the week we played hard and had lots of new adventures! I played in waves way over my head and got tumbled like a rag doll in a washing machine. I hiked through a bamboo forest, swung from a rope into the river, jumped off cliffs, and floated in salty sea water.  Snorkeling was a scary new experience--I just could not get used to breathing with my face underwater! But eventually I calmed down enough to do it and I got to swim with big sea turtles!

Kudos to my brother-in-law for the awesome underwater photos!

I realized that pushing myself past my comfort zone and experiencing Hawaii's beauty with my family helped me come back to myself. And now that I'm finally through all the treatments and surgeries, suddenly I have more energy than I remember having in a long time!  All this time that I have been holding back from physical exertion, I didn't realize how much I was holding back from social interaction as well.  Suddenly, I don't care what people think of me, I don't have any special weird restrictions, and I'm ready to dive in.  Hopefully I'm more graceful than my water dives!

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Today I painted my toenails for the first time since starting chemo! Chemotherapy affects fast growing cells (like nails), and I guess nail polish is toxic. so they recommend you stay away from the combination. And no pedicures or manicures (and no more happiness!) to avoid the risk of infection. Chemo usually causes ridges in the nails and sometimes nails even fall off! I think my "chemo nails" have finally grown out so I'm celebrating today :) (you didn't know you cared about my toenails now did you??)

And in case you were wondering, my hair is coming back with a wave! (It's not curly, so don't get too excited). My students think I'm coolest when I wear it faux-hawk style though.

I've started keeping a 5 year one-line-a-day journal, and it's been really interesting as I write each day to reflect on where I was a year ago. 2015 was no cakewalk! But painting my nails isn't the only thing my family has been celebrating this week.

One year ago my sweet baby nephew Kell Stirling Parson was born. He only lived a few months, but we'll always remember and treasure the small amount of time we had with him. My sister and her family wrote him little notes on balloons and sent them off to heaven. His little life has really touched me and our family.

We're celebrating my grandparents' recovery from their near-death car accident from the night of Kell's birth. They miraculously survived (and they miraculously managed to survive their hospital experience that followed...). They spent months healing in the hospital, an assisted living center, and finally made the transition back to their home in June. Among other things, they have relearned how to walk and eat normally and to live independently. We are so happy they have healed so well and are still with us. We love you Grandpa and Grandma!! 

It has also been a year since our favorite family cat Henry died. Many of our family members have since got new sweet little balls of fluff. I think it was hard for a lot of us at first to love a new kitty, but important.

Mom and Dad's fluffball Gladys and her favorite toy

A year ago I met some absolutely incredible doctors!! They saved my life and made my experience with cancer hopeful and bearable. I am so grateful for their expertise, optimism, and sacrifice. It has always been obvious that they really care about me and are willing to do whatever is necessary to help me.

I haven't got myself a kitty yet, but last week Dr. Polowy wrote me a prescription for one (#bestdoctorever). He's determined to help me convince my roommates that I need one, but unfortunately I think I'm just going to have to wait for now. 

People often ask me how I'm doing. Thank you!! I'm honestly doing great! And feeling great! I feel energetic and normal, although if I'm forgetful or clumsy you may hear me claim chemo-brain (I'm told I can use that excuse for the rest of my life!). I only have a couple rounds of herceptin left and will hopefully soon begin reconstructive surgery, although we haven't scheduled a date yet.

I'm so grateful to be on this end of last year's challenges, although I wouldn't trade them. My prayers and heart goes out to my friends that are still battling with old and new challenges, many of them related to cancer. What a nasty!! Somehow if we keep trusting in the Lord it's all going to be okay someday. For now we just keep on keepin' on. Sending love your way! 


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Is there life after cancer?

Is there life after cancer? I'm just not sure yet.

I don't mean that life can't go on or that it can't be wonderful and happy and full. Oh it does and is!

It just doesn't seem like anyone can tell me when after cancer is.

Most people ask me "So are you finished with all your treatments?" or "So are you in remission?" Essentially, "Is the cancer gone?"

These questions aren't as easy to answer as I expected! I apologize for when I just say "sure!" to make you feel better when really I mean "its a bit more complicated than that."  Let me update you on exactly what I mean.

I had my 6th and final chemotherapy treatment in Rexburg in July. I didn't have a party or even balloons or anything; I was just happy to be done!  My sister was visiting so we did a fun little bald photoshoot. We had to take advantage of the opportunity--when am I going to be bald again?? (Oh I'm praying that was a once in a lifetime!).  

As soon as I returned to Mesa I started radiation therapy. It was a 10 minute appointment 5 days/week for 6 weeks.  They put you on a table in a big room and line you up exactly with laser beams on all sides of you. Then they leave you all alone while the machine whirs around you zapping you with radiation waves in exactly the spots where the cancer was. It doesn't take long, but the loud sounds made me uncomfortable.  I just took my favorite songs in my brain and that helped a lot! I was extremely blessed that my skin did amazingly well, and a friend gave me a cream that helped me heal.  Many people have blistering and burning and itching.  All the doctors and nurses told me how 'lucky' I was :).  

So YES! I am finished with chemo and radiation!  However, I still go in to my oncologist every three weeks for a drug called herceptin.  It's an injection that is supposed to keep cancer from growing, but thankfully doesn't have a whole lot of other side effects. I'll finish that in April :).  My doctor also wants me to start an oral drug called tamoxifen that most people are on for 5-10 years. I also have a multiple reconstructive surgeries in the next year. So.... doctors. For like the rest of my life. But that's why I chose doctors that I really like!!

One of the doctors I really love and her equally amazing PA

The next question: Am I in remission? That term is a bit confusing to me (see the link for further explanation). What I do know is that in April they did a PET scan and found no sign of cancer in my body!  Hooray! (*exhale now*) Everyone was so relieved! On the other hand, apparently there is a chance that little undetectable cancer floaties could be wandering around my body.  And who knows if the cancer is environmental and could start up the same way it did before! Every treatment is meant to decrease my chances of recurrance, and I have frequent scans and tests for probably forever to make sure I'm clean and clear. 

I'm sorry if this isn't making you feel better.  

But you asked! Okay, well a lot of you did.  Its just a lot of realities that are just part of my life now, and that's okay! I am blessed on so many levels: some people with cancer will be on chemotherapy for the rest of their lives, or are untreatable altogether. Some amazing women I know are fighting off their 2nd or 3rd round of breast cancer! Most people in general have a much more difficult time with the treatments than I had, physically AND emotionally.  And this is just talking about cancer! Some brave people I know struggle with illnesses that have yet to be diagnosed or that have no treatments or cure.  And even more difficult, many are dealing with emotional trials seemingly all alone. No offense, but whoever is reading this, honestly I will take my trial over yours. And I will pray for you in return!

As you talk to people you know with cancer, please understand and be sensitive that the battle may never truly be over for many.  Honest and open questions are always welcomed and appreciated.  But also know that cancer is not all we think about! In fact I love talking about the other things in my wonderful life!  Cancer sometimes takes up a lot of time, but it is NOT my life, and it is NOT me.  I am loving the ups and downs of being a third year orchestra teacher, awkwardly trying to stay in the dating game, being involved in my church, performing with EVMCO, meeting new people and keeping up with friends and family. This month has opened my eyes more fully to how richly blessed I and my family have been this year as the Lord has guided us through our challenges. I can honestly say Life is Good.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Everyone Loves a Cancer Patient

One more round of chemo to go today! Whhoot!

So I've come across this fascinating phenomenon, that everyone I tell I have cancer instantly loves me. At first it was kind of a joke, but really! And I have a petri dish of high maintenance 7th and 8th graders to prove it. Some students that I know didn't like me were suddenly angels in the classroom. In fact all of my students became instant angels and some of my closest associations (okay so I had some natural angels anyway...but those of you that know my clientele know most of them do not exactly act that part all the time!!). I expected dating to get awkward as well--that's a pretty heavy can of worms to open on a first date! But somehow I have found it easier to connect with people.

Exhibit A: I ended up visiting a strange ward where I didn't know many people. I overheard a conversation where the guy sitting next to me was invited to play his cello in the service the next Sunday. So of course I piped in (quietly. this is church right?) that I play the cello too! The conversation went something like this:

Me: You play the cello? thats cool I do too!
Guy: You do? We should duet!
Me: That'd be cool. But . . . I can't this weekend
Guy: Why not?
Me: Well...I'm going to be sick this weekend
Guy: Liar.
Me: No really! I'm going to be sick!!
Guy: You're just saying that to get out of it.
Me: No I love playing! But I'm going to be sick.
Guy: How do you know?
Me: Well... (finally I give in) I have cancer. I have chemo this week so I'm going to be sick.
Guy: Oh!
After the meeting
Guy:  I think you're really interesting. Do you want to go out sometime?

I laughed really hard inside! Haha glad cancer can make me more interesting. So what is it (besides just being my naturally irresistable self =S) that suddenly makes people interested? What's the magic that turns snottily-behaving kids into angels? I don't feel that different.

First, I think people feel a little bad for me. They recognize I'm going through something and I'm telling you cancer patients can get away with next-to-murder if they want to.  And they can get OUT of anything. I think I'm naturally introverted and I told my mom I want an "I can't, I have cancer" t-shirt.  I joked about my special ability to get what I want with my students, but got in trouble one day in a different conversation with them. I was explaining a complicated situation when a student piped up: "Ms. Barnes can't you just play your cancer card??" Oops! Not something I meant to teach them! I have to be careful to not use it as an excuse. Fortunately, most of the time I feel well enough that I just feel like a normal person. The bald thing is a little weird, but I just feel like myself, so its odd that people treat me so differently (not that I'm complaining! :D).

But isn't everyone going through something? I can tell you of mental or emotional pain that is much higher on my trial scale than my cancer. The thing is, most of you can. But often, we forget to pray for our friends going through depression or anxiety or other heavy trials. And if its us, we try to go on doing all the things we think we "should" be able to do, putting on a happy face. We expect SO much out of ourselves and the people around us, but the truth is nearly everyone is going through something difficult! Either because of poor personal choices (lets face it. We are all just imperfect people), or because this life just stinks sometimes. Its hard! And while I don't think we ought to use our trials for excuses, I submit we need to cut some slack sometimes and just LOVE ourselves and each other a little more. We're all champions in this world.

 Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, talks about the importance of vulnerability
 Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly,
talks about the importance of vulnerability

My second idea about why it's easy to love a cancer patient has to do with vulnerability. I recently started to read a book called Daring Greatly. The author asserts that vulnerability is the key to meaningful connections, and without it we struggle with happiness because connecting with other humans is why we are here.  It is not easy to get close to someone who appears perfect, perhaps because we find it difficult to relate and end up using them more like a measuring stick than a friend. Cancer makes you instantly vulnerable. I have to share private details about my life because it affects so much of it right now (and tbh with something like breast cancer the conversation can instantly get awkward with perfect strangers). I've had to be more open people than I've ever been in my life. Maybe I'm the only one that is surprised that it has been easier to make friends and have meaningful conversations. I'm really hoping to translate this into my normal life once the cancer-crap is over. I don't think we need to share our deepest struggles with everyone we see on the street, but having the courage to admit our imperfections or to share details of our lives is how we connect and exchange love. And it does take courage.

My mission trainer always told me to embrace the awkward. #vulnerable

So while we're here, I thought I'd let you in on the secrets as to why this trial hasn't been the hardest of my life, and what helps me not be overwhelmed by it.

The first thing is the incredible power of prayer. I have more people praying for me than ever in my life! Students and parents of students and friends and family and friends of all those people.  Many have been kind enough to put my name on temple prayer rolls, where people pray daily for me and others going through difficult times. I have never felt so lifted and supported in any trial by people here and by heaven. Truly my burden has been made light.

Next, through reasons difficult to express, I know I'm not going to die.  I guess if I was I think I could learn to deal with it, but as it is I know I have plenty to accomplish and learn before I leave this place.  That makes cancer more like a speed bump in my life-a time to slow down and simplify a little. And while I am definitely learning a lot, cancer is not going to define my life. Sorry if you're disappointed when I don't wear pink every day for the rest of my life or get a "breast cancer survivor" license plate cover.  I hope instead to cherish the friendships and lessons I've learned and to move forward with them.

 Finally, I recognize that my body is obviously an important part of me, but it is not me. In the LDS faith, we are taught that our spirits lived long before we were born, we came to earth to get a body and gain experience, and after we die our spirits will live on.  Our spirits had a lot of knowledge before, and we'll retain all the knowledge we gain here on earth when we leave it.  Therefore, my spirit is my true self, and my body is a vehicle for instruction and experience.  It makes it easier for me to deal with the scars and baldness and some crazy side effects of chemo.  Because my body is not who I am, the outward changes aren't able to shake my identity. It becomes more of an adventure if anything, learning about how amazing and resilient our bodies are. I know I'm still the same daughter of God inside.  And gratefully when we've all passed humanity's tests, God will make our bodies whole and perfect in the resurrection.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt