Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cowgirls vs. Cancer

My final day at the ranch, just before the early June snow began.
Francine G. Photography, Breast Casting
“Cowgirl is an attitude, really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands. They speak up. They defend the things they hold dear.”
Dale Evans Rogers, Los Angeles, 1992

Going into the Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreat I read this quote over and over and kept saying to myself “you’re a city girl, born and bred”….but deep down I knew I had it in me…I knew I had faced life head on and shown my own special brand of courage.  For me, getting diagnosed with breast cancer and being told I had to have a double mastectomy was simply the final check on a list of very bad luck. 

My first daughter was born blind, my second daughter was born asleep, we were blessed with another daughter on our third try, but our fourth daughter also died before being born.  When I was pregnant with my last child I prayed each day for a living, breathing baby…I was heard, she was born perfect, healthy and beautiful. However, I immediately started to hemorrhage internally and it went undiagnosed until I had almost died, over 20 units of blood products were used to save my life, but it was too late to save my uterus.  My baby went home two weeks before I did and even though there was pure joy in this perfect new life, there was also a lot of recovery, both physical and emotional.
Needless to say when I was diagnosed with cancer seven months later I was completely broadsided.

My first day at the ranch, I felt like I belonged in the Athleta
catalog, given my outfit and beautiful scenery.
All through my surgeries and treatment I was literally on autopilot.  I never once let myself feel anything emotional connected to my cancer or my breasts, I barely had the energy and emotion to give love to my husband and children….most of my heart was simply broken.  I felt like the physical pain and mental anguish in my life would never end, all I had experienced for 8 years was loss after loss.  

One of the hardest things for me was that I lived far away from my close friends and family. We live in a small town and I had to travel 1 ½ hours each way for all of my treatment; I felt isolated and alone.  There were no young breast cancer survivors near us and it was hard to be around women my age listening to them talk about their seemingly perfect lives.   What could I add to the conversation?  Nipple reconstruction options or perhaps the benefits of pr/er + cancer over the triple negative kind.  I think they were more interested in paint colors than 50 hours of labor for a stillbirth and I completely understood, but it left me adrift.

As I healed I began to run, I started with slow short distances and morphed into a powerful distance runner, the problem was I was mimicking a horse, when presented with the flight or fight response I was fleeing, as fast as I could.  Running was my escape from reality but when I would stop I was unable to deal with all of the horrible events up to and including my cancer.  Eventually I learned to completely disassociate myself from all that had happened in an effort to simply survive each day and take care of my family.  This put me distinctly into the category of “surviving” rather than “thriving”.

The deer participated in our morning meditation.
Enter Montana, Cowgirls vs. Cancer and Margaret Burns Vap.  My sister nominated me for this award and she started my healing process with her essay, reading how highly she thought of me and my indomitable spirit gave me hope.  A hope I had not felt in a very long time.  Margaret and her mighty crew put together a weekend with a lot of love and thoughtfulness.  From the moment our first group yoga session began until the moment I tearfully left the Double T River Ranch I felt support, comfort and kinship. 

This was the first quiet and reflective time I had experienced since my diagnosis.  It was amazing to be able to connect with women who had heard the same words I had, “you have breast cancer”. 

Janice, what can I say?  She is perhaps
one of the kindest people I will know.
While on our retreat we were pampered beyond measure, as a stay at home mom of three and part time fitness instructor I was not prepared for organic gourmet meals each day by Chef Kate.  Taking care of children is an amazing job but it has no pause button.  THIS was my pause button.  It let me honor my body, honor how it changed…in some ways much weaker, in others stronger.  Even the deer cooperated.  As we came out of morning meditation they quietly crossed the river reminding us of the majestic beauty that is Montana.

 Janice and Ron gently and kindly taught us to ride our horses, Ron was even kind enough to turn a blind eye if you gave his horse a kiss and a hug.  While riding I was reminded that if I wanted to succeed in riding or in life I had to be the one in control, each move I made the horse naturally responded to.  Learning to make the right move/choice can be hard, but it is always successful.  Janice, with her beautiful face and kind smile reminded to me to stay calm (the running joke was my “unusual” energy level, read:spastic).  Ron and I had long talks and his wisdom and understatement will forever take me back to Montana when I need to find my calm in the storm.

Ron IS the calm in the storm.  Quietly hilarious and
infinitely perceptive, my friend.
My story would be lacking in so many areas if I did not mention Jessica, Addie and Vi.  Jessica taught us to meditate, to find comfort and peace with a still mind…this has never been achieved in my life.  Addie donated the use of the ranch and brought a smile to my face each time she walked into the room…a true ginger and even a birthday double.  Vi helped to release us from tension with massages designed with the breast cancer survivor in mind.  Each detail so tailored to our specific needs from beginning to end, God Bless Margaret.

Margaret Burns Vap, the beautiful face behind the concept.
Horses, yoga, and breast cancer.
Simply Genius!
Margaret and her team are selfless and generous, the type you may only experience once in a lifetime.  The love and compassion they brought to the retreat was genuine.  Each time they give of their time and their hearts to us, the survivors, they risk forming a relationship with someone who has a higher than average risk of dying.  They give us unconditional love, support and opportunities for growth and healing, before, during and after the retreat.  Margaret’s knowledge of yoga and gentle approach to teaching it were perfect for the novice to advanced yogini, her investment in our entire experience takes benevolence to new heights.

Now as I continue my journey I am not alone.  I have women I know I can relate to, they share my struggles, we shared an amazing weekend and I will consider them friends for a lifetime.

May these hands stay healthy, strong and happy.
Larry Stanley
When I look at the picture of our hands on Dude I can identify whose is whose and intimately know their story.  Two of us cradled our infant children as we dealt with chemo and drains. Three held the hands of friends and family as they battled this horrible disease at such a young age.  One held onto her husband as she bravely faced her treatments and managed to nurture a camp full of boys in the process. 

These could be the hands of anyone, but they are not.  These strong hands belong to invincible women that are still impacting my life and lifting my spirit.  These are the hands of women who continue to work, love, inspire and hope.  They are hands that tremble with each follow up appointment and clap and hold tight to loved ones when the news is good.  They are also the hands that hold tissues when the news is not as good.  Either way, they are the hands of women I have come to love.  Myself included.



  1. I love the blog title of Cancer, Wine, and Ultra Running :)

    Your story still awes me, even though this isn't the first time I've heard it. I can't wait to read more blog posts, especially about your return to racing after your most recent surgery :)

    1. Thanks, I am still beyond clueless as to how this all works but I am learning.
      Next Race...Rosaryville, November 10!

    2. Step one: go to settings and turn of "word verification for comments" and you'll make it so much easier for people to comment :)