I’ve decided to deviate from the story a little, in order to write this very special blog post, which in true Sanja form is well overdue. But through my cancer journey I’ve learnt to accept a lot more and be more forgiving towards myself. In this period of my life, while the kids are so young, I will inevitably struggle to find quality writing time, but that’s ok. I’m doing my best to make time for it.
I can’t believe how quickly the month of August has come around. This time last year I was in a very different place both mentally and physically. Last August I was still in my maze, desperately searching for a way out, for some much needed comfort and reassurance that things would be ok. Later that same month, my search led me to a small coastal town called Jurmala in Latvia, where the cancer treatment methods seemed a lot more personalised and promising.
It was there that I discovered I still had cancer, that the surgery didn’t ‘get it all’ as I was told back home in Australia and that the next few months of my life would involve some of the harshest chemotherapy drugs around.
However something happened to me halfway through that trip to Latvia. I opened up and with that came a lot more acceptance.
Even though the treatment I had tried desperately to avoid seemed inevitable, my state had shifted and I left Latvia feeling empowered. This was obvious when I said goodbye to my Latvian oncologist and promised to see her at the top of a mountain. That promise would come to shape the rest of my healing journey, and life beyond cancer.
The promise to meet her at the top of a mountain meant that I was making a promise to not only survive chemotherapy but also thrive during the hardest period of my life. In the grand scheme of things, chemo suddenly became just another hurdle on my way to the top. It was no longer this scary all consuming treatment and the sole focus of my life over the next six months. The mountain became my true vision, chemo was just part of the journey up there. No one said life would be fair, some of us have an easier path up the mountain than others. But I often wonder, why is it so hard to be grateful while the terrain is flat and it’s smooth sailing? Maybe we need the steep inclines to really appreciate the flat terrain?
Another important lesson learnt on my trip to Latvia was the power of the mind and the importance of having a clear vision. The lesson was so powerful, I left that country feeling so empowered, like the outcome of my cancer was almost entirely in my hands, regardless of the statistics for my cancer type and percentages that the first oncologist had given me. That’s why this climb became so important to me, it helped to shape the vision which propelled me through such a harsh treatment.
It also meant that I was making a promise to survive and not let the fear consume me. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t triumphant all along the way. I had quite a few stumbles, which I’ll write about in my blog posts, but I managed to pick myself up each time. Either on my own or with the help of others, but I just kept on going. As Dory would say ‘just keep swimming…’ or in my case, just keep climbing.
Even though the climb is later this month, I can already tell you that it’s the journey that counts and the experiences along the way will be my main source of writing material. It’s the culmination of all the early morning exercise classes, the effort it took to get out of bed on those freezing winter mornings only to be greeted by my smiling assassin aka exercise physiologist Jess. It’s the stripping away of excuses and finding ways to make it happen. It’s all the laps I ran around Unley oval during chemotherapy and the sounds that I made along the way. Chemo really took its toll on my bones and my heart. I don’t know many ninety year olds who go jogging, but if they did I imagine that’s what they would sound like. Every joint creaked.
Although I’ve already established that it’s the journey that counts and not the final destination, I’m still looking forward to reaching that mountaintop alongside my Latvian oncologist and some friends. I see that climb as the culmination of all my experiences of this past year since my diagnosis. It’s the perfect ending to one of the longest and hardest chapters of my entire life, but also one of the most important chapters which shaped the storyline of the rest of my book.
For those of you following my journey from the beginning, you’ll know that the Promise Climb was originally called the Chemo Climb. Although I wasn’t overly impressed with my original choice of name, it was the best I could come up with at the time. However, the founders of the virotherapy clinic in Latvia suggested it was misleading, or promoting chemotherapy and big pharma. This was certainly not my intention, far from it. And so I was happy to rethink the name and that’s how it became ‘The Promise Climb’.
The new name is perfect. Not only does it refer to the promise I made to the Latvian oncologist to climb a mountain with her, but it’s even bigger than that. It also represents the promise I made while sitting in the doctor’s office, the moment I found out I had cancer. That was the moment I woke up from my 32 year long dream, and made a promise to God that I’ll do great things in this lifetime, if he lets me survive this cancer.
Although I still have no clue exactly how I’ll go about keeping that promise, I have a feeling I’m headed in the right direction, albeit a vertical one. I’m patient and I trust that when the path presents itself, I’ll just know. This was a huge learning curve for the control freak in me who needed to have everything planned out to the nth degree. For now the focus is still on my own healing and recovering from chemotherapy. The giving will come and I’ll spend the rest of my life dedicated to it.
And finally for my long overdue THANK YOU to all of you who have supported me along this path and helped me to keep my promise. Thank you for teaching me how to be more giving. Your generosity has inspired me to reach for even greater heights and to be more giving in my own life. I am truly grateful for every single person who took the time to read my story and make a contribution towards this journey. I will carry each of you in my heart all the way up that mountain.
Also a special thank you to the girls who organised the fundraiser walk in Brisbane and for all of the people who gave up their Sunday morning to attend. Without your donations, it would have been a much steeper climb up that mountain.
As you know from the stories in my previous blog posts, my path has been a mix of conventional treatment methods as well as a wide range of complementary alternative therapies. It has been an all encompassing healing journey, it wasn’t easy or free.
During this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with different support groups and getting to know other cancer patients. The common theme among all the survivors seems to be this. Many of them will talk about a shift which occurred in their lives post diagnosis. For some it was quite sudden while others took a little longer, but most of the survivors experienced it to some degree. For me personally, I knew that the conventional path would not provide this, that the healing had to be on a more holistic level.
Unfortunately for us patients, only the drugs come for ‘free’. All of the other therapies that help the body to recover from the extremely long list of harmful side effects are considered alternative therefore mostly on the patient.
I’ve left my least favourite topic until the end. I’ve had to get over so many fears and inhibitions in order to post details about such a personal journey online, this was just another one of my internal battles. I know I was a little vague in my initial explanation, which left some people wondering where their donations were headed. The truth is, I was so uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help, I skimmed through that section as fast as I could just to make the discomfort disappear.
This has been the biggest lesson of all for me throughout this cancer journey, that it’s ok to show your weaknesses as we all have them, and they are our opportunities for growth.
When I was a toddler, I was badly burnt by hot water and the doctors didn’t think I would survive. I was isolated in hospital for over a month due to the high risk of infection, as I had lost a lot of skin. My parents weren’t allowed to visit me. This is where I had my second birthday, without a familiar face in sight.
Thankfully I don’t have any memories of this event, however my parents remember that the child they picked up from hospital over a month after the accident was completely different. They didn’t recognise me, and not just because I was wrapped up in bandages from head to toe. I had regressed in so many ways, but the one thing they distinctly remember was my reluctance to accept any kind of help. The reason for deviating to tell that story was to help you understand that the roots of this issue run quite deep, it isn’t simply ego driven. Due to an unfortunate accident, I decided very early on in life that I’m on my own and can take care of myself.
Today, I have a mini me, a very independent two year old girl who also wants to do everything on her own, but judging by the stories of me when I returned from hospital, that was more than just being miss independent - I pushed people away.
So when I got sick last year, the offers of help came flooding in, but in true Sanja form, initially I just smiled and politely turned them away.
The gift of giving also gives joy to the giver, not just the receiver. This was something I overlooked and was denying people by rejecting their offers of help. But it was just another one of my learning curbs, of which there were many throughout this journey.
However when it came time for writing this blog, it was honesty all the way. I wanted to paint a true picture of my story. In the end, I didn’t journey alone, far from it. I had a lot of help along the way.
I think this message is extremely important for me to get across to other people who might be facing their own struggles. You are not alone. There are so many people willing to lend a helping hand, if you’re willing to accept it. Often the help comes from the most unexpected places.
For a very long time I wasn’t willing to accept help outside my family. But then I thought about all the cancer patients who may not have the same privileges. I wanted to show them that no one journeys alone, we are all in this together. Reach out, as chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised and humbled.
In my case, I reached out to family and friends via my blog and asked them to help me fulfil the vision which kept me going during the most difficult period of my life. The response was overwhelming and so humbling. I was hoping to raise enough funds for the entire expedition and if there was extra, it would go towards my long list of therapies, with virotherapy being the most expensive of the lot. Keeping me alive and thriving through chemo was an expensive exercise for quite a while.
Within a few weeks, I received enough donations to fund my trip. There was a bit extra, which I’ll put towards my next few vials of virotherapy with Rigvir. As it isn’t available in Australia, I’ll need to go back to Latvia for more vials. The end of chemo wasn’t my finish line. I still have a lot of work ahead of me to help my body to recover from chemo and keep such an aggressive cancer away. This is part of my life now into the foreseeable future to make sure I stay in remission.
The opportunity to share all of this has been my greatest gift. I’m not going on this mountain climb alone, I’m taking all of you with me.