Put yourself first.
Make yourself a priority.
Look out for YOU
Seems like pretty easy and basic advice – and should be simple to follow, right? WRONG!
We all know what we SHOULD do. Logically we recognize that if we don’t care for ourselves, we will be in no position to take care of anyone else. On airplanes they tell you, before takeoff, to put the oxygen mask on YOURSELF first. Only then can you help those around you. And this is an important metaphor that can be extrapolated to the rest of life. How can we possibly expect to be there for those we love and who depend on us when we aren’t really at our best?
For the past 18 months (who I am kidding, for the last 9 years minimally, since I became a mom) I have always put myself at the bottom of my list of priorities. My job, my husband, my parents….all had a higher rank order than me. Then came the kids, in quick succession – first my son, then 15 months later my older daughter and 21 months later my youngest. Within three years, there were three little ones who needed me – and they ALWAYS trumped everything.
But then, I got cancer. It goes without saying that finding out you have cancer is life-changing news (yes, I AM master of the obvious….). Our lives were altered in so many ways, both short and long-term. When I was first diagnosed, I was in the hospital for two weeks. Doctors – lots of them and all very, very smart – spent days trying to figure out what was wrong with me. My husband recalls those days, telling me he felt like he was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or ER. I was THAT patient. Nurses would look at him, each time he came to see me, with pity in their eyes that seemed to ask how could this (then) 42-year-old be SO sick? I was the one doctors were racking their brains over, trying to diagnose, running test after test until they finally confirmed the worst fears we didn’t know we had – Multiple Myeloma.
Once they did, they immediately came up with a plan designed to get me treated and into remission as quickly as possible. And it worked! The plan had me doing induction chemo for four months (I did it in three!) to prepare me for a Stem Cell Transplant. Three months after my transplant I was considered in remission where I have been since.
And while remission is the end goal for Myeloma patients – as there currently is no cure – it hasn’t been without its ups and downs. One of the main issues facing Myeloma patients is we have really, REALLY sucky immune systems. Which means I get sick…a LOT. I have learned the hard way that me + planes in germ season = bad news. My husband and I had the most amazing trip to Mexico for a belated 10th anniversary trip. The reward for that? I got sick as soon as we got home and I landed in the hospital with pneumonia for six days. I went to Los Angeles for my first business trip in ages – and had to leave early because my temperature climbed to 104 degrees while there (PS – that was NOT a fun plane trip home). This is in addition to worrying each time I touch a germy door handle, getting sick any time one of our kids sneezes within a five-mile radius of me and now working in an open space environment where no one sits in the same seat two days in a row – and everyone comes to work to share their germs. It was a rough, ROUGH winter.
What did this mean? That my treatment was interrupted …a LOT. Also, not good because it impacted my test results. That zero M-spike I strive so hard to achieve? It has come and gone over this past year. And maintaining that zero consistently and for a long time has a direct correlation to my long-term prognosis. Probably goes without saying that this is not something to mess around with (yup, mastering the obvious again).
I have (almost) always had a positive attitude about my diagnosis, claiming that failure is not an option and I would do anything I needed to BE healthy and STAY healthy. But what I recently realized was that I am not doing that; I wasn’t doing EVERYTHING I could. I was balancing too many things and wasn’t putting myself – and my health – at the top of the list.
Which has led to one of the hardest decisions I have faced throughout these past 18 months: for these reasons (and more I won’t bore you all with) I will be stepping back from work to focus on ME. I went back to work almost exactly one year ago because it was so incredibly important to prove to the world – to prove to MYSELF – that I could do it all. Even my blog home page says “Full-time job, three kids under 8 AND cancer? No problem!” My identity (at least to myself) has been that I am a full-time working wife and mom of three.
But what has been painfully clear to me since going back to work – in sometimes really hard ways – is that I actually cannot do it all, at least not well. And for someone like me – who has always prided herself on just that – this might be hardest admission I’ve ever made.
“My name is Jen and I can’t do it all.”
There, I’ve said it. If there was a 12-step program meeting in some dusty church basement, filled with chronic people-pleasing over-achievers like me, I would be there reciting these words.
Facebook recently reminded me that just about a year ago I wrote a blog post encouraging us all to say YES more often. Say yes to more ice cream, more snuggle time, generally speaking just say YES more to doing things that make you happy.
But now it’s time for me to say NO. To stop putting everything and everyone else ahead of me. To free myself from the constant guilt over making others happy, sometimes at my own expense. To stop worrying about making things easier, calmer, better for EVERYONE else. To be fair, like many people, I bring most of this on myself. But what I’ve learned (okay, let’s be honest…I’m learnING…it’s a work in progress) since my diagnosis is that I cannot be all things to all people. And I must MUST put myself first.
My goal is to be around for a long, LONG time. Admittedly that’s a tougher goal given the hand I’ve been dealt with my diagnosis, which makes my singular focus on my health even more important. In order to make good on this, I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got. That requires me to put 110% of my attention and focus on being healthy and fighting this beast. I must double down on ME. I must focus on ME. I must choose…ME.
So, it seems fitting on this day – my birthday – to give this gift to myself. To give myself permission to do whatever it takes to stay in remission (that’s pretty pithy in its rhyming…there’s gotta be a hashtag in there somewhere…). To be okay with admitting that I actually can NOT do it all, at least not well and with the right priorities. And to acknowledge that life forever changed that fateful day, even if it’s taken longer for me to catch up to what it takes to live in this new normal.
When I shared this news with a friend, she said “I think this is the MOST ‘game on’ thing you can do.”
Putting myself first.
Making myself a priority.
Looking out for ME.
And she’s right. I am fighting for my family, for me…literally for my life. There are no greater stakes. And they – and I – deserve 100% of my effort.