Taking the full measure of life


April 24th, 2008 · 13 Comments

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When I was 22, I had my first major abdominal surgery. Prior to my surgery, I had been in a period of body loathing. Part of that loathing came from malfunctions in my body that were very frustrating (malfunctions probably related to the cancerous tumors I had removed along with one of my ovaries). I now know that what I was experiencing in terms of repeated infections, exhaustion, bloating, etc. were symptoms of what I had and my body trying to cope with that—but at the time, it was just enormously aggravating to not understand why things were going wrong. To put it in simple terms, I felt angry at my body for not taking care of me and working like it should. Additionally, various life events and internal events had led me to a stage where I wasn’t taking good care of myself in terms of eating, exercise, emotional health, sleep, etc. I was avoiding my body; I avoided touching it, looking at it, thinking about it, etc.

I had a long healing process from surgery. I don’t react well to incisions of any kind (that eyebrow piercing in college? bad idea), and despite my work to the contrary, my surgical incision—about 10 inches long across my abdomen, through skin, fat, and muscle—grew deeply infected. I won’t get into the details too deeply here (be grateful, unless you’re into gruesome things), but having to heal the infection in addition to healing the actual incision and muscles and my mind and spirit—well, it was a lot to cope with, especially as a senior in college. And I won’t lie to you and make it sound like the whole experience was a bouquet of daisies, because it certainly wasn’t. I lost many friends (people have a hard time with the c-word), I fell behind in classes, and I wondered what would become of me. Moreover, going through another surgery a year, for the same cancer regenerated, pushed me emotionally to the edge of collapse at one point. There were many times in those two years that I thought, I don’t know how much more of this I can do.


As I told a friend who is going through some (partially self-inflicted) difficult times right now, we can either let the shitty things that happen to us just be shitty things, or we can let them be catalysts for our growth. There’s partly an active process to that (“How do I get meaning from this?”) and there’s partly a passive process (“How do I leave myself open to more than bitterness from this experience?”).

There were a variety of things I learned, over time, from my experience of having cancer and having those major surgeries. One thing I gained was an epiphany about my body: as fat/wonky/ungraceful/whatever as I saw myself, while I recovered from the surgery, I developed an appreciation of what my body could increasingly do. Emerging from a time when I could do very little, I appreciated what returned to me. I could laugh without pain! I could lift my arm without pain! I could walk the entire length of the hall without stopping from pain and exhaustion! I could carry a 10-pound box again! The simple became profound. I grew more aware of how all the muscles in my body are tied together. Instead of just feeling my depression and anxiety over what my body could not do at that time—fend off most illnesses, run a mile, fit in a size-10 dress—I instead grew impressed by how my body, and all bodies, function.

Of course, as happens with many epiphanies, I have struggled to retain the intensity of what I learned about myself in that time period. But I think of it sometimes—when I’m feeling negative about my body, when I am pushing myself while I’m running. I remember what it was like to need assistance sitting up. I remember when it was a struggle to walk down the hall. And I smile at what I regained and what I can do and how far I have come from those days. I remind myself–cerebrally and emotionally—how very much gratitude I have for the ability to move through life with relative ease.

Since January of 2007, I’ve been working to take better care of my body and my entire self. I started walking in January ’07 and started learning to run in March ’07 starting with running at 90 seconds at a time. A year later, I consider a 1- or 1.5-mi run a short run. For many athletic people, that would be considered hardly a work-out at all. But I run my short runs at a quicker pace than I run my longer runs, and I am still amazed and pleased that I have gotten to a point in my life where regular exercise is a happy, stress-relieving part of my routine instead of something I don’t do or something I dread doing.

And that exercise—the exercise and the other forms of self-care—enables me in other ways. I thought about that last Saturday when I spent my whole day on the first day of a local Habitat for Humanity build. Though I don’t write about my work on this blog, I work for a large Habitat affiliate. I work in an office; my work has to do with supporting people and engaging people in their own lives financially, spiritually, emotionally, and educationally (well, and it has to do with a whole lot of paperwork, of course). My work is typically white-collar social work; it is the type of cerebral and emotional work I would have always hoped and expected to have in my life. I didn’t grow up valuing the physical, and until last Saturday, I had never spent a whole day on a build site before. On the build site, I came with little knowledge but a willingness to serve: from 8-4:30, I was busy hammering nails, holding boards in place, helping lift walls into place, asking questions, and occasionally stopping to take photos of the day’s progress. I did work that, just a year or two ago, would have been very difficult for me to manage physically, at least for a whole day. I would have been worn out too quickly; I would have been too weak.  I would have gotten too hot. Now, I can do it. And I loved it—I loved being out there and being physically involved in the construction of the house. I loved how the physical exertion in the construction of the house regrounded me in the primary end result of my work efforts. I have, at this time in my life, the ability to provide support to this program with my body as well as my mind and heart. I don’t take that for granted: I treasure it. And I’ll do what I can to maintain it, which means taking good care of myself for the rest of my life.

(I took my builder friend Greg out on site with me. He’s explaining something about wood to me here. You can’t see, but we’re up on ladders at the top of the wall.)

Tags: fruits of my labor · non-scale victories

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ricki // Apr 24, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Wow, Sally, good for you! And I know how hard it can be to retain appreciation for all those good things about our bodies. Congratulations on keeping your perspective.

  • 2 K Renee // Apr 24, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I sometimes feel the same way about my purpose in life. I ask myself–shouldn’t I be able to actually *see* the good I’m doing in the world? Frankly, right now I don’t feel like I’m doing much to better students’ understanding of the world, but I’m trying to remain optimistic.

    But, Sally, you’re also doing so much to help people by bloggin–your optimisim and wisdom about living a sustainable life is invaluable to your readers. It makes me feel grounded, anyway, to read your posts. I know it feels good to be a part of creation–that’s why I love yard work–but you are also reaching out to so many folks with your writing.


  • 3 K Renee // Apr 24, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    or “blogging”. . . stupid WordPress and no editing function. Ha!

  • 4 Jenn // Apr 24, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    This post couldn’t be more timely for me, as I got yet another discouraging (though not devastating) piece of medical news today. I often bemoan all the things my body can’t do and all the things it doesn’t seem to do right (even though I know it could be much, much worse and I shouldn’t complain). This post reminds me to be grateful of all the things it CAN do and to be hopeful about the resilience of both the human body and spirit.

  • 5 Cory // Apr 25, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for the awesome inspirational post there! It’s just the kind of thing I needed today!

  • 6 Laura N // Apr 25, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Great post, Sally. You’ve lived a lot of life in your young years.

  • 7 Kristen // Apr 25, 2008 at 11:22 am

    great post. i totally agree with the power of positive thinking. also — great new picture on your sidebar!

  • 8 melody // Apr 25, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I really get what you are saying here…

    I didn’t have cancer (and I am SOO grateful for that)…. but at 23, I lost both my ovaries and tubes to very large (10 lb) dermoid cysts… and ended up having 3 major abdominal surgeries… they kept reaccurring…

    It is really shocking to be sick like that at a young age… and I can only imagine how much harder it would be to have CANCER connected with the sickness.


    I love that you are such a survivor.

  • 9 Becky // Apr 25, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    This is such and inspirational post. Thanks for posting.

  • 10 Kay // Apr 26, 2008 at 5:38 am

    Hi Sally,

    I love the “new you” photo with your bio! I love the photos of this new home, too. Both show transformation from the ground up. Good job on both!

    There have been a few instances over the past five years when I thought I would have to give up the house of my dreams because I couldn’t take care of it. The woods moved back in, taking over my beautiful gardens. The well water system had some problems. I don’t function well when I can’t get water to come out of the faucets. Nature threw me some curve balls – a tornado one year and golf ball sized hail a year later. For five years I struggled just to make it to work. I didn’t have the energy to handle emergencies or projects of my own. Doctor after doctor misdiagnosed my ailments. It was a confusing and frustrating time.

    Hope came with each little victory, each little discovery. Friends gathered to help with big projects. Bless their hearts!

    Finally, FINALLY, I feel like I’m on the road to recovery. I can mow a half acre of lawn and tend to my gardens. I can go to work and still have energy left after that. My brain is working again, too.

    So I’m celebrating your full day of hard work right along with you. I understand how dreams and work make us whole. Sweet victory!

  • 11 Melanie // Apr 26, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Sally, I really can relate to this on so many levels. I had thyroid cancer at age 23 and had 3 surgeries on my neck. I had many complications from it. I can not exercise easily because of vocal cord damage that causes a breathing problem if I exercise too hard. I had a fibroid tumor 3 years ago that grew to the size of my head. Just as you, I have a huge abdominal scar. But being gluten free has made me so much healthier. I am exercising and so appreciate the small victories! There is life after cancer and it’s more appreciated than before.

  • 12 Cheryl // Apr 28, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    that was beautiful, honest and brave–a reflection of you. Thank you!!!

    After a surgery gone wrong I spent 4 months not being able to stand or walk when I was 25. And I still have mobility challenges, but now I see my gifts…the ability to walk, to see, to smell…so I am richer than I was when I could do anything, because I was blind to it. See how much stronger we all are now!

  • 13 Kristi // Jan 29, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I found your website and am just amazed. Great job! I just wanted to share a few of our similarities…I have multiple food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and wheat). I’m about the same weight you started out at. Two years ago I was diagnosed with celiac via blood tests and symptoms, but after an endoscopy this past September I’ve been told I don’t have it. (???) So now I’m just totally confused, even though I’m going back to the wheat-free eating soon because – well – I just feel miserable all the time.

    Anyway, here’s the big thing: In 2003 I had multiple teratomas removed from my ovaries. They were benign thankfully, but they grew back with a vengeance (which I was told was really rare). Anyway, in 2007 I had more removed and they took 1.5 ovaries too.

    The whole point of this is that, I agree, those surgeries are awful. I’m also now wondering if there’s some link to it all that we haven’t stumbled upon. I never got an answer for why I had ovarian tumors (that sometimes turn malignant, btw), though I was told the tumors had been there since I was a fetus. Could gluten have caused those too?!?! Just a thought…

    Keep up the good work. Your blog is awesome!!

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