Back in the Saddle Again

Today, I find myself writing this, after yet another whirlwind of appointments, upsets, and harsh realities. My cancer has spread. There’s no easy way to say that, so let’s just get to the point. It’s in the lymph nodes in my lungs and between my lungs. I’ve had a ct scan, a pet scan, a lung biopsy, and one MRI. We are doing MRIs of my lower lumbar and hip areas to determine if the original pain that is located in my SI/hip area is also cancerous. There are enlarged lymph nodes, but we don’t know if the bone is affected. No one wants to hear this news, certainly not someone who has already been through treatment and thought it was behind her.

We are wasting no time. On Monday I will get my port and on Thursday I will start chemo again. My oncologist has made it clear that this is serious. My wife and I sat across from him, hoping to hear better news, trying not to cry when it turned out to be worse. He went over everything and a game plan. Upon leaving the room, it was hard to see the staff looking back at me with what I call “cancer face”. It’s that sad face, where people can barely make eye contact, and feel sorry for you. I’ve experienced it before and will experience it again. It just happens, especially when people don’t know what to say.

We received our information for all of the upcoming appointments, walked out to the car, and then proceeded to sit there, crying and hugging each other. We certainly knew it was a possibility that it would come back. We knew it was aggressive and in my bloodstream and could resettle somewhere else. You know the facts, but you feel so good after finishing treatment that you move forward with your life and put it behind you. None of the typical symptoms occurred that would signal something is wrong. I had my checkups, and then something happened that made no sense until it lead to this new cancer diagnosis – pain in the SI/hip area. The pain has been going on for over 6 months now and I attributed it to a car accident I was involved in. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t getting better. The pain happens when I lay down and I have discomfort in the same area and down the left leg the rest of the time. Advil has made it livable, although sleeping has been rough for months now. It’s easy to mistake that for an injury from a car accident.

I’m sharing this because I want people to practice self-care. I want them to be aware of what’s going on with their bodies. Something you keep excusing as nothing, could be something. Now, I don’t want to encourage people to think every pain is cancer. If you have symptoms that are persistent, especially if it gets worse, you should insist on being checked out. I had a chance to have an MRI 6 months ago, but I had to pay upfront for it. I couldn’t do it. If I’d had one then, I would have known what was going on and gotten a 6 month jump on treatment. Hindsight is 20/20, but it does no good to think that way. “If only I hadn’t eaten sugar”, “If only if I’d changed my diet sooner”, “If only I’d said something sooner” – none of this kind of thinking will heal you. It’s self-destructive and I’m putting it behind me.

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Feeling reflective

Now is the time for throwing everything at this. I’m at a crossroad and have to decide if I want to do everything I can to stick around, or if I want to half-ass it and hope for the best. If you’ve followed my journey thus far, I’m pretty sure you know what I’ve decided to do. I am starting back with chemo. I tolerated it well last time and the hope is that it will knock the cancer cells back. We now know it didn’t kill them off entirely last time, so I’m also starting the keto diet now. It’s a big switch from being a vegetarian, but the research I’ve done says it is the way to go. A side benefit of that is that it will knock down my blood sugar, which is awesome for any diabetic. I will be starting back with acupuncture, hypnosis, reiki, and massage. I am already using a combination of essential oils and supplements that will support my body, much like last time, except I’m increasing quantities. I’m going to be using hash oil and edibles to help with my appetite. So many things. It seems overwhelming at times, but trying everything together will leave me with no regrets.

At this point, I am only thinking of knocking this back and staying around. I am thinking about my nieces and nephew and my desire to watch them become fully functioning adults. I am thinking about the good things to come and my desire to be a apart of it. I am thinking about the plans I have with my wife and what I want to create through our artist’s studio and doTERRA business. I am thinking about the plans I have with my friends and wanting to establish our shared dream, Green Mountain Collective. At the end of the day, this project is my legacy. It encompasses my dreams and ideals and also benefits good people and our local community. I am thinking about what I have left to see, build, and experience, and the moments that take my breath away and make me appreciate being alive. I’m ready to keep fighting and you’re welcome to join me on this new, yet familiar journey.

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The Day Before Tomorrow

This is the last day of not knowing. Tomorrow I will hear the results of my pet scan, and receive a diagnosis and a plan of action from my oncologist. It’s been a week since he called me in for my ct scan results – enlarged lymph nodes in my left pelvic area that appear to be cancerous.

The pain was assumed to be from a car accident I was in last April. We couldn’t figure out why the pain hadn’t been resolving and I assumed there was a tear in the joint or something similar. I was scheduled to see a physiatrist to determine a course of action. Before that could happen, I had my 6 month appointment with my oncologist. I went back and forth about mentioning the pain to him. He always says to be aware of new and persistent issues, so I described what was going on to him. He decided a ct scan should be done, even though it sounded like it was from the accident, just to be safe.

I received a call the Monday following the ct scan and was told he wanted to see me that afternoon. It triggered a red flag, but I tried my best to not think the worst. In his office, he told me I have enlarged lymph nodes and that it appears to be cancerous. The enlarged lymph nodes are located by the nerves in that area and are pushing on them, resulting in the pain that has been keeping me from sleeping and doing much physical activity. I also appeared to have some spotting near my lungs and he wanted more testing to determine if it’s scarring or something worse. A pet scan was ordered to see what in my body would “light up”, so he could decide a plan of action. A needle biopsy is possible as well.

I appreciate how thorough he is and I trust him with my life. He hugged us and I know he felt awful. I don’t have blood markers. That means even with stage 3 cancer, my blood never showed it was there. Because of this we were unable to do blood draws to look for abnormal signs. We had to wait until I exhibited symptoms. It also kept us from catching this earlier. He mentioned doing another round of chemo with the same drugs to us. That I know how to do, so I’m hopeful that it’s the worst case scenario. I’ll know soon enough.

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Radioactive sugar injection. It’s in a tungsten tube to keep the exposure to a minimum for the person giving the injection.

I went in for my pet scan in Friday. The pet scan involves an injection of sugar based liquid dye that has radioactive tracers. You sit for 45 minutes while it moves through your body. You then lie down and are moved through a tube, much like an MRI. I experienced a moment of panic in the tube. It felt like a coffin. I closed my eyes and repeated to myself, ‘I’m surrounded by stars”, thinking of the darkness behind my eyelids as the desert night sky that I grew up with. It helped and I made it through. I highly recommend finding a comforting mantra to repeat in times of stress like that

That was Friday. Today is Monday. Tomorrow I find out the results. I’ve distracted myself this weekend with outings with friends, a concert, and a dinner and movie date with my wife. Today I went to the gym. I walked the treadmill for a little while and then ended by doing 5 minutes on the elliptical – a first. It may be nothing to others, but it was a milestone.

My body is weak, from years of recovering from car accidents and cancer treatment. I should have worked out more before now, but like many, I got busy living my post-cancer life. I don’t play the shame game and am doing what I can, where I’m at. Soon enough, I’ll know what new path I’m on and we will make a plan. I will keep doing my best to move my body and stay positive. It’s where I’m at. I will communicate with you soon, from the other side of tomorrow.

 

This is Why I March

Yesterday I participated in the Women’s March in Portland, Oregon. They estimate 100,000 people attended and it was an amazing sight to behold. There were people of all genders and ages, everywhere you looked, holding signs, playing drums, chanting, and parading around in impressive costumes, pussyhats in many colors, and rain gear.

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I chose to carry a sign I made that addressed the reality of losing my healthcare through the ACA, aka Obamacare. 18 million people, including myself will lose health coverage in the first year if the ACA is repealed. This includes children, elderly people, and some of the most vulnerable among us. The new movement in our government to eliminate rights and protections from those who are not wealthy goes against what our country was founded on. It certainly doesn’t represent the religious values those same politicians keep saying they represent. Jesus did not turn away those in need. He did not call them moochers and tell them to “get over it”. We are at a crossroads ethically and spiritually.

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This country is a place built on welcoming immigrants, lifting up the oppressed, and offering opportunities to those who are seeking a better life. The most well known quote from the Statue of Liberty sums it up:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Emma Lazarus

Yesterday, around the world, women and those who support them, gathered, marched, and shared a message of hope and unity. Since November 7th, many have felt lost, alone, frustrated, and angry. The message coming from the GOP and especially from the newly elected President has been one of aggression, division, exclusion, lies, oppression, and all under the threat of violence and repercussions for speaking out against the new rule. The people that gathered were strong, proud, determined, and most of all, supportive of one another. They also were happy. Happy to be out expressing all of the frustration and emotions we had been suffocating under since November.

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There were so many signs, saying so many important things – everything from “women’s rights are human rights” to “viva la vulva” to “black lives matter”. There were men carrying signs that said, “It’s time for white men to listen to women”, “feminist”, and, “I’m with her”, the words surrounded by arrows pointing to others around them. Children carried signs they made themselves, one of which said, “I’d make a better President because I care about ALL people.” The feeling in the air was joyous and emotional, and the crowd seemed to be endless.

We were towards the front of the march and when we reached the end, we stopped and stood and watched the crowd walk by for over an hour. As I kept holding up my sign, many people’s eyes met mine and I could feel the moment of recognition of me being a cancer survivor. There is something in the faces of those who see me as a cancer survivor, a softness, an empathetic look in their eyes. It’s emotional, seeing those faces looking back at me, acknowledging me and what I’ve been through. There is a strength to being seen and acknowledged.

A woman approached me and told me that she was in the same situation, that she had received healthcare through the ACA just before being diagnosed with breast cancer. If she hadn’t had coverage, she would have ended up homeless. She gestured towards the city behind us, where so many are homeless, as she made that statement. She took my hand and we looked into each others eyes and nodded, “But we are still here and we are okay”, I said and I felt myself getting teary eyed. “May I hug you? I feel like I need to hug you.”, I asked. We hugged one another and then she was off, to chant and join back into the march.

 

A number of people in the crowd stopped and hugged me. Some gave me a hi-five. Others looked directly at me and raised their fist in the air in solidarity as they marched by. Some women stopped long enough to take my hand and tell me they too were cancer survivors. There was such connection there, and I will never be able to describe the magnitude of emotions I felt. Another woman stopped and hugged me tightly, as if she were my mom and she hadn’t seen me in a while. There was such unconditional and genuine caring involved in this gesture that I could feel the tears starting to well up in my eyes. She let go of me and we nodded and smiled at each other. In that moment, a person stopped to ask if they could take a photo of me with my sign. I turned and smiled, with tears in my eyes. Little did they know what they actually captured in that moment.

So, back to the title of this blog, why do I march? I march because girls are learning younger and younger what it is like to be treated as sexual objects by our society, while being told repeatedly that their looks determine their worth and their future. Younger and younger, they are becoming the victims of sexual predators and sex trafficking. Because society tends to blame the victims who report sexual assault of any kind and say they did something to deserve it. Because white males are serving little or no time for heinous crimes against girls and women. Because athletes are seen as more valuable than the girls they take advantage of at parties.  Because even with video evidence and witnesses, judges are giving minimal sentences and saying “boys will be boys”.

I march because I have two high school aged nieces and when I look at Donald Trump, I see a person who was going to court on child rape charges, until his followers used threats of violence to silence the victim. I see a person who has sexually assaulted more women than I can count, and then bad mouthed them all and forced them to back down through intimidation or payoffs. I see a person who has bragged about getting away with these activities and then called the women liars and whores. I see a person who has used fraud as a way of doing business, costing many small businesses to go under. I see a person who has used religion and lies to further a dark agenda against those who are in need and the most vulnerable within our society. I see someone so insecure that he is willing to throw away segments of the population to gain more money and power over his enemies. Someone who uses that power to crush anyone who questions his actions. I cannot stand idly by when this is considered the “new normal”.

 

I march for the oppressed, for those without a voice. I will not watch as a government majority unites against the people, against women, and against minorities. I am speaking up on my own behalf and for those who need and deserve respect. We all deserve to be treated equally. The open racism and bigotry that has come with the election and now the inauguration is frightening. The reemergence of swastikas, the normalization of Nazi worship and the KKK, and the rise of anti-lgtbq and anti-women movements is alarming, to say the least. We need to raise our voices against this new dark direction.

Back to talking about the ACA. We all deserve healthcare. The loss of dignity that comes from not being able to afford healthcare in the wealthiest country in the world is something no one should have to endure. Had I been diagnosed earlier, which I couldn’t be, because I could not afford insurance because of a pre-existing condition, I would not have had to go through chemo. Because getting diagnosed was delayed for years, my cancer spread. Had I gone another year without care, I would have been in “end of life” care with no options. This is the reality of not having access to preventative care.

People seem to think you can just show up at the ER or a clinic somewhere and get the testing and care you need. Nope. You cannot walk into the ER and say, “something is wrong and I think I may have cancer or something else horribly wrong with me.” They will send you home. That is the reality people like me lived with before the ACA and what we are facing once again. There are people who will die without continual treatment for cancer, diabetes, and so on, and this includes children and people of all backgrounds.

I will speak up for them and I will march every chance I get, because it’s what needs to be done. I am still alive and I have a voice. I will stand up for future generations of girls and minorities, who deserve better than what our society offers them today. We need to fight the darkness and stand up for what’s right. I believe in love and I want to make this a better world for future generations. Hope can be restored, if we look for it and work towards it. Yesterday was a good start. Compassion and empathy are the true measure of a person’s character and we are up against it right now. We are being tested. United we can answer the call and change the path we are on. I truly do believe this. Join me?

What Did You Learn Today?

Today I was out working in my backyard, cutting down invasive blackberries and pruning trees and roses. My dog Gertrude barked at people hanging out in the cemetery behind my house, as they drank beer and caroused, like they tend to do on sunny days. My newly adopted chicken, Geraldine, watched us from the chicken yard. I had previously contemplated letting her roam the yard freely, while leaving the gate open to her yard, so she could get food and water and have access to her coop. I decided it was the right time to let her out, while I was there, just so I could see how she would handle it.

There are very real fears and dangers attached to owning chickens, as well as the joys. I knew there were no gaps in the fence or gates, but I also knew there were ways that she could hop up onto things in the yard, if she really wanted to get out and escape. The other threat is predators – usually raccoons or large birds, like hawks. During the day, it’s not uncommon to see hawks in my neighborhood. Geraldine is a medium-sized chicken, so she hopefully wouldn’t be as appealing to hawks as smaller prey.Raccoons on the other hand, are bold and unafraid. I once had a nighttime face off with one in my backyard, even after I had closed my chicken coop for the night. It didn’t retreat until I picked up a log and threw it at it. No, I didn’t hit it, I just wanted it to back off and leave my chicken yard alone.

Midday, with me nearby, I knew she would be safe. I opened the gate and watched Geraldine cautiously step outside, while pecking at the grass. She wasn’t sure what to make of the dog, but otherwise, was really happy with her option to wander. As I kept working, I could occasionally hear her scratching for insects and kicking up grass. It was a happy sound and made me look up and smile. As I watched and listened to her, I couldn’t help but think about my other chickens, who had never been allowed to freely wander the yard. Part of the reason was that more than one chicken can destroy vegetable gardens and things pretty quickly. The other is that I had two Old English game hens who were much smaller than the full-sized chickens. One was the size of a pigeon. They would have been easy prey for a hawk.

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Geraldine and Gertrude (my dog)

I should explain that Nugget, the one who was the size of a pigeon, was a very special bird. She was found on the streets of Portland and was outgoing, talkative, sweet, and befriended anyone she met. She also ran my chicken yard with her head held high. She could just take a few hops towards anyone who was out of line and they would obey her. Tiny, but mighty. It’s hard to explain to some people, but as much as I love my other pets, she had built a tiny little nest in my heart and will forever live there. Recently, Nugget disappeared. I came home one evening, two weeks ago, and there clearly had been a disruption because none of my three chickens were in their coop. There were no feathers or signs of a predator attack.

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Nugget and I – studio portrait

In the past, when a raccoon had come through, Nugget always escaped into the cemetery behind my house and survived. She would hide and then in the morning reappear at the fence, asking to be let back in. This time, she didn’t come back. It’s been hard adjusting to having her gone, especially since there has been no closure. I hate to say it, but it would be easier to know that a predator had gotten her. Instead, there is a very real possibility that someone took her. Friends of mine helped me ask around and put up flyers, but no one knew anything. I was devastated. I’ll admit it, I don’t know when or if I will ever be okay with her disappearing.

I was texting with a friend who was checking in on me a few days after Nugget disappeared. I sat in my car, typing on my phone and openly weeping. I was realizing that day that I would probably have to move my two remaining chickens over to Sam’s house. My other game hen had become despondent without Nugget and it was in their best interest to integrate them with a new flock. We were discussing this when I told her, “She really was one of the loves of my life. At least she had a good life. It was time for her to move on. I think I’m being challenged to let go of her. I just have to redirect that love someplace else.”

My friend replied, “I think so too. Maybe you’ve been neglecting something else? Or yourself?” I thought about it and if there was any truth to that. I had been neglecting other things, mostly myself. We went on to talk about how change can be good. I don’t believe that Nugget was the reason I had been neglecting things in my life. Instead, I believe I was supposed to let her go, to embrace a change. She had come into my life at a time when we both needed each other. She needed a home and I needed to hear her talking in my backyard, to see her joyfully run over to the fence every time I was in the backyard, making my heart happy. Every day when I walk out into my yard, I look for her. I scan the cemetery and listen for her, hoping she will one day reappear. That said, I knew I needed to get out of the depressed state I was in.

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Mr. T and Nugget with Sam and I

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Mr. T, Nugget, and Marty Jr.

This week, another friend emailed me, telling me about a found chicken, thinking it might be Nugget. When I spoke with the woman who had the chicken, it was obvious it wasn’t her. She asked if I could take her, because she was not set up to keep a chicken. I hesitated for a second, but then said I would come and get her. I took my cat carrier and drove over to get the mystery chicken. As I entered the house, she told me she was a very sweet chicken and would let me pick her up. Sure enough, on her deck was a calm hen who let me pick her up and bring her home.

I put her in my chicken yard, not knowing what I was going to do with her. She was quiet and cooperative – easy and quite happy alone, which is not the norm for chickens. I had watched a documentary about Geraldine Ferraro a month or so earlier and told myself I would one day name a chicken after her. I knew I had found my Geraldine. I decided for now, I would keep her as an only chicken. She lets me pick her up at the end of the day, so I can lock her in the coop to keep her safe. She doesn’t fuss. She is laying eggs and clearly not stressed. And today, she was a perfect angel in my yard, as if she had lived there for years. She is even talking a bit, which is something I was missing.

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Geraldine and I

I watched her move around the yard and thought about life lessons. Everywhere around us, every day, are life lessons. What am I to learn from abruptly losing Nugget, only to gain Geraldine a week and a half later? Had Nugget taught me everything I could learn from her and then moved on? Was I supposed to bring this new being into my life, so that I could learn new things? Was it as simple as I rescued Nugget, gave her a good life, and now it was time for me to rescue another? I believe everything happening around us is an opportunity to experience things and learn. It may not be obvious or easy, and may break your heart, but what are you supposed to learn from it? Maybe you will choose to ignore the lesson, so it will keep returning to you in different forms. Maybe you’ll get it right the first time around.

I do think I was supposed to get off of my butt and stop being okay with things in my life that were making me feel down or sent me into bouts of depression. Yes, I am a positive, optimistic person, but I also go down the rabbit hole from time to time. I’m working on those things now. I’m still hopeful one day Nugget will reappear, as if nothing ever happened, but in my heart I know she is most likely gone for good. People will say, “but it’s just a chicken.” I was made to feel a bit extreme about putting out fliers and knocking on doors. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – a connection to another living being is just that. Moving forward with Geraldine feels right for now. She needed me and I needed her. Every time I walked out to a silent, empty chicken yard, I felt sad. Now, I see her little face looking back at me and it is enough. More than enough. I’m looking forward to whatever she has to teach me and many more sunny days in the yard together.

A Day of Reflection (You Only Turn 48 Once)

Today is my birthday. The birthday wishes started last night via text and social media. I woke up to 68 birthday wishes on Facebook, which has now jumped to 127+. Seeing all of the well wishes and comments, and feeling the love, it’s priceless. It is beautiful, uplifting, and makes me realize how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful people in my life who want to reach out to me today. This day also reminds me that my doctor told me that if I hadn’t been diagnosed and rushed into treatment, I probably would not have survived another year. Above all things today, I am extremely grateful.

Last week I found myself trying to answer the question, “What are you doing for your birthday?” I looked at my calendar and realized there was nothing planned. It was a bit odd, to not have anything to do, after the crazy cancer fundraiser/birthday party that was planned last year. In contrast, today has been a quiet and uneventful day, which has made me reflect on where I was last year and how much things have changed.

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My 2014 birthday party.

I look back at the photographs of me, bald and smiling, being embraced and held up by my friends, family, and community. It makes me realize how fortunate I am, both for the people I am surrounded by, but also to be here today, feeling relatively healthy. I am asked often by people, when the subject of my treatment last year comes up, “Are you in remission?” or “How are things?” (which usually leads to people asking if I’m done with treatment). I welcome these questions and know that it simply means people want to know how my health is. I look at their faces and see how awkward it is for them to ask me about it. I see the worry, the concern. I tell them, as I’m now telling you, my doctor says my type of cancer, aggressive endometrial cancer that had traveled out of the uterus to the lymph nodes, will usually come back within 2-3 years if chemo didn’t zap all of the remaining cells. If I make it past the 3 year mark, it probably won’t return. I finished chemo in September of last year. I’m looking forward to celebrating my one year anniversary and every time I see my oncologist for my 3 month checkups, he says time passing without any changes is what we want.

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2014 birthday love from friends and family.

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Making a wish and blowing out the candles.

I should tell you that I am rare, both for being diagnosed with endometrial cancer so young and for not having any blood markers. That means they cannot draw blood to check to see if the cancer has returned. Instead, I am the gauge. It scared me a bit when my doctor told me that. If I start to feel “off”, I am supposed to report it immediately, so a CAT scan can be performed to see what’s going on inside. We are trying to avoid exposing me to more radiation, unless necessary, so we are erring on the side of caution. To be honest, I really don’t think about this on a daily basis. I don’t want to. If I did, it would affect my life and my peace of mind. Instead, I choose to wake up and be grateful. I look for what makes me happy and I focus on that instead. Focusing on the possible return of a cancer diagnosis seems like it would be exactly what cancer cells would want. I won’t give it to them.

Simplicity is something I appreciate these days. For my birthday my wife asked what I wanted for brunch (blueberry pancakes, veggie sausage, and fresh peaches). We took the dogs for a little ride in our new/used car that has made my life much less stressful. I went and got a haircut. For dinner we shared my freebie birthday veggie burger from Red Robin and a vanilla milkshake and then went to a place we hadn’t been in a while and enjoyed a soak and sauna under the stars. While I was there, sitting in silence and staring at the big dipper, I tried to make a list of things I’m grateful for in my head. I came to the conclusion that it would take an entire blog post to say everything I would want to say and even then, I’d miss something and want to revise it later. Instead, I will just say that I am grateful for everything around me that makes up my life. You can’t have the good without the bad or the light without the dark. To me, the point of waking up every morning is to keep breathing, trying, learning, and moving forward.

Today I am 48 years old. I am married to someone who would do most anything to make my life better or easier. We know what unconditional love is and appreciate one another. We know what it is to endure a life-threatening situation together while keeping each other smiling and sane. I run two businesses doing what I love – creating art and helping people with health and nutritional support. Both things make others (and myself) happy and I get to work with people I genuinely like. I “beat cancer”.  I am surrounded by love and compassion. People in my life are constantly rooting for me and that feels pretty darned good. I feel comfortable in my skin for the first time in my life and I like who I am. It’s taken me most of my life to get here and I am not finished. We are all a work in progress. I believe we have to do the work to accept ourselves, to find our purpose, and then to give of ourselves with kindness and gratitude. The rest will come.

I will never take for granted that I am still here, alive and kicking. I’m thinking today of two beloved friends we lost to cancer. Both of these people contributed so much to our community and their presence is greatly missed. It’s hard to process it all. I really wish we could be celebrating together today. Cancer is a jerk. I am painfully aware that every day is a gift. I am thankful that they graced this world with their presence and left a mark on so many hearts, including mine. Happy Birthday indeed. ❤

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Birthday self-portrait, 2015

Being a Life Line to a Cancer Patient

It is very humbling when others dealing with their own cancer struggles reach out to me. Being allowed into an individual’s personal space when I have never met them before is an honor and also is daunting. I don’t have answers for everything, not even close. I can only do my best to listen, empathize, do some research via Google or tell them what worked for me and hope for the best. There is no “one size fits all” answer. I do get personally invested to an extent, because I care. I hate to see people suffer and I hate to see those who love the person with cancer have to sit by the sidelines and hope they will beat it. It’s brutal for all involved. This is why I’ve tried to deal with my cancer by keeping my sense of humor and by being very open about it with those around me. That is what has worked for me, but I definitely am not the average patient, just ask my doctor. Thank goodness he “got” me and the way I, my friends, and my wife handled my time in treatment.

For someone who has never had any experience with cancer, it can be really rough when someone close to them says, “I have cancer” or “my cancer has come back”. We panic, say how unfair it is, cry, get angry, and then once it all has sunk in, wonder what can be done to help that person. I will tell you, having been the person on the receiving end of that news by the doctor, we experience the same emotions magnified by 100. I found myself wondering how it really could be as bad as they were saying it was. Surely I would have had more symptoms? Perhaps it isn’t as serious as they’re saying it is? And then I went through so many scenarios in my brain about what was about to happen to try to save my life, it was nerve wracking. Major surgery? Menopause? Five months of chemo and then radiation? What is going to happen to me? What if I don’t survive surgery? Believe me, the newly diagnosed cancer patient is thinking about everything and wanting to be thinking about nothing all at the same time.

They are facing a daunting task and something they will have to endure alone, even with the best support system possible around them. Physically, you can’t take away the side-effects and trauma the patient is going through, but you can do everything possible to make sure they have no other worries on their plate. Make sure they know you are a phone call or text away and will drive them to treatment, hold their hand, talk with their doctor, and so on, if that is what you both want. Don’t ever force anything, but listen to them. If they say they don’t want you to bother, that isn’t necessarily a no. Don’t push your way in, but don’t give up on them either.

Help set up a meals schedule for their family, if and only if they want you to. Please don’t take it personally if they cannot and will not eat food you make for them. Listen to them. I went through a time when all I wanted was pretzel sticks, fresh fruit, or a smoothie (my wife made one for me every day). I could not eat the beautiful meals she would prepare and I know it hurt her feelings in the beginning, but we then worked out a system where she would ask me before preparing anything. She would give me options and ask what I thought I could eat. We had a time towards the end of treatment when she knew I could eat, but only if I had a few bites from a marijuana cookie. That would stimulate my appetite enough for me to want to eat a small serving. Once we were on the same page, neither of us got frustrated with each other over food again. You also need to keep in mind that something that sounds good one day may seem unappetizing the next. There may be a metallic taste in their mouth that makes consuming most anything difficult. The drugs received in chemo can vary from patient to patient, depending on their cancer, so don’t expect text book side effects or results from treatment.

Sometimes people ask me what to say to people with cancer. I struggle with it because everyone handles it differently. Just make it clear that you are there for them, in whatever form they need you to take. I think the most important thing you can do is learn what NOT to say. Don’t tell them stories about people you know who had cancer unless they beat it and are doing well. Don’t minimize their experience, but don’t act like they’re dying, unless they really are. Try really hard to not make the “aw, you’re a sick person and I feel sorry for you” face at them (that was the worst for me). Don’t tell them you know how they feel, because you don’t. Don’t make grand gestures and then get upset if they don’t fall over themselves to thank you endlessly or aren’t happy about it. Sometimes people don’t know how they will feel in the day to day and showing up at their doorstep with a gift basket might be welcome one day and annoy them the next. If they say they want to be left alone, respect that. It’s okay to send a text or email if you haven’t heard from them to let them know you are thinking about them, or perhaps a quote or meme or cute puppy video you saw on Facebook.

Don’t suffocate them, just perform a gentle acts of kindness and then back away. If they want to talk or see you, they will let you know. Some people cannot ask for help or don’t want to be a bother. I was the later, but also was very happy to let those who wanted to participate in the process into my inner circle, so to speak. It’s my experience that most cancer patients don’t want chemo buddies each week or only want one or two people to experience that with them. Some don’t at all – they want to be alone during that process. Just respect their boundaries. It isn’t easy, especially if the patient doesn’t have a good prognosis. There can be panic and the possibility of regrets. We are all human.

Cancer made me more bold and I see that in others who are currently in treatment. I met others like that when I was still having chemo. For some of us, we want to communicate, let the world in and use that for strength. It was energizing for me to have social media to feel like I wasn’t alone, even when I was flat on the sofa feeling nauseous or waiting to talk with my doctor. I also saw the same people every week come in to get chemo alone with a book and a blanket, or with their spouse by their side. They did not dress up in costumes or make bucket lists or want attention of any kind. We all handle facing our mortality differently. The most important thing I can say I’ve learned is to listen to others. Through their words and their actions, they will tell you what they need or want from you.

Lastly, be sure to ask the loved ones of the patient how they are doing and make sure they have support. I actually wasn’t concerned about my well-being, but wanted to make sure my close friends checked in with my wife. I knew she would be tending to my needs constantly and I wanted her to feel supported and to have back up. It was so nice for me to know that she had a support system and it wasn’t just people wanting to know how I was doing. It’s much easier for a patient to focus on recovery if they know those close to them are okay and not stretched too thin. Enough for now. I’m sure I will have feedback about this from others and I will write more about this subject later. ❤

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A big chunk of my support system. This is us after I finished treatment. So much love!

Yoga and Continued Healing

It took a little while after finishing treatment for me to feel like doing much. Even though I had endured chemo and radiation without too much drama or sickness, my body decided it wanted me to spend some time on my sofa, watching dvds, and not doing anything productive for a while. It felt good and I really enjoyed the quiet time without having to think about nausea patterns or doctor appointments. I don’t really have any obvious residual issues, other than my scar from my port still hurts at times.

Eventually, I knew I needed to do something with myself and decided to try taking some basic yoga classes. I did decently well keeping up, but it became very apparent that I was weak and my muscles would shake during any pose that required balancing or holding myself up on all fours. I took a break during the chaos of holiday sales season with the intention of returning once things calmed down.

During that time I was offered the opportunity to do cleaning at a local yoga studio in exchange for classes. I said yes. When I started looking into which classes I wanted to try I came across a yin restorative class. Reading the description, I knew it was the class I wanted to try first. It is a class that takes place down on the mat and involves holding very doable poses for longer periods of time. Transitions are slower and the emphasis is on deep stretching, or opening, affecting joints and ligaments. It is ideal for someone recovering from an accident or injury, or someone slowly trying to get back their strength and flexibility (or all of the above, like me). By the second class, I was addicted.

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Supported child’s pose, when done by a unicorn. Yes, I drew this. 😉

My instructor closes the blinds, dims the lights, lights candles, and plays music that is a combination of relaxing and gently stimulating. Before class, most students lie on their mats, quietly letting go of their day and the outside world. The mood is set. We use props and slowly move through poses as instructed. After class I usually feel as if I’ve meditated while enjoying a gentle workout, mixed with stretching away my sore muscles and stress. As cheesy as this may sound, I never, ever want to give it up. I kind of want to swear my undying devotion to my instructor as well. Yeah, I’m in love.

One of the things my instructor talks about with new students is the tendency to have emotional experiences during class. The work done can release stress or tension held in various parts of the body. Each person experiences the class differently, but for some it is very cathartic. Personally, there have been two or three classes where I found myself having intense emotions and was slightly tearful at the end. I actually didn’t want to get up off of my mat and just wanted to savor the moment as long as possible. I always am left feeling transformed in a way, but I can only describe the emotions I experience during these classes as a mix of happy, sad, connected, grounded, transported, joyful, and oh so very grateful, for everything in my life.

This is the white board in class, so we know what to put next to our mats before each class. Feeling the love. <3

This is the white board in class that tells us what to put next to our mats before each class. Feeling the love. ❤

We are always in such a hurry – to finish our to do lists, to get to work, to make appointments, to make money, and so on. We rarely slow down during our day to day and most people are never able to get out of their head, even if just for an hour or so. It truly is a gift to be able to attend these classes and to let go of physical, mental, and emotional stress. I feel as if yin restorative yoga was the perfect activity for me and the connection I’ve made with my instructor is priceless. I feel stronger, happier, and more focused and relaxed than I’ve ever been. Yep, it’s a keeper.

Long Time, No Talk

I know I’ve been gone for a while and haven’t posted anything new. I’ve mostly been re-adjusting to life after treatment and was trying to get caught up on creating artwork and pottery for the numerous holiday sales I usually sell at, from November through December. It was a crazy roller coaster of productivity and it felt good. So many new ideas and a new outlook on life pushed me to get back into my creative groove and express myself. By the end of December, I had worn myself out a bit, but it made me feel alive.

I’ve also now had my three month checkup with my oncologist. It was really good to see him and the usual happy people I’d gotten used to visiting with every week, although it did feel odd to return to the clinic. Dr. Rushing greeted us like old friends and he immediately hugged me. We wore tiny rainbow colored hats and matching bow ties. He, of course, posed for a photo with me wearing them. It was great to catch up, even when I had to remind myself I was there as a patient who had finished treatment just 3+ months earlier. When we got around to talking business it was a sobering reminder of how cancer will always be a part of my life and of a dear friend whose cancer had returned and put him back into treatment. Yeah, cancer is an inconsiderate jerk.

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Dr. Rushing and I

Dr. Rushing told us that because I did not have blood markers before my surgery, the higher than normal numbers that indicate that something is wrong, we will just have to keep doing basic exams and I will be the gauge for knowing if something seems abnormal and I need further testing. That’s a lot of pressure, to not have an easily identifiable way of knowing if the cancer has returned or spread. He doesn’t want to put me through a cat scan every 3 months because of the radiation levels, so we will only do them if I feel like anything is off in my body. It’s a scary thing to think about, having to wait until something is clearly wrong before doing in-depth testing, but I trust my doctor with my life and it’s gotten me this far.

I’m facing it as I have everything else that has come my way this past year, with a positive attitude and the determination that I will not let cancer win, especially when it comes to negative thoughts, dread, or fear. That does nothing but hold me back and leave me waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. I have been moving forward, starting to write more about my experiences as prompted by others, and am working towards promoting nutrition and the regime I followed during, and now after, treatment. Speaking with others about an experience like cancer validates the person who is/was going though it and also tends to give that person the feeling that they have some form of control over it. It’s empowering.

I’m doing work with a circle of friends as a Wellness Advocate, promoting the positive benefits I experienced because I started taking doTERRA essential oils after my surgery, around the time I started chemo. A kind friend gifted me my first 3 bottles and it has changed my life. We did a lot to keep me healthy and to keep my body from becoming malnourished. I will write more about that later and will put together exactly what I consumed so I will be able to share it with others.

I’m currently working on that and our pottery business. I told Sam after I finished treatment that I wanted to do things that make me happy versus taking the first retail job I came across to pay the bills. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who has taken 3 part-time teaching jobs in order to pay the bills while I pursue business goals and keep up with my newly invigorated creative drive. She really is the wind beneath my wings.

I’ll be better about writing from now on. The break was good, but it makes my heart happy to be back at it. Life is good.

Embracing Full Nudity and the Art of Chelsea Rose

I should have posted sooner about the day we collaborated with our friend and artist, Chelsea Rose. I got so caught up in my radiation treatments and everything else and let it slip by. Today I want to re-visit it and share the experience with you. Chelsea is a painter and has been working on her “Goddess” series, which involves her painting on fully nude models and then photographing them, either in nature or in a studio setting. I had been tempted to volunteer to model for her for a while, but once again, let my fear of my body image get in the way. It’s been there for a lifetime and yes, I’m working on it, but these things take time.

Okay, I’m fat. I’ve always been chubby or plump or had baby fat or whatever else you want to call it. I’ve never been skinny. I’ve always had a belly and was always made to feel ashamed of it. When I look back at myself now, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Because I was made to feel bad about it, I hid and ate more and got bigger. I had a long-term relationship with someone where eating was how we bonded. That and watching tv. I ended up weighing over 300 pounds and felt horrible about myself. In my late 30’s I started realizing I had to change things. I stopped eating fast food, stopped drinking any kind of soda, and started doing more exercise. It was a start.

Because I had been on diets from childhood, I decided I would never again be “on a diet”. It was a lifestyle change and I was going to take things slowly. Weight did start to come off gradually. That was around 2006 and now my total weight loss is around 74 pounds. I did lose 13 pounds after my hysterectomy surgery and during chemo, but everything else came of gradually and I’ve easily kept it off. I know we are all looking for the quick fix, but it doesn’t work and doesn’t last unless you are willing to do the work on yourself and figure out why you are using food as a way of comforting yourself, instead of to feed your body. I was that person. I still am, but now I make sure I get enough nutrition to be as healthy as I can. I am in no way eating the way I wish I was, which would be lots of fresh veggies and plant-based protein. I feel amazing when I can eat that way, but I admit that I am lazy and the time it takes to prepare meals often gets in the way. I do my best and that is all we can ask of ourselves.

Moving on – I have spent a lot of time working on my body image issues. Meeting Sam was a big deal for me because she doesn’t have body issues and hangups like mine. Our relationship has been the key to me moving to the next level in facing my fears, getting out there to enjoy life, and learning to love myself more and more. She loves all of me. She passes no judgements and has never once made me feel awkward or like I “just need to do… and she will love me more.” It truly is an unconditional love. I know how rare that is and I am grateful for it every day. It has enabled me to do things I never would have done before and to face things from a more confident place of strength and happiness. I’m not “cured” and certainly am still self-conscious about my body, but, I am doing a better job of living my life and if I died tomorrow, my regrets would be few.

It is a BIG deal for me to place my trust in someone to 1. See me fully naked while they paint my body 2. Allow that person full control of the photographs that would be taken of my fully naked body and 3. Be okay with whatever she chooses to do with those images in the future. Once I was diagnosed with cancer and survived surgery, I decided it was time to ask Chelsea if she wanted a “bald, cancer lady” for a model. She immediately responded and our mutual excitement grew. Sam offered to be a part of the photo shoot, which was wonderful because Chelsea hadn’t worked with a couple yet. I was excited and nervous as we planned the weekend and location where we would spend the day doing this.

Chelsea often spends 3-4 hours painting just one person, in fine detail. You can see her work at www.chelsearosearts.com. We were dealing with two people and entering fall, so the sun was setting earlier. It was going to be a race against time. We picked Chelsea up and headed to the beach location we had decided on. She set up and we took off our clothes and she began painting – first Sam’s face and then mine and back and forth until we were both fully covered. It took around 4 hours to complete. Because of the time constraints, she used more bold lines and fewer details, but I think the emotion and feeling we wanted to capture is just as significant. We are a couple brought closer together through cancer and this was a great way to honor that. Chelsea did a great job with the photographs and having us relate to one another. Seeing the finished images blew my mind. She converts them to black and white and the effect is striking to say the least.

Yes, I am naked and I am learning to see these images in a way that helps me to look  past my shape and the fact that I am aging and sagging. I am trying to embrace the fact that I have earned every wrinkle, stretch mark, and imperfection and that I have survived everything that life has thrown at me, so far. I can now joke about the fact that I have lost most of my weight in the lower part of my body, leaving me with what I call an “old man butt”. My hips and butt have disappeared, yet my stomach has lost nothing. Having naturally large breasts means they will sag. I am who I am and this is the package that it comes in. Learning to accept that in a society that shames everything about everyone until we have little girls talking about diets and criticizing their bodies, is hard. I am so much further down that path than I ever was before and that is something to celebrate. I am also honoring myself as a survivor and this body that keeps on ticking. I’ve been told I am a warrior. I don’t know about that, but looking at myself covered in Chelsea’s paint sure makes that seem more real to me. Thank you again Chelsea, for celebrating us in this way. It is a day I will never forget. ❤

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Me, in the beginning.

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Sam, just getting started.

Sam, almost finished.

Sam, almost finished.

Me, almost finished.

Me, almost finished.

I took this image of Sam as Chelsea was finishing painting on me.

I took this image of Sam as Chelsea was finishing painting on me.

In the woods.

In the woods.

I can't wait to see this in black and white and to hang it on the wall at home.

I can’t wait to see this in black and white and to hang it on the wall at home.

My view of Sam during the log photo. <3

My view of Sam during the log photo. ❤

Relaxing together.

Relaxing together.

Finished black & white images, selected by Chelsea.

Finished black & white image, selected by Chelsea.

Another selection by Chelsea.

Another selection by Chelsea.

My favorite of the Chelsea selections. This sums us up pretty well.

My favorite of the Chelsea selections. This sums us up pretty well.

After we got home, Sam and I orchestrated this photograph in her chicken coop.

After we got home, Sam and I orchestrated this photograph in her chicken coop. An awesome collaboration.

All images copyright – Chelsea Rose Arts or Kelly Keigwin, 2014. These cannot be re-used for any reason without the written consent of the artists and models.

Kicking My Port to the Curb

One of the things I’ve looked forward to is having my port removed. It’s something that is necessary and I appreciated the ease it gave when getting chemo and such. For those who don’t know, a port is inserted into your chest and has tubing that runs up into a vein in your neck. Instead of getting an i.v. every week, they would simply access the port, which means they would puncture it with a needle with tubing attached, and I would be ready to go. I was told that it also meant the medication went directly into my heart, versus having to have it work it’s way through my bloodstream, which is a good thing.

The drawback is that you know it is there, especially in the beginning. I really noticed it in my neck and it creeped me out. The part in my chest just felt like a bruise most of the time because it was directly under the skin. I would definitely feel it when I woke up in the morning, after I had slept on that side. It wasn’t awful and like I said, I appreciated not having to have an i.v. each week. It also helps keep your veins in good shape from not being repeatedly punctured. That said, it is constantly there, reminding you that you have cancer and a foreign object in your body.

I started having neck pain issues, just after I completed radiation treatments. I had a conversation with my massage therapist and chiropractor and the theory came up that perhaps my port was causing the left side of my neck to pull out of whack because of the port on the right side. Because I had been taking steroids every week during chemo, it would have masked any pain I was having, but now the steroids had worn off. It made sense and I decided to try removing the port to see if it made a difference. I called my oncologist’s office to see if we could discuss it and ended up being called back by someone I didn’t know in the office. She started telling me that they can’t just put it back in and that with my stage 3c status my chances of re-occurrence (aka my cancer returning) are higher. It freaked me out. I am a realist and an optimist and am aware of the possibility of my cancer coming back. I had been feeling so good after radiation and didn’t expect to be met with that response from my doctor’s office. I just wanted to talk about my port and ended up spiraling into a depression.

Suddenly, I felt tied to my port, as a symbol that cancer was lurking in my body and waiting to come back to kill me. I know that is always a possibility, but I really wanted to think that I was going to enjoy a period of decent health and happiness, at least for a while. A few days later I received a call for an appointment to come in to have my port flushed. I was a bit surprised. Once a month a port has to be flushed with saline to keep it from getting backed up. I knew I either had to have my port removed or flushed because it had been just over a month since I finished treatment. I put the appointment on my calendar and figured I was not going to get to see my doctor and was just going to have a maintenance appointment. I kept hoping somehow I would get to see my doctor and maybe convince him to remove the port.

Today I went in and was told they were removing my port. I was excited and grossed out at the same time. Sam had come with me, just in case it went that way, so she could document it. They check you into the hospital when they install the port. When they remove it, they do it in office. My doctor came in and we hugged and smiled and spoke about everything. I was prepped and shot up with lidocaine to numb the spot. He made an incision over the previous one and loosened the port and popped it out.  It’s amazing that the vein will close itself off and not bleed after the tubing is removed. The human body is a crazy thing. He then sewed me up and we spent some more time chatting about my trip I want to take to the South (he is from Memphis).  I teased him and said I might get more chest tattoos just to make his job harder if he has to re-install the port. He laughed because he had told me avoiding tattooed areas sometimes makes him have to be more creative with placement in order to avoid cutting into them. There’s something you don’t think about every day – tattoos and surgery scars.

My doctor is a great guy and made me feel much better about everything. We spoke about the realities of my cancer being an aggressive variety and the possibility of it returning, or not at all. Chemo actually works better on aggressive cancer cells than on slow-growing ones, because they are rapidly mutating, which allows the drugs to get inside and kill them. There is a possibility that I will never need treatment again. There also is a possibility it might come back in 1-2 years.  I just wanted facts and he was great about that. He  reassured me that it wasn’t a big deal to put the port back in, if I should ever need it again. All of that stress and sadness for nothing. When they asked if I was wanting to keep my port, I said yes and he said, “Of course she does. If you asked me about any other patient, I’d say no, but you, I knew you’d want to keep it”. I said something about how on my first meeting with him I asked if I could keep my lady parts after my hysterectomy, which established where I was coming from. We laughed.

I’ll be going back for my check-up in January and in the meantime, I will focus on being healthy, doing yoga, hitting the gym, and hopefully, feeling better in every sense of the word. Cancer may come back in the next couple of years, or maybe never, but for now, I’m running the show and I refuse to keep feeding the depression spiral. Onward and upward.

Disclaimer – these are photographs from a minor surgical procedure. Be forewarned.

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The tray is prepped and ready to go.

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Getting my gown on.

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One last look at my port, before it comes out.

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Prepping the area with Betadine.

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Injecting the area with Lidocaine.

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Re-opening the original incision.

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Loosening the port.

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It starts to come out.

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Almost finished.

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Boom! It’s out. My doctor is awesome.

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A look at the tray as they irrigate the wound.

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Sewing it up.

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Almost done.

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Finished.

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After.

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Good stuff.

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A photo of us from the early days of treatment, displayed in the main office area. ❤

All images copyright – Sam MacKenzie, 2014. None of these images may be used or reproduced without written consent of the artist and subject.