Peace In, Turmoil Out

Just like rowing down the lake, my cancer mantra has given me a silent place and allowed me the strength to catch on to my future and the courage to release my fears.

The author provides a photo of her cancer quilt.

When I moved to Austin in 1998, I took up the sport of rowing to keep myself preoccupied during my first summer away from my only child. His father and I had divorced in May and I relocated to Austin to be closer to my former in-laws (I love them like parents) and for a new career. My son would spend his summers with his dad, leaving me with time to find something to do so I took up the activity of rowing. I joined a “Learn to Row” class at Austin Rowing Club and began a process that eventually changed my life.

I had found this place I felt I belonged and was forging these amazing friendships. I was also learning how to row a single--I would wobble around on the water for hours, trying to understand concepts like “table top rowing” or “quick hands away” and on three occasions (yes, I have actually kept count) I found myself swimming instead of rowing, having flipped the boat. I honestly tell people this can only happen when you stop thinking about rowing and let your other life worries get in your head. Rowing is this sport that maintains and almost requires you to let go of your troubles and focus on what you are doing in that moment; it is in fact as peaceful as it looks, especially when you are doing it right. After I received my “it’s cancer” call on July 15 of last year, I cherished my rows– I literally escaped from the reality that was coming down on me during the month of rowing prior to my surgery.

As Aug. 13 (the date of my bilateral mastectomy) approached, I kept myself as busy as I could. Part of this process included getting my recovery room, or “cave” as I now call it, ready. I redid a tiny bedroom in my home; I set it up the week before my surgery and had photos of my family, friends and of my son that I could see while lying down in my bed. I had no idea when I was getting the room ready how much time I would spend in there, but I wanted it to be a place I could be comfortable in during what I was certain would be times of discomfort. I was about to lose my “girls” and figured there was going to be some pain involved in that – physical as well as emotional. The only thing I was missing in my little cave was the one thing I didn’t know I would need and have now come to love – my cancer quilt.

I am not the first to get a quilt or blanket during the cancer journey. I have actually helped make a quilt in the past for a dear family member. It was a remarkable experience for me to be included in, so when my very talented friend and former rowing partner, Maril, called to ask my permission and allow her to make me a cancer quilt, I knew it was something I needed and more importantly, she wanted to do for me. Maril was the first to insist on coming to see me after my diagnosis, and she was one of only two people I had on my “yes, Mom, they can come to the hospital” visitor list. She was also the only one I broke down sobbing with when I finally had my “poor pitiful me minute” (ok, it was really about 30 minutes).

After my emotional downpour, she sent me a video - a small boy, consumed with fear about his first day of school and how he used an encircling prayer to keep “peace in and turmoil out” while he went about his day. The video was amazing; I found myself relating to him and thinking, “This is what I need to do – focus on keeping peace in and the turmoil out.” My decision to remove both breasts was going to give me the ‘peace’ I would need in order to one day (and hopefully not anytime soon) become a grandmother and be here to have a place in the lives of my son’s children. The cancer was the ‘turmoil,’ and I was going to do whatever I needed to ensure that my turmoil was with me for as short amount of time as possible

This mantra is embroidered in a circle in the center of my quilt and two weeks after what I now call “Take Off,” my home was filled with my rowing and work friends as they stopped by to help tie the quilt together and think a happy thought for my recovery. Of the 30 people in my home that night, two were part of a rowing group I originally met back in 1998 and both are breast cancer survivors. The Austin rowing family is quite unique, and we do surround each other with not only competitive jousting, but true, deep friendship. I was moved by their warm wishes and thoughts. I used the quilt for the first time the very next day as I had my fourth iron transfusion. At my sixth and final iron booster, I had a different nurse and when she saw and read the mantra, she had tears in her eyes. After my limited time in the chemo infusion room, I like to think that I had gained an understanding of some of the sad things she has seen so knowing that my quilt, and the strength it was providing me, moved her so deeply, I knew my good friend had found the perfect words that inspire those of us taking this journey through cancer.

I continue to use my quilt to give me a place to escape and lose my worries. It can easily be said that I have turned into a new-day version of Linus, the character from Charlie Brown. My quilt has travelled along with me to many places, as well as being something I crawl beneath at every bedtime. Even when I traveled on a cruise to escape all things cancer at Christmas and on a visit to see my sister and her family, this quilt has gone with me. It has been photographed with all the cruise ship towel art (monkey, dog, elephant, and more) plus lived the life of keeping not only me warm, but my youngest niece as she snuggled deep beneath it during her very important nap time.

As I think about all that has happened in these past few months, from giving up a once-in-a-lifetime trip so that I could have an actual lifetime, realizing the band of strength that runs through me is fairly invincible, and that the friends I thought were amazing truly are. This has been a journey of discovery and one which my mantra fits perfectly: it simply asks for a circle of strength to keep comfort near and discouragement afar while giving me a place to keep peace in and turmoil out.

Just like rowing down the lake, with a quiet catch and pop at the finish, my cancer mantra and the circle comprised of my incredible family and amazing friends, has given me a silent place and allowed me the strength to catch on to my future and the courage to release my fears, all while being at peace with my balance and rhythm. 

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