The last time I ran outside was three days before I found out that I had cancer. In the months leading up to my diagnosis, I had established a routine of a morning run to the lake and back, a healthy smoothie, and a productive day to follow. I finally felt like I was on track to get to the happiest ME. Summer was just around the corner; I felt invincible. So, the timing of my diagnosis was a punch in the face. The months that followed left me weaker than I had ever been; utterly broken.
Today, I ran outside. Three miles without missing a beat. To the lake and back. When I realized when I had last run to the lake, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Nine months have passed already, and I couldn’t be more different from that girl last May. Who did she think she was? What could she possibly have known about happiness? About grief? Life?
On the day I was disconnected from my very last chemo pump, I met Bron for our first personal training session. Instantly, I loved her positive words and goofy personality. I was exhausted, drained of all my physical strength and almost all of my hope. At first, I couldn’t even run for thirty seconds. After weeks in bed, I had lost so much muscle tone. Plus, the neuropathy in my feet was a difficult adjustment. We started with some easy circuit training and I began walking on the treadmill. After a few weeks and a new pair of running shoes, I gathered the courage to try running again. Once I got used to the sensation of numbness, I started running a little faster, a little further. Strength training was paying off – I felt stronger and more energetic. Still, it is hard to see progress when you’re in the middle of it, especially when you’re impatient like me. I wanted to be ready for a marathon, with big guns and buns of steel. I was at a plateau and I was frustrated.
Last week I had the surgery to remove my port, and I was on doctor’s orders not to lift or exercise for a week. The weather was so perfect; it was killing me to not go out for the first run of the year. Today, finally! As I hit the two mile mark, I was approaching a hill (no cheesy metaphors about uphill battles here). My pace slowed and I got that nagging urge to walk. Then my song came on, “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + The Machine. It gets me motivated every time, I could run miles with it on repeat. And then it hit me:
Look what you’ve done. Look what you’re capable of. Every single time you try, you progress. You’re on a path to a better life and the only direction you’ll go is UP as long as you make the effort to try. It’s life changing when you see that there are no limits but the ones you place on yourself.
Happiness hit her like a train on a track
Coming towards her stuck still no turning back
She hid around corners and she hid under beds
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled
With every bubble she sank with her drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink
The dog days are over
Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father
The dog days are over
And I never wanted anything from you
The dog days are over
Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father
The dog days are over
The dog days are over
-Florence + The Machine-
I turned 26 this weekend! I couldn’t be more excited to close the door on 25 and put this year behind me. This got me thinking…as we get older, why do we dread birthdays so much? Isn’t getting old a privilege? When you consider the alternative – dying young – getting old doesn’t seem like anything we should be complaining about. After all, life only moves in one direction; there’s no stopping it. So why not embrace each year, and celebrate having made it this far. On your next birthday, I don’t care if you’re 15 or 95 – let your loved ones spoil you, and be thankful that you are here to enjoy it.
In other news, there has been a LOT going on at HNP! I’ve jumped into 2012 with some pretty ginormous goals, and I’m already seeing them unfold in front of my eyes. If I could keep my business thriving through a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy…I don’t see how anything can stand in my way this year!
1. My business has expanded beyond what I had ever imagined – and so, it’s time to hire my first employee! I’m beginning the search for the perfect person to turn HNP into a team of 2! (I tried convincing my mom to quit the ice cream business and be my right hand woman year round…but apparently she really likes being the icecream lady!!) If you are interested in the position, you can send your resume, references, and cover letter to me at email@example.com. Check out the Facebook page to learn more about what I’m looking for.
2. The first big promotion of the year is coming up this Saturday! I’ve teamed up with Beautiful Beginnings, Tan’ology, and Ashley Gardner to put on a Prom event like no other! High school girls from all across the U.P. are invited to the bridal salon on January 28th from 10-3 to try on the latest Prom styles, give modeling a shot by having their photo taken in their favorite dress, check out some amazing makeup and hair demos, and cash in on some incredible giveaways! The HNP Class of ’11 models will be helping out, and Liz, last year’s HNP Prom Queen Winner will be our live window model! It’s going to be so much fun!
3. I’m trying to narrow my business focus onto what I REALLY want to do. As a photographer, it’s easy to accept every project that comes your way, but with experience we discover what we like and what we could do without. As most of you know, I stopped shooting weddings last year. I was lucky enough to only work with very kind couples (no bridezillas at all..thank goodness) but I still found that the anxiety that comes with such a big event took the fun out of it for me. It takes a very special person to be a successful wedding photographer – and a good photographer is worth the investment! I have several super talented friends that I am happy to recommend if you’re looking! I’ve photographed a little bit of everything – engagements, families, children, seniors, newborns, pets, you name it. This should come as no surprise, but I have found that photographing high school seniors is my absolute favorite thing to do. Soooo, to make a long story short – I will only be taking on seniors this year! Whew…it feels good to put that out there. Again, I’m happy to make recommendations if you are looking for another type of photography. If you are going to be a senior and you’re looking for unique senior portraits that will make all of your friends jealous – I’m your girl!!
4. Another aspect of the business that really interests me is creating connections and networking with other like minded professionals. Together with Jen of Wren Photography, Jenn of Jennifer LaChance Photography, and Daniele of Daniele Carol Photography – we will be starting a local chapter of Lemonade & Lenses – the brainchild of the lovely Lexi Vornberg! Our organization is about learning and sharing with other photographers; creating friendships rather than rivalries. I met with a wonderful group of photogs last week, and we’ll be holding the first official U.P. L&L meeting in March. Here’s us doing our sexy pose!!!
I’ve also launched a brand new modeling program for the class of ’13 seniors, I’m working on a new blogsite, and I’m preparing to introduce another division of my business within the next year. So much to do – so little time!
And those are only my 2012 goals. Just wait until you hear my 2013 goals!Keep up with the action by becoming a fan of the HNP facebook page!
Here’s to growing old!
P.S. On my birthday, I had the opportunity to photograph two of my best friends – my first shoot since October! Here’s a sneak peek:
Well…I did it. Twelve brutal chemotherapy treatments, done! I wanted to write this blog post to celebrate getting to this point, to thank those who have carried me through this nightmare, and most importantly to help others learn more about what a cancer diagnosis really means…not the movie version of cancer. I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile because I wasn’t sure about sharing such a personal experience – but I think it’s important. It’s going to be long, so get comfy. I think by this point, I’ve experienced every stage of the grieving process, though I think I went through it backwards, forwards, and over again. As for now, I’m a little overwhelmed, a little bummed out most days, and definitely anxious about what the future holds for me. I know it will get better, so I’ll allow myself a small pity party and get on with it, while realizing that I’ll never be the same.
I want to try to paint a realistic picture of what it was like. Not just for you, but for me too. I always want to remember this. Before I was diagnosed, I sometimes thought, “What would I do if I had cancer?” I thought everyone had this morbid thought. June 2nd was the day we got the diagnosis that shocked the pants off all of us. I got the news alone in my living room; a call from Dr. Surrell. I let myself cry for awhile, and when I thought I could keep it together I called Dano at work. The words wouldn’t come out, and he rushed home and we cried together. We packed our things and headed for Marquette. In the waiting room at the surgeon’s office, I told my parents what the doctors already knew, it was definitely cancer. I remember wanting to be strong for my parents’ sake – but with surgery scheduled for the next day I was honestly just looking forward to the drugs that would take me to a place where this new reality hadn’t yet sunk in. Dano’s sister drove all the way from Lansing to be with us at the hospital, and our families made sure that I was never alone.
The surgeon told us that after a portion of my colon was removed, I would begin chemotherapy. That was a reality check. Sure, I have cancer – but chemotherapy? Shit’s getting real! Although he dismissed my concerns about fertility issues, I started to panic. If I can’t have babies, what is the point of all of this? I’ll spare you the details of my surgery, but I’ll just say that it was a miserable six days. Next came the surgery to place the port in my chest where I’d be receiving chemotherapy. It’s hard to top the colon surgery, but this one was almost worse because I had to be awake. Nobody told me what to expect, so I assumed I’d be out like a light. I also assumed that my port would have a removable external cap because someone wrongly informed me that a port means no more pokes. That’s SO not true. The port is sewed under my skin, with a catheter going through the jugular and into my heart. It creeps me out to this day, and I get poked all the time.
In the midst of all of this, Dano asked me to marry him. It’s no secret that I was not very patient about waiting for that ring! I’m still in awe that I met someone who brings me such happiness. It’s kind of ridiculous how much I like that guy. I always joke that even if I didn’t like him, I’d stick with him just for his family. Honestly, I have the best in-laws in the world, although Dano’s aren’t too bad either!
We started to talk about getting a second opinion for everything, and our trip to Mayo began to take shape. On the agenda: a fertility specialist, medical oncologist, nutritionist, and genetic counselor. I ended up staying in Minnesota for a couple weeks in July for fertility preservation. The odds were unknown, and I wasn’t taking any chances. Dano and I have twenty embryos frozen in a safe place, and that small comfort made the next six months bearable.
Chemotherapy began in July. At first I thought “Hey, this chemo thing is not so bad!” It caught up with me soon enough. My drug cocktail was called Folfox, which is the standard treatment for Stage III colon cancer. It stands for 5fu, leucovorin, and oxaliplatin. The oxi was the nastiest of the three. That’s the one that caused the severe sensitivity to cold. Almost immediately after my first infusion, I was unable to drink or eat anything cold, touch anything cold, or be outside if it was under 65 degrees. I started wearing mittens everywhere. I relied on my mom or Dano to crack an egg for me, peel an apple, pour juice, or open a cold doorknob. Did I mention that I was still photographing at this point? I’m not sure how I managed that. The doctors said I wouldn’t lose much hair, but it started coming out in handfuls when I washed it. I lost over half of my hair, and it now takes some very strategic back-combing to hide the bald spots when I feel like getting pretty, which doesn’t happen very often. Of course, the hair on my legs kept growing. Go figure! At least I had a great excuse to skip shaving for months at a time.
About midway through my treatments, the skin on my hands and feet started peeling off – yet another lovely side effect. I started to get even more nauseous after each treatment, and there were a few treatments that sent me to bed for a week straight. I can’t describe the overwhelming fatigue, it was even mentally exhausting. I couldn’t sleep though, so I had to add another prescription to my daily routine. It does the job, but my doctor says it’s also the reason I’ve lost my sense of balance. At least Dano and I can laugh when I bump into walls and trip over my own feet. When my white blood cells got too low, I’d have to get a shot of Neulasta, which stimulates your bones to produce more white cells. I’d compare that experience to being hit by a bus. Way worse than the chemo itself.
I do have to say that chemo has its perks for a spoiled girl like me. My mom and dad never failed to get me a “chemo present” for each treatment. From a special necklace, to gym passes, to winter boots – they had it covered. Chemo day also meant that I could ask my family for virtually anything, and they’d do it for me. This means a CLEAN HOUSE!Plus I had one grandma doing all of our laundry and the other grandma bringing me homemade applesauce on demand, not to mention the countless other people who so kindly cooked a meal for us. Yes, I am fully aware that I am spoiled rotten. Dano made me breakfast in bed, put my socks on for me, and always let me warm up my cold hands in his armpits. Oh, and he didn’t make me do dishes for an entire six months. If that’s not love…..
After my 11th and second to last treatment, a brand new side effect popped up out of the blue. All of a sudden, my hands and feet are numb. I can’t feel textures, and they tingle 24/7. When I tilt my head down, my feet feel like they’re being shocked. The same thing happens to my hands when I hold them away from my body. When I try to run, I can’t feel where my feet are going to land. For many people, chemotherapy induced neuropathy is permanent. I’ll just have to wait and see if my condition improves, and keep my fingers crossed that the feeling comes back! On the bright side – I think I’ve kicked my life long nail biting/picking habit. Yay!
That’s the tip of the iceberg, but I won’t bore you with any more details. I think you get the picture! Although it’s sometimes hard to put a positive spin on this experience, I still wouldn’t change a thing if I could. So many wonderful things have occurred as a direct result of my cancer, which is why I’m almost thankful for it in some demented way. Does that sound crazy? First of all, this ordeal has brought my entire family so much closer. I get to see my grandparents all the time, and there are few things I enjoy more than spending time with them. I have a better relationship with my brother, I’m closer to my dad than I ever have been before, and I will never fail to appreciate my mother again. She’s the true hero of this story. Watching your child endure cancer has to be the only thing worse than enduring it yourself. She held me up when I wanted to crawl into a hole, and she helped me physically, emotionally, and mentally – every. single. day. I know she would have traded places if she could, but I’m so glad that it wasn’t her. And you know I can never say enough good things about my Dano. He’s always been my Mr. Wonderful, so it was no surprise that he has done everything in his power to give me the strength I needed to get through this. I owe him big time.
Friends new and old have come out of the woodwork with words of advice or encouragement, a generous donation, a home cooked meal, or a shoulder to cry on. All of my dear friends who I hold so close to my heart have proved that they indeed deserve to be my best friends. I’ve never felt so loved. The community came together in a huge way, both in Crystal Falls and Rapid River…to hold a benefit in my honor. Thanks to your kindness, we were able to set up a special fund for my medical expenses and future insurance costs. The generosity of friends, family, and strangers has brought us to tears many times this year.
Most surprising of all, I’ve seen a change in myself that may have taken years to realize if not for cancer. I have SO much more self esteem! (Maybe it’s from being spoiled! Haha!) But in all seriousness, I have always worried about what other people think about me. I think I’ll always care to some extent, but for the most part I just don’t give a darn anymore! I know that I’m a nice person and so it’s not my problem if someone chooses to dislike me. Why did it take me so long to realize that? Nothing like a life threatening illness to give a person a little perspective, I guess. So, for the most part I’d say that I’m changed for the better. I do have a new pet peeve though. I seem to have lost my tolerance for overly negative people who whine too much! Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t think that my problems are worse than anyone else’s. I realize that we all have to vent sometimes, even if the issue is minor. Just think twice before announcing to all of Facebook that you have the worst life EVER because you ran out of windshield wiper fluid. Let’s all agree that things can always get a lot worse.
Although I had a wonderful healthcare team, I would like to especially thank “Doc” Surrell, who instead of dismissing my concerns, insisted on a colonoscopy. He kept us all laughing with his corny jokes – he is truly one of a kind. He was the one who had to give us the bad news, but he couldn’t have handled us with more care and compassion. He saved my life and I will always be grateful to him.
I’ve also discovered that there’s an incredibly special bond between people who have experienced cancer. No one else can truly understand what it’s like. To my cousin Tina, who I’ll always look up to. My dear friend Misti, who has paved the way for me with her fearlessness and support. To my new friend Erin, who reached out to a stranger to help me cope. She helped me allow myself to feel…whether that is happy, hopeful, angry, bitter, resentful, anxious, depressed, and all the emotions in between. Most of all, she taught me to cry whenever I feel like it. To a client turned friend, Angela, who lights up a room with her warmth and gives the best advice. To one of my model’s mothers, Stacey, a very special gal who was diagnosed around the same time as me…her positive energy is inspiring. To a very wise lady, Joy, whose strength and kindness has helped my family greatly. To my cherished piano teacher, Karen, who always knows exactly the right thing to say. To all of those wonderful people who shared the chemo room with me. You took me under your wing and silently taught me how to be strong. I hope you know how much you have all touched my life when I needed it most. For anyone I’m forgetting (chemo brain) and to anyone who has ever had a cancer diagnosis, or watched someone you love go through it…and especially to anyone who is still reeling from the shock of hearing your name and cancer in the same sentence: You are SO much stronger than you think you are, I promise.
P.S. While I have your attention, I can’t help but sneak in a little public service announcement. If you have any concerns about your body, tell your doctor ASAP! If you are over 50 or if you have any symptoms of colon cancer, GET YOUR COLONOSCOPY. It’s a piece of cake, trust me.
This summer has been a roller coaster, to say the least! If you were wondering why I disappeared for a little while, here’s a little update on this crazy life of mine. I was diagnosed with colon cancer on June 1st. Me, a 25 year old healthy vegetarian. Really? It all felt like a bad dream for the first few weeks. I was admitted to MGH the very next day to have the tumor surgically removed, followed by a rather miserable five days in the hospital. The surgeon removed 22 surrounding lymph nodes as well as the tumor. They tested all of the lymph nodes and found 5 of them to be cancerous – which means that I have stage IIIB colon cancer.
Flash forward to June 13th for some happy news: my favorite person in the world asked me to marry him. We are planning a June 2012 wedding and I am beyond excited to become Mrs. Nylund! We went to Mayo for a second opinion and we found out that the one of the drugs that will be used for my chemotherapy has a substantial risk of permanently affecting my fertility. If you know me, you know that this news was even harder to swallow than the cancer diagnosis itself. We decided that the best option for us would be to undergo IVF treatment and have embryos frozen before chemotherapy. I was in Rochester for a good part of July for daily blood tests, ultrasounds, and self-injections of hormones. Not fun, but the procedure was very successful – we have 20 embryos waiting for us! We don’t plan on having twenty kids, so we will be able to donate the embryos to another couple when we have completed our family someday.
I started chemotherapy in Escanaba on Wednesday, and I’ll be done just before the holidays if everything goes according to schedule. Overall, I am doing really well. I have my days of course, but it’s just life. Moving forward is the only option you ever truly have, so that’s what I’m doing. I have to say, my friends and family have really blown my socks off. I knew I was surrounded by a lot of love, but I had no idea the lengths to which they would go, for me. “Thank you” doesn’t quite cut it, but I hope they all know how grateful I am. That’s the relatively short version of things – if you want the long version, or if you’d like to keep up with future updates, you can check out the Caring Bridge website my mom set up for me: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/hollynicholson
In between the surgeries and treatments and doctors appointments, I did manage to squeeze in a few awesome seniors! Everyone has been very understanding about rescheduling, and my calendar is booked solid for the next two months. If I have not answered your e-mail or returned your call, I apologize – it has just been crazy around here and I have been having trouble keeping up! I am going to try to work throughout my chemotherapy treatment, giving myself every other week off to recover from the side effects. I have very few spots left for senior photos in September/October – so if you have your heart set on HNP you can use the contact form to get in touch with me!