I’m Still Team Jen

I’ve never been much of an Angelina Jolie fan. I vaguely remember long ago reports of her wearing Billy Bob’s blood in a vial around her neck and something about her kissing her brother. Then, I recall the whole Jen vs. Angelina hullaballoo when “Brangelina” was born. I never bought a t-shirt but if I had, I would have been Team Jen.

Team Jen

Team Jen! Photo borrowed from this site: http://www.teamjen.co.uk/2014/08/team-jen-in-mount-etna.html

Now, I keep hearing about Angelina’s “brave” choice to have her ovaries removed after having her breasts removed a couple of years ago to reduce her cancer risk. Oddly, I can’t help but feel some kinship with her. I may soon be faced with some of the same decisions. Don’t worry, I won’t be issuing any press releases when I do. I know that some people are annoyed with her “TMI-oversharing.” If you feel that way, you should probably stop reading now. I actually understand why she’s sharing her story and why I feel it’s important to share mine.

Just as in hers, cancer runs in my family. Maybe it runs in yours, too.  Because I wanted to be proactive about my health, I started getting regular mammograms before my 40th birthday. Last year, my results came back and they wanted to do some additional testing. It’s apparently hard to read my mammograms because of my dense tissue. I had an ultrasound and then they ordered an MRI. All came back clear (whew!) but I decided to meet with someone in the high-risk program to get a risk evaluation completed.

After a five-month wait for an appointment, I met with a nurse who is one smart cookie. She completed a risk assessment based on my health and family history. The general population has a 12% chance of getting breast cancer. Based on my assessment, my current risk is 31%.

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BRCA Risks

After some discussion, I decided to be tested for the breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 next month. If I test positive for either gene, it will mean that I have either an 80% or 60% chance of developing breast cancer before the age of 70 (factoring in my family history).

As if that isn’t enough to deal with, these same genes also increase the chance for ovarian cancer. About 1% of the general population will develop ovarian cancer, which is notoriously hard to diagnose in early stages. In contrast, those with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a 39% or 17% possibility of developing ovarian cancer.

So, for anyone who hears the choices that Angelina has made and thinks it’s crazy to have perfectly healthy breasts and ovaries removed, what would you do if you knew you had an 80% chance of developing cancer if you did nothing? What about a 60% chance? Where do you draw the line? What is an acceptable cancer risk? Is 31% acceptable? I haven’t decided yet.

For now, I’ve joined the high risk surveillance program. That means that every six months, I’ll rotate between having a mammogram and an MRI. They’ll keep a close watch on me to check for any early signs of cancer. Next month, I’m being tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. If I’m positive for either one, it will mean that I have either an 80% or 60% chance of developing breast cancer and a 39% or 17% (depending on which gene) of developing ovarian cancer before the age of 70.

Depending on the results, I’ll decide what comes next. If my results are positive for the gene, I may opt to have a prophylactic mastectomy, which is a preventive surgery. I can make that choice now but I’m waiting for more information before I decide. Because of my high cancer risk, insurance will pay for it.  I would be able to have reconstructive surgery, too (possibly at the same time). This would reduce the cancer risk to about 5%. I’ll also have to make a decision about the ovary surgery.

Even though Angelina is (and now I am) sharing a lot of personal medical choices, I think it’s important for women to really think about why. It isn’t because I’m trying to gross you out. I’m taking charge of my health. I’m not just burying my head in the sand because cancer is scary. I’m not waiting for it to happen to me because I know it could be coming at me. I bet it you asked any of my friends who have had cancer, if they knew they had a high chance of getting it and they could do something to prevent it, would they? If they could avoid radiation and chemo and reduce their risks, would they? I bet they would. I will have some important decisions to make in the coming months, depending on the outcome of the genetic testing. Please keep us in your prayers.

I strongly encourage you to take charge of your health. Everyone has a story, a family history, and not everyone would make the same choices. They are yours alone to make. This one is mine. But, please, be diligent about your preventative exams. Get tested. Get your mammograms. If something doesn’t look or feel right, please get it checked out. Early detection is key and could save your life. If I can make a choice that will prevent something that has a high chance of happening to me so that I may be around to watch my children grow up, I’m going to do it. Whatever will increase my chances of being here for my family is worth the pain. I guess I’m still Team Jen but in this case it’s my team I’m on. Sometimes, sharing is caring and I hope you’ll see that this is the case. I care about my health and I care about yours.

Happy trails,

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Everything Changed In a Heartbeat

In the blink of an eye. In a New York Minute. In a flash. Literally, in a heartbeat. Your life could change, never to resemble what it was before. Ten years ago, it happened to my dad. Like any other day, he went to work. Unlike any other day, we received a call several hours later saying that he had collapsed and they were taking him to the emergency room.

Dad and Me

My Dad and Me

Once we arrived, they ushered us to a family waiting room. I had been in this very same room a few weeks before when I came to see a co-worker whose grandson passed away after a tragic accident. I knew that his was the “bad news” room.  The doctors came in and told us that my dad had suffered an aortic dissection. The main artery to his heart had torn and he needed emergency surgery. John Ritter died of this same thing. About 60% of people with his type of dissection don’t survive surgery. Thankfully, he did. We waited days for him to wake up, not knowing how much damage was done or what he would be like when he woke up. It was determined that while his body was naturally trying to heal the tear in his aorta, clots had traveled to his brain and caused a stroke. He would be partially paralyzed on one side of his body.

The dad that I knew left us that day. A new one woke up days later.   After seven months in the hospital and various rehab centers, he came home. My mom retired earlier than she expected to care for him. While there are immeasurable challenges that he faces every day (and certainly my Mom, too, as his caregiver), there are some pretty amazing lessons that I have learned from this life-altering experience.

Life may not go according to plan. In fact, it rarely does.  It’s great to plan for the future but it is probably a great idea to have a back-up plan. It’s also a good idea to have a back-up plan for your back-up plan. Flexibility is critical. When life throws something unexpected at you, the real test will be how you respond.

The next lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to make the most of every day. You’ve probably heard it before when Robin Williams said it in Dead Poet’s Society. Carpe diem! Seize the day! You never know when it may be your last or the last time you get to spend with someone you love. If there’s something you really want to say, a trip you want to go on, a class you want to take, a book you want to write, a friend you have been meaning to call or have lunch with, forgiveness you need to seek or extend, an adventure you want to have-do it. Do it now. Make it happen. Don’t wait. You may think that you’ll do those things later, or that you have plenty of time but what if you never make it that far?

Last, don’t waste time mourning the life that didn’t turn out the way you wanted. You have to move forward with the life you have. Yes, I wish my dad were healthy and that he’d never gotten sick. But, this is the hand we were dealt. I feel blessed that 10 years later, he’s still here. My oldest son, Kyle was just four when he got sick. Over that past 10 years, he’s been able to have a great relationship with his PaPa and my dad has enjoyed watching him grow up. If my dad had left us 10 years ago, he never would have met my wonderful husband or my six-year-old son, Griffin.

My dad has many health challenges and it’s tough for him and my mom. But, we are lucky to have him. We are thankful for every day that we get to spend with him because it feels like a bonus, knowing that we almost lost him. I don’t wonder about what “could have been” because the fact is that this is how life turned out. For me, wondering how it could have been different only leads to pain. I have to accept what cannot be changed and move on.

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Do it now.

My dad getting sick was definitely a life-altering experience for my family. It was a complete shock, since he had always been healthy and it had no warning signs. Of all that I have learned, I know that my mom is my hero and is stronger than she gives herself credit for being.  Through it all, my awesome brother, sister-in-law, mom, husband, and I have pulled together and make a pretty good team. Life isn’t always fair. But you have to live it in such a way that when the rules change, you’re ready for whatever comes your way. Most importantly, look for the good in the bad. It’s always there. Sometimes, you may have to adjust your vision.

Happy trails,

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Finding Compassion in a Conflicted World

When I was a little girl, I remember walking home from elementary school one day. An older neighborhood boy was perched on the corner fence, waiting on us smaller kids to walk past. When I got near him, unprovoked, he kicked me in the shins. I ran the rest of the way home, blonde ponytail bouncing, hot tears streaming down my face. My protective older brother, Keith immediately demanded to know why I was crying. I told him what had happened and who the culprit was. My brother said, “Come with me” and grabbed me by the hand as we marched over to the boy’s house. He knocked on the door and when the bully answered, my brother informed him that he was going to just stand there while I kicked him back as hard as I could. Then, I did. He never messed with me again.

Bubby and me

My brother, Keith and me, back in the day. (Note the sweet Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders satin jacket)

It never occurred to us, back in 1980-something to grab one of our dad’s guns on the way over to our mean neighbor kid’s house. It just wasn’t the way we were raised or the way the world worked back then. We merely wanted to teach him a lesson and I’m quite sure he learned one. Even though we were raised around guns, we were taught a great respect for them. I don’t know when things changed or where the world went wrong. It seems all too common to hear about people skipping all of the available options when it comes to conflict resolution and heading straight for “kill”. When did people stop caring about the sanctity of human life?

I see so many people (especially online) flippantly make comments about killing others or wishing someone would die. Does someone have different political views than you do? Disagree with our President? Someone say negative things about your favorite movie? Feel disrespected by someone? Did some idiot cut you off in traffic? Meet someone with differing religious views? By all means, why not wish them dead? It seems to be the norm these days.

Could there possibly be another solution? How about changing the channel, walking away from the computer, or turning off the political rhetoric? What if we could all come to the realization that we are all entitled to our own opinions regarding politics and religion as long as they don’t infringe on each other? What if, instead of engaging with the idiot in traffic, we simply changed routes? How about refusing to participate in unwinnable arguments and spewing hate? What if, instead of trying so hard to impose our views on others, we simply started showing compassion and kindness instead? Or, what if we actually embraced each other’s differences instead of fearing them and learned something from one another?

I realize that peaceful personal dispute resolutions may not always be possible. But, over the decades, people have used some pretty creative solutions: Arm wrestling, sing offs, dance offs, the Dozens, fighting, wresting, drag racing, mediation, or just good ol’ communication. While I’m teasing about some of these, there are so many viable ways to solve our differences. If we’d only respect each other a little more- even if we don’t always like each other or agree- maybe we could start to see that every life has value. Ending someone’s life is a permanent choice for a temporary moment of anger.

Often, I just have to back away from the 24 hour news cycle, all of the bad things in the world, the negative reports, and focus on what’s real: my friends, my family, my church, and those relationships that matter the most to me. Sure, there are bad things in the world but there’s plenty of good, too.   I can’t allow myself to be entrenched in the bad or it starts to feel like everyone is out to get me.

Perhaps we all need to lower our defenses a bit and realize that even if we disagree with someone, they may still be an intelligent, valuable, kind, caring human being but only with a different point of view. Or, sometimes, they really are just a real jerk who we need to try to avoid. Either way, lives still matter.  Communication and compassion go a long way in a world that seems to have lost its way.

Happy trails,

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Reformed “Yes” Woman

Once upon a time, I was a “yes” woman. “Hey, Jen, can you_______(fill in the blank) “come to my in-home sales party, attend my other kind of party, help me move, plan/host a party, cook your sick friend dinner,  attend this event at church/school/work, pick up snack for class, buy a gift for your co-worker/teacher/friend, etc, etc, etc.” Why, yes, I can. I’m happy to help.

I want to do all of these things. I’d love to be all things to all people. The problem is that with my own full-time job, serving on three non-profit boards, a husband who travels for his job and who is the lead singer of a band, and two sons with their own activities (sometimes at the same time, across town from each other), as well as other family and personal activities, it is physically impossible to always say “yes.”

So, I’ve had to learn to embrace a new term- “No” followed by another one that I constantly tell myself, “I’m doing the best I can.” This has become my mantra. When I feel I’m letting someone down by not doing what they want me to do or when I forget to buy snack for school until the morning it’s due, I repeat it to myself, “I’m doing the best I can.”

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We just can’t juggle it all! (Photo from http://minhngo.com/)

 

I’ve finally learned that I can only commit myself to a certain extent. There are only so many activities I can juggle. I want to do all things well. If I overcommit, something is going to suffer. Everyone is much better off, if I politely decline when I know the balance is tipping.

I’m not sure why but it’s taken me a long time to learn that it’s OK to say “no”. If you haven’t quite gotten there yet, try it but be honest about it. No one likes being lied to. Instead of overcommitting yourself, try saying “no” every once in a while. Or maybe even “not right now, maybe next time.”

On the flip side, if you’re disappointed that someone has let you down, maybe they, too, are doing the best they can. Wouldn’t the world be better if we’d all give each other a little bit of grace?

Happy trails,

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2015: The Year of Friends

I don’t make resolutions because I just think most people break them. But, as I started to think about what I’d like to focus on in 2015, it occurred to me that I’d really like to make time for my friends and family this year. Life gets busy and it’s too easy to say to loved ones, “Oh, we should get together!” but months slip by without actually making it happen. I don’t want 2015 to be the year of good intentions. I want it to be the year of good times. So, that’s my mission this year.

Car Al Jen 2014

Two of my best friends, Carla, Alison, and me.

As I’ve been making an effort to make time for my friends and family this year, I find myself reflecting on the friends who have meant so much to me along the way. Some have come and gone. Others have been good learning experiences. Some blindsided me by stepping back when times got hard and proving that there were conditions attached to our friendship. Others stepped up and showed me that they cared more than I realized, ready to stand by my side when I least expected their support. They were definitely a wonderful, unexpected surprise! I’ve had good-time friends that were fun for the moment but those friendships were never really built to last. I feel very fortunate to have many friends that I’ve met in professional settings who have grown to be personal friends of mine. Many have stood by me through many stages of my life and still today.

Of all of my friends, the ones I cherish the most are the ones I know will tell me the truth. While “yes friends” can make me feel good, I can’t exactly count on them when I need to make a tough decision or when I know I’ve messed up. Given the chance, those “yes friends” would ride the one-way train with me all the way to my demise, yelling “woohoo!” all the way.

My truest friends are the ones who will love me through my mistakes while gently advising me about how to fix them. They won’t tell me that everything I do is right. It isn’t. I make mistakes. I say and do things that I wish I hadn’t. I desperately need those friends in my life who I can come clean with and who will say, “Yeah, you messed up but I still love you and here’s how you can find your way out of this situation.” I believe we all need these friends in our lives- the ones who will love us while still holding us accountable to do the right thing, keep us true to who they know we really are, and help us stay on the path to being the best that we can be. They still see the good in us, even when we’re screwing up and even when we don’t see it in ourselves.

Tam Sly Teresa

Fun with my friends Tami, Amy, and Teresa.

I’m not sure who said it but I love the quote, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I know that’s true of my friends. I love to surround myself with people who make me better. They’re smart, beautiful, amazing, talented, kind, caring, funny, and so much more. I can’t wait to see as many of them as possible this year. So, to all of my friends who have been there and in one way or another, have made my life more interesting, thank you. I truly appreciate each and every one of you. Now, who’s free for drinks/lunch?

Happy Trails,

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Where the Magic Happens

I remember being back in school and my mom telling me it was time to wake up. Then, as is true now, I was not a morning person. I’d lie in bed until the last possible moment with the covers pulled tight over my head. I could hear strains of  “Reminiscing” by Little River Band or “All Out of Love” by Air Supply from her radio as my Mom sweetly sang along while getting ready for work. My dad was long gone, already at work hours before I dragged my groggy self out of bed.

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My dad was a carpenter, a craftsman, and built things with his hands. For many years, he worked for TG&Y then he moved on to building furniture until he was forced to retire due to health reasons in 2005. He showed me that you work hard in this life. If your back hurts (his often did), you go to work anyway. I recall only one or two days that he missed due to illness over the decades. My dad was also a dedicated employee, working hard day in and out, year after year. My mom, too, was a good worker. They set an excellent example for my brother and me. My brother is one of the hardest working men I know. Because of this, hard work and dedication are qualities that I admire in others and instill in my children.

When I became old enough to make my own money, I was anxious to do so. My mom worked in an office at OU Health Sciences Center and she lined up an opportunity for me to do some work in another office. I’m not sure that I started off as the best employee but I tried to learn what I could as I took the mail between buildings. From there I moved on to Target when I was 16. I was assigned to the Health and Beauty department stocking shampoo and toothpaste shelves, building end cap displays of soap, and helping customers. The worst part of the job was during Christmas time and we’d have to stay late (even on school nights) to help clean up the toy department. People are pigs! I also wasn’t a fan of cashiering, which I’d have to do when we got busy. You would be shocked at the number of times that a woman pulled cash out of her bra to pay me. Yeah, thanks.

After that I moved on to a brief telemarketing gig at Lawn America before landing at Horn Seed Company. I worked at Horn’s for the rest of high school and college and became the store manager. I learned a lot about hard work and dedication during that time. I was fortunate enough to attend Oklahoma City University on academic scholarships while working. My parents and student loans paid for what wasn’t covered by the scholarships.   I wasn’t exactly a typical OCU student. I lived at home for my first two years. During Spring Break, when most of my sorority sisters were going on awesome trips to the beach, I was working because we weren’t allowed to take off in the spring. I often worked 6 days a week during this time while also taking a full load of college courses. It wasn’t easy but it was totally worth it.

After landing a full-time job as a credit counselor using my degree after college, I still worked at Horn’s part-time in the spring to make some extra money. At times I have had as many as four jobs at a time. So, hard work definitely isn’t something I’m afraid of. But there is something that I am afraid of.

For me, hard work and dedication are really the easy parts. I’ve had great examples in my Mom, Dad, and brother. But, if I had only been a hard-working, dedicated employee, I’d still be the best shelf stocker at Target.  The critical missing component that doesn’t come naturally for me is being able to step outside of my comfort zone and to see what else is out there. I’m great at staying at jobs but leaving them has been really hard for me.

Magic

After being at Horn’s for so many years, it was scary to leave a job that I was comfortable in. I knew everything about it. There were few surprises. There were also few challenges. I knew that in order to grow, I’d have to move on. But it was terrifying. I did move on and it was the right decision. I ended up staying in my next job for 14 years. I started that job as a credit counselor and left as the Vice President. I worked my way up, again through hard work and dedication that my parents had taught me. When I left there, it was even more terrifying. But, I knew it was time to go. I walked around feeling nauseated for weeks.

I had to prove to myself that I could make it  if I pushed myself to do something really outside of where I was comfortable. I applied for a job with a company in California that required me to travel all over the country. I sometimes wondered if I was crazy for thinking I could do it. But, you know what? I did it, I did it well, and I loved it. Then, after two years, another opportunity (my current job) came up closer to home. But, this one may be my biggest challenge yet. Why? I love it so much because it’s causing me to expand my mind and learn new things in areas I didn’t even know I could learn. I am working on obtaining my financial securities license. I’ve decided that I can rise to meet this challenge, too.

Sometimes I may not be comfortable. I may go kicking and screaming into the unknown in some cases. But every time I have moved in the direction that I KNOW I must move, it’s been right and I have been better for it. During my time at Horn’s, we often taught people how to re-pot their plants into bigger pots when their roots needed more room to grow. It’s pretty much the same with people. The key is knowing when you need more room to know.

The unknown can be scary but it can also be exhilarating. Just because change is hard, it doesn’t mean that change is bad for us. What kind of life would this be if we just stayed in our comfort zone? I don’t want to live that way. I want to push myself to be more than I am. I want to see what I’m capable of accomplishing in this life. I may not always succeed but at least I’ll know that I tried. Wish me luck as I tackle my new job and take my securities exam soon. What have you done that has pushed you outside of your comfort zone?

Happy trails,

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100 Happy Days

Hiking

Hiking in the Taos Ski Valley

One hundred days ago, I accepted a challenge from a friend that 71% of all people who start don’t complete. It was simple: to take time every day for 100 days to pause to focus on a happy moment and post a picture about it. In fact, everyone who accepted this challenge with me stopped. Apparently, the main reason that people cite is lack of time.

I get it. Life is crazy. Things get busy and we can forget to pause each day to focus on those moments. But, I don’t want my life to ever be so busy that I can’t stop for at least a few minutes every day to be thankful for the blessings in my life. What kind of life is that if I can’t even stop, even briefly just to be aware of the fact that something or someone is bring me joy? Here’s what I learned from that past 100 days.

Cancer

My dad was in cancer treatment but we were told it’s in remission. Yay!

Even when I’m having a bad day, family crisis, health scare, etc. there’s always something every single day that makes me laugh or smile. Maybe it’s a song on the radio. Maybe it’s a goofy thought in my head (I tend to entertain myself a lot). It’s often my children or my husband that brings me joy.

One thing that I liked the most about the 100 Happy Days challenge is that most of my friends and family knew I was doing it because I posted the pics to Facebook every day. That made it easy to tell them how much they mean to me. When I had plans to see a friend, I wouldn’t post my happy picture about anything else that day. I would wait and ask to snap a pic with them. It was an excuse to tell them, “Seeing you is my happy thing for today. Let’s take a pic!” It isn’t always simple just to blurt out to your friends and family that they brighten your day and make you happy but this gave me a good reason to tell them exactly how I feel about them.

100 happy days

My three favorite people, my husband, Justin, and sons Griffin and Kyle.

Now that my 100 days challenge has come to a close, I’m glad that I completed it. It was nice to focus on what makes me happy every day. It was especially fun on the days when there were so many happy moments to choose from! I don’t plan to stop focusing on those joyful times. When I find myself smiling or feeling that warm sense of contentment, I will continue to send that silent prayer to the man upstairs, “Thank you for these happy days.” Never take anything for granted. Cherish every moment. Be thankful for every day.  I’ve learned to do just that and I hope you can, too. Even if you aren’t posting about it, I hope you’re at least pausing to relish the moment.

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