There are times while on this planet when we are truly tested. Whether it is with love, family, finances, career or health, each of us has periods of in life where we are forced to dig deep. Courage, hope and joy oppose fear, despair and anger. These times create us, define us and bring us clarity. For the past year, I have been quietly battling cervical cancer. The diagnosis was surprising, frightening and shattered my world. My normally stellar health was no longer to be taken for granted. This, coming from a person who ate well, exercised and was actually ON the cover of Health Magazine!
Last Summer, I underwent a radical hysterectomy, chemotherapy and radiation in hopes of eradicating my very rare and aggressive strain. Fortunately, I had amazing doctors and a magnificent support system with family and friends. Woefully, the cancer has barged its way back in – this time attacking my ovaries.
My doctors have used the term ‘outlier’ to describe my case, as I do not fit any sort of profile for this to happen to me. Sometimes there is no reason. But if my experience can somehow help others, that gives me a sense of solace amongst the chaos. I will surely tell you that the profound love, support and the coming together of friends and family is lighting me up from within. Basically recovered from a second surgery, I am in the midst of chemo once again.
In our busy lives, it is too easy to put everyone else’s needs before our own. I encourage all women to take time to check in with themselves and get regular screenings. The recommended time frame is now every two years. THAT was too much time.
As a mom to two little ones, a wife to a loving husband, a daughter and sister…as a writer and actress who’s voice is still strong, I will fight this fiercely.
At 39, I left an abusive relationship and moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my precious 4 and 7 year old sons. I focused on keeping alive what mattered most and nurturing moments that made our lives sweet. Painful things happened; and many magical things as well. I bought us a home, a pop-top Vanagon for adventure-filled camping trips, and continued to work as a teacher. I spent time alone to rewire myself.
Today, my boys are in their 20’s, creatively sculpting their way in the world. I am a people-loving artist, teacher, mentor, coach and love this gentle journey so many of us are on from trauma to joy and aliveness. I paint, work in myriad ways with teens and adults, have taken or led hundreds of groups and workshops and still forget that I am enough. Going through hard stuff has created a deeper capacity and presence I can share with others. I’ve navigated almost losing my son, being a single mom, healing from a serious cycling accident, and teaching a court school of troubled teens. I am resilient and strong, happy and simple, and love laughing and sharing in circles of women.
I grew up in Turkey and I was never a very good student. I didn’t go to a particularly good school so when I decided that I wanted to become a diplomat that seemed like an unattainable dream. In Turkey only about 10 spots open up every year for admission to the diplomat school. Before going to college we all had to take this big exam. I studied a lot or what I thought was a lot… I studied for 3 hours every day and initially I was really proud of myself. But some of my friends spent 12 hours a day studying, and when I realized that I got scared. I tried to study more but found that after 3 hours I just couldn’t concentrate anymore. Even if I was spending more time at my desk, I just ended up doodling.
The time came to take this exam. When I was filling out the exam it seemed way too easy, it was so unreal… I was convinced that I was solving the problems all wrong but when the results came in I learned that I only missed 3 questions out of the 100… nobody, including me believed that it was possible. My mom kept asking me if I cheated… even she couldn’t believe that I had this in me. It’s actually kind of sad that nobody saw my potential.
Because of my high scores I got one of these coveted spots at the diplomat school and I received a full scholarship. I was even featured in the Turkish newspaper. Since my parents didn’t have to pay anything for my college my dad bought me a car. Kind of funny that my three siblings had to take the bus to university, and I was able to just pull up in a car, but my dad paid a lot of tuition for their schooling so he said that this was the fair thing to do.
“When I realized that simple fact, all those struggles that I had experienced in the past became the source of my strength.”
Growing up, my family life was unstable. After a particularly difficult period, which culminated in my mom kicking my dad out of the house, my parents separated and life changed drastically. It was a very tough period and I think I always had this underlying sense of anxiety growing up – not knowing what was going to happen next. And with that, there was this sense of being paralyzed, of not knowing what to do next.
I wandered through life without direction – letting it happen without awareness of who I wanted to be, where I wanted to go and with no sense of being connected to my life. I went to school, got a job, moved to a different city, got into different relationships. It was only after truly falling in love and being scared witless about it that my anxiety came front and center and I experienced a serious bout where I needed to see multiple therapists, psychiatrists, and was even briefly on medication.
I knew I could not go living like this. I finally got to a point where I had this realization that Life did not just happen TO me, it happened FOR me. When I realized that simple fact, all those struggles that I had experienced in the past became the source of my strength. They made me the strong and loving person that I am today. I feel I now have that direction and purpose that was missing before and am much more fulfilled, connected, and excited about my life.
He held my hand and said, “You are perfect exactly as you are.”
Single again after ending yet another relationship. As usual, feelings of angst and almost 40 surfaced. But I was tired of trying to make marriage happen. So, I made peace. Four days later, I met my husband, Andrew.
Three months later I knew that he was the love of my life and we got engaged. It was so much fun being with him. We cracked each other up with bad puns especially at dinner parties. No one else thought they were funny. But the giggling was infectious. For the first time in my life I felt safe, happy and on a team. Because of him I experienced what it means to love and be loved. We married a year after we met.
Eight months later, while driving home from work, Andrew noticed the peripheral vision on his left side was gone. His doctor thought he might have Lyme disease. I thought we needed a new doctor. So we saw a neurologist. He said I can’t tell you worse news. Andrew has a glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
After an initial prognosis of 2-3 months Andrew lived almost two years. On the drive back from his last MRI I pulled over because I couldn’t breathe. I looked at him and said, “I don’t who I am without you.” He held my hand and said, “You are perfect the way you are.”
For three years after his death I survived on tears, sleep and sweatpants. Until one day I woke up to the realization that it was time to live again and get a new wardrobe.
My word for 2015 is “Shazam.” For me it means to choose every day to live and love with equal parts grace, whimsy and belly laughter. Life is short. Live it.
“…the inner conflict that I return to and that continues to cause me the most pain, is being torn between my loves.”
It was a typical evening on call at Sutter General Hospital and I was preparing for the typical 32-hour shift that I did every 4th night for almost 3 years. This night, however, was special in that my toddler son and husband were coming to have dinner with me—a blessed and unusual opportunity to see them during the long stretch of time away from home. Because we lived 30 minutes from the hospital, we hadn’t tried this before as calls from the ER were unpredictable, but I met them with glee in the hospital lobby and swung my curly headed son up in my arms, smelling his head and rubbing his hair with my cheek—that constant ache when I was absent from him for too long easing. And with sickening timing—my beeper went off. The ER doctor on the other end of the line demanded my immediate presence for an unstable patient, and being a relatively young doctor, I didn’t know I had a choice in the matter. I tearfully looked in my patient husband’s hurt and angry eyes told him goodbye. Again. My son wailed and cried “Mommy, Mommy” as they exited through the sliding glass doors.
When I reflect on what have been the most stubborn, ongoing challenges and conflicts in my fairly typical life—an alcoholic mom, my parents’ rocky marriage, getting into and surviving Stanford, my “almost” eating disorder, the anxiety of medical school training, the challenges of my own marriage, a dangerous twin pregnancy, the interpersonal chaos of running a large medical center, the serious spiritual and mental crisis of my child—the inner conflict that I return to and that continues to cause me the most pain, is being torn between my loves. My absolute devotion to my family, and my passionate love for my calling as a physician/teacher/writer. I am older and much wiser than my medical resident self and I do my best to bend my schedule around my family (the ER docs be damned), but inevitably, I miss volleyball games, or field trips or just having time to hang out together—in order to do the work that I love. I find the working mother guilt difficult to shake, even though my youngest children are now 16. Mother guilt feels like a cultural plague. Does anyone ever consistently feel like a good enough mom?
“At that point, I knew that if I survive I cannot and will not return to my old life.”
I just returned to the USA after a failed relationship in London. I was a high flying strategy consultant at McKinsey, a prestigious firm, and they agreed to transfer me back – my heart ached and I could not bear to stay in London. A couple of friends of mine invited me to spend Christmas in Idaho skiing with them. It was a nine hour drive from San Francisco but it sounded like a lot of fun and exactly what I needed to take my mind off my love life.
While my friend was driving, I moved to the backseat to take a nap. The backseat of the Jeep was pretty uncomfortable so I unbuckled my seat belt and lay down to take a quick nap. At this point we were somewhere in rural Nevada, and the sun just set a little while before then. I was suddenly awakened by a strange sensation and as I sat up I realized that the car was uncontrollably spinning around. We hit black ice and the driver lost control. The Jeep ended up hitting the guardrail, tipped over and rolled into the ditch. Miraculously my friends survived without a scratch but I wasn’t wearing a seat belt and I got banged up pretty badly. As I was helicoptered into the nearest hospital, the only thing I could think of was that I can’t die as a McKinsey consultant… Up until then I just haven’t taken the time to enjoy the small things in my life and I haven’t made enough of an impact on others’ lives. At that point I knew that if I survive I cannot and will not return to my old life. That was the beginning of this new, much happier chapter of my life.