I’m Worried to Death About...

She was called Agony Annie. Don’t worry, my sister Ann knows this was her nickname when she was a little girl. We called her that with love and a bit of teasing. Our mom told us that Ann would constantly agonize over a number of things, and to this day we need to keep this in mind with her various worries. “I’m Worried to Death!” That’s what she would say. Chee, my other sister, would ask Ann what exactly she was worried about. In most cases, it was not something that worried the rest of us at all.

I’m sure the leukemia exacerbated the situation, and is obviously cause for an awful lot of concern. But I’m talking about something a little different. One example is that Ann would worry about the fields not being mowed at our farm that we manage as a family in Cattaraugus, NY. It’s a four-hundred-twenty-five-acre farm and has been in the family for over one hundred sixty years, so it is a lot to handle; but we work together on it. Ann would perseverate about the fields in July, through August, then September, stating that they would turn into forests if we didn’t take care of them. Usually the weather prohibited the mowing or other farming issues, like planting and managing crops, and other small details. Often it wouldn’t get done until September. We rent our property to an ex-service man who is raising Kobi beef. He’s the one who takes care of things. He is very busy, but manages to keep everything under control, and always gets the job done. So Chee, Paul (our brother) and I don’t worry.

Ann also worries about Paul’s health, her son Oliver’s health, the farm after we’re all dead, why our dad and neighbor got brain tumors, why another neighbor got MS, and why Ann got leukemia. These are just a few of her many concerns. But it’s the severity of her worrying that had me asking myself this question: How do you manage this sort of mental anguish? One technique we’ve discovered that seems to help has been to encourage Ann to go to her counseling sessions, Tai Chi and relaxation Yoga at WeSpark (a cancer support group in Los Angeles), things like that. She’s going back to NY for the summer and fall, so we’re also looking into what is offered at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. We find it’s important that families look into any assistance they can find, because it is usually too difficult to take care of everything on your own. And I encourage everyone to find a good support group in their neighborhood and go with your loved ones. At first, Ann did not want to go, so my husband and I signed up as her support system, which is helpful since we can use the services as well. WeSpark was founded by Wendie Jo Sperber, an actress who was on “Bosom Buddies” with Tom Hanks. She started the non-profit because she had cancer and wanted a comfortable place where she could relax, talk, and have family and friends gather in an environment other than that of a sterile hospital atmosphere. Nancy Allen is the Executive Director. It’s a wonderful place for the whole family to maintain the healing process.

But back to Ann’s worrying. She also worries about her taxes. Of course, that has been a major problem since she’s been sick, and no one could help her. She really didn’t want help either, which can be a problem too. Your financial situation is definitely something to think about and plan with your family. You need to alleviate as much stress as possible, and money can be a major source of stress. Ann has several properties, stocks, TRAA Creff retirement, and who knows what else. Chee and I didn’t know what we were going to do regarding her properties if she didn’t survive. We convinced her to sell one of her condos because no one could maintain it, but that triggered an increase in income and somehow we think her accountant wasn’t informed. So of course, the IRS started looking into her business, which did not help in terms of her concerns.

Ann is just coming out of her fog now and I’m sure those who’ve had cancer can commiserate. Things become more difficult, to say the least. Everyday things. One major issue for her was that she couldn’t organize her paper work, which forced me to recognize that there are things that should be taken care of earlier in life. What is the best way to manage your finances? Find someone you trust and talk to them about your options. It can be a lawyer, an accountant, a family member — but pick someone. Take care of business when you’re healthy. It’s really not a good idea or even fair that your family has to make difficult, personal decisions that should’ve been made by you. Be kind and give it great thought. It’s an important gift you can give your family, even if it’s a delicate topic to approach.

Ann’s recovery is a work in progress and we’re seeing her improvement every day. She’s coming up on five years free of cancer this October. We’re seeing that it actually takes this long to come back, even if the patient thinks they can go through the process faster. October is her new birthday from her Bone Marrow Transplant, where the doctors brought her to the brink of death and back again. I think it’s only fair that she celebrates her birthday twice a year! Don’t you?

What I’ve taken away from all of this is that worrying does not serve to assist anything. Taking action does. Not only does taking action help to alleviate the mental stress, but it also has the “added benefit” of actually altering the situation itself, which if done correctly can improve that which one is worrying about in the first place. Every family has issues unique to their situation, and it’s often necessary to make difficult decisions that affect not only yourself but also those around you. When it comes to family, you ultimately want to enjoy yourself and each other, which is difficult when worrying gets in the way. So take a breath, clear your brain, plan ahead, have fun, travel, play music, dance, talk, and laugh. Find a support group to lift your spirits and help you solve the problems that are immobilizing you. The worry may have even contributed to your getting you sick, or may be hindering your recovery. So do what you can to remove or reduce wherever possible this potentially detrimental element of life. As Michelangelo said, “I saw an angel in the stone and carved to set it free.” Set your mind free. Let your soul fly. And release the worry that is holding you captive.

Happy Mother's Day Ann!

Why do I say this? Because my sister Ann is able to celebrate another Mother’s Day on this earth with her son and daughter-in-law. Of course, my husband and I will be hanging out with her too. Because that’s what we do now in our family - we celebrate every occasion every chance we get. We even make up things to celebrate now. You may be asking why we do this. Well, what does it look like when tragedy strikes a family? I ask because this happened to mine when my sister was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia.

“ALL” stands for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. And before Ann was diagnosed, we had never even heard of it. We later found out it usually occurs with young children. So how did our sister get it? It all started with her feeling a little weak. Then an infection in her back. She went to the doctor, who prescribed her antibiotics; but she didn’t heal and continued getting weaker and weaker. This went on for a while - too long. She continued to go to the hospital. Finally after many tests, the doctor called her and told her she needed to go to the emergency room right away. But by this time she was so weak she couldn’t even find the energy. All she wanted to do was sleep. Chee, our younger sister, who wanted to help by taking Ann, told her that she was going to be too busy this coming week and they should go now. Ann acquiesced and off they went, only to find themselves a few short hours later at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY with Ann hooked up to chemo and a doctor telling her that she had an excellent chance of survival because they had thirty years of successful experience with this type of cancer. Yes, it was shocking - to put it mildly. After all, this sort of thing doesn’t happen to us, not in our family. But this time it had.

At first we didn’t know if she was going to survive. She kept falling, contracting various infections, returning to the hospital, and ultimately faced the brink of death more than once - first with the Leukemia, and then with a bone marrow transplant (BMT). She had to fight - day after day, month after month, year after year. We did what we could to help, which didn’t seem like much at first. We surrounded her with love and compassion. Chee took her to her appointments. We all stayed with her during the bone marrow transplant. We encouraged her on a daily basis to find what makes her happy. And thankfully, she survived.

Ann now lives in Los Angeles in the winter with her son, since the weather is too difficult for her in Buffalo. She attends a cancer support group called goes to WeSpark, where they talk about the “new normal” that she had to discover. What does she want out of life now? What are her interests? These are questions I still ask her regularly. I see her struggling to find answers. Organizational skills are a problem, because of the chemo, but it’s getting better. The road has been long. But the fog is lifting. She’s confronting business more now, because she knows she’s going to live. She’s making plans. She can travel if she wants to; she proved it by booking her timeshare and driving herself to Sedona, Arizona from Los Angeles. It was her decision. She went on her own because we were all working and she wanted a change. And she had a wonderful time! I was of course concerned, but also figured that if she thinks she can do it at this point, she must be able to. It’s a really good thing!

So, what does the future hold for Ann? That’s what we’re all trying to figure out. Chee and I are recovering from the rollercoaster ride of not knowing what was going to happen next. Ann is still figuring out how to live again, but she’s doing an amazing job of it. She’s started taking friends and family on trips to her timeshare. She took her friend Susie to Hawaii; our brother Paul to Barcelona; and we’re all planning to go to Tuscany when our niece graduates from high school in June 2018. Yes, we now plan ahead, so there’s something to look forward to, something to live for, even something to argue about. It keeps the blood oxygenated - at least I like to think so!

The past four years have been a journey. The first three years were the most difficult on all of us. But now there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Seeing this wasn’t easy at first. It’s easy to walk into a room and forget to turn on the light. But what I’ve learned is that a big part of it is in the decision to do so. So we need to remember to make a decision to lift the switch.

Mother’s Day is nearing. It’s a holiday that celebrates the woman who brought you into this world. It’s a holiday that celebrates birth, and therefore life. It’s a holiday that celebrates the very building blocks and nature of family. So don’t take it for granted. Surround your family with love on this day, or any day for that matter. You never know how much time you have with each other. It’s easy to think we’re going to live forever, but that is not the case - at least not on this earth. Watching what my sister had to go through over the last few years makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from Gandhi: “Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” What would life look like if we really viewed it this way? It’s something we should all strive for.