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A thousand simple steps: Beth Shirk

A thousand simple steps: Beth Shirk

Beth ShirkI was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. I found the tumor myself during Thanksgiving weekend. I called my primary care doctor the following Monday, had a biopsy the next day, and a diagnosis by the end of the week.

Ten days from when I found the tumor, I had a lumpectomy. So it all happened very quickly. I started chemotherapy in January 2008 and began radiation at the end of May. It's quite a process. I called it an odyssey.

The great staff who worked with me in Radiation Oncology during my 36 radiation treatments helped me to realize that being a survivor is more than just surviving; it's also about dealing with life once treatment is over. On the day of my last treatment, when it came time to ring the bell, it was surprisingly more emotional for me than I thought it was going to be. I had heard others ring the bell, but I thought I was the only one who would recognize it as my last treatment. When I arrived, the staff had a celebration banner up, and everyone gathered round. I saw others who had finished their treatments and new people just starting their radiation, and I realized in that moment that it was a matter of passing it on from person to person, that life goes on.

While I was getting to know my oncologist, Dr. Arina Ganeles, one of things she said that really struck me, was that she liked for her patients to finish their cancer treatment and then go on and "run their marathon." I didn't run marathons anymore, but I didn't have to take her literally. I knew what she meant. Do something big, something exhilarating, something life-affirming.

I love kayaking, so I thought maybe I could build one. I hung onto that idea through the end of my radiation treatments. Then the first thing I did was order a kayak kit. I launched it on November 30, 2008, my one-year anniversary as a survivor.

We had a small ceremony, just 10 of us, and the kayak floated like a dream. It was fantastic and totally replaced the cancer memory of November 30, 2007. My radiation oncologist Dr. Glover came to the launch to cheer me on. He took the kayak out - he's quite a kayaker - and had a great time. This was about doing something with life other than merely surviving, and it has given me the opportunity to reassess how I want to live the rest of my life. I want to do it in such a way that I can look back on all the wonderful adventures I've had.

This kayak is made of wood. I made it with my own two hands. It's gorgeous. It took a thousand simple steps. It's kind of a metaphor for living with cancer and the treatment process. It, too, has been an odyssey.

I built the kayak in my garage, which is where it lives, but l take it out and use it. I can recall, so clearly while going through chemotherapy, sitting in that chair, watching the chemicals go into my arm, and maintaining this great vision of sitting in my kayak on a lake. It helped get me through chemotherapy and radiation. It's an ocean kayak, so I float in it everywhere; Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough, the Monterey Bay. It is nice to be there in my kayak, just floating in nature, and know that I made it.

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