Author, Speaker, Advocate, and Entrepreneur

Author, Speaker, Advocate, and Entrepreneur
Valerie Anne Burns


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Whatever it Takes

     I have found that whatever gift you can give yourself to lift the spirits, however small the budget, eases anxiety or sadness when life becomes overwhelming; even unbearable. I began this earnestly before my first surgery. Facing a radical double mastectomy, and knowing I'd be in the hospital for a long while, I needed comforting self-care and a happy task I'd have control over. When you put yourself in the hands of others, you are forced to let go, to hand yourself over in their care. Being unconscious for several hours on several surgery occasions, I often wondered what went on, what was said? I contemplated my surgeon's concern at the fifth surgery when a staph infection circled back around; something he'd never seen. I was so sick, hallucinating from a high fever, did my rock-star surgeon say something to his capable assistants and nurses about the endless complications? I'll never truly know. It was an emergency surgery so I didn't have the luxury of pre-surgery pampering and prep organizing.
     The only thing I had control over during my journey, was to ensure a healthy routine and gifting myself little joys. Knowing I was facing a life-threatening and life-changing initial surgery, I took myself to the nail salon for a pedicure. Oddly, it gave me strength. I usually choose red, and recall choosing a cherry red prior to that first surgery. Why would it matter that I had a pedicure before surgery and, as it turned out, twenty-two days away between hospital and a full-care facility? While lying in the hospital bed, I liked the cheery and polished color on my toes. It brought in a sense of dignity to a vulnerable and, at times, undignified circumstance. Physical therapists and nurses would comment. It made me feel better, so why not?
     It sprouted a ritual. I made an appointment for a pedicure prior to every scheduled surgery. I wasn't able to do this for the emergency surgery since making sure I lived took precedence. I would also carefully wash my hair, exfoliate my skin with a lovely scrub, and give myself a mini-facial, which included a reviving moisture mask. Looking back, I realize that self-care, call it vanity if you like, is important to me. But, going deeper, I know that I was terrified, and humiliated by the assault to my body and femininity. There are extensive scars inside and out, but I've learned to make things that support myself a priority. The pampering steps, being united with nature, and my tropical visualizations, provided small frames of peace during the Tsunami that entered my life. 
     Rich espresso, walking on a glorious day, snuggling with animals, pedicures, a great movie that moves me, connecting and laughing with friends are high on my list of self-nurturing. I carry on with my small frames of soothing rituals daily. Moments of beauty = Moments of joy.
     Last week, although tired, I drove down to the waterfront to meet a friend for a walk. I'm a power walker and he's tall so it's a good match. We set out by Fess Parker Hotel walking along the water over to the Biltmore shoreline. It was after 6:00 when we began so the sun was low, a warm wind picked up, and the wild flowers were in bloom. The temperature, even after the sun set below the ocean, was 75 degrees. And as the walk lasted more than two-hours, twilight fell upon us. The sky was the most exquisite blue and the shore had a purple-blue tone that only twilight presents. Still warm at dark as stars began to flicker, and feeling the spring ocean breeze, I felt nurtured to the bottom of my soul. I've included a photo below that captures the essence of the shoreline spring walk.
     What are your self-nurturing joys?


Keep on swimming through life,

Monday, April 10, 2017

                                        Organic Warrior                                                        

     It was the 80’s, and I had recently moved to LA where I caught the movie business bug. At the time, I was working for Cheryl Ladd as an assistant in a guest house all on my own – answering calls, reading scripts, fighting boredom, and occasionally heading down the hill with Cheryl for lunch or shopping on Sunset Boulevard - And then, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Every instinct told me not to have the surgery, but everyone else was intent on me going in for the surgery, including Cheryl.
    My assigned Oncologist, at a women’s clinic, recommended it. He forgot to take the class in bedside manner, and I didn’t feel comfortable with him, making my decision easier.
    While my friends were out partying, and hitting the newest LA restaurants and clubs, I was home juicing moving into an organic lifestyle. I was probably one of the first people in line at the new Beverly Juice Club for a daily shot of wheat grass. I was also douching with wheat grass, and getting colonics in the one clinic I could find doing the task. I embarked on a macrobiotic diet, which some liked to refer to as, macro-psychotic.
     Cancer was taboo in my family, we never talked about it. My mother passed away when I was three-yrs old of breast cancer - and now, I was labeled with the ‘C’ word.
     So, I was going to fight it, beat it and not do the surgery which could’ve resulted in a hysterectomy at twenty-eight. I was excommunicated from the women’s clinic for going rogue. I gave myself 6-months to do this cure. I was also doing yoga, rebirthing, which at the time, was very in. And I did beat it and have never had an irregular pap smear since. I’ve stayed on the healthy diet and lifestyle, but it furthered my role as an outsider because I was on a different path. A genetic autoimmune condition, not diagnosed at the time, caused fatigue. It was my mission to find my way into great health because I had a lot of dreams, and wanted to see those dreams manifest.
     I had cured myself from cervical cancer, but continued to struggle with pain and fatigue causing me to schedule my life around the symptoms. It began a questioning of my mental stability… by me and others. Even though I was fun when I did go out, I was still an outsider, never really finding my way into the LA inner circle.  
     Decades later, after life took me in a different direction in Santa Barbara, I’ve stayed on the healthy path for all these years. Way past divorce, and working on finding a new niche for myself, I went in for my annual in July, 2013. I’ve never missed one. A lump was detected. I was absolutely convinced it would be a cyst. There was no-way it was going to happen to me because I did all the right things-- sacrificing good times out, strict routine, exercise… maybe a glass of wine and piece of chocolate a week. I went in the next day; organic optimism in tow, for 4-hours of excruciating breast biopsies. Still convinced results would be benign.
     I got the call - Not only did I have a stage one cancerous tumor in the right breast, but one in the left. A 5% category, something I didn’t even know existed! Immediate assumption of a genetic disposition. Now, not ever knowing my mother, I was angry with her for the genetic inheritance. Regardless of my best efforts, cancer caught up with me again. When I returned home with my diagnosis – a defeated warrior - I walked out on the porch, looked to the sky where hawks fly, and threw my hands in the air yelling, “That’s it, I’m off God!” -  I was off sugar, and now I was off God…
     A week later, further tests in an MRI showed another area more than an inch of pre-cancerous cells. How does all this happen in one fucking year? - Going rogue this time was not an option. - I was facing a radical double mastectomy. As I began a painful journey, a sadness swept over me thinking of my mother. I longed to have her with me. She must’ve felt so isolated too, esp. going through it in an era where there was little support, and even a sense of shame surrounding breast cancer.
     I decided to be fierce, as I always am, in honor of my mother. But I was living on another planet, an alien, living in a medical world. I was on auto-pilot, often driving with drains and traces of pain meds… not recalling how I just arrived somewhere. - An auto-pilot alien who got through seven major surgeries, long recoveries, reoccurring staph infection in the breast that nearly took me out, and 60-days in the hospital.
     I found solace in nature’s beauty to get me through. I continued to use my humor, and a biting humor was fitting for the journey. I never forgot to put my lip gloss on even when I went out the door with drains in me where it would be just another dr. appointment. It’s fascinating what we humans can endure. Strength would run out though, and there were dark nights when I wanted to just give up. And yet, there’s something so deep inside me that kept forcing me to put one foot in front of the other… even if it was moving from the bed to the sofa where hummingbirds chirped outside the door.
     I continued my juicing, organic eating, but I couldn’t drink wheat grass ever again… I can still taste it from 30-years ago. I’m staying on the healthy lifestyle, and still want to believe that my dreams can come true… maybe not as many of them as I had in LA, the producer I’d become with my love for story – the underdog finding their way through insurmountable challenges to rise triumphantly.
     And then, I’ve come to realize… I’m the underdog, and I found my way through. I’m getting on the other side, and nearly recovered from a three ½ year journey. - I’m looking to those dreams again, that idealistic faith, and a way to believe in the divine positivity of life on this planet.
     I’ve come to a full acceptance that I am a truthful troublemaker, cementing my ‘outsider’ title, and perhaps that’s how I’ve conquered all that’s been before me. Isolation has given me a great deal of time to reflect, and be very observant of all that is around me –
     My spirit was fed by the beauty of nature, the beauty of friends by my side; including my colorful hummingbirds, that would take nectar from my hand. These tiny bird angels are fierce, they’re territorial, observant, they’re often solo… and they carry on in this most spectacular energetic way. They’d connect by looking directly into my eyes. They were my teachers, and I believe they are a part of the reason that I’m still alive today. I was giving to them as they were giving to me.
     And now, I look out to the ocean with that never-ending boundary, and hope that I’ll be on a sailboat soon… feeling free, and doing those exotic travels and creative adventures I always imagined myself to do.

*Note: This personal story was initially voice recorded in a stream of consciousness and then transcribed in writing for a Speaking Stories event I performed on April 5th 2017.

Keep on swimming through life,
© April, 2017