Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Survivor insight…"


I'm updating this post to include a gift I received this Saturday morning…

If you've read my Edith Sanford speech, or have known my story, you know that the book One Thousand Gifts, a dare to live more fully right where you are by Ann Voskamp, has been my saving grace.  

Today, in an email from my friend Jenn, I found out that Ann Voskamp, (because of Jenn ) linked to my Edith Sanford story on her blog A Holy Experience

I'm completely humbled and honored- with a big side of tears and a joy filled heart.  

Thank you Jenn- thank you Ann!  I am a blessed woman! 

It was truly the most worrying experience I've had in awhile. 

We ushered in Christmas preparations with a long night at the ER.  I won't go into a lot of detail, but it essentially involved loss of blood, lots of it- and a need to get it stopped.  

I was fortunate that my ER doc, and the OB-GYN on call, as well as the Oncologist on call- worked together to get me back home in time for Christmas Eve preparations.  

I still had to go in and have another biopsy done Christmas Eve morning, but, with a some drugs, and pain well-managed, I was able to enjoy Christmas with my family.  

I slept most of yesterday late afternoon and well into the evening.  Each day I gain more strength.  I will have test results sometime next week.  

Today I awoke to a surprise.  

Do you remember when I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at this "Embracing Life Health Retreat?"

Dr. Panwalkar gave a presentation… 

and Dr. Terstriep and her team planned, organized and facilitated the successful event for all of us Breast Cancer survivors.

Then you all asked if you could read my speech?  

Well- today you can!  

Dr. Terstriep, very graciously shared it today on the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation's blog called DeCoded.  

Words are powerful: survivor insight from Vicky Westra

I continue to be honored, touched and truly "embraced," each day I travel the cancer journey.  

I don't think its a coincidence, that on this day, at this time- my own words came back to lift me.  To remind me- to help me- to live my moments full.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013~

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other. "Burton Hillis"

The Westra Family wishes you all a Merry Christmas! 

Monday, December 23, 2013

… a little bit of childhood...

Holy blog hits people!  I've been overwhelmed with this outpouring of well wishes and celebrations over the news of the hope I have been given to hang onto through this next phase of my cancer journey. I have many hurdles to get over still, but I'll swing from that thread of hope and keep praying it's enough to see me through.  I wonder so often who all of you are?  My blog seems to be going out to all corners of the US and beyond, and my boys and I love to see the places that pop up.  We have no clue who most of you are, but we are so honored to have you follow our little story.  

My email is and if any of you who are new to us want to drop us a line- we'd be thrilled! 

Thank you! 

“Nobody will understand the craziness of your family better than your cousins”

The photo says January, 1972.  I imagine it could have been my brother's birthday.  These are just a few of my cousins- back row, Pam, Rob, and his brother David.  Front row are me, and then my cousin Jennifer (sister to Pam) who was born just 11 days after me in July of 1967.

All together, we were a crew of 19.  Can you imagine our family gatherings?  It often included a large portion of us.  I don't recall having a birthday party with friends until I was much older- my cousins were always my party guests.  

Flash forward to 2013.  I'm not even sure what year we started gathering again at Christmas, for a "cousin's party." Rick and I had moved to Idaho and would make sure that we were back in Minnesota in time for the gathering. 

I've  blogged with lots of photos/stories a couple of times: 2008 Cousin's party, and in 2009

Over the years our group just continues to expand.  These are my 2 of mom's (3) sisters, on either side of her, Carol, then Marlene.  

Marlene is about to go from being a "super" Grandma, to a "Great" grandma in March- by not just one of her grandchildren, but two of them.  

What we enjoy so much now, is that while the "big kids" get to be finally be upstairs, its our own kids who go downstairs and hang out, much like we used to.  They are second cousins, but really?  My kids just think they are "cousins."  Truly, does it matter when you are family?

“A cousin is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.”

I took just a few photos at our cousin's party last weekend.  I was soaking it all in.  Here I am with Kaelyn, my cousin's daughter.  We were quite taken with the fact we matched our outfits perfectly! 

Lauren and her cousin Lindsey.

Stephanie, Amanda, and Kaelyn.

Jennifer- my cousin from above, with her daughter Lauren.  I noticed while Jennifer's hand was in Lauren's hair, Lauren's hand was on Jennifer's coat tag.  

I didn't move from my perch on the couch most of the night.  I wouldn't have missed the gathering for anything, but I was clearly fatigued and content to sit.

“Cousins by chance, friends by choice.” ~ Proverb

I did manage one quick trip downstairs where all the action was taking place.  Colton, playing with his cousin Keenen.  These two see each other at school every day and both play hockey. 

A couple of years ago I blogged this and still stands true today:

I think by the end of the evening I had a fairly firm grasp on just what it means to be part of this family.  Here is what I came up with.  Its a sort of a "You might be a Brainerd if ..."
  •  you have had your gallbladder removed or... (Dot, Carol, Mary Ann, Pam and myself.)
  •  you have been told you need to have your gallbladder removed but are too stubborn, or scared to actually have the surgery... Marlene AND now Jennifer.
  •  you aren't sure you want to travel too far because you don't know how far it might be to the nearest  bathroom...  ( I am so not naming, names on this one, way too many of you to count) 
  •  unless, the exception to #3, you are asked to go to the casino.  Then no distance is too far to travel!
  • start a story and lose your train of thought half way through.   
  • know a good "throw up" story...  (sorry Lee, wouldn't want you to feel left out) 
  •  know what uff da means and use it frequently while talking.
  •  have eaten lutefisk... and then said uff da.  
  • can only pronounce wrestling as "Wrassling." 
  • know a good joke and it begins with "Ole and Lena…"  

My cousins and their families along with my aunts and uncles, have blessed us over and over again.  They've provided numerous meals. Giftcards for whatever we may need.  Brownies and cookies and treats.  We had help with new floors for the kitchen and living room.  We got help with our computers. Whatever needs we've had, they've been met.  

We're feeling so blessed by so many.

Here is another small sample of gifts and thoughtfulness that have streamed through my door:

Thank you Konvalin family for the courage bracelet with the breast cancer ribbon on it.  I love how dainty it is and I am happy to wear courage as a reminder of who I want to be.  

How sweet is this angel?  Thank you Stavenger family for all you do to continue to bless me! 

I was up before the sunrise the other day, with Rick out of town I was in charge of all the morning duties.  These beautiful flowers arrived the afternoon before- but I awoke to the sun starting to stream in through the window and I got to seem them in all their glory.  Thank you to the Moilanen family for their continued thoughtfulness!! 

I have had some pretty amazing emails and phone calls as of late with more things to come in the following weeks and months… 

God's blessings to you all as we prepare to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus!  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Really… he is just a big tease.  That Mr. NED that just subtly hints that he might be tapping me on the shoulder.  I've longed to dance with him, its true.  To have him fully envelope me in his safe and secure arms, if only for the briefest of spins around the dance-room floor.  

Mr. NED, or officially, "No Evidence of Disease" is what so many of us Stage 4 Breast Cancer Survivors hope to achieve one day.  Stage 4 doesn't have room for remission.  Remission is rare- so rare- that when the evidence of cancer is gone, its called "no evidence of disease," because its often a brief interlude.  A few weeks may pass, a few months it seems, and then cancer asserts itself again.  This is the nature of Stage 4 disease.  

So instead of remission, we long for a phase of NED.  

The page had barely gone out for Dr. Panwalkar yesterday, when he arrived in the exam room.  He greeted Rick and shook hands with both of us in one swift motion as he went to sit down.

I had come prepared and there was a rapid exchange of questions from me, answers from him and then return questions from him to me.  Back and forth we lobbied, covering a lot of ground quickly.  

He then asked for me to put on a gown so he could thoroughly examine me.  He checked for the radiated lymph node and smiled when he said he couldn't feel it.  "Is it gone?"  "I think it might be gone!" he proclaimed.

I told him I wasn't sure- sometimes a ghost of an outline seems to appear under my fingers, but its definitely only a hint at what once was a solid mass.

He then goes to find the new lump.  I gently nudge his fingers over when he doesn't quite have it and then his fingers deftly examine the entire spot.  

"Oh its small, he says, and movable."  

I then blurt out a random idea, "Do you think if its only one spot, we could have Dr. Bouton surgically remove it?"

His eyes widen as he smiles and nods affirmatively.  "Yes, that would work fine. Providing we don't find spots in other places, we could just have him remove that one."  

We'll do scans- an mri of your brain to check on it, and a ct scan of your chest to check on the new spot.

I suddenly remember to tell him about my hair.  

"May I look?"  he says, sounding surprised.  I tell him I've read that its a rare side-effect of Tykerb.  I bow my head and tell him to go ahead and check.  He gently lifts my hair all throughout the front and sees the thin, bald spots.  He says we can do a steroidal cream if its continues and the spots become more pronounced.  He then realizes my hair is falling down over my eyes, and he graciously sweeps it back across my face so I can see.

Its always these moments when I felt "seen," as a person, instead of just a patient.  Such a simple gesture, that speaks to me.  

He then comes over to my side and says, "you know, your tumor markers have gone down into the normal range now."

"They have?"  Normal?  My markers fell to normal?  "Just as you predicted they would Dr. P.  You were right."

Its then I that I ask about my "dance partner," Mr. NED, standing just over Dr. P's shoulder.

"So if I didn't have this one pesky little spot?"  Would I…?"

I choke on the word. Will he say it?  Is this correct thinking on my part?

I finally mutter softly "Would I be considered NED?" 

"Yes, he laughs, yes, if the tumor marker is reliable it would suggest you don't have much in the way of disease right now."  

I sort of tuck that gem away- Mr. NED is indeed flirting with me. 

"We'll repeat the tumor marker tests in 3 weeks and go over your scans.

I would like you to stay on the Tykerb, even though I know you don't like it."  

Dr. P continues:

"Then, I am thinking you should have your ovaries out, and start Aromasin and Affinitor.  But we will talk more about that next time. " 

I am well past my scheduled time with him.  But he makes certain I don't have any more questions before he leads me out of the room.

He pauses side by side with me, before he turns to walk away, he reaches his arm around my shoulder hugging me and wishing me a Merry Christmas.  I reach my arm around his waist hugging him back, and wishing him the same.  I then look up to catch his eye and say "Thank you."  He smiles, nods and walks off.  

Our friends and family continue to bless us in such touching ways.  I can't begin to properly photograph all of them and do them any justice here, but rest assured I am writing out some heartfelt thank you notes and counting grace throughout many moments of my day. 

Love getting these necklaces from a friend.  The roads were icy and she bravely navigated her husband's work van to venture over to my house and gift me with these.  She knows these are a "God" thing as she hung unto them for an unknown reason and then discovered "Embrace" was my word.

The boys surprised me by putting the tree up after I attended a long weekend full of hockey games.  The cold in the ice arenas really settles deep within my bones and makes for a painful aftermath.  But the joy I felt upon seeing this truly made up for it.

I had a full day at Roger Maris yesterday, including a planning meeting that ran well into the afternoon. Its exciting to be asked to be part of some new and exciting developments at Sanford.

I arrived home just as the glorious sun was sinking below the horizon.  

I finally turned my phone back on as I climbed onto the bed.  My phone vibrated, buzzed, rang and sang, long and hard.  Unable to resist the calling of sleep any longer, I drifted off to sleep, saying thankful prayers for all the prayers offered up for me.

Friday, December 13, 2013

When things fall apart...

From the book "Looking for Alaska,"
by John Green

"Everything that comes together falls apart."  Everything… The chair I am sitting on.  It was built, and so it will fall apart.  I'm going to fall apart.  And you're going to fall apart.  The cells and organs and systems that make you-they came together, grew together, and so must fall apart."

"The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, and that cessation of desire meant cessation of suffering. When you stop wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did." 

John Green reads like a modern day Judy Blume to me.  His novels are the movie equivalent of Sixteen Candles, or The Breakfast Club, back in my own formative years.  I'm finding his Young Adult novels to be highly engaging and can see why they are earning national Book Honors galore- they take me right back to those years. 

Even with Rick leaving for Idaho after being gone for 4 days, it seems earlier this week, that it will be an uneventful week.  

When the dull ache from the suspected bulging disc in my back begins to work overtime, it tells me we're in for more snow, and I'm not in for much Christmas decorating. 

So I started my week by just caving to it- spending time reading, addressing Christmas cards, and resting.  

Then plans to spend time with a friend fall through for Wednesday.  Rick gets half way to Idaho and the roads are impassable and he has to turn around half-way there, and drive all the way home.  

 I discover the new lump on my chest on Thursday.  Actually, it seems like the old one- newly asserting itself.  Here we go- again.

So I call Dr. Panwalkar.

And he's gone- doing outreach at another hospital hours away.

I feel myself falling.  Apart.  

So I fall.  Slowly- then all at once.  

I am quiet. Reflective. Sorrowful. Prayerful.  

Wanting to hear from Him.

Wanting to just- hear.

"When you stop wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did."

I fall asleep meditating on these words.

Friday, I hear from Dr. P's nurse.

I will see him Tuesday.  We'll go over everything then.

As I'm speaking with her, the doorbell rings.

Moments later I open a box addressed to me.  I'm flooded with emotion when I see the beautiful words. 


I'm seeing.  I'm hearing.

Thank you Eileen!  Your timing is impeccable and you've touched me so.

But that's not all.  Just look at this.  Another box addressed to me...

And as I loosen the tape on the heavy box, my eyes see all of this.  Holy abundance!  Nancy- you've touched me so! The boys were so excited when they arrived home from school and dove in instantly.  Thank you!  

I've barely closed the door when the doorbell rings again.  My sweet friend Nichole is standing there with this- homemade goodies from her church group.  Her beautiful daughter pictured in the card.  

"Go tell it on the mountain…" echoes through my head.  

I see.  I hear.  

Fall apart.


And Embrace. 

Monday, December 9, 2013


It was so unexpected.  Just a sheet of paper that was strewn amongst the other papers on the kitchen table.  It read:

All About Colton by Colton Westra

I have experienced…

Close people dying in front of me.
I could feel the salty water leaping off my face.
Being as sad as the person right next to me.
Wishing they will come back.

I Imagine..

A cure for my mom.
So she can watch hockey games, screaming "Go Colton! Woo hoo!" 
Saying hello when I get home.
That's why I imagine a cure for my mom.

I Know…

My family loves me even though they can be a little mean.
Like when I say can I have some money for food.
They always say yes.
I can feel my heart waiting to pop open with joy.

I Wonder…

What will happen to my family in the future?
Will they invent time travel or will they invent flying cars?
Will they donate money to charity?
Will they be the same or will they be BORING?

I Believe…

That a good family helps.
They will cheer you on at sport games.
They will also give you confidence and love even if you think you don't want it. 
Best of all, they care for you no matter what.

I finish reading and feel my own "salty water leaping from my face."  Oh my heart.  This boy.  His love.  My momma heart surging out of my chest.  Elated he claims joy.  And saddened he knows such sorrow.  He is 11 and has lived deep and loved wide.  He so has his mother's heart.

And I wonder- where will HE be in the future?  

Thank you Mrs. Herbranson.  Christmas came a little early.  Best. Gift. Ever.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

these are a few...

These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

I can't wait to see Carrie Underwood in a live performance tonight of "The Sound of Music," based on the broadway play.  Will anyone else be watching along with me?  I watched "The Making Of…"  last week and I am excited to see it.  I love that they fully acknowledge no one could ever remake the movie- and they are not attempting to do so.  

The summer  of 1989, I traveled to Europe with a group of about 30 from college.  We travelled to 7 different countries over the course of 5 weeks.  When we got a weekend off, 3 of us went alone to Salzburg on the train from Munich, for 3 days. 

The highlight of those 3 free days, had to have been our day long adventure with "Bob's Bavarian Alps Tour."  3 (cute) med students, an older pair of married tourists, and the 3 of us college students, in a van with a tour guide for the better part of a day.  The tour featured an outside view of the mansions where The Sound of Music was shot, the mountains, the lake, and other fun tidbits about the Von Trapp family, and the actors who played them.  

The tour ended and in a unanimous decision a pub crawl ensued that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.  Its where I learned "Prost" which is the equivalent to "cheers" in German, and the idea is to clink your mug heartily enough to spill part of your drink into anther's drink to prove nothing "harmful" has been added to the drink.  This was according to "Bob," the tour guide.  My German readers may be able to enlighten me further! 

The rest of these are my week in photos...

You know you are a hockey mom if… the sight of freshly cleaned hockey gear hanging from the bannister makes you smile. 

How did I get so lucky to have a blog reader find me who happens to live in Zurich, Switzerland- one of my favorite stops along our European adventure- and she travels to Munich- another favorite of mine- and sends me a postcard.  Thank you Susan! 

She also makes my mouth water with this from one of her favorite restaurants in Zurich... Oh how I would love to go!

The snow finally relented and the sun came out today- just in time.  Rick and Nolan are leaving for a hockey tournament in Roseau, MN- way up north from here.  Colton has his home tournament this weekend and I am staying here and working (hopefully.)  

I never know what might appear at the bottom of this bush at the mouth of the "cave."  Sometimes its a rabbit, a squirrel, or often its voles… yeeps- I am so not a mouse person. 

No tracks yet...

I can see this in my backyard from where I sit typing- except yesterday- the wind was blowing the falling snow so hard, it wasn't always visible.

Nolan's been home sick with a high fever for two days and 3 nights.  It finally broke late yesterday and he is acting more like himself today.  I've been trying to care for him without getting to close too him.  I spent the day yesterday "sanitizing," just about everything.  

It was in our bathroom that I finally figured out the culprit leaving clumps of hair everywhere.  My head has been unusually itchy- although no real signs of anything on my scalp.  I just so happened to catch a glance of myself with my hair flipped to one side- holy- baldness!  It's me!  I carefully sat parting my hair in different places and was shocked to see how much its thinned!  I'm lucky in that I have thick hair to begin with so it isn't too noticeable.  Let's just hope Tykerb is thinning the Her2 protein from cancer cells as much as its taking my hair!  

Monday, December 2, 2013

and so it begins...

Just last week I was thankful that despite the cold, blustery days, color was still in abundance everywhere outside.  Yet the ominous presence of old man winter, could be felt in the chill of the air. 

We had a relaxing and enjoyable Thanksgiving spent with family at our house.

Afterwards, Rick worked.  The boys played hockey.  And I succumbed to bed on and off for a few days, caving to the mind-numbing fatigue, heightened perhaps, by infusion last week.  Tykerb is tricky- and I pray its even trickier on cancer, and all it takes from me in exchange.  

We'll check tumor markers in two weeks and see if they've fluctuated at all, giving us an idea of what, if anything, we should do next. 

This one is a constant companion.  

Both Crosby and Colton indulged me in watching this… 

It was late yesterday when the flakes began to fall.  

We awoke to a light blanket of white fluff.  It still amazes me every year, after all these years, that a whole winter season can arrive just overnight.  The temperatures are set to steadily decline to "well below the doughnut," or below zero, by the end of the week.  Plus several more inches of snow are set to fall steadily over the next few days.  

Baby, its cold outside!

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. ~John Burroughs, "Winter Sunshine"

Have you heard this yet?  Love it.  We have to unbury the entrance to the closet downstairs before I can get to the Christmas decorations, but I am even more ready after hearing this...

We didn't think this little guy would get to play in goal in Grand Forks yesterday, so we sent him with a teammate to the game.

It was shortly after the game that we got the text.  Not only did the little guy get asked to play half way through the game- but they were losing 3-1.  That's a tall order to fill!

But not only did his team manage to bury 4 goals in the other team's net, but Colton managed to save every shot the other team attempted to snipe past him. 

Colton's team won 5-3!  And Colton got the "worked like a dog," bone, to bring home.  

The days are short
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

~John Updike, "January," A Child’s Calendar, 1965

When you get lucky

When you get lucky

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