Finding Beauty in the Ordinary
barbara burnsBarbara Burns and #iseehearts
I haven’t shared with you in a very long time. I needed to step away and deal, as well as try to heal, what was happening in my life. I was not well. One Doctor shared that the breast cancer was a tipping point in my life. Before the cancer, and during the treatments and journey, I was, and am, dealing with a growth on my L5 that impedes the nerves that exit that point, as well as gastrointestinal issues due to the nerve damage. On top of that, I was, and am, dealing with mobility issues and severe chronic pain due to the L5 impediment. And on top of this, for a month, this past summer, I was admitted to the University of Alberta for care and treatment.  I have been ruthlessly challenged in all aspects of my being: mind, body and soul.

And now, here I am. Surgery, done and still healing! Internal bleeding, done! Chemotherapy, done! Radiation, done! Radiation ‘boosters,’ done! Tamoxifen pill #1 reaction, done! Tamoxifen new pill #2 reaction, done! Tamoxifen pill #3, from the US, works! I will be on Tamoxifen for 5 – 10 years. IV Herceptin treatment, for a year, every three weeks, is done this Thursday (20th)! Am I healed? No. But I see October 21st as the beginning of my healing and recovery from cancer. Why? It is because my body now only has to deal with one cancer treatment in my system (Tamoxifen).  This is awesome!!! Let the healing begin!!!

In a weird way, I am grateful for this journey. I have witnessed and received your incredible love and support. You have no idea the impact you have had on me. The power of a kind word, photo sent my way, hearts shared, sidewalk shoveled, meals prepared, rides to treatment, gifts of love given, time spent with me, artwork & heartfelt cards provided, and so much more.  I have been overwhelmed with your caring spirit and reinforcement. As much as my body had to endure the cancer treatments and all of their effects alone, I knew you were always there for me. Never underestimate the power of your love.

So, here I am….and soon, it seems like I will be out and about, in a BIG way…

On October 27th, in three incredible and wonderful ways, I will be part of Fashion With Compassion (a fundraiser for Compassion House where I stayed for 31 days while undergoing radiation treatment). I would love to have you there with me!!!

For those that don’t know, Compassion House is similar to Ronald McDonald’s House, but Compassion House is for rural women fighting cancer.  Five-star accommodation, comfort and support is provided, as well as, a shuttle to and from the Cross Cancer Institute. Having stayed at Compassion House, it saved me thousands of dollars in transportation, hotel & restaurant costs. Staying there also saved my body the ‘wear and tear’ of travelling, and since I was stronger, it helped me handle the radiation treatment better. I am helping with Compassion House’s fundraiser (Fashion With Compassion) because it is important and necessary to keep Compassion House’s doors open.

So with that said, I am gladly supporting Fashion With Compassion, in three ways. Melissa Kraft, the Executive Director of Compassion House, asked me to help in two ways with the production of the Luncheon and Gala. The third way is a very personal and meaningful gift from me. 

Model in the Fashion Show
  • I will be a ‘special’ model for the Fashion With Compassion Show.  In this top notch and professional fashion show, there will be a small and special segment with 20 former Compassion House residents. And I will be one of them!
  •  And yes, I will be wearing heels!!! With this being reality, on October 27th, and in front of 1,400 people, I’ve been practicing walking in my glittery silver shoes! On that day, I will also be blinged out by Hillberg & Berk and be wearing a GOWN (!!!) courtesy of Laura Fashions. And to top it all off, my hair and makeup will be done by Ricci Hair Co.

Video featuring me
  • I will be in a short video. In this video, I share one of my journal entries I wrote after I got home from Compassion House. This video will also show me at home, in my art studio, the school where I taught Art (before my cancer journey), and driving in the ‘Whispering Hills’ of Athabasca & County. This is a very personal, and real, footage of me and my journey.
  • The reason for this video was confirmed after I presented to the Compassion House Executives and Board Members. In my presentation to them, I shared one of my blog entries and my journey after I left Compassion House. The Executive and Board members understand the challenges rural women face medically, financially, mentally, emotionally and physically; they wish to target some of the money raised from the Luncheon and Gala to support former Compassion House residents on their journey after they leave Compassion House. 

Artwork, by me, is for sale

Thank you again for your love and support. There were times I was overcome by all the treatments and their effects. But I took each email, text, card, gift and more, from you, to my heart; I felt your love in my mind, body and soul. You have helped me on this cancer journey. The gifts of your Light and Love blessed my Life. 

Barbara Burns and hearts
Yesterday, artist Barbara Burns and #iseehearts from the arena parking lot.
I see hearts in objects around me. I’ll be walking around my classroom, or strolling downtown, and I’ll see a heart shaped object in a blob of paint or mound of snow. I can’t remember the first time I became aware of these heart shaped visions, but they have continued to come into my life at a very steady stream. And not just a few hearts, but a great deal and often. And so I take pictures of them (well, okay, most of them), and I share the occasional one on my FaceBook page and on my webpage.

With this sharing, others have become aware of my affinity of seeing hearts. And so, people have shared their own happenstances of hearts: in nature, on animals and even on burned knees and bruises. It always makes me smile as others bring these hearts to me with such joy.

With my radiation treatments, that had me away from home for 31 days, and my exhaustion from treatments, I took a hiatus from FaceBook (November to the end of January). When I returned to my page, I was overcome with an incredible emotion. In addition to a Buddhist temple blessing from a friend across the world, I received countless visuals of love and motivation on FaceBook. But the cherry on top of the cake, and the one that had the tears flowing was a continuous stream of hearts. As I kept scrolling down my page, there were 40 posts, from 40 different people, of hearts they had found in their life or images they found of hearts in nature.

Thank you for this gift of love. You will never realize how I felt completely surrounded in love by these kind gestures of remembrance. I am touched that so many of you are now seeing hearts in your life, but I feel blessed in the fact that you think of me with such love that you send me your hearts. 


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           P.S. Later this year, I will be posting ‘Guest Heart Finders’ on my page. It seems only natural to spread the love.
PictureArtist Barbara Burns in Winter Wonderland
I love winter. I love the beauty of a world covered in snow. I happen to be blessed in a world (town!) of two traffic lights, moose and deer in my backyard, coyote howls that pierce the night silence, forested areas and rolling hills just outside my door, blazing Northern Lights and a community that knows my name and smile. Granted there are things I miss being in a small town, but at this moment of recovery, I appreciate the beauty and the silence.

As I recover, and am still in treatment, from cancer, I love the peace of this place. I am surrounded by the beauty and love of this land and of others. I am blessed and so grateful.

Barbara Burns Chemo hair growth
While wearing a Christmas Snowflake Crown, artist & teacher, Barbara Burns', hair is growing in after chemotherapy. Slow and steady...
Surgery, done! Chemo, done! Radiation, done! I still have an IV treatment every three weeks, for a year, but the majority of treatments are done! After the cancer treatment whirlwind, and it being December, I find myself cocooning at home. 

The picture above was taken last week, on Christmas Day. On Twitter I posted, along with this picture, "#Chemo head getting some hair in time for a 'Snowflake Crown Christmas' photo shoot! #hair!! #Merry Christmas #Happy Holidays"

I still wear my beanie and wigs (a.k.a. baby it's cold outside!!),  but thought I'd share with you my hair progress, visually and status-wise: it is still sparse, but has come in darker and is SO very soft. Ah...progress! 

Radiation is done! WooooHoooo!!! (insert happy dance, with fist pumps and a huge smile)

After a month of living at Compassion House, in Edmonton, while undergoing radiation treatment, I am now home. Actually, this week I will be temporarily at home. Tomorrow, I go into the city to watch Beatrice, my radiation buddy, who is 84 (or 85), ring the radiation bell to shout that her treatment is done. Then on Wednesday I have another medical appointment/check in, but I will balance that with a massage! And then on Friday, my friend Paula will drive me in for another treatment (some call it 'chemo maintenance'); this is the one (IV Herceptin) that I will get every three weeks, at the Cross Cancer Institute, for a year. Then, phew(!), I will be at home. (and once I am home, and in between resting & recovering, I will share with all of you about Compassion House, the people I met and my journey)

With this shared, I have completed three major treatments; surgery to remove the tumour, and chemotherapy & radiation to ensure the cancer is out of my body. So below is a picture of me ringing the bell at Compassion House. Being a teacher, a bell represents the end and the beginning. So, I rang the bell to state that this leg of my journey is completed, and I am off to begin another. 

Thank you for all of your love and support. You have raised me up and given me legs to stand on when I felt so very weak. I am so very grateful for the love that surrounds me. XOXOXO

(Below are some photos of me ringing the bell at Compassion House, me bundled up and leaving the House, #iseehearts as I leave the city, and "I've finished chemo and radiation" portrait in my Compassion House room. Click on the photos to see the entire image).

I have so much to be thankful for. Despite me writing this after a very tough night of dealing with chemo effects (days 2 - 5 are the roughest...and I'm into day 5), I have so many blessings. 

This weekend, we Canadians, celebrated Thanksgiving. This is a time for family, food and reflection. For me, this weekend, my chemo effects have been stronger and therefore, I am feeling weaker. So weak, I emailed my siblings my love and told them not to call, and to tell dad (who doesn't do the email thing) I will call him when I am stronger next week. 

I feel I have always been surrounded by love. My parents are the salt of the earth and my older sisters and brother have been a source of guidance, love and support. I shared with them in my email, “People compliment me, but the grace, strength and love they see in me is a reflection of you. Thank you for your love.”  I am blessed.

I feel surrounded by love in my community. My community is full of friends, students and strangers. For example, my FaceBook feed is full of messages of love and support from people I have come in contact with, and those whose physical presence I have yet to encounter. This humbles me and yet fills me with such hope. There is incredible goodness in the world.

This past week, there was a Terry Fox Run that my school annually participates in (for cancer awareness and fundraising). Staff and students ran for me. The Run passed by my house, so I created a sign to thank them for taking the time and effort to contribute to this worthwhile cause. Well, unbeknownst to me, at the time, a sign was created for me as well. A local reporter, from the Advocate, saw the sign at Edwin Parr School and contacted me.

I then shared my love and thankfulness, to her, and from that, to everyone who read the story. I find since my cancer diagnosis, the outpouring of love, concern and support has been incredible. Due to my limited energy, I find myself posting emoji’s, FaceBook ‘likes,’ and the occasional post. My upbringing has me at odds with this, as I wish to respond to every comment on this blog, text message, food package, gift and card I receive.  But I am unable to do this at this time, just like I am unable to hug everyone I come in contact with (due to low immunity). (***Oh, and I DO miss hugging people!***) This limited contact and thanks makes me sad, but I hope you understand.

So, please accept this note, and Advocate article, as a ‘thank you.’  Your kind acts of goodness have power. I am thankful. I am blessed.

Barbara Burns' support
Advocate article written about Barbara Burns' thankfulness for support and love.
Everyone has their moments in life, when they roll their eyes to the sky, or ask themselves, “How do I go on?” It could be because of that frustrating situation at work, a relationship that has you shaking your head and breaking your heart, a financial situation that has you burdened with lack, or a chronic condition (or illness) that consumes your mind, body and spirit. You are at your end and you don’t know what to do; exhaustion and pain fill your entire being.

I have been there, B.C. (before cancer) and now. Currently, after each chemotherapy treatment, around days 3 to 5, I feel that I am losing my mind as sounds, sensations and visuals become too much to take in. In addition to this, my body severely revolts from the chemo. Pain courses through my nerves & muscles, so that the slightest touch is torturous. Breathing becomes tight as the chemo is hitting my lungs.  I am exhausted and drained from the lack of sleep due to chemo effects and anti-nausea medication. My digestive tract screams for relief. And then the growth on my spine (a chronic condition I have had for 10 years) along with the chemo effects, makes it challenging for me to lie down, or sit, for too long, and yet I am too tired to walk. I can’t think and articulating my thoughts and feelings is nearly impossible. I am just trying to survive.

Now here’s the upturn….

Music is a big part of my life. I play music at home, in my classroom and crank it in the car. And when I listen to it, while I am on the treadmill, I become “Super Star, Rock Star, Dancing Machine” (this is the reason why I do not work out in public, but at home!). Just like my eclectic ways of being (an artist, public school teacher, community server and former athlete), I have a varied music selection. The reason I bring this up is because I believe music has power to change your perception of the world. With that said, I have a playlist named Resiliency. It is full of songs I listen to while I drive into chemo, when the growth on my spine is acting up too much, or when I am struggling with the frustrations of treatments (or even life in general!!). Music helps set my mind, soothe my soul and motivates me to take another step.

As I mentioned, chemo is challenging and its effects are compounding as the treatments go on. After one session, in my troublesome day 3-5 time slot, I found myself laying on the bathroom floor, emotionally, mentally and physically hollowed. The world crashed hard.

But I wasn’t alone. I had Katy Perry’s “By the Grace of God” lyrics running through my head, as well as my cat, Mandu, sitting close and watching over me. In the song words like:
‘Running on empty, 
So out of gas, 
Thought I wasn’t enough, 
Found I wasn’t so tough, 
Laying on the bathroom floor…” resonated with me. And from those despairing words, the rest of the song talks about Katy picking herself up and putting one foot in front of the other. I knew if I could just get through that moment, and then the next moment, I could then find myself getting up and moving on.

So, I have had my chemo moments, you have had other flashes, or hot burning coals, that have shaken your essence. Our saving moments, even for atheists, can come ‘By The Grace of God!’  Now, hear me out: The ‘Grace of God’ can be your belief in God or a Higher Power, but it can also be Love… family… friends…. music… or whatever goodness, in this world, that keeps you going.

I encourage you to find your GOoDness that gives you a glimmer of hope. What makes you smile? What makes you feel at peace? What gets your heart racing? Then these are the things you need to focus on, even as a mantra, in those hard moments, to help you see that you are not alone. For me, on that particular instant, it was a song and a concerned cat watching over me while I laid on the bathroom floor.

So what do you think? What GOoDness has helped you work through your tough times? Please share with me. I’m interested in hearing what works for you. I would love to hear from you.

And if you think someone can benefit from this post, please share it with your family, friends and coworkers.

Barbara Burns
Barbara Burns' cat, Mandu, watches over her while she undergoes chemotherapy effects.
Loss is a part of life, and with a chronic condition or illness, loss is woven into the fabric of your being. However, everyone has encountered moments, and seasons, of loss. People can leave, illness can come and visit, jobs can be lost, our world changes, and we are left to pick up the pieces (if there are any). I am here to tell you, through my past bouts with depression, and my current growth on my spine and diagnosis with cancer, that loss doesn’t need to define you and that one can find peace and joy in it all.

Loss has come to me in many forms, but I am going to share my story about my recent chemo hair loss and how I have dealt with it.  As I have mentioned before, I believe we are more similar than different, so I know the tidbits I have learned on how to deal with loss, may help you in your life. I’ll begin with my story, share five steps on how to find peace and joy in loss and then finally exhibit my latest chemo head looks (i.e. bald, wigs and hennahead)

I kept telling myself, “It’s just hair!!!”, but societal and family programing told me different. My attached sense of womanhood to my breasts and flowing hair was now being ripped apart with a surgery scarred breast and chemotherapy hair loss. As weird as it may sound, I was more frightened about my altered breast and being bald than the trauma of the treatments.

I’ve had a history with my hair, like most women.

As I thought of writing this piece I remembered being a child and completely unaware of my physical appearance or caring what others thought of me. Then something changed in my social programming where I became aware of others and was swayed by their perceived thoughts of me. At the age of seven, Edith Ann, age 8, cut my blonde hair, on her front porch, to jaggedness and clumps. With my mom’s full expression of my name (you know, when the middle name is added to nail home the importance of the situation), I realized she wasn’t as impressed with this haircut as I was. I informed her that I got the haircut for free, thinking that Scotty Burns would be pleased, but dismay was all I read on her face and body. The next day, an emergency intervention was had at Arnold’s Hair Salon. However, my hair failed to respond (as there wasn’t much left), and my seven year old self failed to understand the dire situation of a bad haircut. I survived and carried on happily, and now, this is one of the stories my family enjoys telling to complete strangers about me (and now you know, so they don’t need to tell you!).

And then the day happened, when a person I had a crush on, noticed me and my hair. ***swoon***  It was in Grade 6, and for picture day, I took the time and effort (which I normally didn’t) to style my hair (i.e. blow drying it straight!).  My crush was my Grade 6 Math teacher and, to this 12 year old, he smelled divine. My dad did the Old Spice thing, as this is what we gave him for Christmas and Father’s Day, but Mr. H. smelt like BRUT! When the picture packages arrived, Mr. H. handed them out to my class. He whistled at mine, I blushed profusely, and from that moment I fell into the sinkhole of attachment to another’s perception.

The funny thing is that I have never felt like a feminine woman. Growing up I played more sports than most guys and my closet and shoe collection was very limited (and still is). It was through my hair and breasts that I felt my femininity. Even when I was at my heaviest, and I hated my body, I loved my breasts and found joy in my hair. So I find it interesting that this cancer, and its treatment, has challenged this thinking by attacking the two things I identify as being a woman with.

We have all had our moments with our hair: Bad hair days… flyaway and frizz bombs… bad hair cuts… awesome flow moments…. helmet head…mayhems of mangled mess…. “What the F*ck happened here?” hair…and now for me, no hair days.

Whether it be hair loss from chemo, an end of a relationship, employment termination, or other changes, loss can cut you down. And it has the possibility of destroying you. But it doesn’t have to.

I sometimes catch my reflection, at home, and I don’t recognize myself. My head is bald, my eyebrows are barely there and my once full and long eyelashes are sparse. The cancer and its treatments have altered my body, but I am coming to terms with it. I’m not going to say that every day is a bed of roses, but I have come to accept “this is who I am today”.

Loss has the ability to change us. We can choose to make ourselves stronger or we can wallow and drown. I believe that positive change and movement can happen. Granted there are days (weeks) when that seems hard to see as the clouds are surrounding our world, but the sun and the moon are still in the sky.

Here are some of the steps I have taken (through my past bouts with depression, the physical and mental strain of the growth on my spine and dealing with my cancer surgery and treatments) to help me deal with loss:

1. Stop fighting. What?!? Often when we are hurt, our defenses naturally go up. I say, bring them down. Don’t put on that brave face. Feel the sadness of your loss. In a safe way, express your anger. I have sobbed into my pillows. Alone, I have screamed at the roof (and after all is released, I then apologized to my cats for scaring them). I madly scribble words and sentences down on pages and pages of paper. It is important to get that pain, frustration and sadness out of the body. (Also know that anger and depression will flow in and out of your life, concerning this loss, for weeks, months and perhaps years. It is okay. You are normal. Just let it all pass through.).

2. Rest. Loss is mentally, emotionally and physically tiring. Often when we have experienced loss, we try to keep ourselves busy in order not to think/feel our pain. Loss can turn on the manic button; we tackle our ‘to do’ lists, we go out and get together with others more, we binge watch NetFlix and do things to occupy ourselves. There is nothing wrong in being productive and wanting to fill our time. But it is in the space, the silent moments, where healing can happen. Step away from the expectations of life and just ‘be.’ So, pencil in a nap on the Saturday afternoon. Sit down with a cup of tea and read that book you have been putting off. Close your eyes and let your favorite music drift you away. And get some good sleep. By healing your body, and giving it moments of rest and recuperation, you take the first steps of becoming stronger in your mind, body and spirit.

3. Ask for help. Did you know that one in ten Americans suffer from depression? (in my opinion I think it is higher due to the stigma of mental health) Did you know that pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined? Loss in life in inevitable, but there are people around that can help you. Acknowledging that things aren’t going well is the first step in improving your situation. There is therapy for your physical needs as well as your mental needs, just as there is medication to help you with physical and mental pain. You are not necessarily stronger because “you are handling it on your own,” and you are not weak because you are seeking help. Taking the steps and actions to make yourself stronger, through your own work and the support of professionals, has strength and power.

4. Surround yourself with ‘good.’ As fall is approaching, in addition to the body temperature changes due to chemo, I find I need to layer my clothes. This idea can be used when dealing with loss. When we lose something of meaning, it is important for us to take care of our mind, body and spirit. Layer yourself with people, fur babies and things that nurture and feed you. Be gentle with yourself. Have people, music, food, books, shows and etc. in your presence that uplift and comfort you. Soothe and elevate your being. You deserve the best.

5. You can’t control the weather, but you can captain your own ship. The only person we can control is ourselves. I can’t control my chemo hair loss, but I can choose a path that will honor where I am right now. Often in loss, and chronic illnesses, we can focus on what we have lost, that we forget to pause and see all the blessings that still surround us. Yes, I have lost my hair, but what can I do right now, in this moment, to make my world a kinder and gentler place (for myself and/or others). Sometimes it can be as simple as taking the focus off me and sending a kind text to someone, stopping and feeling the warmth of the sun on my body, or smiling at the complete stranger who passes me. My head has been wiped clean from chemo, but I have head coverings made in love from friends, I have funky bamboo wraps that I bought at the Cross Cancer Institute, I have an awesome authentic New York Yankees ball cap purchased when I was at a Yankee's game in NYC, I have two wonderful wigs that two friends helped me choose, and just yesterday, I got my head hennaed (mendhi), by a wonderful henna artist. Yah, I like hair on my head, but this is all good…really good.

So what do you think? Do you have any other steps that have helped you with dealing with loss? Please share with me. I’m interested in hearing what works for you.

And if you think someone can benefit from this post, please share it with your family, friends and coworkers.

As I write this, my mom passed a year ago. Dad, Bonnie, Terri, Rob and I surrounded her in her last few days on this earth. We shared stories full of laughter and tears; love filled the air. 

Dealing with the effects of chemotherapy and your mom's passing can make for a tough day. Today, my brother sent a beautiful flower arrangement with a card that provoked so much more than words.  The sentence, "Mom's looking down and is proud of you," was the impetus to creatively remember her. 

So.... I put make up on (as the eyebrows and eyelashes kinda 'go' from chemo).  I put on the colour red, as she loved the colour on me. I went outside, on my deck amongst the trees and sky, as she loved nature and the view of the valley from its platform. I took a deep breath in, remembered her strength and took a picture.

She never 'approved' of short hair on me, but she may have been okay with this look today (concerning the circumstances). And with that said, even though she loved my smile, I think she would have liked this self-portrait. 

I miss you, mom. I love you.
Cancer Survivor, Barbara Burns, remembering her mom's one year passing. In Remembrance.
Barbara Burns Let Me Be BraveBarbara Burns waiting to see the oncologist at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.
Yesterday I went for my blood tests and exam that I get before every chemotherapy session the following day.  Well, it seems that my infection is still hanging on, and they will be postponing my chemo until next week. I am disappointed with these results, but I know that they have my best interests at heart...and so, I wait and heal. This reminds me, once again, that the timeline I have in my head, is not necessarily the timeline of my body. 

So today, I slept in, ate chocolate, and was loved by friends through cards, texts, messages and hearts! Recovery is good!