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A Cloak of Courage

The Battle for Life

Life presents challenges to everyone, varying in intensity and impact. The response to these challenges is a personal choice, and while adopting a positive mindset is an effective way to confront them, the journey may not always begin with such optimism. Francie Baltazar – Stonestreet, owner of Fireheart Photography, and Porter City Lifestyle's own photographer, knows about life's trials, and there isn't a better person to exemplify regarding those obstacles and a positive mindset. 

The words faded and her whole body froze. Time seemed to halt, and in that breathless moment, the world became a distorted echo of normalcy. A tear fell after trying fiercely to hold it back. With a quivering lip and a paused brush of her hand to her cheek, the outward expression of fear was erased, leaving a faint, glistening remnant. This was nothing more than an indication that a fight was on the horizon; a fight of will, mental focus, and trust. It was time to adorn the warrior cloak.

As she surrendered to the journey, the medicine flowed through the tubes, and right into her soul. Her heart pulsed with power knowing that all the cells were slowly dying, but her body felt anything but powerful. Fatigued from the internal battles, her head drooped low as she released a weighty sigh. This was her new reality—tethered to tubes, combatting an invisible adversary. Her “happy” thoughts pillaged through the wreckage of her mental state -vying for any space that wasn’t occupied by negativity, and yet, those spaces seemed scant. “How did this happen? I’m in the best shape of my life! 100 pounds down, great diet, daily activity; I just don’t get it... Oh no, I’m going to lose my eyebrows again. Here comes Uncle Fester… No!! I will not succumb to the darkness. I will be the light for myself that I want to see in others!” 

Rewind to September of 2020, Francie Baltazar - Stonestreet, faced Endometrial Uterine Cancer Stage 2, a soul-crushing diagnosis. The treatment seemed to last forever, ravaging her body and mind. Facing the dichotomy of the situation, Francie armored herself with a new mindset, Xena Warrior Princess: brave, tough, and hopeful. Following an arduous battle, in May of 2021, yielding her sword of restitution, she was able to ring the victory bell on cancer. But just recently, she sat in the doctor’s chair, trying to catch her breath after receiving news that once again she would have to wield that sword. Cancer, round 2: Diffused Large B-cell lymphoma, stage 1, a silent killer. After curating a new, healthy normal, doubt tried to creep in and she was thrust back into the struggle of emotions from round one of treatment. But just for a second. There was only one way to face it: head-on with courage.

As she stared into the mirror, facing her current reality, she tried to conjure that courage; the urge to release the floodgates weighed heavy on an already battered heart. Locks of curls trailed the floor and filled the sink. The reflection that stared back was a monster that couldn’t be tamed with rouge or lipstick. Cancer is a thief of more than just energy and wellness, it depletes any sense of beauty causing psychological scars- which are sometimes harder to heal than physical ones. With most treatments, hair loss is a known side effect, however, losing hair could be the most traumatic experience in the cancer journey, especially for a woman. As strands fall, so does a piece of identity, leaving an emotional canvas where vulnerability and strength coalesce. Crafting mindful beauty through makeup and a curling iron is a meaningful pursuit, yet with each lost strand, beauty feels increasingly bereft. Alas, Francie found solace in some of the unwanted: quicker showers, no undesired hair anywhere, and wig experimentation! Available are a plethora of colors, and she wore lavender as a crown of confidence. A sanguine perspective reveals that having no hair is indicative of the treatment's efficacy—eliminating cancer cells and forging onward to a healthier body and revived soul. Xena didn’t stay in the dark, she rested when needed, grieved when necessary, then stepped into the light. But not all days were easy; that’s part of the journey.

Amidst the stagnant days of healing, it may have seemed like the world continued to progress without her. On those harder days, the journey to motion was not rushed but rather undertaken at a pace more comfortable. Penning words of inspiration and gratitude in a journal, slow walks in nature listening as the wind whispered encouraging words of hope, and surrounding herself with supportive friends proved instrumental in maintaining Francie's warrior spirit. She found solitude and that zest for life in continuing her work. Even equipped with all these weapons for mental combat, she knew that on the battlefield of life, she was never alone.

The hidden casualties of cancer extend beyond the diagnosed individuals to encompass their families. The impact on loved ones is profound, demanding an emotional resilience that is often overlooked. They wait, bedecked with hope, but understand the possibility of death, and watch as their loved one slowly withers from the champion they knew into a fragile state of dependence and need – focused solely on survival. Emerging from the shadows, Francie confronted the stark aftermath that cancer had wrought. Her family had grappled with the reality of potential loss, and having to witness her suffering was a harrowing challenge. Providing support to family members in such times is invaluable. Caregivers, in particular, deserve respite. Meals that were sent, grocery shopping, and friends that would take a peaceful walk with her in the park were gestures that offered her caregivers a crucial break and affirmed to be remarkably helpful. It was always the actions, and never the words.

On the contrary, words do carry some weight. Condolences seem meaningless at times, but Francie found positive affirmations like "you've got this" and "cancer doesn't stand a chance” emphasized resilience over sorrow. Any warrior of words is an attribute to Xena! However, sometimes, using the wrong words felt like salt in a wound, “You don’t look sick”... How does sick look? Francie chose to speak words of positivity to herself and others; she chose to fight; she continues to choose life. Xena Warrior Princess, although an alter ego, is personified through her words and actions.

Cancer is a tumultuous battle, yet amid the chaos, awareness stands as a guiding beacon for choices. Diet, exercise, rest, and cognitive acuity are all within one's control. The choice to stroll and let the sunshine rejuvenate a tired spirit - or not; the choice to eat food with healing properties - or not; the choice to find the reasons to smile, to laugh, to live… or not.

In this battle, don’t settle for “or not”. Francie hasn’t. Xena has awoken for round two of the cancer journey and has taken up arms to fight the mental fight. She wears the cloak of confidence that will create the path to victory once again. When a diagnosis leaves life feeling incomplete, find Xena, and let Francie serve as the source of inspiration.

It’s not how you enter a room, but how you exit. When it’s my time to go, I want people to remember my Xena Warrior Princess positive and motivating attitude!

...I have a choice as to how to approach every day: attack with positive and healing thoughts, or drown in my fear. I choose healing thoughts and positive outcomes.

It’s a balance of listening to your body and giving yourself grace to just be.

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