Friday, February 5, 2016

Breast Cancer Lessons

I can't believe it. Next month, I will celebrate eight years as a breast survivor. It seems like another lifetime because everything has been normal now for a long time. In fact, it's been so long, I sometimes forget that I ever had cancer at all.

Yet, as I skip along through life these days, there are things inside my inner psyche that have fundamentally changed. During my cancer fight, I had some huge aha moments that permanently changed my perspective and  influence the choices I make today. I like to call this personal evolution my Breast Cancer Lessons. Since this is a breast cancer blog, not a journal, (which I habitually forget) I thought I would share these lessons with you.

Lesson 1:  I no longer care what other people think about me and simply say no. 

Once you've walked around in public totally hairless and pale while getting looks of pity wherever you go, you become immune to what others think of you. You just don't give a shit. Your outer appearance becomes totally irrelevant because you are too focused on getting well.

From the moment I fell into that attitude, it stuck with me. Someone says bad things about me or doesn't like me? So what. Somebody wants me to do something that I don't want to do? Absolutely not!  Above all, my well-being comes first.That's what happens when you must strip down your daily routine to only what's essential in order to make it through the day. You get used to setting boundaries. You get used to saying no. And anyone that tries to manipulate me simply must go! That leads me to my next lesson.

Lesson 2: I surround myself only with people that are supportive of me and kick those who are not to the curb.

The moment you tell everyone you have cancer, you quickly learn who your true friends are and who are not. These people are divided into three groups: 1. Friends and relatives that show their true colors and do whatever they can to help you through a difficult time. 2. Friends and relatives that find it awkward to reach out to you and simply disappear while you're sick. 3. Acquaintances and people you hardly know that step forward and do amazing things to give you a much-needed lift.

It is a litmus test of sorts and adds to the emotional roller-coaster of battling cancer. I will always remember the friends that stepped up to the plate and took care of me and will cherish them forever. I will also never forget the friends that I expected to be there for me but turned their backs. They have been kicked out of my life a long time ago. Then there's people like one of my brother's high school buddies that mailed me a box of gifts and a heartfelt card wishing me a full recovery. As soon as I opened the box and read the card, I simply cried. Out of the woodwork, comes people that really care. That's why I make it a point to carry out similar acts of kindness.

Lesson 3: I spend less time acquiring things and more time creating memories.

Before I was forced to face cancer head-on, I was, in many ways, an empty vessel. I spent way too much time wandering stores buying stuff I didn't need simply out of boredom. Then came a day when I was really sick and an expensive ceramic bowl that I bought in Europe came crashing down on to the kitchen floor. It laid there in tiny, shattered pieces. I looked down at it totally numb and calmly brought out the broom to throw it into the trash. It's just an inanimate object, I thought to myself,  and wondered why I even bothered to buy it in the first place.

Before I had cancer, I would have probably cried over the broken object. In that moment, I realized what really mattered to me was living life joyously by creating wonderful memories. Things had nothing to do with making that happen. Once again, my perspective changed and I never went back to my old way of thinking. I no longer care about getting Christmas or birthday gifts. I would much rather create a wonderful experience on those special days. And that's what I've been doing ever since. To hell with presents.

Lesson 4: I stay in today.

I know this live-in-the-present moment concept has been heralded endlessly. But when you are sitting in a chemo room with walls that are painted with names of people that once sat in your lazy-boy chair and are no longer alive, you can't think ahead. It will scare the hell out of you if you do. I had stage-three, locally advanced breast cancer. My prognosis was shaky. I learned to cope with the fact that I may very well die by just taking life day by day. Now, I am very good and keeping worries of the future at bay by doing what I learned to do in the chemo room--staying in the moment.

Those are my four big takeaway lessons after battling breast cancer. But I also want to add that I got an unexpected perk  for getting cancer. Once my hair started growing back after chemo, it came back curly at first and ever since then it has gone from being straight to wavy. It also got thicker. My hairdresser says part of the reason it's thicker is because I am getting more gray hair. Nonetheless, I am thrilled that my hair has gone from flat, thin and limp, to full, bouncy and wavy--especially during the rain or in humidity.

So thanks cancer, for finally giving me great hair!

I love my low-maintenance hair, courtesy breast cancer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It's My Party

Ever since I was a kid growing up in Minnesota, I have memories of snow blizzards ruining my birthday parties. I was born on January 21st--which is pretty much the apex of bone-chilling winter weather.

Last weekend following my birthday on Thursday, a major blizzard came barreling through the Northeast threatening to spoil yet another birthday celebration. I had a ticket to see the Broadway play, An American in Paris on Saturday night in New York City. As it became clearer by the hour that Manhattan was going into a paralyzing lock-down mode, I chose to ignore the warnings to stay home and jumped on to one of the last Metro North trains heading to New York City before all train service stopped at 4 pm.

Halfway through my train ride, a friend texted me that all Broadway plays just cancelled that night--so good luck with that. Undaunted, I called an old friend of mine who happened to be staying at his daughter's apartment in Manhattan while she was out of town. Without hesitation, he invited me to spend the night since I would not be able to leave the city until the next day.

As the train rumbled through Harlem I realized how paralyzing the blizzard had become. The roads were devoid of all traffic. People walked down the middle of these ghostly streets just to experience the novelty of this momentous weather event.

New Yorkers frolicking in the middle of 69th Street
I was hungry when I got to Grand Central station and expected to see the food emporium bustling with activity. Instead, there was one hot dog cart with a long line of people waiting to get something, anything to eat. In fact, the train station was eerily quiet.

I took the subway to my friend's place and as soon as I emerged into the streets I was engulfed in a swirling vortex of  white snow. I felt completely disoriented and had to ask a passerby to point me in the  right direction towards 69th and Third Avenue.

I had assumed at least some restaurants would be open so we could go out to eat, but absolutely everything was closed down. When I finally arrived at my friend's doorstep, cold and disheveled,  he opened the door and remarked: "Only you would do something crazy like this."

"Hey, I'm a Minnesota girl," I retorted. As it turned out, he had done the requisite mad dash to the grocery store hours before and announced he would be making us dinner. Once I got warmed up and settled, I stared out the window as people frolicked up and down 69th Street taking selfies on their phones.

We spent the evening watching old, classic movies with snacks and drinks sprawled across the coffee table. It was so cozy as we periodically checked the storm outside ebbing and flowing through the night.

We woke up the next morning to clear-blue skies and mounds of snow everywhere. Then we trudged through knee-deep drifts to a place that served us a delicious brunch. Apparently the city's mandate to stay inside gave many New Yorkers a serious case of cabin fever because they were out and about in droves.

I figured if I went to the theater box office I could negotiate to see the show matinee that Sunday. They obliged discounting my show ticket by 50 percent and giving me a better seat for the inconvenience. As so many great Broadway musicals do, An American in Paris swept me away with its timeless Gershwin tunes and flawless dance scenes. I walked out into Times Square, my senses overwhelmed by the multitude of flashing screens that surrounded me. I took a moment to take it all in and thank my favorite city for the memorable birthday gift it gave me over the past 24 hours.
Despite the blizzard, it was one of the best birthday celebrations I can remember in a long time. It broke my heart to board the train back to Connecticut and leave a city that I have always loved so much,

When I got back home and reflected on this magical weekend,  I realized that my perspective on celebrating birthdays changed. After battling cancer, I believe my birthday is an affirmation that I won a battle to live. For that reason alone, it is cause for celebration. So do something memorable on your birthday each and every year. You deserve that for having the will to survive. On your special day, make it a mission to party and play.

So long Manhattan. I'll miss you.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Sandra Lee Battles Breast Cancer In Style

Sandra Lee--a celebrity chef on The Food Network--has been sharing her tumultuous breast cancer battle with the public for the past six months on social media and every time she posts an update it brings back memories of my own cancer journey.

Sandra Lee at The Emmy Awards
She opened up about her emotional roller coaster ride when she lost  her double D breasts back in May. She had a setback in August due to an infection that landed her back in the hospital for an operation.

In spite of that, she showed her strength and bounced back when she walked down the red carpet at the Emmy Awards in a plunging and stunning ballgown that was clearly designed for a woman with cleavage.

Sandra was sending a clear message to Hollywood and the world that her breasts did not define her or take away from her beauty. The picture says it all. Sandra said the pastel-pink gown had been hanging in her closet for years but she could never fit into it because it was too tight across the chest--what with her being a double D cup size.

As a breast cancer survivor who had six surgeries in order to complete breast reconstruction, Sandra is showing women like her the way back to health is not without a few bumps in the road. But whatever hurdles you must jump, maintaining a fighting spirits gets you to the finish line faster.

Sandra has said: I just want to move on with my life. Oh, how I feel her pain on that point. I remember thinking: For the love of God, when will the chemo, the surgeries and the radiation finally be over? It ended for me and it will end for Sandra, too.

Sandra Lee gets blessed by The Pope for the second time 
After normalcy kicks back into your life for five, six years,you will appreciate someone like Sandra Lee reminding you how very tough that journey was. It's worth taking a moment to feel gratitude.

On that note, I found it interesting that The Pope talked about the importance of daily gratitude at the evening mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City last Thursday night. Sandra Lee was there and The Pope asked that she come forward out of the pews so he could bless her. The next day, at the 9/11 Memorial, The Pope blessed her yet again!

Sandra still has reconstructive surgery ahead of her, which could throw yet more curve balls her way. Then she will probably have to go on medication for five years. But she's been deemed cancer free, she's been blessed by The Pope--twice, and she held her own on the red carpet alongside Hollywood's A-list actresses WITHOUT her Double-Ds.  Not too shabby.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mad Men: How Women Handled Cancer Diagnosis in the '60s and '70s

'Mad Men' Reveals The Surprising Difficulties Of Being A Woman With Cancer In 1970

Posted: Updated: 


Even casual fans of “Mad Men” knew that the cigarette-smoking chickens would come home to roost one day. That day came in the show’s penultimate episode, when Betty Draper Francis learned she had advanced lung cancer.
To recap: During Sunday’s episode, an injury sent Betty to the doctor, where he discovered tumors in her lungs. However, he declined to share the diagnosis with her until Betty's husband, Henry Francis, came down to the clinic. The cancer is advanced. It leaves Betty with a year at the most, which leads her to stoically decide -- over Henry's desperate objections -- against treatment. 
According to Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, the portrayal of Betty's care was almost entirely spot-on: A woman diagnosed with lung cancer in 1970 would have been given the patronizing care that Betty received. Though not a fan of the show, Brawley watched the episode and explained it was par for the course back when “cancer” was a generally whispered or unspoken word, and the medical community was generally patronizing to women as well as cancer patients. 
“I can tell you that there was misogyny in medicine, and I can tell you there was actually a time in the United States when it was common not to tell people they had cancer, but they told the family,” Brawley told The Huffington Post. "I can tell you that there was a time when many people did not even say the word ‘cancer’ or simply used the words ‘Big C.’"
The notion that patients needed to be protected from the truth lingered into the 1990s, according to Brawley. 
“I graduated from medical school in 1985, and I can remember taking care of patients in the ‘80s and ‘90s, from families who were generally not very sophisticated, where people were outraged that the patient had been told that they had cancer,” Brawley said. 
One reason doctors and families may have wanted to keep diagnoses a secret from patients is that back then, there was often very little that could be done to try to treat the tumors. In 1970, a woman with advanced lung cancer -- even a very wealthy and well-connected woman like Betty -- didn’t have very many options. It makes sense that Betty would decline to try experimental or invasive treatments, said Brawley, but it is unlikely a doctor would have made the recommendation to treat at all. 
“[Betty] was very appropriate for the time,” said Brawley. "In the early 1970s, we had a couple of chemotherapies, but there were huge arguments as to whether or not they actually made people live any longer."
And in fact, because Betty didn't have any cancer symptoms -- meaning, her tumors didn't grow in a way that caused nerve pain or blocked blood flow -- it’s doubtful that doctors would have offered to treat her cancer at all. 
“Our standard of care up until the 1980s was that if someone had quiescent, metastatic cancer of the lung [cancer that has spread but has no symptoms], we actually did nothing,” Brawley explained. “It wasn’t until the mid-90s that someone like [Betty] would be offered chemotherapy when she was asymptomatic."
Of course, Betty wasn’t truly asymptomatic when it came to her cancer: After becoming short of breath walking up a flight of stairs, Betty trips and falls, cracking a rib or two. While at the hospital, an X-ray reveals advanced lung cancer that seems to have spread to both lungs. The cancer could also explain, said Brawley, why Betty was so worn down from climbing the stairs in the first place. 
"Someone who has cancer that has spread to both lungs as [Betty] does can have fluid that can accumulate outside the lung but inside the chest cavity, and that can decrease the ability of the lungs to expand, causing shortness of breath,” said Brawley. “It is incredibly common among people who present like her."
Finally, despite putting on a brave face for her daughter, Betty may have also been feeling alone after receiving her diagnosis. 
Brawley points out that while the code of secrecy and shame around cancer diagnoses began to crumble in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1972 and 1974 that celebrities like Shirley Temple and Betty Ford, respectively, came forward about their own struggles with breast cancer. Because the final season of “Mad Men” takes place in 1970, it’s unlikely that Betty would have known any public female figures who spoke openly about cancer.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since the time Betty would have received her cancer diagnosis, especially when it comes to cigarette smoking rates. In the U.S., cigarette smoking rates for women peaked at about 44 percent in the 1960s. In 2013, the latest year available for this data, that rate was 15 percent
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a little while longer for the rates of lung cancer to follow suit. It’s still the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the U.S., according to the Lung Cancer Foundation, and while death rates are declining nationwide, they are steady or rising among women who are of daughter Sally Draper's generation, so to speak. They were born in the 1950s and would be at least 65 years old by now, which is the age at which most lung cancers are first diagnosed


Friday, December 19, 2014

Bye Bye My Little Love

Goodbye my sweet Gypsy boy
On December 13, just one year and nine days after I lost my beloved Tigger. I had to put my Gypsy boy down. Within five short weeks, his health deteriorated rapidly. It kicked-off with a seemingly harmless virus that gave him a fever and sniffles. Suddenly, his frenetic outbursts of energy, his morning jumps at the front door combined with raucous meows to get out and discover the day gave way to listlessness. I threw him a toy and he just stared at it. Clearly, there was something wrong.

The vet said, no worries, he just caught a virus and put him on antibiotics for 10 days as a precaution. During that time, his weight spiraled down inexplicably and his spunky spirit turned to lethargy. But let's not go into the end of his life just now. Let's talk about the beginning.

Gypsy is my fourth cat that I had to let go. They all have their special places in my heart. But he  was the most feisty one--the scrappy survivor that I discovered living homeless outside during a bitter winter.

His rescue story is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all my cats.  In February 2008--the month before I found out I had breast cancer--I had seen him roaming through the neighborhood. The condo association was about to contact Animal Control to capture him in which case he would have surely been euthanized. That association seemed like the Wicked Witch of the West, out to kill my little brown "Todo" of a cat.

With two rescue cats already in my care, I knew it wasn't a good idea to take in a third, but that spunky little brown tabby knew just what to do to capture my heart. He snuck inside my garage to stay warm one night, and before I knew it,  I created a sanctuary for him there to survive the winter. I made a bed for him and kept food and water there. I kept the garage door cracked open at the bottom just enough for him to slink inside. By the time spring arrived, he would rush up to me and swirl around my legs until I picked him up. He would purr loudly and look lovingly into my eyes. This was no feral cat. He had been neutered, so at one point in his life, at least someone cared.

I announced to all the neighbors on the block that this little brown cat with the crooked ear was mine, so no one better mess with him, much less call Animal Control. Besides, he had turned out to be a working cat by going on midnight runs killing pesky mice and rats. One morning, I found two fat rats lined up neatly dead at the doorstep. Gypsy knew he had to earn his keep. When I took walks, he strutted aside me like a dog. He greeted everyone that stopped to chat by swirling around their legs and giving them a hardy meow. When Gypsy accompanied me to get the mail one day, even the grumpy condo manager mumbled: That cat is really something.

During summer, my neighbor upstairs began renovating her kitchen. When her contractor saw my newly-acquired pet he proclaimed: "I recognize that cat because of his crooked ear! He lived in the house next door to me where the residents had more than 20 cats. They were evicted and rumor had it that they loaded all the cats into a truck and threw them out randomly throughout Fairfield County." My little brown tabby had come from 15 miles away, which is why I decided to name him Gypsy.

Gypsy was truly an outdoor cat. To try and lock him up inside what have crushed an essential part of his spirit. Most of the time, he was content to just sit at the end of my sidewalk like a guard dog and meow at everyone that walked by. If I was down at the pool, he would slide under the gate and saunter toward me meowing loudly with each step. The kids ate it up and asked if they could pet him, what his name was and generally fawn all over him. Their dripping wet suits and hair didn't faze him because he actually loved water. He would always spoon water with his paw in order to drink it.

One of my cat-loving neighbors proclaimed Gypsy had some Mainecoon blood in his pedigree because of his water-drinking habits, his constant meowing, his big paws that looked like snow shoes, his fur color and texture and the way he followed me like a dog. I googled the cat breed, and had to agree with him. He didn't have the tufted ears and bushy tail, but he had everything else.

When it got cold in Autumn, I decided it was time to bring Gypsy inside the house and meet "the boys"--Tigger and Mango. Tigger had pressed his nose on the window pane every time he saw Gypsy outside the front door. Once they met face to face, they bonded instantly. Who knows why they loved being together so much. What I do know is that Gypsy greatly enriched the last five years of Tigger's life with his big, loving heart.  They spent every night sleeping together on the living room ottoman and groomed each other for hours on end.

On two occasions when Tigger accidentally got outside, Gypsy hunted him down and brought him back home. Gypsy was the one that lead me to Tigger as he lay dying of a heart attack in my bedroom. From the moment Tigger died, Gypsy refused to jump on the ottoman he shared with Tigger.  It was too painful for both of us to look at that piece of furniture, so eventually I stored it away.

Gypsy tried in vain to cuddle up with Mango in an effort to replace that lovable friendship that was now lost from his life. But Mango would have none of it. I could see over the past year how a little light went out from Gypsy's soul when he lost his best buddy Tigger. He missed him terribly.

On December 1st,  I spent $200 on blood work to find out why Gypsy was losing weight, which yielded no answers to his condition. I refused to pay an additional $350 for a sonogram. So the vet prescribed two weeks of prednisone  to see if it was just irritable bowel syndrome. I also bought prescription, high-calorie food that cost $45 for a bag to see if he would gain weight and get back to his old self.

It didn't work. He ate all the time, and yet he kept wasting away. He would have a good day and then the next morning I would see he had vomited almost everything he ate. During the last two days of his life, if I touched his rear end, he would cry out in pain.

But during those last three weeks,  he would climb up on my chest every night as I lay in bed and fall asleep.  Occasionally, he would wake me up by softly by tapping my face with his paw. For the first two weeks he purred while his head nestled his head under my chin. But the last two nights of his life, that even stopped.

I knew it was time to let him go when he struggled to jump off my bed and limped into a dark corner of my closet. He just stared at me with this sad, forlorn face. It was as if he was saying: "What are going to do about me? I am sick and tired of this."

When I picked him up out of that corner to take him him on his final journey, he felt like a rag doll--limp and barely alive. During the drive to the vet he uttered not one meow, which is unusual for this cat, because he was always quite loud and verbal. Instead, he pushed his head into my hand every time I touched him in the mesh carrier. At one point in the car, he looked up at the sunlight in the sky and I saw a look of contentment.

During our 35-minute ride, I told Gypsy rescuing him was one of the best decisions I had ever made. I explained that very soon, he was about to join his best buddy Tigger. And that was surely something he could get excited about--especially since his life had been full of misery and pain over the past three weeks.

As the vet sprawled him out on a cold, metal table during Gypsy's final moments, I looked deep into his eyes and said thank you for all the wonderful memories he gave me. I kissed his head and told him how much I loved him and how much I would miss him. And then I said, go ahead, it's time to join Tigger now. Won't that be fun?  With that, he gently and peacefully slipped away.

Gypsy and Tigger happy together in heaven
It seems that it is no coincidence that Gypsy died practically a year to the day that Tigger passed away. Of course, I miss Gypsy terribly. But I feel good that I acted decisively and decided to put him down swiftly rather than drag out his pain for weeks. Two days before he died, he had a good day, I wanted him to leave on a high note. The day before he died, he was in misery. I did the right thing.

It's only been six days since he's been gone. My last remaining rescue cat hasn't missed him a bit and clearly feels lucky that after all these years, he finally has me all to himself again.

Mango is 13 or 14 years old now. I know our days are numbered. And I treasure every one of them with him. But just like all my other cats, no one of them will be like my precious Gypsy boy, that I rescued after being thrown off a truck. Thanks, my little love, for seven years of great memories.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving--Now Turn Off Your Phone

Thanksgiving in 2014
I believe I can speak for most people when the thought of losing or breaking my iPhone, iPad or Mac laptop would give me a huge meltdown. I know this to be true because it has already happened on a few occasions. I have stood paralyzed by panic during such moments and wondered how we ever got through life without these gadgets.

That said, there are some days when you just have to bite the bullet and turn off the technology. Yes, that means disconnecting with the newsfeeds of your choice, the constant twitter and Facebook updates--everyone's got their own cyberspace addictions.

Today, you gotta just shut it all down. Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays in the United States that is not tied to any religous observance. It was created soley by our American forbearers--The Pilgrims--to gather family and friends together in order to catch up, laugh, eat, bond and give thanks to all that we have.

So if you dare bring your iPhone to the dinner table today, consider this photo-
shopped Norman Rockwell painting and ask yourself: What's wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Looking Back

Every October I make sure to participate in at least one breast cancer event. Sometimes its simply a cocktail party fundraiser. Other times its a breast cancer walk. If my memory serves me correct, I've participated in six breasts cancer walks so far--four Susan G. Komen walks and two community walks--the most recent being the Seymour Pounding The Pavement For Pink 5K this month.

Elin Hilderbrand, Novelist
I do these things every October so that I never forget that back in 2008, I was battling breast cancer in a fight for my life. Today, in almost every way, life is back to normal. But then I hear of someone I know or admire who is just beginning their breast cancer battle.  My knee-jerk reaction is to reach out and assure them that the odds are on their side. That there will come a time when they'll be just like I am now--back to normal.

One such person who is currently in the throws of numerous breast cancer surgeries is a favorite novelist--Elin Hilderbrand. Almost every summer, I settle in by the pool or beach to read her stories that are always set in one of my favorite places--Nantucket. I love reading her books such as Barefoot, Summerland, The Castaways. It is a guilty pleasure to live vicariously through her characters entangled in romances and frought with challenges as they romp the beaches of this idyllic New England island.

Every time I see an update on her facebook page about yet another surgery and another complication because of her treatment, I feel her pain. And yet she refuses to let it paralyze her. She carries on, getting back to her desk and pounding away at her next novel, just days after getting out of Mass General Hospital.

It inspires me to soldier on whenever I am faced with daunting challenges today. I remind myself that by the grace of God, I am armed with good health now. So there's no excuse for ignoring unpleasant issues that must be dealt with.

I was very fortunate because I was cocooned in a supportive environment when I was battling breast cancer. Now that I am well, there are less people around to cheer me on when things get tough. That's when I realize how important it is to get outside myself and help another breast cancer survivor so I  don't get pissed off about having to deal with life on life's terms. I have to remind myself that I fought one hell of a battle. After that, whatever comes my way should be easier to face head-on.

So Elin, do exactly what you are doing now. Follow your doctors orders, get through your treatment and just keep on writing those great novels. Someday when you look back, you will realize today's
setback is merrily a bump in the road.