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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Making Peace With Your Body

As breast cancer survivors,  I am pretty sure there is one thing we all have in common--body image issues. Our issues about our bodies are very different from the women out there who believe they can never be thin enough.  Our angst goes beyond trying to camouflage a tummy bulge. Back in the day, I was horrified at the point in my life when I crossed over from a size 6 dress to a size 8. What I would do to have that problem now!

For us breast cancer survivors, striving to maintain a thin and toned body is only part of our self-image equation. We must make peace with the map of scars on our physicality that will mark us for life. When a new man sweeps me off my feet, I must come clean about how I beat this disease called breast cancer so there are no surprises. Lucky for me, baring my soul to a man before I bared my body has had no bad consequences. In fact, I believe my whole survivorship story elevates my appeal to some guys. 

But still. There is no erasing those scars. They will always be there. It is ironic that all the plastic surgery I got through breast reconstructive surgery has made me look a hell of a lot better in clothes. When I go to parties,  there have been women my age that have had a few too many drinks and blurted out: "How come your boobs are so perky?" I just give them a serene smile and reply: "It's my reward for battling breast cancer."

That's when I look at those women and weigh in: Saggy boobs versus scarred boobs--you be the judge. That's when I realize that when you get to be in your 50s, there is no way in hell you are ever going to rock a bikini like you did at 25--whether you had breast cancer or not. In middle age, we all have something going on with our body that doesn't look so hot. Before I had breast cancer, I had not one surgical scar on my body. But I did have some oversized boobs that I believe only made me look dumpy. That problem has since been solved. With my clothes on, today my boobs look mighty fine.

Now if only I could get back into a size 8.

Friday, September 5, 2014

My Memories of Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers and me at the Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball in 1998
I had the good fortune to interview and meet Joan Rivers during my tenure at Accessories magazine. I was working on a feature article about QVC and wrote a sidebar story on her entitled: "Can We Shop?" The minute I got on the phone to interview Joan, I couldn't stop laughing. For every answer to a question, she fired back fast and witty one-liners. My colleagues peeked into my cubicle to figure out why I was practically giggling on the floor.
No doubt about it, Joan was funny. But she had a whole other side the public never knew. The very week the story was published, she sent me flowers, a piece from her jewelry collection, and a signed copy of her latest book. Two months later, I met her at the Fashion Accessories Benefit Ball (pictured here). When I introduced myself, she reached out to shake my hand and said thank you for the press coverage once again.
I've interviewed plenty of high-profile people in my life, but none of them exhibited as much thoughtfulness as Joan Rivers. I was truly impressed at how she never took her fame for granted. She touched me with her gratitude and inspired me with her grace and style. RIP Joan Rivers. You were a remarkable survivor who epitomized class.