Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two Graduations And A Wedding

June. The season of dads, grads and brides. This particular month, my oldest nephew received his Master's Degree from Yale University and my youngest nephew graduated from Kent prep school. Then there was my boss's wedding, which I attended last Saturday night.
Wedding celebration with my co-workers

These life celebrations helped lift me out of a dark mood that has stood like a cloud over my head since April. The upheaval that has gone on in my home for more than two months has opened my eyes on many levels. It has been sobering. I realized that I turned my back for way too long on things that needed to be updated and repaired. I had to come to grips with the infestation of clutter that kept growing.

To make amends, I spent week nights painting doors and trim with super-white glossy paint.  I purged my kitchen cupboards and refrigerator with expired food and condiments. I got rid of scratched pans and chipped cups and bowls. I brown-bagged clothes that were more than five years old. I made Goodwill runs almost every day.

My nephew graduates from Kent School
But all this extra work wore me down after awhile. Where had the fun in life gone? Two graduations and one wedding helped me get my happy groove back. It is amazing to see my two nephews step into adulthood armed with such great education. The Yale graduate will continue towards his PhD at Yale in mathematical engineering (whatever that means). His girlfriend is studying at Yale to become a doctor. I have always been amazed by Alex's high IQ and drive, but it is a pleasure to see how it has transformed into solid economic security for him since he works at Yale, too.

His youngest brother, Davis, has grown into a polished young man thanks to attending Kent for two years. Davis is also driven to make his dreams come true as a hockey player.

 I have had the privilege to witness how my company supported my boss, who is gay, when she became engaged. Management hosted a wedding shower for her at the office. I was one of nine people from work that attended her wedding. It was a wonderful experience to see 185 family and friends celebrate two women in love and share their joy--without condemnation.

I expect the flood renovation to be completed in about two weeks, which means I will finally be able to bring my house back to order. It's been a tough go over the last two months.  So thank you June, for bringing some joy back into my life.



Monday, May 30, 2016

...And Then Came Summer

It's so typical, the way spring arrives here in New England. We wait and wait for the first signs of this fickle season because it's pretty much unanimous among all of us that winter lasts way too long. One day the weather will be completely on point.  Warm, sunny. All you need is a jacket or sweater. You see the buds on the trees, the grass greening. When you look up at the sky, you can feel the warm beams of sun on your face.

But then the next day, it's back to the same old weather--cold, damp, gray. Not for nothing, many New Englanders joke that spring lasts all of two weeks. It usually gives us these short bursts of seasonally-correct teases and then, bam! Summer arrives. This year, summer was perfectly timed by kicking off during the start of Memorial Weekend with 85-90 degree weather. Ten days ago my heat was still blasting and now the air conditioning is running round the clock. That's how things roll around here this time of year.

The inconvenient part of summer arriving, is that I can't access most of my warm-weather clothes since they are buried in the back of the garage that houses all my earthly belongings. It has been two months now since the flood, and construction lingers on. I'm still crammed in my tiny guest bedroom with my resilient cat that is clearly handling the whole mess better than me.

The white dust that stubbornly hangs in the air and covers everything, everywhere is concerning me. As soon as I get in the house, my throat constricts, I get a dry cough and  my voice gets hoarse. What to do? The foreman of the renovation assures me we are coming to the home stretch. The demolition, the rebuilding of the walls and ceilings, and even the painting is all done. What's left is some electrical work, and finally, the installation of hardwood floors. I am betting this will take another two weeks.

In the meantime, I continue to shuffle mounds of stuff around. I am always searching for something. Most likely, whatever I am looking for is in any number of heaped garbage bags. They are scattered everywhere. The things I am looking for no longer have their usual place. It pushes me into this low-level panic mode. So I try to create order however meagerly--like keeping the kitchen  and bathrooms spotless. Then I convince myself that this is nothing more than a major spring cleaning that is long overdue. Lighten up! This too shall pass.

But then I get pissed because summer is unofficially here, my favorite time of year. Do you think I want to spend this fleeting season trapped in my house decifering through all me shit, putting all the pieces of my domain back together again? Hell, no. That will be scheduled for rainy days and after daylight hours.

I refuse to let this minor catastrophe ruin my summer. I will go to the pool, go to the beach, enjoy sitting out barbecuing, and generally having a good time outside
The mess will have to wait, because yay! It's summertime.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

When The Shit Hits The Fan, Remember Your Cancer Battle

There will always come a time when it seems like shit just falls on you like rain. That's how my spring began.

It  actually started out really good the first Monday of April.  At our weekly sales meeting, I was honored with an award for getting  most new business sales. What's more, as all sales managers famously do, my boss crunched the numbers every which way and revealed that I have a 70 percent closing ratio whenever I go on my first new-business appointment. In other words, if I manage to get an appointment with a new prospect, it's a pretty good bet I will convert them into a new customer the moment I introduce myself and shake their hand.

Quite honestly, all these impressive stats came as a surprise to me. But hell, I'll take the crystal trophy, the bonus check and do a little pound on my chest. The only thing that rained on my parade was that I wasn't feeling so great. Since the previous Saturday night, I  had caught a fever that I just couldn't shake. My throat felt raw and when I lost my voice that afternoon, I told my boss I was heading to the doctor's office.

The verdict? Strep throat. I was prescribed antibiotics immediately and ordered to stay home--in quarantine so to speak--for 48 hours since that's how long I would be contagious until the meds kicked-in. By Tuesday, I was starting to get pissed off. The fever continually spiked up and down. I felt dizzy and weak. As a cancer survivor, I have been vigilant about taking care of my health, I  get check-ups religiously. I pop vitamins, I go to the gym, I take flu shots.

On Tuesday night I mindlessly loaded up the dishwasher, turned it on, when a blast of water came shooting out from under the sink. Within minutes, my kitchen was flooded and water was flowing fast into the dining room. I called 911 and they said the fire department was on their way. By the time they arrived, The water had filled the dining room.That's when I started to hear what sounded like a waterfall downstairs. My master bedroom is right below the dining room.When I got down to my bedroom, it was like Niagra Falls took over the space.

The firemen turned off all the water immediately but it took a good 30 minutes before the flood to finally subside. That's when they broke the bad news. For safety purposes, they had to keep the water shut down, then turn off the electric and heat, too. I had to leave my home and spend the night in a hotel. No, no, I thought. There was no way I was leaving. I suddently remembered what happened to  my neighbor down the street last February. A pipe burst from the unit above her.  Since they couldn't fix anything without turning off the heat, water and electricity, she was condemended from living in her property. In fact, she was still living at The Marriott Residence Inn.

My neighbor who lived above me, had been darting in and out of my house the whole time during this crisis ordering me around. I pretty much ignored her--especially when she remarked sarcastically that: " I wasn't handling this flood very well" while I stared blankly at my waterlogged dining room furniture and area rug. Thankfully, she walked out after that. Then a troop of EMS guys marched into my home, I asked them in so many words: Who invited you? Apparently my neighbor called them and said I was sick.

They asked me if I had called a hotel yet. I reiterated that I was staying in my home because luckily, my guest bedroom was totally dry and that's where I would stay. That's when the EMS ring leader took matters into his own hands. "Well ma'am, you have two options here. You can either go to a hotel, Or we're taking you to the hospital," he announced in no uncertain terms.  He started making calls to all the local hotels. Turns out there was some sort of convention in the area and the nearest hotel was a Comfort Inn 17 miles away.

When it finally dawned on me I was outnumbered,  I reluctantly grabbed my handbag, down vest and headed outside. I noted the firemen and EMS guys formed a sort of human chain link at the front of my doorstep as I jumped into my car. The youngest fireman waved and called out meagerly: "Just remember: It's only stuff! No one got hurt!:

I glared at him and muttered to myself, Yeah, but it's MY stuff and most of it is ruined. When I got checked into my room at the hotel, the gravity of the situation hit me and I started to cry. I called my mother in Florida. All I could do is repeatedly cry out her name into my cellphone: Mom! Mom! Mom! I just wanted her to be there with me.

"Get a hold of yourself! my mom hollered back. She ordered me to call the condo association manager pronto to inform him of the disaster and deal with all the rest of the shit in the morning. I must say it felt good to be in a pristine room. There was nothing more to do but fall into bed.

I was back at my house the next morning at 8 am. True to his promise, the condo manager knocked on my door at 9 am sharp with his crew of an electrician, plumber and foreman standing behind him.They filed in and with timely precision fixed the plumbing under the sink,  removed the ceiling lighting in my bedroom and turned everything back on. The hardwood floors began buckling from the water.  A contractor walked through and noted the damage. The ceiling downstairs, the floors, and the recessed lighting are all destroyed. I need a new mattress.

I was told my townhouse wouldn't be completely repaired and renovated for at least eight weeks. In the meantime, me and my cat are living in my tiny guestroom and bathroom. Looking at the grand scheme of things, that newbie fireman was right. I'm okay, my cat is okay. Eight years ago--during the spring of 2008--I was not okay. I was going through chemotherapy, I was sick, I was bald, I could barely get through each day. I often feared I was walking on a path towards death. Shit happens. Shit will always happen. Just remember how you dealt with all that shit called cancer, count your blessings, and move on.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Celebrating Life & Eight Years Cancer Free

Today marks eight years since the day I found out I had breast cancer. I vividly remember the call I received from my doctor telling me I had the "garden variety" of breast cancer--carcinoma. That was the good news. It wasn't an aggressive disease like triple-negative breast cancer.

The bad news is that the lump in my left breast was over five centimeters--the size of a golf ball--which indicated it had probably spread to my lymph nodes. That indeed proved to be true. After the biopsy and scan results came in, the breast surgeon announced my ultimate diagnosis; Stage 3 locally-advanced breast cancer.

The implications of that diagnosis made me realize that if I had waited six months to get my annual physical, the cancer would have probably evolved into Stage 4 breast cancer in which case I most certainly would have been dead by now.

Doing what I love at The Elephant's Trunk flea market
I know what you're thinking. How could I not have felt such a large tumor?  The fact is I had large, dense breasts. When my doctor showed me where the lump was, all I could feel was a subtle, ridge. buried deep into the underside of my breast. Honestly, I had no clue. That illustrates how insidious breast cancer can be. You feel perfectly fine, Then comes this suspicious lump. I will admit it, I never bothered checking for lumps regularly and I did miss getting a mammogram the previous year.

Since the lump in my breast was so big, my course of treatment dictated that I undergo chemotherapy first in order to shrink the lump followed by surgery to remove it. To make matters worse, when I had undergone the MRI to discover how far the cancer spread, they found another pea-sized lump in my right breast. This meant that I had to undergo the most aggressive treatment possible.

Here's how it went down: Twelve weeks of chemotherapy followed by surgery, which included a mastectomy in my left breast and a lumpectomy in my right breast. Eight weeks of radiation. Four months later, the road to breast reconstruction began. Because they were not able to get clean margins in my right breast, I had to undergo another mastectomy as well.

Then there were complications with reconstruction during surgery on my left side due to radiation. I ended up having three subsequent surgeries, with my last "tweaked" procedure done July 2011--more than three years after my initial diagnosis.

It was a long road. After that, life shifted into normal gear--with a difference. I embraced it more. Above all, I sought opportunities to have fun--to enjoy the privilege of being alive. That meant that my passions and interests no longer took a back seat. The things I loved to do during my spare time were explored immediately.

For instance, I have always loved scouring through tag sales and flea markets and I always liked decorating my home, I kicked those hobbies into high gear. I spent more time refurbishing old furniture and updating my home. I am constantly re-painting, rearranging, and revamping everything in my environment. Then I started refinishing sorry, old furniture and flipping them
for profit on Facebook tag sale sites.

The point is, it really does matter that you take time to enjoy life doing the things that you love. After all, you were given a second chance. Don't waste it.




Monday, February 29, 2016

Applying For Disability Benefits With Breast Cancer

Blogger's note:  I an pleased to accept Bryan Mac Murray's article which answers so many questions that women battling breast cancer ask me. Bryan, thank you for being a guest blogger.

Disability benefits are only “automatically” available for breast cancer under certain circumstances. The cancer must be advanced, recurrent, or resistant to treatment. In all other cases, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will need to see additional proof in order to find you disabled by your cancer and/or cancer treatments.
While cancer and cancer treatments are certainly disabling, they don’t automatically meet SSA disability requirements. This is because disability benefits are only available if you have an impairment that causes long-term or permanent disability or if you have a terminal illness.
Medically Qualifying Under the Breast Cancer Listing
The SSA maintains disability listings for conditions that automatically qualify for benefits. Breast Cancer is among these and appears in the SSA’s listing of conditions called the Blue Book under Section 13.01. To meet this listing, your cancer must be one of the following:
  • Advanced, inflammatory carcinoma
  • A metastatic carcinoma that has spread to lymph nodes
  • A carcinoma that has returned after treatment
Other types of breast cancer can also qualify under this listing by closely matching one of the situations listed above.

Compassionate Allowance for Terminal Breast Cancer
Highly aggressive forms of breast cancer and those that are advanced, recurrent, and no longer responsive to treatment fall under the SSA’s Compassionate Allowances (CAL) program. CAL-designation ensures your application is reviewed quickly and that the medical evidence required for approval is minimal.

Qualifying Without Meeting the SSA’s Disability Listing
If your breast cancer doesn’t qualify through the Blue Book, you may still be able to get approved for benefits. Just be prepared for your application to initially be denied and for your wait for benefits to be longer.
You’ll need to request a second review of your claim and reevaluation of your medical evidence, but you should also be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be denied a second time. If denied again, you can appeal the decision and have your claim reviewed by an administrative law judge.
You may wish to consider seeking assistance from a disability advocate or attorney from the start if you know you cannot meet the SSA’s disability listing for breast cancer. An advocate or attorney can help you build a strong case and can assist in arguing your claim at an appeal hearing, if one is necessary.

Applying for Benefits
Disability benefits are available through two programs SSI and SSDI. Each program requires a separate application process.
  • SSDI applications can be submitted online or at the local office.
  • For SSI however, you’ll need to interview with an SSA representative at the local branch. He or she will complete your SSI application for you.
No matter which program you apply for, you’ll need:
·         details of your work history, education, job training, and previous job duties.
·         contact information for all your doctors and other healthcare providers.
·          financial information, including all sources of income and support as well as any assets you hold.  
Consider taking copies of the medical records you have with you to your local SSA office or submit those copies via mail just after completing your online SSDI application. Although the SSA will have you fill out consent forms that allow them to access your medical records, you wait for a decision can be shorter if you provide medical documentation directly to them at the time you apply for benefits.


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.