Last week marked 6 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought about it a few times on the actual day (April 27) but found myself pushing any thought out of my head. Not because I shy away from thoughts of my cancer “journey” — good luck getting out of such thoughts, y’all; anyone who has been down this road or who has watched as someone they know has gone down this road knows that is a futile effort. That’s a very long sentence with a simple idea at its core: if you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, thoughts of that illness come randomly and often.
Personally, I’m in a limbo-like state of wanting to acknowledge the passage of time between D-Day and today, while also not tempting fate. My rational brain knows that recurrence and fate are not intertwined, yet my scardey-cat brain wants to skate far from any potential jinxing.
I’m not at all sure what to say or how to feel about 6 years NED (no evidence of disease). I hate to even type that acronym, for fear of unleashing the beast that has already turned my life upside-down and left me permanently changed. I feel like a shit-heel for even mentioning my NED status when so many lovely people (many of whom write stellar blogs) currently have cancer as a recurring character in their lives. I know that could just as easily be my fate, and I know that it still may be my fate.
See, that’s the thing about having had cancer. Regardless of type or stage, once you’ve heard a doctor say some version of “It looks like cancer” you will never be the same. If you happen to be one of those who believe that cancer is a gift, you may want to stop reading right now and head on over to another website — any other website — because I remain resolute in my opinion that if cancer is a gift, I say no thanks.
In reflecting on 6 years post-cancer, I remembered a letter I wrote to my younger self. I need to re-run it, and I need to do that now.
Dear Younger Me,
Listen up, missy: that college dream of yours to light Madison Avenue on fire with clever advertising campaigns isn’t gonna happen. You don’t like the Big City — too many people and way too many germs. That other dream of writing children’s books isn’t going to happen, either. At least not anytime soon. You do end up reading a whole lot of good ones, though, to a couple of precious kids who look so much like your baby pictures it’s scary.
Your smart mouth will get you into a fair amount of trouble. I’d tell you to be careful, go easy, and use restraint, but we both know you’d flip me the bird and keep right on sassing. I can tell you that eventually you do learn the fine art of holding your tongue, but it will never come easy.
That sweet, loyal, smart, cunning and unmatched yellow dog who grips your college-aged heart will never let go. She will protect you, and then your children, for nearly 15 years. She will guard the entrance to the nursery and sleep under the crib. She will show you her back when you get out your suitcase, because she knows you’re leaving, if only for a few days. Her time on this Earth will grow short but she will stick it out longer than anyone expects because she will insist on seeing you through an even rougher patch: the death of your sweet mama.
Guess what, girlie? Your sweet mama keeps a tight grip on your heart, too. Not a day passes without you feeling the loss, in big ways and small ways. (Note to self: don’t give up on trying to make her pie crust. It won’t ever be like hers, but keep trying.)
Just about the time cancer steals your beloved mama, you’ll start getting an annual mammogram. You’re ahead of the schedule thanks to that mama-stealing cancer, and every year the mammogram will come back funky. Don’t settle for the “dense tissue” rationale. There’s a tumor growing, and it ends up taking up a lot of space, both in your body and in your life.
Look, I know you’re going to be busy living your life and raising those two little kids when the diagnosis comes, but please, brace yourself, because it’s going to get ugly fast. And say a little prayer to the environmental-services gods who control your operating room on the day of your mastectomy; maybe we can avoid that post-mastectomy infection that will reorder your life. And BTW, the bilateral mastectomy was totally the right choice. Good girl for following your gut. There will be no hint, not a single whiff, of cancer in your left breast, but it’s there.
Give up right now on thinking your cancer “journey” will be “one and done.” It will be more circuitous than you can ever imagine, and it will change you in ways you won’t discover until years later. Oh, and before you even begin that circuitous journey, you’re going to have to deal with melanoma on your right foot. I know, who puts sunscreen on their feet, right? Hate to tell ya, that even though you catch it early, the surgery to remove the melanoma will be the most painful thing you will experience. Yes, it’s worse than childbirth and a bilateral mastectomy. Oh yeah, about childbirth–when your water breaks, the baby is coming. Yes, he’s early. No, you haven’t finished the birthing class or packed your bag, but it doesn’t matter. And you’re going to get teased for decades for reading ahead in that “What to Expect” book on the toilet in the middle of the night when your water has broken and your much-better-prepared spouse sleeps peacefully, unaware of your foolishness.
It turns out fine, the baby is healthy (but hard-headed). Even the cancer thing is manageable. Not easy, but manageable. I think we both know you can handle it. You’re going to learn a lot, whether you want to or not. Your limits will be tested. You’re going to make some true and life-long friends along the way. You’re going to unload friends, too, in one of many hard-learned lessons. You see, there are people who are willing to give what they want to give, not what you need. This is a very important distinction. Trust me, you’re much happier without ’em. A couple more pieces of advice: first, don’t ignore that knee pain while you’re running. Stretch before and after you pound the pavement. Listen to your body. Pain is its way of saying something is wrong. Ice your knee after each run. I know it’s a hassle, but so is living with constant pain. Years down the road, you’re going to be embarrassed by how you hobble down the stairs like a woman twice your age. You’re going to be frustrated by the ways in which your body fails you. I don’t have an answer for how to deal with that, because I haven’t figured out how to deal with that. I do recommend drinking champagne as often as you can. I don’t have to tell you to never, ever pass up an opportunity to drink some bubbly. The lesson I want you to remember is that the sound of that popping cork will soothe your soul, every time.
Ten years ago today, I got the call. The call I’d been dreading. The call from my dad to tell me that my mom was dead. I was in my car, in line to drop my #1 son at school. He was still in the car, but I answered the phone because it was my dad calling. Trying to respond to him while cloaking my words in a way as to not upset my 6-year-old was hard. Living the last 10 years without my mom has been even harder.
I’ve written much about my sweet mama and how much I miss her. I’m not sure that there are new ways to say, I’m sad. I miss her. I feel lost sometimes. I worry that I don’t do enough to keep her memory alive. I can’t believe she’s gone. I don’t want to live the rest of my life without her. I’m afraid I don’t mother my kids as well as she mothered me. I’m totally pissed that she’s gone. I was robbed. She was robbed. It still hurts, a lot. It’s better, but it still hurts.
I miss her. So much.
I’ve been torn today, between wallowing in the sadness and doing the kinds of things she respected. Between feeling sorry for myself and being productive. Between having a shitty day and “walking on the sunny side of the street” (the latter was how she bid me farewell every day when I left for school when I was little). How can I walk on the sunny side of the street when the sunshine is gone?
I’ve been in need of a reason to sit down at my computer and bang out a blog post, but I’ve been lazy. Chalk it up to summertime and its glorious release from the grind of our daily schedule. Thankfully, the blog challenge put forth by Nancy’s Point and taken up by Marie motivated me to shake off that laziness and get to it.
15 things. Random things about me. I know y’all have been itching to know more about the inner workings of my particular brand of crazy. Have at it.
1. I love animals and have been accused of loving critters more than people. To which I say, it depends on the person.
2. Meat in any form grosses me out, big time (correlation to fact #1?). I still cook chicken and turkey for my family but wear latex gloves to handle the raw stuff, and the process of picking out a package of meat at the grocery store usually makes me want to barf. Because we have a pet pig, pork is obviously a no-go in my house.
3. Being organized makes me happy; chaos makes me hyperventilate a little.
4. I have an addiction to lip balm. I have tubes of my favorite kind stashed everywhere: in the kitchen, in my car, on the patio….I leave the lids off so I can grab the tube, swipe it on, and keep moving.Every chance I get, I visit a different grocery or drug store to look for my favorite kind. When it seemed to be getting scarce, I ordered an embarrassing quantity online. When my favorite girl saw that stash she asked if I had robbed a Blistex salesman. Ha, ha, very funny.
5. I love books and am torn between relishing the heft of a real book and being seduced by the convenience of ebooks.
6. Patience is not one of my virtues. Being stuck in line drives me crazy, as does a pokey driver in the left lane or a string of people walking slowly.
7. Similarly, I struggle with diplomacy. I want to say the right thing, the kind thing, but the harsher, more direct version is what comes to mind first.
8. I would love to speak a second language. I took Spanish in high school, but my teacher was a childhood friend of my dad’s and I had yet to master the art of working hard despite the easy out. Or easy A, as the case may be.
9. Physical activity lights my fire. I love a grueling workout, a multi-hour tennis match, an afternoon digging in my yard.
10. I get a huge dose of satisfaction from being productive and am not so good at sitting still.
11. I’m a foodie and am usually thinking about lunch as I’m eating breakfast. I used to tease my sweet mama for doing that, and now I do it, too.
12. I didn’t like beer for more than 20 years, but being on long-term antibiotics after a nosocomial infection changed my taste buds. There are few things better than the first sip of an ice-cold beer.
13. While on the topic of booze, I should confess my undying love for champagne. It makes every occasion a special one.
14. I’m a germophobe. People coughing or sneezing in public makes me cringe, as does the idea of sharing a cup with someone else. People who share a toothbrush are like aliens to me. I cannot wrap my head around that concept. Eww.
15. I love lists and always have a to-do list going. Perhaps that’s why the idea of a post listing 15 things appealed to me.
On my bulletin board I have a faded article from Southern Living magazine titled These Baseball Years. It’s from the June 2003 issue, when my son was four years old and just dipping his toe in the water of what would become a full-fledged baseball obsession. Now, 9 years later and in his last hurrah of Little League, I re-read the article and nodded my head in agreement.
Baseball has been a constant in our house, and it’s provided me a way to connect with my kid, who tends to be rather quiet and lives in his own head. He’s never been one to come home from school with news of the day’s events, nor does he disclose much under direct questioning. If there were a hall of fame for one-word answers, he’d be in it.
All of that changed, however, when I realized that if I knew something about baseball, especially about his beloved Red Sox, I’d have a direct line into him. Any parenting expert will tell you that if you want to connect with your kids, you have to do it at their level and with their interests in mind.
In the article, author Joe Rada says that “baseball is a grand metaphor for the game of life. Through baseball we explore the weighty issues of winning and losing gracefully; getting along with others; setting goals; playing hard and by the rules; rolling with the punches; the value of physical health and the treacheries of drug abuse.”
He also describes how his son sleeps on baseball-themed sheets under a ceiling fan with baseball-bat blades. Sounds familiar. At the time when I ripped the article out of the magazine, my kid slept on sheets decorated with cars & trucks, but it wasn’t long before we re-did his room with a baseball theme. We chose the neutral brown paint color for his room based on which shade was closest to infield dirt, and the one accent wall we painted red was carefully matched to the Red Sox jerseys. His ceiling fan is regulation, but his lamp and his curtain tie-backs are baseball-themed. As he moved through Little League seasons, we added shelves to hold trophies, and now I’m worried those shelves will collapse under the weight.
This last season of All Stars is the end of an era. We’ve spent as much time in the stands as we have around our dinner table, and we’ve bonded with the other players’ families in a friends-for-life kind of way. We’ve seen each other through job loss, injuries & illness, new babies, and high school graduations. We’ve supported each other through health crises, including my own. The summer I spent in the hospital instead of at the All Star games in 2010 was brutal, but it was made bearable by the love and support that came from the team. The Season of the Pink Sweatbands was the team’s best, and my framed photo of the entire team, including coaches, wearing pink sweatbands and saying “This one’s for you!” sat in each hospital room I occupied that summer. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.
Like Joe Rada, we plan our family vacations around the baseball schedule, delaying as long as possible in hopes that we’ll be making a trip to the State Championship in late July before we take off for two weeks at the beach.
I don’t know why I kept that faded article all these years, but now that my kid is heading toward the end of his Little League career, I’m glad I did. As Rada writes, “Long after my son settles into being whatever kind of man he’ll be, I’ll still see his upturned chin and hear his sweet voice shouting across the backyard, ‘I got it!'” I will, too.
Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester is one of my heroes. Not only because he’s a bad-ass left-handed pitcher who delivers for my favorite team but also because he’s just celebrated a milestone worth coveting: 5 years of being cancer-free.
Lester was just 22 years old when he was scratched from the Sox lineup in late August 2006 because of back pain. At that point in his rookie season, he was 7-2 and his pitching was on fire. After a few tests, doctors at Mass General determined that his lymph nodes were enlarged, and a few days later they delivered unthinkable news to an uncomprehending pitcher: Lester had anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a rare and fast-spreading cancer. The Red Sox announced the news on September 2, 2006, and manager Terry Francona said that Lester was beginning a “journey that few us can comprehend.”
I’m almost embarrassed to type the words “being diagnosed with cancer is devastating.” Duh. If only I could invent new words to convey the devastation. If only. For a 22-year-old major league pitcher, I imagine the news was shocking and gut-wrenching, to say the least. As a 40-year-old non-pro athlete, the news of my own diagnosis was shocking and gut-wrenching. Duh.
Lucky (?) for Lester, his type of cancer is non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is highly treatable, with a cure rate of upwards of 80 percent. I’m sure his youth and his physical fitness helped, too, but no matter who you are, the diagnosis is a bitch, and Tito was right, Les was on a journey that few can comprehend.
No one thinks it’s going to happen to them, but cancer bulldozes through millions of people’s lives every single day–atheletes, celebrities, and regular people alike. Sometimes I think: if someone like Jon Lester isn’t safe from cancer, who is??
Not me, obviously.
Lester and I have a similar attitude toward our cancer. “It sucks,” he said in more than one interview. “But you can’t let it define you.”
“I hate hospitals to begin with,” he says. “I hate needles. I hate anything related to doctors. Getting blood drawn every 10 days [during chemo] … it drags on. You’re tired all the time. You want to do stuff, but you can’t. You’ve got to watch where you go because of germs. It’s not something you would wish upon anybody.”
Yep, that’s right.
Lester says as a pro athelete, his pursuit of excellence helped him demand a willingness to accept constant physical challenges, something with which cancer patients are quite familiar. He spoke of his frustration of feeling weak, of wanting to be active but his body saying no. He learned to listen to his body and to accept that he wasn’t in control of every aspect of the treatment and recovery process. I’m no pro, but I know that feeling — of wanting to overcome but being thwarted at every turn but none other than your own body. Suck.
Lester endured 6 cycles of chemo and lost his hair but not his drive. He wanted to pitch again, and to be known as a great pitcher, not as a cancer survivor.
On October 28–barely more than two years after being diagnosed–Lester started and earned a win in the final game of the 2007 World Series against the Rockies. The following May, he pitched a no-hitter against the Royals.
I’d say Lester did it. He’s a pitcher first, and a cancer survivor second. Throw hard, Les!
The New York City Fire Department suffered a tremendous loss this past week when Twenty the Dalmatian died.
For nearly 15 years, this dog has been a proud member of FDNY. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2oo1, two sherriffs from Rochester, NY, delivered a dalmation puppy to Ladder 20 company. Ladder 20 Company needed a morale boost — the kind that only a puppy can bring — after seven of its members perished on the 35th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
This beauty served alongside her human counterparts and provided a bit of hope in the dark days that followed 9/11.
On FDNY’s Facebook page, Lieutenant Gary Iorio wrote about Twenty: “She really helped to build the morale in the years following 9/11. I can’t say enough about what she did to help us. She went on all the runs, she’d jump in the truck, stick her head out the window and bark. She became a local celebrity.”
Dalmatians have been affiliated with fire stations since the 1800s, and I’d venture to guess that none was as beloved as Twenty. Because early fire stations used horse-drawn wagons as fire engines, they also employed Dalmatians. It seems that Dalmatians are able to bond closely with horses, and because horses tend to be afraid of fire, Dalmatians were essential. Early accounts tell of horses being afraid to approach a fire and of Dalmatians distracting and comforting those horses, which allowed the fire wagons to get closer to the fire.
Lieutenant Iorio posted this sweet send-off to his colleague Twenty: “We offer our heartfelt thanks to her for being a loyal companion to FDNY members and the community for nearly 15 years. Today, Twenty has taken her final run to Heaven. Rest in peace, man’s best friend.”
Upon learning of Twenty’s death, FDNYdispatchers transmitted a specific message: 5-5-5-5. The fire code, which has been used in New York fire stations since 1870, signals the death of a firefighter.
5-5-5-5 for Twenty means she has been officially released from duty, and that her job has been done.
Want more stories of hardworking, hero dogs? Read this.