Thanks to my friend Marie at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer for the heads-up on a noteworthy event in the breast cancer world: Angelina Jolie’s preventative bilateral mastectomy.
Yes, you read that right: Angelina Jolie had a preventative bilateral mastectomy. She spoke out on her choice in this New York Times piece. I’ve read it twice and know that I will return to it again and again. Not because she’s a celebrity (frankly, I don’t get our societal obsession with celebs; if anyone can find anything remotely interesting about Kim Kardashian besides her unfortunate maternity wardrobe, please drop me a line. I just don’t get it.).
But I digress.
I will likely return to Jolie’s article because she’s articulate and well-informed about this nasty beast called cancer. She’s proactive, which ladies and gentlemen is what makes or breaks your fight against this damned disease. She advocates for a person’s right to choose the medical care that’s right for them. True, she has money and resources unknown to most people, but her message still stands.
Normally when a celeb comes out with a revelation about cancer — particularly breast cancer — the world takes notice because it’s happening to a celebrity. We get all atwitter about the person rather than the disease and the many ways in which it affects them. It becomes about the celebrity instead of about the cancer. In the case of a celeb with breast cancer, I cringe along with my pink-ribbon sisters when that celeb boasts of having “caught it early” and even worse, waxes poetic about how exciting it is to get “new boobs.” (Exhibit A: Giuliana Rancic. I threw up in my mouth more than once while reading her account of her cancer experience and wonder if she really believes the crapola she shoveled.) Newsflash: “new” does not correlate to “better.”
Jolie writes of losing her mother to cancer at age 56, and how the disease stole from her own kids “the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.” I get that. My favorite girl was 3 when my mom died, and she has few real memories of her YaYa. There are plenty of stories that have been recounted to form memories, but nothing tangible.
That, my friends, is a tragedy.
Jolie says she tried to explain to her children the disease that took “mommy’s mommy” and that they wondered if the same thing could happen to her. The scariest thing about my own diagnosis was explaining to my kids that YaYa’s cancer — which they watched her die from — was very different from my cancer.
But is it really?
Yes, the particulars are different — ovarian vs breast, stage II vs metastatic — but to a child, what’s the real difference here? It’s an amorphous, scary monster that snatches away the people they love.
Jolie says that “cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness.” The best way to combat that powerless feeling is to do something about it. Jolie underwent the BRCA analysis, which tells us if we carry a gene that makes us more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Her results: an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and a 50 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.
She goes on to say, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
For someone in her business, and as someone who is celebrated for her body as much–if not more–than for her charity work, that’s big.
So is the empowerment Jolie speaks of: “For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.”
Make your own informed choices.
The majority of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease. That’s one of the many ways this stealthy beast sneaks up on us and takes over our lives. People like Angelina Jolie are helping to change this. She says, “I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.”
Living under the shadow of cancer.
Those words will stay with me as I read and re-read her piece.
I expect Jolie to bring her considerable influence to addressing the fact that the cost of the BRCA test (upwards of $3,000) precludes many women from undergoing the test. The test is not always covered under insurance, and the insurance companies will squawk about it being unnecessary if there’s no family history of the diseases. But as Jolie says, that should not stop us from trying. Often it’s as simple as having the prescribing doctor contact the insurance company to assert the need for the test.
Jolie ends her article with this: “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”
“Whatever our individual troubles and challenges may be, it’s important to pause every now and then to appreciate all that we have, on every level.” — Shakti Gawain
In my case, the trouble was a messed-up knee. It was all kinds of messed up. As The Hubs so astutely pointed out, it’s been messed up ever since he’s known me, which is some 20 years. Day after day of running, jumping, squatting, and lunging was taking a heavy toll, as was years of escalating stair-climbing, box-jumping, and jump-roping, all in an attempt to achieve and maintain a level of physical fitness that “they” say thwarts disease and ensures a long, happy life. Well, I blew the thwarting part, and despite my best efforts, disease found me, but I won’t let that discourage me from my pursuit of the kind of fitness that fires off a slew of endorphins and allows me to do things like easily hoist a 40-pound bag of dog food into my shopping cart.
My pursuit and its inherent impact and repeated pounding has caused me some big-time, ugly trouble in my knee. Seven years ago, I had enough of the pain and grinding and had it scoped. A thorough cleaning of the underside of the kneecap and a few tweaks to a ragged meniscus breathed new life into my beleaguered joint, and the running, jumping, squatting, and lunging, et al, resumed. However, one scope can’t hold me for life, especially when you add in a borderline obsessive tennis habit. Fast-forward to now and you get a knee that is one big mess.
I’m not one to slow down, take precautions, and tread lightly. I’m not a fan of admitting weakness and succumbing to pain, either. But sometimes our bodies and the universe have other ideas, and this busy-body was felled. A quick consult with my favorite orthopedic surgeon revealed that it was time to stop the madness and sort out this mess. An x-ray and MRI confirmed that there were some big problems that needed to be fixed: chondromalacia (denigration of the cartilage under the kneecap), lots of inflammation, and a bad case of patellar maltracking. Another scope as well as a lateral release were in order, preferably sooner rather than later.
Oh, goodie: more surgery.
I’d rather take a beating than go under the knife, again, but I’d ignored this hot mess as long as I could. Just the scope would have been no big deal, with a couple of weeks recovery, but the lateral release meant a much longer, more involved recovery. And, in typical me fashion, the situation was complicated even further by a surprise once the surgeon got inside my knee: a few tears to the meniscus, a couple of small tears to the ACL, and the biggest surprise of all: the complete lack of cartilage under the kneecap. That’s right folks, the cartilage was gone, baby gone. Hmmmm, no wonder my knee hurt.
Here’s what a normal kneecap looks like: lots of healthy white cartilage on top, all shiny and smooth like a cue ball or a full moon, with no bare spots or blank spaces.See that shiny, white segment of cartilage on top, just above the tool that’s been inserted into the knee? On me, there is none. Instead of that glossy white section of healthy stuff, there’s nothing. Oh, bother.
There is hope that the PRP can help regenerate some of the missing cartilage. But as the oh-so-wise Peggy Hill once said, “You can hope in one hand and poop in the other, and see which fills up first.” No, there is no guarantee my cartilage will regrow, and the more likely scenario is a knee replacement at some point in the not-so-distant future. Uh, huh: yet another surgery.
But not for a while. I’m going to tuck my head and soldier through this recovery. I’ll take solace from the fact that my doc and his PA were surprised by how well I’m walking, even thought I’m impatient to be healed. One week should be enough, right?? I’ll relish hearing my resident experts say that most people are still on crutches and pain pills at this point while I’m hobbling and grinning & bearing it. I’ll feel the swell of pride in knowing that my no-cartilage kneecap lives out loud in my doc’s and his PA’s minds: “Oh, yeah, you…the one with the gaping hole where smooth cartilage should be. Cool.” Physical therapy isn’t my favorite, and being sidelined from the things I want to do is even less so, but this is where I am right now. So be it. PT, limited mobility, pain, swelling, and stiffness will be my constant companions for a few more weeks. Then, like a little chick hatching from its shell, I expect my new, improved knee to make its way into the world, no longer still and helpless but bending and flexing and strengthening. As Marie’s challenge reminds me, I can appreciate that, on every level.
Today’s installment in Marie’s infectious challenge comes in the form of a routine appointment with my orthopedic surgeon to check my new, improved knee. Going to a doctor who has nothing to do with cancer or infection is something for which I’m grateful. Just a regular girl, going to a regular doctor. I like that. My chart is nice and slim at the orthopedist’s office, just a regular chart. Not full of page after page after page of complications and problems.
Unlike my chart at a certain plastic surgeon’s office. At one of my many appointments there, Amy & I snapped a photo of my chart as we marveled at its girth. Sitting on the edge of the desk, that bad boy looked huge. So huge we just had to take a picture. Then we just had to take another picture to compare and contrast. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, but this is ridiculous!
It’s Day 5 of Marie’s gratitude challenge, and after a rotten night’s sleep and an early-morning wake-up call from Princess Piggie, I’d really like to crawl back in bed. I could be grateful for that, right? That would count, wouldn’t it? I purposefully left my bed unmade, on the off-chance I might fall into it as I walked by after dropping the kids off at school. But I’m not a good napper and usually awaken feeling worse than before, and then my sleep cycle would really be disrupted, and things would get really out of hand.
Instead, I’m going to pretend that it’s an ordinary day and dive into my most favorite and decidedly ordinary breakfast: old-fashioned oats, almond milk, blueberries, raspberries, and a sprinkling of almonds. Nothing fancy, not at all trendy, perhaps too carb-heavy, but a little spot of ordinary worth celebrating, especially on this sleepy day.
Marie’s gratitude challenge is spreading like wildfire. Several of my friends in the blog-o-sphere have taken up the challenge and are writing about nature. The other Nancy is focusing on trees, Jan is reminiscing about her koi pond, AnneMarie is watching butterflies, and Martine discovered a gorgeous flower while out for a walk. I’m jumping on that bandwagon. It would have been too easy and too predictable to use the first day of school as my gratitude du jour, so instead I spent a few minutes in my backyard after delivering my kids to their respective schools. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Earth laughs in flowers,” and there’s a lot of laughter in my backyard.
We’ve done a bit of landscaping since we moved into this house in May 2004. The corner garden pictured beyond my favorite girl and our favorite chocolate lab was the beginning of our efforts to fill our little patch of earth with all things green. A banana tree, a fan palm, and a few crepe myrtles went into the ground with hopes of fast growth. They were the anchors of what we hoped would turn into a lush backyard paradise.
A very rare snowstorm on our first Christmas in our new house gave me a good reason to snap a pic of our backyard. That corner garden is still working on becoming a lush screen from the houses behind us, and a pitiful patio table & chair set looks pretty lonely in that barren backyard.
Two years later, when we decided to put in a pool, the corner garden had grown quite a bit and was getting some competition form a tulip tree on the right, a trio of oleanders on the left, and the stars of the show — 3 Italian cypress that carried the weight of really filling out the backyard. It’s looking decidedly less bare, but still a long way from the tropical haven I envisioned.
A quick glimpse of that tulip tree during pool-building shows a little more growth, but there’s still a whole lotta fence showing through. I tried to mitigate the expanse of fence with a few old plates. Back in the day, I thought they looked cute hanging there.
I love how the ray of sunlight snuck into this photo today. I’m not a great photographer and am too impatient to use anything other than my iPhone camera, and when I snapped these pics of my backyard this morning, I knew the light wasn’t going to be great. Little did I know, the light might not be great, but the sunbeams are!
The plumeria under the plate wall makes me smile, especially now that it’s blooming. It’s a fickle plant that craves more attention and TLC than I give it, but apparently it’s stubborn like me and decided to bloom anyway, despite its lack of care. Next to the plumeria is the ginger that grows under my bedroom window. Both of these plants scream “tropical” to me. Who needs to go to a resort when I have all this in my own backyard?
And that little corner garden? It’s all grown up now!
After just one day of Marie’s gratitude challenge, I’m already falling down on the job. I’m blaming it on my recovery from knee surgery a few days ago. Although I managed to work in my first posting despite the surgery, so perhaps I need a better excuse.
Since I inadvertently missed my gratitude posting yesterday, I shall post 2 today.
First, my sweet little dog Pedey. He’s the first dog I’ve had who is not a retriever, and he’s as lazy as labs are energetic. There’s nothing this guy likes more than sleeping, and he somehow manages to find the most comfortable spot in the house, which has garnered him the nickname “The King of Comfort.” His favorite of all the comfy spots is curled up next to me, and he has spent the last few days glued to my side as I recovered post-surgery. I’m grateful to have such a faithful companion.
It’s pretty ordinary; Pyrex clear glass, the likes of which I’d hazard to guess resides in nearly every home in America. Nothing fancy or pretty about this dish, but I’m grateful for it because it was delivered to my house Friday by my sweet friend Christy, full of hot, spicy, bubbly chile rellenos. It’s Hatch Green Chile season, and ay carumba those rellenos were good. I’d cooked up a storm in preparation for my surgery so that my people wouldn’t be subjected to takeout this and delivery that; we were well-fed. However, nothing is better than a yummy, home-cooked meal delivered in one’s hour of need. I wish I’d taken a picture of the dish full of the chile rellenos, but we were much too busy scarfing them down to think anything other than Homer-Simpson-esque thoughts of “Can’t talk/take pictures…eating.”
One of my all-time favorite sayings is that “Cooking is love, made visible.” Christy’s dish proves it, and I’m grateful.
Marie at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer has issued a challenge. I can’t resist a challenge, so I’m in. Her idea? Take a photo each day of something for which I’m grateful and share it online.
Today I’m grateful for Mo Willems. He’s a children’s book author who writes a charming series called Elephant & Piggie. We’ve read this series a million times, and with titles like There Is a Bird on Your Head and I’m Going to Surprise My Friend, these books never get old. Even now that my favorite girl has way outgrown Mo’s books, I still smile when I think of Gerald & Piggie. As I recover from Wednesday’s knee surgery, I thought of Gerald & Piggie, and instead of Today I Will Fly, for me it’s Today I Will Walk.
48 hours is about all I can take of the forced sedentary healing, so Today I Will Walk. Stiff-legged and slow, and probably a bit of shuffling, too, but Today I Will Walk.
My favorite girl and I were lucky enough to meet Mo Willems several years ago when he came to Blue Willow Bookshop.
After his presentation, we stood in a very long line to have Mo to sign Macy’s books. He was funny and charming and everything I expect a kids’ book author to be. My favorite girl chattered endlessly about ideas she had for Mo’s books. She had a ton of story ideas in her 5-year-old brain, and I suspect it made perfect sense to her that they could collaborate. So when Mo asked Macy if she had any questions for him as he signed her books, she said, “What’s your phone number?” Sweet Mo was a bit taken aback, and when Macy explained that she has some ideas, he realized he didn’t need to panic, we weren’t a couple of crazy stalkers.
Meeting Mo and being in his presence and seeing how he interacted with all the kids was a super cool experience. Today I’m grateful for Mo Willems. And Today I Will Walk!
After my mom died, a friend gave me a book called Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. It was several years — literally — before I was ready to read it. Not because I didn’t have time and not because my stack of books to read was long, but because the grief was still too raw. Too raw to read a book that is meant to help ease that grief. That’s pretty bad.
It’s true that time heals, though, and after a few years I was ready to delve into Edelman’s wisdom. While parts of the book were hard to read because they brought back a flood of memories and transported me back to the time of losing my mom, other parts reminded me that many other women were walking the same road, missing their moms every single day.
The single best thing I learned from losing my sweet mama is that no one can dictate another person’s grief. People grieve as differently as they live, and no one has the right to say “This is how it should be done.” There are no “shoulds” in the process of grieving, and if anyone suggests otherwise, walk the other way. You have my permission to be flat-out rude if need be.
I’m tickled and honored to again be a guest blogger on one of my all-time favorite blogs, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. I’ve never met Marie, the bloggess, in person, but don’t have to be in her presence to know that I like her, that she’s good people, as they say in my neck of the woods. Marie’s blog was one of the first BC blogs I found after being diagnosed and joining the pink ribbon club, and through her I’ve “met” many other BC bloggers whose words and experiences enrich my life on a regular basis.
I wrote this post for Marie a while back, at the behest of another BC blogger friend, Lauren, who had the amazing idea of having BC bloggers “stand in the gap” for Marie while she dealt with her beloved mother’s failing health. Blog posts came from far and wide, and while Marie no doubt felt loved and relieved, those of us in the gap felt honored and happy to help. It wasn’t until I embarked on this cancer “journey” that I truly understood how it feels to help someone in need. Sure, I’ve minded my friends’ kids while they ran errands, and I’ve delivered home-cooked meals to friends who’d had surgery or brought home new babies. But being on the receiving end of so much love, so many great meals, and such endless kindness was a whole ‘nother ball game.
Now that I’m on the other side of the cancer experience (knock wood), I’m even more motivated to lend a hand to those in need. Being featured on Marie’s wonderful blog is a thrill, but knowing I’ve lightened her load a bit is even better. And, after being home with sick kids for days on end with no end in sight, it made my day.
Cheers to Marie and Lauren and the other Nancy and every other woman out there navigating the world without her mom.
At the risk of appearing to be more than a little bit pie-obsessed, I give you this:
It’s Pie Day at the middle school, a tradition in which parents send pies for the teachers the Friday before Thanksgiving . It’s a small but sweet way of showing our thanks to the teachers for everything they do for our kids. Thanks to my get-‘er-done friend Amy Pace, I’m now a proud contributor to Pie Day. Two of these beauties are going to school, and the other two are going to friends: one who is recovering from surgery, and one who makes me hit it hard at the gym. There is something deliciously ironic about taking a homemade Derby pie–chock full of sugar, butter, eggs, nuts, chocolate chips and whisky–to my trainer at the gym.
As I might have mentioned before, I love pie. I don’t eat it nearly as often as I should considering the flood of good memories it gives me of my mom and her superstar pie-baking skills. I’m happy to pass that good feeling on to my friends and my kid’s teachers today. Pie for everyone!
I wasn’t going to blog about this, because I don’t want to sound like a broken record about how much I miss my mom. That’s a worn-out, overplayed, scratchy, non-Top-40 hit, for sure. It’s a sad song about gut-wrenching loss and about life going on despite the hole in my heart. You know that one person you always want to invite to the party, because they can talk to anyone, they bring a light & an energy into the room, and they become the most fun person there, regardless of the guest list?And because they come early to help set up, bring food, and stay late to clean up? That was her.
So I wasn’t going to write about her this year on my most-dreaded holiday. But then I remembered that blogging isn’t exactly a customer-service driven business. At least my little blog isn’t. It’s neither a business nor does it have customers. It’s my blog and I can write what I want to. So there. If I want to bitch & moan about missing my mom and hating Mother’s Day, I can and by golly I will.
For the first year since my mom died, I wasn’t dreading Mother’s Day as much as I usually do. Usually, I feel a terrible tug between wanting to savor my kids and their homemade, heartfelt gifts yet feeling more inclined toward wishing the day would just end already. I despise the advertising blitz that leads up to Mother’s Day and think genuinely unkind thoughts about the merchants that hawk their wares in an effort to extract the maximum dollar amount from adult children filled with guilt about not doing enough to honor Mom. I’m usually envious of my friends who have to juggle their mom’s wishes for the day with their own. Even thought my day can be whatever I want it to be with no juggling required, I never feel that excitement that comes from being treasured, being pampered. The day always, always, always ends in crushing disappointment.
But this year, I had resolved to do better. I was going to be better. I read several blogs written by members of the pink-ribbon sisterhood who also lost their sweet mamas to cancer. My blog buddy Lauren’s Mother’s Day entry in particular spoke to me. Her blog has led the way and shed much light for me as she is four years ahead of me in the “cancer journey” and the happily-ever-after life of a survivor with no mom of her own and 2 kids to raise. Reading this first thing on Mother’s Day this year reaffirmed my goal (stupid as it was) to enjoy the day. This line especially made me want to make it a good day:
“I am so thankful that I had her for a mom, however short a time it was. For how she loved and nurtured me to the tips of my toes, and for whose warmth I still feel surround me, especially when it is dark and it seems everyone else is gone.”
Yes, I still feel my mama’s warmth surround me, especially during the really rough times. Thanks, Lauren, for the reality check; you know I needed that, girl.
My decision to make it a good day, despite the hole in my heart, was affirmed by the supremely wonderful and true friends I have who know it’s a shitty day for me that never fails to disappoint. No less than 11 friends texted me Sunday morning, some to say “have a great day, I love you” and some to say “I know this is a hard day and I’m thinking of you,” and a few to remind me how lucky I am to be here, after waging an uncertain battle against not 1 but 2 vicious beasts. And a couple tried to make me cry (which is not easy to do) by telling me that my mom is proud of me and is thanking God, in person, for my triumph over cancer and mycobacterium.
Another blogger friend, also named Nancy, wrote poignantly about spending Mother’s Day without Mother. Like me, she spent last Mother’s Day trying to pretend everything was normal while staring down an uncertain future filled with tests, scans, surgery, and pathology reports. She writes:
“Even now, she would know things to say to make me feel better. She would be calling to see how I am doing. She would feel my pain and understand my fears, even if she had not had breast cancer herself. My mother would have understood about the ache I sometimes felt deep within and about the terror of facing life without breasts, or hair, or worse. She would have understood what it felt like to be a woman living on the edge unable to stop thoughts about dying from simmering during the wee hours of the night. She would have understood why I cried sometimes without even knowing the reason for my tears. She would not have cared if I was irritable, blotchy-faced or just plain unpleasant to be around. She would not have thought such things were even odd. She would have loved me and understood because that’s what mothers do.”
Yes, indeed that is what mothers do.
Marie writes a super-informative blog called Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. Her mum is still on this Earth, but suffering from dementia, so Marie understands how hard Mother’s Day is. Her beautifully written entryabout the painful topic resonated with me and reminded me that our mums don’t have to be gone to leave us feeling empty. Marie’s quoting of Persian poet Rumi made me smile: “Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.”
I’m trying, Rumi, I’m really trying.
Another blog I love, “dear mom can you get letters in heaven?” is written by a young woman who lost her mom to ovarian cancer. Her take on Mother’s Day is so sweet and so heartfelt that it’s almost painful to read, but her outlook save it from being too sad to bear. Like me, she usually hates every minute of Mother’s Day, but this year came to the realization that her mom is happy, and that sustains her. Sami writes something that I feel so deeply, and I’m grateful to her for putting it into words. The weird dichotomy of feeling grateful to have had an awesome mom while still feeling so very, very sad that she’s gone:
“It’s just so bittersweet. I feel lucky to have known you, and I always will, but there’s that part of me that will just remain sad. I’m sad that I will never buy you another sappy Mother’s Day card or cheesy gift; I’m sad that I will slowly forget exactly how your voice sounded; I’m sad that you never got the chance to be one of those cool moms on Facebook, or own an iPhone, or watch the season finale of Survivor (and the new season too– you would love it!)”
I too fear that I will forget the sound of my mom’s voice. It’s easy to recall her “sick voice” and the way she sounded while being ravaged by uterine cancer, but I really have to work hard to remember her regular voice. And that’s a shame because she had a great, big laugh that made the world a better place, just by hearing it. I love but also hate that Sami mourns her mom missing out on Facebook, an iPhone, and Survivor. I could make a long list of similar, everyday things that I hate having my mom miss out on.
One last blog round-up, and this one breaks my heart into a million pieces. It’s the Carcinista, a blogger I just recently “met” and got to know via our blogs. She was smart and snarky and brutally honest about how she felt going through the ups & downs of ovarian cancer. All the things I aspire to be in my little blog, she was. And I say “was” because smart, snarky, honest Sarah died last week after deciding to stop her treatment.
She chose quality time with her husband and 2 boys over the certainty of feeling awful and the uncertainty of whether treatment was working, and I admire her for that terribly difficult decision. Even toward the end, when she saw the writing on the wall, she didn’t lose her sense of humor, and she faced the most-unhappy ending with courage and her trademark mission to “wear something cute and make each day count.” She referred to Dana Farber as The Cancer Factory, and I remember laughing out loud at her recounting a terrible visit to TCF in which she was so sick she vomited up her blueberry yogurt, but said “I’m pleased to notice that I’ve not only managed to keep fuchsia barf off floor and out of hair but also off pristine white tee-shirt. Rockstar.” RIP, Sarah. Your humor and balls-out approach to cancer will be greatly missed.
This year, I tried. I tried to not hate Mother’s Day. I tried to enjoy it, for my sake, my mom’s sake, my kids’ sake. We spent a nice day by the pool with lots of champagne and yummy food, in the presence of 2 of my dearest friends, 2 of my all-time favorite people. I had such high hopes, such great expectations. But in the end, I should have just given up and worn this t-shirt: