Driving my favorite girl to school today, my head was full of thoughts of all the things I need to get done. It’s her birthday weekend, so we have a jam-packed schedule of festivities, which means much to do before we celebrate. I was running through my mental to-do list and chatting with the birthday girl about the cookies she would hand out to her classmates on the funny monkey napkins. Our spirits were high, although I felt my inner throttle revving up, readying my body and brain to rush from one task to the next in a balls-out effort to get ‘er done. Get all of ‘er done.
This is one aspect of myself I don’t relish. I’m always in a hurry, rather impatient, and tend to rush through the journey to get to the destination. I’m not a “smell the roses along the way” kind of girl. Perhaps this is common in overachieving busy-bodies. Or in the legions of other suburban at-home moms whose work is never done in ferrying children to and fro and ensuring there are adequate provisions to keep the troops clothed and fed. Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyhoo, there I was in the car with my girl en route to school, thinking about going to Walgreens to pick up yet another prescription; hitting the grocery store for kid wine (sparkling cider) for tonight’s kid party and for crayons for my girl’s science fair project; going to the gas station to fill up and get a quick car wash, as well as scratch cards for the birthday girl (yes, gambling starts early around here, and the fact that my girl requests scratch cards for Christmas and her birthday is an insight into her wacky personality); driving my other kid to school; gathering the stuff for the party-favor goodie bags; wrapping the gifts; sweeping, mopping, dusting, and freshening the powder bath since the party guests will arrive this evening and I’m the whack-job type who thinks the house must be spic & span before guests invade; and cleaning out the twigs & leaves that fall into the back seat of my car on top-down days, since the party guests will be riding with me.
Just when I thought my full-to-the-brim brain might overtake me, the universe intervened and saved me from myself.
As we traveled down the street, we drove under a wire that stretches across the road, up high. Maybe it’s a telephone wire, or perhaps a DSL cable. I don’t know; I’ve never even noticed it before, but it traverses the street I drive up and down a thousand times a week, every week. Today as I traveled that street, a fat squirrel was dashing across the wire, doing a squirrel tight-rope act. The movement caught the eye of my girl, who spied the bushy-tailed performer through the open roof of the car. We slowed down, literally and figuratively, to watch. I slowed even more when I realized that if that squirrel fell off that wire, he’d plop right into my car. While my animal-loving girl would love that, I didn’t relish the thought of it.
With no cars behind us, we slowed to a crawl to watch the rodent acrobat scurry across the wire, high above the road. His tail bobbed in the air as he ran across that wire, and I imagined his little squirrel hands (paws?) gripping tightly. My girl wondered aloud if he was nervous or confident in his attempt to cross the road, and that naturally led to her ad-libbing a few “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” jokes. Ahh, the humor of an almost-11-year-old.
Our squirrelly performer trucked across the last length of wire, safely making it to the other side. The punchline to the “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” joke that most tickled the girl making them up was “Because he needed to scratch his butt!” The squirrel was gone, and a car approached, forcing me to move forward. As we neared the school, my girl said, “Mom, I’m sure glad we saw that squirrel on the wire. That totally made my day.” And then I realized: while the jam-packed to-do list seems so important, and completing those tasks to ensure a kick-ass birthday weekend for my favorite girl is important to me, what’s really important is noticing the moments of everyday wonders, and savoring them. The squirrel on the high-wire smacked me in the face with that realization. My girl re-affirmed it.
Much has been written, on this blog and elsewhere, about how surviving cancer can make one appreciate life even more. I will never, ever, ever say that cancer is a gift or that it’s changed my life for the better or that there is a silver lining under that dark cloud that so rudely interrupted my life with disease, infection, and worry. Never. I appreciated my life and the bounty of good things in it just fine without having to lose my breasts and a chunk of my security along with them. I lived life out loud before cancer robbed me of my belief that if you do the right things and try your best to be a good person, that bad things won’t happen. I gave thanks for the friends and family and privileges that exist in my life before this wretched disease snuck into that thankful life and dislodged my sense of me. I realized that random fate of being born in the time, place, and family I was born into was as much a player as hard work in creating this charmed life, and I knew that before cancer entered and laid waste to my body. I appreciated the little things in life, and knew in my heart that it’s those things, not a new car or a big house, that lay down a basis for a fulfilling life; I certainly didn’t need cancer to bully me into realizing this fact.
Surviving cancer and an insidious infection didn’t teach me to appreciate life’s everyday wonders. But a squirrel on a high wire sure did.
Like the 7 levels of the Candy Cane forest outlined by Buddy the Elf in the movie Elf, there are levels in Cancerland. The levels in Cancerland aren’t nearly as fun as those in the Candy Cane forest; I’ve yet to come across anything approximating the swirly, twirly gum drops at any point along this cancer “journey.” I don’t know what the official levels in Cancerland are, or if they even exist outside of the esoteric nature of those saddled with the disease, but I suspect they are akin to the 5 stages of grief. So for now, let’s say that the 5 stages of Cancerland include utter shock upon being diagnosed; extreme pissed-off-edness at losing body parts and quality of life, coupled with the potential for losing my life itself; crippling helplessness and a total lack of control in regards to recurrence; unpredictable fear and panic at any given time; and soul-crushing depression at the “new normal” that follows a cancer “journey.”
Today I ran smack-dab into level 2, the extreme pissed-off-edness. Sometimes this level manifests in its pure form, which is flat-out anger at the wrongs done to my body & mind by cancer. But sometimes, like today, it’s a more specific form of pissed-off-edness: extreme irritability. We’re talking the worst PMS rage multiplied by a prime number, divided by the number of times the urge strikes to choke someone, subtracted from the complete absence of rationality, added to the utmost amount of self-control required to avoid screaming and spewing at anyone who’s unfortunate enough to cross my path.
When this specific phase of pissed-off-edness hits, woe be unto the person who absent-mindedly leaves their shopping cart parked in the middle of the aisle while they price-compare cans of soup. I pity the fool who on the road ahead of me who finds him/herself in the wrong lane and stops in the middle of the road instead of continuing along with the flow of traffic until able to execute a U-turn or otherwise get the hell out of my way. Too bad, so sad for the person who lingers at middle-school drop-off in the morning to wish their child a good day or to remind that child to do their best in all pursuits today. Move it or lose it, people.
Today the specific phase of pissed-off-edness reared its head and tried my patience and self-control in many ways. Allow me to set the scene: as I walked into yet another doctor’s office for yet another interminable wait to hear yet more depressing news about the new normal that follows life in Cancerland, I tripped over the uneven sidewalk. I fell on my newly-repaired knee and tore my favorite workout pants. My purse clattered to the pavement and my iPhone skittered out of my hand. My other hand, which broke my fall, became embedded with dirty gravel.
An elderly Asian man stopped to retrieve my phone and tried to help me up. I rudely shook him off, not caring that I appeared ungrateful. I muttered a terse thanks with eyes averted, head bowed. Collecting the shreds of my dignity, I hobbled into the building, trying to be grateful that my knee wasn’t bleeding (it was easy to ascertain this through my torn pants) but knowing my attempt at gratitude was futile. The elevator doors closed just as I reached them, solidifying my opinion that precious little was redeemable in this day, even though it was not yet 9 a.m., and hinting at the scent of extreme pissed-off-edness that was swirling around me, but not in a twirly gum drop kind of way.
An hour later–a full hour–I was still stuck waiting in the waiting room (has ever a more apt term existed??), captive in an uncomfortable chair and unable to escape the annoying prattle of the TV, tuned to an awful loop of medical advice, exercise tips, and pharmaceutical ads. I can now easily recite the side effects for AndroGel from memory. I’m most definitely not going to try the recipe for homemade spelt crackers the perky woman shared on the cooking segment. I exercised great restraint in not throwing something at the TV during the segment on BMI and weight-control. As the announcer droned on & on about the importance of physical exercise for overall health & well-being, I wanted to hurl expletives and yell that I’d love to be pursuing some physical exercise if I weren’t trapped in this blasted waiting room, WAITING for the doctor.
Just when I think it can’t get any worse, a woman shuffled in and sits right next to me, despite an entire row of empty seats. She alternated between conducting a loud conversation on her cell phone about her hurt feelings regarding being left out of a relative’s birthday party, and coughing violently and wetly in my direction. When I got up to move away from her and her disgusting germs, she muttered, “How rude.” Oh, that’s rich, and rife with pissed-off-edness.
An hour and a half later, I was still waiting. She was still yapping about the birthday party, and she was still coughing indiscriminately. While she yapped and coughed and the TV droned on & on, I thought about all the things I was not getting done while I sat and waited. Cue even more pissed-off-edness. This is par for the course, a normal day, another thrilling ride through Cancerland. I know this, I’ve been there before, and yet it still results in this particular brand of blood-boiling pissed-off-edness.
When the nurse finally summoned me, she apologized for keeping me waiting, and I struggled with the proper response: to say “no problem” implies that’s it’s ok, when it’s not, but to let her know that it’s not ok seems rude,especially since it’s not her fault.
As she took my blood pressure she asked for my copies of my test results/lab work. Like a whiny pupil caught without last night’s homework, I muttered that I didn’t know I was supposed to bring that. No one told me to bring that, and anyway, I wouldn’t know where to start, how to untangle that knot. Then I realized she meant my last round of blood work, which I had done a few days ago at my oncologist’s office. She offered to call his office to get the results while I wondered if I’ll have to sign a release for that. She assured me that they all “try to work together,” even though I’m guessing he’s never heard of this doc, and vice versa. What about the pages of privacy paperwork I’ve had to sign? Are those just lip service that crumbles in the interest of “working together?” These are the things I think about as I wait, and wait, and wait for the doctor.
The nurse left me to go make that phone call, and I waited some more.
I was sorely tempted to steal the In Style magazine with Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover, even though I don’t even want to read it. Just looking at her glowing good health on the cover made me mad, a feeling that only intensified as I thought about her macrobiotic vegan lifestyle. I’m jealous, I admit. Although I don’t aspire to a macrobiotic vegan lifestyle it angered me nonetheless that she practices it. I bet she never waits like this in a doctor’s office. My belief in the karma wheel stopped me from stealing the magazine out of spite–toward the long wait, toward Gwyneth’s good health, and toward her macrobiotic vegan lifestyle.
My long to-do list mocked me as I waste more time waiting, always waiting. I grew restless and bored, not to mention irritable, and found no solace in my kindle. I chided myself for not paying more attention in the 3 yoga classes I’ve attended in my lifetime, because some calming breaths and restorative chi would be great right about now. Perhaps such mindful, peaceful practices could help me ward off the pissed-off-edness monster huffing at my gate.
By the time the doctor walked through the door, 2 hours had passed and I’m exhausted from the waiting and the pissed-off-edness. I scolded myself for letting this get the better of me and reprimanded myself to be polite to the doctor, even though I want to show her my bitchy side and peel back the curtain to expose the extreme pissed-off-edness in all its raging glory.
Instead, I recited my sordid medical history since April 2010 when a lump in my right breast set off the chain of events that landed me here, in yet another doctor’s office, exhausted, bored, disgruntled, and contemplating kleptomania. I’m experienced enough and jaded enough (and pissed-off enough) to believe she will offer no solutions beyond perhaps adding another prescription drug to my burgeoning stable or perhaps patting my hand, frowning sympathetically and encouraging me to buck up while reminding me that I’ve been through an awful lot recently. I’d already decided that if she were to tell me to get used to it, that this is all part of post-cancer life, my response will be swift and premeditated: I will overturn the biohazard waste bin, kick the exam table, and maybe even hurl her stool through the window. These are my fantasies as I navigate my way through the levels of Cancerland.
Lucky for her, she did not pat my hand or rush to her prescription pad. She took copious notes on my symptoms, perhaps highlighting and flagging the extreme pissed-off-edness that lingered just under the surface of this normal conversation. She ordered yet more blood work and told me to schedule yet another appointment in a week to see what the blood work reveals. My guess is that my iron level will be low, my thyroid will be underperforming, and my level of extreme pissed-off-edness will be off the charts.
It’s day 12 of our vacation, and I’ve plowed through several really good books. I love to read. Getting lost in someone else’s story has always intrigued me, but never so much as becoming a member of the illustrious Pink Ribbon Club. Stealing away from the drudgery of this disease with a good book has saved me innumerable times. Rather than falling into a well of despair from a lengthy hospital stay in the hell that is a post-mastectomy infection, I would flip open my Kindle and fall into a great read.
Perhaps my Love of reading is genetic: my sweet mama taught 8th grade English and was an avid reader. She and my dad always had at least one book going, and the bookcase in their bedroom that spanned one entire wall next to their bed would fill me with visions of its collapse one night, burying my slumbering parents in musty hardbacks, best sellers, and classics. Thankfully that never happened.
At home, I don’t read as much as I would like. It’s a cruel dichotomy: I want to find out what happens next in the story, yet my innate nature has me bustling around getting things done instead. Not so on the beach: the things that need to get done are sitting on the beach, soaking up the sun, listening to the surf, and reading. That’s a very good to-do list.
My summer reading began with Gold by Chris Cleave. Awesome read. It was especially nice leading up to the Olympics, as it’s the story of two British cyclists training for the London games. They’re friends and rivals in their sport and their lives. Cleave is a masterful writer who crafts characters who seem quite real.
After becoming hooked on Cleave’s, I moved on to his two other books, Incendiary and Little Bee. Both are as good as Gold was. The former tells the story of a woman whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist bombing of a London soccer stadium. The latter gained cult status yet I shied away from it because the subject matter seemed depressing: a young Nigerian refugee flees her home amidst violence stemming from turf wars over oil fields. A chance encounter with a British couple on holiday in her village provided a landing place as she fled. Chaos ensues, lives are changed, and a mesmerizing story gains its rightful place in literary history. My only complaint is that Cleave has no more books as yet for me to devour. Get cracking, Chris!
After the gravity of Little Bee’s saga, I sought something a bit lighter and went with the buzz surrounding The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold is walking some 500 miles, quite unexpectedly, to visit his former coworker, Queenie Hennessey, who is dying of cancer. Harold is convinced that his journey on foot will save her. Crazy? Perhaps. Intriguing? Definitely.
I absolutely devoured another buzz-filled book, The Light Between Oceans. This story of a remote lighthouse keeper off the wild coast of Australia and his infertile wife is absolutely captivating. The answer to their problems and prayers apparently appears one day when a rowboat washes ashore, containing a dead man and a howling infant. No ID, no witnesses, no problem. I won’t give away any more because you just need to read it yourself.
I have 7 more days of vacation and plan to keep on reading.
Because I really love words, I often come across a quote that speaks to me. I usually scribble it on a receipt or piece of scrap paper at the bottom of my purse, or I hastily type it into the notes app on my phone, with every intention of revisiting the quote and why it caught my attention. Sometimes the revisiting results in a blog post, but more often than not the note languishes until I clean out my purse or go to make another note on my phone. Then I wonder, where did I find this quote, and what did I intend to do with it? I blame cancer and infection and their long-reaching tentacles for compromising my previously functional brain.
The latest scribble in the bottom of my purse is a good one:
Ah, yes, the letting go. I’ve never quite understood the idea of “just let it go” when bugged by something. While I don’t endorse fretting and harumphing, I wonder what manner of insensitivities would be committed if people just turned the other cheek and acted as if nothing wrongful had occurred.
Needless to say, I’ve never been particularly adroit at just letting things go.
When someone cuts in front of me in line, I point out that I was there first. When a doctor keeps me waiting for hours in the waiting room, I mention that while I understand that things come up and emergencies do arise, my time is valuable, too. When my son’s All Star team was wrongly accused of misdeeds this season, I let the accusers know that their underhanded tactics did not go unnoticed. When a member of my inner circle acts unkindly, I don’t hesitate to bring the errant behavior to her attention.
Sometimes speaking out changes things: the line-jumper realizes he/she isn’t the only person on the planet. Sometimes it doesn’t change things: doctors overbook themselves, 12-year-old baseball players are punished because of so-called grown-ups’ selfishness, and friendships run their course.
I’ve been told that people admire my willingness to speak up in the face of blatant wrongdoing. “I wish I was ballsy like you” or “I’m too chicken to say what I really think” are among the comments I’ve heard on this topic. I’d love to take credit for being brave and outspoken, as if it were planned and orchestrated for the greater good. The truth is, however, it’s not something I plan; it comes out because I don’t have a very reliable filter. I’m not so good at letting it go.
Change does come from having cancer and facing all of its myriad unpleasantries and challenges. I have learned during the course of my cancer “journey” to let some things go. While I won’t insult you with the platitudinal idea that cancer has made me a better person (I was just fine before, thank you very much), it does have a way of forcing things into perspective. I will never go quietly into the night with the idea that any of this is fair, but I won’t fight it, either. Sometimes bad things do indeed happen to good people. Sometimes life intervenes to rearrange the order of things, to shake things up a little, or a lot. I’ve learned a lot on this cancer “journey,” from the technical to the philosophical, from the underside of fear to the crushing tyranny of bad breaks and complications straight through to the unmitigated joy of coming out the other side, battle-weary and scared shitless yet proud in the knowledge that no matter what this beast flings at me, I can take it.
I will likely continue speaking out against what I perceive as the injustices in my life; a tiger doesn’t change its stripes, after all. I will nag the line-jumpers of the world until they see the error of their ways. I will savor Tao’s words and reflect on the idea that in letting go of things or friendships that may not be working, I open myself up to receiving something even better.
Long time, no blog, I know. Thanks to you faithful readers who have inquired about the reason for my silence. Sometimes no news is good news, but once you bare your cancer-laden soul in a blog, silence can be interpreted as a sign of trouble. Not so here; rest assured that if there were new and nasty developments, I’d spew the gory details. That’s how I roll. I’ve been busy with summer stuff: ferrying my favorite girl back & forth to day camp, hounding my video-game-addicted boy to work on his “page a day” algebra packet, devising a piggie-proof lock for the pantry, and keeping my potted plants alive as we alternate between drenching rains and scorching sun. Oh, and wading through the mounds of red tape that ensued after my girl and I were in a pretty bad car crash last weekend. Wet roads, bald tires, and independent rear suspension became a perfect storm that landed us in a ditch with the airbags deployed and the car inoperable 200 miles outside of Houston. Never a dull moment.
In light of all this, the MRI that I had Wednesday was a high point. Thankfully it was not cancer-related, but it brought back a whole lot of cancer-related thoughts. I guess it’s the case of once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient. In fact, it got me thinking — a lot — about May 7, 2010, just days after I’d been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at the tender age of 40. On that day in history, I was enduring “test-a-palooza” in which I spent the entire day at the hospital for an L-DEX, chest x-ray, MRI, and bone scan.
Here’s what I had to say back then about the MRI:
Three vials of blood and a dose of radioactive dye later, I was ready for the MRI. I’ve had an MRI before, and this was not what I expected. Instead of lying on my back and going through the tube, I was face-down on what Mona the tech called a massage table (I noticed real quick there is no massage). Imagine my claustrophobic heart singing when I saw the piped-in oxygen for the tiny little space in which my face was smushed.
Mona asked what kind of music I’d like, to drown out the noise. She said most people choose classical to help relax. I told her I prefer alcohol to help relax, but I’d try the music. She promised me a double martini, extra dirty, when we got done.
The sweet chirping of birds and melodic harps were quickly drowned out entirely by a ruckus that can only be described as a marriage in hell between a jackhammer, nuclear-reactor alarm, and emergency broadcast signal, in a successive repeating pattern. Mona wasn’t kidding when she said a lot of people come out of there with a pounding headache. I decided right then & there that I needed a double on that double martini order.
While it seemed like I was in there forever, it was really only about 40 minutes, and instead of lying there thinking about what an unholy racket and uncomfortable experience it was, I heard my mom whisper in my ear: “Every pounding noise you hear is you gearing up to kick the crap out of the cancer.” Course, she never would have said “crap” because she didn’t like cuss words, and would have said “peewaddle” instead, but I added “crap” for a little color. I had lots of time to think about her and her courage while I was in there, and it worked. Before I knew it, Mona came to get me off that crazy thing.
Wednesday’s MRI was on my knee, which has been barking at me for months and doesn’t always go along with my big ideas. Tennis, working out at the gym, swimming, and climbing stairs seem to be more than this old knee wants to do, and after stretching, foam-rolling, icing, and self-medicating with cold beer, it was time to face the fact that it wasn’t getting any better. My orthopedist says that some knees need to be scoped every 8 to 10 years, and my scope was 7 years ago, so there ya go. I guess 7 years of lunging, squatting, jumping, running, and springing have taken a toll. As per my usual, I refuse to go quietly into the night, and plan to do whatever it takes to get some more use out of these joints.
Conventional wisdom suggests two scenarios to fix my problem: do a PRP injection and see how far that gets me, or do another scope along with the PRP. The PRP alone is the much simpler course, and I’m all for quick recovery and little downtime, but in my heart of hearts I know I need the scope, too, and I learned long ago in my cancer “journey” to always go with my gut.
The PRP represents some pretty cool cutting-edge medical thinking in an emerging field called Orthobiologics, and all the cool pro athletes are doing it so why not me, too? Troy Palamalu and Hines Ward both did it, as did Tiger Woods — repeatedly, and perhaps to correct some of the damage his jilted wife did to him with a golf club. Kobe Bryant got some, and Alex Rodriguez traveled to Germany to get his PRP. He thinks he’s so special.
Here’s how it works: under the beautiful twilight haze of propofol, 30 ml of blood is collected and spun in a centrifuge to separate the plasma from the whole blood. The plasma, which is very concentrated and full of healing goodness, is then injected into the injury site and the magic begins. Because PRP is autologous, it’s a good choice for me: my body is quite the xenophobe and reacts quite strongly to anything foreign like tissue expanders or a port.
I was all geared up for the idea of the scope and the PRP when my awesome orthopedic surgeon called to say there was something unexpected on the MRI. Surprise! A complication! My kneecap is misaligned and has slid to the outside instead of staying in the center groove at the end of the thigh bone as the knee bends. Fantastic. There goes my tennis season. Me and my stupid patellar maltracking. The fix? A lateral release, which is done during the scope and involves cutting the lateral retinaculum, which is the tissue attached to the outside of the kneecap.
If it were just the scope and the PRP, no big deal. A bit of a slow recovery for a go-getter like me, but very manageable. The lateral release doubles the recovery time, and involves a lot of pain and swelling. Sigh. Big sigh. Never a dull moment, indeed.
I’ve been on hiatus from blogging but rest assured, all is well. No real reason for the hiatus other than the fullness of life. Although I’ve not been wrapped up in the hurried pace of the school year, so far summertime finds me still going & blowing as usual. Less than three weeks until our annual vacation to Salisbury Beach, though, and I will slow down then. As the sage Zac Brown says, I’ll have my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand. Can’t wait.
Yesterday was my quarterly check-up with my cutie pie oncologist. My intrepid appointment companion Amy is currently living the good life seaside on the East Coast, so I had to go it alone. She strongly suggested I reschedule, lest she miss a visit with Dr Cutie, but alas, I carried on without her. She’ll have to wait until November to lay eyes on him, as I’ve graduated to three visits a year with him. That’s my reward for being two years out from the dreaded disease: fewer oncology appointments.
Despite one fewer chance a year to gaze upon Dr Cutie as he imparts his wisdom, this is a good thing because I found myself feeling guilty sitting in the waiting room. Of the four other patients waiting for the good doctor, I was the only one with hair. The others were not only bald but quite sickly looking (and a good 20 years older than me, as well). As I perched on a chair in my workout clothes, planning to hit it hard at the gym as soon as I got the requisite visit out of the way, I was filled with a sense of guilt over my good health.
I could feel the eyes of the other patients on me, and I imagined them wondering, as I would in their shoes, what a strapping gal with a full head of hair, color in her cheeks, and a spring in her step was doing at an oncologist’s office. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I would have assumed this picture of health was meeting someone there, or perhaps had found herself in the wrong office and had not yet realized the mistake.
My guilt was somewhat assuaged by the stark recollection that there was a time, not so long ago, when I was the sickly looking one, dragging myself from one appointment to the next, consumed with healing after a double mastectomy and overwhelmed by a post-surgical infection. I remember well the days of envying the “normal” people who walked with ease and were unburdened by the pressing concerns of cancer, treatment, and their ugly fallouts. Ditto for all the days (close to 30 days all told that one summer) I spent in the hospital. Pushing my IV pole on endless loops around the hospital halls, I would gaze longingly at the healthy people out and about and wish I were among them.
Although I’m two years out from the dreaded disease (or, two years and 2 months, as Dr Cutie so astutely recited from memory), the recovery process from the infection was quite lengthy, and it’s really not been all that long since I was freed from the clutches of that wretched bug. Many times as I moved from the infectious disease team’s office in the Texas Medical Center to Dr Cutie’s office around the corner from home and to the plastic surgeon’s office halfway in between the two, I stared hard at the healthier specimens I saw along the way. I remember feelings that ranged from outright envy to smoldering anger at these people who went about their daily business the way I used to. I envisioned these people getting their kids off to school, hitting the gym, running errands, lunching with friends, and doing household chores with ease, the way I used to. I imagined the fabric of their lives being uninterrupted by cancer, the rudest of guests, and assumed that they sailed through their days focused on minor inconveniences rather than big-time medical crises. First-world problems like a cancelled hair appointment or a rained-out tennis match were screechingly replaced by real-world problems like a hole in one’s chest wall that just won’t heal and an insidious bacteria that evades treatment quite stealthily.
Was it survivor’s guilt that hit me yesterday in the doctor’s office? Perhaps. I’ve never been one to wonder “why me?” — neither in terms of the roulette wheel of whose genes will come up hinky and necessitate a diagnosis, nor in terms of why am I now healthy while so many others are sick. Seems like a colossal waste of time and energy to me. I don’t spend much time thinking back about the sheer hell I endured with that nasty infection; partly because I don’t want to go there, and partly because my brain works hard to protect me from going there. There are plenty of gory details I have to work hard to conjure up, and while my intellectual brain knows that of course I did go through all that, my sympathetic brain says let’s not rehash that ugly past and prevents me from really remembering how awful it was. Better to smile encouragingly at the other patients in the waiting room and spend a few minutes of quiet reflection on the road I’ve traveled and how far I’ve come.
I was trying to download some photos from the professional photographer’s website for the Couture for the Cause this past Saturday night. They have some beautiful pics of the event, and a handy “Post to WordPress” feature, but when I tried that feature, it posted the pic without allowing me to add any text.
So I will use the non-professional photos, taken by one John Burrmann, which IMHO are plenty good. See for yourself. He focused more on the people than on the venue, so I will paint a picture in your mind of the stately grounds and lovely estate that housed our fashion show and fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The house is nestled onto a huge lot that slopes gracefully to a private lake. The runway was constructed on the lawn, with chairs around the perimeter and small round tables sprinkled around to allow for casual viewing of the big show.
The show is a big deal. Last year the event raised some $94,000 for the ACS, and I hope this year exceeds that amount. Having cancer survivors model the fashions is a brilliant idea, both because it encourages the audience to dig deep into their pockets, and because it gives us survivors a chance to celebrate life. What’s more important than that after we’ve faced a terrible disease, difficult surgeries, ongoing treatments, and uncertain futures? Nothing. Not one thing.
There were several breast cancer survivors modeling again this year, and we talked amongst ourselves about how many years out we are. There was also a 20-year-old leukemia survivor who’s been in remission for 15 years. One model had brain cancer and is facing another reconstructive surgery next week. While all of the survivors who participated have a different story, we also have a commonality, and it was nice to unite in that commonality for one night and celebrate life.
The amount of volunteer hours and professional time that go into the gig are staggering, and the result is a first-rate production. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and being an experienced survivor model I was ready to do my thing. I had the ultimate fun of having two of my dearest friends model with me. Amy and Christy both rallied at my side when the Big C wrecked up my life, and it was such a fun thing to have them by my side for the big event. Unfortunately, the excitement was clouded by sadness from the unexpected death of our sweet dog Harry. Because he died late Thursday night, I made the executive decision to not tell my kids until after school on Friday. It didn’t seem right to tell them Friday morning and send them off to school; I wanted them to have the luxury of grieving in private. I fretted all day Friday about how to tell them. I should have consulted my intrepid breast surgeon, Dr Dempsey, who has honed the skill of delivering bad news to an art form. I’m sure she would have had just the right words. As it turned out, I delivered the news then had to rush off to rehearsal for the show. My head wasn’t quite in the game for rehearsal, and I struggled with the finer points of the runway choreography. The “one and a half” and the “down and back” refer to the way we walk on the runway all decked out in our finery, and while it’s not hard, it took some brainpower to master.
Lenny and Tamra are the dynamic duo who take these fashion shows from cute clothes and accessories to a full-blown production. They pick the clothes for each of the 22 models, add accessories from jewelry to hats to feathered headpieces, design the sets and lighting and choose the music, then orchestrate all these pieces to cohere into the sum total of an amazing show.
We were instructed to show up at 6:00 sharp for our 8:45 pm showtime. Hair & makeup were time-consuming but fun. The show’s theme of the Roaring Twenties was reflected in the intricate hairstyles that featured soft waves and lots of pin curls. Makeup was subdued but included false eyelashes and red-red-red lipstick for each female model. As we went from chair to chair in the war room of hair & makeup, we felt like celebs preparing for a red carpet debut.
After the work was complete in the war room, we hustled to the dressing tent behind the runway. Talk about a chaotic scene. Each model is assigned an assistant called a dresser. The dresser’s job is to help us into our clothes, put on our jewelry and shoes, and make sure we are ready to leave the tent and present ourselves backstage for final inspection by Tamra. No detail escapes her sharp eye, and she is ready with a safety pin to bind a gap, a hairpin to tame an errant mane, and a keen sense of how a headpiece should lay or a scarf should be tied.
There’s not a lot of time to get dressed, and even with our dressers helping, it’s a crazy, crazy scene. In fact, as soon as we left the runway in one outfit, we were instructed to start taking off as much as we could while hustling back to the tent. Getting dressed was even crazier this year because two of my outfits were very light-colored — one white with a black skirt, one ecru with an orange ruffle — so trying to pull them on quickly while not smearing makeup on them was no small feat. My intricate flapper-style hairdo complicated the speed-dressing process, too, as there were 100 bobby pins holding my hair up that needed to be delicately avoided. There’s nothing delicate about a tent full of women and their dressers in the middle of a fashion show. The production assistants were yelling out our names to let us know we were due backstage, and a few male assistants were in the tents, too, making sure we staying on task and on time. There’s no place for modesty in the tent.
The first scene featured black & white fashions and was kicked off by the professional models. These girls know what they’re doing, and they know how to get the show started. This lucky guy got to strut his stuff with one of the pros, Mariah. She and I chatted in the war room and she’s as nice as she is beautiful.
The applause was thunderous, and there was more than one instance of hootin’ and hollerin’ when we took the stage. I only wish I’d channeled some of Mariah’s grace and stage presence when I hit the runway in my black & white outfit.
This isn’t something I ever would have picked for myself, but that’s part of the fun of the fashion show. The skirt was rather short, and the fishnet hose were a bit out there, but it was fun, fun, fun!
The true-blue friend who brushed my teeth in the hospital and mediated more than one altercation with a white-coated professional was utterly transformed into a hot-hot-hot model!
Not only did I have some of my best girls modeling with me, I also had Dr Dempsey struttin her stuff. She did an outstanding job puttin’ on the ritz, and while I enjoyed every minute of modeling with her, I hope she doesn’t quit her day job! (She’s the blond, on the right.)
She told me she had an alter ego on the runway, and now I know that to be true. Being together for this event also gave her the chance to fuss at me for not coming to see her for my post-mastectomy follow-up. I’m a bit behind on that, but I’m happy to report that I went yesterday.
Scene 2 was tangerine-themed, and my one-shouldered dress was super fun (but a little too blousy). The ecru color with the tangerine ruffle was cute, but I’m not posting a pic because it’s not very flattering. It’s my blog, and I can withhold photos if I want to.
The one bad thing about being involved in the fashion show is not getting to see everyone on stage. While these girls were modeling these cute dresses, I was frantically getting out of outfit #1 and into outfit #2.
All the models circled the runway in a triumphant finish. Our faces hurt from smiling, our feet ached from struttin in heels, but our hearts were full of pride and happiness.
I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about cancer: patients, survivors, battles won, valiant fights fought. This story found me, via the local newspaper last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I am bowled away by this woman. Her attitude is nothing short of fantastic, and her drive to make a difference in the “war on cancer” is inspiring, for sure. Because I’m juggling 4th grade homework on units of measure and a 7th grade study guide on Texas history with the usual chores, animal herding, and the ever-elusive hunt for something healthy/yummy/pleasing to 4 different palates before another weeknight at the baseball fields, I’m going to just relay this story simply and without a lot of editorializing. You’re welcome.
Chisa Echendu had her eye on a doctorate in medical research from Baylor College of Medicine, right here in good ol’ Houston. The 32-year-old Nigerian native had every intention of spending her career in a lab, peering into a microscope and solving medical mysteries.
But then the doctor became the patient as she found a lump in her breast in 2006. At age 26 and halfway through her molecular virology doctorate, Chisa was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I didn’t think it was serious,” she said. “I was 26, I didn’t have a family history. I was busy in the lab, busy with publications.”
Cancer, however, has no regard for one’s schedule, plans, hopes, or dreams. Chisa learned this first-hand. After her diagnosis, Chisa’s professors suggested she put her studies on the back burner while she faced chemo, surgery, and radiation. But Chisa said no. She was determined to make sure cancer didn’t steal everything from her. She remained resolute in her goal of finishing school, and her attitude is inspiring. She said, “I didn’t want a pity party, I just wanted to be like everyone else and take care of my business. People go through more challenging things in life. I had hope to get well, good resources, good physician tools. Some people are worse — without anything — and they just keep going.”
Instead of feeling sorry for herself or asking “why me?” Chisa not only pushed through the endless parade of problems one confronts with a cancer diagnosis, she refocused her goal. After enduring endless doctor’s appointment, multiple body scans and medical tests, chemo brain, recovery from surgery, and fatigue from radiation, Chisa decided to get out of the lab and fight cancer from the front lines as a radiation oncologist. So after 4 years of med school, she will take on another 5 years of training to help others on this wretched cancer “journey.”
Being a young breast cancer survivor filled Chisa with “more of a sense of urgency” in pursuing her goals. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. There is no time to complain or make excuses. Like everyone who goes through difficult times, you gain more strength, a sense that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”
With 2-year-old twin daughters at home and a lot of schoolwork ahead of her, Chisa is proving that she can indeed do anything she wants to do. What an inspiration.