6 years later…

Today is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Congress said so, and in making such a proclamation, let’s hope we get some action. Action beyond pink ribbons and promotional tie-ins like toilet paper and cups of yogurt. The estimate is that some 160,000 women are dealing with metastatic breast cancer, but I suspect the number is much higher. Metastatic means the cancer has spread. Stage IV. There is no Stage V. Every BC patient’s worst nightmare. Because being diagnosed at all, regardless of stage, isn’t nightmare enough.

I’ll save the mets post for another day, because there’s another commemoration taking place today, and I won’t be able to rest until I get this post out of my head.

Or so I thought.

I sat down at my computer to mark this important day, but I got nothing. I am stuck. The enormity of the topic overwhelms me. I want to write just the right thing, but in my quest for perfection I’m struck down, unable to convey the importance that screams to get out.

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, particularly on this little blog. I rarely have trouble thinking of what to write, and most days the topic guides me. Sometimes a topic pops into my head and I have an overwhelming urge to write. My fingers on the keyboard can hardly keep up with my thoughts as they tumble out of my head.

But today, I’ve got nothing.

And rather than make myself crazy on this day, this important yet heartbreaking day, I’m going to re-run the post from last year. I added a few more pictures, because this time last year I was brand-new to blogging and hadn’t quite figured out how to manage the images in my posts. But more importantly, I added a few more pictures because I need to remember what she looked like.

My heart is heavy as grief once again rears its ugly head and reminds me that she is gone, forever. 
It’s been exactly 5 years since my mom died. Lots of people have written about loss & grief, and most of them have done it more eloquently than I. If you knew her, you loved her. Plain & simple. She was one of those people. She never met a stranger and could talk to anyone. The stories are endless, and if I think really hard I can conjure up the sound of her laugh. I have to work hard to remember her voice, though, because her “sick” voice is the freshest one. I also have to think back to how she looked, pre-cancer, before the dreaded disease ravaged her body yet was unable to extinguish her effervescent personality.

My mom was an incredible cook. She grew up on a farm and lost her own mom at age 13, so she assumed more responsibility than a middle-schooler should. She taught me a lot in the kitchen, although I’ll never match her skill with pie crust. I try every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and end up exhausted, frustrated and having used a month’s worth of curse words. One year at Christmas she gave coupons for a homemade pie, and those were highly prized gifts for sure.

She was a “white” woman who married into a Greek family. “White” means anyone who’s not Greek. Sometimes the Greeks aren’t happy about “whites” joining a family, because they want their kids to marry other Greeks. My mom didn’t let that stop her. She ingratiated herself into the lives of the Greek women and learned their culinary secrets. It wasn’t long before she was the best cook in the bunch. Not bad for a “white” girl.

My sweet mama was the quintessential suburban at-home mom: PTA president, Girl Scout leader, queen of homemade Halloween costumes. She put a homemade meal on the table every night for dinner, and I was halfway through elementary school before I realized that the homemade cinnamon roll that was my lunchbox treat was a rarity.

She had a love of learning that I see echoed in my own kids. I’m sure she flourished at college, probably thrilled to be responsible only for herself for the first time in years. She was president of her sorority and got this fancy necklace to wear during her reign. The look of pure happiness on her face makes me smile all these years later. In her typical over-achieving way, she graduated college in 3 years, then became an English teacher before she became a mom. My whole childhood, she had us look up words in the dictionary to learn how to spell. I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and to this day am proud of being a good speller. She instilled a love of words and reading that I’ll carry with me my entire life.

When Trevor graduated from business school in 2004, she was as proud of him as if he were her own child. In fact, once he married into her family, she considered him a son. Not a son-in-law, but a son. She was sick at the time this photo was taken, but hid it well. She didn’t want anything to interfere with his big day.

She had a lot of success in life, but her greatest achievement was being YaYa. She loved her grandbabies to the max, and when she knew she was losing her battle against cancer, she spoke of her sadness in not being able to watch them grow up. She’s missed out on a lot. But loss is a 2-way street, and the 4 kids who were lucky enough to have her as their YaYa, albeit way too briefly, have missed out as well. As each year passes, and her grandbabies grow up, they change and take on new interests and habits. She would have loved every minute of it. Something tells me she would have been quite adept at navigating whatever stage those little darlins are in.

Here they are on the day of her funeral.

Andrew was 8, Payton and his cousin Megan were 6, Macy was 3 when YaYa died. She was 67. Way too young, all the way around.

Life isn’t the same without her. While the pain of loss has lessened over the years, it’s still there, and I suspect it never goes away. No one in your life loves you the way a mother does. And no matter how old I become, I will always miss my mother’s love. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “mothers carry the key of our souls in their bosoms.” That certainly was the case with my mom.

Milestones are hard when you’ve lost someone so dear. Every year, the week or so leading up to the anniversary of her death has been miserable. I find myself transported back to the time of  illness and all of the unpleasantness that entailed. Taking care of her was both the hardest thing ever and the greatest honor. I went into it knowing it would be hard, but having no idea how brutal. Balancing that with taking care of my young family was grueling, no doubt. But I wanted to come out of it with no regrets, and I’m happy to say that I did.

This year, however, was different. I wasn’t dreading the date. Maybe because I’ve got a lot on my mind and a lot on my plate. Maybe because as I get ever closer to regaining my “normal” life after my own cancer battle, I have a new perspective. Maybe I’m just getting absent-minded in my old age.

For a while after she died, I looked for her in crowds: at the grocery store, at a baseball game, at any random gathering. I knew, of course, that she wasn’t there. At least my rational brain knew that, but I looked anyway. I don’t know when it was that I stopped looking, but at some point, I started to see her. Not really her, but glimpses of people or expressions on faces that recalled her: the woman at the gym who looks a lot like her from the back. The resemblance in my niece to my mom’s photos as a child. My aunt’s hands, which look just like my mom’s.

This year, today, on the anniversary of her death, I wasn’t looking for her, but she was there. Today in my much-anticipated first tennis match since my mastectomy, my opponents’ names were Barbara and Ann. Guess what my mom’s name was? Yep, you got it — Barbara Ann.


It’s my cancer-versary

One year ago today the bottom fell out of my carefully-ordered life when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

To say that a lot has happened in the last year is an utter waste of words. I’m not sure there are words to convey how much has happened in the last year; if there are, they are reserved for better writers than I.

Being diagnosed with cancer at age 40 is a shock. Duh. It’s scary and unexpected and unnerving. Double duh. 40 is when we hit our stride. For me, it meant my kids were old enough to not need constant supervision but to still need my guidance. I’d recently discovered tennis, the new love of my life, and had time and freedom to play often. I had a tight circle of friends who knew who they are and where they want to go. I was very comfortable with the direction of my life and the steps I was taking to make it the very best it could be.

Then came cancer.

That vicious beast had already stolen my sweet mama from me, when she was only 67. I was 36 and finding my own way as a mother, and needed her input and presence. But more importantly, I needed her friendship. She and I never had the contentious relationship that a lot of mothers & daughters have. We always liked each other. Maybe because we were a bit opposite: she was yielding and I was (am) opinionated. But maybe we just got lucky, and had that special relationship that some fates bestow upon some people but not others. The reason for our good relationship is immaterial; the fact was, we treasured each other, and losing her was the worst thing to ever happen to me.

Until April 27, 2010.

My guardian angels were asleep at the wheel. 

I’d been getting baseline mammograms since my mom died, since hers was a reproductive cancer and that put me at a slightly greater risk. More so, though, was my OB-GYN’s diligence. Her husband is an oncologist at MD Anderson, so she’s super-tuned to cancer and its sneaky ways of getting its foot inside the door. She saved my life. Pure and simple. And monumental.

When the news came on this day last year, I listened to everything Dr Dempsey told me about my cancer, as Boss Lady Staci dutifully took notes in Trevor’s stead as he hustled home from a business trip. I held it together until the end, when she asked if I had any more questions and I had one: how do I tell my kids? 

They’d watched their YaYa die from cancer, and while only 6 and 3 years old, those memories are powerful. They wanted a lot of assurance that my cancer was different in every way from YaYa’s and that it was not going to kill me, too.

One week after my diagnosis, Payton turned 11. I was gearing up for a double mastectomy, but wasn’t going to neglect his celebration, because if we can’t celebrate life and its happy moments, then cancer might as well come and get us all. We had the usual birthday breakfast on the personalized birthday plates, just as we had every year. As I placed his feast in front of him, I muttered my birthday wish, which was to make sure I was around to place that personalized plate in front of him on May 3rd for many years to come. My firstborn isn’t going to celebrate his birthday without his mama if I have anything to say about it.

The day before my mastectomy, Macy and I met Jeffrey, the orphaned mockingbird rescued by Amy Hoover’s family. We’d been hearing about this little guy, and my animal-loving girl needed to see him for herself. I had a million things to do to prepare for not only surgery but also weeks of dependency, but we made time to meet Jeffrey, and I’m so glad we did. 

Mastectomy day, I was up bright & early and ready to get the show on the road. Here I am at the hospital waiting to get de-cancer-fied.

Two weeks later, I turned 41. I celebrated in typical fashion, with a girlfriends’ lunch and champagne that night. White cake and bubbly are two of my favorite things, and they just say “party” to me. I didn’t feel great, but I was determined to greet the next year in my life with a glass in my hand and a smile on my face. Being surrounded by my best girls during the day and my family in the evening reminded me that life goes on and that while my recovery was hard, it was do-able, so take that, cancer.

A few days before my birthday, I strapped on as much determination as I could muster and took Macy to see Taylor Swift at the Toyota Center with her best bud, Ella, and my partner in crime, Jill. I was so afraid of being jostled by the crowd, as I was still pretty sore and healing was far from complete. But I wanted to be there and be a part of that big event, and to prove to myself that life doesn’t stop for cancer. I’d lost my breasts but not my drive. The glowsticks burned brightly as the music thumped, and I sat next to my favorite girl and soaked it all up. Every last drop.

Good thing I did, because my healing and happiness were short-lived.

Macy had just posted this on her chalkboard, and for all we knew, the worst was behind us and it could only improve from there. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Just as I felt like I was really recovering from the mastectomy, the nosocomial infection entered my life. A curveball? And how.

Hospitalized for 9 days, pumped full of antibiotics, right tissue expander removed and left expander drained, my life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. It took 6 weeks to diagnose the mycobacterium, and nearly a month total of days spent in the hospital. That first 9-day stay was the longest of my hospitalizations, but also the scariest because the infection was hiding under the tissue expander, hard to diagnose but making me really, really sick. A month after the 9-day stay, I was back in the joint. Out for 3 days and back for 5 more days. Then, out for 2 weeks and back in for 3 days. A seemingly never-ending cycle. Each time I had to go back in, Macy would hand me Froggy, her most beloved of all her “crew” of stuffed animals. He’s been with her since she was a tiny baby and has enjoyed favored status among the masses of other stuffed animals. He’s been in her bed every night and has gone on every trip she’s taken, and she gave him to me to take on each trip to the hospital. He had a bath in hot, bleachy water with an extra rinse every time he came home to her.

She also gave me Baby Snoopy, another coveted member of the “crew,” and my  heart swells at the idea of my baby girl’s thoughtfulness. Though she hated to see me go back to the hospital, she knew her “crew” would comfort me in her absence.

Gross picture, yes, but I did make it smaller so you don’t have to see it in all its glory. Apologies to Christy, who hates this kind of stuff, and Julie: you’d better start skimming because this is the icky part. The aftermath of the mycobacterium is unpleasant, for sure. And this is not the worst shot there is; this shot was taken after much healing had occurred, believe it or not. The wound left behind by the infection was 5.6 cm long, 3 cm wide and 2 cm deep.  That dang bug wreaked a lot of havoc on my already-ravaged right chest wall, and it killed what little bit of healthy tissue was left after Dr Dempsey scooped most of it out to rid the cancer. It’s an insidious bug that is hard to treat. It’s not drug-resistant, like MRSA, but it is very slow-growing and so it responds slowly to antibiotics. Hence the long, long, looooooooong course of oral abx and the multiple rounds of  IV antibiotics, at home and in the hospital. I still have this collection on my kitchen counter, to take twice a day, but luckily haven’t needed the IV version since the last go-round in March. No idea when I’ll get off the oral abx, but sweet Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doc, has told me that he has patients who are on abx therapy for years. Years. Plural. Egads.

Trevor and I became fluent in home health care and learned how to administer the vancomycin and cefapim all by ourselves. The learning curve wasn’t steep, and the whole process was very systematic. My home health nurse, Chona, was as kind and competent as could be, but the gravitas of my situation was clear.While I dreaded it and resented the 3 hours it took twice a day to infuse, I counted my blessings and reminded myself that it could be worse: I could be getting those drugs via IV in the hospital. Again. Which is why I smiled for the camera, tethered yet again but happy to be at home, with Snoopy to keep me and my IV pole company. And yes, that is a glass of wine on the table next to me. It was a dark period in my life, people; don’t judge.

Remember Sucky, the wound vac? This photo is harder for me to look at than the one of the wound. Oh, how I hated Sucky. Necessary, yes, but hateful. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This is what Sucky’s appendage looked like strapped to my body, so it could suck out the gunk and speed the healing from this curveball. The size of the plastic sheeting and the tape required to keep the Sucky train rolling was big enough to give me the vapors, and my poor skin is shuddering at the memories right now. And isn’t everyone thankful that I didn’t have a better camera than the one on my iPhone? Imagine how gruesome the photos would be! Oh, the horror. 

The amount of supplies needed to deal with that wound was staggering. The home health stuff was delivered in big boxes, which cluttered up my office and dining room for a day or two before I said enough! and organized everything to minimize its presence. Out of sight, out of mind (sort of). I pared it down as much as I could.

I became proficient at prettying up the ugly truth of cancer treatment, and its equally- ugly friend,infection aftermath, fared the same. I may not have had control over the mutating cells in my body or the nasty bug that invited itself in post-mastectomy, but I sure could dictate how my surroundings would look during the after-party. 

The amount of supplies needed for this fragile existence was great, and so was my need for comfort. That I found comfort in bubbly and coconut cream pie should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I may have been down and out, with cancer and infection taking their pounds of flesh (literally), but I was powered by Piper and pie.

The summer wore on and I barely saw the sun. And only then, through the window; I didn’t get out much. Between the hospital stays, feeling puny, IV drugs, and being on guard against germs, I missed out on a lot.

I did make it to Macy’s 2nd grade last-day-of-school festivities. She had something funny to say when it was her turn to take the podium, and although I don’t recall what it was, I’m glad I was able to be there to see her in action. I also dragged my sorry carcass to Payton’s 5th grade farewell. My friends in high places in the school volunteering world pulled some strings and had a reserved seat for me, along with a parking cone to save a parking place for Mary, who carted me there and back. My baby was moving on to middle school, and I was moving slowly–very slowly–toward recovery, from cancer and infection. 

Right before school ended, Payton was honored with a spot on the All Star team. This boy lives & breathes baseball, and has from his earliest days, so this is a big deal.

The team went from District to Sectionals to State (or maybe Sectionals to District to State), and I made it to 1 game. Being in the hospital while my favorite player did that thing he does best was hard on this mama. His team had a lot of heart, in addition to some mad skills, and they were kind enough to play in my honor for the duration of their run toward State champs. I’ve never been more honored and humbled as when he came home from practice the night before the first tournament (District? Sectionals?) with a pair of pink sweatbands on his wrist. Learning that the entire team was wearing the pink, for me, moved me, and like the Grinch, my heart swelled to maybe a normal size. 

I’ll be forever indebted to all the other All Star moms who cheered for my boy and provided yard signs, pool parties, custom shirts, and child-wrangling assistance in my absence, at our home field and on the road. Missing the games was hard, but knowing that my circle of baseball moms had my back made it bearable. And having my signed photo of the boys in red (with a dash of pink) brightened my hospital room and my spirits. That frame now sits on my dresser, and every day when I see it I remember not only the special summer of baseball success but also the pure hearts of the families on that team who helped my own family in our time of need.

Good things can come from a bad situation. There is hope inside a diagnosis. You get a measure of the depth of people’s kindness, which comes out in lots of ways. Like custom cupcakes. I liked that one a lot, and so did my kids. 

Like a card signed by the staff at PF Chang’s during a celebratory lunch. Our waiter knew we were celebrating some good news in the cancer battle and took it upon himself to have his co-workers celebrate along with us. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Eat at Chang’s!

My friend Paula from Duke ran in the Salt Lake City Race for the Cure in my honor and sent me her bib from the race. At that point, I was a long way from even considering doing a 5K, so it did my heart good to know she was out there, pounding the pavement among an army of pink and thinking of me.

One weekend in between hospital stays, Macy and I snuck away to Galveston with Christy and her daughter Alexis, for a much-needed break from illness, wound care, and calamities. Macy caught a huge fish off the dock, and seeing her proud smile made the trip even better. There’s something magical about the sunset off the water, and I savored the splendor.

Before the summer was over, we had the chance to puppy-sit this little beauty a couple of times. If puppy kisses can’t cure me, I don’t know what can! 

Once word got out that the puppy-sitting business was up & running, we got to keep Pepper for several days. My kids loved having her to snuggle with on the couch, and I relished the idea that the hard times were morphing into better times.

School started, much to my children’s chagrin, and Payton went off to middle school while Macy began 3rd grade. A few days after school started, I was fresh out of the hospital, she and I rocked out at the Jack Johnson concert in the Woodlands. Because I had been hospitalized, again, so recently, my attending the show wasn’t a sure thing. I still had the dressing on my port-a-cath and wasn’t feeling great.  What is a sure thing, however, is that I’m as stubborn as cancer is shitty, so I made it to the show. 

August and September were spent recuperating, and at the end of September I hobbled myself on down to Tootsies, a chichi clothing store in the high-rent district that was outfitting survivor models for the Couture for the Cause fashion show. I’d only been out of the hospital for a month, but I had committed to doing the show and I made good on my word. Scared breathless and unsure of myself are not states in which I commonly find myself, but the fashion show landed me smack dab in the middle of “What in the world am I doing?” territory. I wasn’t wild about the dresses I wore, but my shoes were a-maz-ing and the experience is one I truly will never forget. Oh, and we raised almost $100K for the cause. 

October signaled the return of some normalcy. I was able to put together something I’d daydreamed about a lot in the hospital: the First Annual Pink Party. I wanted to gather my circle of girls who had seen me and my family through the roughest part of the “cancer journey” to show my thanks and spend some non-sick time together. With the pink theme, yummy food (if I do say so myself), and plentiful drink, it was a smash success.

We seemed to have the infection under control and the antibiotics were doing their job, and after a much longer-than-anticipated hiatus, I was back on the tennis court. My sweet tennis friends gave me a little trophy that says “Winner,” and it’s the best trophy I’ve ever won. 

This little trophy soon had a friend, though, after Boss Lady and I won the Witches’ Open at the end of October. Being back on the court with my tennis friends was so great. Tennis is very good therapy.

As if that day wasn’t fun enough, that night was the Maroon 5 concert in the Woodlands. Tennis, then dinner and the show was a balm for my battered soul. We ate & drank then sang along with Adam for an unforgettable night.

Before too long, fall was upon us (or what passes for fall in Houston), and we readied ourselves for the holidays. Thanksgiving was spent with Team Cremer, with everyone contributing something to the feast. The kids worked off their meal with the traditional post-turkey swim. We had a lot for which to give thanks.

Christmas and the New Year came and went, and before I knew it was time to start making preparations for reconstruction. The Big Dig was a big step, and I had hoped it would signal the end to my “cancer journey” and allow me to put all that hardship behind me. Adding another doctor, and another Dr S, to my cast of characters could only mean one thing: I was going in for a very big surgery.

The DIEP procedure is amazing and hard, in a lot of ways: time consuming, intricate, detailed, and not infallible. Babying the newly transplanted skin, tissues, and blood vessels was hard work, and the crack team at Methodist in the med center did an outstanding job.

This is what I looked like before The Big Dig:

and this is what I looked like 3 days later, leaving the hospital:

It was a hard 3 days, no lie, but at least I was going home. One thing I would miss from the hospital was the morphine. Oh, how I love that stuff. I guess a lot of people do, too, because they guard it closely and I got a laugh from the ping-pong-paddle-key used to replenish my supply. Kinda reminded me of a gas station restroom key. 

One thing I would not miss from the hospital was this chair.

This was the chair in ICU that I had to hoist myself into, after hoisting myself and my 17-inch-long abdominal incision out of bed. Again, it’s a good thing I’m so stubborn, because it would have been easy to roll over, say this is too hard, too painful, too much. But by golly I was going to get out of that bed and into that chair no matter what, and with my morphine pump in hand, I did just that. I don’t think I cussed too much, either.

Recovery from The Big Dig is ongoing, and they say it will take a while longer. I’m not the most patient person, and I’m ready to have everything back to normal. Of course I know there’s a new normal, and it progresses at its own pace, not mine. It’s been a long, tough “journey,”and it seemed that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for a while.

But a lot of good things have happened, too. I started blogging, for one, with Pedey at my side or in my chair, or both; who knew so many people were interested in my little “cancer journey?” It’s humbling and rewarding to see my “readership” grow, and I am immensely grateful for all the love and support that’s come my way. Someday I may have no cancer-related news to share. How weird will that be? I imagine I’ll find something to talk about in this space, nonetheless.

I will have more stories to share about my adventures with Dr S. There are a couple of revisions that he needs to make to his palette that is my newly constructed chest, and while we argue about the timeframe for that, it will likely provide blog fodder and laughs along the way.

One year ago, life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. Cancer entered my life like an afternoon storm along the Gulf Coast. 

And like the butterfly bush in my backyard that was uprooted and tossed around by high winds recently, I weathered the storm. I’m setting my roots and hoping that the winds that blow my way in future are calmer.

Like the pillow on my bed says, I am a survivor.


Things that used to scare me

When I was a kid, I was afraid of two things: the seeds & pulp in a halved cantaloupe, and going over bridges. I have no earthly idea why the cantaloupe scared me, but it did. I remember watching my mom cut the fruit in half and dig out the seeds & pulp with a big spoon then flip the gunk into the sink to go down the disposal. Creepy.

The bridge thing started early. We used to go to a local park a lot as a family when I was a kid, and there was an old, wooden bridge with wide planks (maybe even railroad ties?) and a shallow stream running underneath. The wood was worn, and there were spaces between the planks, between which the stream could be seen. I held my breath all the way across, every time.

I’m not afraid of the cantaloupe seeds & pulp anymore, but bridges…a little bit. The Ship Channel Bridge in Houston gives me the vapors, and driving from Houston to New Orleans includes a series of loooong bridges over mysterious-looking bodies of water. I’m not crazy about the concrete jungle flyover freeways around here, and the Beltway going toward I-10 West has a pretty high on-ramp that gets my heart beating a little faster. I don’t have to hold my breath anymore, but I’m still just a teesny bit uneasy about bridges.

I was reminded of the cantaloupe thing the other day as I cut into one and cubed it up to serve with dinner. I chuckled to myself at my childhood self and fears, and in my head, felt some pride at only having had two little fears. Monsters under the bed never bothered me, nor did the amorphous Bogeyman. I didn’t need a nightlight, and don’t mind things that go bump in the night.

When my kids were tiny, I was a little bit afraid of becoming the victim of a violent crime. The idea of leaving those precious babies motherless unnerved me. Then my own mom died, while my kids were still pretty tiny, and I quit worrying about violent crime and began to fear cancer.

Little did I know that not even 5 years after losing my mom to stupid, wretched cancer, my newest, biggest fear would materialize.

Being diagnosed ahead of the curve, i.e., at a young-ish age, is a surreal experience. I remember well the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I got the phone call on April 26th to say that the biopsy indicated a malignancy. I’ll never forget Nurse Sharon telling me that Dr Dempsey needed to book some time on my calendar, which turns out to be a nice way of telling me to come and see them the very next day so they can hand me a diagnosis that will change my life.

When that fateful call came, Macy and I were shopping for a birthday gift for my cousin, and I had to pretend that everything was ok because I didn’t want to alarm my little girl. Trevor was out of town but en route home, and after I got the call we kept missing each other as he boarded a plane or I was in the car with the kids and not able to speak freely. We resorted to exchanging texts to convey the most horrible of news.

The kids and I went on to my cousin’s birthday party, me with a big secret but determined to put on a happy face and not ruin the celebration. It seemed torturous at the time to be unable to talk to anybody about what I’d just learned. In hindsight, however, it was probably a good thing because it gave me time to process the steaming pile of bad news I’d been served.

It took a couple of days before I really wrapped my head around the fact that I had breast cancer. The more people I told, though, and the more times I actually said the words, “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer,” the more real it became. Before long, the awful reality had set in, and I transitioned from shock to action.

Dr Dempsey has a rule of not accepting a patient’s decision on which surgery option–lumpectomy, single mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy–until at least 3 days after she delivers the diagnosis. I made up my mind pretty fast, but waited until 3 days had passed before I called to tell her. I’ve never regretted the choice I made.

The bottom fell out of my world, and many things changed with my diagnosis. My fear of cancer was one of those things that changed.

I don’t know how it happened or why, but I stopped fearing cancer. Maybe because it became such a huge part of my life, it lost some of its scariness. Maybe by being forced to confront it, and the myriad ways it had infiltrated my life, I became braver. Or maybe I just got sick to death of the damn topic. The more I learned about it, the less scary it became. Knowledge truly is power.

And while cancer is still scary, it doesn’t scare me. Going head-to-head with the beast has taught me an awful lot about myself. Most of it good. I know I can endure a lot, I know what’s really important, and I know that should the disease mount a counter-attack on my battle-weary body, I’ll be armed and ready. Not scared, but ready.


A month of soup

With it being so bitter cold in my neck of the woods, I want soup. And a can of Campbells just won’t do. I was raised on homemade soup, and when the weather turns or a nasty cold invades my system or a surgery is imminent, homemade soup is what I crave. I toyed with the idea of making a different soup every day for a month, but that may be the cold weather talking (seriously, 27 degrees in Houston?? Egads). Then I realized that I don’t even have a month between now and my reconstruction, and once I have the surgery, it’ll be quite a while before I’m able to cook again.

When I am able to cook again, I’ll be making soup. The weather will have warmed up by then; in fact, we may even be trending toward summer. But I’ll still want homemade soup. It must be genetic. My mom made soup. Well, actually she made everything, but soup for sure. She had many specialities, but her broccoli soup was my favorite. I’m not a big fan of broccoli (I eat it because it’s good for me and packed with important things like cartenoids, vitamin C, calcium, beta-carotene, lutein, and phytochemicals); but I love my mom’s broccoli soup. She knew the recipe by heart, but I have to look it up. Luckily for me, the cookbook falls open to the broccoli soup page every time. 

When I was a kid, my mom helped run a cooking school with a friend of hers, Mary Gubser. Mary is a bread and soup guru. She wrote a few cookbooks and taught cooking classes out of her home for suburban women who wanted to learn how to put a yummy and nutritious meal on the table.

I remember one time I was probably younger than Macy, and I was sick on a cooking school day. My mom bundled me up with a bag full of activities (no PSPs or iTouches back then) and took me with her. I settled on Miss Mary’s couch and listened to the women chattering as they went through the lesson: herbed vegetable soup and meunster cheese bread. My mom brought me a piece of baguette, warm from the oven, with real butter, and it remains to this day one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.

Maybe that’s why I love food so much: because memories of meals are so interwoven with memories of my mom. Food is such a powerful force, and it does way more than provide fuel for our bodies and sustain us through the day.

Soup has always been comfort food for me. You can have your mashed potatoes & gravy, your mac & cheese, your pot roast. I’ll take soup. But it’s gotta be homemade.

I got the love of soup from my mom, and Payton & Macy got it from me. In fact, Macy takes a thermos of homemade chicken noodle soup in her lunch every day. She’s vegetarian, but some things, like my chicken noodle soup and PF Chang’s honey-seared chicken, don’t count as meat in her mind.

Every week, I make a big pot of chicken noodle soup. For me, there is security in routine. Making soup for my kids every week is a ritual, and when chopping onions, celery, and carrots, I fall into an easy rhythm. Sauteeing the veggies in glistening green olive oil and with a few garlic cloves fills the kitchen with a smell of innate goodness that fills me up. Anyone can open a can of Campbells, but making what I consider real soup is a different thing entirely. It’s a labor of love, which I hope fuels and sustains my kids and weaves a delicate yet tangible ribbon of connection between them and me.


No less than what she deserves

While packing Macy’s lunch this morning, I was picking the seeds out of each cube of watermelon (because that’s what gives meaning and adds fulfillment to my life as a suburban at-home mom).

I told her that it’s ok to eat watermelon seeds; that you won’t grow a watermelon in your belly. She used to believe that, when she was really little. Sometimes I miss those days.

Besides, the seeds of a seedless watermelon are so tiny they’re barely noticable. Not like the hefty black watermelon seeds of my childhood. I’d like to see kids these days try to have a seed-spitting contest with the new generation of seeds.

But back to the conversation with Macy.

She didn’t pause for even one second to ponder the incredible gift of fortune that is hers, simply by being born into a family whose matriarch set such a high standard of child-rearing and lunch-packing that her descendant (that’s me) is seriously picking seeds out of watermelon cubes at 6:45 a.m. on a Thursday. Nor did she remark upon the bounty of produce that is available in Texas in January. She knows not of seasonal fruits & veg.

She did not bow her head momentarily in thanks for the numerous gifts that are hers, just by chance and birthright.

She wanted to know one thing: if you did grow a watermelon in your belly, would you poop it out or barf it out?

Because I’m so busy picking seeds out of watermelon cubes and endlessly matching orphaned socks warm & fluffy from the dryer, I didn’t have time to go to med school or get an advanced degree in child psychology or pursue a curriculum of horticulture. So I don’t know the answer to her question. I’d guess both.

In an effort to instill my daily dose of guilt into my kids’ life, I told her it must be really great to have someone make your lunch every day. Breakfast, too, for that matter. I could get used to that. (Except, let’s be honest: I’m pretty picky and would likely end up re-doing it anyway, while trying to avoid making eye contact with the gift horse.)

I asked her this: when I’m old and gray and have no teeth, will you pick the seeds out of my watermelon for me?

She said: If you don’t have any teeth, how are you going to chew? Will I have to do that for you, too? Why not just get dentures?

Why not indeed. 


This caught my eye

I was flipping through a magazine at my Aunt Sophia’s house last night and an ad for Crystal Light caught my eye. I like Crystal Light, especially the orange and the pink lemonade. I don’t drink a lot of it, though, because I’ve always assumed that it’s full of chemicals, and someone in my shoes needs to avoid all those multi-syllabic chemical compounds found on ingredients lists.

But if I am going to splurge on something chemical-y, Crystal Light is top of my list. Even more so now that I saw this ad. 

What first caught my eye was the communicated bliss of the woman drinking from the lemonade fountain, and my first thought was how much I’d love to have a champagne fountain like that. Mmmmm.

My bliss would be endless. Limitless. Bottomless, as all good champagne fountains should be.

I also noticed the woman’s dress. I never really liked yellow, but it was my mom’s favorite color, and now that she’s gone, yellow reminds me of her. Very fitting, as she was a sunny, warm kind of person.

So this ad is pleasing to me for several reasons, but the most important one is something you may not have even noticed. Or maybe you did. It took me a sec, but once I noticed it I had to look closer to see if what I thought I was seeing was really there.

Or not there, as the case may be.   Look closer: 

Notice anything about her chest? Like the fact that it’s flat? Really flat.

I like this gal, a lot.

And I really like a company that is bold enough to feature an ad showing a woman with a flat chest. A really flat chest. Like mine.

I’m guessing the woman in the ad didn’t come by her flat chest in the same manner I did, i.e., I bet she didn’t have a double mastectomy. Mainly because mastectomied women aren’t in real high demand for ad campaigns. But maybe Crystal Light is changing that. Slowly but surely chipping away at societal ideals of what a model looks like.

Real-life women come in all shapes & sizes. It sure was nice to see a woman in an ad who does, too. I think I’ll go whip up a big pitcher of Crystal Light.


R.I.P., Elizabeth

I just read, yesterday morning, that Elizabeth Edwards announced that “future cancer treatment would be unproductive” and that she had only months or maybe even weeks to live. And then she died. That same day.

I’m so sad. For her. For her kids. She’s suffered a lot already (let’s not even mention her jackass husband and all the suffering he brought into her life). She wrecked up my childish yet dogged desire to believe in a limited amount of suffering in one person’s life. I wanted to believe that losing my mom would be the worst thing to ever happen to me. So far it is, but when I look at Elizabeth’s Edwards’s life, and the fact that  her 16-year-old son was killed in a car crash, I am smacked in the face with the reality that there is no limit to the amount of suffering in one’s life.

Obviously, I don’t know her, but she seemed to have a lot of class, regardless of politics or religion or her jackass of a husband. She lived most of her life in relative obscurity, practicing law and raising the family she vowed to create after Wade was killed. My heart breaks for her remaining children. Cate, who is in her late twenties, will likely become the mama to Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10. All three of them will have to navigate the treacherous terrain that is life without their mama.  No matter how old you are, you never stop wanting your mom. Former press secretary Jennifer Palmieri said about Elizabeth, “Any room she walked into, she made it a home.”

That’s a real talent.

Elizabeth faced her breast cancer publicly and bravely. She was diagnosed in November 2004 and made headlines when she urged her jackass of a husband to continue his presidential campaign despite her Stage IV cancer.

Stage IV. That’s as bad as it gets, and the fact that she wanted him to continue his dream despite the tumor in her breast and the spots on her rib, lung & hip, is the epitome of selflessness.

She was brave, and she was a fantastic example to cancer patients everywhere that life goes on. Despite diagnosis, life goes on. Despite treatment, life goes on. Despite surgery, life goes on. Despite complications, life goes on. Despite John Edwards making a fool of himself and a mockery of all that his family held dear, life goes on.

And life did go on for Elizabeth. She worked hard: raising her family, writing 2 books, advising President Obama on health care reform, and doing her best to make a difference–for her family, for countless cancer patients, and for herself. Although she was all these things: attorney, author, advisor, advocate, she said often and proudly that her job was to be a mom.

She knew her cancer wasn’t curable, but treatable. She did all the right things and tried to stay strong, despite life on the campaign trail.

Her final statement reflects upon the kind of person she was and the sheer strength she embodied:

“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.”

In a 2007 interview she spoke realistically about her cancer, saying, “When I was first diagnosed, I was going to beat this. I was going to be the champion of cancer. And I don’t have that feeling now. The cancer will eventually kill me. It’s going to win this fight.”

Her cancer did win, but she is a champion nonetheless. Rest in peace, Elizabeth.