Tag Archive | cancer

This Is Not a Tribute


This is not a tribute post.

This is not a post about the string of glowy, happy memories we had together.  I have memories, sure, but do you really want to hear about the time I met her at Starbucks after her “bad” oncology visit? We sat outside. She drank one of those Naked fresh fruit juices and nibbled on melon slices. She told me how she rescued her dog and how she survived her childhood. I listened, hoping my presence helped her bear the outrage and indignity of the disease’s intrusion into her body and medical establishment’s constant misspelling of her last name.  “Those motherfuckers.”

Before I could claim her as my own, half my friends had already tagged her.  The stories I heard.  She strong-armed D. into on-line dating by getting her professional portraits and writing her profile.  Naturally, D met her husband in less than two weeks, whereupon she was assisted in planning a Hawaiian destination wedding with the help of none other.  You know who.  She of the Channel bags and the Four Seasons suites.  She played mother-of-the-bride, wedding coordinator, travel agent and matron of honor.

I didn’t know her then.

Not all the stories I heard were Mother Hen cum hero tales.  Some of them–  most?– included phantasmagorical viciousness.  She uninvited D. to her own wedding day-of because she didn’t want any “drama.”  She cut people out of her life, was known to accuse friend’s boyfriends of defrauding investors, and became famous in my circle for a steadfast refusal to take care of anyone’s feelings.

By the time I was face-to-face with her, she’d already been sick for two years.  She liked to joke that the cancer made her a shadow of her former “raging bitch self.”  Honestly, I wanted to see her slicing and dicing (so long as it wasn’t my flesh or vital organs).  I saw glimpses, mostly when she’d rail against the incompetence of the doctors involved in her early diagnosis or her mother’s shitty habit of hanging her every disappointment on her.

I guess when you’re fighting for your life and engaged in such tasks as “managing pain with morphine” there’s not much energy left over to get your bitch on.

This morning the texts were ominous.  We’re going to say our goodbyes.  By this afternoon, they were worse.  Putting her in twilight.  I comforted myself by assuring myself we were hardly more than acquaintances.  I was a blip on the radar of her life.  “She was really more of a friend of a friend,” I told a co-worker this morning as I tried to sort myself out for a day of productivity in the shadow of those texts.

I didn’t think about the time she came with me and Sadie to get a manicure, though I almost blurted out at dinner with my children, “Mommy’s friend– the one from the manicure, remember?– is dying tonight.”  I berated myself for borrowing someone else’s sorrows and claiming them as my own.

I decided it would be my job to console my friends who were closer to her.  Sending supportive texts like “Are you okay?” to shaken friends returning from hospital visits.   I sent one to B. who saw her this afternoon. His response betrayed his panic– run-on sentences, frantic fragments about her skeletal appearance, her joy that he’d come.

“Her cousin asked me if I was the writer,” B. reported.  “It appears she told her family about you.”

Me? B’s wrong. That can’t be right. She must know other writers, right?  I rack my brain.  I have no fucking idea what other writers she knows.  B. thought she was talking about me.

Maybe she was.

Maybe this is a tribute post.


Cookies, Cajuns and Cause for Celebration

There’s a lot going on today, which is fantastic because I have no childcare and my little one won’t nap.  Also, there’s a hole in the pocket of my winter coat, so I keep “losing” my phone and my keys because they fall through the hole and get stuck in the lining.  But, ask me if I care? I don’t, because I have cause for celebration.

Cause for Celebration: Ya’ll, I am so excited I am about to ink a deal with a design firm to redo our house.

OHMYGOD, I am totally kidding. I don’t even know why I made that joke, except that it would seriously be the end of the world if there was a design company that wanted to partner with me.  My idea of design is to buy curtains at IKEA, leave them in the car for four months and every so often gripe at my husband for not hanging the curtain. I call it “Designing For Spouses.”

Seriously, though, I know I wrote this post mentioning (to the ENTIRE FREAKING WORLD) that my internist found a lump in my breast.  Yesterday, I had an extensive visit with the breast clinic here in Chicago and am pleased to report a completely clean bill of health.  Actually, they couldn’t find the lump at all, which is a good thing. I am very grateful.

Cajuns: I have Cajun forebears and one of them passed on a recipe that is the greatest cookie recipe ever because (1) it’s only three ingredients and (2) it tastes like heaven on a plate (or straight out of the pan if I was honest).

photo (118)

For the cookie recipe from my Grandmother Lucille, please see this guest post over at Whisks and Words, the faboosh site run by Dana Staves, who can cook up a storm and write like an angel. Incidentally, Dana was the very first person to ever ask me advice about blogging.  In spite of her questionable judgment on who to ask for advice, her site is flourishing.  She’s got big changes coming in her life, so I can’t wait to see it chronicled in her blog.

This is the only recipe I know so this will be the last time we do this.  Enjoy!

My Internist Said a Four-Letter Word: Lump

“Nice socks,” was the first thing she said after she introduced herself, and I loved her instantly.  I was thrilled that my new internist found a way to compliment me, even though I was hunched at the edge of the examination table, wearing only that flimsy paper “gown” and my new snappy argyle socks.

Like this, but my socks were better.

Like this, but my socks were better, and my “dress” was more flammable.

I liked that she was all-business after that, asking me all about my family medical history. I love those questions, to which I answer a long series of staccato no’s.  Heart disease? No.  The long list of cancers? No, no, no, no, no.

“Condoms,” was my unpopular answer to her question about contraception, which led to her follow-up question about whether we planned to have more kids.  Tearing up, I answered, “I don’t think so.”  I also teared up telling her about my C-sections– tears fall so easily when I wear clothes made of paper and discuss my family planning decisions with a stranger.

During the physical exam, I waited for her to give me a standing ovation upon hearing I was still nursing my son who is 22 months old.  As I braced for adulation, I missed that she was spending extra time kneading my left breast.  Maybe she didn’t hear me.  Did I say Simon’s age? Shouldn’t she gasp in admiration?

So sure she would suggest that I host a parade in my own honor, I felt physically ill when I heard what she actually said.

“I feel a lump in your left breast.”   That’s not what I had in mind—I was thinking about ticker-tape, confetti and floats; now all I could picture was a funeral procession.  My funeral procession.

I sucked in my breath and stared at the ceiling.  She didn’t just say that.  This isn’t happening.

Who should I invite to my parade? 

My husband Jeff was the one who suggested that I see his internist for a physical.  I laughed in his face when he suggested it, because it seemed like something for newly shorn 18-year olds headed to the army, not for a young mother who just had two years of constant OB/GYN appointments.

Now the same doctor who appraised my husband’s ball sac just used the “L” word when feeling my breast.

There probably won’t be a parade any time soon.

Instead of feeling the terror, I consoled myself with logistics. Who am I going to call first?  I should call Jeff, but he’s out of town and may not have cell reception.  Is it bad if I call my therapist before Jeff? 

I decided that I could get away with calling my therapist first, but only because he’s a cancer survivor.  But I decided that I could not go by Ann Taylor Loft before heading home, because I thought shopping with a lump would send the wrong message.

I am not spending what may be my last days trolling around for cabled cardigans.

I kept my panic at bay for a few minutes, but I couldn’t help myself—I started thinking about the music for my funeral and Jeff’s future on-line dating profile.  “Warm, loving widower to two adorable children.”  Who’s in a better position to draft that than I, his “gone too soon” first wife?

By the time the doctor stepped away from my lumpy body,  I was memorizing everything about the room, because what if this was the room where I first learned I was dying?  What if this was the dock from which I would embark on a long torturous journey of biopsies, oncology residents, nausea, and macrobiotic dieting?  If this was the starting point of a long descent, I wanted to remember her shoes (scuffed suede clogs), the biohazard bin (blue and to my left), and the faint whir of the computer (front and center).

“I want you to come back in 30 days, after you have a menstrual cycle, so I can check it. If it’s still there, then. . . ” she explained the next steps.

I wanted her to get it out now—biopsy it, analyze it, and get it out from under my nipple.  I thought about  the long life I plan to live—I have to teach my children table manners (and I haven’t even started), and I have to improve my Scrabble score.  I have to learn to cook and take criticism and hang drapes.

I am too busy for this lump.

The kind receptionist pretended not to notice that my hands were shaking as I handed her my insurance card.  I made my follow-up appointment after asking three times why I couldn’t come in on January 1 (national holiday, apparently).

I’m sure it’s nothing serious. Probably just a cyst. 

But even if it’s “nothing,” I am already different.  And I’ll never be the same.  And now I hate those stupid argyle socks.

I’m Feeling Sunshiney

Sick of hearing about the dearth of women in science? Why don’t you step over to Snaps & Bits, because Stacie is a P freaking H DEE in biology.  And a breast cancer researcher & survivor.  And hilarious.  And a great writer to boot.  She nominated me for the Sunshine Award because she accurately perceived that I needed a few extra rays after someone asked me if I was pregnant last week.  Scientists– they just know stuff that the rest of us don’t.

Well, I love Stacie and awards and sunshine, so it’s a winning combination for this gray Chicago day.  Imma gonna answer these questions and then get on with the terribly important business of ignoring my children.

Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy....-- John Denver

Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy….– John Denver

1.  What is your favorite Christmas/Holiday movie?

When Harry Met Sally.  Remember where Sally is dragging that Christmas tree off the lot when she is so sad and alone? No one does pathos like the perky.  You know how they could make that movie even better? Do a remake starring Andrew Garfield (he’s my Ryan Gosling) and me. But that would actually be more like The Graduate since I am so much older than he is.

2.  What is your favorite flower?

This one’s easy.  The flower of my youth.  It has precisely 3 petals left, and they are turning brown.

3.  What is your favorite (non-alcoholic) beverage?
Fresca– plain and old school from a can.

4.  What is your passion?

I just looked up “passion” on dictionary.com.  It is defined as “any strong or compelling emotion.” I am passionate about the size of my ass, the shape of my career, and the smell of roasting vegetables.  Less superficially, I am passionate about friendship and connections with others, writing a good story/blog post, and making sure everyone loves me.  (Hey, not all passions are healthy.)

5.  What is your favorite time of year?

Any time as long as it’s really sunny– no clouds, lots of sunshine– don’t care if it’s zero degrees or 100.  Just let the sunshine.

6.  What is your favorite time of the day?

I love that 15 minutes of peaceful snuggle right before my kids pass out at night– their defenses are down, mine have been beat down (by them) and the sweetness of life seeps in and covers us all.

7.  What is your favorite physical activity?

Spinning but only if the music is good.  Hall & Oats B-sides ain’t gonna cut it, nor will taking my favorite songs and making them sound like “house” music.  Make the spin mix clean, old school and add some Grandmaster Flash if you want me to join your fitness cult.

8.  What is your favorite vacation?

New York City.  You can have the beach and the passports and the hassle of Transatlantic flight. Give me Manhattan, any time and any day.


That first Monday morning back, we all sat in the waiting room not making eye contact or conversation.  Like strangers on a blind date, we were scared to open our mouths, even though we had all been together for years.

I waited for someone to make a joke that would shatter the tension.

A few minutes after 7:30 AM, he opened the door, and we filed into the group room.  I didn’t know where to put my eyes, because I was afraid of what I would see.  Was he ok?  Was he sitting funny?  If I looked hard enough would I be able to tell if he was dying?  I scanned him for traces of the cancer that kept us all apart for three weeks.

But I sure didn’t want to look down there.

I sat in my usual chair.  3 o’clock to his high noon.  Everyone else took their seats.  I wanted someone else to voice my anxious questions so I could concentrate on his face, even though that’s not where his prostate was.

The other group members started in with the questions.  Cathleen, ever practical, blurted out, “Are you in pain?”

Jesus, I didn’t know we were going to jump right into the deep end.  I was still searching for the courage to be at the pool in the first place, and I hate swimming more than bathing suit shopping.

Rob, or maybe it was Sandra, mentioned a fantasy about a Foley catheter and for the next 10 minutes the discussion concerned his purported incontinence and lack of sexual function.

Now, I am a brave woman, especially when it comes to emotional dark corners– I don’t shy away from those murky parts of myself; I charge in there with whatever light I can muster and face my residue.  But I have limits.  And discussing my therapist’s ability to urinate and have sex with his wife were limits for me.  Hard limits. (No pun intended.)

I wasn’t ready to joke about whether he could “get it up.”

He fielded our questions with the opacity that is the M-16 of the therapist’s arsenal.  Do they teach that stare in therapy school?  There was some of the coy, “What’s your fantasy about my sexual function?” responses, but mostly he was solemn and unapologetic about failing us by becoming ill with the scariest disease I could think of this side of full-blown AIDS.

At some point, he admitted to Cathy that, yes, he was experiencing some pain.

That’s when my denial about him having cancer slammed me all the way to the darkest, youngest corner of my mind.  That corner where the rage and terror were stored under old quilted blankets I’d been lugging around for my entire lifetime.

I didn’t want a therapist who was in pain.  Or that left me to tend to his metastasized cells. Why couldn’t it be diabetes? Or food poisoning? Or Crohn’s disease? Those I could ignore handle.

I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about whether he ordered his diapers from Amazon like I did for my infant daughter.

He was supposed to be different from other people. He should have been stronger.  Healthier.  Cancer-f*cking-free. 

It’s been three years, and I still search for signs of his demise.  Whenever he cancels a session, other group members assume he’s vacationing.  I, however, am always convinced he’s at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Treatment Center.  Even when he returns to his chair relaxed and tan, I won’t let myself believe he simply went to a beach to read back issues of JAMA while sipping icy drinks under a shady umbrella.

Because next time, I am going to be smarter than cancer.  I will see it coming before that first angry cell goes haywire.  Maybe it won’t be as scary if I was expecting it all along.