breast cancer, Covid-19, Health, hope, uncertainty

Eighteen days to Brenda

I went in August 24 for a diagnostic mammogram. My radiologist suggested I go ahead and get one instead of waiting until October as my gynecologist planned. The mammogram at this hospital presented stark differences. The robes you change into aren’t a screaming, Pepto-Bismol pink, but a white soft cottony waffle weave accented with subtle thin pink piping. They’re stacked neatly waiting on you in a warming box. Divine. Here I found few deep Southern accents, but more Brooklyn, and simple pastel beach scenes or botanical wall art; you’re not coddled as much either, which surprisingly I liked. Besides, the last place brought bad news, and I am so over bad news, so I  needed a new place.

When you’ve had what I’ve had (yes, I now get to check the “history of breast cancer” box), for future mammograms, instead of going home to wait on your letter in the mail, your results are on-the-spot. It was a long wait, and after looking each other up and down for a few minutes, a woman across from me and I eventually broke our masked silence with a “What are you in for?” dialogue. Me: “I’m Stage II, 100% ER positive, post lumpectomy, chemo and radiation.” You? “I’m triple negative.” Even though no one in our predicament can determine exactly how we ended up here, we each tried our best to reveal what might have contributed, with a Forgive me for I have sinned confessional to each other. She: “I used to eat ice cream every single night.” Me: “I’ve stopped red meat and now only occasionally enjoy a glass of wine.” 

A nurse calls her, and she gets up to go hear her results. Next a man, I presume the radiologist, got me for mine. Immediately I assumed since I got the doctor, the news seemed more complicated, and complicated could spell trouble. We went to a room that was far too nice for doling out good results. He made small talk before he dove in, admitting if he didn’t know better, that I’d had a lumpectomy, my scans might have raised a red flag. Lots of them as it’s a mess in there. Not his words exactly, but with all the pins, scar tissue and density obscuring things, he seemed exhausted from wading through the scans, as if he’d just returned from war. 

I knew my left breast was a mess when back in 2000 I began breast feeding my first baby. I knew there was milk in there but, damn, quite the struggle to get it out! Always a poor producer and the plumbing seemed faulty every time I pumped or breast fed my babies. But you have to get it out of there or you’ve got a painful situation on your hands! After his initial comments about such chaotic density, the radiologist said everything looks fine. Gosh, did we really need to sit in that private room for all this? I got up and left, happy to dodge this scare. The woman who’d led me to the dressing room asked a man at the checkout desk to schedule an MRI. I asked why an MRI, since my mammogram was fine, and she mumbled something about high risk. Wait, me? I ignored my confusion and instead requested the first available appointment and to get on the cancellation list. I snagged the only one they had, four days later at 6:45am. 

I had an MRI before back when all this breast drama started up in November of 2019, but experiencing how particularly thorough this new place was gave me a reassuring level of comfort, that this hospital is sparing no detail, turning over every stone so I’ll continue to turn up “normal.” Friday came and I was up at 5 to leave by 6. It was quiet in the lobby except for a few patients waiting for their own scans. Wonder what they’re in for? Since MRIs are loud, you get headphones and your choice of music. I went for my old standby, classical. No sooner did they slide the headphones on than Pachelbel’s Canon in D began. Always floods me back to my twilight wedding, walking down that beautiful outdoor aisle passing smiling friends and luminaries along my way. The technicians worked efficiently, and I was heading home in 45 minutes. 

Busy in my kitchen later that afternoon, I got a call from my radiation oncologist. She asked, had the radiologist already called me? Uh oh, I’ve heard this kind of call before. Cut to the chase please, I thought impatiently. “Ms. Greco, the radiologist saw some areas of concern on your MRI and wants to schedule a biopsy.” First off, my brain is screaming, area(s) PLURAL? You have got to be &#$@-ing kidding me?! And then it moves on to the OF CONCERN part, concerning it its own right. I had noticed a little pea sized nodule during my daily breast massage but assumed it was just knots left behind from surgery and radiation. After radiation ended in April, the radiologist had suggested I daily massage the tissue to keep it from forming too much scar tissue, which I’ve done.

Alas, this was no dream and I was told they’d be calling soon to schedule my return for another MRI + biopsy + mammogram. Great way to start the long weekend. Ugh. I got scheduled for that following Friday, a 7am appointment, with arrival at 6:30. Another early morning, but nothing like getting it out of the way. 

Thankfully between our house renovation and chats and visits with my boys and my own endless internet research on breast nodules four months post radiation, fat necrosis, and any other topic which resembled my situation, the week ticked along fairly quickly. 

Up early again for the MRI and arrived to find another handful of people socially distanced in the waiting room. I got registered, my hospital bracelet, etc. and was escorted to the dressing room. As with the previous MRI, I had an IV inserted in my arm so they could inject a contrast dye, which improves image quality. I got my choice of music again and this time I thought, let’s change it up. I asked for something calming but not classical, and the nurse suggested nature sounds, so nature sounds it was.

My nature music started with water sounds and soon my brain went to our recent plumbing situation with camellia roots wrapped around our pipes and toilet and adjacent tub filling with water. After the plumbing fiasco (which we resolved) I moved on to stiller waters and imagined my sister and me canoeing on Lake Lanier, like we did as teenagers. Our oars cut the glassy water as we maneuvered into coves, the mature adventurers we were, now out of view from our parents we’d left behind on our sailboat docked in its slip. As I lay masked on my stomach, the doctors slid me in and out of this machine, instructing me over and over to stay completely still. I’m guessing they felt they must repeat the instruction given how much I talked at the outset, thinking surely this motor mouth wouldn’t put a lid on it and stop moving in order for them to get their work done. But as the kind nurse told me afterwards, I was a real trooper. It must have been nearly an hour that I was on that table and somehow, I didn’t move at all.

After my water music segued into crickets and other summer night insects, I noticed a little half moon shaped light below near the floor or maybe on the table I was on. It looked like the Morton salt girl’s umbrella, complete with curved J shape below for its handle. As I was wheeled in and out of this machine never knowing when they’d move it out or back in, I was reminded of one of my favorite Six Flags rides, Mo Mo the monster, when the guy working the ride spun me around extra times since I was the birthday girl. I decided getting zoomed in and out of this machine was instead a fun ride, plus I had the benefit of summer bugs and the Morton salt girl for company.

Once the biopsy began, the nice nurse – the one who gave me the warm robe and told me I was a trooper — began holding my hand. I remember when a nurse at an earlier biopsy last year began lovingly stroking my calves. This nurse held on to my hands and I realized how good that felt, especially these days when we don’t get to hug anyone except those we live with. I needed that touch so badly and while my left hand was holding on to the emergency ball they give you to squeeze in case you need them to stop, I found a few fingers on my left hand joining her hand with my right to communicate an extra, this is so nice and I feel loved, message. Because I had been numbed, I didn’t feel them jostling and twisting to get this suspicious mass during this core needle biopsy, yet I could tell it wasn’t simply a pulling on a syringe but a turning motion as if wrangling a cork out with a corkscrew. Weeee! I got wheeled back in again and more loud MRI knocking noises harmonized with the summer bug sounds, and I was back out. A final jostling to insert a pin, another marker to light the way for the next person doing my scan, and in and out several more times, and it was done.

Next on the menu was a mammogram. Freshly bandaged, I was promised this mammogram was of the gentle variety. Having not had one since my initial diagnosis in November (and since subsequent surgery and radiation), I didn’t realize how much it was going to hurt since the former surgical site was terribly tender. Picture your ear lobe after you pierce it, forever left with a knot. My knot hurt getting flattened onto the machine, especially fresh from the biopsy. As I was pressed into a pancake again, the blood started coming, smearing the glass. My wandering mind went to a hilarious sketch years ago with Dan Aykroyd channeling Julia Child  boning a chicken, blood spurting up and down onto the bird. Instead of high-pitched Julia gasps, this technician was calm and simply wiped it away. But my poor breast, how much more was it going to endure? A few more images from a few more angles and I was left to wait while she met with the doctor down the hall. She returned with news he was pleased with the images, and off I went to check out.

The nice nurse who’d held my hand handed me off to a gentleman at the exit desk, telling him I’d had a biopsy. He couldn’t hear her, so he whispered, as if trying to simply mouthe it, “She had a b i o p s y ?” lest the folks in the waiting area learn my situation. I felt this strange cloud of shame and sadness waft over me. He told me in a quiet sympathetic voice to enjoy the holiday weekend. I uttered a “You, too,” and got the hell out of there. Once home I had to take it easy which for most people means lie in bed and rest. I had to realize that paperwork, dishes, laundry and dog walks could wait and that I could actually lie in bed and rest, which is exactly what I did, icing the area 15 minutes every hour on the hour until bedtime. The biopsy site stung so that kept me still and thankfully my 13-year-old dog was content to stay put on the kitchen floor, slinking in and out of sleep.

The doctors told me I’d hear results by Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was an interminable five days. Wednesday came and went and nothing. I had decided it’s ludicrous that I would be the one with that unfortunate case of a recurrence a mere four months post radiation. No matter the new diet, ridiculously slight alcohol intake, stepped up exercise, mine was an aggressive little bugger that could withstand chemo and radiation and emerge with a renewed, Please ma’am may I have another? annoying verve. My sister tried to convince me I’m not special that way. I felt a bit like a criminal, like I was being punished yet couldn’t understand my crime. I figured I had a 50/50 chance and felt like over the weekend they’d rustle up a public defender – a la My Cousin Vinny – and the next week hopefully I’d have some semblance of a case ready.

Now it’s today, Thursday, and I couldn’t stand the silent house any longer, so I left for the hardware store, where I tinker from time to time, just like my dad used to. I love it there because it’s small, there’s plenty of interesting merchandise, and people are ready to help you find what you need, answer any questions you might have (except the What do you think will come of my biopsy? variety). Found some flowers on clearance to replace my tired zinnias and was loading them in the car when the phone rang. An unknown exchange, certainly not my doctor’s office, but I answered it anyway. On the other end of the phone was a smiling Brenda’s voice, which exclaimed: “Hi Mrs. Greco, I have good news for you, as I know you’ve been waiting. We got your results in and it’s only scar tissue. So we won’t need to see you for six months.” I literally said, “God Bless You” and thanked her profusely. If you can hug through the phone, then that is what I did. It was heartfelt and I’m certain Brenda felt it. I love that Brenda. 

These were the perfect segue into fall AND they’re yellow. (win win)
Decision 2020, hope, Patriotism, White House

Show, Don’t Tell

Several years ago while working with a PR firm, I wrote an article for a client’s E-newsletter. My boss wasn’t as in love with it as I hoped he’d be, and advised reworking it slightly, employing the Show Don’t Tell writing tenet. Since then I can’t say my writing has consistently championed this rule, but I have given it more thought and realize it applies to our relationships, motivations, leadership, too  – basically, everything.

“We are at a crossroads of broadening or narrowing what we can be.”

Jon Meacham, American writer and presidential biographer.

Meacham’s recent research and writing has focused on one of our nation’s fallen leaders in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, where he examines the choices of light vs. darkness before us. He talks of Lewis’ sacrifices to his own body and dignity, his march for voting rights which paved the way for so many. Lewis showed us what moral, racial and national responsibility looks like. In contrast, Meacham says Trump thinks of us not as a country but as an audience. He tells us what we should be focusing on, all he’s done, is doing and will do for the American people.

There are those precious times you come away from time spent with a group with that feeling that you’re aligned with kindred souls and it feels like home. I felt that way a few years ago at a writer’s workshop, surrounded by people who, like me, could obsess all day over which adjective would best paint the picture in their minds and onto their easels, laptops in this case. It was easy to respect those in this group who bravely revealed their vulnerability, sharing their stories, however early in their creation, and cultivate an affinity for the lack of affectation, and a connection with everyday people you identify with, root for and want to succeed.

The Democratic National Convention gave me a similar feeling as I witnessed straightforward speakers each casting a different light on these times, sharing their own experiences, and delivering insightful reactions on the Democratic nominee. I felt proud and excited as I tuned in every night, hopeful about the possibilities for change, a chance to restore decency, dignity and reinstall intellect and fairness to our collective futures. And to be fair, I also watched the Republican National Convention, though struggled to savor it all in the same way. It felt more like droning in the background and I couldn’t latch on to the messages from these presenters — sometimes screaming, sometimes preaching, always scripted — as they read the teleprompters and consistently piled on praise for this man who continues to hold so many and so much hostage.

They talked of Keeping America America, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t). Vice President Pence even vowed to “Keep American Great Again. Again.” Please, not another round. They spoke in words similarly loyal to their Law and Order president, a self-assigned wartime hero. (I don’t believe wartime heroes typically assign themselves this designation?) As with the DNC, the RNC produced loads of people at the lectern, including Kayleigh McEnany, the current press secretary (his fourth filling the role three and a half years in). McEnany told of breast cancer in her family and with welled up eyes, revealed she was forever beholden to “her” president because thanks to him she could get a preventive mastectomy — and not only that, he even called to check on her after surgery, better explained by the fact she’s a close friend of his daughter, Ivanka’s. Let’s get this straight: She wouldn’t qualify for this same surgery were Joe Biden president? I believe fact checking would reveal another fabrication designed to tug at your heartstrings, planting the seed that the other side wouldn’t help you, and would instead leave you to suffer, sick and alone, which simply is not true. I’ve recently undergone my own necessary breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy), so I do not consider these matters lightly.

As the nights wore on, between presenters an ominous “historic” music (think Gunsmoke theme song) seeped into the show, and B-roll panned to sacrosanct monuments of yesteryear, each sprung from hallowed ground, and on to the home of that resolute desk, the White House, glowing and sexy and cloaked (and nearly choked) in American flags, dramatically lit up at night. On script, our president reminded us of our great American patriots, that “we” built great ships, raised up the skyscrapers. And let’s not forget Annie Oakley and Davie Crockett. I do wonder just as our current Postmaster General admits he doesn’t know how much it costs to mail a postcard, does Donald Trump even understand his own notion of patriotism? Interesting to see how each party looks at this concept. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/03/how-views-patriotism-vary-by-party/

One of several African-American presenters, former NFL player Jack Brewer among other things petitioned for bringing back the nuclear family. Did it actually leave, or did we instead simply open the doors to other types of families that don’t resemble the Cleaver household? The thing is you don’t need to feel scared if today’s families don’t look like they used to; you can instead choose how your family looks. Similarly, if Black Lives do in fact matter, it doesn’t mean other lives don’t; the movement was never created in that spirit, so who, why and when did they irresponsibly start suggesting it? If you want your family to mimic a 1950s mentality, the man as the breadwinner, his wife in an apron in the kitchen and children in their Sunday best week after week, you can do that. This is America. If someone else wants to live with their lesbian or gay lover and adopt a black or brown child, they can do that. Still, we all want and deserve the same things, right? 

During RNC week I heard many speakers remind us how Donald J. Trump is fighting for this and fighting for that. And by the way, what is this new emphasis on the “J.” ? I can’t help but recall Tiny Fey’s hilarious sketch and if, like me, you need a serving of humor in these troubled times, please do grab a fork and dive in. Maybe the emphasis on the “J” is so we don’t confuse the Donald with his namesake, Donald, Jr., which by extension could remind us of his shrieking, excessively lip-lined girlfriend. Donald J. has spent much of his time in office angrily Tweeting, defensive, curt, ready for a fight. We keep hearing he is Fighting for America. Must it be a fight, though, and is there not a way we can just get along? 

Incensed about the fighting and looting of late, he’s promising us if he gets four more years our world won’t look like this, yet he says the violence will continue if Biden wins. The thing is, and as Biden has already underscored, this guy is President now and yet still, there’s fighting and looting happening, all on his watch. Can you assign blame for today’s hostility to a presidential candidate before he is elected? Indeed you can in Trump’s world until it seeps under every MAGA cap and into those fine supporters’ heads, including even one recent underage gun-toting crusader and rally attendee, Kyle Rittenhouse. In addition, even after ten days in, we still haven’t heard Trump mention Jacob Blake’s name. 

Between the Gunsmoke theme song alternating with an awards show style musical score, the RNC brought folks from the mountains to the prairies over red carpeted paths to the lectern, their performances resembling a nostalgic cross between a soap opera, Sunday school and a binge watching week of Little House on the Prairie and Andy Griffith. Eventually, though, you come up for air, and when you do, you realize after those simpler times, you know, when America was America, that we snuck in a few things: we now are afforded the benefits of modern medicine, science, the Internet, and hard-fought freedoms for so many different kinds of people, black, brown, gay, straight and everyone in between. 

Next came the fireworks. I’ve seen loads in my 57 years, the best probably during a visit to Disney World a decade ago. They went on forever and as I looked up into the night sky there was magic and hope and what felt like no expense sparred which of course there wasn’t. And then it was over and by the time we got to our hotel, the magic had faded.

In lieu of the convention tapering down to a folksy scene – picture an upright piano playing Jesus Loves Me as the Sunday School program ends with waxy Solo cups and Nilla Wafers crumbs underfoot – instead we witnessed an operatic Ave Maria serenading this extended first family. But we did get to watch, so maybe he was serenading us, too? 

At RNC, they opened the curtain for us to get a glimpse, for us to watch them in their house at their party. Toward the end of the last night, POTUS, smirk on his face, turned his head to look at the White House behind him, and remarked, “The fact is, I’m here,” he said, a broad smile across his face. “What’s the name of that building?” he asked as the crowd cheered. Turning back to the crowd, he was even more blunt: “But I’ll say it differently. The fact is we’re here, and they’re not.” It’s shameful to taunt this partisan prop, The People’s House, holding what’s clearly a partisan event on government property. 

That week of the RNC felt like watching a first-class airline cabin from a close distance, watching it yet not even getting the benefit of walking through it. Surely you know the feeling: You get on a plane and pass First-Class where everyone is head down, nose in a book or pecking away on laptops, Wall Street journals in their lap, half downed cocktail by their side. They briefly greet you looking up, uninterested yet mildly curious, surprised even, that you’d have the gall to crash their private flight which was about to begin before the throngs of you harried and hurried passengers climbed on board. Like you’re late for the private screening of the film, an event that somehow leaked down to the likes of you, and they’re certainly not going to catch you up on the plot. An exhausted mule with saddle bags, you barely fit in the aisle, jacket in a wad under your sweaty armpit. Their pressed jackets were hung up hours ago in a roomy compartment up front. You’re both late to the party but you don’t get to go to the party. You’re holding them up.

I found it interesting but not exactly surprising that so many of these speakers are from the South, the Bible Belt where God is good, God is great and God is feared, and from the American plains, where those amber waves of grain grow. Cue more Gunsmoke music, and we see a young Caucasian crew-cut boy running through a cornfield in his backyard flying the model airplane his daddy helped him make. Ahhh, remember those days? I’m all for working with dad on a project, but what about all those other boys, the ones whose stomachs are grumbling from hunger, who have no Aunt Bea making pies for them in the kitchen, or who’ve got marks on their legs from their own Pa’s beating them, and who can only dream of holding a model airplane in their own hands much less having access to a wide open space in which to fly it? Where in this American Dream do they fit in exactly? Couldn’t this crew cut boy at least be depicted as sharing the fun with a black friend? Again, help me understand, am I missing something? Can’t we all be friends?

Much talk went to this land, our liberties and those who defend it. We were told that the foundation of freedom is faith. What about those who don’t believe in God? Or Jesus? Then what? Are they lesser? Surely, we can all agree with the promise that a society should be built upon love of people and service to others? The RNC message is, “Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, we see American greatness.” Joe may have pointed out some dark times still in our midst –- and to be sure there are many extraordinary challenges with which we must reckon and I prefer a leader to be honest about our nation’s challenges — but is it a fair statement to suggest he also can’t see the greatness? I find it a theatrical stretch at best.

By the end, it all felt like watching a party we’re not invited to. This “genteel” suits and high heels crowd, rallying around their leader, acknowledging that he means what he says and says what he means, even though (hee hee) he says whatever is on his mind. Am I the only one who doesn’t find this charming? What about those “African nation shithole countries” of which he previously spoke, and his proud admission of how “When you’re a star, they (women) let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Are these the family values, that nuclear family purity we’re attempting to resurrect? I don’t think it’s working.

Watching them all, a chorus line bedazzled by the fireworks display above their hallowed grounds, their White House, it felt like the circle was closed off to just these Trumpians, and instead we at home were given limited clearance to merely watch their event. In contrast, watching Joe Biden’s family at the end of the DNC, the circle felt open and I felt invited inside, like I was one of them, and the circle would stay open for me always.

I grew up in the South. I went to church every Sunday. And then I left for college where it was time to look around and see what else existed. I met so many different types of people and despite our varying backgrounds, I found we all wanted the same things. Can’t we all have a piece of the pie? Is it not as delicious if we are all sharing it? I say cut it in slimmer slices and pass the plates. Surely, that’ll show us far more than telling us that we will all get a taste. 

Covid-19, Encouragement, Grace, hope, Nature

Sunday Service

My grandparents moved down to Vero Beach, Fla. years ago, leaving behind their lives as New Englanders to become Floridians. My grandmother’s tanned wrinkly knees, breezy summer shifts with a Kleenex tucked in one sleeve, and her wide brimmed straw beach hat are as clear to me today as they were each year we visited. She and my grandfather walked the beach many Sunday mornings after their strong and stout black coffee, sectioned Indian River grapefruit halves and English muffins spread with butter and apple jelly, and of course after breakfast was cleared and the dishwasher loaded. I don’t know if they chose to walk left or right, left toward the big pier that extended way out into the water or right toward the swimming hole with the big step down that rose up to a sandbar where the water suddenly was ankle deep. Either way, they found their rhythm of how they wanted their Sundays to go and they kept to it religiously.

Some days I don’t know what I’ll get, what mood I’ll be in, how I’ll perceive the day ahead, but as my sister and I mused, you just wake up and walk into whatever is waiting. Yesterday was a collision of too much: a toxic mix of worry, restlessness and overwhelm, and the only fix was to get out of the house. These days nowhere feels safe, not even home.

You just wake up and walk into whatever is waiting

My son who today was supposed to move into his college dorm recently tested positive for Covid. He’d spent some time with a friend who later learned he had it, and so my son got it too. Thankfully he had just three days of mild headaches after which his symptoms disappeared. His doctor said per CDC Guidelines he can end his quarantine ten days after his first symptoms appeared, which will be Thursday of next week, so thankfully he can move into his dorm then in time for classes, two thirds of them virtual, which begin the following Monday. On Friday, my husband and I drove in separate cars the 45-60 minute drive to Newnan, Ga. where we both took drive-by rapid Covid tests and learned we’re each negative. Despite these positive negative results, you can still analyze symptoms, phantom and otherwise, to death and believe me, we have. Joe thought maybe his throat felt heavy and I decided my sense of smell was fading, waking each morning to sniff the vanilla extract, perfume spray bottle or jar of peanut butter, the latter rather unpleasant pre-coffee. In reality, we don’t have symptoms and each day we wake up without them is in anyone’s book a small victory.

Thank God for large drafty houses. We are living in separate rooms and I’ve chosen to be on an air mattress in our parlor, and am noticing that the early light breaking through these 1880s bay windows is heavenly. I’ve taken over the downstairs bathroom and after eleven years here have finally broken in its enormous claw foot tub. Those quiet morning baths, that southwest facing bathroom, with dappled light streaming through its two windows, has become church for me. There’s a fireplace opposite the tub and when we’re through renovating this glorious place, when these miserable Covid times are behind us, we’ll enjoy decadent fireside soaks.

The early light breaking through these 1880s bay windows is heavenly.

For months now the world has been consumed with this virus, and knowing it’s here in my house walking around inside in the form of my son has left me itching to stay away, unnatural for a mother to self-assign to home’s far recesses or even further, outside them. It’s both ironic and unfortunate that these last few days with him home I’m having to stay more separate than ever. Maybe like quickly ripping off a Band-aid in lieu of its slow painful removal, the universe is making our separation easier by having it abruptly start now? Certainly not intending to make him feel like a leper – and he doesn’t –  I can’t cut any corners, not when doctors look at me with their knowing eyes and tell me that early results show that cancer survivors don’t seem to fare well with Covid. Excuse me? Not even trying to define “well,” just trying to stay alive. We all are.

It’s unnatural for a mother to self-assign to home’s far recesses.

No circle in these concentric circles in my inside world and outside it feels exactly safe, yet home I am realizing is where I am. I feel strong and can move and walk miles and miles. Yesterday I left and with mask in hand and on face whenever there was anyone in sight, and with no particular destination in mind, wandered all around Decatur – through the cemetery, residential neighborhoods and downtown. Walked four miles and some change and with AirPods tucked inside my ears, strutted straight out of a ‘70s music video, moving through the entire Billy Joel’s Turnstiles album and on into ELO’s greatest hits, finding comfort in something familiar from a simpler more predictable time.

Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls is one of my favorites. Fast flitting piano juxtaposed with a ribbon of melodic rambling vocals felt perfect. He wrote it after he’d returned to New York after many years away when he was living outside the city near, you guessed it, Highland Falls. The song speaks to the highs and lows of life, it’s either sadness or euphoria. We are always what our situations hand us. Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies. We stand upon the ledges of our lives with our respective similarities.

 It’s Sunday and as I lie here on my air mattress, now slightly lumpy from hours of air slowly seeping out, I clutch my Target mug, strangely comforting albeit mass-produced, with its colorful floral “S” initial and shiny gold handle, filled with that sacred first and only cup of coffee. I’m soaking it all in, this day, this life, the changes that are coming. This moment feels like my church, and it’s offering lessons and bringing comfort. With so many unable to return to their own churches, I am wondering where or how are you finding your church, your soothing Sundays?

I’m soaking it all in, this day, this life, the changes that are coming.

Growing up, we were required to attend church every Sunday, and unlike my grandparents, my parents didn’t stray from that traditional script and wander into nature on Sundays for nourishment. I think we need to wander there in order to return right back home, back to ourselves.

Stay safe and look for love and comfort wherever you can. It’s still there under all the rubble, which increasingly will clear away. I’m leaving you with music from a Sunday I will always keep close to my heart. I was in New York with a dear girlfriend and as we walked through Central Park, this haunting celestial music pulled us in, blanketing us all and moving me to tears. Amazing Grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

breast cancer, Encouragement, Health, hope

Cancer Close Out

IMG_5709
Joe with me and the cat resting after my surgery. No one focuses much on the partner of the patient, but it’s no picnic for them either. He’s been a rock.

I’ve completed treatment. The honeymoon is over. That warm swirl of homemade delivered soups, little notes and calls, and attentive doctors and nurses propping up pillows, encouraging me that I’m doing great is now behind me. Lumpectomy done. Check. Chemo over. Check. Radiation complete. Check. Now what?

I’ve had people ask me that same question. They look at me now as if I have some answers because, well, you know, I must be an expert on cancer. Wow I said it twice, did you notice? Once in the title and once in the text.  Maybe I’ve reached that stage of grief they call acceptance? I hate saying the word because I don’t feel like a member of that club and the word wreaks of death looming, so it must be  w h i s p e r e d  or typed in italics. My thinking has been since it was enough stress to have had it, must I now say the word too? I’ve found there are plenty of ways to circumvent saying it.

Have you been seeing all those commercials for cancer treatment on TV? Maybe you don’t notice them, but there’s a preponderance. A soft female voice delivers the message for things like Ibrance, that promises you can now live in the moment even if you have metastatic breast cancer. Thankfully I didn’t have that type; mine was isolated to one tumor in one breast. But still, these ads call out to you, stop you in your tracks, flood you back and you always remember. Then come the warnings, also whispered: Ibrance has been found to shrink tumors in over half of patients. Ibrance can cause low white counts and serious infections that can lead to death. Be in your moment. Ask your doctor about Ibrance.

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This combo – red peppers, white and sweet potatoes and red onions – which my sister got me started on is so easy and makes me happy. My body too.

I’m afraid I don’t have any insights into why this happened to me, though in many respects I’m not completely surprised it did. My stress had been escalating – the same crap, the familiar loop that runs round and round in our head that we can hyper focus on but know we shouldn’t  – and I’d been rather slack about healthy eating and drinking, and still without any meaningful sustained exercise regimen. The perfect storm where something had to give, and part of me is glad it did. You can’t sustain that kind of adrenaline indefinitely.

In all my fifty-six years, I’ve known just two people who’ve had this. One was a neighbor in an apartment complex I lived in in my early 20s and the other, a colleague of my husband’s. In the case of my neighbor, I don’t recall her specific situation, and only now do I realize that each person’s unique experience varies considerably. You can have cells that leave your breast and travel other places via your lymph nodes, bringing more unpredictability as to whether they can be wiped out, or you can have more destructive kinds, such as triple negative, a highly aggressive variety which can be hard to treat because its food source is so unclear. I don’t know the kind my neighbor had. I do know she was a smoker. Did that weigh in? There is no telling. I remember taking great pleasure when ordering her flowers after she got the all clear. I also remember her dying less than two years later.

I was heartbroken, of course, but dumbfounded too – didn’t they say she was cancer free? Evidently, it’s not that simple and clean cut. Perhaps hers seeped into her lymphatic system destroying other organs or was more aggressive from the get-go than doctors initially thought. I will never know, but I felt so let down, so gypped, having been so overjoyed, as she was, that it was finally over. It doesn’t feel good, this unusual, premature and unfortunate ending. Like being a bridesmaid in a wedding where the couple later divorces, but of course worse. The other woman who had “it” best I can tell has resumed a fully normal and healthy life, thankfully. I don’t know her well and so am not inclined to ask about her story. I’m not sure she even knows mine. The important take away is after all this, if you are thriving, then you are thriving.

You can’t sustain that kind of adrenaline indefinitely.

I don’t have a crystal ball for my own future, but at least I know more than I once did. That whispered term that I must type in italics, “metastatic breast cancer”, refers to cancer which started in your breast and later (typically within five years) pops up somewhere else – a game of Whac-A-Mole gone terribly wrong. After some women complete their treatment and go about ringing bells and running victory laps around infusion chairs, sometimes when they least expect it, it returns. When it does, I’m told it’s not as likely to show up in that same breast or even in the other one. The more typical scenario is it shows up elsewhere, such as in your liver or bones, which is called a “distant” recurrence, far from the initial source (breast). Unfortunately, even if yours was a low stage to begin with (mine was Stage 2), all distant recurrences appear as Stage 4 and are called metastatic because the cancer has metastasized, left the breast and spread to other organs. Many women die from this, yet some can live with it, but they must be all-the-more vigilant with extra therapies and medications and go forth with the real fear that they are never quite done. But are any of us who’ve had breast cancer? Can we ever lose the brand that’s stamped on us in our own minds and in others’?

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With a diagnosis like this come supplements. Lots of them. These beautiful and colorful Etsy zippered cases keep them organized.

When I first sat down with my Piedmont Hospital oncologist (hereafter, “Piedmont”) who had reviewed all my scans – mammograms, ultrasounds, bilateral MRI (both breasts), labs (bloodwork), pathology reports (analyzing the types of cancer cells I had) – he was very calm, like he’d done this a thousand times. Of course he had. He told my husband and me he was going to suggest a course of treatment and he used the analogy that the surgery I’d completed (the lumpectomy) was the cure and the follow on was the insurance. I wondered if everyone who sat before him got this same spiel, but it seemed as if this insurance parallel was one at which he’d just arrived, customized exclusively for me. He said it’s like he’s our insurance salesman, and he’s going to recommend the fullest coverage possible, which for me translated to four rounds of chemotherapy plus radiation. In addition to his cleanly scrawled regimen on the pad of paper between us, he scribbled percentages. If you’ve strayed by now, folks, come on back, as we’re talking survival here. I learned my odds are 80/20, an 80% chance this will not recur and a 20% chance it could. My eyes welled up hearing this because it sounded worse than I expected. I assumed since cancer hadn’t leaked into my lymph nodes we had a simple guaranteed solution on our hands: scoop it out with a lumpectomy, get your chemo and radiation and off you go, all done. An 80/20 scenario didn’t come with such guarantee. However since then, I’ve thought about it in a different way; I had to. When your weather report forecasts a 20% chance of rain, do you grab an umbrella? I know I don’t. I feel better now. Hope that helps you?

Did You Know? Lumpectomy + Radiation = Same Effectiveness as Masectomy 

So I rolled on and finished up chemo and after a month-long break when it was time for radiation to begin, I sat before a different doctor. Piedmont suggested we schedule radiation at Emory so it’s convenient (Emory is just a few miles from my home) since I’d be going 21 days, consecutive weekdays with weekends off. During our 45-minute wait to see the radiation oncologist to whom we’d been referred, my husband and I read all the literature given to us, including this doctor’s CV. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, received her MD from Stanford University and completed her residency in radiation oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Whoa! Harvard AND magna cum laude (AND Stanford AND MD Anderson)? She will henceforward simply be referred to as “Harvard.” It turns out Harvard and two of her esteemed colleagues had already reviewed my case in detail, poring over labs, scans, pathology reports etc., before she landed on what she decided would be my best course of treatment: 21 rounds of radiation – 16 over the whole breast followed by five targeting the cavity where the tumor, henceforth “Coward” had been lurking.

Like a child playing mom against dad, I of course had to ask Harvard the question: “Piedmont tells me I have an 80/20 chance. Do you agree with this?” She thought for what was a briefer moment than I expected and said, hesitantly, “While I don’t want to overstep your Piedmont doctor… (can you see my enormous smile forming?), I think you have much better chances.” Me, eyes wide open leaning in closer, “How much better?” “Over 90%” (or less than 10% however your brain processes it), she replied. Incredulous, thrilled, giddy all at once, I thought to myself, seriously? I would ask again at a few other appointments, just in case Covid-19 distractions and her full patient load undermined her ability to clearly think and call it correctly, and each time I got the same fabulous grade.

Unrelated but perhaps related, I am a twin. My brother, Benjamin Redfield Woody, died just a few days after birth from hyaline membrane disease (a breathing disorder which today would have been treatable). I can’t report feeling any magic force within me connecting us. Of course, when I have bad days and feel like something’s missing, I laugh to myself because something is missing, my other half, my twin. Those twins who feel the same things yet live far apart in different states or read the other’s mind aren’t me, though with my twin not being here, it’s not exactly a controlled experiment. But how about in the case of an amputated limb? I hear some amputees still have the urge to scratch that leg they no longer have. I wouldn’t expect if any of my limbs were cut off, I’d have any ghost limb experiences; mine would simply be gone. Even when I was pregnant, I could never answer those commonly recurring questions: When is the baby coming and do you think it’s a boy or a girl?

I don’t think being pregnant or having a twin or getting cancer magically renders you capable of predicting outcomes, bestowing on you a mysterious celestial insight others didn’t get. For me, getting cancer was initially of course a big shock, but then it became just a lot more doctors appointments and uncertainty and days you don’t feel great. A lot more. I never felt as if I’m knocking on death’s door, but have wondered how big my tumor would be now had I not shut down its shenanigans. I don’t feel like a warrior with pink boxing gloves who has kicked cancer’s ass. I do feel I was a good patient, ever listening and thinking and acting without delay in my best interest. I don’t want to tell cancer fuck you, or join in a big pink march. I believe it’s now gone so there’s no tumor to cuss out anyway. Instead it feels quieter and gentler, just between my body and me. A malicious foreign thing grew inside me and I kept playing its game of hide and seek until I found it. I didn’t intend to start this game, but that’s where my mom gets some credit too.

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She’s watching over me still, helping me take good care. My mom, sweet Susan, also gave me her name.

As I’m inclined to do, I analyzed and over-analyzed this situation a lot (I won’t say analyzed it “to death” because this is of course what we’re trying to avoid, being cancer and all). I think it was a guardian angel or God or my mom (or maybe they’re all the same or decided to merge for this one mission?) who was nudging me that October afternoon to feel both sides. Because who does that three months after a “normal” mammogram? Assuming it was my mom, isn’t it interesting that my treatment was exactly 4 rounds of chemotherapy and 21 rounds of radiation, since her birthday is April 21 (4/21). Who other but a mom to push you out of the way when a train is about to hit you head on? Totally my mom’s doing.

All this said, I am inclined to go with Harvard. While Piedmont has been great and still is, how can you not opt for the better prognosis? I mean it’s Harvard talking, and you can be sure I’m listening.

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This is summer (or maybe year-round sunshine) in a can. And a tall one at that. Delicious and just 2% alcohol. Try it. You’ll like it.

These days when people see me and ask how I’m feeling, I know what they are probably thinking: Has the cancer come back? Do you think it will? Sorry to report folks, but hell if I know, your guess is as good as mine. Going forward, all I know is I’ll be eating better, exercising more, stressing less – things we all should be doing, but now me more than ever.

My tumor was labeled as 100% ER positive, which means estrogen was the only thing it consumed to stay in the game. If you sweep up every estrogen crumb and wipe down the cupboard evermore, presumably Coward’s got nothing to eat and therefore can’t find any reason to return. Piedmont has me on a daily estrogen blocker pill (Arimidex), to ensure there’s nothing to snack on should the malignant munchies strike. I’m told such fabulous things as dairy and red meat and alcohol, which my cancer loved, can elevate my estrogen levels, and getting lots of exercise will oxygenate my blood, which cancer hates. So I’ve dropped red meat and most dairy (except parmesan, you can stay) and alcohol is minimal and very occasional. Recently I’ve taken to Stiegl’s grapefruit Radlers, just 2% alcohol and super refreshing, and I am moving more, or at least on days I’m not, I’m thinking about it, which I didn’t before. I’m trying to do the granola-with-flax-and-chia-seeds-splashed-with-almond-milk thing for breakfast, but when you’ve got a Publix puffy-sugar-studded-cherry-filled-triangle pastry staring back at you that your kids threw in the grocery cart, you don’t always make good choices. I’ve cheated and splurged on sugar, eaten potato chips, had several exceedingly delicious bites of bacon, but realize each day is a reset and more often than not, I’m leaning into pretty good choices.

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Homemade granola: the better breakfast option

I’m to continue taking my estrogen blocker pill every morning for the next ten years. It’s a bonafide treatment and after chemo and radiation, this third treatment will be the charm. It’s tiny, yet powerful, the same size of the birth control pill I used to take and the Synthroid I do now. Aside from its intended job, Arimidex also might make my joints ache. However, all I can report two months in is my right hand ring finger feels a little swollen and stiff. No big deal. To its discredit, this pill does plunge you into a menopausal sweaty never-can-get-the-temperature-right mode. Throw summer heat on top of it all and let’s just say showers are my friend.

Every three months I’ll go back and see Piedmont and he will do labs to check for any abnormalities. He said at these quarterly appointments he will just talk with me and look me over. He doesn’t believe in scans – calls them old school – but I believe in him. He’s my insurance guy and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss a premium payment.

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The recently planted fescue and I are competing for who’ll get the most coverage the soonest.

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You can’t even part it because there’s not much of a crown on top, but it’s coming in for sure.

The good news is my hair is returning. I feel like Navan Johnson in the movie, The Jerk, and in lieu of Steve Martin’s character screaming, “The new phone book’s here, the new phone book’s here!”, I’m screaming, “The new hair’s here, the new hair’s here!” thrilled at the new crop coming in, daily checking for more.

Like the fescue that’s managed to push its way through the packed and cracked Georgia red clay in our back yard, bulldozed from the renovation underway, my hair is definitely coming back. I don’t see any signs of a grey curly brillo pad emerging as some warned, but instead see just the same dirty blonde I’m-in-my-mid-50s hair from before. I’ve got somewhat of a mullet going right now with the formerly bald sides filling in where the chemo cold cap didn’t fit well. My longer hair, which hasn’t been cut since October, still hangs down straggly, the last four inches or so blonde from last summer’s foils. However, in a baseball cap, no one’s the wiser. Why should everyone know? It’s a heavy enough burden for me to carry, so why sling it on others’ backs? As for the hair, I’ll even it up at some point, but it’s so nice and feels warmer and is a delight to see and feel my former partly bald scalp filling in. I’m heartened by this physical sign that I am healing and my cells are happily busy at work churning out new good things instead of just fighting off tumors and weathering chemo.

I’d like to say this is my last post about all this, but assuming it doesn’t return, and I am wholeheartedly making this assumption, I suspect I’ll still talk about it some more. My surgery date was November 21, so after each November 21 that goes by I will breathe an increasingly bigger sigh of relief. After five years, the chances are far slimmer for a recurrence, and after ten, I will be “cured,” and Piedmont says I won’t need to see him anymore. This experience is now forever with me and a part of me. I hate that it showed up but love that it is gone. I love myself for pushing for answers, pushing through treatments and pushing for something better now that I’m on the other side. And if you’re still here after all these words, I love you for sticking with me. A big love fest all around. And just so we’re clear, Coward, you’re not invited.

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breast cancer, connection, Food, Friends, hope

Hearts Wide Open

Maybe it’s this pandemic or the end of my cancer treatment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to improve things — my outlook, my sense of hope, tapping into more curiosity and creativity and connection, and not wasting any more of this precious time we get. When I started this blog a few years ago, I titled it Hindsight because I realized it captured so much of what I’ve been doing, thinking about the past and noticing patterns so I can learn more about myself. I hope to collect the best parts of the past and reuse and refashion them for these times, because those bits are the ones I want and need more of.

I’ve been thinking about not wasting any more of this precious time we get.

There are plenty of traditions I’d like to resurrect. For instance, I’ve been wanting to go on picnics again, remember those? Growing up, we had a red checkered tablecloth and four of us would grab the corners and lay it down flat, smoothing out the wrinkles. Then the real fun began, unpacking the basket full of delicious things our mom had packed. Usually we were by a creek or a lake, so along with great food, there was a beautiful backdrop.

Other than packing a meal to enjoy on a car trip, or dining alfresco somewhere, the last real picnic I had, the kind where you make and pack up all the food and sit outside on a blanket, was a surprise one my husband pulled off over two decades ago. It wasn’t fancy or somewhere out-of-town. Instead it was in Ansley’s Winn Park here in Atlanta, and he’d cleaned out our fridge and created a lovely spread, with salami and baguette and artichoke hearts and some sweets and nice beers too. I think he even brought a blanket to sit on. He’d stolen a few hours in the middle of his workday at Colony Square, and the two of us lying under midtown’s twinkling towers in my favorite park was perfect. I don’t know if it was the surprise, the delicious meal resulting in a cleaned-out fridge, the loving company or the magical backdrop that blew me away, but am thinking what touched me most, is how thoughtful he was to plan and prepare this.

Remember visiting with people, before the Internet and answering machines and DVRs, and when we spent an enormous amount of time outside? Times when you would walk to a neighbor’s and knock on their door unannounced and while away an afternoon just being together? My recent visit with my friend, Karen, while planned in advance, felt much like one of these. She greeted me at her door with one of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there. I haven’t had one of those hugs in maybe ever, nor had I seen her since my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her hug communicated so much – such happiness and relief to see me smiling and healthy. We drove to Stone Mountain and walked the five-mile loop, and then returned to her house where she gave me a wonderful tour . She pointed out memorabilia and told stories about special items she and her family had collected. Afterward, we had tea on her deck and with lovely Lake Kenilworth in the distance, visited some more.

One of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there

Recently my sister and niece came down from Chicago, their visit timed with my last chemo treatment. After the excitement of picking them up from the airport and settling them in, I remember us hanging around my kitchen table nibbling on snacks and catching up. In my usual self-conscious, self-deprecating style, I was poking fun at my various bald spots on my scalp, out of my control of course from the chemo, the ones where the cold cap didn’t fit well, a visible sign I was now different from them: I was the cancer patient. They assured me I looked fine, and after I joked some more, my sister looked up with her kind loving eyes and said, “Susie, we love who you are no matter what is going on with your hair. You’re still you and we love you like we always have.” In that moment, I saw the truth. All my jokes aside, these two wonderful women before me in my kitchen knew me and loved me all the more. My eyes well up just retelling this.

You’re still you and we love you like we always have.

I’ve always said food is love and I still believe it is. It’s my way of showing I care, that I want to nourish you and delight you with something delicious, and it’s others’ way too. This simple act of preparing food for someone is so intimate and layered and loving, and whether complicated or simple, it’s a recipe that keeps on giving. Over these last few months, I’ve had a half dozen or so friends bring me delicious things — soups, stews, seafood and chicken, all healthy and homemade with love. I’ve frozen extra servings and reheated them weeks later tasting and receiving the love all over again.

I’m finding these times are further connecting us as we isolate. With much of the background noise of our busy lives gone, it seems our conversations, Zoom cocktail hours and texts are stripped down to their essence: how are we each doing and how can we connect, how can we help one other? I’ve got a few friends who thoughtfully tell me when they’re headed to the store and can pick up an item or two I need. And these days, I surprise myself by letting them. In turn, I’m already thinking of what I can do for them, maybe something special to eat or helping to solve a problem they’re struggling with. Or maybe it’s just staying in good touch.

How can we connect, how can we help one other?

The other night our power went out, unfortunately timed precisely during our return from a particularly large grocery run. As I knelt on my front porch, flashlight strategically propped and Clorox spray in hand, wiping down the contents from endless plastic bags, a rush of gratitude spilled over me at this sweet assembly line: I wiped down the items, one son took them from me at the front door and brought them to the kitchen where, by candlelight, the other son and my husband organized them and planned how they’d refrigerate and freeze it all with 1-2 limited refrigerator door opens. These hundreds of dollar’s worth of groceries were our livelihood, our next week to ten days of preparations and conversations over nourishing meals and yes, our share of Haagen-Dazs and chips, fried chicken tenders and other empty calories, too. The candles and oil lanterns I’d rounded up lit our hall, dining room and kitchen, so for the next hour until the power came back on we mostly hung around those areas, all of us hovering near all the food we’d scored and safely stowed.

Today the lights are on, the sun is shining and it’s a new month. It’s also the start of my new and final cancer treatment, the daily ten-year pill I started today to keep this long-gone tumor forever in my rearview mirror. This medicine is known equally for its effectiveness and side-effects. When and if the joint pain or night sweats or doldrums hit, I hope I’ll remind myself that these are signs that it’s working. I hope these annoyances will actually lessen or else become something I absorb and get used to, and that they begin to seem like the helpers you’re supposed to look for in times of need.

So, here’s to more picnics and visits and helpers, and to loving each other with hearts wide open. xoxox