The first slap

The first slap
This photo was taken the day after I was diagnosed, and it is my first bitch slap at cancer. I'm the one with the icepack symbolically placed on my boob. My teammates changed our team's uniform to pink at the last minute, and I came off the soccer field that night with one goal and a whole lot of love. Several of these women are my close friends, but they are all warriors, and they all helped me set the tone for this fight.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Tadasana: Mountain Pose

I like contact sports. I find it quite satisfying to get shoulder-to-shoulder with people as we duke it out for ball possession. I don’t mind getting knocked down occasionally, and I thrive on the cardiovascular exertion. That said, I’ve started taking yoga classes to help alleviate some of the muscle and connective tissue problems I’ve been experiencing due to surgery and radiation. News flash: yoga is definitely not a contact sport. I keep hoping to find a form of yoga that’s a bit more, well… active. I’ve attended a “yoga flow” class, which does cause a bit of perspiration, and “rocket flow” and “disco hot flow” are, apparently, things in the world of yoga. But so far I haven’t found a form of yoga that is sufficiently rigorous to give me my contact sport fix. I keep fantasizing about “body slam punk yoga” or something—a form of yoga that would rival roller derby, where I could take on a tough and dangerous yoga identity like “Bitchslap Swagatron” or “Badassana Mama.” I can hear the live broadcast of a match now: “Look out, folks! Here comes Lady Namastectomy, moving seemlessy out of warrior pose as she shoulders Her2Neu off her mat!”

In reality, I kind of suck at yoga. But I’m getting better in both mind and body. Each time I practice I become a bit more flexible and more capable of centering myself on command. At first I could only achieve a simultaneous centering of body and mind during shivasana, the final pose at the end of yoga practice, in which full relaxation ensues. (Shivasana actually means “corpse pose,” evoking a metaphor that I don’t want to explore right now.) But lately I’ve come to find that centeredness in tadasana, or mountain pose. The root of the word comes from the Sanskrit tāḍa, which means mountain, and āsana, which means posture. It is a foundational pose that is meant to align the body and center the mind in order to prepare for the next pose. (For a photo and more info: For me, tadasana is at the same time strong and calm. It is standing still, but with muscles activated, at the ready. It is in that momentary space of active calm that I become prepared to take on whatever comes next.

This is very appropriate today. I received my final Herceptin infusion in the Carle chemo suite, and this Friday I will have my chemo port surgically removed. When I first had my port inserted in December 2013 and soon after began chemotherapy, I viewed my treatments as a necessary and even oddly welcome process--a brutal series of bitchslaps meant to subdue the cancer and send it packing. But these treatments have also felt like a series of invasions, from the surgical implanting of the port itself, to all the needle pricks for blood draws and infusions, to major surgery, and even the radiation, which, although painless, penetrates you. Even the cancer itself felt a like an invasion, despite that fact that it consisted of my very own cells gone awry—the ultimate treason and betrayal. These invasions have been both physical and mental, breeding moments when I felt as if I was losing both body and mind. Decentered and unglued. And yet…

There is also something about a nasty process like cancer diagnosis and treatment that is centering. I’ve often heard people say, “cancer changed me,” and even, “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” That last one seems like a stretch, doesn’t it?  But I know where those sentiments come from. They come from a sense that things are now different, or perhaps from an altered vantage point from which everyday things seem to take on subtly different qualities, becoming just a bit more beautiful or inspiring. Nevertheless, the notion of perspectival change—viewing the world through new eyes—doesn’t quite do it for me, and I think that’s because it’s calm without action. Don’t get me wrong—the ability to see things in a new light is not easy, and it is not to be dismissed. Indeed, I have experienced a shift in perspective, and it’s awesome. But you know me: I also want active. Tadasana.

The way I understand it, tadasana doesn't give people a generic strength (or calm, or grace, or whatever). Rather, it prompts me to summon my own strength, in its own form. It doesn’t center me. I use it to become centered. In other words, it is both calm and active. Tadasana is an agentic stance. 

In some ways, tadasana (whether it’s an actual yoga pose, or a broader metaphor for how I now feel) triggers my internal GPS, sending my thoughts simultaneously inward and outward to engage the multiple points of love, care, and goodness that ground me, that let me know who and where I am: Craig, with his warm touch, smiling eyes, always-good heart, and endless love—my ultimate passion. Mom and Dad—always there, on the sidelines and in the stands, in my genes, and in my heart—true bridges over troubled water. Patricia and Vernon: magical combinations of parent/friend, and also there for Mom and Dad because they need those bridges, too; I am a better daughter because of them. Evan and Nate, my thoughtful, creative, bright, and healthy boys who rock my world; who have already made the world a better place, and who will surely continue to do so. The rest of my family and all my friends: You lift me up, pure and simple.  

This will be my last post on this blog. I’ll keep the blog live for any folks who wish to revisit it, but I’m done with this pose and ready for my next challenge. Tadasana. Bring it!


I couldn’t work this excerpt from my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver, into my post, so here it is for you in it’s own glory:

            Last May, I saw a dragonfly as long as my hand—longer than average-sized songbird. She circled and circled, flexing her body, trying to decide if my little lake was worthy of her precious eggs. She was almost absurdly colorful, sporting a bright green thorax and blue abdomen. Eventually she lit on the tip of the horsetail plant that sends long slender spikes up out of the water. She was joined on the tips of five adjacent stalks by five other dragonflies, all different: an orange-bodied one with orange wings, a yellow one, a blue-green one, one with a red head and purple tail, and a miniature one in zippy metallic blue. A dragonfly bouquet. Be still, and the world is bound to turn herself inside out to entertain you. Everywhere you look, joyful noise is clanging to drown out quiet desperation. The choice is draw the blinds and shut it all out, or believe.
            What to believe in, exactly, may never turn out to be half as important as the daring act of belief. A willingness to participate in sunlight, and the color red. An agreement to enter into a conspiracy with life, on behalf of both frog and snake, the predator and the prey, in order to come away changed.

-Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson, p. 268

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Penultimate Infusion

Okay, I don't even know how long it's been since I posted on this blog. I think the increasing periods of time that pass between my posts is an indication that I may close the blog down in the near future. But I'm not ready to do that yet. I've been holding off until my treatments are completely finished, and today is my penultimate Herceptin infusion. Three weeks from today will my last, and then on March 13th I'll have my chemo port removed.

I started Herceptin (Trastuzemab) on December 9, 2013. The standard course of treatment is to get Herceptin for one year, but I was not able to get Herceptin during the three weeks prior to, or post surgery last march, or during the eight weeks I was getting Adriamycin and Cyclophosphomide last spring. So, we had to add those 2-1/2 months back into the timeline.

One thing (among many) that I have come to understand through my long strange trip through Cancerland has been the significance of multiple milestones, both big and small. Well, these two coming up on March 11th and then with port removal on the 13th are big ones! But they won't be the last. I am taking an aromatase inhibitor for five years, and will have occasional check-ups with my oncologist during that time as well. I am currently considered to be in remission, and they don't call the cancer cured unless it stays away for five years. So, that will certainly be another very important milestone for me.

In the mean time, I am simply loving life. In fact, I don't know that I've ever been this happy. I'm busy at work, finished my book, enjoy seeing the kids growing and loving their lives, have started learning yoga, and am playing soccer. And those are just some of the obvious things. It doesn't include the littler and more mundane stuff--stuff that seems breathtaking when you stop to notice it. Sunlight on geese taking off from the pond, a hug from Craig, Ben and Jerry's, an awesome new chicken casserole recipe, a clear crescent moon in a hyper cold night sky, baby kale, Dolores' big brown eyes and her mini tail-tip wag, sparkly snow crystals, Glassy Babies, a stranger's smile, that cool moment when you wake up and don't know exactly which day it is, a new pair of boots, the first sip of coffee in the morning, a Facebook invite from an old friend, a really juicy clementine, the anticipation of a road trip, ....  Fill in your own blanks here, and appreciate all of them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No Token Thanks Here

As some of you who I interact with regularly or who see my Facebook posts may know, my MammoDiagnosaCancerversary recently passed. That was November 13th. While I didn't let that date go by unnoticed, neither did I mark the date here on my blog. I thought about it, but to be honest, I just didn't have the time. This fall I have been crazy busy with things completely unrelated to cancer. And for this, I am very grateful.

In the U.S., we often let our expressions of gratitude collect through the year like little treasures quietly stowed away until November rolls around. Then, on Thanksgiving, we unleash them explicitly and joyfully in a shower of gratitude for things big and small: Health, happiness, puppies, seat warmers in the car, financial stability, our partners and spouses, spectator sports, chocolate, neoprene, coffee, hair, grandchildren, opposable thumbs, trade winds and piña coladas, the smell of pine trees, flannel sheets, my children's caring and thoughtful teachers, british accents, Craig's safe return from China, modern medicine... The list goes on, and I'm sure yours does, too. Thanksgiving is truly about more than food: It is a wonderful explosion of good feelings, warmth, and hope. But if it's so warm and fuzzy, why do we wait for a special day to give thanks? Maybe it's because we need the regular reminder. After all, our daily lives are often fraught with shitty things big and small, that take on more urgency than the things we love and are grateful for.

Sometimes, during our Februaries, Junes, and Augusts, we do remember the things that make us feel grateful or fortunate. But what would it take to make every single day a day of giving thanks; a day of gratitude? I'd like to think it doesn't take a cancer diagnosis. But I do know that not one day has gone by since last November that I have not been immensely thankful for someone or something. Some days I almost tear up with thankfulness and relief for simply being here, for Craig's kindness and love, and my ability to play soccer with a bunch of other middle aged men and women. Other days, it's more mundane stuff: gel nail polish, for example, or large sized non-stick bandaids for the cuts on my knees from soccer. Cancer sucks, but in a very bizarre way, I'm grateful for how my cancer diagnosis made me more aware of all of the little beautiful things. They're there. All the time. Right in front of us.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'm going to share here a post I made here on my blog last May titled, simply, "Grateful." Happy thanks-giving, everyone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Cleaning the garage
Taking care of the soccer carpooling
Feeding the pets
Emails and text messages from friends (even if I don’t respond, I read them all)
Load after load of laundry
Fixing the towel rack
Cleaning up dog barf
Pulling weeds
“You have a nicely shaped head”
Fixing the kitchen chair
Doing the grocery shopping
Getting the tire on my car fixed
Running a meeting for me
Mowing the lawn
Going out for coffee with me
Walking the dog
Driving the kids when they have to get to school early
Offers to shave and polish my head
Filling the bird feeders
A new pair of sweats for my horizontal days
Helping me plant the garden
Little notes in my box at work
Making sushi with the kids
Thoughtful cards in the mail
Cleaning out a birdhouse
Hand sanitizer everywhere
Doing the dishes
Getting gas for the mower or my car
More dinner
An origami bird in my box at work
Presenting a paper for me
Squeezing me in last minute at the doctor’s office
Co-teaching with me
Fixing the doorknob
A vacation for the kids
Nurses who know my name without having to look it up
More laundry loads
Taking me out to watch a soccer game
More dinner
Listening to me talk about cancer and chemo
Remembering that sometimes I like to talk about things other than cancer and chemo
A snuggly child
Cleaning the coffee maker
Helping a kid with their homework
A Facebook message
Letting the dog out first thing in the morning
A new book
Scooping dog doo from the yard
Helping me understand my treatment
Driving me to physical therapy, doctors’ appointments, and chemo
Ordering and picking up take-out
Jump starting the battery
Going to the kids' games and cheering them on
Fixing a loose part on a table
More dinner
Phone calls
Getting a kid a meal on the run
Picking up a prescription
Health insurance

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. So many people giving me (and us) so much. Thank you, all.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Love-Hate Relationship with Pink Ribbons

Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer last November I’ve been pondering this blog post. Upon diagnosis, I immediately developed a heightened awareness of pink ribbons. They're everywhere. It’s like I was flung full force into a scary 3D version of the game Candyland, only it’s called Cancerland and there are both beautiful and terrifying encounters to be had: Welcome to Cancerland—here’s your pink ribbon! Pertuzemab is your friend, but beware of the Taxol Forest, and steer clear of the Metastases Swamp! Oh, and don’t forget to use your FMLA “get out of work free” card!

I’ve never liked pink much in part because I’ve always been a bit perturbed by its prissy associations. I have never been a girly-girl, and I have always resisted gender stereotypes. So why do I have my current Facebook profile picture set to the following?

Perhaps it is an indication of my love-hate relationship with pink ribbons. Let me explain.

First off, let me just say that I am a direct beneficiary of pink ribbon campaigns. In the last few years, treatments for breast cancer have advanced in leaps and bounds (Jump ahead four spaces and enjoy a bright red chemo cocktail!). These advances are due in large part to the funds raised for breast cancer research, and I am grateful. I believe that if it were not for pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness, I would have likely become mired in the dreaded swamp never to emerge from Cancerland. So, part of my love of pink ribbons is directly tied to money. And those pink ribbons signify more than money and research to me. They have become little beacons—a flash of a pin on a stranger, a pink bumper sticker on a car, or a friend’s Facebook post showing support for breast cancer survivors—that help me locate myself within a new and bizarre terrain.

But while I find a sense of identity and comfort in those pink ribbons, I also have significant concerns regarding the uptake of breast cancer awareness relative to other cancers and diseases. To cut to the chase, I think the public’s embrace of breast cancer awareness is tied to the fact that women have boobs, and most men really like boobs. Boobs are also tied to notions of motherhood and nurturing. Why WOULDN’T we all want to save the ta-tas? Isn’t saving ta-tas the same as saving Mom and Apple Pie? Maybe. At least, I think that’s the intention. But this makes me a bit uncomfortable, because really, when it comes to having cancer, I don’t give a flying rat’s ass about my boobs. I’m more concerned with saving my life, with or without the boobs. I think the save the ta-tas idea is subtly tied to boobs and women’s bodies in general as sites of exploitation. Of course, I don’t think people with a “save the ta-tas” bumper sticker or a pink ribbon are directly exploiting women. However, I think there is a connection between the historical and pervasive tendency to exploit women’s bodies and the breast cancer awareness frenzy. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a cammo ribbon for testicular cancer, or someone wearing a t-shirt that said “save the gonads”? And to my knowledge, every single person in the world has a colon, but you don’t see people walking around with dark brown colored ribbons, running 5Ks with dark brown tutus, or shouting “save the guts!”

So what does it mean that the discursive and symbolic means of generating funds to save women’s lives are part and parcel of a set of discourses and ways of thinking about women’s bodies that are tied to exploitation? Perhaps it’s a form of interest convergence. Derrick Bell (1995) argued that school desegregation and the Brown v. Board of Education decision happened because at that moment in U.S. history, the decision benefitted both white people and black people. (It boosted our credibility abroad amid criticisms that the U.S.'s campaigns for democracy abroad were hypocritical given domestic civil rights abuses.) The notion of interest convergence posits that public policy decisions benefiting black people or other historically marginalized groups will not occur unless those decisions also benefit whites, or those in power. Is it possible that pink ribbon campaigns are taken up so widely and are successful because the interests of women converge with those of men in some way?

I don’t have an answer to that question. As I weave my way through Cancerland (a space that I may always occupy despite the fact that I am now cancer-free), successfully avoiding many of its more frightening elements, I will continue to mull this over. But it is worth noting that as I write this, I’m sitting in the chemo suite at Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana, semi-boobless, getting an infusion of Herceptin (trastuzemab) (once again, thank you to the Gods of Science!), and wearing a pink pin with a ribbon icon on it that says “Fight like a girl!”

Monday, August 18, 2014

The buzz and flurry of Normal

It has been over a month since I have posted to this blog, and this passing of time should be read as a blessing. In more ways that one, my life is returning to normal. Travel with the family, gardening, running a 5K, the presence of hair. You know, the simple things. I am also resuming full time work, teaching a regular load of classes at Illinois State University in, you guessed it, Normal, Illinois.

Tomorrow I will meet my students and begin teaching my classes, two of which are an introduction to literacy and literacy instruction in elementary classrooms. I will be asking my students (future elementary, special education, and bilingual teachers) to introduce themselves, but I'll be asking them to do so through poetry. It is crucially important for Language Arts teachers to write, even if they find it uncomfortable or don't yet view themselves as writers. This is because teaching, like writing, is inseparable from who we are. They are both human endeavors.

In their book Authors in the Classroom, Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy suggest a writing unit on Affirming the Self, in which Eoise Greenfield's poem "By Myself" is used to prompt and inspire students' own "I Am" poems. So in the spirit of embracing the human endeavor of writing, of poetry, and of good teaching, I have written an "I Am" poem, which I will be sharing with my students tomorrow before asking them to write their own. Here it is:

The Buzz and Flurry of Normal

When I am by myself
And I close my eyes
I am cancer free,
Without demons,
And without trepidation;

You see,
Last winter I was a deer,
Surprised and paralyzed
In the headlights of fear.
My mind raced and my body stood still;
Infiltrated and mutilated,
Intoxicated and radiated.

But I sent those demons packing.
Exhilarated, elated,
Now I am rejuvenated;
Grateful to the gods of science
And the buzz and flurry of normal

When I am by myself
And I close my eyes
I am happy
Just to be here.

    -Inspired by Eloise Greenfield’s By Myself

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An A+ in radiation

Time is flying by, perhaps because radiation is a piece of cake compared to chemo. At this point I only have eight more treatments left! Many people have asked me what it's like, so I found a YouTube video that gives an idea of what the room and the machine look like, as well as a basic explanation of how the machine works. I'm having trouble embedding it, so I'm just sharing the link here: The room, machine, and the table the patient lies on in the video are just like in the facility where I go (Mills Breast Cancer Institute in Urbana, IL).

As I said, radiation is very easy. The most difficult part is lying still and not scratching the inevitable itch on my chin or eye for the 30 minutes or so that it takes to get the treatment. I've also had minimal side effects so far; just some mild redness, like a sunburn, on the radiated area (which includes the upper chest where my right breast was, the armpit, behind the arm on my shoulder blade, and the lymph node area just above the right collar bone). But at my weekly visit with the radiologic onocologist yesterday, he said that my skin looks great--perhaps the best he's seen at this stage in treatment. Naturally, I gave a vigorous fistpump and exlaimed, "Yessss!!!" I asked, "Does that mean I get an A?" An he said, "No, an A+!"

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my hair is VERY slowly beginning to rejuvenate. It's still hyper short, but it's downy soft, and so far it appears to be growing in dark rather than gray. To most people I probably still look bald, but as I went for a bike ride yesterday evening I could feel the wind blowing through it.  Simple pleasures. :-)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A prayer to the hair goddess

Dear Hair Goddess,

First of all, let me just say 'thank you' for nose hair. Yes, nose hair. Who could have imagined its virtues prior to chemotherapy?! For seven months I dealt with a nose that ran constantly, which I attribute at least in part to the loss of precious hair helping to hold back the flood. That constant drip has now subsided due to your generosity, and my nasal passage and I are thrilled.

And let me also say 'thank you' for the simple pleasure of not having lost 100% of my head hair during chemo. I'm not sure why that made me happy; after all, except for a few short whisps, my head was pretty much an oversized cue ball. But I suppose I feel an odd sense of pride that some of my hair was resistant to the toxic cocktail my body was subjected to. So for that, I am grateful.

I am also pleased to see that some of my hair is beginning to grow back. But if I may ask, why the rush to replenish my leg hair? I haven't exactly missed shaving my legs. And I am curious as to the significance of my once-again-plentiful chin stubble. Is my face really considered a priority zone for new hair growth? Again, I appreciate what you've done for me. But if you hadn't noticed, I'm pretty much bald on top, and getting a bit of my head rug back would be nice. It need not be a lot, and I'm not too concerned about the color or texture. Gray and curly would suit me just fine at this point. Hell, make it purple for all I care. But this cue ball thing is getting a bit old.

In case it helps my cause, Craig has made a special sacrifice to appease your bouffant highness by shaving his formerly thick mane to resemble my stubbly chemo head (see photo below). I hope you will accept his locks as a token of our devotion and appreciation.

Your faithful but still largely hairless follower,