Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Ordinary Day

It's closing in on October, or I should say, Pinktober, and I have the makings of a blog post sitting next to me, but it's not ready.  I'm still wading through the conflicting emotions I have toward the whole pink thing, so instead of pushing through, I'm pushing it aside for the moment and focusing on a question asked by the lovely Marie at Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.

It's an intriguing question.  One, I haven't been able to let go since reading it several weeks ago.

If I could relive any day in my life, which would I choose?

Thinking about this brought on it's own questions.

Could I choose to relive it using the knowledge and perspective gained with time?  Is that cheating or simply the answer to a very different question?

Assuming I couldn't change anything, which day would I choose?  Would it be about cancer? Some sort of milestone day?  My wedding?  My children's adoption days?  Maybe a day with my mom, when we were both young and breast cancer had yet to invade our lives?

Nothing I reminisced about seemed right -- special enough.  Or even ordinary enough...For this gift.  Because that's what it is.  The gift of reliving one day.  A precious gift given once, to be used once and then gone.

As I pondered, the weather changed.  Fall moved in and brought to mind one very ordinary day, during one ordinary September.

I was married, living nicely with my husband and big dog in a small house.  I had given up my job in the city about four years prior, right after my mother died, and was going to graduate school to study education.  For a job with more sunlight and laughter as opposed to dark edit rooms and stressed out clients.

On this particular day, I was working in a private school, heading their after-school program and subbing in the Kindergarten.  I had just been asked to teach the Kindergarten for the entire year since the teacher was taking an unexpected, extended maternity leave.

It was an amazing opportunity.  One, that validated my decision to leave video post-production after so many years.  It would all work out...except I knew I wouldn't be able to accept it.  There was something I had to do.  I just didn't know when.

The weather that evening was beautiful.  Perfect autumn in New York.  The leaves were changing color.  Jackets weren't yet required.

After dinner my husband took our dog outside to keep him company while he mowed the lawn in the late day sunlight.

I was sitting in our living room when the phone rang and in that instant, I wondered if it might be the call we were waiting months to receive.  It was something about the time.  It was still dinner time and unusual for most people to call.

When I said hello and heard the start of an unfamiliar voice -- I held my breath and hoped.

"There's a baby," the man from our adoption agency said.  Born, only four months ago.

"Yes, yes, yes."  Was my answer to all his questions.  An email with a photo and some sparse information was on its way.  I could hear my husband still mowing outside.  I was about to make his day.

I remember it like it was yesterday.  In a way, I am reliving it.  The sun was getting low, as I went out to the yard.

"The agency called.  There's a boy."

Our boy
Waiting for our old computer to boot up was excruciating, but the email was already there.  Before we could read a word, we were drawn in by a little face.  Our son.

The idea of our baby had become reality. Now, right in front of us.  A face to match our visions.

This day, this moment was the start of our new adventure.  The beginning of our family.

I wouldn't be able to keep the teaching job much longer.  I had to go to Russia.  Our baby was waiting.

Two and a half years later, we'd get another call, about another baby and it was equally special. Beyond exciting, but nothing compares to those first moments, when our dream of growing our family was finally so real.

It was a happy day.  The promise of a future had never seemed so clear.  In the years since, cancer would cloud our future, but on that day it was brightly laid out for us to see.  It was that day, when all was right in our world and our world was on the verge of great change, that I would relive in a heartbeat.

Seven years later



If given the gift of reliving one day, which would you choose?


Monday, September 19, 2011

Guilty on my Mind

I'm guilty of a lot of things lately.  I suppose I often am, but ever since last week's #BCSM (Breast Cancer Social Media) tweet chat, I'm really aware of it.

It was wonderful having nearly everyone I follow online together that night discussing all the reasons for a cancer patient's guilt, whether derserved or most likely, not.  I understood every single one and all the questions associated with guilt, have been following me ever since.

Why do I let it get to me?

How is this my fault?

I'm sorry for causing my husband such worry.

I resent the time needed for doctor appointments.  

How dare I feel sorry myself when others have it so much worse...and not just in our cancer world, but life in general.  

Then the other day, I flipped through a women's magazine, the October issue, to ponder an article.  "The Breast Q & A"  Questions you still need answered about breast cancer.

Turns out I had all the answers, so maybe I wasn't exactly the target audience for this article, but I continued on to the end to read their "risk-slashing checklist."

And there it was, in print, no less.  Proof, it's my fault.

Breast feed, in one study, women at high genetic risk, (such as myself) were 45 percent less likely to develop breast cancer if they breast fed for more than a year.

My children are adopted, so not only did I not give birth at a fairly young age, or ever.  I screwed up even more by never breast feeding.

I knew it.  I started to count the ways my cancer was my fault.

I started menstruating in 6th grade.  My smarter friends waited until 8th.

I was raised on sugary treats.  Ice cream and brownies are my poison of choice to this day, though I usually make my own baked goods to avoid all the artificial ingredients and preservatives found in supermarket brands, but the joke is on me.  Sugar has been the culprit all along.  It's my understanding, sugar is cancer's food of choice...and I've yet to give it up or dairy, for that matter.

So, there it is.  More guilt.  More ways I've screwed up.

I haven't worked out all summer.  I've gained five pounds, maybe more.

I don't want to blame myself for these things, but clearly I'm increasing my risk for recurrence.  I know how badly I feel now.  I can't begin to accept the guilt I'll feel if or when it comes back.  Like many cancer survivors, I imagine it's still there somewhere, waiting for someday.

I remember in the weeks after diagnosis, while waiting for surgery, I'd visualize the cancer being sucked out, taken away for good.  I really believed in the power of that image.

I don't know why I can't do that now.  Why can't I believe in the power of healing?  Have faith in good news?  Maybe it's because I know it's not enough. Perhaps if I tried harder, worked at it more --

Ate better  

Ran my ass off

Said goodbye to sugar, alcohol and my beloved ice cream

Would it be reminiscent of my decision to have a bilateral mastectomy instead of lumpectomy?  I slept better then believing I'd done all I could.  I fought with all I had...Then.

Now, more than two years later I've gotten sloppy, complacent.  I'm falling back into old, unhealthy habits and no one would be to blame for a recurrence but myself.  Regardless of statistics.

So, that's where guilt comes in and stays in.

Is ice cream really worth it?  I don't know the answer, but for my own peace of mind, I need to find some middle ground.  I can't change the age I first got my period, or the fact that I never gave birth or breast fed, but I've got to change what I can.  This burden of guilt is getting very heavy.

My plan is to skip dessert and go to the gym tomorrow.  I wish I had a buddy to go along.  Someone else running on a treadmill, not to lose weight, but to lose the cancer cells that may be closing in on us.  Believing we left them in the dust would go a long way in unloading this guilt.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Playing the Cancer Card

     In the past, I've been fortunate to have guest bloggers remind us our diagnosis extends past our reach to those who care about us, and though, they're not directly in the line of cancer's fire, standing on the sidelines is enough to feel the heat.
    Today, my guest blogger, Debbie, graciously provides a glimpse inside her corner of Long Island and the unwelcome player at her poker table.  She writes from a perspective I've never known and hope to never know, that of the friend to someone with breast cancer.  
    Debbie is a childrens book author by day, a darn good guest blogger and from the sound of it, a great friend.  Deb, I can't thank you enough for sharing.  

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So, it's Poker Night.

I'm sitting around a large dining room table with my Poker Pals: a half-dozen or so couples Adam (husband) and I have been playing Texas Hold 'Em with for years. Sometimes as often as twice a month.

The youngest Poker Pal is 42. The oldest, 51. Some of us have known one another since childhood when our own moms were friends, but mostly we've become close through a Jewish organization we've been part of for sixteen years. Our kids are close, too (well, they had no choice, really). 

Adam (always a teaser) playfully starts in on my friend Shari. “You can't be in the hand if you can't make the ante,” he tells her after she antes up only half of what's supposed to be the bet.

“Wait! Why not? We've always played this way!” Shari insists. “You can play one last hand if you have chips left.”   

This immediately gets an argument from Mark (friend), who is sitting next to Shari. “But you have to be at least close to the ante,” he argues.

“I am!” Shari exclaims. “I'm just a couple of chips down!”

“Are you crazy? You're more than a couple of chips down!” insists Lisa (friend) from across the table. “You don't even have close to enough!”

Shari folds her arms across her chest and sits back abruptly in her chair. “Oh, come on!” she pleads with us all. “Let me play the hand! I have cancer!”

Armand (friend) stops dealing.

Now, I'm pretty sure had this exchange taken place in, oh, say Target (“But I'm only short a dollar – come on...I have cancer!”) ...it would have no doubt made the cashier and any nearby shoppers uncomfortable.

But not this crowd.

I clear my throat. “Seriously?” I call loudly to Shari from the opposite end of the table. “You're playing the Cancer Card?”

“No good?” Shari asks, still hopeful she'll get away with bullshit.

“Not even close,” I tell her as the hand goes on without her.

Yes, Shari had breast cancer up until two years ago. She was diagnosed the exact same time as Stacey and pretty much followed the same route as Stacey, too, with surgery, a double mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery. And, also like Stacey, she lost both her mother and her aunt to the disease.

It's almost incomprehensible that out of my seven dear female “Poker Pals,” two have had breast cancer and mastectomies. Three others lost their mothers and aunts to breast cancer. Four Poker Pals' husbands have mothers who have breast cancer right now. And Shari's younger sister (yes, younger) is fighting breast cancer at this very moment...for the second time.

How crazy is that?

I mean, how is it possible that out of such a small group, so many of us have been hit by breast cancer? Why? What's the common thread here – that we're all Jewish? That we all live on Long Island?

That we all have breasts?

Sadly, I think (but I don't know because I'm not a scientist or researcher) all three of those reasons are probably true.

I live on Long Island. I'm Jewish. And I have breasts. Thank God I don't have breast cancer (kenahora – in Yiddish: “without jinxing myself”), but it hardly matters. With so many dear friends living under the black cloud of cancer, I feel their pain. And while I know I don't feel the same pain of actually having cancer, the pain I feel going through this nightmare with close friends can, most times, be as debilitating, agonizing, and just plain sucky.

Which (finally) brings me to the point of this blog: What, exactly, can the non-cancer friend possibly do to help a friend with cancer? Seriously, there's nothing worse than feeling totally helpless when all you want to do is help.

When Shari got breast cancer – and years before, when Poker Pal Lisa got it – there was a rush by the rest of us Poker Pals to help out in any way possible.  Can we watch your kids while you're at the doctor? Can we drive you to chemo? Can we bring you food? (Remember – we're Jewish.)

What can we DO? we begged  them. Anything! Tell us anything! Anything that would make us feel less helpless.

But between husbands and in-laws, relatives and even closer friends, we were (I was) never really given a task that I felt was helpful enough.

Pick up detergent at Costco? Big deal, I thought. Call to cancel a manicure appointment? Ugh. Come on – give me something important to do! Order dinner from La Scalla? Whatever. Fill the car up with gas? Small potatoes. Drive the kids home from Hebrew School? Okay...then what? If you're someone who has a close friend with breast cancer, then you know how useless I felt running such mundane, ordinary errands.

It took me a long time to learn that the Costco runs for Kirkland stuff and the phone calls to Blossom Nails were truly a huge help to my friends.  And honestly, what was I thinking I could do to help anyway? Find a cure? Perform surgery? Administer chemo?

One afternoon, I discovered one way I, in the role of friend, could be most helpful. It was the day I went with one of my friends wig shopping. (I'm gonna respect her privacy here.) I was so glad to finally have something monumental I could help with: Picking out the hair she would have for the next 10 months or so? Yes! This was serious business! This would be a HUGE help! Count me in!

What happened was that as soon as we stepped into the wig store and began modeling wigs for each other,  all seriousness and decorum went out the door. I had been so focused on the fact that I was “stepping up” and “helping with the serious stuff,” I was totally unprepared for how much we laughed that day while trying on the most insanely UGLY and OUTRAGEOUS wigs! But I know for a fact we had never – in the two decades of our friendship - laughed harder together.  “Do you need eyebrows?” the saleswoman asked us. “Because I get you best eyebrows!”

(I had to sit at that point because, I swear, I nearly peed myself right there.)

Anyway, once I stopped laughing, that's when it hit me: just hanging out and having fun with my friend was monumental. Forget that we were shopping for wigs (and eyebrows!) because she would soon lose all her hair to chemo, being responsible for making us laugh 'till we peed in our pants was helping! Acting like two silly teenagers was just such a “normal” thing to do.

And “normal” can sometimes be just what the oncologist ordered.