Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More on Victory

On the topic of real victory, you must meet Jim MacLaren and Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah:

In 2010, Jim MacLaren passed away at the age of 47. His legacy, however, lives on. Click HERE to see how Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, sparked by Jim MacLaren's unbelievable bravery and determination, has moved a nation. On only one leg.

As usual, I am inspired by these stories and so grateful to the people who introduce them to me. Thanks for this one, Mike.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Hey there, Teddy Shuman -- yep, I'm talking to you tonight. When you read this, you'll be much older, but as I type from the comfort of the healing chair that Auntie Woof and her family gave me, you are a few weeks away from turning five years old (by the way, I can't wait to see if you still call her Auntie Woof!). I admit, I'm by no means an expert on four year olds, or five year olds for that matter. In fact, you're the first one that I've ever really gotten to know, so perhaps what I have to say about you is true for most other kids your age.

Nevertheless, I want to tell you that at this stage of your life you are a, well, how to put this lightly? ... you are a terrible loser! Calm down, silly -- I don't mean that you're a "loser," because in fact, you're incredible. But, when you lose a game of anything, you deserve to be put in a straightjacket because you go bat-shit-clear-out-the-room crazy. Hockey sticks fly, heads get butted against hard surfaces, tears and boogers fall, and your screams can be heard for miles. It's not pretty and I'm still trying to figure out if I can blame your Dad for it (kidding -- although I have seen him throw a golf club or two). Seriously though, I feel confident that by the time you read this, you'll have grown out of this loser-of-a-loser stage.

In the meantime, I'll watch you win your iPad NHL 2K11 hockey game by scores of 27-1 because you insist on playing at the easiest level against the worst teams. That's not exactly your Dad's approach, but you'll learn all about his coaching style soon enough. I'll also cherish some of your priceless comments, for instance, like the time last week when you told your Papa that he could stop playing knee hockey with you if he let you win the game. And most of all, I'll enjoy every moment I get to play games with you -- like last Sunday afternoon when we skated on the reservoir together. Daddy stayed home with Annabel while she napped so I could see you skate on the rez, as we call it. You were awesome. We skated for hours, and I could think of little more than how much I loved that time with you. Of course, your exit from the rez that day was far from lovely -- I had to chase you around the ice after my toes had gone numb (cold numb, not neuropathy numb!) -- but we were friends again by the time we got home. 

Teddy skating on the rez last weekend.
OK, Annabel -- your turn. You're too young for me to see too much of your attitude about winning and losing, but I can tell you this -- you seem to be all about the feeling of accomplishment. You want to do everything yourself and when you do, you declare triumphantly, I did it! You want to put on your own diaper, climb on the potty by yourself, get your own ice cubes, pick your own outfit, and buckle yourself into your carseat without any help. Your determination and persistance is beyond impressive. While I love this about you, I won't lie -- it requires a heck of a lot of patience to stand by and watch you try to put your own toothpaste on your toothbrush even though the Spiderman bottle is too hard for you to squeeze. Eventually, you command me -- Mama, you help me! and truthfully, I love to help you. 

Now, the rest is for both of you ... I sometimes wonder how me, your Dad, and all of your playful relatives can best teach you how to deal with victory and defeat. I really have no idea, but nevertheless, that's what I want to talk to you guys about tonight. 

There are two things coming up for me in the next week that I really want to win. The first, and by far the more important one, is my client's case that we will argue in court one week from today. I can't even let my mind go to anything but victory for her because defeat, I am convinced, could mean a very tragic fate. So I'll leave that one alone for now. The second one, however, is a writing contest that I entered and wrote about HERE (the winner is supposed to be announced on or around February 1st). Before tonight, I was too scared or embarrassed or something to admit how much this one means to me. But here I go, confessing that it means a lot. 

At about 8:00pm on December 7th, I showed your Dad the essay that I had written for the contest sponsored by the Ladies' Home Journal. The prescribed essay topic was The Day That Changed Your Life and all entries to the national contest were due at midnight. I had thought about the essay topic for months, every day since Liza had told me about it. But for some reason, I found my answer to the essay question only just before it was due. I didn't have much time by that point, and I didn't feel great, but I wholeheartedly believed in what I wrote, so it felt as good to write that essay as it felt to write my blogs. And that means really good.

Your Dad had lots of teacherly comments to my entry. Basically, he thought I should rewrite some parts and delete others. After I heard his thoughts about why, I totally agreed with him. So I went back to my desk with just a few hours remaining. And I wrote. I deleted paragraphs and wrote some more. Around 10:30, I emailed my essay to the magazine. I felt really sick from the chemo that night. But more than that, I felt proud, not only of what I had written, but more for the clarity that I found in writing it. 

I don't expect to win a national writing contest any more than I expect to win the lottery when I play. But here's the crazy thing -- in the handful of times that I've played the lottery, I don't even waste time hoping that I win. If I'm going to have good luck in this world, I'd rather it be for something that matters -- like getting a curable type of cancer rather than an incurable kind -- and I don't want to waste that luck on the lottery. Of course, if I won, I have a whole list of things that I'd do. But none of them involve me changing much about my current life at all. Anyways, I've gotten off track (you both get that trait from me -- sorry!).

Now that I think about it, I have one other Teddy story while I'm on this lottery topic...One day a few months ago, one of the multi-state lottery jackpots was at or near an all-time high. Auntie Woof had come with me to pick you two up from school and once you were in the car, we stopped at Cassie's convenience store to buy our tickets. Teddy, we let you pick a number and once we started telling you about the lottery, you got really upset. What if we don't win? you cried, again proving lots of what I wrote about above. Brianne and I laughed and explained that We won't win, I can promise you that! Then we told you that the most important thing was that a really good person wins and spends the money in really good ways to help people. You liked that answer and eventually stopped crying. You were also OK the next morning when I had to break the shocking news to you that, in fact, we had lost the lottery the night before. (I'm still hoping that some awesome person was the winner that night.) 

OK, enough lottery tangents. My point with this is that while I don't waste my time hoping I win the lottery, I have woken up every morning the past few weeks hoping that I win this writing contest. Before cancer, I may have pretended that I didn't care about the outcome, and maybe then I wouldn't have. But now I do. Does that mean I'll almost certainly have to admit my loss to the blogosphere in a few days? Does that mean that you'll have to know that I, too, am a "loser?" Of course it does. But that's OK. Losing is OK. 

Losing is OK as long as you are playing a game you love. Because the game part -- the love part -- will be there no matter what. If it's just the winning part you love then you may be doomed. Which makes me think of this famous Vince Lombardi speech, What it Takes to be Number One. I used to love this speech. 

Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.

Unfortunately, so is losing.

There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.

Every time a football player goes to play his trade he's got to play from the ground up - from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's O.K. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second.

Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization - an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win - to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is.

It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That's why they are there - to compete. To know the rules and objectives when they get in the game. The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules - but to win.

And in truth, I've never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.

I don't say these things because I believe in the 'brute' nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man's finest hour - his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear - is that moment when he has to work his heart out in a good cause and he's exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.

I would love the opportunity to sit down with Vince Lombardi and talk about this speech. I'd start with this question -- Mr. Lombardi, you once said, "If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second." Do you really think that's true? Aren't there lots of men and women, girls and boys, who have a lot of head and a lot of heart and they still come off the field second or third, or last? Maybe I'm just dumb and you've already realized the main point I'm missing. But truthfully, even though I still love parts of this speech, there are other parts that I'm not so keen on anymore. Here's why. 

There are children out there born with no legs, and they run. There is a father that pushes his disabled son through triathlons and marathons so that the son can feel wind on his face. There are girls who play football, and just last week I watched a female goalie defend Canton's opponent's net at a boy's ice hockey game (and I shamelessly cheered for her). There are -- I have to believe -- cyclists and baseball players who have never doped, whose blood in their veins is their own, despite that in rejecting a pervasive culture, they knew they were doomed to failure. I'm guessing that these people don't always win, win, win. I'm guessing that there is something more to their fight than "to beat the other guy." 

I'd also want to talk with Mr. Lombardi about the most poetic part of his speech -- the end. These words still instinctually sing to me, but now that I return to them years later, I'm eager to argue a different part of the story. First, for the parts with which I agree. I agree "that any man's finest hour - his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear - is that moment when he has to work his heart out in a good cause and he's exhausted on the field of battle - victorious." But where my eye was once drawn to the "victorious" part, it's now drawn to two other words. It's drawn to "hour" and to "moment." 

I do think that there is a mighty fine hour and a pretty awesome moment to be cherished in victory. Indeed, if my client wins in court next week or if by some miracle I was to win a writing contest, I would feel elation like Mr. Lombardi has depicted. But that feeling will fade, of that I'm sure. What will then remain is something much deeper and much more important. What will remain is my client's opportunity to be safe from harm, to build a life she deserves. What could remain would be my opportunity to share with the world what I love to do -- to write to you, my kids, and others for whom this somehow helps. 

Mr. Lombardi's last sentence in the speech above talks about hours and moments. But I think that so much of what comes before and after those hours and those moments are what really matters. I think this about things like sports and contests, and I think this about things like cancer. 

Because here's the truth -- there's only so much I can do in the rest of my fight against cancer. I will exercise, and I even dragged by tired (and cold) butt out of bed at 5am this morning to do so. I will eat well (not counting the bowls -- yes, plural -- of chocolate ice cream that I couldn't resist tonight). But no matter how much I have in my brain or my heart, I know the reality that my cancer could recur. I don't think that Vince Lombardi was talking about cancer in his speech so I'm not insulting his rhetoric in this part of my post. I'm just using it as a springboard. 

I thought that by this time -- 2013 -- I'd be lying victorious on my field of battle -- cancer-free. I absolutely believe that I am now cancer-free and there have been hours and moments when that victory has been indescribably sweet. But those hours and minutes are not what remains with me. What remains with me are the many days that have brought me to those moments; many days after cancer and many days before. I haven't won in all of those days, so winning never got to be a habit. I lost sometimes, but that didn't become a habit either. 

What has become a habit, however, is figuring out a way to win sometimes, lose others, and still keep moving forward. My habit is the belief -- the hope -- that I will move forward, and the faith that I'll find the courage to do so. 

From the day I chose the name of this blog -- Tara Beats Cancer -- I've worried about it (Teddy, you get that worrying thing from me too -- sorry! Annabel, so far you seem pretty darn carefree). It happens a lot less lately, but every now and then I still wonder, What if cancer beats me? In Vince Lombardi terms, I wonder, What if I come in second despite that I've played with my heart and every fiber of my body? 

Tonight something magical happened as it always seems to when I sit down here. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about; I just thought of a fit that Teddy threw at our neighbor's house last weekend when he lost a hockey game on their homemade outdoor rink. On a completely unrelated note, I thought about how much I want to win that writing contest. And I started to write. 

Then, somehow, I got myself to the lottery and to Vince Lombardi, and to the idea of What it Takes to be Number One; a roundabout route, I know. But where I've landed is perhaps one of the most incredible places of all. It's this. Maybe I never win a writing contest. Maybe my cancer comes back (Brian will make me knock on wood). But this I know -- "I win" isn't in the title of this blog because of an hour or a moment of victory. It's there because of a lifetime of fulfillment, no matter how long that lifetime may be. It's there because of all the people that stood with me on the field of battle and helped me fight. This blog is about you. You're my victory. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Good Words: Meaning

[T]here are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. ... Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.
Viktor E. Frankl

My loves ... my reasons for triumph.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Meaningful Lessons

When I taught Modern World History to freshman and sophomores in high school, I ended every year with a three- to four-week unit on the Holocaust. As anyone can easily imagine, the Holocaust was a complex subject to teach for many reasons. Certainly I wasn't the first and won't be the last person to discuss the topic with these students, and I'm sure that most teachers have the same types of questions that I had as I prepared my lessons, including, How close do we want to bring our students to this history? How close do we, ourselves, want to get? Why is it so important that we fathom the unfathomable? 

I started the unit with a lesson that I thought was beyond brilliant. Of course, it wasn't my idea in the slightest, although I still dream that I'd one day be this good of a teacher. The idea came from a history teacher at the Boston Latin School -- a woman by the name of Judi Freeman. I really hope that Ms. Freeman is OK with me posting her name here...I admit that I'm taking a rare risk in going ahead without asking her first.

I don't know Judi and she doesn't know me. I heard Judi speak at a conference in my first year of teaching, almost ten years ago. She captivated me with her energy and her intellect and I went home that night to make what may have been my first purchase. I spent almost $200 (about half my weekly pay) on an out-of-print book that was necessary for the lesson that Judi had spoken about. The book was French Children of the Holocaust, by Serge Klarsfeld, and it is massive -- both in physical size and in historical importance.

This book was the author's heroic effort to memorialize the French children murdered during the Holocaust. In the preface, Mr. Klarsfeld writes:

The eyes of 2,500 children gaze at us from across the years in these pages. They are among the more than 11,400 children whose lives are chronicled here, innocent children who were taken from their homes all over France to be deported and put to death in the Nazi camps. Here are the names, addresses, birth dates, and the truth about what happened to all of these children. Their biographies are brief because their lives were brief. On behalf of the few survivors of their families, this book is their collective gravestone. ... This book is born of my obsession to be sure that these children will not be forgotten. 

For several years, Mr. Klarsfeld used many creative efforts to gather family photographs, passports, and any information he could find about the young victims. Given the Nazis' concerted efforts to erase the children's very existence, that effort was incredibly difficult.

Most of the almost 2,000 pages of the book are photographs of French children, all under the age of 18. For instance, here is one young boy (again, click on image to enlarge it):

Long before the Holocaust lessons were to begin, I asked my four classes (over 100 students) for their birthdays. Then I turned to the book. For weeks, I scoured the pages for a child who shared a birthday with each of my students. When I found a birthday that matched, I put a Post-It note on the page with the particular student's name. Then I spent hours at the copy machine until I had four piles of photographs of beautiful children who shared birthdays with my high schoolers.

When the unit began, I told my students that I wanted to give them each a photograph of one child so that they could have an image of a real person affected by all of the things that we would soon discuss. Next, I strategically passed out the papers.

It never took more than a few seconds for someone to blurt out something like, Hey! I have the same birthday as this kid! Soon all of my students realized that they too shared a birthday with the child looking back at them.

The boy photographed above shares my birthday -- March 10th. If he were still alive today, he would turn 81 when I turn 33. Incredible, because 81 doesn't even sound old to me.

Ms. Freeman is a genius in my mind, if only for coming up with this lesson (and I'm guessing she has many more examples of genius). For me, there is something oddly magical and yet tangibly tragic about staring into the eyes of a young child who shares my birthday. David Markowicz was only ten when he was deported, which means that most likely he had ten birthday celebrations; ten special days when he and his family celebrated him, his birth, and his life, just as my family does for me on March 10th every year.

I stopped teaching before I had children, and the only time I have picked up Mr. Klarsfeld's book since I left my classroom was to rescue it from the basement flood that I wrote about in a prior POST. Now that I look through it again, I wonder if I could have continued this lesson after having my own children. There is something almost unbearable about seeing those young boys and girls and realizing that a parent loved them, and lost them. Still, I like to think that I would have been able to do it.

When I prepared the pages for that lesson, I sometimes did so like a machine -- I needed to find certain birthdays and I set out with the TV on to do my own teacher homework. But it never took long for the reality of the weight of that book, or for the brutal demise of innocent children, to hit me. When it did, I felt sick to my stomach. That's much of why I left myself weeks to gather these pages.

A few different things made the memory of this lesson flood back to me tonight. First, as I mentioned yesterday, I'm still reading Viktor Frankl's book -- Man's Search for Meaning -- about his own experiences during the Holocaust, and his words beg for personal reflection. I also read that today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that certainly felt like it deserved my thought. I never knew such a day existed, or that on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of the French children photographed in Mr. Klarsfeld's book were killed at Auschwitz.

The main thing that made me want to write this post, however, is an article that a friend of mine sent me tonight. The article is linked HERE and at the risk of sounding like I still have the authority to assign homework, I really do think it's a must-read.

It's awesomely eerie that Hannah sent me this article when she did because a few hours earlier, I had started a post about the work that Hannah, myself, and another attorney are doing for Wendy, my client that I've written about before (again, not her real name). Like myself, Hannah has also migrated from Ropes to another firm, but back in the spring of 2011, Hannah and I were both still Ropes associates, we had both returned from maternity leave to have our beautiful baby girls, and we were both looking for a new pro bono case to dive into. When Wendy's case surfaced, we decided to take it on together.

We met Wendy soon after and a few months later, a judge gave us a very important date on his calendar. On February 5, 2013, Wendy would finally have the chance to appear before him to make her case for political asylum in this country. In the fall of 2011, that 2013 date nearly crushed our client. It seemed so far away for her that it may as well have never even existed. But here it is -- just about one week away, and we're in the final stages of preparation.

When I was diagnosed, I never even counted six months out to when my medical leave would end. I just knew that I had no idea what the immediate future would bring and I worried that I wouldn't be able to help prepare for Wendy's hearing, never mind stand up in court with her in February. I remember sitting on the porch in Falmouth on our family vacation asking Hannah if she would come back onto the case despite that she had very understandably resigned from it upon her departure from Ropes. Coming to my rescue, and even more to Wendy's, she accepted without hesitation. This was great news for me and even better news for Wendy because Hannah is an excellent attorney. In fact, if I ever needed a lawyer, I'd want someone exactly like her. And so with another associate from Ropes, we have worked with our client for months to prepare for February 5, 2013.

In a really self-centered way, I can't help but think that there's something kind of amazing about the fact that my first official day back to work after my six month medical leave is February 5, 2013. What an awesome way to say F-U to cancer -- to stand up in a courtroom with my client and help her try to build a new and better life. Before these last six months, that responsibility may have scared me. But it doesn't now -- at least not yet. Now it just makes Wendy's victory all the more necessary -- because I've tasted some of the fear that she knows far too well.

I plan to write more about The Atlantic article that I linked above, but in the meantime, here are two of my favorite excerpts. They explore the difference between pursuing a happy life and pursuing a meaningful one. They help me understand some of my own most cherished experiences. They help me realize that photocopying those children's photographs and helping Wendy prepare to tell a tragic story before a court may not make me happy, but that doesn't really matter. Because those efforts mean something to someone else and that realization brings me enduring...hum...well...what's the right word?... it bring me enduring something-that's-a-lot-bigger-and-better-than-happiness.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, [researchers] found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." ... People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. ...

"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study[.] In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write.

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister[.]

By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than "taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


My grandparents' house on Long Island is perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean bay. Over 100 wooden steps lead down to the water. Over the past decade or so, beach erosion and some monster storms have changed the landscape of the small patch of sand down there, and most of the time, the ocean comes right up to a manmade wooden bulkhead. Above that bulkhead, my family kept two kayaks -- a single-person kayak and a double-person one. 

In the two summers during college that I spent living with my Grandma and waitressing down there, I would often take out the single kayak on my free afternoons. I'd pack the only three things I needed -- my paddle, a life vest, and a book that I wrapped up in a washcloth and ziplock bag so that it didn't get wet. Then I would kayak out a few hundred yards and start to follow the shoreline until I reached an area known as Louse Point. I could never understand how a place so beautiful could end up with a name like Louse Point, although the name carried with it images of such a spectacular place that even the word louse somehow still sounds pretty to me.

Louse Point is an inner area of Gardiner's Bay that includes a few tiny grass-covered islands inhabited only by birds and other wildlife. Some people keep their boats in a small harbor there, but it's never busy. In fact, most of the times that I kayaked out around the small islands, I never even saw another human being; just cranes, other birds, and schools of fish below. Pure peaceful bliss.

When I kayaked over to Louse Point, I paddled hard. I loved the feeling of pulling on the water, fighting the tide one way or the other, and working up a sweat. The cold salty splashes felt so good on my bare skin and the sun felt even better.

Once I made it to Louse Point, I'd pull the kayak onto shore, jump in for a quick swim, then head out around the biggest of the little islands. Then came the best part of the afternoon -- I'd pull my paddle up into the kayak and unwrap my book from the plastic bag. I'd let the tide take me as I sat in the sun and read. On this freezing cold January day, I'm feeling warmer at the mere thought of those summer afternoons.

During those summers with my Grandma, I read at least a book a week, and usually more. After college, that pace slowed down, and when I became a lawyer and a parent it completely stalled out (unless you count kids books or work-related reading). Every now and then, I'd get on a kick of reading on the train, but it didn't usually last past the completion of one book. Then I'd be back to my usual routine of answering emails, editing a document, making to do lists, or, when I was most relaxed, listening to music.

Last week I picked up a book that our friend, Conor, had sent me after I was diagnosed. It is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and given the little funk I felt like I had fallen in, I thought I could use some deeper guidance.

This book doesn't mess around. I'm only half way through it (can't quite find the time to read like I used to) and so far, Dr. Frankl has provided an incredible account of his days in a Nazi concentration camp. Not light reading, by any means, but incredibly enlightening, for sure. The book is full of countless excerpts that could stand alone as amazing quotes (in fact, on page 48, I found the quote that I posted in a prior POST). It's also packed with stories of awesome courage in the face of unfathomable suffering. I've got lots more to say about this book, and it will come as I digest it all myself.

In the meantime, today I just want to write about what I feel like when I read, because until this past week, I almost forgot. I feel this way whether I'm sitting in the middle of a bay in a kayak, or on the commuter train to Boston. It's the same feeling I get when I write, and it's really hard to explain.

Luckily, someone has already explained it really well, so I'll use his words, at least, for now. He is Billy Elliot, and he's not a real person. Brian always laughs at how much I love that movie and the subsequent musical, and I know he wants to cover his ears when I break out in song. Let's just say that when I saw the show on Broadway a few years ago, I already knew the entire soundtrack and I pretty much cried through the whole thing -- happy, inspired cries, and a few sad ones (for example, thanks to "The Letter" -- a song sung by Billy's deceased mother about all that she missed seeing him do -- can you say heart-breaking?!? Don't think I'll be listening to that one any time soon).

Anyways, if you're unfamiliar with the story, it's about (shocker) Billy Elliot -- a young boy in northern England in the mid-1980s. Billy's father and older brother are coal miners struggling through life and through the strikes that are occupying the nation at the time. Billy soon discovers his love of dance and he wants nothing more than to become a ballet dancer; not exactly the traditional dream of a young boy in that place at that time.

In one scene, Billy is asked at an audition what he feels like when he dances. Here's his answer.

This is how I feel when I read a good book. And it's how I feel when I write, even when it's as difficult as it was in the last few days. Don't worry -- I don't break out in dance like this once I post a blog or as I hop down the stairs of my commuter train. Although, come to think of it, that may be fun. I wonder how long Brian would leave me in the MBTA looney bin. Probably just until I promise to stop singing Billy Elliot songs.



Billy Elliot 
The Musical

I can't really explain it,
I haven't got the words
It's a feeling that you can't control
I suppose it's like forgetting, losing who you are
And at the same time something makes you whole
It's like that there's a music playing in your ear
And I'm listening, and I'm listening and then I disappear

And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open impossible to hide
And suddenly I'm flying, flying like a bird
Like electricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I'm free I'm free

It's a bit like being angry,
it's a bit like being scared
Confused and all mixed up and mad as hell
It's like when you've been crying
And you're empty and you're full
I don't know what it is, it's hard to tell
It's like that there's a music playing in your ear
But the music is impossible, impossible to hear
But then I feel it move me
Like a burning deep inside
Something bursting me wide open impossible to hide
And suddenly I'm flying, flying like a bird
Like electricity, electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I'm free I'm free
Electricity, sparks inside of me
And I'm free, I'm free
I'm free. Free I'm free

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Waves (Part Two)

Usually when I sit down to write here, the words flow out of my fingertips as if they've been trapped and have finally broken free onto the computer screen to taste their first breath of freedom. Don't get me wrong, I edit each piece several times before I publish it, but that first draft is typically effortless. It's just an explanation of how I feel, and once it's out there for others to read, my brain is somehow lighter. Clearer. Freer.

I'm not used to getting stumped in this place, mostly because here, I'm my own boss. But since last Friday when I published Waves (Part One) I have been stumped, confused, and frustrated by my efforts to complete Part Two. I have typed more than six first drafts of that entry, but I deleted all of them. I typed sentences to express thoughts that I was sure of. Then I reread them, and doubted myself; wondered if what I thought was really what I thought.

I have lied awake in bed, moved with my laptop to various places around my house, and even watched some of my favorite TV shows while thinking about how to finish this post. When I couldn't decide on anything that felt right, I tried to figure out why that was. Truthfully, I still don't really know, but hopefully if I keep typing, keep thinking, I will finally figure it out. I know I could just forget about it and no one would even notice. But I would notice, and I'm my own boss, so giving up on it now isn't an option.  

Today I found myself back at a speech that I posted months ago (blog HERE, speech HERE). (The speaker's high praise for General Petraeus was not lost on me, by the way.) I vaguely remembered something in the speech about writers who write very slowly, and I needed some insight on this topic. I found this (I already published the first paragraph as a quote, but it's so good, here it goes again):

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

I sure as heck am no James Joyce but this excerpt helped me realize that while I feel like I am failing in my effort to write Part Two, perhaps I am, for the very first time in my blogging career, faced with the need to really concentrate. Darn. It's much easier when the words just pour out on their own. In other words, it's much easier when it's easy. 

Then again, I do love Thomas Mann's point -- A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. This post may officially mark the beginning of my writing career then, because its completion has felt just short of impossible. But I will resist the urge to pull out my new, soft, and fuzzy hair, and instead I'll be proud of writing at the speed of T. S. Eliot. Too bad he didn't have my chemo steroids. Wait, sorry, I'm missing the point. 

Anyways, you're probably wondering, What deep topic were you trying to write about that has you in such a tizzy -- copying quotes for us that you've already copied? Posting weird, mysterious blogs about watching waves? Fair questions. The answer is that I have been trying to write about being cancer-free. Seems kind of silly that Tara beats cancer can't find a way to write about beating cancer. But, well, silly I am.

"My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom."  

One of my many terrible drafts of this post had to do with photos that I often see on Facebook of a cancer patient holding up a handwritten sign that says something like, "I kicked cancer's butt." I have the utmost respect and admiration for anyone holding such a sign, especially when he or she is a child. Even though "Like" is a ridiculous simplification what I think of that image, I'm loose with my "Likes" (a Like slut?!?), so I usually click the button. When it came to being cancer-free, these proud smiles and poster board declarations were my first thoughts. But they weren't my own. 

So for more hours than I'd like to admit, I've sat here at my computer only mildly distracted by the "cloud of electronic and social input" that William Deresiewicz has warned me about. Sometimes for minutes on end, I have even been able to gather myself together into a single point and concentrate. Here's what I have decided. 

I knew that surgery would be emotionally terrifying and physically painful. I knew that chemo would be a grind and after my allergic reaction, I knew that it would be even more of one. Part of me expected what would come next, too -- that once the chemo was done, I'd still be afraid; that I'd have to hold onto hope that my cancer doesn't come back. In fact, on the night before my last treatment, I wrote about that fear and that hope in a post linked HERE.

What I didn't expect, however, was how much effort it would take to hold onto that hope and let go of that fear. I didn't expect this part of the journey to still feel like such a battle. I thought the real fight would be over. That I could retire that Battle Mode t-shirt; that I'd have clearly won. 

But that stupid HER-2 protein makes this whole fight feel complicated and somewhat incomplete. Yes, I believe that my cancer is gone (although I thought there'd be some sort of test to confirm that -- apparently not). Four weeks after of my last chemo treatment, I figure that it's as gone as it could possibly be. Now the Herceptin has to continue to work its magic on HER-2 to make sure that the cancer never comes back. That's the next battle in this war.

The problem for me is that there's not much I can do to fight that battle. Bingo. That's what's been killing me (eek, poor word choice)... rather, that's what's been frustrating me so. I hate that there's nothing I can do in the next part of this fight. No surgeries to recover from; no treatments to power through; no white blood cell counts to watch diligently. Being brave isn't much more than being normal; sitting through some short infusions every three weeks and taking a little daily pill. 

Now that I've come to the realization that has been eluding me for days, I can't believe it took me so long to arrive at it. Subconsciously I must have known my own concern because in my last appointment with Dr. Bunnell, I asked him, Is there anything I can do to make sure it doesn't come back? Like usual, he cited a bunch of studies. He told me that eating well and exercising have been shown to decrease recurrence. But I've done that pretty much my whole life. He told me that studies show that drinking more than one alcoholic beverage a day can slightly increase the risk of recurrence. But I barely drink a few drinks a month so that didn't apply to me much either. Basically, I ended up realizing that recurrence is pretty much out of my control. And again, I hate feeling like I have no control.

As I've written about before, my control-freakishness makes flying on planes a death-defying adventure; one that requires the evasion of powerful winds, engine failure, engineering mistakes, human error, and terrorism. When I fly, I can barely do anything but focus on how much I want that plane to land safely. I think only about survival -- I concentrate like never before. For the past few months, that's what I've done with my cancer -- I've focused on survival. One-day-at-a-time kind of survival

Now, I'm supposedly a survivor. With an implied past tense. Like it's done; like my flight has landed safely. But I don't always feel like it's done, like I'm safely on the ground. Often, I feel like I'm still on a plane high in the sky surrounded by lots of scary things threatening to bring it down; bring me down. Only now, my time to focus on survival is up. Now I need to look away from the window and focus on other things. They are things that I love, but things that still feel scary to do. Because I did them all before, while cancer grew inside me. Betrayal is a hard thing to forgive, and an even harder thing to forget.

Countless revisions later, this space has helped me realize why transitioning into this next phase has seemed so difficult. I think it's because now, I need to act like a normal person, and like a survivor, even though oftentimes I don't feel like either. In fact, I'm not even sure what either of them really means.

*  *  *

P.S. That entry was so darn difficult, I think I need to call Maggie so we can write our Beauty Blog -- The Breast of the Story. Forget concentration and studies about cancer recurrence. I think I need a drink and some good ole fashioned boob talk.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Good Words: Dr. King

"We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." 
 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968

An excerpt from Dr. King's last speech -- April 3, 1968:

My Aunt Jacqueline and my Grandma Lang (left, front in the top photograph) attended the March on Washington in August 1963. This is a page from my Grandma's scrapbook. She gave it to me years ago when I started teaching history. I was always so proud to show these pages to my classes, and I'm equally proud to share them now. (If you want to read the text, click on the image and it gets bigger.)

My Grandma and my aunt marched with the New Canaan, Connecticut, Committee of Christian Concern.  My Mom was only 12 years old at the time so she didn't get the chance to attend. 

This is a scan of an original program from the march. "Remarks" by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (#16) was, of course, his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. This program, and the other souvenir that I scanned below, were also in my Grandma's 1963 scrapbook. They are some of my most cherished possessions.

The middle of the program.

The back of the program, describing the route of the march.

The cover of another souvenir. 

The first page of the souvenir. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Why Not

The second part of my Waves post is still in the works. There's a lot to be said about that one. But yesterday I had a conversation with Teddy that I needed to write about tonight. In fact, immediately after we got home yesterday afternoon, I sat down at my computer and typed out much of the conversation so that I wouldn't forget it. I've been thinking about it ever since. 

*  *  *

I've heard more than one cheesy song (usually in the country genre) about a parent talking to a child about heaven. Part of me didn't want to write this post because it could sound way too much like one of those songs -- cliche, predictable, contrived. A bigger part of me didn't want to post it because I don't like to use this space to voice my opinions about religion (just as I like to stay quiet here about politics). But the conversation I had with Teddy yesterday afternoon was as real as they come, so at the risk of sounding (at best) like a Chicken Soup for the Soul chapter about heaven, I'll forge ahead on this topic.

A few weeks ago when Brian and I were in the car with the kids, Brian's Grandpa Ted came up in the conversation. Teddy asked us where Grandma Ted was and Brian answered that he was in heaven. Teddy didn't ask any more questions, until yesterday.

While Brian was home facing his fear of heights to scale the roof and take down the Christmas lights, Teddy, Annabel, and I headed down Route 95 en route to Teddy's friend's birthday party. Out of no where (that I knew of), Teddy asked me, Mommy, where's heaven? Gee whiz. Couldn't I just get an easier question like, Why is the sky blue? I think I actually remember the answer to that one from my high school physics class. But Teddy headed straight for Final Jeopardy without giving me any time to warm up in an earlier round.

So I told him that heaven was up in the sky; so high up that we can't see it. (How dumb was that last part? Yikes. I needed to pick up my game.)

Our conversation continued on like this:

What do people do there? 

Great question. ( trying to think of a good answer...) Whatever they want. Whatever makes them the happiest. 

Can they play baseball? 

Of course! 

What do they use for a bat? (This may have been the hardest question of them all.)

Hum, something just like a regular bat. (D+ answer at best.)

Who is in heaven?  

Lots of people. Mommy's Grandma and Grandpa, Daddy's Grandpa. They are all together. 

People are together in heaven? 

Yep -- people get to see everyone they love in heaven and be with them forever. 

Will you go to heaven one day? 

Yep, if I'm a good person. 

Will Daddy? 

Yep, definitely. 

Will I? 

Yes, because you're such a nice person. 

But not for a really really long time, right?  (Ahh...I totally should have clarified this right away. I suck.)

Right, because you're really young. 

Can we talk to people when they are in heaven? 

Yes, but they can't talk back like a person can. That doesn't mean they can't hear you though. 

Who will be my Mommy and Daddy when you are in heaven? (At this question, Teddy started to cry. Like I've never seen him do, he tried to hide his tears from me. My heart physically ached at the sight of him in my rear view mirror.)

We will always be your Mommy and Daddy even when we are in heaven. (Well, shit, now I was crying too. I adjusted the mirror so he wouldn't see.) People don't have to be here on Earth for you to talk to them or for them to be your Mommy or Daddy. (Gulp. Tears. Trying to keep a light hearted voice.) So are you excited for the birthday party? 

Yep, can I have some vanilla cake? 

Sure, buddy. And are you excited for your hockey game tonight? 

We continued on the hockey topic until we arrived at the party.

At the time, I thought I did a great job of taking the conversation back to a lighter track; of stopping a total flood of tears from one or both of us. But now as I think back, I wonder if I ducked out of the conversation too early. Was this a big parenting opportunity that I flubbed because I got too choked up? Maybe. Crap.

If I'd have known this conversation was coming I would have done something to try to prepare for it. I probably wouldn't have read a whole book in eager preparation and even Google likely would have failed me on this one, but I definitely would have asked Brian, at the very least, what he thinks about heaven (I still don't know) and what he would tell Teddy about it. But there was no time for anything as we headed down the highway. So there I was, parenting-by-the-seat-of-my-pants. And here I am now, obsessing about all the things I could have said better.

*  *  *

This is not the first time that heaven has crossed my mind in the past few months, and on several days I thought about it enough that I wanted to write on the topic. But I never really felt ready to. Yesterday, however, Teddy changed me, and I'm not only ready to write about it, but I'm bursting to. 

I didn't grow up with any religion, and I never thought that I was missing anything because of it. Sure, there were times that I felt like I was the only one not going to CCD or Hebrew school (besides my sister and brother, of course), but it didn't bother me to be different that way. My parents taught us values and faith in many other ways -- for instance, through our strong family traditions and our Sunday night dinners together. 

In 2009 and 2010, several tragedies hit close to home and I remember being desperate for some sort of spiritual understanding. Some explanation; some comfort. It was at this time that I started to believe in heaven, albeit, very loosely and disloyally. It was also at this time that my Mom apologized for not giving us some sort of religious upbringing. I assured her that she did not need to apologize and I meant it whole-heartedly. The year after, for various reasons, Brian and I started to attend services at the Unitarian Universalist church in town and we were excited to get the kids involved in the religious education program there. 

Unitarian Universalism, however, doesn't seem to prescribe specific thinking on things like heaven, which is a lot of why I like it so much. The religion has Christian roots, but like my parents, it focuses more on values and good behaviors, and I always leave a service having learned something about how I can be a better person. All of this should be prefaced, for sure, by the caveat that our church attendance record is spotty at best, so there's a good chance I've simply missed some information that may help me in this area. Since my attendance record probably won't improve much until it's way easier to get my kids dressed and in the car, I'm going to stick with the comfort that my own beliefs on heaven have brought me. Only after I spoke with my soon-to-be-five-year-old, that is. 

I'm comfortable stating my own very personal opinion on this topic because, for years, I've gathered bits and pieces of what I think about it. I've gathered those pieces from countless different places including funeral services, history books, literature, TV shows (including, yes, Lost), movies, and even science. Now, I'm writing about how these pieces fit together because I want my family, and especially my kids, to know what I think about heaven. By no means do I feel that they need to agree with me but I hope that whatever they believe gives them the same comfort that I feel.  

A few weeks ago, I saw a headline in the newspaper about some scientific report that there are upwards of hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy. I didn't even click on the article to read more, mainly because I knew that I couldn't begin to comprehend concepts discussed there and because I knew that if I tried to, I'd probably just end up scared and confused. Hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy? I can't even fathom the existence of a galaxy and I can barely grasp the enormity of hundreds of billions of something. I'm sure that geniuses at NASA would scoff at this, but it seems to me like there's a whole universe full of so much that we don't yet understand and perhaps, never could understand. 

The night before last Thanksgiving, Brian and I sat on our couch and bawled our eyes out -- first crying, then laughing. I ended up writing a blog post (linked HERE) that included my one and only (somewhat joking) piece of advice for young families dealing with a cancer diagnosis -- never watch the movie, We Bought a Zoo. Well, I may have to take back that advice because despite that I still hate that movie, it gave me one of the most important pieces of my understanding-of-heaven puzzle. Crazy, I know, because it's not exactly where one would expect to find a deeper understanding of the afterlife. But a key phrase in the film -- just two small words -- stuck with me ever since that tearful night and I expect they'll be with me forever. 

I know I've scattered what may seem to be incredibly random puzzle pieces all over this blog post -- planets, Lost, and We Bought a Zoo?!? You are totally fair to think I've lost my mind, and maybe I have. But I don't feel that way. Instead, I feel like I've found peace with a concept that has long perplexed me.  

After that talk with Teddy, I believe in heaven. I really do. I believe that somehow spirits can find their way to a place where they can be eternally happy; where they can reunite with their loved ones; where there is justice and peace. Yes, it makes me feel better to believe all of this. But that's not why I believe. I believe because in a universe (or universes?) so unfathomably big -- so undiscovered -- it could really be true. So why not believe? Really, why not. 

*  *  *

Today my baby girl turned two. I've never made my family coordinate outfits and pose for a picture, but today I couldn't resist. 

Between burning cookies, decorating blue cupcakes, and running back and forth to the bathroom with Annabel who has decided on her own to ditch diapers, I thought about how much this day means to me. It's indescribable.

A few days ago, I asked Annabel how old she was going to be. "Twir-teen!" she exclaimed, and of course, I laughed loud and hard. Since then, she's continued to love her joke, or better yet, the response it elicits. I wonder if her joke is her way of telling me -- Don't worry Mom; you'll be here for my 13th birthday too. I think that it is. And that I will be. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Waves (Part One)

In a previous post (linked HERE), I wrote about a special part of my childhood summers -- playing in the waves on the beach near my grandparents' house on Long Island. I loved the energy and excitement of those waves despite that they sometimes got so big that they scared me. Often, I stood on the edge of the water before or after I dove in. I would plant my feet in the sand and watch as the waves crashed onto shore and then receded back into the ocean.

When a wave swept up onto the sand, it wrapped around my ankles. Usually I could stand steady as the water climbed past me. Yet when the wave receded and wrapped around my ankles in the other direction, my feet couldn't help but sink deeper into the sand. It often seemed like the wave was more powerful on its way back out to the sea than on its way in. 

For months I have seen most of the waves of this cancer journey before they hit me, although perhaps not long before contact. Surgery, pathology reports, chemo, allergy tests, desensitization. I prepared for each, took one day at a time, and tried to stay strong on my feet. Now that all of that is behind me, I feel like the wave of this journey is receding. And it's way stronger than I anticipated it would be. In fact, maybe I never realized that it would recede at all; maybe I made the mistake of thinking it would just disappear. But waves don't disappear. Which is lucky. Because if they did, then there'd be no ocean.

To be continued...

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Today my heart (and Dr. Bunnell) looked just fine. Just kidding about the second part, although of course, my oncologist is still a handsome guy. As soon as we start talking about cancer, however, he could be Ryan Gosling for all I care; I’d still be distracted by that stupid disease. But I’m getting ahead of myself … let me back up.

The snow was beautiful yesterday morning but not much appreciated as my Mom and I skidded through it on the way to my 8am echo at the Brigham. As the rad tech pushed the gooey ultrasound wand down on my chest, I was so grateful that my gutted breasts had healed. Have I mentioned before how much that hurt the first time around? Oh right, sorry, I have; like seven times.

I didn’t look at the rad tech’s facial expressions as she clicked buttons and asked me to hold my breath. About ten minutes into the test, I glanced at the screen, which was a bad idea. Because when I saw the tech making a green line with the mouse along part of the image of my heart, I figured she found something bad. I spent the rest of the test looking away and trying to calm my crazy brain. When the tech was done and I was dressed again, my Mom and I followed the footbridge from the Shapiro building to the main part of the hospital. Of course, we stopped at the gift shop, which was prepped for Valentine’s Day. How totally fitting after a heart test:

After I waited with the dozens of other patients for my lab work and the insertion of my IV, I headed up for my appointment with Dr. Bunnell. My Mom and I had a few nervous laughs as we waited in the exam room for him to arrive. We joked about that room and all of the fun memories we've made there (read: sarcasm). I remembered our first, most awful appointment and, six week later, the terror of waiting for the official pathology results. I remembered shedding my hair off at my last appointment in that room, just an hour before my allergic reaction. Fun times.

Dr. Bunnell began yesterday's appointment by telling me that my echo looked great. My heart is pumping just like it should, and it showed no signs of any damage from the chemotherapy or the Herceptin. He explained that if they don't see damage after four months of treatment, they usually don't see any at all. This news brought me enormous relief, and I think I’ll be able to set aside the worry about my heart for good now.

Next Dr. Bunnell asked me if I had any questions and I explained that I have been having some random short-lived pain under my arms. He asked me some questions, I answered them, and eventually I came around to what’s really been bothering me. I tried not to tear up when I explained, I don’t want to talk about it now, but I’ve been wondering, What would I feel if my cancer came back? By this point, a few tears were falling onto my new boobs. As he got me a tissue, he answered two words that were probably the best two words he could have said at the moment – “Not that.” Dr. Bunnell stopped and gave us that closed-lip smile as if to say, That’s all you need to know for now. He was exactly right. I just really really don’t want it to come back, I said, trying to stop my crying, and he said that he doesn’t expect it to. I wish he’d just repeat those words a hundred times every time we meet. But then again, the Chief Medical Officer of Dana-Farber probably doesn't have time for that.

After that scary talk, we had a less scary talk about Tamoxifen, which is the hormonal therapy that I began this morning (it’s just one pill a day). As I’ve explained before, from what I’ve seen, Dr. Bunnell is, first and foremost, a scientist at heart. Almost all of his advice is supported by a particular clinical study, the details of which he takes the time to explain despite that I’m not always smart enough to follow along. Dr. Bunnell said that due to a study released just this past December, it’s likely that I will stay on the Tamoxifen for ten years instead of just five as was previously discussed. I’ll get back to this topic, because it turned out to be a huge one.

Somewhere in that conversation about ten years versus five, I said something about how in five years who knows what they’ll have to cure breast cancer – Maybe they’ll have something that will knock it straight out of the park. Dr. Bunnell’s response put everything back into perspective for me – Well, Herceptin already pretty much did that, he explained. I should never have underestimated the power of my greatest Ally. I teared up again at the thought of how grateful I am for the relatively new drug that travels through my system unlocking the HER-2 protein on my healthy cells so that they don’t turn into cancerous ones. No matter how many times I write about it, I could never fully express my appreciation.

We talked with Dr. Bunnell for almost an hour yesterday, the last part of which covered the possible, though highly improbable side effects of Tamoxifen. Let’s just say that if one of my legs swells, I’m heading straight for the nearest ER. As for symptoms I am likely to see, Dr. Bunnell noted hot flashes, but explained that they don't necessarily mean that I'm going through menopause. He also warned me of incorrect literature that the drug can cause weight gain and mood swings. I nodded and withheld a joke about his thoughtlessness in not allowing breast cancer patients to have Tamoxifen as an excuse for gaining weight and being moody.  

When we were done, it was time for my Herceptin. We had already been in Longwood for almost five hours so my Mom and I were both dragging a bit, but the 30-minute infusion felt like a drive-by to the chemotherapy suite. I barely had time to finish my lunch and I still can’t believe how much easier it all seemed compared to the desensitization process. It was like swinging 13 bats then swinging one.

After my infusion, it was almost time for my appointment with Dr. Fasciano. I hadn’t seen her in six weeks, and that meeting took place during chemo so I barely remember anything that we talked about. I may even have fallen asleep mid-conversation (this time with the excuse of lots of Ativan and Benadryl). Before that, I hadn’t seen her in months so it was time for a good chat with someone who had earned a doctorate degree in psychology.

I aired some dirty laundry in that appointment, and I cried more than I have in a while. I had absolutely no intention of doing either, but once I sat down, I couldn’t help myself. It was so nice to be able to talk openly to a smart, kind, calm, and honest person without worrying about her having to carry around any baggage afterwards. That 45 minutes was exhausting, but enormously helpful to my mental health. In fact, it was even more therapeutic than the quick stop at the Container Store that followed. Nothing like a stack of illuminated boxes to make me smile.

What followed last night were things that I will write about in a separate Word document. It was one of the most difficult nights in this entire ordeal, which is why this space will provide some much needed therapy today. But in all honesty, I am not sure that I will share the rest of this piece with the wider world. Because last night, Brian and I fought, and that's some dirty laundry that may not need to be aired right now. It started over something dumb, but it snowballed from there and we both got really upset. I include this part not to be like that annoying kid that told you that she had a secret then refused to reveal it, but rather, so I can be honest about the fact that a serious illness can put a lot of stress on any relationship, no matter how much love is at the root of it. 

Brian and I worked through things last night and ended up with a good laugh and a good bowl of ice cream. But my eyes were really puffy by that point. 

The worst part of the whole night wasn't about our fight. It was about the ten years of Tamoxifen. Because last night, I was leveled by a tidal wave of emotion that I never saw coming. I was leveled by the realization that I will never have another biological child. Even now I can barely type through the tears. That doesn't mean that I need anyone to call or come over or say anything to make me feel better. It's just a reality with which Brian and I need to deal. I just don't think that either of us were ready to face that reality last night. 

I'm pretty sure that Brian has only missed two hockey games in his entire coaching career (and both of our kids were born during hockey season). The first one was in December 2009 when he came with me and my family to Long Island for my Grandma's funeral. The second one was last night. 

After we picked ourselves up from a pretty low place, we made our late night snacks. Kidding around, I grabbed the little Daily Mood pad that my Mom bought me at the Brigham's gift shop. This is a little stand-up pad of paper that includes great adjectives to describe different moods. There are word origins and funny things on the back of each card. Maybe this one fit me: 
Fun fact on the back of this card: "Scientists believe that contagious yawning indicates empathy."  Another: "Reading about yawning makes you yawn." No way. I just yawned. 
Meanwhile, Brian found out the score of his game via text. They won 7-0. I asked him the score of the other game that he missed years ago. They won that one too, 9-1. Brian took the mood pad, flipped to this one and said that judging by the score of the game tonight, it was perfect for him.

I laughed for a while over that one. I assured him that he's very essential. Because even if Brian's team can win without him, I definitely can't.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


A few months before Christmas, I gave Teddy a catalog and asked him to mark things that he wanted for Christmas. I told him that he wouldn't get everything he asked for, but we needed some ideas. Teddy flipped through every page several times, making a "T" next to things that he wanted and an "A" next to things that he thought Annabel would like. He also decided to add a circled checkmark next to each desired toy, which I believe he got from watching Brian grade papers.

When he was done, I paged through the catalog. At first I was confused because I found just a few scattered markings. Did he really not find anything that he wanted? I kept flipping until I found several pages (like this one) that were covered in "T"s and something that vaguely resembled a checkmark:

Teddy had found the sports section. That's when I knew for sure that the kid really does love sports. (It's also when I confirmed how egocentric four year olds are. There were only two or three "A"s in the entire catalog.)

I know that I shouldn't be surprised that a kid with two parents who love sports also loves sports, but for some reason I am. Now that I think about it, maybe it's not so much surprise as it is the awesomeness of watching a child start to form his or her own opinions. For another example, every single day I get a total kick out of the fact that Annabel's most favorite hat is her "Buw-gogs" hat (as she calls it). It's hard to get her to wear anything else.
Thanksgiving football game 2012.
Anyways, today I got thinking about my own love of sports when Mike, my friend from high school, emailed me the following link:

I've discussed my love of sports montages in a previous blog (linked HERE), and Mike said it best when he said that after watching this commercial he was going to buy something at Dick's Sporting Goods ASAP. It definitely had that effect on me too. In fact, even before this commercial, if I was somehow able to choose one store and have all of the inventory inside, I'm pretty sure that I'd choose Dick's or Sports Authority. Even over the Container Store, which tells you a lot about how much I love sporting goods.

No matter what Dick's Sporting Goods tries to tell me, however, it's not the equipment part of that video that gives me the chills. It's the mind and the body part. Exercise has remained a sacred time of every day for me, especially in the past few days as tomorrow's echocardiogram has come into full focus.

I remember driving into Boston for my first echo as if it were yesterday. I wrote about it HERE, in a post about my high school math teacher (yes, somehow the two topics were related). That echo hurt like hell, since I was only nine days out from my surgery. It was a true test of how much pain my body can endure (Answer: A lot).

The funny part is that I wasn't worried in the slightest bit about that first echo. I was still on a total high from the news that my cancer hadn't spread (and, perhaps, from left over pain killers in my system). Except for a few brief moments when the rad tech's facial expressions were not as happy looking as I would have liked, I trusted that I had a healthy heart even though other parts of my body seemed to have failed me.

This echo, on the other hand, has been on my radar for quite some time. As you know, I have worried far too much about my heart's tolerance of the Herceptin. I, like many others, have so desperately wanted to avoid the congestive heart failure that comes as a side effect for some women.

So on Sunday when Annabel went down for a nap and Teddy looked occupied with an air hockey game, I decided to go for a walk-run-walk, like I had a few days earlier. I put on a sports bra (to protect those tissue expanders from too much action) and an awesome new Nike running shirt and hat that Sean and Lauren gave me for Christmas. I hooked up my Kick Cancer's Ass playlist and headed for a four-mile loop around my town.

When I got to the top of my street, I started to run. My arms and my chest felt tight, but gradually they loosened up. I took a turn where I gave myself permission to walk. But I kept running. At the bottom of the next hill, I again gave myself permission to walk. Still, I ran.

At the top of that hill, I was tired and hot so I took off my hat. I'm telling you -- if you have hair, you're missing out. The feeling of a cool wind on a bald head can be indescribably refreshing and Sunday afternoon I honestly thought to myself, Everyone should try this. It felt that good.

I hadn't run without stopping since before my diagnosis but something got into me on Sunday and I powered through those four miles in under 40 minutes. We sure aren't talking championship pace here but still, I felt like a champion (there I go with that patting-myself-on-the-back thing again -- sheesh!).

Seriously though, I didn't feel like a champion because I ran without walking. I felt like a champion because my heart was going strong. I was out of breath going up hills, but no more than I had been prior to the Herceptin. That run was exactly what I needed to help me believe that tomorrow's test will bring good news.

Yesterday I decided that CrossFit was safe, so I went there for an hour. Again, I had to modify, but again, I felt like every squat or lift or sit-up helped seal my victory over cancer. Today when I got home from my meeting with Wendy and a great lunch with some Ropes friends, I watched that commercial one more time. It made me want to run, and prove to myself one more time before tomorrow's appointments that my heart is doing fine.

I don't usually time a run (mainly because I don't usually run), but today I wanted to go faster than I had gone on Sunday. Thanks to the advertising team at Dick's Sporting Goods, I did. By three whole minutes.

It's hard for me to explain how much I love sports because I don't like them the way lots of other people seem to. I know these words will be sacrilege around Boston, but I'm not a huge Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, or Celtics fan in my own little heart. Trust me, I wish I were because I've always thought that real fans -- like the ones who know the players' names not just because their kids have the shirt -- are so much cooler than I am. Really, I promise that I want them to win, and not just so that some crazed fan doesn't hack my blog and shut it down. Mostly I want our teams to win because it means a lot to people I love (even Teddy), and because it's so fun to gather for the games and eat and cheer. If our team loses, all that ends too, so Go Patriots!

Annabel before the Super Bowl last year. 
For a further confession of what a poor Boston sports fan I am, I remember standing outside the Beantown Pub in 2004 on the October night that the Red Sox won the World Series. I was walking home from class at Suffolk -- probably something painful like Contracts -- and I stopped to peek in the window of the bar to check the score. A homeless guy was peeking in too and he wanted to talk about it, so I pretended like I cared as much as he did for a few minutes then headed home before the drunk fans joined me on the road.

The truth is that I'd so much rather play a sport than watch it. Watching baseball just makes me want to play catch or go to the batting cages like Brianne and I did in high school. Watching Olympic swimming makes me want to dig out my suit and goggles and join a gym with a pool. And watching gymnastics makes me want to run full speed towards a vault and fly over it. Of course, I'll just focus on being able to lift my arms over my head but still, a girl can dream.

I love the commercial above because so many of the glimpses are of athletes at practice. Not at the World Series or the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Just alone in the moment, working hard and proving to themselves that they can stick that landing, hit that shot, or catch that ball. Proving to themselves that their heart is still strong. 

Yep, I definitely love that video, but if I could, I'd make one small edit to it (aside from deleting the reference to Dick's Sporting Goods altogether -- just like "Visa" kind of cramps the Go World commercials, "Dick's" dulls this one a bit). My edit would be to replace the word "equipment" with the word "medicine." Then it would read:

When mind, body and medicine come together
You are 

Hopefully, I am.
*  *  * 

Here's just one more reason why I love sports, Bowdoin, and the incredible Burke family. Molly Burke, Brendan Burke's sister, helped produce this video to remind everyone, If you can play, you can play. To read a previous blog I wrote about Brendan Burke, please click HERE