Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Egg Hunt

For the last few years, I have been talking about doing a neighborhood Easter egg hunt in our backyard. I got the idea from my cousin Sam who, after his mother (my aunt Mary) passed away at far too young an age, spoke about the egg hunts that she used to hold in their neighborhood. 

For the last few years, I've also made excuses about why that year wasn't a good year for the egg hunt. Two years ago, my excuse was that I was too busy. As the date neared, I hated that that was the reason and a week before Easter, I almost decided to throw the egg hunt together. But the weather looked like it was going to be crappy so I decided against it. 

Last year, I got closer to organizing the egg hunt but then I decided that it would compete with the town's egg hunt and I didn't want that to be annoying for anyone. So we took our kids to the town egg hunt instead. It wasn't really the vision I had in my head, mainly because I'll never forget the pathetic look on Teddy's little face when he ended up with two pieces of candy.

Then came this year. One Saturday about a month ago, the two people in our house that like to sleep (Brian and Annabel) were napping. The two people that hate to sleep (me and Teddy) were looking for something to do. I just couldn't play another game of knee hockey so I decided that this year, it was time for the egg hunt. 

Teddy helped me make the invitations on the computer. He had thoughts about what they should say and since he can't read, he thinks that the invitations actually ended up saying what he had suggested (I had to make a slightly more succinct version for print). He also had thoughts as to who we should invite (everyone he knew), so we headed out to distribute invitations. We did it by hand because after all, an important secondary interest of the project was allowing Brian to have a precious hour nap. Not that Brian hasn't been trained to nap with Teddy climbing on top of him and asking him questions, because he has, but for once, I wanted him to have a real nap. 

It was a beautiful day and I loved every minute of walking around the neighborhood with Teddy, putting the invitations in mailboxes. This was just after a big snow storm and there were piles of wet snow all around -- the awesome snowball kind -- and Teddy and I ended up throwing snowballs at each other between mailboxes. At first, I thought we may live in a world where throwing snowballs wasn't allowed anymore. But I just made a rule -- that the snowball can only hit the person's jacket, nowhere else -- and decided that friendly snowball fights should never go out of style. 

Next, Teddy and I drove around to friends' houses in Canton. He loved giving out the invitations and asking the adults that all squatted down to eye level with him, "Would you like to come to the egg hunt?" The egg hunt. Adorable. 

For the last week, there have been two topics of conversation in our house. The first, obviously, was Baby James. Annabel announced yesterday, "I want to hug him and kiss him." Aw, my baby girl, I do too. (In fact, I got some precious time with James last night after she went to sleep. I can't tell Annabel about it because she'll be mad at me. But last night as I held the sleeping baby, I realized how much I already love him. How's that even possible?)

Anyways, the second topic of constant conversation has been today's egg hunt. The kids can't wait. 

Admittedly, however, they're not the ones who are the most excited. The most excited one? That would be me. 

This morning, I woke up early -- before 6am -- and I couldn't get back to sleep. I lied awake feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. I couldn't sleep because I was too excited for the day. 

That's when I got the itch to write; that uncontrollable impulse to get my thoughts on paper. 

It was still dark outside when I came downstairs to my computer. 

And that's when it hit me; a realization so powerful that it gave me the chills. 

I've healed. OK, fine, not completely, and yes, this Wednesday, I will check into the hospital so that Dr. Chun can cut open the huge incisions on my breasts and complete the reconstructive surgery. But even with fresh scars, I'll still have healed. Because this morning I came downstairs to write; not because I needed my keyboard as a way to settle fear and anxiety, but because I was bursting with excitement for our egg hunt.

*  *  *

8:00pm Update

Sometimes, just sometimes, one of my visions turns out as good as I expected. In a small subset of those times, the reality far exceeds my expectations. The egg hunt today, on one of the most beautiful spring mornings I have ever seen, fell into the small subset of better than I had ever imagined

Evidence of the Easter Bunny...

Easter cupcakes made by my fabulous neighbors, Kathy and Genna.

Annabel in search mode. That mode didn't last for long. She liked to find candy and stop for a few minutes to unwrap it (of course insisting she do that herself) and eat it before looking for her next piece. 

Teddy and his best bud, Liam -- victorious after the hunt (and ready for Little League to begin).

James couldn't make the egg hunt so we paid him a visit later. Teddy loves his new cuz.

Taking good care of him...
Annabel, in search mode again...not so entertained by the new sheriff in town.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Words: Encouragement

Loved today's A Word A Day quote:

Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.

-- William Arthur Ward, college administrator, writer (1921-1994)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sweet Baby James

It's not often that I think a photo better expresses what I'm feeling than words could.  Tonight is one of those times.

He's absolutely adorable...which is why I will forgive him for being born with more hair than I have. 

Brianne and her son.  Those hands were definitely made to palm a basketball!

A family is born.

A lullaby for my new little love...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Circle of Life

Tonight was everything that I expected and it was nothing that I expected, and there's no way I can digest it all now, never mind explain it. I'm far too tired and I've stared at my computer so much today that my eyesight is blurry (at least, I hope that's why... urgh, shut up stupid mind...). Anyways, I had to write, if only shortly, because today was a very special day. 

Tonight after work, as I sat in a folding chair next to Julia's bed enjoying dinner with her family, I heard several text messages ding onto my phone. I didn't want to be rude, but I lept for it to see if Seamus had any news to deliver (no pun intended) about the birth of his son. 

This morning, Brianne and Seamus checked into the hospital so that Brianne could be induced (her blood pressure had gotten dangerously high). I usually turn the ringer off on my cell phone while I'm at work but today I put the volume up to the highest setting. 

Finally, at 7:30pm, I got the news ... James Joseph Mehigan had been born -- checking in at 7lbs, 10oz. and measuring 20 inches long. I saw a picture. He's perfect. 

When I told Julia's family the news, we all erupted in cheers. I shared the photo of Brianne holding James with Julia and she loved it. She rubbed the screen of my phone as if she could touch the baby through it. She beamed. It was awesome. 

Julia's husband loves to take photos and we spent most of the evening watching, and laughing at, a never-ending slideshow of fabulous photos he had taken of the family throughout the years. He had even added the photos we took on our trip to Castle Island back in October. I always knew Julia was beautiful, but in these photos, she was stunning. When her daughter explained, "That was when my mom was healthy," my heart ached. 

Julia's husband insisted on taking photos of me and Julia, and Julia's family was happy for me to share these: 

Julia, her children, me, and her niece. 
Tonight, I couldn't help but realize an incredible juxtaposition of the different parts of my day -- uncontrollable tears of sadness (tinged with anger); pure elation at new life. I'm exhausted, although given that my best friend just birthed a baby, maybe I should keep quiet about that. 

Especially when I'm tired, though, I like to turn to other people's words for comfort. So tonight, I've ended up at the following lyrics. When I sing them, I feel like an idiot because somehow a Disney movie with a talking warthog doesn't do justice to the depth of the day. Still, I like these words, for many different reasons. I especially like the "Through despair and hope; Through faith and love," part. Those words start to touch the significance of March 27, 2013. 

Welcome, James Joseph. I know that there is more to see than can ever be seen but I really look forward to being there while you look around. Oh, and one more thing -- tonight, a tiny Vietnamese woman in Dorchester is praying for you. She is wishing you a happy and healthy life, and so am I. 

"Circle of Life"
The Lion King

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

It's The Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Saying Goodbye

Last week after my oncology appointment, my Herceptin infusion, Brian's platelet donation, and my precious 50 minutes with my therapy lady, Brian and I wandered around Dana-Farber in search of Julia. She and I had missed each other several times in between all of our different meetings and even the people at the front desk were trying to help us connect. Brian could tell that I wasn't going to leave before we found her, and finally, we did.

When I first saw Julia, she was having her vital signs taken on Yawkey 9, just like every patient does before the first appointment of the day. Julia looked drastically different than the last time I saw her. She was in a wheelchair, unable to walk or even sit up straight. One side of her face looked especially weak and hollow and she couldn't open one eye all the way. Before she saw me, I noticed that she was vomiting into a small bag that she could barely even hold herself. When I saw that her vomit was red, I wanted to run away and cry.

Obviously, I didn't (probably thanks to my last seven months of training to not run away and cry while at Dana-Farber). Instead, I greeted her wonderful husband and the interpreter that was helping them. It was crowded and despite that Julia reached for my hand and motioned for me to stay next to her, I said that I would sit in the waiting room until the nurse was done.

When Julia's vitals were complete, they moved her straight to a private room with a bed in the infusion suite. It was the same kind of room in which I got my third and fourth desens chemo rounds, so it was familiar to me.

When we entered Julia's room, she was alone. The blankets were pulled up high to her chin and she looked like she was sleeping. Before we could turn around to leave and let her rest, she woke up. I sat down on her bed with her and she held my hand. Her hand felt thinner, softer, and colder than it ever had.

Julia's cancer is deep into her brain and it was clearly affecting her ability to think straight. She spoke in Vietnamese to me, smiling as widely as she was able. A few minutes later, I could tell that she realized that she was speaking a language I could not understand. She laughed and apologized. I just nodded and held her hand, trying my best not to cry. Eventually, I gave up, and tears fell from my eyes even though I found the strength to keep my facial expressions unchanged.

When Julia's husband joined us, he gave me his usual gracious and enthusiastic greeting that always makes me happy. He lit up even more at the chance to meet Brian. Julia's husband's English isn't great, so the conversation was still far from smooth, but at least now Julia and I could exchange basic ideas.

Julia asked me the question she has asked me the last three times I have seen her -- Where is your cancer? On the bone? Then she points to her chest. Just like last time, she unbuttoned the top of her shirt to show me her tumor. And just like last time, I couldn't look away. I also couldn't believe how much bigger it was now than it was a few months ago. That huge protrusion from Julia's tiny innocent frame made me want to scream from the rooftop of the Yawkey building how much I fucking hate cancer (excuse my French, but I really do).

I tried to lighten up the conversation a bit and that worked for a while. We talked about Julia's trip to Vietnam and how well her daughter and son are doing in school. I told her what I've told her a hundred times -- that I will not lose touch with her family. I know I won't.

Then we got into a topic that clearly had me confused. Julia started talking to me and Brian about sex. Yeah, I was as surprised as you probably just were. I tried, and failed, to follow what Julia was trying to tell me so I just made a joke about how she is supposed to be a proper Catholic lady (she's very religious) and here she is giving me sex tips. It was a bad joke in English and I'm sure once translated, it was even worse. Julia laughed hard anyways.

Eventually Brian, the one with the common sense, chimed in from the chair behind me. He quietly told me that Julia was telling us not to have any more children. Bingo. That's exactly what she had been trying to say. I hate that topic, and truthfully, would have much preferred an awkward conversation about sex.

After some more struggle to understand each other, we arrived at Julia's clear belief that pregnancy and hormonal shifts would be bad for me. I don't think she has scientific data to back up her theory, but she was very adamant about it. With a lump in my throat, I told her that we would not have any more biological children so she need not worry about me. She was very pleased with our decision.

Julia's timing on this topic was unbelievable because just a few hours earlier, I completed a survey to see if I would be willing to participate in a clinical trial for young breast cancer patients who want to get pregnant again.

The first sentence of the survey was an unwavering statement that being pregnant has not been shown to increase cancer recurrence. It even said something about pregnancy maybe even lowering the chance of recurrence. Huh? Talk about confusing. I had no idea what to think, but ultimately, I declined to take part. The study would involve stopping the Tamoxifen after 18 or 36 months, trying to get pregnant, and then going back on the Tamoxifen. As I wrote on the paper, I'm just too scared that being pregnant contributed to my cancer. Dr. Bunnell adamantly denied that it did, but even his certainty didn't change what was in my gut.

Now let me be clear, I am not, in any way, suggesting that pregnancy causes cancer. What the heck do I know? (Nothing.) I just feel what I have felt since back in August -- that after all of this, it wouldn't be good for me (not you or anyone else) to have another biological child. It's just so strange that out of no where, Julia thought the very same thing.

Julia received her very last cancer treatment the afternoon after Brian and I left her bedside. Then she spent several days in the hospital before the doctors gave her a few weeks and sent her home with hospice.

This weekend, I spoke with Julia's most amazing daughter. We decided that I would bring them dinner on Wednesday night this week. I've done my research and tomorrow after work, I'll place a dim sum order for take out. I'll also order myself something I can eat, like white rice and broccoli, because that dim sum indigestion still haunts me (even though I'm sure the heartburn was chemo-related).

Since the day I agreed to help on Julia's case, I knew that tomorrow would come. Of course, I never anticipated having cancer myself when it did, or that I would have come to care so much about Julia and her family. Nevertheless, the day is here and I have to decide what I'll say to her that last time we meet. So I've sat here, sometimes tearful, trying to figure it out.

Here's what I decided. It doesn't matter what I say. If you've got a sense of humor like mine, you might make a joke about the fact that Julia and I can't understand each other's language anyways so it actually really doesn't matter what I say. I'd laugh at that. But now that I think about it, the last few months have taught me a whole other reason why it doesn't matter what I say to Julia tomorrow.

It doesn't matter because I'm not a goodbye person. I mean that when it comes to small things like parties (I'd sneak out of every one without saying goodbye if I could) and I mean that when it comes to big things. I learned about the latter kind just last month when I had a rare opportunity to say goodbye to someone -- Brian's grandmother -- while she was still very alert and aware of what was soon to come.

The few days before our visit, I had planned what I wanted to say to Brian's Grandma when I saw her for the last time in the hospital. It was short (yes, sometimes I can be brief if I practice), and I practiced. But when the time came to say it, my whole plan just didn't feel right at all. With some anxiety about whether I should abandon the plan, ultimately, I decided to. And thank goodness, I don't regret that decision.

I don't regret it because what felt right in those last few minutes with Brian's Grandma was just holding her hand, looking at her and seeing her smile, hearing her and listening to her tell us to get home safely, like she always did. What felt right wasn't something I had rehearsed, because she already knew all of that. What felt right was kissing her like I would see her again.

Maybe this is all just a form of denial and if it is, I'm OK with that for now. Because even though I really need to start some work, I've thought about all of this for a while, and I've landed in this (somewhat safe-feeling) place...

I don't want to ever need a final goodbye to tell someone what they have meant to me. I'd rather have done that long before -- sincerely and repeatedly -- and not only with my words, but much more, with my actions.

So I don't know what I'll say to Julia when I leave her for the last time tomorrow night. I'll probably just hold her hand and let her speak in Vietnamese if she is even able to speak at all. And then I'll drive home and probably give my sleeping kids another kiss goodnight.

One day, I'll tell my kids about Julia. Most importantly, I'll tell them about how strong and brave and kind she was. And I'll tell them about how, when "Lisa" (my former colleague) and I took on Julia's pro bono immigration case in August 2011, she told us what she wanted --  her children to have their father in the United States with them when she passed. We knew that achieving that goal was next to impossible (our "mentor" attorney actually left out the "next to" part when advising us on our proposed legal approach). But we went ahead anyway, and worked tirelessly for what Julia wanted. Somehow (mainly because of sheer stubbornness), we succeeded.

When I drive away from Julia's tomorrow night, that's what I'll think of -- that I get to go home to my family and cry in my husband's arms if I need to. And Julia's kids can do the same with their father, who is here because Lisa and I believed (maybe just subconsciously) that what we do for someone while she's alive is much more important than what we say to her in a final goodbye.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"As you will be, too."

10 Things I Learned from Cancer (Part Two) 


2. We can beat cancer.

Last week someone asked me, How do you deal with fear? I answered truthfully -- I write.  And that  night, I wrote ... a rather lengthy blog dissecting some of my fears. Still, I feel like I haven't told the full story. So tonight I'm going to add to that story a bit.

It's true that writing has been an invaluable therapy for me through my cancer battle. Obviously, however, there are times when I can't write; when fear comes over me and I need to face it and fight it off without a blank blog post or a piece of paper; when I can't call Brian or my Mom and cry to them. When I just need to figure it out.

Tonight, I tried to think of what makes me feel better in those moments and I realize that the answer has been the same since soon after I was diagnosed -- it's this simple thought: Others have beat cancer, so I can, too. 

I knew so little about cancer before my diagnosis. In fact, before last August, I pretty much figured that anyone who got cancer died from it (yes, that's part of why those first few weeks were so hard for me). But then, gradually, I started to realize that my assumption was completely wrong. People beat cancer every day and those people, and their stories, give me strength and hope and faith when I need it most.

Throughout my whole life, my family and my friends have been my rocks and my guiding lights and when I got cancer, they did what they always had done -- they took care of me. In fact, they were the best caregivers I could ever ask for.

I hate to follow up that paragraph with a sentence that starts with, "But," because there's really no "but" about how great my loved ones have been to me. But ... none of them had ever had cancer (a good thing, for sure!). No matter how much they wanted to do to help me, none of them were able to be that face of someone who had done what I now needed to do.

Obviously Kristin was a huge help to me, but she was a cancer patient like I was so it felt more like we were in the same trench, and that's only so comforting. Soon after my diagnosis, however, new angels swooped down from the sky. One of those angels is a woman named Anne.

I barely knew Anne before August of last year. She is one of the law librarians in Verrill Dana's home office in Maine and we had met at most, twice. 

I remember reading her first email to me back in August while I was on vacation with my family. I must have read that email a hundred times, except for one part, which I must have read two hundred times. In that most precious part, Anne wrote:

I am a 20 year survivor; as you will be, too. Yes, you will. Hold on to that belief, it will see you through a lot.

No amount of money in the world could buy the peace and hope that those words gave me back then, and still give me now, several months later. Anne was one of the first people to make me see that people do beat cancer and that I could, too. She continues to send me emails that I file in a special subfolder of my inbox that I call "Hope Messages." I think that title tells how much those emails mean to me.

I could write pages and pages tonight about so many other brave men, women, and children who have fought this disease and won; about other angels that have come into my life. But I thought we could all do something far more powerful. Because I'm just one voice and there are countless others that should be heard.

So tonight, I'm putting this request out there to each and every one of you:

Please consider posting a short comment below -- Anonymously or by name, it doesn't matter. Not to be bossy (OK, maybe I can't help it), but I was thinking the comments could be in this form, inspired by Anne's hope message:

I'm cancer survivor; as you will be, too. 

Or, My mother / father / son / daughter / wife / husband / best friend / hairdresser / mechanic / boss / dog walker / mailman / whomever is a cancer survivor, as you will be too.

If you want to tell more, of course, feel free, but it's not necessary.

Please forward this blog to anyone that you think could add to this powerful collection (or, more importantly, anyone that you think could benefit from seeing it). Let's make the comments go on for pages and pages. In my darkest times, and in others', those comments could be precious light.

As much as I will cherish the comments we assemble, I don't mean them to be just for myself. The "you" in "as you will be too" is not just me. It's every patient that needs to be reminded of one of the most important things I learned about cancer -- that people have beat it. As we will, too.

*  *  * 

Note:  Thanks to how much I've talked about boobs, or just a deficient Google Blogger spam filter, nasty spam comments have been poisoning these pretty pink pages. As a result, I changed my blog settings so that I need to approve of a comment before it is published. Please don't let that stop you from contributing. Go ahead and post your comments to spread this priceless hope. Meanwhile, I'll fight the spammers who just can't wait to sell you something to enlarge certain parts of your body. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

10 Things I've Learned from Cancer (Part One)

My Grandma Lang and Brian's Grandma Kosta had something interesting in common -- when they got into their golden years, they remained as sharp as a whip, but at the same time, their edit buttons started to dull. In other words, they said what was on their mind -- loudly, and without excuses or apologies (actually, they may have been doing that long before their golden years).

For one example, I'll never forget how much I wanted to hide under the table when my Grandma went on a rant about a young man wearing his baseball cap in the restaurant that we were visiting for dinner. I was sure that he could hear her, so it surprised me when he didn't just take his hat off to quiet her down. I tried to explain to her that he probably didn't mean any disrespect by it, but Grandma wasn't listening.

Tonight, I kind of feel like Grandma. It's too late for my edit button to be working -- the one that tells me that I should qualify what I'm saying so as not to offend anyone. So tonight, I'm just going to write, with that boisterous freedom that I'm pretty sure our Grandmas felt when they spoke.

*  *  *

Today a fellow blogger published a blog entitled, "10 Things I've Learned from Cancer." As soon as I read the title, my mind started to race and I got that unstoppable urge to write. I wanted to keep reading Michael's blog too, but I stopped myself because I didn't want my mind to get stuck in his reflections before I had the chance to find my own. 

Of course, I felt like a terrible copycat so I checked in with Michael before I openly stole his idea. No surprise, he was gracious enough to tell me to Go for it! Just like he is, I'm curious to see if our lists have any points in common (I plan to read his blog for the first time after I publish my final list).  

So here are 10 Things I've Learned from Cancer (in no particular order). Over the next few days, I'll talk about each of them. For now, I'm going to expand only on the first one, with my edit button turned Off.

1.  Displays of love and support really can't go wrong -- unless they somehow suggest that cancer could kill me. Those ones have definitely gone wrong.  

I absolutely love everything about weddings -- except for one thing. There is one part of every wedding that makes me so anxious that I want to chug all of the champagne that's still left on the table. I'm talking about the time when the bride and groom come by and visit with the guests at the table. As the bride, I enjoyed the very haphazard and incomplete trip I took visiting tables around the function room. But as a guest, I dread that part of the night. 

I'm so terrified of the bride and groom at their wedding because no matter who it is, I don't ever feel like it's worth their time to stop and talk to me. If I'm at a wedding of someone I don't know very well, I figure they shouldn't waste a single moment of that precious night with me because they should really spend it with their close friends and family. If I'm at a wedding of a close friend or family member, I don't want them to waste their time with me because I know I've seen them before and will see them after. 

At the same time, I know I can't hide in the bathroom or pick the remaining pieces of cheese off the table in the lobby because then the bride and groom will think I didn't care enough to say hello. Yikes, I'm getting anxious just thinking about this. 

Then comes the worst part -- what to say when faced with the newlyweds. I rarely have trouble carrying on conversations with people, probably because I am pretty good at finding something to blab on about (shocking, I know), but this conversation always stumps me. You look beautiful/handsome? I love your dress/tux? Your earrings sparkle? Where do you get them? I like that glitter on your eye lids? What a great night? I loved the cheese? What a beautiful ceremony? Good idea to get married? Why'd you choose him? Nothing ever feels right for me. I just feel awkward and anxious and desperate for a drink and my favorite wedding dance song (Pour Some Sugar on Me, obviously).  

Now for the cancer connection. Sometimes I feel that as a cancer patient, I may give people the anxiety that table-visiting brides and grooms give me. What should I say to her? Tell her that she "looks great" so that I can buy a few seconds to subtly examine her bald head up close? How sick is she? She doesn't really look that sick. If I give her a hug, do I still need to be careful of her fake boobs? Does she even have time to talk to me? But I don't have anything useful to say to her. And she writes that blog so whatever I say could end up in there. But then if I don't say something it could end up in there, too. She should cool it with that blog, it's starting to stress me out. OK, so I may be joking a little bit, but not completely. 

I really do understand that talking to a cancer patient may seem like a stressful thing. So here's one thing I've learned that I vow to follow at the next wedding when I face the only few un-fun minutes of the night -- I'm just going to say what I feel (with the edit button definitely switched On). If the cheese was really good, I'll tell them. If the bride looks beautiful, I'll tell her, but not because I feel like that's what I'm supposed to say. I'll just let myself actually think what I'm thinking at that moment and I'll stop letting my mind run amuck into what would be the best (or worst) thing to say. I'll just let that moment be what it is -- big or small -- and stop worrying about what it should be. 

That's one thing I've learned from cancer -- people shouldn't be afraid that they're going to "say the wrong thing." For me, not saying anything is worse. For me, the only thing someone could say "wrong" is something that suggests that I'm going to die from cancer. Admittedly, that has happened (several times) but I don't hold it against anyone -- I just laugh about it because, well, it really is kind of funny (what they said -- not the dying part). So aside from comments suggesting my demise, anything that people say to show their love and support is greatly appreciated. 

People also shouldn't ever think that a patient is "too busy" for a phone call, email, or text message. If I'm busy, I just don't answer right away. No one inconvenienced me by trying, and that little "Missed Call" message says a lot.

(Please note that this is not a plea for phone calls and text messages! My friends and family showered me with those (and continue to do so) and I am just recounting their importance for others that may be going through the same thing.) 

2.  We can beat cancer. 

3.  Be very careful when comparing cancer stories.  

4.  It's awkward when people initially ignore the fact that I have cancer. It's best when they acknowledge it, but don't dwell on it.

5.  Thank you notes are really hard to write to the people that deserve them most.  

6.  People cope with pain, fear, and stress in all different ways. 

7.  Saying, "Let me know if you need anything," is helpful. Doing something helpful is really helpful. 

8.  Sometimes the most difficult times are the times others think are the easiest. 

9.  People with cancer are just people. with cancer. 

10.  The human spirit is a truly, truly remarkable thing. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Quick Pic

Brian after his donation at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center.  He did great and raved about how easy it was -- 70 minutes to donate and he was done! After my Mom visited him and saw a sign that they were running dangerously low on platelets (because of the snow storm), she donated too, then headed off to work.  Have I mentioned that I love my family? And my friends, including Michelle (the head of Teddy and Annabel's school), who gets a huge shout out for her donation yesterday...maybe others bailed because of the snow, but she drove 2.5 hours to get there! 

Quote of the Day:

"I think they used the really big needle on me."  
-- Brian Shuman

Yes, Brian.  You got the extra big needle.  Lucky I'm the patient in this relationship...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Crossing Paths

Compared to Julia, my battle with breast cancer has been very short. What I have done for seven months, she has done for over 14 years, and under much, much more difficult circumstances.

Julia was a teacher, like I used to be. She had a little girl, and then a boy, and when she was 33, she got the bad news. She still lived in her native Vietnam at the time, and a few years later, she moved with her children to the United States. Since that time, her children have excelled. Her eldest is applying to some of the best colleges in the country right now. She wants to be a cancer doctor.

For the last few weeks, Julia has been in Vietnam. She had planned to visit her family there to say goodbye. At the last minute, Julia thought herself too weak to travel and she almost cancelled her trip. Somehow, in the end, she gathered the strength for the long journey. She returns to Boston tonight.

*  *  *

Tomorrow is a Herceptin day. It's also a day that I check in with my oncology team. I'm not sure what we'll talk about at that appointment, but nonetheless, it's on the calendar. So is my appointment with Dr. Fasciano so I had better plan what chips to dump on her for those 50 minutes.

Tomorrow is pretty special because Brian is coming in with me for my first appointment and then he is donating his platelets at 9am. When I'm done with my infusion, my Mom and I will wander over to the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center to see Brian and finally witness first hand what platelet donations are all about. There's something really neat about the fact that Dana-Farber will be pumping me with my life-saving drugs at the same time that they extract Brian's platelets to prepare for someone else's life-saving transfusion.

This morning I emailed Julia's husband to ask him if Julia had arrived back safely and to see if they wouldn't mind a visit from Brian and I tomorrow afternoon. I figured that this may be the last time I see Julia and I thought it would be helpful to have Brian there for the drive home. Plus, I'd love for him to meet this couple I have talked so much about.

Over email, Julia's husband explained that Julia is not doing well and that tomorrow would not be a good day for a visit. I have to take her to Dana-Farber for treatment in the morning, he explained. My heart jumped into my throat when I realized that I'll be there then, too. So tomorrow, I'll meet up with Julia in the infusion suite on Yawkey 9. When I met her back in August of 2011, I sure never expected that our paths would one day cross there.

Christopher Reeve once said, "A hero is just an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere in spite of overwhelming obstacles." I love that definition. Because that's Julia.

*  *  * 

For the other blog I have written about Julia, click HERE.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fear and Snow

Tonight I got to reading this really random article about Eskimo words for "snow." Here's an excerpt:

Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms [for snow], while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, [anthropologist Igor Krupnik] documented about 70 terms for ice that mark such distinctions as: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese.  ...

This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. “It’s a matter of life or death.”

*  *  *

For those of you in the Northeast, you may think I got onto this topic tonight because of the impending snowstorm. Good guess, but that wasn't it. Instead, I got to thinking about the many different Eskimo words for snow when I started to try to answer a question that someone asked me today about fear.  

Earlier today, a local reporter asked me, How do you deal with fear? She emailed me the question, which was nice because I figured I'd think about it and try to sound smart in my answer. Then I  remembered that any time I've made it my goal to sound smart, I've ended up sounding like a total idiot. So I'll just address the question with the only two words my answer really needs. How do I deal with fear? I write. 

As I sat on the train home from work tonight still thinking about this question and how I'd expand on my answer if I needed to, I started to realize that while I've written a lot about fear in this blog, I've never really dissected the concept. Tonight, as a light sparkly kind of snow (pukak?) starts to fall outside, I'll write a bit more about the many different kinds of fear I have experienced since my diagnosis. 

1.  White-Out Fear

Have you ever driven through a really heavy snowstorm -- like the "white-out conditions" kind? If so, you'll probably join me in wholeheartedly not recommending the experience. 

I vividly remember my driving-through-a-blizzard experience, probably because it was the night of my Grandma's funeral. After the church ceremony, my family had gathered at her house for food, drinks, and reminiscing. We all knew that a serious snowstorm had begun outside and the worriers among us vigilantly kept an eye on the fast accumulation. Eventually, despite that we didn't want to break up the party, we knew that we had to. Those of us not staying at the house shoveled off our snow-covered cars and headed back to our hotel. 

What I remember most about our ride along the dark and curvy East Hampton road was that it felt like someone had draped a thick white blanket over our car. We couldn't see a thing and most of the time, we could barely tell if we were still on the road. We had our headlights on but somehow, the more we tried to see, the harder it was to do so. Funny, I could say the same thing about cancer sometimes, too.

No doubt, that ride was scary. Really scary. I remember feeling like I couldn't get my bearings; couldn't tell which way was forward and which way was back. I remember getting into this very introverted little zone and telling myself to just keep breathing; that we would get there eventually. Lucky I wasn't the one driving because I think my legs were almost paralyzed by my fear. 

Not that I want anyone reading this blog to feel the fear that cancer has caused me and others like me, but I do think that it may be useful to describe it. At the very least, it may be helpful to compare it to a car ride through white-out conditions.  

Luckily, I can count on one hand those times of paralyzing fear in my cancer battle. I've written about a few of them (for instance, HERE and HERE) and I'm very grateful to report that I have not faced this sort of intense fear in months -- even though several feet of snow fell around here in the meantime. 

2.  Easy-to-Shovel Fear

A whole different level of fear is the kind that's easy to scoop up and shovel away (or pack into a snow ball and throw at something). Luckily, a lot of my fear is this kind. It's the kind of fear that I can face, reason with, and conquer, at least, temporarily. For one small example, sometimes I had a fear about the pharmacy incorrectly preparing my chemo infusion bags and accidentally overdosing me. I knew this was silly and I could always start to shovel the thoughts away. They have procedures to ensure that the doses are correct. They will follow those procedures. Everything will be fine. Soon enough, shovel by shovel, the whole driveway in my mind would be clear. 

3.  Falling-Through-Thin-Ice Fear

As I wrapped up the paragraph above, I got an email from Maggie. I've written many times that Maggie is remarkably strong, but here's further proof. Maggie's email was a group invitation to an April fundraising event where she will stand alongside her oncologist, Dr. Ann Partridge, to raise money for Dana-Farber's Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer. 

As I read on through the email, I felt the thin ice underneath me start to crack. The email mentioned that the event was in honor of a young woman who had lost her battle with breast cancer at age 35. Splash! I was underwater and it was cold; numbingly cold. For a second or two, I felt like I may drown in that freezing water.

Then my instinct to swim, my instinct to fight to get to the surface, kicked in. Granted, my instincts to swim and to surface are far weaker than Maggie's, but they're at least strong enough that I didn't drown. Instead, I grabbed onto some thicker ice (utuqaq, or my laptop) and pulled myself up into the next paragraph. 

4.  Schools-Are-Still-Open Fear

This is the kind of fear I operate with on a daily basis. It's kind of like a light snow that falls on and off all day. It's not exactly a pretty kind of snow, but it doesn't make the day dreary either. It falls, but it doesn't accumulate. Principals and superintendents take note of it, watch it carefully, but they don't cancel school because of it. Is this type of snow, and fear, distracting and sometimes inconvenient? Absolutely. But if you drive carefully through it, and keep your eyes on the road ahead, you can still get exactly where you're going. 

5.  Two-Hour-Delay Fear

Last week, I learned a really important lesson about this kind of fear. After I had been at a work meeting at a Boston hospital nearby Dana-Farber, I desperately needed to write. It wasn't a Monday though, so I went back to my office and turned to my work. I was productive, but in a stubborn way. I was like that superintendant that should have delayed school but started on time anyways. I never understood why they do that because in the end, everyone is still going to be late. 

The next day, I still hadn't collected my thoughts into a blog post. I arrived at work anxious, distraught, and covered in matsaaruti, so to speak. Trying to learn from the day prior, I took a different approach. I called for a delay. Not a 2-hour delay with no afternoon kindergarten; just a short and simple 1-hour delay. In that hour, I wrote. I wrote about a terrible nightmare I had the night before and as I did so, my lingering, dreamlike fear dissipated. By 10am, I was done, and I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. 

*  *  *

Later in the article that I cited above, Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska, explained, “All languages find a way to say what they need to say." I think that's very true.

Maybe I don't know the right words for the many different kinds of fear that I feel because of my cancer, if those words even exist at all. Nonetheless, I'll find a way to say what I need to say because that's how I can make sure that I stay above the ice. Even if it's still the Swiss cheese kind.

A cardinal and a blue jay outside my Grandparents' house the morning after the storm. 

The sky on the ferry home from Grandma's funeral. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Long Shots

When I was younger, I was afraid to lose. I remember field day in elementary school and the heavy nervousness I felt in my stomach every time I envisioned the possibility of not coming in first in a running race. Looking back, I can't believe that I cared so much about winning, especially at such a young age. A part of me regrets not just enjoying it all a bit more.

Truthfully, I didn't feel an ounce of pressure to win from my parents. They are both competitive in their own productive and unique ways, but I never, ever thought that either of them would be the slightest bit disappointed in me if I lost. I just knew that for whatever reason, I would be disappointed in myself. Now that I'm a parent, I realize that my parents probably cared about the outcome of a field day race or a high school basketball game only because I did.

Decades later, I wonder if my kids will experience that nervous feeling in their stomach when they're preparing for field day in the third grade. While some butterflies are OK, most of me hopes that my kids are more lighthearted than I was. Truthfully, I'd love to see them come in fifth or eighth or even last, as long as they're happy. Mostly, I just want to be there to hug them if they lose or if they win or if they decide they'd have more fun just keeping score. 

I've talked about victory and defeat before and I don't mean to rehash all of that tonight. Tonight, I just want to write a short piece about something that I have realized my cancer battle has helped develop in me -- a stubborn and resilient attitude that is summarized by this quote my cousin Kyle sent me a few months ago:

“The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.”
Ayn Rand

OK, that's a bit more confident than I really am inside, but I love it nonetheless.

*  *  *

Last Friday was the deadline for my town's annual writing contest. Actually, the deadline had been March 1st, but they extended it, which was great news for me. I had really wanted to submit something but the contest called for a short story or a poem. By March 1st, my therapeutic writing sessions hadn't yielded one of those, no matter how much I had wanted them to.

Last Thursday night around 10pm, I sat at my computer facing the March 15th contest deadline. I had early pre-op appointments at the Faulkner the next morning so I knew I should get to bed. But I still hadn't written anything to submit and I felt really disappointed in myself -- kind of like a fraud. If I wanted to pretend like I was a writer, I really should be able to come up with something less than 1,000 words. So I decided to write for two hours. Whatever I had at the end, that's what I would submit. I wrote for an hour straight, then revised for another 30 minutes. By 11:30, I submitted my entry.

Tonight, I wrote well over 1,000 words for a completely different cause. This morning, my friend Leonard sent me the link to an interesting way for Writing Saves Lives to secure some funding. I was psyched by this chance, however remote, and I've been working on the related application ever since the kids went to bed.

Just like the Ladies' Home Journal essay contest, my short story and my funding application are total long shots. But here's something I love about cancer (wait, did I just say that?) -- it totally dismantled my fear of losing. Let me correct that -- cancer dismantled my fear of losing anything less than a battle with cancer.

Seriously, I do need to thank the stupid disease for the fact that I'm just not afraid of someone telling me No like I was before. No? OK, I'll move on. And I'll just keep trying until someone finally tells me Yes. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Awaiting Baby James

I was not a cute pregnant lady; not cute at all. I didn’t glow (I sweat), I didn’t shine (I swelled), and I didn’t eat the recommended additional 300 calories a day (additional 3,000? yes, perhaps). You want proof? OK, I'll give you proof. This is me an hour or so before I delivered Teddy:

Frightening. I know. (Once, Brian's mouth slipped and he admitted that while pregnant, I looked like "a blob." Harsh, but true.) Yep, pregnancy just didn't suit me. In fact, neither did child birth or breastfeeding, for that matter. I guess I just wasn't born to breed.

Earlier this week, I found myself in the lobby of the hospital where both of our kids were born (and, in fact, the same hospital where Brian, myself, and all of our siblings were born, too). Don't worry, I was only there for a work meeting, which meant that I didn't have to wear a mask or have an IV plugged into my arm, and that was pretty sweet.

The hospital lobby brought back a flood of memories. I remember being upstairs in that bed pictured above while my family and Brianne waited down in the lobby for some news. As if they were ghosts, I pictured them over five years ago, sitting on the waiting room sofas anxious to hear if our baby boy had arrived. I could see them laughing and joking, nervous and excited. It made me smile.

I also remembered back to January 20, 2011 when Brian and I walked through that lobby desperate to find out if we would have a little boy or a little girl. I was nervous for my second C-section, but I felt confident and giddy with excitement for the biggest surprise I had yet to experience.

When I drove away from the hospital earlier this week, I couldn’t avoid a sharp tinge of sadness that those memories also carried with them. Dr. Fasciano (my therapy lady) said something once when we were talking about the fact that I won’t have any more biological children. She said that it was "a loss" and I'm allowed to grieve it that way. I won't lie, I get upset about it sometimes, and once, I got really upset. But I don’t feel any persistent grief, I don’t think. If I stay healthy, we likely will have another child -- just not a biological one. But that's a few years away and I'm getting ahead of myself to plan for it now. 

Today, there's something else that helps me feel better every time I get down about our loss. That something else is my best friend's baby boy who is due to be born in just a few weeks.  

“Baby James,” as he has come to be known in our house, is already proving to be quite the macho man. Brianne’s doctors tell her he’s big, and although Brianne looks fabulous, I won’t lie – her belly is large and in charge.

I can’t even begin to explain how good Brianne and Seamus are to Brian, me, and the kids. Half of Teddy’s wardrobe was gifted by them, as was his first pair of sneakers (Celtics/Canton colors), his Red Sox play table, his first mini basketball net, his first cardboard airplane, and his collection of miniature professional athletes. Brianne and Seamus gave Annabel her most cherished Cookie Monster, her Rody bouncy horse, and countless adorable outfits, most of which are sports or dog themed. 

Clearly they are generous beyond words. But more important than the countless gifts is the fact that they have spent quality time with our kids almost every single week since they were born. Brianne and Seamus run football games for neighborhood kids in the front yard, pitch countless baseballs to Teddy, and throw Annabel up in the air as many times as she demands it (which is a lot). They come watch Teddy play hockey, and they stay from start to finish at all of our crazy family parties. They cook for us, paint for us, and keep us laughing when we need it most. In the end, there’s nothing that makes me happier than the fact that Teddy and Annabel would boot us out the door in a heartbeat if it meant that they got a night with Auntie Woof and Uncle Seamus. We don’t have them babysit often, however, only because if the come over, there’s no reason we’d want to go out.

In a few weeks, Seamus and Brianne will become parents. That’s a huge transition, but I mean it when I say that the transition for them will be easier than it could be for anyone. Here's why: 

Granted, I haven't seen too many brides right before they walk down the aisle, but I'm pretty sure that most of them aren't doing this. 

You've probably figured out that Teddy was the ring bearer at Brianne and Seamus's wedding. After the wedding, we asked him what his favorite part of the whole thing was. We had guessed he'd say riding in the golf cart with Auntie Woof and Uncle Seamus (while taking pictures). But he kept it much simpler. All he answered was, "Seamus." 

I think that the transition that I mentioned earlier involves the realization that once you have a kid, life really isn't about you anymore. The thing is, though, that Brianne and Seamus are both so innately unselfish that I'm pretty sure they've already achieved this understanding even if they don't consciously know it. It's just who they are. 

In a few weeks (or less!) I will sit in the lobby of Brigham & Women's Hospital and wait anxiously for news about Brianne and Baby James. I may even take a stroll over to the gift shop and re-live my glory days. Then, finally, once the doctors clean the cheese off of him (sorry -- just one small inside joke for the mom-to-be), I'll hold the little man. I've got lots I want to tell him, including that he's one of the luckiest babies on this planet, and that, selfishly for me, he couldn't have picked a better time to come into this world. Then I'll immediately start feeding him the virtues of basketball over hockey. The Shuman kids may be lost causes when it comes to winter sports, but there's definitely hope for the Mehigans. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Weights Lifted

Early this morning, I had a nightmare -- not just any nightmare, but the nightmare. I’d have much preferred my typical nightmares, you know, the ones about earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorism. At least I'm used to those disasters slipping into my subconscious at night and I know how to boot them out of my brain in the morning. But this nightmare, it was the first time I'd had it. And it was different, because it's something I'm not really ever going to completely wake up from.

As you've probably guessed, in this nightmare, I found a lump. It was unlike the real lump that I found back in August, because this one was visibly protruding from my chest, like the one Julia showed me last time I saw her. I know there's a lot about this nightmare that is completely ridiculous (like that I wouldn't notice a lump until it grew to be the size of a baseball) but like most quality nightmares, the ridiculousness just made it scarier.

Truthfully, I’m not surprised I had this nightmare this morning. I’ve been more anxious in the last week or two that I had been before that. Thank goodness, the anxiety has been in short intervals (like, a few minutes here and there) but they're not fun minutes. During them, I've wrestled with some fear, some doubt, some anger that all of this happened to me. And mostly, I’ve been frustratated that I still have such intense moments of all of those things, especially when I am supposed to be "back to work" and "back to normal."

When people I know read this, they'll be surprised. Aside from a 30 second cry to Brian over the phone from my car yesterday on my way home from work, I haven’t shown any outward signs of my anxiety (probably because they really are only short internvals). Also, a big part of me thinks, That story must be getting really old for everyone by now. Leave them alone already. But it's still the story and it's still here. I’m hoping that if I admit that, it will go away.

Yesterday morning, I had an early meeting away from my office so I had to drive to work rather than take the train. That meant I had to drive home, and that meant I couldn’t write. I tried to ask Siri (the iPhone lady) if she would record my voice on my phone so I could at least put my overwhelming thoughts somewhere, but Siri kept pointing me to the nearest "record stores" when I asked her to “record my voice.” Does Siri really think that someone who knows how to use her would be asking for a “record store”? Seems unlikely to me, but anyways.

While I drove home yesterday, I tried to figure out the source of my recently increased anxiety. It’s funny that in these past few weeks, I had never taken the time to stop and ask myself that question. Instead, I tried to do what preschool teachers do when their kids go off track -- I "redirected" myself. That worked, most of the time. But yesterday, I needed to get to the bottom of this because if I redirected myself anymore, I may have ended up in Vermont (no offense to Vermont).

At first, I thought that maybe my birthday had caused me some stress. Not the celebration part, because that was perfect, but the milestone part. In some ways that I've already explained, my birthday was an awesome milestone that made me indescribably proud. Plus, I got a night away with my husband, a breakfast with my Mom, a dinner with my family and Brianne and Seamus, some awesome gifts, and lots of platelet donations in my honor. So, really, I should stop my complaining now. But I can't. Because in other ways, my birthday was, well, totally overwhelming. I never thought I would feel like reaching 33 was a huge accomplishment. Maybe I’m just not ready to think about reaching annual milestones yet.

So, yes, part of my anxiety may have been my birthday. But there was something else, too. I started to dissect another intense feeling I have been having lately. I had it the night before last, when I came home from a Ropes alumni event after the kids had already gone to bed.

I went into Annabel's room first and gave her a kiss. I repositioned her blankie and her Cookie Monster (the only two things she will allow in her crib). She was so darn cute that my heart ached a bit. Then I visited Teddy.

For some context, it’s a miracle that Teddy even fits in his bed when he sleeps at night. He shares his mattress with at least 25 stuffed animals, 10 books, two blankets (one being the pink ribbon one that my frind Lynne knitted for me), two pillows, Brian’s championshop ring his hockey team won a few years ago, and recently, a Christmas tree hockey ornament that my parents gave him. When I asked him once why he needs all of those things in his bed, he told me they "keep him safe." Ouch, that hurt. I told him that me and Daddy will always keep you safe no matter what was in your bed and I hope that makes some difference for him even if he doesn't remove any of his soft and fuzzy protectors.

When me or Brian is not home at bedtime, Teddy adds another thing to his bed crowd -- he adds a picture frame of whichever one of us is absent. Tuesday night, as I unloaded the books from his bed, I found the photo of me and Teddy at his first Red Sox game last summer. A crazy thing happened in that moment. Where, since last August, my heart would have ached at the thought of missing future Red Sox games with him or missing tucking him in at night, I felt something totally different. I felt an intense feeling of wanting; not wanting to avoid something (death, and my resulting absence), but a wanting to secure something (life, and my resulting presence). I know -- that’s probably way too deep for a commuter rail ride to work, but it’s the truth. And it does feel better to write it down.

Lately, I find myself thinking less and less about how much I don’t want to die and more and more about how much I want to live. I know they may be two sides of the same coin, but they feel like really different sides. I can’t explain it any more than that just yet, because I’m only now figuring this all out, but I know that it's a shift, and I know that for whatever reason, it's happening.

This morning, after that nightmare, I woke up absolutely terrified. It was almost 5am -- 10 minutes before I would typically get up to go to workout. Once I felt around my boobs and convinced myself that the lump was only in my dream, I wondered if I should take an Ativan. I can't even remember when I last took one -- sometime back in 2012 -- but I definitely know where they are in our closet. I decided against it only because I knew I couldn't fall asleep at work given all that I need to do today (that I had better do now!). I thought about waking Brian up, but that felt unfair. I thought about writing, but I was too distraught. So I just got up and went to the 5:30 CrossFit class, not at all interested in doing so, but too scared to stay in my bed. In fact, as I drove there, I wondered if I'd even end up going in. I decided to.

In the end, that hour of lunging across the floor, lifting stuff, and jumping on a box was exactly what I needed. Exactly. Maybe exercising is the only thing I can do to stop that nightmare from becoming a reality. So I'm glad that this morning, I did at least that, even though at first, it was inspired only by the fear of where my mind would go if I stayed in bed and felt sorry for myself.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Good Words: Hours in a Day

"I never really believed it before, but when you have a child, there really aren't enough hours in the day to do anything. I had to go for a dental check up the other day and they were going, 'Can you floss and then rub your gums with this?' and I was thinking, 'Are you serious? It's just not going to happen.'"

-- Tina Fey

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Blue Nissan Maxima (and my 33rd birthday)

When you're bald, fighting cancer, people are really nice to you. It's one of the perks of holding the cancer card (the little blue Dana-Farber card in my wallet). Yesterday, I got to thinking more about the cancer card as I hopped over puddles on a run up and down Washington Street in Canton.

It was my 33rd birthday and I was feeling great. The sun was shining, my legs were moving, and I had just enjoyed brunch and a trip to the Container Store with my Mom. I had my Kick Cancer's Ass playlist singing through my headphones when a car full of high school age boys drove by, windows open, and screamed in my direction. They screamed the "C" word, and I don't mean "cancer." I mean the one that rhymes with punt. Yep, if you'd have asked me how that word would have made it into my blog, I sure wouldn't have been able to guess. But that's the beauty of writing about your life -- surprises happen every day. 

The loud and nasty profanities startled me, and provided a stark contrast to the beauty of the day. Then, they powered me through the rest of my run because as I thought more about those five seconds of my life, my legs carried me home at a pace with which I was very pleased. 

Immediately after the navy blue Nissan Maxima drove by (oh trust me, if I had the license plate, I'd have posted it), I not only thought the following words but I think I said them out loud to myself -- Well, that wasn't very nice. It wasn't. But it was fascinating, nonetheless. 

I so vividly remember my next thought, something like -- Wow, I look enough like a girl that they'd call me that word? Good thing I got the boobs! Because makeup-less (and thus, pretty much eyebrow-less), with my blue running jacket, very short hair, and black pants, I sometimes wonder if I could be mistaken for a guy. Obviously I don't care enough to do something about it (except, I guess, get the boobs), but I was proud that even to a car of idiots passing by, I still clearly looked like a female. 

After those two instantaneous thoughts, my mind churned on. I thought about those kids, the words they said, and the energy with which they said them. And the craziest thing happened. I felt awesome. I felt awesome because not a single part of me felt sorry for myself. Yes, it was my birthday and I was innocently enjoying a run inspired, like most of my workouts are, by my oncology team's message that exercise decreases the rates of cancer recurrence. Yes, I probably looked like a startled deer to those kids, and they probably got a kick out of that, but I felt great.  

I felt great because I so vividly remember another run years ago when someone threw a water bottle out the car window at me (man, I'm kind of ruining Canton's reputation, huh?). Well, rest assured, the water bottle incident happened in Stoughton (I'm joking, but it did). Anyways, the half-drunk bottle didn't hit me, but it hurt me nonetheless. 

Yesterday, however, I realized the true strength I've built up over the past few years. If those kids thought some mean words could hurt me, I should send them my post about my second round of chemo. Or my morning routine with the kids (before Kendra rescued me). Or my recent trip to the doctor's with Annabel. I'd love for them to know that there's only one "C" word that bothers me right now and it sure as heck isn't the one that they screamed out the window. 

As I continued my run, I thought more about those boys. I thought about their mothers. I wondered how the boys felt before and after they yelled at me. They probably felt fine. And bored. But who knows? Maybe one of their moms has breast cancer, too. 

Then I got to thinking about my own son. Would he ever do something like that when he's older and bored on a Sunday? (Note to self -- make sure he's never bored on a Sunday.) I won't lie -- Teddy has his moments, and lately, we've had some power struggles with him. But I can honestly say that if he grows up with the heart he has now, I don't think he'd ever do something like that. He's too sensitive, and Brian has talked to him so much about being nice to women. I wondered if those kids' fathers had done the same. 

As I continued up Washington Street, still fascinated by C words, I passed another runner. That was the first time that the Nissan Maxima bothered me. I wondered if they had screamed at her. I wondered if she had my feeling of sheer resilience, and I really hoped that she did. I was sad at the thought that maybe, she didn't. Then again, she could have been thinking the same of me. 

Lending further evidence to my theory that their journey was driven largely by boredom, the Nissan passed me again, this time, coming from behind me. Again, profanities, and again, they startled me (you'd think I'd learn). This time, my instinct was to put my hand up to gesture a "Why?" Seriously, Why? (I wondered what they would think of my Why post, then reminded myself, again, that these kids probably weren't the blogging type.) 

As if I couldn't get any nerdier, I finished my run powered by how much I believe in my ideas behind Writing Saves Lives. I would love more than anything to sit down with those kids and ask them to write about that trip in the blue Nissan Maxima yesterday -- what they saw, what they said, what they felt (or didn't feel) when they said it. I'd love for them to be forced to think about the people on the other side of those words. What thought were they startled out of when the boys drove by? What made them get out there and run that day? Pain? Happiness? Fear? A complex combination of all of those things? I know, I'm crazy, but I really would love an hour with those kids. 

The cancer card is a funny thing. The literal one gets you great parking rates at Dana-Farber. But the metaphorical one is a lot more complicated. 

Because yesterday, I couldn't decide if I wanted to throw it (hard, like a brick) against the windshield of the blue car or hide it (proudly) in my pocket. On the one hand, I wanted those kids to know that they just picked on a cancer patient and I wanted to pretend that they'd feel badly about that. More so, I wanted them to know that if I'm strong enough to beat cancer, I'm sure as heck strong enough to keep my head up on a run after being called a bleep. 

On the other hand, I wanted to hide that card and bask in the glory that maybe, just maybe, on my 33rd birthday, I didn't look like a cancer patient anymore. 

It's kind of silly that of all of the wonderful messages I received yesterday, I chose to write about the boys who called me a terrible word. It seems very wrong to give them center stage, so I want to be clear, that they are not. Rather, yesterday, my family and friends were the center of my everything. 

Because yesterday, I realized more than ever before, what all of their (your) love, support, and encouragement have given me. You have given me unwavering energy to power on, smiling -- to see that bad things can and do happen, but in the end, the good will win out, especially if we're stubborn enough to protect that good, and especially if we're lucky enough to be surrounded by people who will be scouring the streets for a blue Nissan Maxima, ready to throw pages of a blog at it. 

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"Tara Shuman. 3-10-1980." I've said that a thousand times since last August. I'll be eternally grateful for every single 3-10 I'm ever blessed enough to see. Thank you so much for all of your birthday wishes. It was a very special day. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Launch

Finally, it's ready. Not done, by any means, but ready for the first step. Which reminds me of this quote that I've thought of every time that I thought about this day:

Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

If you would like to learn more about Writing Saves Lives, click here:

Please note that older browsers may not support the webpage. 
Email if you have having trouble viewing the page.

Countless thanks to Kirsten Logan and Todd Logan for these incredible logos. 
I couldn't launch a new website without an awesome logo!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Rachel's Platelet Donation

This past week, my sister, Rachel, donated her platelets at an American Red Cross donation center in Washington, D.C.  When we spoke the day after, I learned so much that I never knew about the process. I asked her to write a blog so that all of you could know the valuable information, too.

At the end of the month, my cousin, Jessica, will donate her platelets at Dana-Farber. Afterwards, she and I will write a Q&A about her experience, and it should be great to get another perspective on the experience.  

For prior posts on platelet donations, please see A Call to Arms and The First Donation.  Happy Donating!

Me and Rachel, 1984.
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By: Rachel Talbot 

Today I am honored to be a guest writer on my sister’s blog. On Wednesday I donated my blood platelets and Tara asked that I write a summary of the experience, and provide any advice I had for those of you who will be donating in the future. I wish I could describe the experience with the right words my sister usually finds for things but I am at somewhat of a loss. It is such a strange experience to describe because, never before have I done something where the more not fun it was, the more I was glad I was doing it. I know that sounds strange but it’s true. I want to be perfectly honest with all of Tara’s readers, as she is always honest with you, so I won’t say that it was this super fun experience that I wish I could do every day. But, it was really an honor to feel that I was able to give something that could save a life, and the fact that it wasn’t a perfectly easy process made me more proud that I did it, and inspires me to do it again.

So let me describe what happens for those of you might be nervous. I made an appointment at the Red Cross (since I am not near Dana-Farber) and the first thing they do if you have never donated before is take all your personal information and enter it into the system. I was told they only have to do this once – so that should save some time on the next visit. Then they take your temperature and test your blood for iron. Your temperature can’t be too high or they won’t let you donate (I believe she said it could not be above 99.5 degrees) and you can’t have too much or too little iron in your blood. To test your iron they prick your finger and put a drop of blood in this little machine that kinds of looks like a tape deck from the 1980s. They also check your arms for track marks and rashes. If you pass all these tests, then you answer about 40 questions on a computer. It only takes about three minutes. The gist of the questions is whether you have taken certain types of medications, traveled to certain countries, and/or have been infected with HIV. I was told that a donor has to answer these questions every time they donate, but again, it only took a few minutes. Next, they hook you up to the machine.

One thing I didn’t know about donating platelets was that you can choose to be hooked up to the machine with both arms at the same time. I chose to do both arms because they said it makes the process go faster and you get a better platelet product. Honestly, though, I probably won't choose both arms for my next donation. I thought I would be able to move my arm a little (say, if I had to itch my face) but you can’t move at all. If you have an itch they have to come over and itch it for you, and they wouldn’t even let me hold my iPod in my hand. Obviously a small price to pay, but overall I think the experience might have been a bit easier if I was able to move one of my arms and so it’s something to think about for those of you who will be donating.

(Funny side story about this – the lady hooking me up to machine told me that I couldn’t move my arms or I would blow up. “Blow up??” I said. “Yes, blow up,” she replied. I looked at her horrified and then she starting laughing.” “No, no, not blow up, swell up.” “Oh, OK” I said, relieved. English was not her first language.)

My appointment was for 4:45pm and it was about 6:45pm when I was all hooked up and the blood actually started to flow into the machine. However, I get the impression that Dana-Farber might be a lot faster at getting the process started. So while people should be aware that the whole process overall could take about four hours, it could very well take much less.

While hooked up to the machine, the process does not hurt in the least. You get cold because they are pumping saline through your system, but the chair had a heating pad, and they gave me blankets. I do suggest wearing a vest if you have one. I was wearing a sweatshirt and having to push up the sleeves was a bit uncomfortable. So a short sleeve shirt with a vest to help keep warm would have been perfect. You get a little tingly in your hands but they give you Tums which helps for some reason. But the process really doesn’t hurt at all, and I just sat there while the blood pumped out and then back in (minus the platelets of course). They have portable DVD players you can use to watch a movie but I just listened to a book on my iPod.

The other thing I wasn’t aware of is that during the entire time you have to squeeze a ball with your hand to get the blood to continuously pump out of your arm. Honestly, if it wasn’t for that, I would have fallen asleep, that is how painless the process is. I do wish I could have just fallen asleep to make the time pass faster, so constantly squeezing the ball was kind of annoying, but given that the people who need the platelets are going through much worse, I figured I could deal with it.

After you are done donating I think you are supposed to sit in the waiting room for about 15 minutes to make sure you don’t pass out or anything. I didn’t do that, and they didn’t tell me I had to. I was hungry and wanted to get some dinner. I felt slightly light-headed, but nothing that made it so I couldn’t drive my car (although I suggest people do have a backup ride home just in case.)

As I started saying in the beginning, I would never say the whole process is super easy and fun, but that is what actually makes it so wonderful. If it was super easy and fun, everyone would do it. And while of course that would be ideal, people don’t typically have a great feeling of pride and satisfaction from doing things that are super easy and fun. A lot of people probably don’t donate because they think it’s inconvenient, and the fact that, well, it is inconvenient, but I did it anyway, is why I felt good about it. And in the long run, it’s not so inconvenient when you think that four hours of your time could save a life.

I hope this helps and that everyone goes out and donates! When I was done I got a sticker that said, “I made a difference,” and that sums up the experience perfectly.