Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Truth, Lies, and Billboards

I don’t know anything about advertising except for what I’ve learned watching Mad Men. When I taught an economics course to high school seniors years ago (long before Mad Men), we spent a few days talking about advertising in a unit when my students designed their own business plans. Since I didn’t know what I was talking about then either, I chose not to talk much on the topic, and instead, late at night on Super Bowl Sunday, I sat at my VCR (remember those?) and video-taped the commercials off of my then-so-innovative DVR. It took forever to prepare that tape of Super Bowl ads and I would have given anything for something like YouTube, which came a few years later. It was worth my effort, however, because we all found it fascinating to analyze the biggest and best efforts from the nation’s top advertising agencies.

Within that context, I don’t claim that it’s easy to design a successful advertising campaign. In fact, it must be amazingly difficult to sell something, even to a small portion of the public, considering that even that small portion consists of individuals with a great diversity of perspectives.

Take, for example, a campaign to sell cancer services. One may think that a billboard for a cancer clinic would have a relatively homogeneous audience (cancer patients). A short minute of thought, however, would probably lead one to realize that cancer patients, even, for instance, breast cancer patients, come to the highway with a wide range of experiences and outlooks. Thanks to breakthroughs like Herceptin, some breast cancer patients have been told that their chances at a long life are quite good. But others face metastatic disease and they have been given time frames that they and their loved ones can barely comprehend. 

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Today, thanks to a Facebook post, I saw a photo of a billboard that is on the side of the highway somewhere in Wisconsin. This is the photo, taken by a breast cancer survivor, Nancy Stordahl, who writes a blog that I may read if I ever get up my courage to.

You can see the image and read the print. A beautiful, young, happy, and healthy-looking woman, (with long hair, mind you) who "never gave up." "So her cancer did." 

Since this afternoon, my reactions to this billboard have been all over the map. At first, I just thought about how dumb and ridiculous it was. I wondered what group of clueless bozos thought this was a good idea. Then I got back to my work. 

As my mind drifted back to the sign, however, I couldn't help but connect it with some terrible news I heard yesterday from a dear friend. When my mind made the connection, an anger in me started to brew. 

Yesterday, I met up for coffee with a friend of mine who I haven't seen in far too long. Without going into details (my friend's privacy is important to her), my friend told me that her mother's breast cancer had returned and was in her bones. We both know the seriousness of this sort of a diagnosis so we sat in Starbucks and cried together intermittently for over an hour. We were completely oblivious to everything else going on around us, and we wiped our huge tears with brown paper napkins. 

Today, as my mind continued to dwell on that stupid billboard, I thought about my friend's mother, who I will call "Monica." I wondered how Monica would feel driving by that sign. I ultimately concluded that I have no idea. Perhaps she would feel inspired by it. Perhaps she would feel, "Yes, right, I will never give up!" Or perhaps she wouldn't even care what the Mayo Clinic had to say. I don't know Monica enough to know how she would feel about that sign and Monica, like every person, can speak for herself. Still, tonight I wanted to take the time explain what I think is wrong about that sign; why I would probably join Monica or my friend, or even my own mother, if they ever flipped the bird to a sign like that.  

One wrong thing about that sign is that it boils down a very complex experience into a misleadingly simple one. It's especially stupid because if we could beat cancer by sheer determination, the disease would have been erradicated decades ago. Obviously, however, we can't, and in her blog, Nancy explains much of that so nicely that I will not repeat it. 

I will, however, offer my own additional thoughts on the matter. 

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, catch phrases about beating cancer were like spinach to my hope muscles. Battle Mode. LiveStrong. Total recovery, Full stop, Checkmate, I win. These small words were wonderfully powerful to me. They helped me believe that I would live. That cancer would not kill me. They helped me believe that I could control my own destiny. That I could be strong and my doing so would make a difference in my future. 

At the time, I needed that sort of simplistic clarity, mostly because I couldn't process the complex grey area in which I lived. I couldn't process the future. I was in my own individual survival mode, and in that mode, I needed to believe one thing and one thing only -- that I could beat cancer. That I would beat cancer. 

Gradually, for better or for worse (I have no idea which), I evolved. I emerged, reluctantly, from my cancer cocoon and started to see the complexity in so much of this awful disease, or better yet, in the beautiful and tragic life and death that the disease can touch. "Total recovery" and "I win" came to mean something so much deeper to me than avoiding death-by-cancer. In fact, I'm still figuring out what they mean, but I know the answer is not something that can be summed up in a blog, and it definitely wouldn't fit on a bracelet or a billboard. 

The truth is that I struggle every day to walk a fine line. On one side of that line is acceptance of the reality of a deadly disease. On the other side is sheer defiance of that very same reality. Now that I think about it, I guess that means that the line itself is reality. It's that path that our bodies must physically walk as a million forces try to pull our spirit in equally as many different directions. 

One such force that tugs at me makes me want to write to the Mayo Clinic and tell them what a bunch of dopes they were to put up a billboard that could be so offensive to so many cancer patients, victims, and their loved ones. "Seriously, people, what were you thinking? Have you ever known anyone who died of cancer? Can you see how this billboard could suggest that those people 'gave up'? Hello in there? Anyone home?" 

I doubt that there was an ounce of malicious intent behind that billboard, however, which is why in the end, my anger about it was short-lived. I'd have to guess that someone simply dropped the ball in not running a draft of the billboard by a few cancer patients or caregivers. Because I'm confident that anyone who has touched the world of cancer, particularly, metastatic cancer, would have told them to find a new approach. Like ASAP.

Another force that tugs at me is one that tries to convince me to just find my own inner peace and ignore the hype around something like this billboard. Don't bother with it, the voice tells me. Just focus. Focus on today, on your family, on your book and on your work, on things you can do to really help, on things that make you happy. The billboard is just a stupid sign on the highway; a total fail by an advertising company that forgot to consider a large portion of their audience -- the portion for whom cancer is not curable no matter how much they hope or wish or pray. 

In the end, I realize that the stupid billboard did what almost all advertising does -- it painted an image that was not real. Anyone who has ever seen a McDonald's billboard and then ordered a Big Mac shouldn't be surprised. We all know about airbrushing, don't we? Yet we are surprised because we think that people who work in the cancer field should know better. Selling cancer services is not like selling soda or paper towels or age-defying face cream, and we're disappointed when the advertisers and those who hired them miss that point so badly. 

Disappointment. Yes. Disappointment. I guess that best sums up my feelings about the billboard. 

Disappointment. The concept also only barely sratches the surface of what I feel about Monica's recurrence, and Kristin's, and about every situation in which a person's body cannot physically overcome the ravaging effects of a brutal disease. I'm deeply, deeply disappointed. Because more than anything, I wish that the Mayo Clinic message were true. I'll take a soggy, flat hamburger and a papertowel that can't clean up a spill in one wipe. But I so truly wish that every cancer patient could beat the disease by simply not giving up. Unfortunately, the science just doesn't work that way, at least not yet, and no image or catchy slogan slapped up onto a billboard is going to change that. 

Finally, since I'm offering criticism, I feel it's only fair to be constructive about it. So, to the likely well-intentioned yet ill-advised Mayo Clinic, here's my two cents (or have I already reached $50.02?). Ditch the picture of the happy woman with long, thick, awesome hair. Ditch the catchy slogan. Ditch the airbrush and the vision of a promise that you can't yet fulfill. Instead, consider something like what I recently saw on a greeting card. Because this sort of honesty will probably make some cancer patients smile, and it may even give them a moment of peace. I've found that honesty has a tendency to do that. Even though it's not as pretty.  

Front of greeting card

Back of greeting card
(This card can be found at 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three Minutes of What I Most Want to Teach My Children

I never thought that the most important lessons that I'd want to teach my children could be rolled up into one three minute video but I think it just may be. And yes, the video is a commercial for a Thai insurance company. But forgetting the insurance company part, this really is beyond precious. And of course, it came from my mom. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"I do Crossf..."

Preface: Despite that I believe in the importance of healthy living, conversations about diet or exercise regimens can easily get under my skin. I realize that by writing this post, I risk being annoying in ways that I hate to be annoyed, but I really don’t mean it that way. I’m not pitching anything to anyone. Rather, I mean this piece as an explanation of my own behaviors and, on a totally different note, as a great big Thank You.

I’ve written before about how I have not always had a healthy relationship with exercise. In fact, in my freshman and sophomore years of college, me and exercise had a very abusive, love-hate (mostly hate) relationship. I abused exercise and it abused me right back. It wasn’t pretty, and in fact, I have discovered several parallels between my experience coping with what was likely an undiagnosed exercise disorder and my experience coping with cancer. But that’s a story for another day.

I’m proud to say that at this point in my life, I have the healthiest relationship with exercise that I have ever had. Since I mostly have one thing to thank for it, I thought that thing deserved a blog post.

* * *

Why I CrossFit

I saw this a while back and it made me laugh. In some circles, it's probably true. For me though, aside from this post and several unavoidable references in prior posts, I don’t talk about CrossFit very often. I don't even really like using the word "CrossFit" because I feel like people who don't do it immediately start to judge. For instance, my siblings constantly give me a hard time about my love for CrossFit. They joke that it’s a cult and that we have secret handshakes. They are wrong, but I go along with it. Plus, when my sister tried CrossFit, she loved it, and I know that my brother would love it, too, so I'll get the last laugh in the end.

From what I have seen from the inside, there’s nothing cultish about CrossFit. The people who are really good at it are wonderfully supportive of the newbies and of the regulars who will never be as good as them. There are countless people like me who go to a class a few times a week, who can’t lift the prescribed amount of weight in any workout, and who still believe that CrossFit is a significant part of their physical and mental health.

It's that belief that, for some reason, I feel like I need to further explain, perhaps simply to justify my own actions which to some may seem, well, stupid. Yes, I know that doing CrossFit while on chemo was not the best way to avoid germs (I did pause when I knew the neutropenia could hurt me most). And I know that continuing to do it while feeling pain near where my tumor had been also may seem silly. In my six-month follow up appointment last week, Dr. Bunnell asked me all sorts of questions about the persistent pain. “Does exercise aggravate it?”

“Yes, sometimes,” I explained.

“What sort of exercise?”

I wanted to hide, or lie, but I figured neither was a good idea since my oncologist was trying to help me. “Well, some things I do at CrossFit aggravate it.”

“You do CrossFit?” he inquired rhetorically.

“Yes, but I don’t want that to mean that you won’t take the pain seriously.”

Dr. Bunnell said he would most certainly take the pain seriously and he continued to ask me what I do at CrossFit that hurts it.

I shrunk in embarrassment. “Handstand pushups tend to hurt it,” I explained quietly, knowing how ridiculous that sounded.

He laughed, respectfully. Then he told my mom and I about an article he read recently that discussed the rates of injury to people who do CrossFit. I told him that yes, people can easily hurt thmselves, but that I am really careful. I was being completely honest. I know what physical pain can do to my mind so every time I’m at the gym (sorry, I will never be able to call it a “box”) I am constantly focused on not hurting myself.

In the end, Dr. Bunnell ordered the bone scan despite that he thought that the pain was musculoskeletal and/or due to nerve damage from my breast surgeries (or better yet, my no-breast surgeries). I didn’t say anything else about CrossFit in that appointment although in retrospect, I want to explain what that place means to me. So here’s a short list.

1. Strong Not Skinny

I spent far too much time in my life thinking about being skinny and far too little time in my life focused on being strong. I love that CrossFit encourages strength rather than a particular body image. Getting stronger, faster, more fit, those are the goals, even if they add weight to the scale or make your jeans hard to get over your legs (both of which it has done for me).

2. People there care

When I first started at my gym, I kept to myself. I didn’t go there to meet anyone, talk to anyone, or think about anyone else but me. I remember when the owner of the gym, Kevin, talked about how "athletes" will meet friends at the gym and that it was a “community.” I remember thinking, “That’s nice for all of you. But I’m just here to workout.”

Gradually, however, something happened. A crew of early birds formed, or perhaps I just started to become part of a group that had already been there at 5:30 in the morning. It was (and is) a group of hard working, kind, and humble people who get up before the sun rises so they can pull, push, squat, jump, and endure what is, no doubt, an awesome sort of pain. Over several months, those people became important to me. They encouraged me when I was the last one on the rower (I think rowing may rely on body parts that I'm not certain I still have) and they cheered for me when I finished a grueling workout. Even better, when I did the same for them, I felt good. I know very little about the lives of the other early birds at my gym. But I know that they will support me and I will support them as we try to squeak out one more round of an exercise that makes us want to puke. And I know that we all get into our cars at 6:30 feeling physically exhausted and yet, comfortably proud.

3. Short, intense workouts are good for me

In those first painful years of college, I couldn’t workout enough to feel any sort of satisfaction. I would run or swim or cross-country ski for hours and still feel empty inside. I did it all to burn calories, and I calculated everything in my head in a way that I know now was pretty sick. I did it for all the wrong reasons, and I cringe at how much valuable time I wasted.

CrossFit is particularly good for me because it has taught me that exercise is more about quality than about quantity. Today, for instance, the main part of the workout was just about eleven minutes long (for me, at least…for faster people it was shorter). Nineteen-year-old me would have scoffed at that. Just eleven minutes? What’s the point?

It only took one workout for me to learn that I was a fool to doubt the intensity that could be packed into not-so-many minutes. And perhaps more than anything when it came to exercise, I needed to be proven a fool in that way.

I know that I make way too many analogies between my cancer experience and other parts of my life, but here’s another one. Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, particularly, an aggressive and ruthless kind, has considered the reality that they may not live to be 90. Maybe we only live to be 40. Maybe we only have eleven minutes to everyone else’s 200. Well, then, I better put all I’ve got into those eleven minutes. That’s a huge reason why I love CrossFit.

4. It reminds me of being an athlete

Despite that I’m 34 years old, I still have dreams (literally, not figuratively) about playing high school and college sports. I still miss it. I miss practices and games; I miss winning and even, yes, losing. Most of all, I miss being on a team and competing in a way that challenges me physically and mentally. In many ways, CrossFit helped fill that void for me.

For one example, I learned a few months ago about this thing called “The Open.” It’s basically a way for real CrossFit-ers to qualify for regional or national CrossFit competitions (I think). But it’s also "open" to regular people like me.

When Kevin started to encourage everyone at his gym to sign up, I ignored him. I thought to myself, That’s not for me. I’m just here to workout and release my mental stress. I don’t need to compete with anyone. I think subconsciously I also figured that anyone with a C-section pouch and stretch marks that will never go away wasn't really made for CrossFit competitions. But Kevin and the other coaches persisted. 

Finally, out of a feeling that I owed it to Kevin, I reluctantly signed up. For five weeks, CrossFit-ers across the country, and even, I think, across the world, did the same exact workout. No modifying weight or movements -- we were all stuck with the same torture, I mean, challenge. A few of the weeks, I couldn’t do more than 10 repetitions of the prescribed exercise and two weeks I totally forgot to even enter my pathetic score into the website. But a few of the other weeks, I shocked myself at what I was able to do. And in all of the five weeks, those workouts, perhaps more than any others, pushed me physically and mentally beyond what I thought I was capable of.

Every now and then, Annabel joins me at a weekend CrossFit class. She loves it, and copies most of the things we do in her own adorable way. On the drive to a class last Sunday morning, Annabel asked me, “Will we do the combination today?”

“The combination? Hum. What’s that baby girl?”

“The combination that you do at the gym!”

Finally I figured it out. “Oh, the competition! Yes! Actually, I finished it!” And despite that even in the world of has-been high school athletes, I’m pretty weak, I still loved how proud I was of myself when I said that.

5. And so on...

I could go on and on with this list. I could talk about how I love that there's a different workout every day so I never get bored, how I appreciate that the coaches push us to constantly improve, how I sleep better, play golf better, and just generally feel better. I could write about how Kevin has used his gym to do so much good for several different causes. All of those things are true. But in the end, my love of CrossFit may be rooted in this fundamental truth -- that at a time when I felt like my body had completely betrayed me, CrossFit, and particularly, the people there, helped me learn to believe in it like I have never believed in it before.