Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Path

I am really bad at tempering my excitement, even if it’s about something that isn’t even certain to happen. I figure, What the hell? I’ll just be really excited and if it never happens, I’ll deal with the let down. Luckily, I’m pretty good at dealing with disappointment. It weighs heavy on me, but I am remarkably capable of picking myself up in short time and being just fine.

Yes, I realize that there’s a different approach—to be patient and calm and even-keel; to get excited about something only once it’s actually there in front of me to be excited about. I married a guy more like that, which is good, because two people like me could be trouble and two people like him could be boring. We’re a great match that way.

Anyways, lately, I’ve been excited, really excited, about the prospect that one day, we may have a third baby. As I’ve explained before, given the hormonal therapy that I take every morning and will take for the next nine years (God willing), I cannot get pregnant. Since we didn’t harvest my eggs prior to my treatment (which could allow for a surrogate to carry our biological child), that leaves one way that we can have a third baby—to adopt him or her. Finally, we’re starting down that path.

I have written a lot about this part of my journey, I just haven’t published most of it. At first, I didn’t fully understand, or better yet, I didn’t take the time to understand, why those posts felt so much more personal than anything else I’ve written. It’s strange, I know—that I’m okay publishing about hemorrhoids and old saggy boobs, but when it comes to this third child, things often feel so intensely personal. Of course I know that it’s fine (and, some likely would argue, better) not to blab one’s life into a blog like I usually do. In fact, if we decide on a “closed” or “semi-closed” adoption, I may need to erase this blog from existence altogether.

There are other reasons to keep this topic quiet, ones that I won’t even bother discussing tonight. But there are several reasons to talk about it, too. In fact, if I didn’t find someone willing to talk about it with me, I would never have been given this gift of hope for another child. I have lots more to write, and maybe even publish, on that topic, but tonight is just a baby step, if you will; an explanation of one realization that I have had about having a third child.

* * * 

In most ways, I’ve followed the rules my entire life. I’m bold in my convictions, but I’ve never been a rebel, so to speak. I grew up in the suburbs, did my homework and played sports, went to college after high school, became a teacher, got married, went to law school, had a baby boy, became a lawyer, bought a house, and had a baby girl. Personally, I think it’s all indescribably remarkable, but I also know that I’ve followed a relatively traditional path.

It’s not just me that observes the existence of a traditional path, even if it's all a figment of our imaginations. I know because I hear what people say—in their heads and out loud—when I mention that Brian and I may adopt a third child.

“But you already have your boy and your girl...” It’s a popular response, and I’m not faulting people who say it. I’d bet most of them say it to mean that we’re so blessed that we have a boy and a girl, and I appreciate the reminder, even though I never really need it. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve probably made comments about the birth of a third child that could be wildly annoying if overhead; things like, “Oh, they must want a girl,” or, “I hope they get a boy.” I don’t know why I have assumed that the motivation behind a third child is always gender balance.

For Brian and I, having a third child is not logical. Financially, adoption is so expensive that we’re not even sure that it’s possible, and after that $30,000-$40,000 that we don’t have is gone, we’ll need money to actually raise the child. We would need a bigger car, bunk beds in Teddy’s room, and time away from things that we both love to do. Of course, there’s the scariest part of thinking about adoption—the thought of, What if? What if my cancer came back? What if we bring a child into our family only to have that child suffer the grief of his/her mother’s passing? Is it fair to that child? Is it fair to Brian? To Teddy and Annabel? I’m not saying these questions are logical or rational or even fair. I’m just saying that they happen in my head.

There are a million different reasons why Brian and I should clear out our basement of all the baby stuff, let our account become defunct, and start to enjoy easier work days and weekends now that our kids are getting older. It would make sense to stop; to enjoy what we have and not ask for any more. But deep down, I don’t want that. Not yet. Right now, I don’t want to be logical. I want a third child. I want a house full of awesome kid chaos. I want Annabel to have the gift of being a big sister and Teddy to have the gift of another friend for life. I love my brother, and if my parents never had a third child, I’d have lost out big time.

And so our journey begins. It’s not the logical or rational or traditional route, perhaps, but in the end, it’s not very complicated, either. Sure, there will be stacks of paperwork, FBI clearances, and home visits where we need to pretend like our kids do what we ask them to do. There could be awful disappointments and humongous complications. But that’s true for anyone who brings any child into the world. There are huge risks involved, probably because nothing is riskier than falling in love with someone. But in the end, it seems like an awful shame to waste a whole lot of love that and Brian, the kids, and I all want to give. Especially when I believe, deep down, that there’s an unborn baby out there who’s going to eat it all up.

*   *   *

Quote of the Day: Last night when we were all talking about adopting a baby, I asked the kids if they would want a baby brother or sister. Teddy immediately answered, "brother." Annabel thought about it for a second and then declared, "Why don't we just get both?!" 

Friday, June 20, 2014


When I divulged my diagnosis to other people, their eyes bugged out and their voices filled with disbelief.  'You're too young,' they replied. I agreed with a simple nod but wanted to blurt out, 'No one is too young for cancer. I'm not an anomaly. Get over it. It could happen to you, too.' In my mind I silently defended the brutal reality that the person to whom I was speaking was no more impervious to death than I was; he or she just had the luxury of not having to think about it.

~ Kairol Rosenthal, "Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide to Cancer in Your 20's and 30's"

*   *   *

A few weeks ago, I watched a friend of mine wash an apple. This friend, who I will call, "Becky," was preparing some fruit for a few families who were hanging by her pool for the afternoon. I don't know why that apple caught my attention, but it did. I was completely mesmerized, first by the simple fact that Becky washed the apple like I used to wash an apple. She put it under the tap, turned up the water handle for a split second, then shook off the excess drops before slicing it into pieces.

I don't remember anything that Becky and I talked about as we stood by her sink after she rinsed that apple. All of the sudden, my mind started racing about so many other things. Mostly, I started to think about how everything had changed.

I thought about it several times that afternoon, as I pitched wiffle balls to kids from the pool, and as I watched Annabel learn to jump in the water. Everything changed, I repeated in my head, trying to get comfortable with the thought that was stuck in my mind like a bad radio ad (1-800-54-GIANT?).

When I got home, I pulled out a book that my therapy lady had given me. It was called, "Everything Changes," so obviously I felt it was fitting for my swirling thoughts. I had never more than skimmed the book, still too scared to know much of anything about cancer beyond what I am forced to know. But all of the sudden, my curiosity trumped my fear. I read the first part. When I came across the quote copied above, a lot of disjointed pieces in my head started to line up. 

Yes, a lot of things have changed since cancer entered my life. For one small but representative example, I wash apples differently now than I used to. I use a brush and I scrub them really well, for 15 seconds or so. I even wash in the little crevass where the stem is. While I scrub, I'm often wondering about pesticides and questioning whether some sort of chemical in something that I ate gave me cancer, or worse, could give it to me again, or worst of all, could cause the disease in my children. But there are no answers on that icky path. Which is why part of me misses the days of the one-second splash on the apple. I miss "the luxury of not having to think about it." 

Yep, I know where Kairol Rosenthal is coming from because a few times in the last two years, I've felt that way -- like other people don't understand; like they have a luxury that I will never have again. But for the most part, I don't feel that way and never really have.   

With time, I have come to believe that we aren't separated in the way that Ms. Rosenthal suggests that we are. There aren't two groups -- one with a luxury of not thinking about death and one without it. Sure, I wash my apples differently now and think about pretty much everything in a whole new context, but so many people that I care about have experienced something that has caused everything to change. In fact, many of those people have had everything change in ways far more severe than mine did. And all the people who haven't had their lives change like that yet? Well, one day they probably will. 

In a small number of ways, cancer has made me feel different and alone. But for the most part, it has made me feel just the opposite. It has made me feel connected with other people in a way I have never felt before. It has helped me be more empathetic, more honest, more human. 

I believe that we are all connected by knowing what it feels like to have a significant part our lives collapse; having something happen that changes everything. Obviously cancer patients don't have a monopoly on that feeling and I don't think it's healthy or helpful to pretend that we do. 

I hadn't read the Everything Changes quote yet when I stood in Becky's kitchen watching her chop apples and trying to decide if I would have a slice or not. Nevertheless, at that time, my mind had wondered to the very sentiment Ms. Rosenthal grappled with above. But I see it a bit differently. Sure, Becky doesn't have cancer and probably doesn't worry about pesiticides every time she touches fruits or vegetables. But Becky had her own near collapse in the very recent past when she watched her father, the proud and most benevolent king of her big and young family, battle back from a sudden and life-threatening illness. She waited while he underwent a surgery that doctors admitted was terribly risky. She raised three kids and held a job in the meantime. And I'm sure there are other things I don't even know about Becky that could prove this point once more. I don't know Becky very well, but I know that cancer didn't make me different from her. Life puts challenges in front of all of us and we all need to decide whether to rise or fall to the occasion.  

Nevertheless, ignorance of one's vulnerability probably is a luxury. I see that ignorance in my own children and it's precious. But there's also preciousness in knowing that every day is a gift.

At some point, all of us will experience something that seems to change everything, straight down to how we wash an apple. It may be something sudden, like a cancer diagnosis, or something more gradual, like the unwind of a marriage. It's wildly ironic that when that thing happens, most of us will feel alone -- painfully and tragically alone -- when really, we are now connected to countless others in a way we never were before.

It's only now, almost two years after my diagnosis, that I've realized that when everything changes, the most solid stuff stays the same -- love, fear, and the truth that we are all human. Not a hero and not a failure. Not someone with something or someone without it. Just human. Trying to eat every bite of the apple while hoping we don't choke on it or die of cancer. And trying to enjoy how delicious it all is in the meantime. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Breeze

I have never researched anything about cancer, save Googling the name of my chemotherapy drugs so that I can spell them correctly in this blog, and even that took months for me to be able to do. Recently, however, in trying to draft a “book proposal” for my memoir, I have dabbled in some related research. (Note: I only recently confirmed that I know what a “memoir” really is and I only just learned that non-fiction books need “book proposals” prior to finding an agent and a publisher. Who knew?!)

On my day home to write last week, my research-dabbling didn’t go very well for a few minutes there. I had ordered this book called, “How to Write a Book Proposal,” and I was happily skimming through it at my desk. When it introduces a new concept, the book offers examples of real proposals to demonstrate the point. One such example was a book that had to do with cancer. If you’re brave, feel free to look closely at the example in the photo below. Or, if you’re like me, please don’t bother. 

After reading that example, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and adrenaline, or something like it, rush through my veins. The room spun and at first, I was too scared to try to stop it. But a minute or so later, I got up from my chair, poured some cold water, and carried on. Once my stomach settled back into place, I even laughed about how ridiculous it was that I stumbled upon that page on my merry little Monday.

A week later, as I sat on our porch with my laptop for a few precious hours of working on the proposal, I decided that I was ready to find some statistics. “How to Write a Book Proposal” suggested finding statistics to prove that there is an audience for the proposed project, so I decided I would do it, even though I knew I could ask others to do the research for me if I really needed to. But, almost two years after my diagnosis, it was time.

I went to the Chrome address bar and typed in, “Number of people in the world with cancer.” A minute later, I learned that each year, 14 million people across the planet will learn that they have cancer. Twelve percent of those people (approximately 1.9 million) will have breast cancer (13% will have lung cancer, the most prevalent of all cancers). A statistic followed about how many people die from cancer each year but I didn’t let myself read that one, or if I did, I didn’t allow myself to remember it.

I don’t know if it was that tiny bit of research, or more likely that I have been thinking a lot about friends who are battling metastatic disease, but for whatever reason, today I was particularly anxious about an ache I felt in my neck. I know, I know, I know; I could have just slept on it wrong or hurt it while exercising. But still, I want to simply state for the record (for the 6,718th time) how terrifying it still is to live with the reality that something deadly was, or is, or one day could be inside me.

As I speed-walked to my train after work today, I thought about how frustrated I was that I still have these moments of paralyzing fear; when my stomach sinks and tumbles and everything else tightens. I tried to go back to the meditation principles that I learned in the stress reduction class I took. Instead of thinking about the ache in my neck or the terror and dread I feel thinking about what my family and I would have to go through if that ache was cancer, I decided to stop and see and feel what was around me. I noticed immediately that the breeze was the most perfect temperature. Perfect. But since I suck at meditating, my mind quickly returned to thinking about how I needed to get my fears down on paper as soon as I reached my seat. A minute later, as I boarded the train, I thought of an analogy that somehow helped me feel less frustrated by my persistent fears. The thought came from the breeze.

If I lived through a tornado
that spun from where it shouldn’t
If I built everything back up again
that the tornado had torn down
If, then, I felt a warm breeze
I would shiver
Because I know now
What the breeze can become

Being a cancer survivor is kind of like that.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Back in January, I started to work with a new client who I will call "June." Much like the other pro bono clients whom I have helped obtain asylum in the U.S., June has been through hell and back. There's no doubt that she is traumatized by what she has endured, just as anyone in the world would be.

A few months ago, June had to visit Boston for an immigration court hearing. For logistical reasons, and given the fact that June suffers great pain when she sits for long, I offered up my parents' house for June and her small entourage to stay the night before the hearing. Brian and I don't have any extra bedrooms in our house, and since my parents do, they graciously agreed to host three complete strangers without so much as a pause. 

The night before the hearing, we all gathered for pizza. It was one of the most precious nights of my life--watching a group of people from such (such) different backgrounds come together for some cheese pizza, vanilla cupcakes, and Sprite (all June's choices).  

The night of the pizza dinner, my parents and I all got home from work early to prepare for our guests. I picked up the food, my mom set the table with place mats and cloth napkins, and my dad turned on music and nice lighting. I was excited, and a bit nervous, to welcome our guests to my parents' beautiful home.  

Sometime before dinner, I noticed that my mom had placed a small glass ladybug at each person's place setting. My mom likes to collect cute things like that and little (and big) pieces of art decorate the entire house. Through June's interpreter, we discussed how the ladybugs would be good luck for the hearing the next day. We ended up needing luck, and for whatever reason (perhaps the ladybugs?), we got it. 

A month or so later, I was standing at a cash register at a gift shop. On the counter I spotted a basket of tiny glass ladybugs. Each one was $1. I bought one for June. 

This past Friday morning, still nauseous from the two hour bus ride that I need to take to reach June every time I see her, I dug around my briefcase for the little mesh bag with the ladybug in it. When I found it, I handed it to June, who looked totally confused and curious as to what I could have brought her. 

June didn't even open the mesh bag. The moment she saw the tiny ladybug through it, she gasped, put her hand over her mouth, and started to weep. I hadn't anticipated her reaction beyond hoping that she smiled, and this reaction was most certainly not one I had expected. June continued to weep, shaking, and holding the mesh bag up to her heart. 

I gave her some time and sat, a bit stunned, thinking about what in the world I should say. 

Finally, I told June she was so kind to be so grateful. Her interpreter told her what I said in her language. She continued to weep and shake and hold the ladybug up against her chest. 

I tried to make a joke. "Wow! That $1 was the best dollar I have ever spent!" Even before the translation, June laughed. Honestly, it was. 

A minute later, June tried to collect herself to tell me something. I will never ever forget what she said. As her interpreter translated it for me, I watched June. "It's not how much it cost," she explained, "It's that this shows me that you were thinking of me. It shows me that I'm not alone." 

"You're not alone," I told her. 

A few minutes later, we got down to work. 

*   *   *

Prior to getting cancer, when my clients would cry while recounting their tragic stories, I felt like I should do something to help stop their tears. I wanted to be able to say the right thing or make a joke or distract them so that they wouldn't have to feel all the pain that I saw them feeling. 

Cancer changed me in this regard. I explained this to June during a prior meeting when she was having a terribly hard time controlling her emotions. She was clearly distraught by the very fact that she was distraught; a whole other layer of pain that I knew she didn't need to endure. I explained to June (who already knew that I had cancer) that our situations were obviously very different, but that it was okay to cry. I told her that I can hold it together pretty well 99.9% of the time, but without fail, every time I see my oncologist, I bawl my eyes out in the exam room. So much fear and pain that I hold in comes pouring out to his person that I have trusted to solve my biggest problem. Not that I mean to compare myself to Dr. Bunnell in this analogy (conceited much?), but my point was only that sometimes we all have a space where, for whatever reason, stuff that we keep inside just can't stay packed up anymore. I told her my colleague and I were happy to provide one of those spaces. 

I still hate to see my clients cry, but when they do, I no longer feel like I need to stop their tears. I know I can't take away their pain just like Dr. Bunnell or Dr. Fasciano can't take away mine. So I give them time and space to cry. I listen. And I think about how to help them get through what we need to cover in that meeting with as little discomfort as possible. 

Still, for all I have written about, reflected on, and bottled up regarding my cancer journey, I never expected that June would help me better understand it by her reaction to the little $1 ladybug. But she did. What June said to me last week made little puzzle pieces in my mind come together. She was so truly right. When I am my most scared about cancer, or anything, for that matter, it's when I feel alone.

Last week, on my bus ride back from that meeting with June, I thought about June's reaction to the $1 gift I gave her. I felt awful motion sickness, but I also felt pride. The little glass ladybug had done for someone else what so many others have done for me -- it helped June feel less alone. And for that, I will allow myself a moment to feel infinitely blessed.