Monday, September 29, 2014

Photo Finish

This past summer, I sent query letters and sections of my book to at least 25 literary agents and publishers, most of whom intimidated me simply by the fact that they live in New York City. I never heard back from the majority of them, and I didn’t hold my breath that I would...with one exception.

The exception was a small and innovative press in Boston that I felt was the perfect fit for my book. Even better, a friend of mine knew the press's founder and publisher (“Agatha”), so I thought I had my foot in the door, or at the very least, the tiny nail on my pinky toe.

I spent countless hours working on my submission to Agatha and her colleagues. When I didn’t hear back after several weeks, I emailed my friend to check in. She touched base with Agatha and reported back with good news—Agatha hadn’t had a chance to read what I had sent her. I was pleased with the not-a-No. 

A few more weeks passed by, and when I still hadn’t heard anything, I emailed Agatha again, with a new and improved query letter and the same attachments I had sent her before (Preface, Part One, and Epilogue). I was being "softly stubborn," as I like to say; I just wanted Agatha to read my stuff. If she reads it, I thought, I have a chance. Okay, I admit, some of the time, I felt that I had more than just a chance. Every now and then, I thought this was going to be it.

On August 9th, two years and one day after my diagnosis, I was playing golf with Brian, my dad, Sean, and Teddy at my family’s annual tournament on Cape Cod. It’s the one day of the year we get to see dozens of cousins and second cousins from my dad’s side and I look forward to it all year long. 

As we bumped along in the clanging golf cart up the fairway of a long par four, I checked my email. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw a message from Agatha. Brian drove along scooping up all the drives that were shorter than his and I tried to keep my phone steady enough that I could read the long-awaited email.

Although the first paragraph had some positive feedback, it was clear from the tone that this was a big fat No. I felt awfully disappointed not only at the final answer, but at the justification, too. I didn’t want to show that I had just received crappy news on such a beautiful day so I just kept smiling and swinging and sneaking re-reads of the email. When my family started giving me crap for all of the attention I was suddenly paying to my phone, I told them about Agatha's rejection. I played it off like I didn’t care but it was abundantly clear that I did.

When we got back into the cart after putting out a team par, Brian asked me what Agatha had said. I gave him the gistmy situation was “too perfect” (aside from the cancer) and as a result, readers would not be able to relate to my story. Agatha wrote: 

In this case, the story is straightforward (which is a simplicity that is beautiful in many ways), and the conflict, from what we can tell, is just the cancer itself. It seems as though you have a perfect family – husband, parents, siblings, in-laws, a mother with deep connections and an incredible ability to be a resource (she sounds amazing), great and supportive friends. A dream scenario for handling a nightmare. All of this is extraordinary for you as a person, of course, but most people don’t have such perfection in their lives when dealing with a crisis, and I wonder if this is relatable for the average person. Further, you seem like a remarkable, principled, balanced individual who has exceptional clarity on her priorities and on things that others might struggle more with, like losing their hair (“I never cared much about my hair”) or breasts (the lack of hesitation about the unavoidable mastectomy). In addition, things that are incredible for you – living in Boston among the world’s best healthcare providers, having a mother with superpowers who is able to instantly navigate and find you the perfect doctor, pay for the extra lab tests, etc., a tendency to be able to rely on your gut for making decisions – all mean that another thing your memoir might do (instruct others trying to figure out the same things without the same luck or advantages), it doesn't seem to.

The words stung a lot on that 15th hole back in August, and through the 16th, too. But by the 17th hole, I was feeling much better. If my gut instinct and all of the good people in my life mean that Agatha doesn't want to publish my book then I am fine with that. It wasn't the right fit after all. I didn't dwell on it, and despite my typically abysmal putting skills, I drained a long putt on the last hole for birdie.

*  *  *

After walking 25 miles last week, I was sore, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would have been. My feet were swollen like a pregnant lady's, and I had a heat rash all over them which made wearing any type of shoe terribly uncomfortable. My hips and knees and butt hurt, the backs of my knees were so tight that I basically had to shuffle, and the blisters on my heels were by no means cute. By Wednesday, however, I was almost back to normal, and feeling amazed at the resiliency of the human body. It was around then that Brian told me that he had a plan for the upcoming weekend. 

"We're going to walk the rest of the walk on Sunday morning," he asserted. "Just that last mile, with the kids."  

I thought the idea was very sweet and I told him that I would love to do it. 

Saturday was a packed with activity and at one point, I suggested to Brian that we not bother driving all the way into Boston to walk that last mile. But he said we were doing it; that he had already arranged a cab to pick us up at Copley at 9am to bring us back to our car. Given his thoughtful planning, I dropped my case immediately and agreed that it would be a lot of fun. 

We set out for Boston around 7:45am Sunday morning—Brian, Teddy, Annabel, me, and Buckley (Sean and Lauren's puppy who we watched for the weekend while they were away).

As we were stopped at a traffic light off the exit of the expressway, I looked over and saw a big white SUV that I recognized. "Brian, that's Erin's car!" I exclaimed.

"No, it's not," he said matter-of-factly.

"Really, it is! See look, that's Erin!"

I was so excited to see my friend that I took out my phone to text her. As we continued straight on Melnea Cass Boulevard, Erin's SUV turned right past Boston Medical Center and I couldn't really see her. I watched her turn and then I noticed her sister, Katie's car in front of her. I was so excited about this amazing coincidence, mostly because we were on our way to do the rest of the walk and Katie and Erin's participation in the walk and everything leading up to it had meant so much to me.

Over another text, I told Katie a shortened version of how great I found this coincidence. She explained that they were all headed into a brunch for her dad's birthday. Given that between them, Katie and Erin have six girls under six years old, I wished them good luck at the brunch and a happy birthday to their wonderful dad. Then I put my phone away and we drove on.

I didn't expect to be giddy upon reaching the place where I collapsed a week prior, but I was.

833 Beacon Street. Just at the bottom of a hill, the Citgo sign poised over it. The whole scene looked so much more peaceful a week later, probably because I was no longer faint and mortified with embarassment. 

Brian pulled into the first spot on Beacon street, just a bit beyond 833. When he put the car in park, we both noticed the license plate of the car parked in front of us. This was it. 

No joke. Nothing planted or arranged. That car just happened to be parked right there. The coincidence felt almost magical. Seriously, what in the world are the chances?

We backtracked 50 yards or so to 833 Beacon and took a few photos. It was way more fun standing up than lying down. 

The mile walk up Beacon and Comm. Ave. was so much fun. Buckley was crazy cute (or perhaps, crazy and cute), as were the kids as they tried to walk him. We passed by the Buckminster Hotel, which seemed particularly fitting given the puppy we had in hand. 

When we took a right on Hereford Street, I yelled up to Brian who was just a bit ahead of me, "Wow, we really were close, weren't we!?" He agreed that we really had been close the week before. Something about that realization made me proud, and something else about it stung a tiny bit.

I got choked up as we walked up Hereford. I remembered back to the signs I saw all along the side of the road along the Newton hills—"Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston." I remembered how much pain I had been in at that point; how much each and every step hurt and how when I started to feel sick, I had wished someone would have rolled me to that "right on Hereford."

Now, here I was, a week later, with my husband and kids, feeling so very blessed, and not caring in the slightest about how dorky we all must have looked wearing the same t-shirts.

As we approached the Finish Line painted on Boylston Street, I couldn't help but feel even more giddy. I was surprised when Brian wasn't as excited as I was. He didn't even want to stop and take a picture, insistent that the Jimmy Fund Walk finished in Copley Square, which was just a block ahead. I forced Brian to stop and take a picture of me and Teddy at the finish line. Then he hurried on and we caught up. 

The first out-of-the-ordinary thing that caught my eye was the Jimmy Fund Walk sign at Copley. How great! There's even a sign left from last week! I thought to myself. Then I saw the purple shirts and I heard cheering.

I burst out into grateful, happy tears, shaking in shock and disbelief. It was the most incredibly pure and beautiful surprise—friends and family and even Dana-Farber / Jimmy Fund Walk staff gathered at the finish line to celebrate the last walkers (us) crossing the finish line. 

It is still impossible for me to describe how much it meant to me that Brian thought to bring everyone together in this way, that my family and friends worked together to execute the surprise, that Kirsten and Helen traveled back from New Jersey again to be there, and that friends packed up their young kids to come into the city early on a Sunday morning (it wasn't Erin and Katie's dad's birthday, Brianne isn't getting any less pregnant (yet), and Kristin had a huge medical appointment the next day). Perhaps the cliché, "It meant the world," sums it up best. Because the meaning felt (and feels) that big.  

I didn't gather a team to walk part or all of the Boston Marathon route so that I could prove that I could endure 26.2 miles. I gathered the team because I want cancer patients to receive excellent health care and have hope for their future. Thanks to the generosity of our 106 walkers and hundreds of other donors, Team Tara has now raised over $70,000 for the Jimmy Fund. Those numbers make me proud. And, to a lesser (but still significant) degree, so does the fact that I walked the marathon route last week.

I did not write this blog so that people can read about a "perfect ending" to the walk. First, I do not believe in "perfect," and second, in many ways, I do not believe in endings. Especially when there is still so much work to be done.

* * *

Maybe this blog has all the weaknesses that Agatha pointed out in my book. Maybe the monumental thoughtfulness of my family and friends makes the story of my 26.2 miles unrelatable. If so, it's not that big a deal, mostly because I think it can be valuable to read about stories to which we cannot, at first or even ever, relate.

Today after work, I ran over to Dana-Farber so I could see Kristin for her chemo infusion. I had so many different emotions while sitting in a "caregiver" chair in an infusion suite where, for a year, I had been the patient. Admittedly, I felt some guilt over the fact that as far as we know, Herceptin worked for me when it didn't work for Kristin. (Why?) I felt some anger over the fact that Dana-Farber had made a mistake earlier in the day that caused Kristin understandable distress on an already extremely stressful day. (We must make sure that never happens again.) And I felt blessed to be able to sit and enjoy the company of friends despite the unwanted company of advanced stage breast cancer. 

Maybe my story looks "perfect" to Agatha and others—my exceptional family, friends, and doctors; a completed walk; a potential cure. But inside, I know one thing for certain. I just happen to be wired such that when I see people feel pain, I always seem to feel it, too. And that means that my story can't be perfect until theirs is. 

Monday, September 22, 2014


In my head, and on paper, I had three goals for the 2014 Jimmy Fund Walk: (1) gather 100 walkers who otherwise would not have done the walk; (2) raise $60,000 for the Jimmy Fund; and (3) walk the Boston Marathon Route -- 26.2 miles -- with the friends and family who had joined Team Tara.

I had kept Teddy abreast of my progress every step of the way (Annabel is still too young, oblivious, and totally focused on her obsession with Batman to care). Teddy and I were both thrilled when, just last week, our team reached the 100 walker mark and passed $60,000 in funds raised. I was so proud of our dedicated and scrappy team, and I loved all that my son was learning about setting goals and having fun while working to achieve them. 

On Saturday night, however, in his typical pre-bedtime, completely overtired state, he started to cry. He was worried that I would not be able to finish the walk. I have no idea what caused him to get so upset about it but I was able to crack some jokes with him (at Brian's expense) and he fell asleep easily after that. 

Yesterday, after having walked 25 miles, I lay on my back replaying that conversation in my head. I told him not to worry about me; that I was tough and that I'd walk those 26.2 miles no matter what. Well, chalk that up to the long list of lies I've told my children. Because yesterday, I was not able to cross that finish line. 

When my family arrived to pick me up at mile 25, Teddy was hysterical. (Annabel was faking a whine to copy her big brother but really she was smiling, happy to see me and Brian.) Teddy sat next to me on a stoop on Beacon Street, the Citgo sign up a hill to our right, and hugged me tight. "Are you okay?" he asked me at least 12 times. 

"I'm fine buddy!" By that point, I was. And so I explained to Teddy the truth -- that sometimes, when I get really tired, I faint, and that I had to stop walking because I almost fainted. I still don't know if I should have told him all that, but I did. He was still wildly unnerved and I felt terrible about that. I also felt embarrassed -- mostly by the scene we made on the stoop, and by having thought that I was physically able to do something that I proved unable to do. 

On the way home, I lied again. When I couldn't hold back the tears, I tried to turn my head so that he wouldn't see. But he did. I told him that I had drank so much water that my eyes were watering. Dear Lord, what the hell was I thinking? This poor kid is going to be so confused. I better clear that one up today...Yes, I will do that. 

To be honest, I don't know exactly why I cried so much on the ride home. I think it was partly out of disappointment and embarrassment that I hadn't finished, and partly out of guilt that I had inconvenienced people the way I had. I hadn't been able to connect with friends and family in the last leg of the walk and at the finish line and I was also bummed about that. 

On the first leg of the walk, a few of my dedicated teammates mentioned what it would feel like to reach the finish line. "I honestly haven't even thought about it," I told each of them. I really hadn't. But on the car ride out of Boston, I did think about it. I thought about how awesome it would have felt. I was sad to have missed it. 

When we got home, the kids went out to play with their friends. Brian and I showered, and just sat for a while with my mom, my Aunt Helen, and cousin, Kirsten. It had turned into a gloomy night and none of us had the energy to turn the lights on. So we sat in a mostly dark house quiet and down. 

We dwelled in that gloomy place for a bit, until somehow, we got talking about all the people that walked that day. I told them about all the people I walked with for the first 13 miles -- about how I had met each of them, about all the new things I had learned about them, about how truly good they all were. I told them about a teammate who had joined and walked despite that she has been battling a terribly scary condition that has kept her largely confined to her house. I told them about Brian's hockey players who walked 13.1 miles together, and about my neighbors and other friends who joined us at a point in the walk when we all really needed fresh energy. I told them about the kids who had joined our team -- kids who have already given back more to this world than most people ever will. I told them about how great it was to see my friend who walked with her sister, and about their mother who walked five whole miles despite being in the middle of treatment for advanced stage breast cancer. We talked about all those who pushed strollers along the bumpy sidewalks and about my brother (who hates the heat) who carried his new puppy the whole way, while trying to corral our children. We talked about my kids' teachers who walked with their daughters and helped with our kids, too, while others left to tend to me. We talked about my uncles, cousins, colleagues, former colleagues, hockey friends, high school friends, college friends, CrossFit buddies, former students, fellow cancer survivors, and other dear friends who all wore their lavender shirts and walked together to help end all cancer. We cried a bit, laughed a bit more, and after some left-over pizza and a huge bowl of my most favorite dessert in the world (chocolate trifle -- thank you, Amy!) I, for one, felt so much better. 

We put the kids to bed it good spirits. Teddy didn't even cry. 

One person who wasn't able to walk yesterday was my best friend, Brianne. She is at the end of her second pregnancy so she helped with all sorts of things behind the scenes and her amazing husband, Seamus, covered the 26.2 miles for their family without seeming to break a sweat. Brianne made a surprise visit last night and she, Brian, and I sat and chatted about the day, all unable to move without groaning. I know that Brian is disappointed that he didn't get to finish and I know he will do it next year. But Brianne and I agreed that in 2015, God willing, we will do the 13.1 mile route. I'm already excited for it. 

A few astute friends of mine have reminded me of the quote I chose for the back of our team t-shirts. (In case you're curious, the white ribbon represents friendship.)

As I lay there yesterday realizing that I wouldn't be able to finish, I found such comfort in that message. Such real, sincere comfort. Because I know that over 100 people that I care so much about came together yesterday to fight -- with generosity and hard work -- for cancer patients. For me, that is what this was all about to begin with. 

The embarrassment and disappointment I felt yesterday fell away last night with a solid eight hours of sleep. What is now left is a heart so full of gratitude and appreciation that I tear up when I think about what we all achieved and how much fun it was to achieve it. 

Speaking of tears, tonight I plan to clarify with my innocent and misled six-year-old that I did cry on the way home yesterday and it wasn't because I drank a lot of water. I'll explain to him that sometimes we set goals that we don't achieve, but that often, there are awesome stories, inspiring teams, and terrifically strong individuals behind a "Did Not Finish." Most likely, he won't care much about my little life lesson, and he will just want me to play basketball or catch with him. But I think he'll store the clarification in a safe place, and that's the perfect ending for me. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

212 degrees

Anyone who is my Facebook friend undoubtedly has not been able to escape the fact that I am doing the Jimmy Fund Walk in 19 days. I admit, I'm kind of obsessed with it. Sure, I'm naturally inclined to over-enthusiasm, but this bout of it is serious.

I've restrained myself from writing about the walk here because I never want this space to be about money and I thought that if I wrote about the walk, it could start to feel like a solicitation. But tonight, I can't hold back. For the record, however, this post is not meant to request donations. This post is simply about the "c" word; not the "c" word those boys yelled from the blue Nissan Maxima on my 33rd birthday, but rather, the "c" word that rhymes with "pure." Yes, folks, this piece is about "cure."

*  *  *

One of my favorite books is a tiny little book that I stole from my mom. It's called, "212° - the extra degree." It's one of those books you would find near the cash register at a store full of cute gifts, one that I usually pick up, skim, and put back down.

The book begins by explaining that at 211 degrees, water is hot, but at 212 degrees, it boils. As the authors explain, this metaphor "reminds us that seemingly small things can make a tremendous difference." I believe that, both for good and for bad, and I believed it long before cancer. Cancer, however, has shown me nuances of this metaphor that I never before knew existed.

I have been working on a blog about the difference between "curable" cancer and metastatic cancer for over a year. I chip away at it, then I fail, and then I start over. Weeks later, I chip away some more and then I think that everything I've written is stupid and I delete the whole thing. I don't know that I'll ever finish that post, so I'll just write this lazily imperfect one instead. Because I have things I want to say even if I can't find the perfect way to say them.

First, let's set the facts straight. For all that my doctors and I know right now, I have been cured of my cancer. That means that it is possible that my cancer will never return and I will live to be 100. Even as I type those sentences, I force myself to go back over them. Cured of triple positive breast cancer. That would not have happened ten years ago. I know how lucky I am. I also know that luck can change.

I have written about friends of mine who are battling metastatic disease. This means that their cancer has spread throughout their body and that as of today, there is no cure. These friends include women who were in treatment when I was and women who were years out of it. It includes friends with the f-ing HER-2 protein on their cancer cells and friends who were HER-2 negative. Lest I underestimate the power of recent developments, I must acknowledge that there are great medicines that can shrink tumors and drastically slow their growth elsewhere. But there is no way to rid these bodies of cancer for good. 100 years old is not a possibility for them. At least, not yet.

I often think about the 212° book in a context one may not expect: sure, it sucks to have faced cancer up close -- that's 211° of a whole lot of shitty-ness. But metastatic disease? Well, that's 212° of scorching hell. Not all the time, I hope, but far too much of the time.

I cannot speak for people with metastatic disease and it would crush me to read blogs and other pieces that they have written. For this reason and others, I will make my goal tonight small -- I will write about just one reason that I think it must be so indescribably hard to battle metastatic disease.

It must be so hard because we do not live in a culture that focuses on the present moment. Sure, we can find people and classes and places that emphasize it, but mostly, we are surrounded by a much more future-focused culture -- one where we plan months or even years in advance, where we "look forward to..." and "hope the day goes by fast." Focusing on the present moment is kind of like trying to eat well -- it's possible, but we constantly feel like we're fighting the tide.

People with metastatic disease do not have the luxury of plans like others have. They don't have the luxury of floating with any tide. Instead, they have to struggle to stay in the present moment -- the only one they know is guaranteed -- because future moments feel (and perhaps are) dreadfully uncertain. I lived in this dark, dark world for a short time -- five weeks, to be precise -- before I learned that my cancer may actually be curable. Those five weeks felt like sheer torture. No matter how far away I get from that time, and no matter how rosily revisionist I can be in my memory-making, I will never forget that terror. And I will do anything I can to help people who have to live in it for the rest of their lives. Or until we find a cure.

I will walk 26.2 miles on September 21st because I want the peace that accompanies hope to replace the terror that accompanies uncertainty and worse, the inevitability of cancer over-taking the body. I want Dana-Farber researchers to reach (or contribute to others who reach) a cure for metastatic cancer -- not just breast cancer, but all cancers. In the meantime, I want Dana-Farber to provide the very best care for patients and family members who walk through their doors. I chose the Jimmy Fund Walk over other walks because Dana-Farber focuses half of its mission on research and half on patient care. I like that split. Because I know how scary it is to walk through those doors and I know how much relief comes with hope.

Yesterday morning, I walked eight miles -- a laughably short distance to prepare for 26.2. I woke up this morning so sore that I skipped my morning workout. As my hips and knees ached all day, I was reminded that 26.2 miles is not going to be easy for me or for anyone on our team who has set out to do it. But I also know that it's a small thing I can try to do to dial back the 212° of pain that metastatic cancer patients endure every day.

Ultimately, I know I've become more than a little bit obsessed with this walk. But maybe that one extra degree of obsession is just what we need. Maybe we're at 211° and at 212, we cure cancer.