Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Tough Few Weeks

I've got to tell you, the past few weeks have brought some tough moments. First, Elizabeth Edwards died. Her breast cancer was a stage 3 when it was discovered, as was mine. This week I learned that a friend's breast cancer, also diagnosed at stage 3, has metastasized to her bones and her liver. I am sad and mad. Sad, of course, at the harsh realities of illness and death. And mad that although we live in a sophisticated nation, we seem unable to get a handle on how to stem the tide of this disease.

On Tuesday, I was listening to Fresh Air with Terri Gross on the local public radio station, and she was interviewing an oncologist, Dr. Marisa Weiss, about her own breast cancer. Dr. Weiss is responsible for the development of the website, which is a terrific source of straight facts and discussions about breast cancer. Dr. Weiss's cancer was just diagnosed last spring, long after the founding of the website. It was satisfying, although not consoling, to hear her express her professional assessment of what is causing breast cancer, because her thoughts line up with the conclusions I have reached. To hear her interview, please go to and follow the links to Fresh Air and the program aired on Tuesday, December 14, 2010.

I am most interested in what Dr. Weiss says she is doing to protect herself from recurrence: eating organic fruits and vegetables, avoiding meats with hormones, clearing her home of all cleaning products made with chemicals which the body can "receive" as estrogen, avoiding stress, cutting back on alcohol(3-4 drinks per week), ramping up her exercise regimen, losing weight and maintaining it, and getting adequate sleep to give her body a chance to repair itself. She acknowledges that this change in lifestyle requires commitment. What I think is distressing is that this lifestyle is so unusual. Based on what I have read and heard, everyone should be trying to live this way.

Since completing my chemo and radiation treatments, I have felt uneasy, like I am dangling by a thin thread above a deep chasm. This is due, I am sure, to the fact that I am not DOING anything to chase the cancer away; I am just sitting and waiting. I guess the challenge for me is to take up the chase by consciously undertaking a real lifestyle change, as Dr. Weiss has done.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A "B" or not a "B'" - That Is the Question

Breast reconstruction surgery. Am I going to do this or not? I understand that if I am going to have this surgery, I need to decide ASAP, since the tissue on the radiated side tends to become less and less flexible as time passes, making the "plumping out" of the tissue more difficult.

The plus side of having reconstruction would be that I would no longer need to wear a bra, if I didn't want to. The newbies would be firm as a foam pillow, with NO NIPPLES to show through shirts, unless I choose to have those babies reconstructed also, not just tattooed on. Also, the sweaty season of NC summer would be much more bearable, since the silicon inserts are hot, hot, hot.

The downside for me would be two-fold: first the surgery, which is no small undertaking, involving moving tissue from my latissimus muscles under the skin around to my front; and second, the after effect, which is loss of upper body strength. I have little enough upper body strength now; I hate to think how weak I could become. Also, although I am not afraid of surgery, I recognize that complications DO occur, so elective surgery needs thorough study.

For the past couple of weeks I have experimented with going to my exercise class with no prosthesis under the tshirt. For all the world, I look like I did at age ten, except for the gray hair and glasses; and I've got to say, I don't mind the look and I LOVE the way it feels. It seemed a little weird at first, going out in public with no bosom....fake or otherwise... but I have grown accustomed to the freedom from straps and elastic. I just wish I could go bare under all my clothes as easily as I can under a tshirt.

I have had conversations with women who have had reconstruction, but none of them were in the same situation as I am, with limited options in the type of procedure available. Most of them were able to have the surgery done at the same time as their mastectomies, and that alone would make a huge difference for me. One of my breast cancer friends has suggested that I do some investigation via a website,, where I will be able to find discussion groups centered on my specific questions and situation. I think that will be my next step.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Finished and Done

For a number of years I have noted the increasing use of the word "done" to mean "finished" - as in, "I am done with this project." To my ears this construction sounds foreign....or, pardon me....Yankee. In my house, we would say that a baking potato was "done" when the interior was fully cooked; but if I were digging potatoes and completed the task, then I was "finished." I fear I am losing this linguistic battle (along with the one concerning the proper use of "lay" and "lie") but, regarding my cancer treatment, I think I can employ both "finished" and "done" in a proper form to describe my experience.

On Wednesday, November 24, 2010, I finished all of my medical treatment for breast cancer. In addition to 6 weeks of chemotherapy, I received 33 doses of radiation, including the final 5 which were aimed directly at the scar. Of course, I am happy to have this treatment behind me, but I cannot complain about the experience since it did not greatly interfere with normal life.

I also would say that I am done - as in "completely cooked." If you could see the skin on my chest and back, you would understand this terminology. Although I have not suffered much pain, I do resemble the proverbial boiled lobster. In addition, I cannot be exposed to any more radiation - EVER - in this region of my body, so I am as fully cooked as I can be.

So now I just have to wait and watch. This stance will be harder for me than facing chemotherapy and radiation, but I have no choice.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Coming Down the Stretch

The end is in sight. Not the end of me, praise God, but the end of my treatments. I have 9 more radiation sessions, and the last 5 of them will be aimed at the scar on my chest because that is the region most likely to experience a cancer recurrence. Who knows why that is?

As I have mentioned before, radiation has been a "no problem" experience. Even the burning and itching part has not really made much of a dent in my normal activities. I have been careful to keep the burned area "lotioned up" with Udder Cream, and cortisone cream has handled the itch just fine.

As you can see from the photos, my hair is returning. Everyone wants to know if it is curly, since I did have curly hair prior to this experience, and I have been told that often the texture and curliness factor change after chemotherapy. So far, I can't tell much difference. The texture seems the same, and it is growing at a distinct angle; but it's not long enough to curl yet, so the jury is still out on that question. Interestingly, the layout of gray and dark seems exactly as it was before the hair came out. When Gord shaved me down to the nubbins back in June, I was very conscious of a dark, leopard-like spot in the middle of my graying pate. Now that the hair is returning, I can see the same dark spot in the middle of the gray on the top of my head.

Since colder weather is upon us, I am happy to have a bit more cover on my head. Going without hair has given me a greater understanding of husband Gordon's love of caps. Being follically challenged, he seldom leaves the house without one, and now I get it. It's amazing how chilly you can get, even bundled up below the chin, if your head is exposed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Not Everyone Grew Up at My House

It is embarrassing to admit, but I was a young adult before I fully understood that my point of view was not a fairly universal view. Obviously, I accepted that people might differ on political issues or social issues or even on what to have for dinner, but there were certain perspectives that just seemed obvious "givens" to me. Then I took the Myers/Briggs personality assessment, and my eyes were opened somewhat. Today, I had another experience with my perspective not being the only one.

This morning's radiation session was a few minutes delayed, so I had some time to chat with the other "ladies in waiting." One nice older woman from N. Wilkesboro (a Granny Clampitt type) and I were waiting and had been chatting, when another woman I had seen on occasion came in. This woman seemed nervous as a cat, even though I knew this was about her second week of treatments. I had taken note of her on her first day, because she seemed somewhat "undone" - had failed to check in properly, didn't want to undress as she was directed, couldn't seem to get the lock to work on the clothes locker, etc. Anyway, this morning her eyes kept darting this way and that, and she latched onto our conversation about chemo, asking numerous shaky questions about side effects, etc. Everything seemed to make her more and more uneasy.

This unhappy lady was called for her radiation session, leaving me with Granny Clampitt, who filled me in on what this nervous woman had told her yesterday: that she might just quit her treatment...that she was so frightened by it. This attitude I find simply amazing and incomprehensible. How could a few minutes in a radiation lab be more frightening than letting cancer have its way with your body? And radiation is just NOT scary, although the technicians tell me that some people feel claustrophobic lying under the machine. That seems strange to me, since the apparatus merely hangs over ones body; you are not enclosed in it.

This experience reminds me of a story about a woman from my hometown who knew she had something wrong in her breast. The description of her overt symptoms are too graphic and unpleasant for me to write here, but the bottom line is that she knew she had cancer, but did not go to the doctor for months and months, and by then the cancer was too advanced to do anything about it. I believe that she was just so afraid of having the cancer confirmed by a physician, that she preferred to pretend it didn't exist. Again, astounding!

Even if Granny Clampitt grew up in N. Wilkesboro, NC and I grew up in Winnsboro, SC, we seem to have "grown up in the same house," because she and I agreed that we feel lucky to be able to come to treatment every morning at a good hospital, with knowledgeable doctors and caring personnel who want to help us get well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Radiation or Sleep Deprivation?

This afternoon I felt a desperate need for a nap, so....I took one. It was raining like crazy outside, so the ambiance was perfect. The thing is, I cannot decide whether this "nap need" was related to the radiation treatments, or if it was merely the result of sleep deprivation. Last night a wild storm flew through Winston-Salem, and since we have one of those weather alert radios which comes on and squawks if there is severe weather coming, I was awakened numerous times during the night. Also, I did attend an exercise class today following my treatment, so I could be a bit more tired than usual anyway. I will be curious to see how I feel tomorrow afternoon, and if the "rack monster" will call my name.

I am beginning to see a bit of change in the condition of my skin where the radiation is focusing; there is some redness and a slight itch, which I am expecting to get worse. I have armed myself with Cortisone cream, Udder Balm, and benadryl. I think it is pretty funny that the skin cream recommended by the doctor is Udder Balm. What could be better for my particular situation?!

Yesterday was my day to have an appoinment with my radiation oncologist. She and I meet every week, and I love it that she has specific topics she covers at each meeting. Usually I think of radiologists as doctors who do not care for much patient contact - who are more focused on the technology than on the individual being treated. However, Dr. Evans is exceedingly personable and spends quite a bit of time answering my questions and trying to find out what I want to know. Yesterday we talked about exercise as a way to prevent recurrence. Apparently, 30-40 minutes of exercise at least 4 times per week greatly enhances ones odds of surviving this cancer. The research does not clarify exactly why this works, although I think she said that they believe that exercise activates/envigorates the "killer" T-cells. Whatever the reason, you can bet that I am putting my nose to this grindstone for all I am worth.

I really like Dr. Evans because she seems to embrace the world of integrative medicine. We have talked about vitamins and other supplements, and she spoke of what she does in her own daily regimen. And we have discussed dietary "no no's" like concentrated soy products. Interestingly, she has spotted in my nature that need to have some control or be taking steps toward a goal, because she mentioned something that had occurred to me during the past week: that I might feel a bit of a let-down after my treatments are complete, because then all I can do is "wait and see." Because I know this about myself, I am glad she is giving me some concrete things to do: exercise; take appropriate supplements; and avoid or reduce intake of certain foods, such as concentrated soy, alcoholic beverages, etc.

All in all, I am still feeling well and happy. Crazy, huh? I examine this perverse nature of mine, and find it puzzling. This "project" of having cancer is somehow envigorating to me. Plus, it seems to offer a great excuse for an afternoon nap.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Wine Whine

Instead of dreaming about alligators, I'm dreaming about wine. I have cut back on my consumption of alcohol because of all the recent studies that underscore the connection between cancer (particularly of the breast and the colon)and alcohol consumption, and I miss it. I miss preparing supper with a glass of wine on the counter for intermittent sips as I chop or stir or mince or saute; I miss the way the taste signals the end of the "working" day (even if I have laundry yet to fold); I even miss the way the wine glass feels in my hand.

Last night I had a fairly vivid dream featuring a splendid bottle of wine which I was thoroughly enjoying, until I woke up. There was not much to the dream except for my delight in the sipping and savoring of the wine. The wine felt unusually viscous and velvety in my mouth...somehow thicker than wine should be, but pleasurable in every way. What does this dream mean? I haven't a clue. All I know is that I don't particularly miss my breasts, but I do MISS MY WINE.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Into the Frying Pan

One of the best things about this radiation regimen is that I signed up for an early morning appointment - 8:15 - so I am forced to get up, get dressed, and get out the door earlier than has been my habit since my younger child got out of high school. Yes. I had become quite the slouch, hanging around in my pyjamas until 9 AM on many days. So, these days I am turning over a new leaf, and getting radiated, to boot.

So far, everything is smooth as glass. The Cancer Center continues to get high marks for efficiency, pleasant surroundings, and gracious staff. And more warm blankets too! I have a nifty little barcoded card that I swipe upon entry to the waiting room. My name pops up on a screen, I head for the dressing room, grab a gown, strip, put my stuff in a locker - and before I can settle in with a good magazine, one of the technicians comes to get me for my 15 minutes "in the beam."

Before starting treatments I went in for some preliminary visits which included the "tattooing visit" and the "making an upper body cast visit." The body cast forces me to lie in exactly the same position each visit. The tattoos, of course, show the technicians how to line up the machine to zap the right places. So, when I reach the treatment room, I lie on a table with my body settled into the preformed cast. The various techs shift me this way and that, pulling my hips an inch left or right, my upper body another touch to the side. All the while they are calling out numbers like 94 point 3, 97 point 1. Who knows what it all means. I trust that they know what they are doing. Before long they say they are ready, and with no other preamble, the nuking begins. There is nothing to feel, not much to see other than a sign that shines, saying "Beam On," and before I can get really comfy, the whole shebang is over.

Today is Day 5 out of 33 treatments. So far there have been no discernible side effects. I expect that it will take another week or two before I see the burning or feel the fatigue.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Too Busy to Write About Having Cancer

I feel the pull of fall activities, much like the pull of the bathtub drain...a vortex which is sucking me into a swirl of busy-ness, away from the relative peace of the summer. Admittedly, much of this activity has been fun: a wonderful boat trip on the St. Lawrence River and exploration of the Thousand Islands region of Ontario and New York; a trip to the DC area for a wedding and a delightful visit with friends; a short but sweet visit with daughter Sarah, who was in the wedding; and a quick lunch with son Gordon in Lexington, Va. where he is attending law school. Nonetheless, the inbox is filling up with reminders of places I need to be, articles I need to read, meetings I need to attend, etc; and I am finding less and less time to write this blog and less and less time to pay attention to living with to eat, think, relax, supplement, medicate.

Today I was ENCOURAGED, even compelled, to write because I pledged that I would blog today for The Army of Women, which I wrote about in a previous post. I am struck by what a powerful vehicle the Internet is for sharing important information quickly and efficiently. What a boon for organizations such as this Army, which needs to recruit nationwide, one million women of all ages, ethnicities, health stages, and locales, to help in the research to find the causes of breast cancer.

So...please consider joining this effort. If you do, you will hear about research projects which you might be eligible to participate in. However, signing up for the Army does NOT obligate you in any way. There is no cost to join, and they are not asking for donations. They just want women to sign up to hear about the studies and possibly decide to participate in one or more. A study might involve nothing more than filling out a questionnaire, or it might involve giving a blood sample. In any event, YOU decide whether to participate.

Now, about using the internet - if you sign up, please tell others. If you are on Facebook, update your status by writing: "I signed up to STOP breast cancer before it STARTS. Have you? Join today at , then copy and paste this status update as your own." Because I am such a neophyte blogger and computer-use-challenged, I cannot seem to insert the PSA video which I want to share. If you are interested, go to and search for Army of Women. There is a great video with Susan Sarandon narrating which I would like everyone to see.

A final note: I have finished chemo, and my hair is growing back - all gray so far - but my eyebrows and eyelashes have disappeared here at the very last minute. I start radiation on October 11. This will last for six weeks and involve going to the Cancer Center for a brief "zap" every week day. I feel just fine, and I am interested in this next phase of treatment. I gather that I may have a bit of a tough time with burning, since I had a mastectomy rather than lumpectomy, and there is less tissue to absorb the radiation. Most folks with lumpectomies do not have as much burning. I guess I can stand a couple of weeks of burning and itching. I was signing a release form concerning the radiation on Monday, and I noted that the reason for radiation, stated in the form, was "to prevent recurrence of breast cancer." I jokingly said I would sign to have the treatment, if the doctor would sign to guarantee that outcome. The nurse/technician did not think that was funny...or else she just was not accustomed to people making jokes about cancer and death rays. And on that note, I end this epistle.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Weirdly, I think I am going to miss my chemotherapy treatments. I had my last one today, and it was so pleasant that I had a hard time excavating myself from the comfortable chair with the warm blankets and soft pillows. The snack service beats what I get at home, that's for sure. And the uninterrupted 2 1/2 hours of reading, sleeping, cross-wording, and thinking are not to be sneezed at. Today I actually did take a nap, probably due to the fact that I was up very late last night because of the steroids I am taking. Anyway, I dozed off about midway through my treatment, only to wake myself by my own snoring. VERY SMOOTH.

I did get to spend some time today quizzing my oncologist. Before today, because I have sailed through this process so easily, I have seen very little of him. I warned him last month that I had numerous questions, so he allotted plenty of time for me today. I am interested, of course, in what kind of changes in diet and behavior I should make, and when these will be compatible with the medical protocols. With chemo behind me, I can begin the shift from an animal protein based diet toward one more vegetable based. Everything I have read indicates that this is the kind of diet that one should adopt as a cancer preventative. Additionally, I am "hot" to boost my antioxidant intake, but I cannot start that until after radiation, because the jury is still out on whether antioxidants might interfere with the efficacy of radiation. I told the good doctor about papaya leaf tea, which had been suggested to me by my friend Jane Dodds, and which has excellent data supporting its role in eating away the fibrin on cancer cells to make them more vulnerable to death (insert mental image of tiny but powerful papaya leaf conking big ugly cancer cell on the head) and at first he rolled his eyes; but then I told him that there was a supporting article about this enzyme therapy published in one of the "sanctioned" medical magazines in his own office waiting room. So, that one is good to go. That's just a smattering of what we covered, but you get the gist. I want to take back some control.

So, I will miss the old place. But I am told that there are other fine experiences waiting for me in the holding room for radiation treatment. I have heard about the bonding that occurs with the group that gathers EVERY DAY FOR 6 WEEKS, sitting together waiting to be zapped/nuked/burned/crisped. Adversity builds character and community; I can use the character-building and I expect to enjoy the new community.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Army of Women

For months I have been pondering the question of what caused my breast cancer. I do not fit the published profile; I am not overweight, not a heavy drinker, have never been a smoker, and there is no breast cancer in my immediate family. My routine mammograms were just that....routine. There was never even a blip of anything suspicious. I breast-fed both of my children (supposedly a breast cancer preventative). In short, I have been a naturally healthy person, but also a conscientiously healthy person, my whole life.

I like to make sense of situations. I even like to diagram sentences. Finding a pattern in a problem opens the door to a solution. So, I naturally started looking for a discernible pattern in breast cancer experiences among women. I found that the experiences are spread all over the map. Some women have a family history (actually a very tiny percentage of breast cancers are genetic), but most women have no real idea where their malignancy came from. They might postulate that it was hormone replacement therapy or exposure to pesticides (my friends and I have laughed about riding our bikes behind the DDT fogger in the summer evenings of our childhood) or too much red meat, or something in the water in their hometowns, or their deodorant. What activity or exposure flips the switch on those gremlins hiding in ones body?

Also, breast cancer treatment offers questionable outcomes. All of the therapies are toxic or destructive and potentially harmful themselves. The treatment choices are pretty limited, and can have awful side effects. However, most people are more afraid of the proliferation of the cancer in the present moment, than they are of the potential problems resulting from the "cure" somewhere down the road. I get that. What I don't get is why there has not been more time spent finding the cause of cancer, in order to "head it off at the pass." When the "cure" is often worse than the disease, why has there not been more effort expended looking at prevention rather than in developing toxic treatments which often cause cancers themselves.

Finally, someone is doing just that. I recently got some information from a friend ( another woman who was "blindsided" by a breast cancer diagnosis several years ago) about a great organization called Army of Women which is the brainchild of Dr. Susan Love, who has been the guru of breast cancer information for many years. She wrote one of the definitive guides to breast cancer, Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book. She has now teamed up with the Avon Foundation to enlist a million women to participate in studies to find the CAUSE or CAUSES of breast cancer. This is what I had been wishing for, long before I myself was diagnosed. Every time I would hear about another friend getting breast cancer, I would say "I wonder what is causing all of this cancer!" Finally, someone is doing something to find answers.

I plan to send an email to all the women on my email list about this effort to enlist a million women....both those with breast cancer and those urge them to participate in this effort. Observing the remarkable success of the Susan Komen Races and the money that has been raised for education and research for a cure, I have great hope that this Army of Women idea can accomplish the goal of discovering the underlying causes of this scourge. Please take a look at and join the fight to prevent breast cancer by discovering the causes.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A lot of non-cancer happenings have kept me busy for a couple of weeks, and that is a good thing. I am continuing to feel healthy, energetic, and positive. Most days I completely forget that I have cancer (or, as Gordon keeps reminding me, that "I have had cancer), and I also forget that I am bald....which leads to my getting lots more vitamin D because I go out in the NC August sun with no head covering. So far, no sunburn on the tender skin, and the Vitamin D I absorb is a really good thing as a cancer preventative. No, I am not "shutting the barn door after the horse is lost;" I am gearing up to keep cancer from recurring after all these treatments are behind me.

Now about the Tshirt heading of this entry: getting there is a bit convoluted, so bear with me.

First of all, when tshirts began to be popular casual wear...maybe in the late 60's and early 70's, I had a particular bias against wearing ones which sported logos or brand names. I didn't like advertising for a company, and I particularly did not like the "in crowd" thing of wearing certain popular brands, which printed their names on the shirts. (Even before tshirts were the "thing," there was a fad among teenagers of letting the interior label of a shirt stick up at the neck so it could be seen. Ugh! Hated it.) Anyway, I liked my tshirts plain in those days - so much so that my sister-in-law Lynda had a tshirt printed up as a gag for my birthday which read "Printed Tshirts Make Me Put Out." Of course, I never could wear this comfortably in public....because I didn't wear printed tshirts and because the double entendre of the slogan took some explaining to my children (young at the time) and to others.

These days, I feel somewhat different about printed tshirts. I have numerous tshirts, from Salem College, from the Susan Komen Race for the Cure, from Fiddler's Grove Ole Time Fiddler's Festival, from the Great American Brass Band Festival, and so on. Rather than advertise for name brand clothing, which I still dislike, I find I enjoy sharing my passions through my tshirts. Sometimes I get a thumbs-up for whatever particular enterprise I am sporting on my back. It can be a great conversation starter.

Here's the deal: I have a terrific, new tshirt, given me by Julie Searcy who works in my husband Gordon's office. Julie has been touched by breast cancer through her mother's experience with a very aggressive form of the disease. Her mother is a survivor, and she and Julie have involved themselves in many efforts to raise awareness and money for the community. Now I want to share this shirt with you. Not only does the shirt fit me really nicely...not too big, not too small...but the colors are attractive and the printed words are funny, heartfelt, sassy, serious, and powerful. When I wear it, I get lots of positive comments, both on its attractiveness and on its message.....a good combination.

One more thing. My daughter Sarah, who lives in NY, has a friend, Valerie, who writes a very creative, interesting blog, I am going to submit a picture of my tshirt to her in a day or two, and I hope she will use it. The premise of her blog is this: she spots people in tshirts, asks permission to photograph the shirt, then posts the photo along with info about the "history" of the shirt, why the owner likes it, where it was purchased/acquired, etc. I find the stories fun and informative...a little bit of contemporary culture. I hope you will take a look. And one more thing.....I would love to hear from you if you know some other good names for those two protuberances which are both a blessing and a curse.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Milk of Magnesia and Lemon Juice

If the eyes are the window of the soul, then the tongue must be called the mirror of the digestive tract. (Gross-out alert! I may be going some places that certain people will find the least, unappealing, the most, downright disgusting. You have been warned.) Right now my tongue is white, my breath is noxious, and my digestive system is sluggish. This has been the pattern following chemotherapy treatments since the beginning, but I am very conscious of the experience this time around. All of this focus on digestion makes me think of my mother's frequent requirement during my childhood that I "stick out my tongue." Clearly, she could look at me and know that all was NOT running smoothly. One look at my tongue would tell her how serious the problem was and what to do about it. If I was lucky, the solution was merely MIlk of Magnesia. If my tongue was really coated, then out came the dreaded bag which hung on the back of the bathroom door. I will say no more.

It interests me, however, that the motherly directive "stick out your tongue" seems to have disappeared. And I am not suggesting that an obsession with our bowels needs to make a comeback (Have you seen "The Road to Wellville?" Yikes!), but I do think that a closer connection with our bodies and how they work is not a bad thing. I also wonder how my mother learned about the connection between the white tongue and the condition of my interior.

I have also thought a lot lately about other "folk traditions" in healthy living which I experienced growing up, and which I now know to be solidly based in good science. The best example has to do with drinking lemon juice. When I was growing up, we lived with my Grandmother Davis, who was born in 1874, so she really came from a radically different world than the one I lived in. She died when I was 10. Each morning she would have a cup of hot water with fresh lemon juice before having her breakfast or her morning cup of tea. I know from talking with my mother that my Great Aunt Mamie (my grandmother's sister) followed this ritual also. In talking with my husband Gordon, I have learned that his grandmother (born, I believe, in the 1880's) did the same thing. - Now, here is the part I find most interesting:

While looking into ways to help my body during and after cancer treatment, I found that it is advisable to increase the alkalinity of ones body, because cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment. This is hard to accomplish, but can be done. Even though lemons are acid, their reaction in the body is to cause increased alkalinity. On top of this is the fact that the ingestion of lemon juice increases the production of bile in the liver, which allows the liver to work more efficiently in getting rid of toxins. Right now chemotherapy is overloading my body with toxins, so anything I can do to energize my liver is a good thing. And just for good measure, lemon juice aids digestion, acts as a mild diuretic, and hastens wound healing. Needless to say, I am drinking my lemon juice.

So, what I want to know is, how did my grandmother and her generation come to understand the advantages of drinking lemon juice? Was this habit born out of observation of the effects? Did they really know what they were doing, or was it something that they picked up from their mothers, who got it from their mothers? And the final question is, why did we stop doing it? Was it just too simple? Would we rather take a pill or potion whose ingredients we cannot pronounce, just because they have been developed by a drug company? Sometimes our easiest and best answer is......right on the tip of our tongue or right in our own grocery aisle.

One final note: I found out where the mystery book came from - Gordon's first cousin Ann Womble Strader sent it, thinking there was a card enclosed. I am glad to have the mystery solved. I have now read another book by Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, which I loved also. Now I need to buy a copy, because it will need some underlining as well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Book, a Mystery, and Some Revelations

Someone sent me a book. It arrived weeks and weeks ago, and it came with no card, no return address except for the address of the supplier, which was not; so I have no way of discovering who purchased it. At first, since the book deals with spiritual things, I thought that it had come from my friend and spiritual booster, Frank McNair. But a call to Frank revealed that it was not from him. Another friend, Trish Hall, had told me that her sister in Arizona was planning to send me a book, so I called Trish to find out if this book was from Gracie. Nope. So, I have a mystery on my hands.

The book is An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, a reknowned preacher and teacher. I heard this woman speak here in Winston-Salem last year and knew right away that I would like to read some of her books; but, I had not gotten around to it. Well, now I HAVE read this one, and I presently am reading it a second time....this time with pencil in hand for underlining. (I know that I own this book and can underline in pen, but there is something of the librarian's daughter in me that keeps me from doing that. Strange.) I am sure this second read through will NOT be the last. This book has a lot of meat clinging to the bones of the twelve chapters.

I assume that the sender of this book has read it and thought it would be well suited to the state of mind of someone facing cancer. He/she was right. Barbara Taylor Brown "gets it." Several of the chapters directly address subjects like getting lost and finding things one would never have found on the familiar path; and feeling pain, which is always provocative, and leads to jumps in personal growth. Each chapter holds nuggets of wisdom....truisms, I guess, but expressed in such delicious, even poetic, language that there is nothing trite about them.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is "pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy." This is so true. Of course, we all have heard the one about there being "no atheists in foxholes." I really wonder if this is true. For me, the experience of facing the reality of my mortality has made my questions about God, faith, and the spiritual life more potent and more present on a daily basis; but I am not yet ready to close my eyes and jump into God's arms with no questions. So what I tend to do is jump in and then out, then in and then out. On the other hand, I have taken great comfort in an observation in the book that "faith is sometimes just a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence." Brown was referring to Job and his conversations with God, which were decidedly one-sided. Job had big questions for God, which God just didn't answer very clearly, if at all; but Job kept on engaging with God, which was the faithful thing. I find myself praying, in spite of my frequent questions...which, by the way, existed long before I knew I had cancer.

One thing I have not done, is question "why me?" To me, this has always seemed a strange place to go mentally, once you have been diagnosed with a bad illness. I mean, I did question "why did I get cancer, specifically." But I have never thought that I should be immune to the problems that are human problems. As a child I actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I would behave if I came down with polio, which was the great threat to children in the my age group. Even then I understood that there was no reason that I was somehow "special" enough to avoid that illness. I did picture myself as a heroic little girl who would be tough and bear her fate bravely. Maybe all that role-playing as a child has stood me in good stead for this challenge.

So, now that I have completed my quasi-review of An Altar in the World, and exposed some of the weak spots in my spiritual life, let's get on to the next question: WHO SENT ME THAT BOOK???? I really want to know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm the Lucky One

Today I had a long phone visit with my good friend Betty Cloutier, whose sister-in-law is going through chemo for the same kind of breast cancer that I have. Hearing about her experience with treatment brings me to my knees. She has been hospitalized at least once, I think for terribly low blood counts. Nausea has been a constant problem, so she has lost quite a bit of weight. And now she has severe edema.

I, on the other hand, feel absolutely normal. I have plenty of energy, my blood counts have stayed within normal ranges, I am eating everything in sight, exercising every day, and sleeping well. There is no accounting for this difference in response, but I am SO grateful that my body...for some unknown responding so well. Also, I am trying to avoid a mind game that I have been warned about. Apparently, some cancer patients begin to think that the worse they feel during chemo, the better the chemo must be working. On the flip side of that magical thinking, I have sometimes wondered if the drugs can be working at all, since my side effects have been so mild. From now on I am just going to concentrate on being grateful for the miracles that come my way.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


All week I have been contemplating a fairly serious entry: a quasi-review of a wonderful book I am reading. But, everything changed at lunchtime. Since then, all I have been able to think about is watermelon - how it sounds when you cut it open, how it looks, how it sparkles in your mouth with cool sweet crispness, how it satisfies hunger and thirst. What a fruit! I have been thinking about the poor cancer patients who are suffering through chemotherapy in the winter, when there are no watermelons to be found. I am telling you, my tender tongue has found the perfect ending for any meal.

Watermelons figure pretty large in my weird subconscious. First of all, I associate them with bobcats, because my Grandfather McLeod always kept a prime watermelon cooling on his backporch in the summertime. This back porch, however, was not - to me - a particularly friendly place, because it was open to a wild overgrown woodsy thicket, and at night in my bed on that side of the house, I could hear bobcats screaming. In my childish mind, the back porch was just too darned close to the things which might be waiting to pounce on an innocent child eating watermelon. I always made sure to wait for my grandfather to be with me before venturing to the porch.

This same grandfather grew these wonderful watermelons....the rattlesnake variety with the wavy dark green stripes on the lighter green I have happy memories of going to the field to select a perfect one, and also eating it...and, of course, spitting seeds. He would be amazed, I think, at the pristine way I eat my SEEDLESS watermelon these days, sitting at a table with a knife (and maybe even some salt). He also would be amazed at the idea of a seedless watermelon. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for buying these genetically engineered fruits, but for city dwellers with no good place to sit and spit seeds, they are the perfect solution.

One more thing: I wish I knew how to video myself singing and how to post it on this blog...because if I did, you could enjoy the following little ditty which I think I learned at Camp Longwood, a Presbyterian Church camp. At least, you might enjoy it at first; but it is the kind of tune that really gets stuck in ones head, so maybe it's better just to have the words.

Plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
And let the juice....ssssllllrrrpppp.....drip through.
Plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
That's all I ask of you.
Now the chicken and the possum,
They say are mighty fine;
But there ain't nothin' sweeter than a watermelon vine.
So plant a watermelon vine at the head of my grave
And let the juice...ssssllllrrrpppp....drip through.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Another Boring Day with Breast Cancer

No dreams to report, no angry rants about sunscreen, no big news. I guess this is just going to be a boring-days-with-cancer post. I continue to find a terrific community among women and men who have experienced cancer and who want to tell their stories as a way of encouraging me. This suits my personality really well, because I have always believed that if you tell your story, you will get a story back....and I love stories. I met a woman in the grocery store several weeks ago, who saw my bare head under my Salem College baseball cap, and she introduced herself by telling me that when she was a 24 year old newly-wed, she was told it was either her "leg or her life." So she had her leg amputated above the knee, moved on, and that previous weekend had attended the marriage of her youngest child.

On another note, I have really good news on the "tolerating chemo" front. Yesterday the nurses who quiz me every week about how I am feeling, told me that they literally have no words on their chart to match how I am feeling. They finally had to put down "fatigued" for one day, when actually I told them I was really grumpy and sleepy (sounds like I am living with the Seven Dwarfs) on the Saturday following my last treatment. That day I sent Gordon away from the house (to play golf, which suited him just fine) so I wouldn't continue to bite his head off about things like how he put dishes in the sink to soak. Anyway, I seem to be the poster child for feeling weirdly wonderful while taking on poisonous cocktails. I attended my water aerobics class today with no noticable lack of energy, and since it is an outdoor program, I decided to go hatless, with sunscreen on my head of course, so that my face and my bald head will be somewhat the same color. Great feeling, that cool water splashing on my bare scalp.

I hope to learn to post photos on this blog. When I do, I will put up some showing off my new look.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Acts of Kindness

As I have mentioned in a previous post, cancer seems to bring nice people out of the woodwork, and they want to do things for ME. For instance, take a look at the wonderfully expressive new heading for this blog. Jenny Lawrence Viars, who sings alto in the church choir with me, noted the barren and forlorn nature of my page and offered to come up with a design for me. Jenny is someone I know from church, but we really do not KNOW one another, and I wonder...had I not had cancer....would she have felt she could offer to help me with the blog design. (Maybe it looked so pitiful that she would have offered anyway, but I doubt it.) I have been experiencing so many acts of kindness, large and small, that I have started thinking about the dynamics of giving and receiving.

Unquestionably, some kind of vulnerability makes one more approachable. I am thinking of how a dog will roll on its back to show that it is NOT the boss. As humans we don't have a good way of showing our willingness to accept a "belly rub," so an illness or a family catastrophe is the most frequent way we get to experience this flow of generosity. Also, it is clear that being generous, helpful, loving, kind, or attentive brings a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to the giver as well as to the receiver. Practicing random acts of kindness will certainly boost ones spirit, and maybe even release some of those endorphins we all covet. Being on the receiving end brings a feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket or being lifted on a rolling wave.

The most delightful part of receiving for me has been getting to know more about the people who have blessed me with attention. Of course, I now know that Jenny is a whiz at the computer and is a regular blogger herself. I discovered that another friend knows quite a bit about foods, supplements, and healthy living, and she sent me a magnificent book on the subject. Another is a wonderful rose gardener, but I learned more about how and why he began the hobby. One of my cousins, who was "into" alternative medicine long before it became more mainstream, keeps me supplied with information and good reference material, and we have made a connection beyond our common ancestor. The list goes on and on, and the delight for me is that through these acts of kindness I am able to know these people more deeply and completely.

These thoughts are neither earthshaking nor original, but I am glad to have a chance to write them down and appreciate anew the gift that one human being can be for another.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I'm Mad as Hell

My children recognize "the look," and if they were still living at home, they would be heading for the recesses of their rooms or the safety of somewhere else...anywhere out of the reach of Mom's voice and the need for soldiers in her army. I am on a mission, and I am enlisting "volunteers." I recognize that I have a compulsive personality, and that I am like a dog with a new bone when I find a project, a problem to solve, a fact that needs (in my opinion) to be known. A problem/question that has been niggling and whining in the back of my mind for a number of years is "where is all this cancer coming from?" Growing up in a small town, I knew almost everyone; and, I swear, I knew only one woman of my mother's generation who had breast cancer. Now, among my group of nine friends from that same town, four have had malignancies in the breast. You don't have to be unusually perceptive to see that these numbers are striking. My uneducated, purely intuitive response to the question was that we must be eating, drinking, applying, or inhaling some bad, bad things; but I didn't have a clue how to sort out fact from fiction, old wives tale from science, in trying to determine what to avoid in the environment. The task was just too daunting. However, I had decided that I would begin to "strike at the darkness" by eating organic vegetables and meats, or at least avoid eating the really pesticide/preservative/hormone-heavy ones, and...just in time, I received a handout at Cancer Services listing the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.

You know how these things happen. You hear about something in one place, then it shows up everywhere. Last night, Brian Williams on NBC NEWS quoted this same information (Dirty Dozen and Clean 15) about pesticides and food, noting that it came from the Environmental Working Group. Coincidentally, yesterday afternoon, before hearing about them from Brian, I received an email from - guess who??? - Environmental Working Group. I do not recall signing up for their notices, but I am glad I did. I have learned that this organization was founded in 1993 with the mission of using the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. A perusal of their website was impressive and frightening, but also comforting, because I think I have found the avenue to the kind of information I need for living a healthier life for the rest of my life.

I hope that everyone who reads this blog will take a look at and if you only read two sections, please read the information about the Dirty Dozen and also find Preventing Cancer: Nine Practical Tips for Consumers. And one more thing, I am headed out to buy new sunscreen for myself and my family, because I learned some upsetting information about ingredients in sunscreen which could be increasing our incidence of skin cancer rather than reducing it. I also learned that many sunscreens contain synthetic estrogen which can be absorbed through the skin, and which is a big NO NO for me. Don't I just love the thought that I have been smearing estrogen on my chest all these years, thinking I was doing myself a favor? Anyway, I may have to revisit some of this information in future posts, because I am angry, angry, angry....and I need to vent. In fact, I keep hearing those famous lines from the movie "Network," "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore." I think the character also said "I'm a human being. My life has value." These lines have special meaning for me now, and I hope that, for the sake of future generations, other people will stand up and say that they are mad as hell and will not take it anymore.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Baby alligator

Well, I certainly did not intend for this blog to turn into an examination of my subconscious, but last night's dream just calls out to be recorded, embraced, remembered, and enjoyed. It seems that alligators are here to stay, and it might not be all bad. Here's the scene: I am a little girl...maybe 8 or 9.....and I am sitting on a dock with my father. This is my father in a much younger version than I usually picture him, very slim and fit with no grey in his hair. There is a baby alligator in the water, and he keeps making those cute baby alligator noises that I remember from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Interestingly, he has a very blunt snout....not like the big, bad, toothy one that I saw gaping wide in my previous dream. I ask my father if I may get in the water and catch the baby alligator for a pet, and he says "yes" he thinks I am mature enough to take care of it and that he will watch very closely while I am in the water to make sure that the mother alligator doesn't bother me when I take the baby. So I slip in the water very carefully, to keep the baby from being frightened, and I swim around the corner of the dock (the water is very warm and soothing) and scoop up the baby gently from behind and hand it up to my father on the dock. Then I climb out of the water and sit with the baby in my lap.

Here's what I choose to take away from this dream. First of all, my father and I did have a wonderful relationship, and I choose to think that much of my belief in myself comes from his affirmation. In this dream, he certainly affirms my maturity and good sense. I also feel very safe, because he was watching out for the big, bad alligators. If I continue to see the alligator as a symbol for cancer, as I am sure it was in the first dream, then I choose to see that in this dream, cancer is something to be tamed, appreciated, and cared for in the right way. I need to tend to it, as one tends to a pet: feed it properly, teach it that I am the boss, not let it run loose and wreak havoc in the neighborhood, and appreciate the things I can learn from being responsible for it while it lives. Finally, the most striking image in my head is the blunt nose of this baby alligator. Without the sharp snout, the beast has no clout.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wigged Out...or not

This morning we went to church, and I wore a wig for the first time. It looks fine, I guess, and will be handy for occasions when bald just won't "do."I bought a wig because I didn't know anything about going hairless, and everyone told me I would want one. Many women I have spoken with seem to like their wigs better than they like their own hair. I guess I am lucky in that I was content with my own hair, but I also don't object at all to the way I look hairless. In fact, it completes the "Sigourney Weaver/Alien" look that makes me feel pretty damned powerful. Also, the bald head is cool, cool, cool on these hot North Carolina days. When I still had a little hair, I was inclined to cover it up with a cap or a scarf; now that I am down to the nubbins, I feel better just trotting around open to the air. Although I am pretty sure that my mother would never have allowed me to shave my head, I wish I had known how great this felt when I was a tomboy preteen who hated her curly, bushy hair and who desperately envied boys for their easy freedom. I might have tried to talk her into a "summer cut." There would have been no worries about ticks hidden in the knotted curls, nor would I have had to endure the efforts to bring the mess under control for a public outing. I've got to say, I like being bald. And I promise, I am no Pollyanna. This is a true breast cancer bounty.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Alligator Dreams first, then Breast Cancer Bounty

First of all....why alligator dreams? Most of the time, I do not think about the fact that I have cancer, something deadly, insidious, and dreadful. But, occasionally, I do slap the side of my head and think, "whoa, this is not good." Early this week I had one of those moments, and I went to bed thinking about it. Luckily, I decided to move out of our tall four poster bed, because Gordon was snoring, and move down the hall to Gord's room where I could read a bit and not disturb the sleeping bear. I had no trouble falling asleep, but during the night I had a dream about being between a rock wall and a river full of alligators. One of the alligators, mouth wide open, lunged at me. In my dream mind I imagined that I could fling myself up on the rock wall, and I did fling myself...out of bed and slap into the dresser. I tried to stand, but lost my balance and fell against the bedside table, hitting my nose and making a nice gash. At least the alligator did not get me. I do not need a dream analyst to figure out what was going on here. I know that there will be other occasions during this experience that will fall into the catagory of "alligator dreams," but I hope they will be limited in number.

Now, what about Breast Cancer Bounty? This experience of bounty is something I have heard about from other cancer patients. There are kind people everywhere, and they seem to come out of the woodwork when they see a bald head, a baseball cap, a flat chest, a scar. I have been told to appreciate all the people who come my way, and there have been many already. Going to chemo treatment turns out to be a pleasure. How bad is this: three hours in a reclining chair, a warmed blanket, snacks brought to chairside upon request, books to read, crossword puzzles to solve, and no telephone calls? My idea of heaven.

Also, under the heading of bounty, is the amount of time I have spent thinking instead of just spinning from one place to another at a frantic pace. One of the things I have pondered is why I feel so good in all this, and I have decided that I have my parents to thank. My parents approached things in diametrically opposed manners. My father was easy to please, relaxed. He had serious illnesses throughout most of his life, beginning with cancer in his late 30's and heart disease from his early 40's until his death at 80. Throughout all of this, he seemed to just relax into the experience, trust his doctors, not ask a lot of questions. He was an easy patient, and I think the nurses always loved him. My mother, on the other hand, hardly experienced a sick day in her life, until she died at age 94, except for catching mumps (on one side only) from me sometime in her 40's. However, she never went to the doctor that she didn't have a list of questions. Plus, she was always researching. She wanted to know everything. She was exceedingly curious, and this quality defined her. Once she jammed her arm through a window pane, severely cutting her wrist; and when the doctor wanted to put her to sleep to sew her up, she said "absolutely not...I want to watch." - Lucky for me, I seem to have inherited or learned a bit from both of my parents. I DO trust my doctors and I am trying to do what they say. On the other hand, I am curious about the procedures and drugs coming my way. I do not dread appointments; I enjoy them. Learning about alternative therapies has been a good diversion, which I hope will lead to a longer, healthier life after this chemo phase is over and done with. I was already interested in eating healthier. Now I am learning about how to keep cancer at bay by amending my diet, my exercise habits, and my stress level. There is much to learn, and I love a project. So, I guess that's why I feel so good.