Get Your Road Trip On

You know what I think is kind of funny? That Americans are suddenly “rediscovering domestic travel.” Umm…What? Well, it really shouldn’t surprise me, with “influencers” (ugh, I strongly dislike that term) all over social media blasting the human race with professional selfies in front of picture-perfect settings eight thousand miles away and telling us, “You can be like meeeeee! Just read my blog and I’ll teach you how!” One has been traveling for seven years, waitressing in Thailand in order to spend several months there, another one is teaching English in Hong Kong so he can afford to live there. Now, they’re all home trying not to lose followers and stay relevant while we, the rest of the world, stick closer to our own backyards. What is it about some people that think the further away they are, the better?

I know, I know, I’m one to talk! Until cancer almost took my life and COVID19 followed, I was running around the globe every chance I got. But I never, ever pushed domestic travel aside. In fact, there’s still nothing better for me than a road trip in my beloved American West! I didn’t get there this summer because of the virus, but I still had me a nice drive to South Carolina. I have not been out of the country since last summer. Do I miss it? Yes. But what I yearn for most are my hiking trips to Southern Utah and several other closer to home destinations. The wonder of domestic destinations was never lost on me!

Here are three ways to enjoy America, still the greatest and most beautiful country in the world in my eyes!

The Full Road Trip

What the heck is a “full road trip?” Well, if you’ve spent years behind the wheel like me, the “full road trip” is when you drive your own vehicle from your own house and go a long, long way. You can probably guess that these are the gold standard. I’ve done several of them, and the fact that I live in Massachusetts makes for some major drives if I want to get to my favorite places in the west. How long do you need to do a bang up job of seeing America? If you’re really lucky you have all the time and money in the world and you don’t ever have to go home. If you’re like me and most of the rest of humanity, you’re on a budget and you might actually have a job you have to get back to. My advice is to take a minimum of four weeks to have a decent trip in. For me, the perfect time is five to six weeks, though my longest road trip to date was seven weeks. Understand that you aren’t going to see “everything,” so start making your wish list of most coveted sights and connect the dots if you can. The worst thing you could do is try to stuff too many sights into too little time. Better to see a few things well than many things hardly at all, though not everyone will agree with me. Add in some hiking, and your time in one place gets even longer. To me, driving too much in a day is also a major sin. It’s stressful and you don’t see anything. Don’t be one of those road trippers that rolls down the window to take a picture of the Grand Canyon then rolls it up and drives on. Please?

The Fly/Drive

I fully realize that when some people read “a minimum of four weeks” above, they started gasping for air. For those folks, I introduce “the Fly/Drive,” the type of domestic trip that I have taken too many times to count at this point. The Fly/Drive is just what is sounds like: You get on a plane and fly to a starting point, where you rent a car or RV. The trick is to start from a convenient location to what you want to see most. Las Vegas is a terrific place to start. I’ve also grown very attached to Albuquerque as “go.” I guess my love for the west continues to shine through! Then again, I’ve had fantastic Fly/Drives from Miami, El Paso, and Seattle. I suggest at least two weeks even if you’re road tripping this way, though I usually do three. Once again, it’s all about what and how much you want to see. I highly recommend checking air and car prices from different cities. A few years back I rerouted an entire trip because Salt Lake City offers were much better than Denver’s. The Fly/Drive allows you to skip over some parts of the country you might not be as interested in and get to your personal nitty-gritty!

City Slicking

I don’t usually include cities in my road trips, and if I do, it’s pretty quick. Maybe an overnight to break up a long drive, or a special museum or show. What I have done is jet to a city just to see the city. I can remember flying in and out of Chicago numerous times and thinking, Someday I’m going to fly into Chicago just to see Chicago. And I did, and was thrilled with what I found! Some cities are car friendlier, like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Others, like Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, have excellent public transportation systems that will add some extra adventure to your trip. One of my more memorable city trips was to Dallas to do my own investigation into the JFK assassination. In these uncertain times we live in, you will obviously want to call ahead and be sure that you aren’t planning a trip around something that is closed. Even so, filling your day pack and pounding the city pavement can uncover some hidden gems that make lasting memories!

Hmm…I’m getting inspired to get back to writing that little book I started last year, “How to Road Trip.” I’m even more inspired to plan my next Southwestern Fly/Drive!

Season of Struggle

Well, here we are again. September. The last weeks of summer. Here in New England, a lot of locals are getting ready for what they hope will be a colorful and fabulous leaf peeping season full of apple cider and crisp breezes. But not this local.

This particular local has a dull ache in her stomach that she can’t get rid of as she watches the summer wane. Because this time of the year always reminds her of loss. This time around, even tougher.

In October of 2019 I nearly lost my life to cancer. I was on my way out, on a slow, painful boat motored by metastatic lung cancer, the deadliest bitch of all. But long before that, autumn was the season of the loss of my beloved mother, and that hurt has never quite gone away. Now, added to that is the fear, the trepidation of moving forward, lest I be forced to take several steps back again. I’ve lost a year of my life to the scoundrel nicknamed “the Big C.” Maybe there will be more? No please, no more.

Even before the loss of Mom, the loss of the season of the sun was a shock to the system of this self-proclaimed summer girl. Even as a teenager the question loomed, How many more of these days of sunshine do I have? It sucks sometimes to be human. I want a million more summers. And while we’re at it, why do I have to get old? Because summer was made for youth. Just ask Instagram.

I have a triple whammy on my hands now: cancer, mourning my dear mother, and the retreat of summer. Wait, make that a quadruple whammy, because this is the season I also have to return to the stress of teaching after a mostly carefree summer. That is, if a summer that includes the kind of radiation that happens in a cancer clinic, and not just the kind that takes place on a flat stretch of glorious white beach, can be called “carefree.” If the duration of nine lazy weeks includes long trips on airplanes to exotic locales on the other side of the world and isn’t cancelled by a pandemic. None of that and all of that happened for me this year. It was a good and productive summer, make no mistake, but it wasn’t what I planned. Add to that the fear that…Oh, never mind. You get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m doing well. Chances are excellent that I’ve beat cancer. I’m not terminal. Yes, there will likely be many more summers for me if my luck holds out. That is a big IF that I’ll live with…as long as I live. Such is the plight of the individual who survives a life-threatening illness. No one really understands, unless they’ve lived it…and almost died by it. You, whose life has not changed one iota in the last year/five years/ten years, don’t pretend you do. You’re forgiven for your ignorance, as long as you don’t try to pretend you know what it’s like. Someday, you may just have to walk a mile in my shoes. But I hope to hell not. It’s only for the strong.

If you’re me or someone like me, questions will be swirling in your mind as the sunshine cools and the earth dies: Why me? Why did I survive and others didn’t? Do I deserve this? Do I deserve cancer? If so, why? What did I do? If I didn’t, why did I get it? And what am I supposed to take away from it? Wow, I have some blogging to do.

Cancer may be over for you looking in, but it isn’t over for me. I’ve got all of October to think about that now.

Sometimes, as I recently shared with my most trusted family member, when the ugliness of life and humanity closes in, an even more painful question pushes through: Should I have died and escaped it all?

Escape never sounds interesting for very long, because I’m not a quitter and I don’t hide from adversity. I’m also not a liar or a genius or a perfect specimen. I allow myself my faults when others don’t. Come to think of it, I allow others their faults when they don’t allow me mine. Which brings up more demands: What is my worth? My worth in being here? Some would have me believe I have none: I’m worthless because I don’t agree with everything they say, because I don’t play by their rules. I must banish these thoughts. I’ll have all of November to quiet them.

That’s when the autumn sun splashes out from a floating cloud and I get my shit (and my hiking poles) together and remember that I fought this fight to win for a reason: I love life. That’s the rub. I fucking love life. This life. My life. The only one I have. The one that some have tried to sum up in three words or less even though they’ve never taken the time to find out who I really am. There ain’t no one out there that is allowed to bring this girl down for very long, not even Mother October, the worst month in the history of me.

Pass me my boots, please?

My life has come full circle, regardless of a season or a virus, or a disease. So, fuck cancer. Fuck COVID19. I’m going to New York, my sparkling Big Apple. And the White Mountains. And South Carolina. And California. And I’m getting Global Entry for when it’s really time to travel again. I’m living my life as I see fit. I’m making my feelings be known. It ain’t all about you and what you want. It’s about me, too. And baby, when you achieve the improbable, it isn’t so easy to forget. Who wants to forget,anyway? Not me, not until I’m good and ready. Until then, I’ll shout it from the mountain tops until I drive you mad. Cancer, cancer, cancer. I survived fucking cancer. I survived the death of my best friend, my traveling companion, my mother. I held my sister’s hand while she died of the same disease one mind numbing January. I saw my father breathing his last breaths one raw February when I was ten. And I’m still standing. And smiling.

And even better, spring is one day closer.

A Different Kind of Summer

Hey, how was your summer? Okay, I know, it’s not over yet! But if you’re a teacher like me…Well, yeah, it kind of is over. Believe me, I can’t wait to retire so I can rethink summer and make it last until September 21st!

Kids and adults are returning to schools that look a lot different than usual. For me, I’ll be teaching over a computer until at least November. But COVID19 is hardly the first thing that rocked this teacher’s world and changed the way I had to look at it. Cancer did that first, then the virus extended the weirdness for me. In fact, I was set to put my traveling life completely back on track this summer after being blessed with an amazing medical team and treatment at a major cancer center. The corona virus stopped me in my tracks, like it did for so many others who had to give up hoped-for plans and stay put instead. I still had a very busy summer in which I accomplished three major things: I got back on the road, saw my beloved niece Amanda again, and with any luck, killed the rest of cancer. Though it was hardly my typical summer, it could ultimately turn out to be the most important one of my life.

The necessity to alter my schedule opened up some compelling opportunities for me, and gave me more time to remember how necessary it is to make time for simple pleasures like taking a ride with the top down on my Bug, hitting the trails with new and old friends, hanging out with animals wild and tame, and exploring my own backyard. Yet, I was still clinging to the possibility of road tripping through the Mojave Desert, Northern California, and Oregon. I was not able to confirm any major plans until after a scheduled scan. This time, it was my post-radiation PET scan in June, which would tell how effective the treatment to the primary tumor in my lung was. It wouldn’t be so wrong to say that my life depended on the outcome. Miraculously, the CT was nearly clear. Just one more small area of cancer, but it would require three more weeks of radiation. Which decided the course of my time off: I would spend two weeks on the road, with most of it in South Carolina with Amanda, then return home to spend three weeks in Boston eradicating cancer. Never have I ever booked hotels two days before heading out on the road! But that’s how tight things were between my scan and the beginning of my plans further from home.

Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows that one of my major fun goals is to hike all the national parks in the United States. That dream really got derailed by cancer, but I got the idea to take a couple of days to finish a park that narrowly missed getting taken off the list because of car problems a few years back: Shenandoah, in Virginia. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, always a favorite Eastern Seaboard stop when my mom and I used to road trip, also appeared on my schedule. Now I was more excited than ever! Get back to national park hiking, see an old favorite again, and spend a week with my niece. Sign me up! I also promised myself that I’d make the most of my time in Boston while I was there for radiation.

Well, check them all off the list! I left on June 29th for a 400 miler to Gettysburg, where I spent a few evening hours exploring a fascinating historic town I don’t remember at all but was happy to see again. What I was really looking forward to came the next morning: Gettysburg National Military Park, a must-see of lifelike statues that tell the story of the winners as well as the losers of the Civil War. I found it very important to see the park again, with all that is going on in our country and the questioning of our history.

The weather got more humid as I headed south, but that didn’t stop me from walking several miles in the park. After a morning of exploring, I drove to Virginia for the evening. The following day, July 1st, I arrived in a tiny town in South Carolina to get a whole lot of niece love and dog love, and to have Thanksgiving dinner in July! I was supposed to be there last turkey day, but cancer had other plans for me. It was well worth the wait!

Amanda ran her crabby old aunt all over the area of South Carolina that falls between “the Greens,” Greenville and Greenwood. Our new tradition is bowling, our old one is Chinese food, but we can’t ever get away without going to Walmart! I’ve never stayed for a full week, so I got a better taste of her life and met more of her friends, too! A favorite memory is the full attention I got from Miss Shelby, Jax, and Chevelle, her three fur babies!

As always, leaving them and her behind was tough, but radiation in Boston was looming, and I still had a national park to finish!

After missing out on so much of my life for the past year because of cancer and COVID19, this view at Shenandoah was nothing short of SURREAL! I never thought that I would hike a national park again, much less do it so soon after a devastating diagnosis that was supposed to have a much different outcome. And yes, my emotions got the best of me as I looked out at the gentle, comforting sway of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Moment of silence.

Back home, I had a quick turnaround before I left for Boston. I pulled in the yard at five in the afternoon on a Sunday, and headed to Beantown at ten the next morning for an early afternoon inaugural radiation session. First, I had to haul all my clothes and food into my room at Homewood Suites! I did this three Mondays in a row after driving home every weekend. Really tried to make my stay like a vacation. If it wasn’t for that damn radiation I may have been content! Oh wait…that’s the only reason I was there!

Boston is a lovely city, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is in the Longwood section of Brookline, where stunning Victorian homes line the leafy back streets, making for pleasurable city walking. I took the MBTA into town a couple of times too, and enjoyed old and new favorites, but Boston will always mean something different to me now that I’ve been there so many times for cancer.

I was so thankful to get home after my last treatment, with my radiation mask in tow! Muffin, who was an orphaned bunny being taken care of by his fairy godmother (my sister Marie!) was truly the only living thing I wanted to see after being away from home for five weeks.

I still had almost four weeks to get my life back on track after the big interruption of radiation, and was soon back on my five mile a day walking schedule, taking extra precautions to protect my post-radiation skin from the sun.

Deep breath.

My summer was still full of fun and adventure. Because there’s more than one kind of adventure!

Maybe next summer we can all get back to normal. What do you think? I’m skeptical, but hopeful too.

Please do your part, wear your mask and remember to social distance so that we can all return to doing what we love doing best as soon and as safely as possible.

COVID19: A Teacher’s Perspective

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Aside from writing my wildly popular blog (wink-wink), fighting Stage IV Lung Cancer, and continuing to figure out how to put my life back on track during the COVID19 crisis, I’m also a teacher. Yes, it’s my bread and butter, a major part of my existence, and I have my opinion on what direction this upcoming school year should be going.

Last week, my school system announced that we would start the new school year remotely and would reassess each new quarter. This news brought mostly cheers, with a smattering of jeers. Those same jeers have also been all over social media since March, many of them coming from parents, and aimed at teachers.

Listen mom and dad, I understand your duress. Now, understand mine.

For the purpose of safety, I was locked out of my classroom as well as my school in mid-March. That means that the only materials I had were whatever I had on my laptop, which suddenly became my forum for teaching my special ed students, all of whom are intellectually disabled and require any number of accommodations to be successful. Nearly one hundred percent of what I teach is on paper, with assistance from other live human beings, a Smartboard, laptop computers, and manipulatives. Suddenly, I and thousands of other teachers around the globe were thrust into a situation where we had none of our usual supplies to guide us in our pursuits to teach your children (and ours!) in the manner they deserve. Over the next three months we were told one thing, which we would start doing, only to have it change five minutes after we perfected it. We found new ways to do old things. They weren’t as good or as effective as the old tried and true way, but then again, when have any of us dealt with a pandemic that shut down the world? All due respect, but we didn’t reinvent the wheel, we made a new one, one that will come in very handy as we make our ways back to our mostly virtual classrooms.

I know parents have pressing woes to think about. Loss of jobs, childcare issues, health concerns. Here are just a few of the many woes of a teacher in September 2020.

Every single child that a teacher comes in contact with in the classroom, in the hall, at the buses, and in other common areas of a school building is a potential health threat. Multiply that by every single other individual a single child comes in contact with in or out of school and the risk balloons. Teachers know darn well that even though it’s a rule to wear a mask, school is for breaking rules. This never changed and it isn’t going to change now. The new “behavior” will be some kid who doesn’t want to wear a mask. How about kids with health issues? Teachers with health issues? Improper ventilation? Buildings not up to standards of cleanliness and sanitation?

Is your head spinning yet? Mine sure is. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. Did I mention that every single one of these things is also a risk to the health of your child…and you?

I’m not lazy, and get no particular thrill from making my paycheck sitting at my kitchen table. In fact, I love being in a room with my students engaged in face to face lessons. Love to see their hard work all over the walls and hear their excitement when they get a question right or learn something they didn’t know before. No, sitting in front of a computer is no match for that and it never will be. But the risks involved in putting hundreds of adults and children back under one roof is too overwhelming to even imagine. We’ve already seen the results of the rush to “get back to normal.” How many more examples do we need? I also understand the concerns about students falling behind. But what’s the alternative? Keeping a virus circulating instead of being realistic and following the rules until we can all be safe? Teachers writing wills and obituaries? (Yes, this is real!) Pretending that COVID19 is fake and invented for political purposes? See-through shower curtains between us and students? (Don’t even get me going on this one!)

The hopeful news is that we now have a starting point, due to the hard work of many dedicated professionals and savvy parents who worked together last spring. Now, we will be allowed into our rooms and buildings to get what we need to be more successful in this unprecedented time. No, it’s not going to be the same, at least not for the time being. But we will figure this out and in the end, being safe is better than being sorry. It’s the rule we’ve always been taught. Why change now?

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What No One Tells You About Survival

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As I begin this blog, I’m finishing up what will hopefully be my last round of radiation to eradicate the final vestiges of cancer in this vessel of mine that held so many ugly secrets. We’re talking years of feeling like crap, with no clear explanation. Now I can hopefully put my life back on track and move forward. Endings and beginnings. And ugly secrets.

I don’t believe in negativity. But I do believe in being honest and up front. Thus this earnest discussion about being a big time survivor and what it does and doesn’t mean.

Stage IV lung cancer. I don’t look at statistics anymore, but they’re damn grim. I know that from obsessing over them at the beginning of my crazy journey, back when I was destined to die. Now, with CURE being mentioned more and more and EXCELLENT OUTCOME floating hypnotically around like a sweet drug, I can reflect on other things in between high-fiving myself for getting through this, and looking toward a more certain future. I hardly accomplished this on my own, and contrary to the popular beliefs of some, I appreciate everything that has been done for me. But I also had a lot of things happen to me that could and should have been avoided, events that only served to pile on more hurt, and yet more worries to weigh heavily on my mind, which was (and is) already ready to burst. Makes a girl skeptical, to say the least.

Herein lies a sad truth: Not everyone who gets cancer or other life-threatening illnesses are surrounded by supportive loved ones. If you are, consider yourself very lucky. Some of us have to make the most of the ones who are, and extract the rest of our healing from the kindness of strangers. Here’s the side of the survivor story that you may not hear about amid all the parades and fireworks.

Before cancer, I always wondered how my detractors would treat me if something truly terrible happened to me. Now, I know.

If They Resented You Then…

…they aren’t going to stop resenting you just because your life is going down the tubes. I had a great life before cancer. I still have a great life. In between, not so hot. People who don’t like that you made a better life than them might just be happy that you’re struggling. Maybe they’ll want to see you struggle more. And they’ll pile on the negativity. A few individuals in my life have been putting the screws to me all along. Just remember that these people are sicker than you will ever be.

Short Memories Never Cease

Listen folks, cancer ain’t fun. Needles and scans and treatment ain’t my idea of a party. Yeah, it’s gotten the best of me at times. Admittedly, I have not always been nice. But I’ll also note that the past year of my life has chipped the BS tolerance meter down to just about nothing. I never had much of a filter, but now, even thinner. So if you start slinging crap at me, you’re going to get it back tenfold. I’ll hand your microscope back to you on a silver platter. And herein lies the next discovery: People will only remember what you do to them, not what they’ve done to you to warrant your feelings. Best to just let them wallow in self-pity and keep doing your thing.

Infantile Behavior

Name calling, back stabbing, changing sides, being unable to apologize and move on, spreading my delicate medical business all over town. All things I’ve had to deal with on top of cancer. Imagine being called first grade names by someone who is supposed to understand and love you. Imagine that same someone teaming up with your other detractors as soon as things don’t go her way, even though she was there when your life was on the line. It happens, folks. I question my choices now as much as I question theirs.

You Change, They Don’t

Cancer absolutely changes the lives of many people, not just the patient. Loved ones have to find their own ways to deal with your illness and do their own form of grieving and coping. Yet the reality is that this disease and others like it is worst for the person who really has it. The hardest thing for me was the “not knowing” if I would even be alive to see the calendar flip to 2020. There is no feeling like this that I can even compare to the reality that your life is going to come to an end prematurely, and you may not have any choice in the matter. Add to that the endless hours of needle biopsies, lying in MRI tubes with ear-shattering noises echoing in your ears, trips back and forth to specialist after specialist. Meanwhile, those whose lives don’t change at all will increase your discomfort while continuing to disrespect the dramatic changes that you are going through, alterations that they would never be able to deal with.

Downplaying Your Hurts

Back before my treatment options and prognosis changed dramatically, I had a port surgically placed and was faced with chemo. This was the first time that my skin had ever been cut. The port was a degradation for me, and now the scar left after having it removed isn’t much better, though my niece recently suggested to me that I consider it a “battle scar” and wear it proudly, so I’m kind of liking that idea. The real kicker about the port was that I didn’t need it, nor did I need chemo. But when I was in the heat of all this, I was the only one who thought the cutting of my skin and the loss of my hair was a big deal. (Yet, no one agreed to go bald with me, so there you have it!) Sure, a lot of cancer patients require chemo and make it through, so big whoop, right? Right! Until it’s you. Then see how great it looks. Lesson: don’t ever simplify the hurt of others.

Empty People Won’t Suddenly Fill For You

Individuals with nothing inside of them exist. Cold, uncaring, unloving, narcissistic blame factories that won’t just suddenly start acting human for you. It is beyond their capabilities. Enough said.

Telling, Not Asking

In the world of professional writing, the one banging away at the keyboard letters always has this line in mind: show, don’t tell. In the world of life-threatening illness, this has to be changed to ask, don’t tell. Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve had too many people making assumptions about the way I feel. Sometimes, the way I look is presumed to be the way I feel. I look good so I must feel good! I look tired, therefore I must feel like crap! I must be dreadfully unhappy because of cancer! (True enough, though at least in my case it’s better to say that the joy of life was suppressed. That golden gate has been reopened. Those who have never found true joy in life would not understand this.) I can think of many adjectives used to describe me that were totally false, when all the speaker had to do was ask and give me time to speak to get the real answer.

Special Note: my medical team is not guilty of this. They get it.

A Word of Hope

If this is you like it’s me, find the right folks and stick with them. The positive ones. The hopeful ones. The ones on social media that you’ve never met but are generous enough to try and lift you up rather than crush you even further than you’re already crushed. The ones you don’t see everyday, but who can give you a lift with a friendly text or call or email. Thank goodness I have a lot of those.

And just fight your best fight. Strength, courage, integrity, the will to live that no one can take away.

Some will resent you for it. Let them.

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A Tale of Two Women

 

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but other ideas keep getting in the way. Now, with my mother’s birthday here, it’s the perfect time to celebrate her and my wonderful friend Barbara, whose passing was two years ago last week. I credit these two incredible women with being the most influential people in my life. Considering I’ve spent most of my life around women, this is a pretty big honor! Each of them helped to mold me into the person I am today, and for entirely different reasons. Yet, they both had the most precious gift of all for me: love. How I wish they were here to help me through cancer and COVID19, and so many other struggles! But their special gifts to me are so strong that they will last a lifetime, even without them near.

Mom

I’ve met a few people who’ve had poor relationships with their mothers, and have seen it first hand. I understand that not everyone is cut out to be a great nurturer, or even a good one. But mine, well, she was the best! Not only was she my mom, but she was my best friend, travel companion, and staunchest supporter of mostly everything I did. I have to say “mostly,” because Mom was not afraid to speak up if she didn’t like something! She was fiercely protective over her six daughters, and that didn’t always go over well. The interesting thing about Mom’s opinions, however, is that they were usually right!

Mom was a hard working, trustworthy, and emotional lady who was a member of the Greatest Generation and was honest to a fault. She was fiercely in love with my father, and when he suddenly passed away in 1977, Mom was forced to raise us by herself, pay for our family home, and somehow keep us going. Honestly, knowing what I know now, decades later, I don’t know how she did it. But she did, even though she had lost the love of her life and partner in everything. In my estimation, Mom needed a full fifteen years to get over my father. In the interim, she dragged her tired body to work everyday, paid bills, gave us the many shirts off her back that she had to wear without Dad, and cried frequently. When you’re young and you see your beloved mother an emotional wreck most days, you don’t really understand the underlying pain, and I’ll admit, I thought that she was a weak person because of what I witnessed. Not anymore! She battled through physical and familial pain, eventually finding a new love: traveling with me! Even that had its hardships for her, because it was so tough for her to leave her family. But she would somehow end up in the car, or on the airplane, or on the bus next to me.

Mom taught me the true value of love, the love of travel, to work hard for what I want. (Have you noticed how many times I’ve used the word love?) She left us for the big vacation in the sky in 2004, at the age of eighty. Here’s a shot from her last birthday, July 29, 2004:

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I wish I could report that her final birthday was spent surrounded by the love of her six daughters, but it wasn’t. Because of unbridgeable differences, what should have been the celebration of a major milestone was a quiet affair. I’ll never quite get over the sad fact that my dear mother never got what she really deserved, but endured a lot of what she didn’t. That has shaped me into someone that will not be walked on or taken advantage of.

In the end, I became her staunchest supporter and protector, and made a lot of enemies in my immediate family because I made myself a wall between her and them. The last several years of her life were tougher than they had to be, but it was love at work again: she never gave up on people who gave up on her. That’s one trait that I definitely didn’t get from Mom! I don’t give up easily on people who hurt me, but I do let them go.

Her death left a deeper sadness in me than cancer ever could. Her passing remains the worst thing that has ever happened to me, the most significant event of my life.

Special Note: The picture at the top of this post is Mom’s graduation picture, which hangs in my bedroom! She was very proud and talked often of this accomplishment.

Here’s our last traveling picture together, taken twenty years after the first:

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Barbara

Happiness was fleeting in my family. Any attempt at sustaining it would be shot down by someone’s negativity. So when I met my dear friend Barbara in the mid-eighties, when I was seventeen and she was a woman with a great deal of life experience, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she was so positive. In fact, she had such a positive attitude about life that my first impression was that she was “a fake!”

Barbara was my hairdresser. That’s how we met. She cut Mom’s hair now and then, too, so my two biggest influences met a handful of times! I’d gone to high school with one of her daughters, but it wasn’t her daughter that I had a thirty-plus year friendship with.

Like Mom, Barbara was a hard-working lady who shot straight from the hip. She was also independent and a successful business woman. We weren’t a likely combination, but let’s face it, when you’re sitting in that comfy chair for hours having your hair cut and colored and blown out, you have to talk about something! And Barbara and I talked about life. Her ability to see something good in everything and everyone started to have an effect on me. It was eye opening and mind opening! I realized one day: Barbara is happy. She made me want to be that way, too. But she taught me that happiness isn’t about walking around with a smile on your face, or doing good deeds to make yourself appear to be a decent person, or having a significant other to “make you whole.” Real happiness truly is a state of mind, of being, of thinking. And taking care of yourself and feeling good about yourself is no crime.

Barbara and I eventually became friends outside of her shop, meeting for lunch or breakfast or dinner, or at her condo and later, her home, for wine and conversation. Our time together was deep and meaningful, and I always came away having learned something important. Over the course of our friendship, Barbara lost all of her possessions in a fire, had two open heart surgeries, and found the love of her life in her 70s! Talk about a never say die attitude!

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Barbara gave those who loved her the feeling that she would live forever. But in 2018, while I was traveling, she succumbed to a virus. One of her daughters left me a message on my home phone that I didn’t get for over a week. I won’t ever forget standing in my kitchen at two in the morning, just back from yet another stupendous road trip, as I listened to it, and the emptiness I felt that this wonderful woman was gone from my life.

Her memorial service was held on what would have been Mom’s ninety-fourth birthday.

I oftentimes wonder how Mom and Barbara would feel about me fighting cancer. Unlike so many people I’ve dealt with over the past year, they would have been stuck like glue to my side! But part of me feels better that they don’t have to see me go through what I’ve dealt with since my diagnosis. Knowing that they’re in a better place and watching over me is probably better, as much as I miss them!

Everyone should be so lucky to have had such amazing people in their lives! If you don’t have them, find them!

Oh, one more thing…

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!

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Why Beating Cancer is a Lottery

Big Win

You can’t win if you don’t play.

And sometimes, you can’t win even if you do.

Does that title sound weird? Apologies ahead of time, but the more I deal with this disease and the more I hear of other people’s struggles with it, the more like a lottery cancer seems. One of the most interesting, but cruel, things about the Big C is that it isn’t choosy who it kills and who it spares. I call it “the great equalizer.”

Earlier in the week, we learned that the lovely Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife, was secretly battling breast cancer for two years. Alex Trebek has been beating the pancreatic cancer odds for about as long. And we know that Steve Jobs, in spite of being a billionaire, lost the fight after eight years. Yet, a poor chick like me can get some top shelf medical care and do okay.

On June 22nd I had my third PET scan, three months after pinpoint radiation to my lung. My radiation oncologist at Dana-Farber felt as though she would be able to cure my lung tumor…and did. My scan was nearly clear, and I have Stage IV lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer by far. Granted, my metastasis is very limited and, in fact, does not include any other major organs. Even so, good luck finding a case like mine out there in medical land.  This doesn’t happen on a regular basis. I have been extremely lucky. I’m not supposed to be here and wouldn’t be if I didn’t go to a comprehensive cancer center for my care. So yes, I’m winning the cancer lottery!

The cancer lottery has little to do with money. Buy your ticket, pick your numbers carefully, and hope for the best.

Back to that PET scan for a minute. One small sight was still lighting up, a node in my right shoulder muscle. Currently, I’m in Boston undergoing fifteen treatments of radiation to rid my body of the last traces of a disease that normally kills people much stronger than I.  I fully expect that my next scan will be clear.

Sigh.

How did this happen?

First, let me point out that I didn’t get lung cancer because I was a smoker. Yes, I smoked when I was a teenager, but the cause of my disease is what my oncologist refers to as a “genetic accident.” No one knows when it started, but there’s a fair chance that it had been growing for many years, and wasn’t discovered until last September, when a tumor started to appear in the area of my sternum. As horrendous as it was to have a visible tumor, the fact that I could see it is yet another way that I got “lucky in an unlucky situation.” Lung cancer rarely has signs that can be seen. As I sit here typing this I’m overwhelmed by how things could have been so different for me.

I also won the treatment lottery. Because of a mutation in my tumors, I bypassed chemo and was able to take a pill to shrink my cancer down to a size where radiation could be used to eradicate the remainder. Cutting edge treatment, folks. Of course I’m really simplifying it. The fact that the medication worked so well was another miracle. Jeez, did I ever hit the jackpot!

As I walk the polished floors of Dana-Farber and Brigham & Women’s in Boston, I see little old ladies just out of chemo bent over in wheelchairs, and little kids with bald heads taken from appointment to appointment by their vigilant and exhausted parents. No one wants to lose this battle.

A growing number of cancer patients become long-term survivors. We know what happens to the rest. But what’s the deciding factor?

Luck definitely has a lot to do with it, and a fortunate roll of the dice. But making good decisions has a major chapter in the plan book, too.

Here’s what worked for me.

First and foremost, the best medical care that I could get. After that, a predominantly positive attitude. Prayers and good vibrations from whomever was offering. Sidestepping negativity. Fighting to keep my mind and body strong. Educating myself as much as I could in all things lung cancer, and cancer in general. Getting back to doing the things I love to do sooner than could have been predicted. Being in very good physical shape to start with. Having a decent diet. Finding the joy in life again. Asking questions and getting answers. And relishing the miracle.

Are there people who do all these things and don’t get positive results? Unfortunately, yes. But don’t be one of the ones who doesn’t try.

As Americans, we love talking about who wins the Super Bowl and the World Series. We marvel at athletes in the Olympics and Wimbledon and the Indy 500. But here’s what a cancer survivor knows: There’s no bigger fight than the fight for your life. And when you win the cancer lottery, you’ve done something pretty special.

Play to win.

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What’s So Good About Quarantining?

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Howdy again! I guess it’s kind of weird to be writing about quarantining when the country is opening back up, but dare I say that this might not be over? Sure, we’re showing up in droves to book an outside table at our favorite restaurant, and gathering together in relief that this weird thing that has happened to the world has come to an end, but let’s face it, COVID19 is not over. I’m not sure that I’m ready to say that the world is never going to be the same again, but who knows.

What are you supposed to be doing right now? Me, I had a whole new world to deal with already before this virus came along and added another new type of weird to my life. Cancer came a callin’ for me in October of last year, and shortly after that a bit of a miracle occurred that put me back on the map of life. I’m supposed to be packing for a summer of fun, of getting back to the me that cancer tried to strip me of. Instead, I’m cancelling and rescheduling trips with my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get some travel time in later this year. But I’m also figuring out new ways to enjoy life, because I have to. We all have to! And believe me, if I can find alternatives to the crazy awesome life I was leading a year ago, you can, too!

Here are some of the things that I’ve adopted to keep busy.

A Walk in the Woods

Hiking and walking is nothing new for me, but I’ve stepped up my game even more now that I have to be home so much. Truth is, “quarantining” for me has never meant being shut up in the house 24/7. I decided early on that I would not give up my time outside, as the likelihood of catching COVID19 on a hiking trail is slim to none. What I have been basically forced to do is to find new trails to explore as well as new parks and towns to check out. I’m so used to being in some exotic or amazing locale several times a year, that hiking in the same five or six nearby places in between trips worked. Not anymore! I needed to get creative, so as not to get bored. And guess what? I’ve found some excellent stuff! I always said that someday I was going to take a summer off from globetrotting and enjoy New England, and what do you know…it happened! (Of course, I kind of wanted to have a choice…) What hidden gems are in your backyard? Look around! I know they’re there!

Reading

If I could sit around and just read books all day, I might. Lately, I’m rereading old favorites and finding new obsessions to fly through. Now is the time to start that epic classic you’ve always wanted to conquer. Or, maybe indulge in something fluffy to take your mind off the craziness in the world. There’s always the option too, of learning something new that you’ve always wanted to know more about. Books have so many great functions!

Journaling

We’re living in historic times! Why not write about it? I’ve been filling notebooks for years, and I still get excited when I purchase my next one. I look for ones with fun covers on them, or interesting sayings. You could also buy a plain covered spiral and decorate it yourself. Purchase your favorite pens that write to your specifications and comfort. The Pentel RSVP Fine Point in black is my must have pen. Less than a buck apiece and they last a long time! (And by the way, I’m not making any moolah off that link!) While what you write inside the journal is the most important thing, take it from someone who has been doing this for forty years: what you use to do it is almost as crucial! There’s no worse killer of great journaling than pens that don’t work!

Art Projects

Folks, I’m no artist…believe me! But know what? I don’t care! I’m painting and creating my little heart out! Not everyone loves the message rock thing, but because I’m in the woods all the time, I find them magical, and have been making my own. As a teacher who has had her share of talented kids, I was at a loss with remote learning, so had to get my art fix without them. Rocks, hubcaps, flower pots, so many things around the house are up for beautifying with some cheap acrylic paints or cans of spray paint. Go ahead, find your inner Picasso!

Pictures

Do you still print pictures? Many people don’t, which I think is sad. Because we rely on our phones for so much, photo albums are getting a lot harder to find. Just had to order one from the ‘Zon because I couldn’t find any without going out of my way to a specialty store that may not even be open.  Nevertheless, now just may be the time to start printing your memories again. I’m convinced that paper pictures and albums are still the only trustworthy way we can save the special moments that we want to remember for a lifetime and pass on to future generations. Clark Color Labs allows you to upload images right from your computer, their developing costs are excellent, and their service is fast.

What are those things that you wanted to do “when you have time?” The “time” has arrived! And if the department store shelves are any indication of what Americans are doing with their extra hours, it can safely be said that we’re taking really good care of our cars, prettying up our homes, working in our yards, and spending a lot of time with family. Not such a bad thing, you think?

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The New Face of Surviving Cancer

What’s so new about surviving cancer? A ton.

As I travel this road of being a cancer survivor, I’m learning a hell of a lot. Maybe more than I ever learned as I crisscrossed the globe for two decades. Maybe more than I learned my entire life. Absolutely more than I ever wanted to know about this particular subject.

Now, it’s my reality and I’m going to live it. And if I can help others in the process, even better. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, right?

But let’s get back to that new face of surviving cancer.

What’s your perception of someone with the Big C? It’s this, right?

Chemo Two

This may still be reality for some unfortunate enough to get this disease, but not all. What if I told you that every single picture of me in this blog (and most on my website) were taken after my diagnosis, and that my appearance didn’t change at all as I’ve gone through treatment? That there are people wandering around out there in the world, like myself, that have cancer and you don’t even know it unless they tell you? You’d call me a liar, but that’s okay. It gives me a job to do here, changing your perception of what a cancer survivor looks like.

Let me just clear up one more thing.

You’ll see a lot of this stuff out there, too:

Chemo One

I’m going to title this one “Gorgeous Woman Who Has Never Known Cancer in Her Life Telling You That You Can Look as Happy and Fantastic as Her While Your Body and Your Identity Get Depleted By Chemo.” This is called “putting a happy face on a really crappy situation.” It’s misleading advertising at its best and worst. And this is absolutely not what I’m aiming for here. Nor am I suggesting that every chemo patient is ugly, or that any chemo or cancer patient is ugly. I’ve seen people look absolutely stunning in head wraps and/or wigs. Don’t know how they do it. I admire them greatly. In general, I think strength is way more admirable than the Kardashians.

Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to turn my back on chemotherapy, but was less than twenty-four hours away from having it when I was offered cutting edge treatment at a comprehensive cancer center.  I don’t know what chemo is “like” and I don’t plan to. But I do know what it’s like to think that this is the only way to rid my body of this demon called cancer. I was almost there. My lucky stars aligned and I was saved this misery. And this is why I’m so different.

I have lung cancer. And no, it’s not because I smoked, and no it is absolutely, positively not okay to assume that or to ask me about it as if it’s a given fact. That’s an unfortunate way the face of cancer is changing: lung cancer is on the rise in populations in otherwise healthy individuals like me. But that’s for another blog. For this one, let’s get just a bit deeper into two of the reasons that cancer is getting a much needed makeover.

I was diagnosed at a local hospital before I went to Dana-Farber in Boston, which is consistently in the top five cancer research institutes in the entire United States. My local hospital was prepping me for chemo and radiation, but had the good sense to send my biopsy tissue out for what is referred to as biomarker testing, though it may also be referred to otherwise. I can’t even stress how important it is to get this type of testing done if it’s available for your type of cancer. It could be the difference between vastly different treatment scenarios. It could be the difference between life and death, as it was for me. When you settle for chemo and radiation as a first line treatment, that is all you’re ever going to get, and at many small cancer facilities it may be your only option. I know now that if I had not gone to Boston I would not have lived long. Scary stuff.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a biomarker, you may be able to have something called targeted therapy, which is what I’m on. It’s basically a pill that targets the specific mutation in your tumor but usually doesn’t destroy anything else, like white blood cells, which is what chemo is known to do. Targeted therapy drugs often have many less side effects than chemo. It may sound far fetched, but the therapy that I take daily started shrinking visual tumors I had in less than a week and set me on the path of getting my life back. Results vary, (mine was phenomenal) but many people have great responses to these wonder drugs.

The second fairly new treatment is called immunotherapy, which uses your own immune system to attack cancer cells. Like targeted therapy, more cancer survivors are living longer lives with infusions of immunotherapy. Many options are available, and I’ve read several success stories.

It is accurate to say that targeted therapy and immunotherapy are rewriting the script on cancer and putting more people in the survivor column.

Before you accept chemo and radiation, be sure to look into all your treatment options.

And join me as the New Face of Surviving Cancer.

Caution: Name Change Ahead!

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Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for following my travels, for reading my autobiographical posts, for learning along with me on my journey to being a cancer survivor. Soon, I’ll be changing my name from Brenda K. Stone to Barb Lee. It’s a switch that I’ve been wanting to make for some time now, and I’ve finally decided to proceed. Barb Lee is close to my birth name, and I feel it’s time to be me again. Other than the name, not much else is going to change! But of course I understand if you no longer wish to follow me. I will miss you if you decide to go. If you decide to stick around, and I hope you will, here is what you can expect:

https://brendakstone.com will still work! I’ll keep it in use for those who are interested in the seven works of fiction I published under my pseudonym, Brenda K. Stone. There will still be a page on my website linked to Amazon and other retailers.

https://iambarblee.com will be my new primary URL. Under this name and URL I will continue to blog about my travels, my life, my cancer journey, and my personal philosophies. My memoir, Destination Life: My Cancer Road Trip, continues to grow, and my fingers are crossed that it will be a published book. In the near future I hope to put together a newsletter as well as a small store on my website with merchandise geared toward the survivor in your life! I’m also working on a presentation that I’ll use to move forward on the desire to be a motivational speaker, something I’ve always been interested in. Now that I have a pretty unique story to tell, it’s a better time than ever, and the more people I can help, the happier I’ll be. And I’ll never count out the possibility of writing fiction again under either name, (or both!) as it is one of my true loves!

Whew! I have a lot to do! I’d better get going!

Thank you again for your support and for your interest in my writing!