Rebirth!

Don’t you love spring? I certainly do, always have. This year, I got an extra special present two days after the beginning of my second favorite season: I’m in remission again. Thanks to the latest offering for metastatic lung cancer from Big Pharma, my scans from March 22nd look very promising. Promising in what way? For cure? Being done with treatment? What? Let’s just leave it as promising and hope for the best.

I didn’t post every step of my journey on Facebook this time. Not because my friends and followers are sick of it, but because, frankly, I am. And I matter for something besides cancer, even though I kinda sometimes feel that I really don’t matter that much because of cancer. Oh, don’t be that way, you say. Be a warrior! You got this! Kick cancer’s ass! And I say, I hope you never have to know what it’s really like to have this monster lurking inside you, and find out how all of that typical language starts to turn your stomach. That’s why I chose not to shout it from the treetops. Instead, I’m standing somewhat firmly on the ground with a pleased smile and hoping it lasts a long time.

Yeah, I know everyone “means well.” And I really do appreciate it. But sometimes I realize that people really don’t THINK about what they’re saying to me. Their fingers just fly over the keyboard of their iPhones because, well, they have to say something to show support in five words or less. My advice: Just press the heart, folks. Just press the heart, instead of breaking the heart.

I am suddenly reborn hand in hand with the entire Northern Hemisphere and can move toward the future with a little more of a stride in my step after a few months of stomach churning uncertainty. Soon I’ll be fully vaccinated and will start to travel again. Plans are made, other plans are in the works. Life feels good again, though as the old saying goes, “It’s always something.” Always something to rain on a parade already drenched with “somethings.” A precious fur baby crosses the Rainbow Bridge, a long time friendship is at odds. Sure seems wrong that I have to deal with all this and cancer too. WTF.

Before all this happened I was living my best life, yet always counting my blessings. Stopping long enough to realize how lucky I am? Yes, indeed. Never so busy that I couldn’t do that. Now I’ve arrived back at that after hours and days of gloom and doom, of wondering how life could go one way for so long then make an abrupt u-turn and continue on to the point of no return. Well, I just never made it to that pinnacle, made another abrupt u-turn, and here I am, so close to having the opportunity to live my best life again after surviving what kills big strong people continuously. A lucky girl? Oh, you can’t even imagine. What did I ever do to be able to tell this particular story and not lie? No idea. This may sound like another lie, but in many ways I wouldn’t have it any other way. When the going is good, like it is now, I am content to be an odds beater. Nothing quite like it. Tom Brady has seven rings. I have life. Beat that.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some incredible people always at the ready to pick me up before I get too far down. They more than make up for the few that should be there but aren’t for one selfish reason or another. It’s okay, you can’t win them all. If someone can’t be there when I’m flying high, when I’m down in the dirt, and when I’m somewhere in between trying to find firm ground, then they need not be there at all. And I know how to return the favor. It ain’t all about me. I get that. Relationships are give and take. How many times have we heard that but still insist on having one-sided affairs? I’m in a secure place with some pretty special people all around. Imagine the irony of thinking that after all the building I’ve done, cancer would knock out one block and the whole wall would collapse. Not the case, I say with a shiver of warmth. The foundation is pretty sturdy.

Shortly before I set out on this journey that would culminate in perhaps my biggest learning experience yet (survival), I was right where I wanted to be. Maybe that was a dangerous thought. But, to heck with it. I hereby announce myself there again.

Born again.

Happy Spring!

Finding A Middle Ground

Hey, did you notice that I changed my site identity from “The New Face of Surviving Cancer” to “Write. Hike. Survive. Thrive?” Yeah, I guess I’ve decided that I don’t want to be the former and would rather concentrate on the latter. Make no mistake, I am not ashamed of who I am now, with cancer survival on top of everything else I’ve managed to accomplish in my life, but the last couple of months have been pretty tough on me and I find myself desperately needing to find a middle ground. I cannot be all cancer all the time.

When you join a clinical trial, (another thing I never wanted to do but have to do if I want to live) you’re kind of at the mercy of the drug company, or “sponsor,” as they so poetically refer to themselves as, and that has been the story of my life for the past five weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that it appears that I’m making progress. And what the heck else is there to do while we’re all trying to figure out whether COVID19 is coming or going! But I’d still rather be left alone to live my life. Only, that’s the whole point. If I’m left alone to live my life I’ll die. Understand now?

I started out a year and a half ago with this big plan to ditch the fiction writing career I had craved since I was a teenager to focus on nonfiction books and blogging. Hiking and traveling would be my favored subjects. Then cancer came a calling, and I decided that I’d roll with it. I’d start speaking at libraries and other local public places about being a cancer survivor and turn it into a full time gig. COVID19 blew that to smithereens. But I continued to work on a book about my journey, which I finished at the end of 2020. After taking a break from the writing to let it settle for a couple of months, I opened it back up this weekend, read six pages and said, I cannot continue to relive this nightmare.

So guess what I did? I opened one of my “writing drawers” and allowed it to swallow up my “cancer book.” Meanwhile, a fictitious tale of a pretty girl and a football player jumped out. It was one of three other full manuscripts I have hanging around, waiting for the attention I never thought I would give them. But guess what? Fiction is sounding like a hell of a lot of fun again. A hell of a lot more fun than I’ve been having lately. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s a really hot time to be writing books about the hiking and traveling that most of us have not been able to do much of in over a year. And I so want to continue writing books. What can I say? I love writing books. Fiction may be the key again. But I also love blogging. Who ever said I can’t do both? Me. It seems that now and forever, I’ve always been my own worst enemy.

Especially over the past several weeks. My mood has been dreary, at best. My beefs, not necessarily in this order: I have this flippin’ disease. It’s snowing and cold and windy in New England. I’m going up and back to Boston in the worst of it and getting stuck with needles and tested to high heaven to keep me from going to high heaven. Even if I could travel I can’t travel because of a global pandemic. Then my fingers start doing the walking to search out the very worst information I can possibly wrap my mind around about Stage IV lung cancer and yeah, then I’m in the hole big time.

Jeez, enough is enough.

Here’s what I realized the other day. Who is telling me I’m not going to be alive to see the end of the pandemic? Me. Who is telling me that I’m not worth anything now that I have cancer? Me. Who is telling me that I’m never going to travel again? Me. Yeah, I’m the culprit. To repeat: my own worst enemy.

Back to finding the middle ground and the search for some firm footing.

I’ve never been one to live one day at a time. No, more like a whole lifetime in a day with my eye on an even better future. Maybe I get one day at a time now. Still, I need to have plans. I’ve decided it’s safe to look into the near future. And I’m not spending all my retirement money to “live like I’m dying” because I know how that goes. Anyway, I’ve spent the last decade living like I was dying. Yeah, really. Things were pretty good there for some time. Can they be again, in spite of everything? I have to believe they can. But I can’t be too sure of it, because I don’t want to be devastated again. I am moving forward with caution, and with the knowledge that I will still screw up and wind up in the hole again.

But hey…It’s spring. My treatment appears to be going in the right direction. Southern Utah is on the April horizon. I’m thinking about summer road trips. And oh yeah, that book…

I can do this!!!

If This is the End

Maybe you picked up from my last post that my cancer is back, and with a vengeance. Well, it may be more accurate to say that it never really left. Stage IV disease kind of hangs around and wreaks more havoc just when you think that maybe you’ll be the lucky one and it won’t return.

Truth is, I kind of am a lucky one (in an unlucky situation) because I have some magic dust in my tumors that allows me to kill my cancer with a pill, at least until the pill doesn’t work anymore. Which means that if I didn’t tell you I had cancer you’d never know. I plod on and silently battle the killer. Some people go on for years this way. Me, a year and a half, and I just started on med number two after the first one gave out late in the nutty year of 2020. So far, so good, but this is not so different than walking a tight rope. You really don’t know when you’re going to topple off and not have a net to catch you. So you just say your prayers and hope for the best. Look forward, not down.

I’m in better shape than I was when I wrote that last post. The new damage is known and the new treatment has started to tackle it. But I’m having a damn hard time having to go back to where I was a year ago. Starting from scratch is really harrowing, because I was doing so well after round one. Still, the desire to get back to where I was before all this happened drives me on.

Will I get there? Maybe the answer isn’t as important as the fact that I was there once upon a time. When this all went down I had been living my best life for many years. Working hard, traveling hard, laughing hard, hiking hard. I didn’t have any money, because I spent most of it. I didn’t care. Still don’t. It was worth every penny. I visited forty countries, fifty states, forty-plus national parks in the United States, and several in other countries.

I confess to being a country hopper. See a place for a week, be the dreaded “tourist,” and come home to earn money for another week somewhere else in the world, on the next school vacation. Right now, someone out there is waving a finger at me and telling me that I can’t “know” someplace when I only get a little taste of it like I did of a million places. Imagine, spending your life telling someone else what they did wrong.

I confess too, to being a day hiker. Doing a great trail and sleeping in a hotel room after a nice shower while my fellow trekkers insist that hiking isn’t “real” if you don’t sleep in a tent under the stars. Funny, how we have to compete over such nonsense. The way I look at it, if I spend five days someplace really great and it’s the best damn five days of my life, then I add and multiply that several times, pretty soon I have something to reckon with: a life well spent.

I don’t want it to be over, but if this is the end, I’ve had a hell of a run. None of this magic was supposed to happen to the daughter of a janitor. This life that I’ve led was probably meant for someone else and I just happened to show up. Really? No, I lie. I busted my ass for all of it but never got any credit for it from any number of people. Always, I was doing something wrong and inconveniencing them in some way. No, I don’t want to look at your 17,500 pictures of red rocks. No, I don’t want to read your books. No, I don’t want to date you. No, you’re over the top. Stop dressing like that. Stop being so honest and in my face. And now, cancer survivor? You’re TOO MUCH, lady.

I’ve spent my life being rejected by men, by my family, and by people I wanted as my friends. The life I built was the life that accepted me as I was (and am.) Moving quickly enabled me to leave behind what and who I couldn’t have, no matter how hard I tried. I found my happy place. The world, my friends, is my oyster.

Someone out there is saying, she was running away from what she couldn’t have! Or maybe, running to what I could have? I like that better. What I could have was better. In the end, it always is.

Ehhh, maybe I deserve all this. Worked too hard. Laughed too hard. Traveled too hard. Hiked too hard. Guess what? I wouldn’t change a thing. And in my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, and my mind of minds, it ain’t over for me yet. I think I still have some fun left in me. Some miles and some words and some laughs and some thrills.

To anyone who has ever questioned exactly what I’m made of: Now you know. I will not lie down. I will not go quietly.

Surprise! I may have lost value to some the day I got cancer, but I still love life. So there.

The Glory of Aging

I hereby promise that this is the last opinion piece I’ll be writing. One of my upcoming New Year’s resolutions is to focus my blog on hiking, traveling, and all the other activities that make me the New Face of Surviving Cancer. So, if you would be so kind to listen one more time, I’ll get on to that stuff soon enough.

Still, this kind of fits, in its own crazy way.

As I reach my fifty-fourth birthday this day, I’m reveling in the glory of aging, because, you see, I really wasn’t supposed to be granted a fifty-fourth birthday. No, at the end of 2019, months before COVID19, I was faced with the very real possibility that I would never see the end of 2020, maybe not even the end of 2019.

For reasons I’ve blathered heartily about (lung cancer…shhhh!) I’m supposed to be, well, um, dead. But here I am, still chipping away at my allotted number of lives (ever been on a burning DC-10? I have) which must be in the triple-digits, (how many times have I been around the world alone?) or I’m just living on borrowed time, as it sometimes seems now.

Man, I’ve had a good life. I have a good life. Even after cancer, and so much loss, and so much heartache, I can still say that. How?

I have nothing left to prove. Oh, I still want to travel the world, and experience true and lasting love, and hike the other thirty national parks that I haven’t done yet, and write a bestselling memoir. But I’ve stopped worrying about many of the things I used to cringe over.

Aging is a biggie. I have a whole new perspective. Getting old, my friends, is a privilege. I’ve always respected the elderly. Now, even more. I want the privilege of being one of them. And I’m going to enjoy every step of the journey until then with my fingers crossed and my upper body in a PET scanner.

You think I care about bikinis? The wisdom of Kylie Jenner? How much cash you have in your wallet? How much your car costs? To me, Coachella is the name of a nowhere town in my beloved Mojave, not a festival where the youthful and stupid compete for social media attention. I don’t envy the young, who will never know what it’s like to be able to trust people they’ve never met, or play in the woods with reckless abandon.

The other night a wonderful friend of mine came to deliver presents, and took a picture of us using a filter, to show me how it worked. I was horrified to see my face look so different. But to some, this is the norm, because it’s easier to look fake than look like you. I can’t even relate.

I love talking to people older than me. Walking in the local cemeteries, I always meet someone with interesting stories to tell. I’d much prefer to hear real life tales told by an authentic person than the overblown fiction of a “sophisticated” twentysomething. In fact, I have every intention of buying property in a 55+ community the second I’m old enough. You couldn’t talk me out of it if you tried. And hey, I’ll be the youngest one there! Beat that!

I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Give me eighty or eighty-five years and I’ll be happy. Very happy. That will give me plenty of time to finish up my earthly business. Anything more than that and I’ll start to be a burden. To some, I’m already a burden. Why be more of one than I already am, right? That should be our real goal: strive to live a full and fruitful life, but check out before we become a liability.

The elderly are often looked upon as just that. The jokes about the old couple driving around in the RV are tacky. They earned their retirement through working for forty years. And you? Wrinkles are looked down upon as if we aren’t all going to get them. Remember, some of those folks saw Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, or fought in Vietnam. How’s that for life experience? Some of them beat cancer in the days when the treatment options were even more archaic than they are today. They traveled and made love and got high and experienced sadness and fear and devastation. They lived through epidemics and pandemics. We didn’t invent that stuff. They had it down pat long before we came along.

As for me, I’ve bought me some time, such a priceless purchase, and hope to keep on buying it, an installment loan like no other. If I get my way, cancer will turn out to be something that touched my life “thirty years ago,” that I’ll look back on with a shake of my head, a lilting sigh, and a wry smile. That I made it through to bask in the privilege of old age. I’m a year into it already! Only twenty-nine to go!

Merry Christmas. See you in 2021!

**********

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 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!

Love Banner

 

 

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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A Survivor’s Ball, South Carolina

We’ve been through some sh*t together, we’ve been through some sh*t on our own. And last week, we celebrated again by reuniting.

Survivors are not born. They’re made. By struggle. By sadness. By fear. By learning and doing and enduring. I’m not afraid to appear narcissistic by saying that we’ve done them all and more and we’re still here and we plan on being here for a long time.

My beloved niece Amanda is in South Carolina, I’m in Massachusetts. She’s been on a journey of recovery from liver failure for a year and a half now, I’ve been on a Stage IV lung cancer road trip since last September. Neither of us are supposed to be where we are now. But we are. So there.

Traveling is one of the things that I am. I don’t just do it. Though I’ve been criticized for “how” I travel by some who think there’s some hard and fast rules to doing it bigger, better, and faster than me, the truth is that long before I got on an airplane or in a car, I was visiting national parks and monuments on by bedroom floor with a map open in front of my unknowing eyes.  I was discovering foreign lands through age-old National Geographic magazines open on the hall steps. To have the ability to travel taken away from me by cancer was a crushing blow. So imagine the double whammy of rushing down a runway on an American Airlines jetliner and seeing my brave and beautiful niece again all in one compact trip! If this sounds petty to you, maybe you’ll understand someday. I hope you do, but I also hope you don’t have to find out the way we did.

I never cared how I got to where I was going. How much my ticket cost as compared to someone else’s or how good my hotel room was, neither. It ain’t what you’re going to remember when you’re on your death bed. I care even less now. Just let me get there again.

Where was your last trip? Portugal? Good for you. Me, Hell and back. Beat that. But now I plan to make up for lost time, and my sentimental journey to South Carolina was the first step. In a near future blog I’ll talk about the fun stuff we did in more detail, like the trip to the gem mine and the working farm, both with gift shops, of course! But for today, I’ll just recount the more personal aspects of the trip.

Last fall, when I started on my cancer road trip, there was little hope for me to be sitting at my computer and typing this in an upright position, much less boarding an airplane and going places, for a hellishly long time, if ever again. This foray, and my story in general, is one of those miracles you read about in books about someone else. Sure, I was only gone for four days. And no, it wasn’t nearly enough time to celebrate life with Amanda. But in another way, it was the trip of a lifetime, to mark my existence truly beginning again, to set a precedent for getting my life back to the way it was not so long ago, and yet ages ago.

Valentine’s Day had already passed, but not really. February 14th, February 16th, what does it matter? They’re all the same when you aren’t supposed to be where you are, but you are anyway, by sheer force of luck, love, spirit, and whatever else got you there. Lots of presents were shared, tons of dog love, chocolate, and Smarties. How can you go wrong?

We ran around like teenagers and caught up on things. Pretended to be miners in Greenville. Went bowling because the movie choices sucked. Ate at a neat restaurant like the one we’d found in Boone, North Carolina last year. Ended the trip at our favorite China Garden eating seven different flavors of chicken and shrimp and drinking jasmine tea. It was there that I read the Survivor’s Ditty I wrote for us:

Once Upon a Time
Two cute chicks
Survived bad sh*t
Then went out
For Chinese Food
And when they were done
They lived and loved
Like there’s no tomorrow
THE END

Sigh. If only it were that simple.

Early the next morning, I had to leave her and come home to reality and appointments and killing cancer. For four whirlwind days it was like I was normal again. Wait, I am normal again. Maybe I was never not normal? Still trying to figure all this out.

It’s been a hell of a ride, and it ain’t over yet. As I sit and type, I still have treatment to endure. Fingers crossed that I’ve been through the worst of it. And you can bet that I’m hankering for that next trip down the runway. Guess where it will be to? If you guessed South Carolina, you’re right.

Making up for lost time.

My Supporting Cast

My beloved niece recently discovered my website and read many of my posts. What took her so long to find me is beside the point!  What really matters is that she did. She was especially interested in my autobiographical offerings.  So much so that she asked, “When are you going to write about your other family members?” To which I replied, “This is about me, not anyone else!” A few days later, when I wasn’t even thinking about it, I realized two things: that she wanted to be acknowledged as an important part of my life, and that she was absolutely right that I should be writing about someone besides myself! So many people have had their hands in shaping me. This post is for a few of them.

Being single and spending so much of life alone can make you feel like it’s all about you. But of course that’s not true, unless you have no family or friends! For a long time my sisters were both my family and my best friends. I often think that it took me so long to develop actual friendships because my sisters took care of all that for me. Then, once we started choosing paths that took us away from one another, a huge void was left that took many years to fill. Here’s a picture of us all together, in 2012, with the aforementioned niece in there, too:

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Front Row, Left to Right: Carol and Jeanne. Back Row, Left to Right: Amanda, Margo, Susan, Me, Marie

 

I’ve Got All My Sisters and Me

I’ve mentioned previously that I grew up with five sisters. I’m the youngest and got many great influences from them. I also had the benefit of spending time with them in different ways. Maybe that’s what made me a person of such diverse interests. Allow me to pay tribute to them, one by one.

My sister Marie gave me my first Beatles albums and taught me to love New York City and art museums. We’ve spent countless hours in the Big Apple and have seen many of the best exhibits. She has had my back without fault for decades. Through the years, my relationship with my oldest sister is the one that has endured the longest and strongest. Currently, she is one of two sisters that has not missed a single appointment of mine since I was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2019.

My sister Jeanne taught me to have compassion for people with disabilities. She has made me laugh so many times over the years, and has shown me the strength of the human spirit and the sheer will to live. Jeanne is a fighter who wants what she wants and won’t settle for anything less. We are soul sisters as well as blood sisters.

My sister Carol gave me the desire to travel and to be wild and free. I watched her lay down the example when I was young, and took mental notes so I could copy her when my turn came. Since September of 2019 she has been driving me here, there, and everywhere so that I can be the person I was before cancer tried to take over my life.

My sister Margo, who passed away from ovarian cancer in January of 2015, gave me the gift of music. While all my sisters influenced me in song, Margo was the one who turned me on to tunes from the 1970s. I consider that the foundation of the knowledge I used to pen my Girls of Glam Rock Series, and what cemented my love of the hair metal 80s and the grunge rock 90s. Every day that I’m stronger than cancer is not only lived for me, but for her, too, because she never had the chance to beat it.

My sister Susan gave me the gift of food and flowers. She is the real expert at cooking, baking, and making things grow and flourish, while I am just a humble follower. Several times a year she gives me delicious food to eat or something beautiful to grow. In fact, in 1984 she gave us the most precious bloom of all, my niece Amanda.

Nieces and Nephews

With all them sisters, you might think there would be tons of offspring! Not so. Three of us (Marie, Jeanne, and I) never had children. The other three took it easy. Carol and Susan had one each, Margo had twins and was done. I became an auntie to my nephew Ted, Carol’s son, when I was only five years old. Until then, I was the “baby.” As you can probably guess, I was really jealous of him for a few years! Mike and Eric, Margo’s fraternal twins, came along in 1981. Amanda was last, in 1984. We all spent a lot of time at the old homestead, Mom’s house.

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Mom loved her four grandchildren as much a her own kids. I’ve represented every family member mentioned in the surrounding pictures at least once.

Like families sometimes do, we eventually all went our own ways, sometimes too far away, not always happily. But if there’s a silver lining in hardship, it’s that it brings people together again. We’ve certainly had our share. And we’re holding it together.

 

 

Done Running Away from Christmas

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my life running away from home when the holidays roll around.

I’m not a fan of Christmas. It’s my least favorite holiday. I resent the commercialism, the attitudes, the lack of true spirit. Seeing people hanging up a bunch of blinking Christmas lights the day after Halloween, and walking through a department store full of annoying sparkling trees when I haven’t even eaten turkey yet gets under my skin. Fighting for parking spaces and running red lights in Walmart parking lot is about as tacky as it gets. The other day a woman was going through the aisles so fast that she smashed into my cart (hard!), smiled, and tossed a flippant “Excuse me!” over her shoulder before zooming on. My response? “Merry Christmas!” Was it sarcastic? Yup. But was I laughing? Sure was. Because more than ever this year, I have much more important things to think about.

Yeah, I have cancer. And I’m doing better than expected. But it still changes everything. Before cancer I had little tolerance for bull. After cancer I have zero tolerance for bull. Which might make you think that I have my head buried in the sand while I beg to be airlifted out of my misery. Well, surprise! Quite the contrary. I’ve found some semblance of peace, of wanting to do things differently. By jove, I’m done running.

If you’ve read any of my autobiographical blogs, you know that I come from a broken family. Holidays weren’t ever any fun, because someone was always complaining about someone else being late, or was outside smoking instead of opening presents. Oh, the hours spent on those cigarettes! (None of those hours were spent by me, but I’m the one with lung cancer. How about that.) Perhaps while all this was happening another family member would be missing a lost loved one. Or maybe a loved one a few miles away refused to come.  That’s the way it got after a while.

I did my time. Once I was old enough and had enough money to escape, why would I want to hang around?

One reason: Mom. Mom still needed someone to be there for her when the door only swung one way. But Mom left us fifteen years ago on the longest and greatest road trip of all. And that’s when I had a license to run. Not only at Christmas, but the rest of the year, too. And I happily renewed that license on a yearly basis.

Make no mistake about it: I did it because I wanted to. Running turned out to be fun and therapeutic. (The sunset shots above are from Fiji on Christmas Eve, 2015.) And I’m going to start running again as soon as my oncologist says I can. Just with a few differences, and one of them is that I’m staying home with my family and friends for my future Christmases. If I do any running it’s going to be to places where family and friends await me.

I can’t travel right now, but I can still fill up my calendar with things to do, and this year I’m making plans with the special people I want to spend time with. The fact that time is getting a little tight is a reason to smile, not grimace, because it means that I’m loving and being loved back. Hey, I kind of like this!

Sometimes, it takes a total life-changer to figure out things that maybe you should have altered long ago. I’ve been spending Christmas and New Years alone for more than a decade. A new tradition begins this year. Maybe I won’t have the excitement of seeing the coast of New Zealand for the first time out the airplane window, or be able to post a picture from the California desert with a clever twist on “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” by rocking around the joshua tree instead, but I’ll be close at home and close at heart to those that love me most in the world and whom I love most in the world.

Everything in its time, right?

It’s time.

Merry Christmas to all, no matter where or with whom you choose to spend it.