Sunday, June 29, 2014

What is Radical Remission?

Shhh. Don't tell anyone, but back in my early cancer days, after I'd finish my chemo (which was always on a Friday afternoon so I didn't miss too much work), I'd enjoy a few beers or glasses of wine.

Yes, I did.  Because it made me feel normal. It was one of the few things that made me feel normal at that time.

In hindsight, it was not the best idea. Cancer has been repeatedly linked to alcohol consumption.  My habits probably, no, let's be honest, most likely, led to my cancer recurrence and metastasis.

Courtesy of
There's an idea that says that every decision you have ever made has led you to the state you are living in now. So if you're overweight, look back at those decisions you made that got you to weigh too much. If your house is a mess, a series of decisions you made (or didn't make) have resulted in home chaos. If you've got cancer, more pointedly, since I have cancer, my past decisions and actions have resulted in that being the current state of my health.

To assume so much personal responsibility almost hurts.  But it's also empowering in a way that relying on your oncologist for all wisdom and answers is not.

I've been having a pity party since my liver mets diagnosis this past February.  I just want someone to fix this.  That's why I got a new, smarter oncologist at a big, fancy, high-tech cancer center. 

There's cancer here!

But that's only one part of this puzzle, now it's it? I've got to do my part.

My new oncologist has me continuing with Lupron and Xgeva, eliminated Arimidex and Faslodex, and added Afinitor and Aromasin.  But in the end, it's not going to be these meds that cure me, and I am surely seeking a cure at this point, no more limbo, no more "chronic" condition, no more unknowns.

It's really because of this book, Radical Remission, that I am embarking on this new journey. I have belief. I have something more than hope. 

Dr. Turner finds that people who have cancer, especially the sort that I have, metastatic, who go into remission have certain things in common.  When these things are combined, the effect is powerful.  The effect is remission.  They include:

  • Radically changing your diet (embracing the macrobiotic approach)
  • Take control of your health (advocacy) 
  • Follow your intuition (trust in your wiser self)
  • Use herbs and supplements (food alone is not enough)
  • Release suppressed emotions (forgiveness)
  • Increase positive emotions (be happy, dammit!)
  • Embrace social support (friends!!!)
  • Deepen your spiritual connection (find your higher power)
  • Have strong reasons for living (find your purpose)

So here is where my journey originates.  It's bold. It's brave. It's slightly hubristic, thinking I can heal myself, but can I really wait on the pharmaceutical cancer industry to do it for me? I'm a stat, a number, a dollar sign to the corporate bottom line as a cancer patient.

It's time for me to step in a different direction. Not that I'm ready to give up my oncologist at this point, but I'm ready to trust ME and take action towards complete healing. Radical remission.

I had to fire my oncologist.

As a cancer newbie back in 2005, there seemed fewer more important people in my life than my oncologist and my surgeons. They had the answers, knowledge, and wisdom that I needed to feel like I could beat breast cancer.

Except that I didn't beat it.  It came back as a local recurrence in 2007 after 8 rounds of chemo (the standard cocktail known as AC+T: Adriamycin & Cytoxan +Taxol) and about 18 months on Tamoxifen.  More surgery and then six weeks of brutal radiation.

The things that docs don't tell you about radiation is mind-boggling.  Apparently chemo was supposed to kick my ass.  Nope.  It was the radiation.  I couldn't work for nearly three months. My skin was burned and shredded.  Almost eight years out from that "treatment" and I am still scarred.

It seemed for quite a long while that the radiation, combined with my regimen of daily Arimidex pills and quarterly Lupron shots, had done the trick.  Every scan and blood draw came back perfect. No evidence of disease.

It was perfect for so long that I thought I was cured.  Yes, I did believe that, that I was DONE with cancer.


In August 2012, after a routine series of CT and bone scans, as I just KNEW I would get the all clear from my oncologist and be able to celebrate the five-year mark as cancer-free, I was told I had metastatic breast cancer in my bones. On my spine.  My oncologist kept asking me about the symptoms I was having.

What symptoms?? I had been living my life for the last five years. Apparently, you can have Stage IV breast cancer and not know it.

It was a complete mind fuck, to feel completely healthy and be told that you have cancer growing in your bones. The spine of all places.  I refused a biopsy to confirm. No one was going to poke around in my spine. So we moved forward as if the scan was true, as if I did indeed have mets to the bones.  I continued on Arimidex and Lupron and added two additional injections of Faslodex and Xgeva.  My blood draws increased to a monthly frequency to monitor the effects of all these chemicals coursing through my body. This has become rather cumbersome, because I only have one viable arm for all things vein-related (bloodwork, CT scans, bone scans, etc.) due to my sentinel lymph node dissection back in 2005.

And still the cancer continued to do what it wanted.  It wanted to have a party in my liver.

My oncologist again asked about the symptoms I was having.  Does wanting to punch your oncologist in the face for delivering bad news count as a symptom, because that was the only one I was having at that point.

She insisted on moving to Xeloda, a series of chemo pills, ten pills a day, where the primary side effect would be crippling blisters on my hands and feet.

No. No. No.

At that point, I had to fire my oncologist.

There had to be a better way.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Stage of Life

It's bold to say OUT LOUD that I'm going to cure myself of cancer.

That's my plan though.

I am going to cure myself of cancer.  I have to.

I've now reached Stage IV, the "final" stage in this cancer journey.  There's no denying it; I've got scans and biopsies to prove it.

But I can't accept this as my fate. I don't want to embrace the "cancer survivor" label anymore. Honestly, it's been almost ten years since I've been on this journey, almost ten years since I started this blog so I wouldn't have to make a million phone calls to my concerned friends and family about every development that a newbie cancer patient faces.

When you're almost ten years into your cancer survivorship, people are pretty much over hearing about all the little details, and they don't understand how you're a) still alive or b) not dead yet?

So I'm writing this now, not for friends, and not for family, but for me, for other survivors, for other Stage IV Sisters, and for my daughter, who will one day want to know what her mom went through trying to beat cancer.

I long ago made a list of 100 things I'd rather like to accomplish in this lifetime. #42 is to be cancer-free.  Getting to Stage IV with mets to both bones and liver really put a damper on that goal.

For those in a similar position, who've found themselves inexplicably and unacceptably at Stage IV, I'm here to help us find another way through. They say chemo and radiation work. Does it? My cancer came back. The three mets in my bones are stable, but there's a cancer party in my liver right now, and these guests have outstayed their welcome.

It's time to reclaim my home, my body, my peace of mind, my life.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Completing #28 on the Bucket List: Getting a Passport

Up in the Skylon Tower,
the Falls behind me (2006)
Back in December 2006, my ex-boyfriend decided it would be a cool idea to take a little field trip to Niagara Falls.  From Philadelphia, this is a semi-long but very doable drive.  I wrote about the trip HERE and HERE.  The ex-boyfriend became my boyfriend again for few months, but ultimately we were not compatible. Me too intense and raw from being a cancer-striken single mother, he too interested in exploring his new found freedom after finalizing his divorce.  It was for the best.

Going back to Niagara, to further explore this unique city built around a natural wonder, has been high on my to-do-again list.  It seemed like this summer would be the perfect time to road trip again, but the rules had changed since I was there. Passports are now required to cross the Canadian-American border. This planned trip compelled me to complete #28 on my bucket list - Getting a Passport.

To get a passport, you need the following:
1) $100 fee for the passport application
2) $25 fee for the post office to process your application
3) a birth certificate with both your parents' names
4) a driver's license
5) a 2x2 picture of yourself NOT SMILING
6) a smile for the post office clerk processing your application
7) knowledge of the exact time when the exact right post office actually takes passport applications (not all do and there is no set schedule for when those that do do).

The hilarious duo of middle aged mommas at the Haverford, PA post office took me in right at the
buzzer (1:58pm -- they stop taking apps at 2pm!).  They made all kinds of postal jokes back and forth with each other and with the customers and me.  It was a true pleasure to actually be involved in the bureaucratic process with these ladies!

I booked my Niagara hotel, and my BFF and I began making grand plans for our Canadia visit. Three weeks later, my fabulous new passport arrived. See?

Unfortunately, as the trip grew closer, the status of my financial stability grew more unclear as my employer, the School District of Philadelphia, battles both city and state to properly fund our schools... not even properly, because the situation appears to be way beyond giving students and teachers the full array of resources to be successful. As of August 31, the teachers' contract expires, and so does the assurance of a proper paycheck.

So... no Niagara road trip right now, which is a downer and not how I planned to end my summer vacation.  But I've got a shiny new passport and a bucket list, so anything is still possible!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tip: The Quickest Way To Ruin Your Breast Cancer Workshop Is To Let The Church Ladies Have The Microphone.

Preface: I have nothing against church ladies in general.  As an agnostic myself who mostly believes in the power of the Universe to keep Itself and its sentient beings in balance, I also believe to each her own when it comes to spiritual matters.  However, church ladies who use their beliefs to alienate and suppress those of differing faiths have no place in an open forum breast cancer workshop.  I stand by this.

Since my diagnosis in Fall 2012 of stage IV breast cancer (after 8 years since initial diagnosis, bone metastases, aka bone mets, for those who like their cancer terms cutesie-fied), I have started looking at breast cancer through the lens of a long-term survivor who'd like to meet others traveling on this bizarre path.  I'm at the stage of treatment where I look perfectly fine and mostly feel perfectly fine (though monthly discomfort from my faslodex injections aren't so much fun), but my current diagnosis puts me at stage IV, and the terror that entails is sometimes beyond words. So I've been reaching out, looking for workshops, conferences, retreats, anything involving people (preferably those who are young like me) who might understand the unique situation of being a CANCER-PATIENT-WHO-LOOK-NOTHING-LIKE-THE-MEDIA'S-CANCER PATIENT.
Me in Fall 2005 clearly doing cancer RIGHT

This stepping out into the "breast cancer community" can be uncomfortable.  You get the feeling that there is a RIGHT way to do cancer, and if you're not bald/growing-hair-back or wearing a head-to-toe fluorescent pink sweatsuit, you're probably doing cancer wrong.  If you're not praying every night, or having someone/many-someones pray for you, you're probably doing cancer wrong.  These kinds of feelings make it easy to keep the cancer conversations to yourself and your closest circle of family-friends-loved ones.

I was fortunate to have participated this spring in a weekend retreat for stage IV breast cancer patients and their caregivers, sponsored by the Avon Foundation and Johns Hopkins University at the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours.  It was an amazing weekend in which I bonded with a strong young woman named Colleen who is fighting the battle of her life.  We were the only two patients, and we received the royal treatment from the staff.  I was able to finally come to terms with the idea that I may very well be dealing with cancer, in one form or another, for the rest of my life, as well as process my sadness and anger about being a patient again. I also got to walk the labyrinth on the retreat grounds, and I am now obsessed with these spiritual creations.

After this experience with the "community," I felt ready to do more, so tonight I went to a workshop on the topic of Fear of Recurrence, despite my already having cancer recur TWICE, once local, now metastasized to bones.  I am still afraid that one day, after a round of CT and bone scans, I will hear more bad news from my oncologist, despite doing everything I can and more to keep this plague at bay.  The workshop was sponsored by Living Beyond Breast Cancer.  The speaker was from an organization called Good Grief Coaching.

Overall, Sharon, our presenter and the founder of GGC, had some great exercises for the audience - we worked on core values (I was impressed with how she dispelled the myth that family values trump all) and visualization for times when the fear takes control.  But the big problem with this workshop was its audience.  First - too many people! 60 survivors in one room is too many survivors.  Second - too many different types of people.  Call me an ageist, but I feel that survivorship issues for the young are different than those of the old. Third - CHURCH LADIES!  Now, there is a right time and place for church ladies, but at a workshop on fear of recurrence... NO! That is not their place.  A handful of church ladies dominated the microphone, telling the rest of us heathens that as long as we let go and let God, or prayed to Jesus, or placed our worries in the lap of the Lord, or whatever simplistic, religious submission they thought up, then we would have nothing to fear. Wrong, church ladies! Wrong! Do you not know the facts about recurrence? Do you not have a child you'd like to see grow up? Do you not have a brand new passport that needs to get filled with stamps? Because I do, church ladies! I do!

The presenter did her best not to squash the church lady banter, and she did her best to make the audience understand that religious belief is not the only way to manage the recurrence fear. Still, I wanted to knock those church ladies in the head. I really did. I'm not ready to hand my life over to a religious belief.  I need full control to work through these terrors and worst-case-scenarios that run through my mind.

So, will I try it again, to step out into the community and attempt to make connections to other survivors? Probably. Yeah, I think so.  Ain't no church lady gonna silence me and make me stay home!

PS. The biggest disappointment of this cancer recurrence is that I will never, to my knowledge based on today's medical advances, be able to cross #42 (be declared cancer-free) off my 100 Things list.   

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Best Age to Find Your Best Friend Is....

Recently, Thought Catalog published a short treatise on friendship called "Why I Don't Have A Best Friend," a change from its usual list-oriented pieces around animal gifs, finding ways to be happy, and female insecurity.

The title, obviously, caught my eye, as a intriguing title is known to do.  I had many preconceived notions before even clicking the link from my RSS feed.  Mainly, they revolved around the idea that the author thinks having a best friend is too limiting, too cliche, too juvenile, etc., etc.  I felt some sympathy for this author who had no intimate. How many experiences had the author missed out by not having a best friend? S/he just didn't even know.

That the author was female surprised me.  Anecdotally, I think there are more males without best friends than females.  Pairing up is what girls do when they are younger; boys play in groups mostly.  The author is also a 20-something, and age strikes me as a reason why she might be best-friend-less. She hasn't had enough time pass to realize what a long-term best friendship entails. Let me explain.

I met my BFF around the age of 8 or 9; we are in our late, late 30s now. Tara and I didn't know at that time that we would become BFFs.  We knew we both liked Lisa Frank stickers and sleepovers and Girl Scouts.  Our moms were friends. Years passed, then more years. Our interests developed and revolved around making up plays in Spanish where the two main characters were both named Felipe as well as going to the Guidance Center to browse the giant book of college names and then giggling at the funny ones (hello, what's NOT funny about a school called Ball State??).

Then we went off to college, me staying local and her traveling 1500 miles away.  That could have been the end, but it wasn't.  Somehow, we had fostered this bond based on a secret language of silliness that only we understood.  Imagine being the last two people of an indigenous tribe, and a well meaning anthropologist or TV SHOW comes along and wants to record your dying language to preserve it from extinction.  Really, in the end, it can't be done, it just can't; the language belongs to those who speak it.

So more years have passed, and with them, the big stuff that happens in life - love, marriage, baby, pets, moving away, moving home, moving into a shitty apartment, getting dumped, being the heartbreaker, sickness, health, traveling - all of that, and with these experiences, the bond of a friendship growing, though at times with severe pains.  SEVERE.

And that is what I think the author of "Why I Don't Have A Best Friend" is missing out on by dismissing this kind of friendship, that something like the heartbreak of having someone you love hurt you without meaning to can coincide with the elative joy when the right band is playing and you're both dancing your faces off.  A best friendship will involve both. It has to. Perhaps she's bought into this idea that best friendship must be a perfect match of conversation, interests, and outings.  It's not.  What fun would life be it if was?

The author talks about having many good friends, and that's good enough, I suppose.  But would a good friend offer to gay marry you one day so that you can get health insurance and, heck, you've already been friends longer than BOTH your parental units were married themselves? Doubtful... but your best friend, yes, yes, she would put that offer on the table... and mean it.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Family Life: 3 Versions - A Series of MiniReviews

That famous line that opens Anna Karenina (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.") aptly sums up the sentiments of three recent books I've read this July.  These books landed in my TBR pile at the recommendation of The Millions and The Rumpus.   My TBR pile has a mind of its own.  It's fed by my frequent library reserve requests and grows and shrinks at inconsistent intervals.  I pick from the pile, usually randomly, but sometimes because a book is due back and must be read immediately.  So July began with a series of dysfunctional family stories which make me grateful for the quietude and calm in my own family life.

Herman Koch wrote one hell of a story with his novel The Dinner.  This slim novel takes place over the course of one evening but is interwoven with a series of disturbing flashbacks of violence.  To describe the violence and its perpetrators would reveal much of the reason for the conflict between family members, but click HERE or HERE to get a flavor for the level of sickness that lies at the heart of this book.  What Koch explores are issues of privilege, psychopathology, and secrets within families and between family members.  And if you're a foodie, the descriptions of the meal's courses are exquisite!

Whereas Koch's novel lives and breathes cosmopolitan flavor, The Slippage by Ben Greenman explores the stereotypical wasteland of suburban marriages, relationships, friendships, and neighborhood gossip.  Might this book be the tipping point in how interesting and curious and, perhaps, subversive the suburban narrative can be? Methinks so.  The New York Times reviewer adored this book, and perhaps it could be converted into a quality screenplay, a la American Beauty, at some point.  Time being precious, however, I'd recommend against this one, unless melodramatic suburbia sagas full of trite affairs are your thing.

Finally, to round out this trio of tribe tales, let me tell you how much I LOVED Flora by Gail Godwin.  The Dinner and The Slippage enjoy an adult narrator, but Gail Godwin employs a fused child/grown-up narrator to tell this story of youth angst, loneliness, ignorance, and pride.  Flora is not the narrator, nor the main character, but ultimately her influence drives the plot to its sorrowful and profound ending.   The Washington Post loved this book, as did The New York Times.  I was particularly enchanted by the play-acting between the younger narrator (Helen) and the titular character Flora as the latter learns how to teach through practicing classroom activities and routines.  It was an utterly darling element that captured the complex relationships within the family.  Set in the midst of World War II, I was concerned that the old-fashioned world of this time would be off-putting, but this is a side of World War II not often seen. HINT: Manhattan Project. Flora is good, honest satisfying storytelling from start to finish, and you'll love how a "boring" summer in the country can be so full of drama! 

The TBR pile continues to be my master.  Next up... a little sci-fi as I pop my Neil Gaiman cherry with his most recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane!

Friday, June 28, 2013

How do you feel about books with ambiguous beginnings and endings? (Review of Open City by Teju Cole)

When a critic compares a book to one of my most favorites - Albert Camus' The Stranger - then you can imagine the height of the expectations I have going into reading.

Tip for critics and for publishers who think this type of comparison should be on the back cover - DON'T DO IT.  The Stranger has action, adventure, indifference, senseless violence, philosophy, and is a COMPACT treatise on existentialism as it influences one's perception of purpose and destiny.
It's true that Open City by Teju Cole has some of these qualities.  You could argue that it's got philosophy, sure, but mostly it's a lot of philosophizing without direction.  You could also argue that it's got some senseless violence, but getting mugged in the city isn't a rare occurrence.  There's even some disturbing indifference to the suffering of raped women.  What it's NOT, however, is compact, and Camus' ability to speak volumes in concise writing is part of his appeal to wider audiences.

Open City, as described on the book jacket, is about wandering around Manhattan... except that is not exactly what it's about.  Indeed, the book is a wandering around, but there is no destination, no overarching goal, nothing that ties the novel together, not even a cohesive narrative around the central character. Some people like an ambiguous novel; I do on occasion, and if I had not latched onto the idea that this was like The Stranger, perhaps I'd have more good words for this book.

There are some highlights.  The extended meditations on bed bugs were delightfully disgusting. 
Choice quotes about life include:

"Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories" (243).

"We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.  The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float" (155).

Nice stuff, right?  Ultimately, for me, the few gems in this book didn't justify the amount of time I spent slugging through this book.  And at about 250 pages, this book was about 75-100 pages too long.  Teju Cole has a lot of potential, but he should probably think about getting a new editor if he's planning on making this writing thing a long career.  Otherwise, he's likely to see his books on the Overstock Book Warehouse tables.

This book has also been reviewed by The New Yorker, NY Times, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.  It's a mixed bag of opinions. 

Final Note: This is post #1111 on my blog. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Get Your Own Life - A Book Review of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I really, really wanted to like this book.  As a righteous reader of women writers, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had the potential to rock my world.  I had never read Messud before picking up this novel, but I read enough reviews to believe that this would be a gem.... but that all goes to show that, ultimately, there is no accounting for one's taste in books.

I can read about 200 pages per day, sometimes more if the font is large or the book that engrossing, and so while The Woman Upstairs wasn't too long at 253 pages, I felt as though I was being pulled through mud to finish this.  Of course, with so many books in the TBR pile, giving up on a nonstarter of a novel is no sin. However, I was so sure that Messud would turn The Woman Upstairs into the capitvating narrative it was advertised to be.... and though there was a payoff (albeit a small one) at the end with a surprise betrayal between beloveds, I expected much, much more.

Our protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is a teacher in her late 30s.  I'm also a teacher in my late 30s.  Pretty much, that ends the parallel and my connections to this novel (not that you need to align that closely with a character, but it can surely help a story out if there is some).  There is much to dissect in the psyche of Nora, and I think that Messud creates such an alienated character that there is no understanding the rationale behind her obsessive attachments - to a family that is not hers, to her art, to her singlehood.  I was hoping for a powerful feminist message from this novel, but in the end, there was only a reinforcement of the too common addictive and irrational nature of being a single woman entering middle age.  The exclamation point ending the novel doesn't compel the reader to believe Nora's drive to LIVE WELL! Indeed, you really see little of a future for her at all.  There will only be more obsessions, more fretting, more distraction, and more self-pity.

For me, to resolve the conflicts of this novel, Messud needs her character to GET HER OWN LIFE.  To borrow the lives of others, to even romanticize that, belies the true power of our humanity.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ears Wide Open - A Book Review of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond

Over the last few years, I have turned into a rabid concert go-er; in Philly, we have the fortune and misfortune of having myriad venues for shows, allowing our music scene to flourish while simultaneously draining me of portions of my paycheck.   These establishments include the relatively newish Union Transfer, the World Cafe at WXPN studios at the University of Pennsylvania, the always fabulous Electric Factory, perpetual diamond-in-the-rough Trocadero, and an under-appreciated new venue in Wilmington aptly named The Queen (also an XPN joint).  Some might add the MilkBoy Philly to that list, but I'd tell them to go piss off, because that place is a cesspool.  I despise this venue so much, I refuse to link it to my blog. Anyways....

My BFF is my frequent sidekick for show-going, although I am open to lone jaunts as well.   We've already seen a slew of amazing shows so far in 2013 - The Walkmen, The XX, Man Man, Murder by Death, Django Django, Garbage, Frightened Rabbit, Jim James, James Blake, Flobots, and Toad the Wet Sprocket.  Some not so stellar shows include STRFKR, The Olms, and Ryan Cabrera.  At each show, we were Drooling Fanatics, open and ready to be transported by the offerings of each artist, and the majority did not disappoint.  Even the bad shows weren't so bad - they just weren't that great.

Many people don't understand our drive to see so many shows.  But you know who gets it? Steve Almond, as he writes in his delightful trip down musical memory lane - Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

Consider this delectable quote from his tome:

"It's like this when you fall hard for a musician. It's a crush with religious overtones. You listen to the songs and you memorize the words and the notes and this is a form of prayer. You attend the shows and this is the liturgy. You're interested in relics -- guitar picks, set lists, the sweaty napkin applied to His brow. You set up shrines in your room. It's not just about the music. It's about who you are when you listen to the music and who you wish to be and the way a particular song can bridge that gap, can make you feel the abrupt thrill of absolute faith."

Perfection in capturing emotion in words - it's the connection between feeling, essence, being, memory, and a tune which ties those things together.

Steve is a genius when it comes to writing about music, and Vanity Fair's interview with him is a charm.  Check it out HERE.  Then go pick up Rock and Roll.... and rock out to the sounds of your life.

Stop Crying About Your Cancer (Alternate Title: A Book Review of In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler)

When I ran out of money to go to college in the late 1990s, I used what few skills I had as a high school graduate to obtain a secretary job at the University of Pennsylvania.  What a stroke of luck this ended up being – my low salary was offset by a major perk.  FREE TUITION.  After several years of working fulltime and schooling parttime, I was a graduate of an Ivy League university.  Score!

I was slightly disturbed to know that people paid FULL PRICE for this education.  I found few of the professors approachable and fewer who knew how to actually teach in an engaging manner.  One of the problems was that the profs were happy to give the floor to students to debate endlessly the minutiae of the assigned reading which mostly led to unrelated tangents that the prof refused to rope in. 

One course where this was a common scenario was my feminist philosophy class.  I was pretty sure, in the late 1990s, that I was a feminist. Grrrl Power. Women’s rights.  Access to birth control. Freedom of speech and press.  That I was painfully shy and exercised few of these was beside the point.

Mary Daly says, "Gents, hide your privates."

My feminist role models were fierce and verbose – Mary Daly.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Margaret Sanger. Andrea Dworkin.

Her visit this spring to the Free Library of Philadelphia reignited my long submersed obsession.  My strong advocacy for feminism was suppressed as I was influenced not to be so radical and obsessive compulsive in my views.  Indeed, it’s pretty easy to alienate a large portion of your friends and family as you acquire and express viewpoints that make them uncomfortable.  But Eve was back in my life, and I was overwhelmed by her new book IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD.

Eve and I are intertwined through our experiences with cancer, me – breast, she – uterine.  After her reading at the library, I devoured her books THE GOOD BODY and INSECURE AT LAST.  Her advocacy for self-acceptance and self expression is palpable; her critique of our over-policed states of being is both logical and inflammatory.  But it was IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD that helped me to continue to come to terms with my current state of cancerhood. As a stage 4 patient with metastasis from breast to bones (though it is slow growing, and that is the only saving grace), Eve’s trials through her year of surgery, chemo, and subsequent attempts to continue her activism shed light onto my own endeavors and activities.  I suffer an existential crisis on a biweekly basis.  Eve’s book helped me work through my frequent mental anguish of unstable survivorship.  Forward. Forward.  Forward.  Movement into the world, through my own body and experiences, is the only way to continue this life.  And when necessary – rest, lots of it, as much as required.

If you are a survivor, or an activist, or in need of some reading meant to move you to tears and action, IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD is right for you right now.

Monday, April 01, 2013


I've considered myself a writer for much of my life.  In elementary school and junior high, I built worlds in short story form.  In high school, a series of older poet boyfriends catalyzed my brief, but frenzied, career in verse.  College, of course, came with its requisite research and analysis papers.  If I was lucky, a creative assignment made its way onto the syllabus.  Then I became a teacher, and I now get paid to read other people's words.  This is not nearly as satisfying, not even when I take a red pen (or purple, the color now approved by child psychologists everywhere) to an essay on MacBeth or 1984.

I have had a love-hate relationship with my blog.  I love this venue which is all mine and without boundary.  I love the visitors I get who are interested in learning more about the poem in G.I. Jane, or what a workafrolic is, or being a National Board candidate.  My stats tell me that these posts have drawn the largest audience.  Its original purpose, to share my experiences as a breast cancer survivor, as a mother, and as a widow, appear to have gotten lost in the shuffle, although those have been the posts that most reveal my struggle and deepest existential wonderings.

So I wrestle frequently with how to move this blog forward. I wrestle most with the title.  My thinking is - If I get the right title, then I'll know how to write more. Today, I have cycled through 5 new names for my blog, trying to capture precisely what this has been and what it will be.  I've been hooked on the word CURATE which sounds wonderfully sophisticated and cosmopolitan.   My BFF and I are even in the process of starting up a blog called The Philly Curator. But to curate my own life seems to offer a narrow definition of what this platform could be. I want it to be able to include everything. Hence, the new name.

Try this, and this, and this, and that.

Go Read This NOW!

Because isn't that what we are doing every day? Trying out our lives? Trying to discover what makes us most happy and sure and bring more of those experiences into our lives?

You know what does that for me? Books (try Mary Coin by Marisa Silver ASAP, I insist). Palm trees. Sending my written words out into the ether of the interwebs. Giggling till I cry at gifs of cats doing impossible things (like wear costumes and eat tacos). Being wrapped up in a blanket with the window wide open.... as I am now.

What does it for you?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Working on #38: Brief Review of Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

When Stephen King writes that he couldn't stop turning the pages of your book, you know you've written something good.  Gillian Flynn really impressed me with her book - GONE GIRL - so I thought I would try out her other books.  First up is Sharp Objects, which I polished off in two days, because, like Stephen King said, it's a hella page-turner.

This is not your typical murder mystery book - honestly, the mystery genre is usually not for me.  However, the psychological twists in this novel are delicious, dysfunction at its nasty pinnacle.  Between the child murders, Munchausen syndrome, Southern gothic mommies, and grown-up girls who still want to indulge in cutting, this book has all the makings of a dark comedy movie.  I'm actually surprised it hasn't been adapted for the screen yet. King's endorsement is spot on... and Flynn knows how to write an ending.  Some books just END or fade off into a mediocre final page.  Not SHARP OBJECTS - that ending is worth the wait!

I'm eager to read her other book DARK PLACES; it's sitting in my TBR from the library pile. But first to balance the realities of this murder mystery with a little magic from THE NIGHT CIRCUS.

Two books read out of my 100 goal - 98 to go!

Monday, January 07, 2013

Status Update: Making the List Come to Life

Accountability starts at home. To execute the 100 For This Life List, I've got to put my efforts into the public sphere.  I'm a teacher; I'm not shy; I've long lived my life (ok, since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005) as an open book. So let's go to the daily check-in, shall we?

#11: Go on an all-natural diet: Spurred into action by this supposed BONE METS diagnosis, and with the assistance of a nutritionist, I've gotten real clear about what I should be eating. I'm the primary chef of this household, and I have long leaned on the convenience of processed food to feed the family.  We live in a sorry, hungry world when the bad food is cheaper to buy than the good food. For me though, at this point, there is no price I will put on my health - whatever it takes to buy good food is what I'll do. Today was delicious, I must say:

     Breakfast: steel cut oats with apple butter and cashew butter (low in sugar, high in protein)
     Lunch: cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, a juicy blood orange, and a nice handful of cashews
     Dinner: pork tenderloin, broccoli, and spaghetti-fied carrots

I've nearly totally cut out all wine, though I will treat myself to the occasional adult beverage. Too much research is now pointing to sugar feeding cancer cells, so so much for the delicious sweetness that is sucrose, fructose, glucose, and all those other tasty -oses.

#38: Read 100 books in a year: The first book of this year was Lost At Sea by Jon Ronson.  It's a  journalism geek's dream.  Ronson somehow lands upon the oddest stories found among us humans.  He finds the logic in the illogical, the magic within the mundane. I thoroughly enjoyed his book The Psychopath Test which I read last year (yes, there are psychopaths among us, and many of us call them our friends).  I'm not a huge fan of reading non-fiction books, but Ronson does it for me.  Maybe you will try him out too?

#76: See my brother again: Well, here is a sensitive issue. My baby brother... who has seemingly disappeared into the ether, whom no one in the family has heard from in years, and no one knows why.  I reached out recently by phone and email.  My hope is that he will reach back. I miss him. I really do.  This is what we looked like when we were little (Go Phils!):

Sunday, January 06, 2013

NOT Completing #42: Being Declared Cancer-Free

Well, the huge SUCK in my 2012 was not being able to cross #42 off my list - being declared cancer free. And you know why that sucks? Because it's been five years since anything canceriffic has happened in my chopped up body. Because I've been living my life like it's going to last forever, and I feel fucking great. Because the possibility of my mortality has been the furthest thing from my mind. Because I did the chemo, and the radiation, and the surgeries, and the drugs, and I was supposed to be done with carrying the burden of the title SURVIVOR.

Well, no. That's not how my health went down in 2012. It went into SUCK mode, and I've been mentally and physically pulling myself from the brink of an existential crisis ever since I saw my oncologist in September.

To share my cancer status in the most black-and-white terms: metastasis to the bones, two spots, one on the left clavical bone, one on my T5 spine ridge. The worst part about getting this news? Being alone with my daughter at the doctor's office, crying in confusion over this bullshit bone scan which tells me that my breast cancer has spread, and her trying to reassure me and pat my tears dry. Then driving home in hellshock.

All the on-line discussion boards and forums have a cute little term for this conditions: BONE METS. Like infantilizing this tragic word makes it more palatable and acceptable.  It doesn't, and I refuse to claim this diagnosis. Refusal, though, does not mean that I'm going to ignore the very real possibility that there is CANCER IN MY BONES. The criteria I determined for any follow up treatment was this:

1. Cannot make me bald like the chemo did
2. Cannot make me put on more weight like the radiation did
3. Cannot make me crazy like the chemo did

So until further notice, I've become a human pin cushion and walking vitamin bottle - injections and pills will make my bones strong and hopefully eradicate these devilish spots from my body temple.  I've been to a nutritionist, an acupunturist, and a yogi.  As a result, I'm tackling multiple items on my list:

#3: Weigh 130 lbs because I am healthy (not because I am sick)
#11: Go on an all natural diet
#15: Have muscles
#53: Find my spiritual path

Surprisingly, I have also dabbled in accomplishing #86 (Tell off someone famous), as I have, on two occasions, heckled the Susan Komen Breast Cancer People for their horrid fundraising campaigns.  Each time, they have responded with kindness about my angst toward their poorly worded slogans, though I am sure that's not going to stop them from thinking of more breast-cancer-cleverness that ends up insulting the people they mean to assist.

But enough about cancer. Fuck cancer, right?  I've got a wicked fat and full life to get on with. See ya on the flip side.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Completed Competely in 2012: #7 - Paint a Picture

In an alternate universe, I am an adept painter, skilled in taking a simple splash of color and converting it to art on the canvas.

In this universe, I am a decent teacher, a super reader, a half-hearted writer, and a looks-good-enough-to-me photographer.  I have long been envious of those with the gift of painting.  This year, it was time to take this envy into my own hands and be proactive about developing, at the least exploring, my own painting abilities.

#7: Paint a picture.  What a wide-open task. So many ways to interpret and execute. I figured I would wait for a sign from the Universe for inspiration and go from there.

The sign came in the mail.  Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia sponsors a wide range of continuing education classes, and as a member, I get their full, glossy catalogs delivered to my door.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a painting class on their schedule.  So for $30, I would be provided with all the tools and a place to paint a picture at the Arboretum.

I was late for the class, of course. When I arrived in the classroom, our instructor was already providing a brief intro to painting composition.  For me, the most interesting tidbit was that paintings are composed so your eye doesn't "run" off the canvas.  There is something at the edges that keeps a viewer's eye on the painting. I kept that in the back of my mind for future reference.

It was a mild October afternoon, very sunny, and still full of autumnal life in the arboretum.  The instructor directed us to the location, and each amateur painter found the "scene" she would paint (yes, all women, where I was the youngest among them).  Here's what my scene looked like:

It didn't look like much from the photo, but in person, the gold and pink flowers popped. After an hour of painting, I had done it. I had painted a picture. Not too bad, yes? I know your eye wanted to fly off the canvas to the right, and my pink flowers kept you within my work  :)

Would I do it again? Eh, maybe. But there are other arts that I prefer: beading is perfectly relaxing to be, and writing...

I was glad to have taken the course, however, and gotten solid guidance on how to compose a painting. If the right occasion arise though, I would definitely pick up that brush again!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Almost Completing #38: Reading 100 Books in a Year

Sometimes, it gets a little embarrassing to be a super fast reader, most acutely when I go to my neighborhood library (Upper Darby Municipal Branch) to pick up my stack of reserved books.  I never reserve one or two at a time; no, it's got to be five or six at least.  My librarian gets her recommendations from ME, and I get mine from The Rumpus or The Millions. She never makes me wait in line, and when I walk in, she reaches for my stack and checks me out ahead of anyone waiting.  It's like being a minor celebrity. Very minor.

I read voraciously during the generous vacation time I get as the result of being a teacher.  Summer is reading books ALL DAY LONG in the shade of the trees in our yard. Winter and Spring Breaks also become literary marathons - laundry and dirty dishes be damned.  I've often gotten close to the 100 book mark.  I was feeling really good about this year....and if I had included all the books I read for grad school, I'd surely be there, but in my mind, those texts do not count as "real reading" in my world.  Alas, as tonight is the last day of the year, I recounted by title list... 98. 98!!  So close yet so far.  Thus, my quest for the 100 book benchmark continues in 2013.

Let me pass along the highlights of this 98 list, those books that still ring true in my poor old chemo-addled forgetful brain.
The Last Werewolf & Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan

Zeitoun & A Hologram for the King by David Eggers

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

As always, a book lover's greatest Catch-22: So many books, so little time!  One day, I WILL become one of those people who gets PAID to read all day long!