Elizabeth

December 8, 2010

Elizabeth.  Oh, Elizabeth. 

Just yesterday, we heard that Elizabeth Edwards had made the decision to stop chemo.  Just yesterday, we – my family – made the same decision to stop chemo.  To stop the treatment that may be saving my life because it was taking too much of a toll on my body.  For fifteen weeks, I’ve been faithfully taking a chemo pill designed to sweep my body clean of any stray cancer cells left after this spring’s surgery and this summer’s radiation treatments.  We had hoped to finish the treatment with three more weeks, but it was not to be.  I’m too tired.  I’m in too much pain.  My body isn’t getting a break, and it isn’t getting a chance to heal. 

Like Elizabeth, I have two young children.  Mine are 3 and 6, about the same age as hers were when she was first diagnosed, but mine are veterans of the cancer treatment dance after more than three years of treatment, remission, and recurrence.  My children come to the hospital with me for checkups and blood draws.  They wait patiently during physical therapy appointments, playing with matchbox cars as the scar tissue is ripped off my chest and I work to regain function in my arms.  They help me pull my lymphedema sleeves on in the morning, settle for quiet playdates instead of park and museum adventures, and have adjusted to quiet, easy pets like fish instead of boisterous puppies as we had planned.  They cuddle with me in the afternoons when I have no energy, and happily share their legos and playdoh when I do.  They are my constant companions, my joy, my loves, and my reasons for living.

And when the little one woke me in the dark of night worried about monsters outside his window, I held him and comforted him and sobbed and sobbed, as I thought about Elizabeth’s children – and my own – and how no child should ever have his mother taken from him because of cancer. 

Not hers.  Not mine.  Not the women that we’ve lost this year or the women we’ll lose next year. Cancer is a thief that separates mothers from children and tears our world apart, one mother, one child at a time.  The grief that we feel at losing Elizabeth Edwards, mother, daughter, advocate, and friend, is real, even if we never met her, because she has showed us the depth of a mother’s love for her children, a love that keeps them close and touches us with its strength – and yet, she was taken from them anyway.  If she couldn’t triumph over cancer, how can we? 

Susan Niebur writes at Toddler Planet and Mothers With Cancer, a group of twenty women writing their truth online.  To help find the cause and the cures, please join the Army of Women participating in research studies.  If you need help, please call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.  No one has to face cancer alone.


October

October 22, 2010

Leaf, from art4linux.org

The world seems to come alive in October, as the wind begins to blow, gently at first, teasing the leaves who haven’t heard that it’s time to change. Then, all at once, as if the dogs’ evening howl spreads the message across the miles, the green begins to fade and the trees begin their dance with colors. First the maples tinge with orange, then the pears gather yellow about their branches. Finally the young exotic dons its coat of firey red, and our morning drive to school becomes a chorus of “ooh”s and “aah”s as we compete to find the prettiest, the most breathtaking, tree of the day. My children and I delight in seeing the colors take hold, competing in their brillance, creating a Fall mosaic more beautiful than the finest earthly artists, and one that each tree could never create on its own.

When I was a child, I never knew this cacophany of color. I grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s, a time and a place where just as the trees never changed (except green to brown, while we were sleeping), the people were slow to change as well. I remember — and this is only my memory, I don’t speak for others — I remember things being so concrete then. There were things that were Right. And things that were Wrong. And we were taught to know the difference. Everything was so clear-cut back then. We knew what was expected of us, and we either obeyed or rebelled, as fit with our own black-and-white, right-or-wrong, something-we-do-or-something-we-would-never-do moral code. Even the trees knew their place. They all obeyed the rule of nature and dutifully kept their demure green coats on until the exact day that they were told to turn brown and drop their leaves. Were there shades of brown? Not that I saw. There were no shades of grey in my youth that I remember. The trees were green, and then they were brown, and then they were bare, if they were so careless as to not be born a pine tree, with her evergreen gown around her.

I remember clearly — so clearly — my mother collecting the most vivid leaves she could find each Fall and taping them to the kitchen windows, bringing us a little of the magic she remembered from her youth and teaching us that there was more to see than green and brown in the world. It was something she did every year, and we “ooh”ed and “aah”ed along with her. Although I’m not sure my little brother and I ever could really see the magic that she saw in them, we tried. I remember trying. Daddy would lift us up to the window as very little children, and we gazed and squinted and tried to see the beauty that she did in the tinges of color that peeked out among the brown.

It wasn’t until I went away to college, far in the north (and by that, I mean Southern Virginia), that I truly saw what she had been trying to teach us. There was more to the world than the choices of Green or Brown. There were colors I had never imagined, as the oranges and yellows and reds danced with the green and brown, every color in the rainbow (except blue and purple. My children would like to know why not blue.) dancing in the trees, fluttering in the leaves as they pirouetted to earth in ways that crinkly brown Southern leaves never did. I fell in love with the trees, and the “north” where differing opinions could co-exist among good people, and I exulted in it, spreading my wings on Sunday drives in an old red convertible with my yankee friends, until the last rivulets of yellow danced in the Shenendoahs, and we put on jackets against the chill, preparing for snow in the valley.

Perhaps it was my strict Southern upbringing, perhaps it is an inborn cry for justice (I feel it, and I see in my young sons, who protest when classmates don’t follow the rules, for the sake of the rules themselves, and who fall apart when their routine is disrupted by a half-day or an impending field trip), but I rarely see shades of grey in the world. I see Right and Wrong and Injustice and OMG What Has To Be Done NOW. I end up SPEAKING UP rather than coexisting, and I know that doesn’t make me an easy friend. But it’s who I am and what I do. What I want to say here, and I don’t really know how, is that I APPRECIATE the efforts of all the people and organizations in the world bringing attention to a color that has already gotten a lot of attention this month: pink. There are shades of goodness in pink and shades that worry me. I realize now that they can co-exist, and that we can appreciate and enjoy all the shades of pink without declaring them ALL GOOD or all worthless, and that each shade of pink makes a contribution to the Fall mosaic around us that is bringing awareness and action to breast cancers, and is fighting the good fight in the way that feels right to them.

Today, I thank all the people and all the organizations formed across the globe that support the fight against breast cancer, that raise awareness, that raise funds for research, and that raise the spirits of those who struggle with this disease, in their own bodies or in that of the friends and family who they love. NEVER DOUBT that what you do makes a difference. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. And without the research and attention paid since the 1970’s War on Cancer, I would not even be alive right now, able to talk about the Fall colors outside my window, and the Fall colors of pink that are blanketing our new world.

Thank you for that. I heartily support the rainbow of efforts being made on my behalf and all of us who suffer from the breast cancers, as well as those pathfinders who have gone before. Here is (I hope) my last October post on pink, with links to my favorite organizations making a difference through their words, their campaigns, their dollars. Thank you, and please talk about your favorites in the comments if you’d like.

  • The American Cancer Society supports research and awareness on all the cancers – even the rare ones. Donate directly or go check out their newest campaigns: Choose You tips for healthy living, and online e-greetings for someone you know celebrating More Birthdays. Oh, and I did check out their NFL partnership and talked to ACS leadership: all of the pink you see at the games is being auctioned off by the NFL, with 100% of the proceeds going to ACS.
  • The Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation conducts research and spreads awareness of the cancer that has attacked me twice. They do no fundraising campaigns and have no pink partnerships (and therefore use 100% of donations for the mission and goals of the foundation, including education and research about this rare and deadly cancer). I have personally confirmed with the executive director, an IBC survivor and advocate — All checks marked “research” will be used DIRECTLY for research grants to find a cause — and a cure — for this terribly fast moving disease trying to kill me and my friends.  (Disclosure: this is where I’m donating this year, as a selfish investment in my own future and in memory of those we’ve lost.)  This group gives me hope.  Real hope that medical researchers will find a real cure, and that I will live to rock on the porch with my husband watching the changing leaves of Fall when we are old together. 
  • Living Beyond Breast Cancer is an incredible support organization that has monthly teleconferences, annual meetings in Philadelphia, and a wealth of web and printed resources available for breast cancer survivors, family, and friends. They’re good people, and their Charity Navigator rating is four stars, with 82% of their income spent directly on programming. Donate directly or participate in one of their pink promotions if that appeals to you – just choose a product that donates a substantial proportion of the proceeds (“10% of the purchase price,” “50% of the proceeds,” or a dollar figure that works for you – there are partnerships with White House/Black Market, Chico’s, and Rubbermaid).
  • Other pink shopping: don’t be afraid, just check the label and ask yourself a couple of simple questions like I do:  How much of what I’m spending on this goes to charity?  Is it a charity I recognize? Do the contents of this product contribute to cancer (check out these pages on Eli Lilly and Estee Lauder for examples)? And last — am I buying this product just because it has a pink ribbon on it — and if so, wouldn’t it be better to just send a check directly?  If the answer to the last question is yes, put it down, my friends, and send a check for that amount when you get home to the charity of your choice.  Please.
  • October is much more than breast cancer awareness month.  While I’ve written a lot about breast cancer this year, I’d also like to give a shout-out to my friends in the babyloss community and the domestic violence awareness community who are also celebrating (if celebrating can even be used in this context) awareness months, as well as those whose cancers get significantly less attention.  Let’s all keep using our words and our dollars to make a difference in the world, and remember Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


    Radiation Energy

    July 1, 2010

    Surprisingly, being zapped with 10 million volts of photon radiation each morning does not increase a person’s energy level AT ALL.

    Radiation makes you tired. It makes me tired. So tired that last Friday after treatment I just sat outside the radiation center, catching my breath and gathering my energy so that I could drive home.

    For nearly an hour.

    It scared me. It scared people who care about me too, and now I’m not driving myself to radiation anymore, and I’ve moved the remaining treatments to the afternoon.

    Luckily, there are only FOUR more treatments to go. THREE more by the time you read this, actually, as I’m typing on my iphone in the waiting room. Moving to the afternoon has given me my mornings back, a gift, although I’m more and more tired each day, as the effects of treatment are cumulative.

    SO cumulative, in fact, that the nurses say that the radiation actually continues working for TWO WEEKS after the treatments end!

    So I’ll be tired. I’ll be home. I’d love to see you if you find yourself nearby (and we’ve met before!). But you’ll need to call first in case I’m napping — on Monday, I slept for 14 hours straight!

    Wild.


    Not as fun as water balloons

    August 19, 2008

    Hi.  I’ve been kinda quiet lately, because there’s something on the horizon, and I (as usual) don’t really want to talk about it.

    Except (as usual), really I do.

    You see, I have these two rather large cysts stretching out my right ovary and causing me some trouble.  Not cancer — thank goodness! — but trouble and pain and grouchiness nonetheless.  One is 5 cm across, and one is 6 cm.  Or at least that’s what they were when the ultrasound tech measured them in July.  That’s kinda big, and, well, some days they hurt.

    A lot.

    The normal ovary is the size of an almond.  Mine?  Stretched to 11 cm across.  If you could see inside my abdomen (why not?), the cysts would look like water balloons, stretched out as wide as their circular membranes can reach.  They don’t feel like water balloons, though.  They feel like, well, like something heavy is in there that shouldn’t be.  And some days they feel like terrible cramping pain, and some days they don’t feel like much at all.

    They’re totally not as fun as water balloons.

    It turns out that nearly all premenopausal women have a cyst or two, they just don’t usually swell this big.  When a cyst reaches 5 cm, I’m told, the fluid needs to come out, one way or another.

    So, because of the pain, and the higher risk for me for developing ovarian cancer (which has vague symptoms and is difficult to catch early), and because one of the cysts is not a simple cyst like the other, but segmented and divided into its own little structure, we’re going to have these puppies taken out.

    One day soon, I’ll go in for surgery.  The surgeon will cut and sauter my fallopian tubes, seal the pathway to my uterus, and pull each ovary out through a tiny slit.  He’ll sew me back up and I’ll wake up a little later, a little lighter, and a whole lot happier because of my reduced risk for developing ovarian cancer.

    It might even take away the pain, which I think is just the ovary stretching and bumping into other things down there (like my bladder), but there’s no guarantee.

    In fact, I’ve read that there are pretty much even odds for all three outcomes: pain gets better, pain gets worse, pain stays the same.

    But the CANCER RISK goes down significantly.

    Goodbye, ovaries!