Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving thanks

I’ve always thought about reasons to be thankful at Thanksgiving, but this year my feelings are amplified.

I’m thankful that I’m done with the 7 months’ journey that I took this year. I’m thankful that I feel better, healthier, stronger. I’m thankful that my 3-month check is negative, and that I hear new stories every week about some woman who had breast cancer once, and never had it again. I’m thankful that my hair is returning.

I’m thankful for great doctors and incredible nurses and insurance that lets me get whatever they say I need.

I’m thankful for all the friends who were better friends than I knew, who called and came over and sent e-mails and made sure I was hearing them even when I wasn’t reaching out to them—especially Maia, Christina, Alexandra. I’m grateful for an extended family, part of which I only gained 6 years ago, who offered everything from moral support to medical advice (Andrew) to some of the best cancer quips (“fucking bad news!” –Steffi) I’ve heard.

I’m thankful for books on tape from Bernadette and Lara, for Harry Potter movies from Alison, the Gilmore Girls from my mom, books from Judy. I’m thankful for flowers from my mom and dad, Chris J. and Melody, Chris D, Rick and Joanie. I'm thankful for scarves and good body-smelly things from Sarah. I'm thankful for Lissa's care package, with comic books and candied ginger and great CDs. I’m thankful for the juicer that Maia, Alison, Lara, and Ena all sent to keep me healthy and hydrated during chemo, and the book of juice recipes that were as yummy as could be. I'm thankful for the DVD player from Mom, Dad, and Dan that kept my mind off the needles every two weeks. I'm thankful for Rick and Joanie's four-leafed clover, and the acupressure wristband that staved off nausea even on the worst days.

I’m thankful for the cards, e-mails, and notes from so many people that I won’t even try to list them now, because I’m worried I’ll leave someone out, and everyone is so important to me. But later, I’ll go get all those cards (I’ve saved them all!) and come back and edit this post to include every name.

I’m thankful for the comments on my blog, which let me know that people were keeping track of me and interested in how I was doing.

I’m thankful for my parents, who cried on the phone when I told them my news, and then stiffened up just as strong as they could and insisted on being there for my surgery, washing my hair afterward, doing whatever little errands and help they could find. They answered the call when I was in the darkest weeks of chemo, each coming out for a full week to keep me company and bring me cheer and do more errands. They sat on the loveseat while I lay on the couch, ensconsced in pillows and misery, and talked or read or just were present. They sent flowers every single week. They kept track of every date. They hugged me and their arms told how much they loved me and wanted me to heal.

And I’m thankful for Noah, who had his own 7-month cancer journey by my side, and who travelled it carrying my burdens along with his own. I’m thankful for how he tried to give me ease in every way: going to every medical appointment, bringing me popsicles and drinks during my chemo drips, shaving my head for me when the last bit of hair had to go, holding me when I was desolate, playing Battleship when I was bored, making countless trips to the grocery store for the one palatable thing, making that call to my parents when I was really down, urging me to exercise, to get out in the world, to live life throughout treatment. He bit his tongue when he wanted to argue, bowed his head when I was short-tempered, and never looked at me differently when my hair was gone and my chest was a little lopsided. He celebrated the end of chemo, then the end of treatment, with as much ferocious joy as I did. I know that a lot of women face double the stress when they deal with cancer, because they have to fight not only a medical battle, but a whole bunch of personal ones, too. Noah was the strongest of a whole phalanx of people who encircled me in a web of linked arms, making sure that, while I might be jostled around a bit, I would never fall.

I can certainly feel sorry for myself, I can ask “why me,” I can resent the hell out of this experience. But it has also shown me how much I have to be grateful for, and this Thanksgiving, it’s so much that I can hardly contain the gratitude. So thank you all, and I wish you as much joy this year as health, as friends and loved ones, as the beauty of life, can bring.

I keep remembering kindnesses not mentioned here, and coming back to add them--so if I have unforgivably not mentioned one of yours, please check back! I'm editing a lot!

Monday, November 20, 2006

A thump in the chest

It hits at the oddest, most unexpected times. Steffi told us that cancer cleaves your life in two. There's no longer one long, smooth, unbroken track; instead, you have BC (before cancer) and AD (after diagnosis). And once you fall, sprawling, over the rut into AD, you can never go back again.

So I'm reading a great little piece in Salon about giving thanks at Thanksgiving, and the clarity and wonder that come from living past cancer. A very nice piece, and I completely agree. Then I look at the letters, and one woman writes that she is grateful for never having had cancer.

Which is when I get the thump. Because, unlike the letter writer, I have had it. I know lots of people who haven't--far more who haven't than who have. And I used to be able to have that same relieved, satisfied little feeling of being one of the ones on the good side. Now I have to check that box on all the doctors' forms, and I have to claim that history (in both medical and symbolic senses). Boo hoo, me.

Yes, before you rush to reassure me, this glumness is accompanied by the recognition that I still have the thing to be grateful for. And maybe it's even more profound. To walk with death, and come out still alive; where would all our heroic tales be without that? The Salon article itself talks about how life AD is a little sweeter, a little clearer, for the darkness that we pass through to arrive back at life. I get it, and more than intellectually. I do feel deeply, profoundly grateful, and the world is definitely bright. I love feeling better every day. I love being back to my life. I love how much I appreciate it, and how I can dismiss the little annoyances, because of the past 8 months.

But still the sense of loss. Cancer is the gift that keeps on taking.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


For much of my life, I've been relatively glad that I haven't won (or played) the lottery. That's right. It always seemed to me that I had pretty darned good luck, but in a mild way; and I worried that any exceptional good luck (like a multimillion jackpot) would have to be offset by a commensurately horrible experience.

As you can imagine, since March 13, I've been thinking that now is a fine time to start playing the lottery.

My diagnosis was a piece of really crappy luck. And everything that has happened as a consequence is stuff that I would happily forego, if only I didn't have to have this diagnosis. And yet, it turns out that the luck baseline changes once the diagnosis is here. Although it's always sounded ludicrous to me that flood victims, for example, praise God for getting them through the flood alive (I think, shouldn't you be pissed at God for sending you a flood??), now I understand. A horror strikes, and you don't get to use your old frame anymore.

So then, I think, I've been very lucky. I was lucky that the tumor was only half the size that the doctors thought before surgery. I was lucky that there was no spread into my lymph nodes, and no metastasis. I was lucky that my veins held up to the chemo, and I never had to get a port or a pic line. I was lucky that my skin had no problems with the radiation. I was lucky with timing: we delayed the start of chemo until I finished teaching in spring, and I started teaching in fall two weeks after the end of chemo. So I lost a summer--but I've otherwise been able to stick to the normal seasonal schedule of my life. And I was lucky that it was summer when I had to sit nauseated on the couch, since I was not expected to be anywhere by my job, and could continue getting paid without having to take formal leave--working when I could manage to. Think of the incredible luck, and luxury, of that.

And I've been phenomenally lucky--in the sense of "the harder I work, the luckier I get"--because I am well insured and had planned well. Two years ago, we switched insurance plans into the most powerful and flexible PPO that USC offers. This year, I'd put extra money into our medical spending account (thinking we'd get lots of eyeglasses and physical therapy). Also, though I didn't end up needing it, I signed up for the supplemental disability plan. All of this means that I have had virtually no financial concerns through this whole process. My out of pocket maximum for the year is just $1000, and much of that was covered by the spending account, so we've probably written less that $200 in checks so far. If I needed to go on disability, I would get something close to 6 weeks at full salary, and after that would get over 50% of my salary.

I contrast this with the experience of my aunt, who has had to go through treatment for cancer without private insurance, and who has had to forego certain treatments or certain drugs--or be told that she can't be treated with a new protocol until she gets substantially worse, because that protocol is so expensive that it can be provided for her only if her need is dire. She owes tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars to her oncology hospital, and the only asset she can maintain as a result is her home.

Cancer treatment is brutal and unhappy anyway (even if I sounded chipper). When I hear other people's horror stories about insurance denials, high bills, and struggling to work throughout chemo, I feel astonished and relieved that things have been so "easy" for me. Lucky, lucky.

Oh, and last week I had my first three-month check--blood tests and physical exam. I got the all clear until late January. I'm in Philadelphia at a conference, feeling energetic and healthy and fully involved in my life again. Lucky, lucky.