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BEFORE

deer kachina

Before my parents divorced twice over the Vietnam War,

Before my Mom left us in Southeast Asia for 2 years when I was 10,

Before we reunited with her in Crested Butte when I was 12,

Before I was living alone in a trailer when I was 14,

Before my academic scholarship to college, which I nearly lost a few times,

Before I was homeless in New York City,

Before Mom’s breast cancer came back after John died,

Before she fingered the soft nightgowns I bought her at Saks Fifth Avenue,

Before those nightgowns were stolen her first day in county hospice,

Before we spread her ashes in the Sierras on a December morning,

Before my own breast cancer last year,

Before all of these things and so much more,

A Hopi man near Flagstaff looked into my 8 year old eyes and said:

I am watching you.

And so I carved this kachina for you.

A deer kachina full of deer medicine.

You are young but you have never been a child.

You are brave with the gentleness of deer.

And the strength of deer fills you.

It is a harder road you are on but you are not alone.

The ancestors are always with you.

They see your light.

They see your heart.

Remember that.

And know they are smiling.

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Prisoners of War

pows

I read Stars and Stripes every day, even though Mom said, before she left us, that it was military propaganda horseshit.  The POWs were coming home and that seemed pretty important because they were mentioned in every issue.  On February 12, 1973, school closed early and we were packed into buses and driven out to the airfield.  The Filipino sun was too hot, and we played sword fight with the little U.S. flags the teachers gave us to wave.   Mom had not been gone very long, maybe a few weeks, and I hadn’t cried yet.

The POW’s were coming from Hanoi in Operation Homecoming.  Families with younger kids joined the growing crowd of school children streaming from the buses.  Sweat dribbled down my temples and the back of my neck into my damp smock top as I squinted at the sky.

We heard the first C-141 before we saw it and a cheer rolled through the crowds.  The plane landed with smoking tires and taxied up, not far from the fence we were leaning on.

The belly opened and men hobbled down the ramp on crutches, while others were carried on stretchers.  After saluting with bony hands, some fell to their knees to kiss the tarmac.  I wondered what the hot pavement tasted like.

Up close I could see their skeletons trying to poke through their skin.  One of them stepped up to the podium but I couldn’t hear anything because of the cheering until he said, “God bless America” at the end.

I felt the prick of tears even though Mom said there wasn’t much to be proud of, especially with Nixon in office.  She told me villages of innocent people and babies had been burned alive by the Air Force.  She didn’t exactly say Dad did it, but he was a squadron commander whose job it was to drop napalm.  On villages.

Dad said those villages were full of the enemy and he’d was never happier than when he was dropping napalm.

Some of the POWs were tortured.  A boy in my fifth grade class whispered the Gooks shoved bamboo shoots under a bunch of the guys’ fingernails and then bound their hands with rope, a form of Japanese torture from WWII.  I strained to look at their hands but I couldn’t see any scars.

The grownups around us were crying and tears rolled down my sunburned cheeks because I missed Mom and because so many skinny men were crying hard in the hot sun, just like little kids.

 

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Cancer Teaches You Can’t Always Get What You Want

“But if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.”  (M. Jagger and K. Richards)

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“What most heroes don’t realize when they stumble on the Road of Trials is that this is where you find your faith.  Your ego will do anything to cling to the illusion of certainty, to grasp at comfort, and to believe that you can control your life.  The tendency to avoid uncertainty is rampant in our culture.  Uncertainty is un-American.  In reality, avoiding uncertainty is the goal of 90% of your ego’s choices.  The search for certainty is an addiction, and it’s deeply related to the pursuit of comfort.  We’ve been programmed since childhood to believe that if you’re successful, you have comforts—big homes, good food, nice cars, a big nest egg for retirement.  But what if we’ve been sold a booby prize?  What if living a meaningful, fulfilling life is about recognizing there is something beyond comfort and certainty, that uncertainty is a gateway to possibility?”

–Lissa Rankin, M.D., The Anatomy Of A Calling

Today is Sunday, July 3, 2016 and I will be having double mastectomy surgery in 2 days.  My dog has diarrhea and is a nervous wreck.  I explained to her last night, holding her cute fox face in my hands, that I am going to be fine, it’s a little, treatable thing I have called invasive lobular carcinoma, and she does not need to be so fucking nervous all the time.  I said it gently and did my best to hope she really understands English after nearly 9 years with us.  But then then the redneck mothers in my town of Golden began setting off M-80s and fireworks and she started shaking so hard she almost fell off the bed.  I hate the 4th of July.  I love the party in my hometown of Crested Butte and wish I was there now celebrating but I hate what the fireworks do to animals.  This morning Lhotse woke up early and needed to go out because of the diarrhea.  The doggie valium we gave her last night did little to quell the terror brought on by all the explosives in my neighborhood.  By this time next week I will also be on valium if I follow instructions from my doctor.  So the dog and I will be drugged and happy lying in bed.  That seems like a good plan for healing.

I woke up with some fear, and fear seems to dance at the edges of my vision these days, never really going away.  One of my dearest spiritual advisors, Alfred, listens to God all the time and really understands Him.  Me not so much.  I do say the “Our Mother” prayer with regularity though, and praying seems to take away the fear, or at least push it to the edges so I can get on with my day.

I’ve set a schedule for myself these next few days that clearly borders on the absurd.  I am making bone broth by the quart as I write this, and will be making mayonnaise, chocolate pudding, an egg—veggie bake, fresh lemon ginger popsicles and beef veggie stew, all of it sugar free and ketogenic diet friendly of course as I continue to starve my cancer.  I need to spend a few hours at work honing my explicit instructions for my staff, instructions they already know.  There is a trial on July 18th I cannot attend and there are clients who need things next week.  But that’s why I have an associate attorney and a paralegal (and co-counsel for the trial).  I have to let go.  I am not just entering a level of uncertainty right now with this big surgery; I have been in it all my life.  But denial runs deep and a little luck and tons of help and some success feeds that denial.  My ego likes to take credit for everything, well except the unfortunate life lessons of course.  And this ordeal is shaking me down to the core.

“There comes a time on your hero’s journey when your ego gets cornered and starts to panic.  You feel busted.  The jig is up.  There’s no place to hide anymore.  Your ego and your soul will battle it out to see who gets control of the wheel of YOU, and it won’t be pretty.  When it’s time for your Ordeal in the Innermost Cave, you’re going to be tempted to run screaming in the other direction.  Fear will rear up like a Tyrannosaurus rex.  This is your initiation, the test of your mettle.”

–Lissa Rankin, M.D., The Anatomy Of A Calling

fear

Fear is a liar.  It is seductive though, and probably addictive.  I am tired of fear.  Instead of acknowledging I am full of fear today, I have made up a schedule that would daunt 7 of the most enlightened personal assistants to the Dali Lama.  It involves cleaning and laundry and visiting with my dad and stepmom and sister’s family, walks, yoga, meditating, making enough food for an army, watering plants, gassing up vehicles, oh and washing them, somehow making my home office perfect, answering well wishes on Facebook, by phone and with handwritten thank you notes, making sure my electronics are all plugged in, organizing the 9 inches of medical papers into neat files, drugging my dog some more (fucking fireworks are happening at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday around here), and possibly planning my memorial service so Fred won’t have to in the event of a problem on Tuesday.  But maybe that list is too big, and maybe I’m being a drama queen.  Spiritual advisors have suggested I turn to my higher power.  I heard I am on the list at a mosque, St. Joe’s (Catholic), a Baptist church in Texas and other places.  I have been sent prayers for Jesus, Rumi, Buddha, the Mother Goddess, Mother Earth, the grandfathers and grandmothers in a Native tradition, and others.  I’ll take them all and thank you for keeping me in your prayers.  I hope I am saying thank you enough.

My general surgeon, Dr. Stephanie Miller, is about as awesome a human being as I can find to take 98% of the breast tissue from my body in 2 days on July 5th.  We met last week for the pre-op appointment and went over all the worst things that could happen, as well as the expected outcomes.  Sort of like what I do in my head around 4:30 a.m. each day, by myself, with Fred sleeping next to me, and just as dawn is coming.  Only Dr. Miller is more positive.

She told me she asked her assistant about me once a week, and understood I had to go through my own process interviewing multiple oncologists and plastic surgeons.  She said “This process is harder on women who are intellectual.”  I told her Dr. Bateman, my plastic surgeon, told me that his patients who are “hyper type-A’s like you Marie” either do really well or really poorly, depending on how much, if any, of the process they try to control.  He told me that my intuition was correct 100% of the time, to listen to it, and once I made a decision about the type of surgery and treatment and doctors I was choosing, to then let go of the details and trust the professionals involved.  He told me to remember that he does this every day all day and so does Stephanie Miller.  He said to me that I was creating an art project with my body and the cancer, and that I just needed to choose what to do.  Fred almost gave him a standing ovation.

Dr. Miller ran the Colorado Marathon and said that all the way down the canyon she was thinking of me (and, I think, my funny story of having finished dead last out of about 300 people in that race about 5 years ago, a story I told her when we first met).

Because I don’t trust Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, even though I pay $547 per month for a “Silver Plan” with them, I called to make sure the general surgeon, the plastic surgeon and the anesthesiologist are covered.  They are, but Anthem will not put that pre-certification in writing.  In addition, both Dr. Miller and Dr. Bateman will have surgical assistants in the operating room and Anthem will not cover those persons.  Anthem did not give a reason and I spoke to a supervisor.  So in spite of paying $547 per month in premiums, paying $3,250 in a deductible plus 20% of the next $5,500 plus other costs that keep creeping in, I will have to pay $250 per hour for a general surgical assistant and $150 per hour for a plastic surgeon surgical assistant in the operating room for a number of hours on July 5th.  Ridiculous.

So why is another $1000 or so for a surgical assistant so annoying?  I don’t know.  I don’t need a Go Fund Me barn-raising for medical bills but I do need to continue meditating, doing yoga, being in nature, resting more than I ever have, staying calm, talking about my feelings when they come up, reaching out to people to try to be of service (without caretaking of course!) and I need to pace myself before this surgery.  And after too.  I wonder if being angry over an extra $400 per hour in the operating room is worth it.  Probably not.

People love to bash the Affordable Care Act, and it is certainly full of flaws to be sure, but prior to the ACA, at every law firm I worked at, health insurance premiums were going up every year no matter what, sometimes 30%, always at least 20%.  So the ACA didn’t change that, it just stayed basically the same it seems to me.  I do not believe that any kind of insurance should be for-profit.  Why?  Because you cannot have a duty to the people paying premiums, the insureds, and also have a duty to your shareholders to make a profit.  It’s a direct conflict whether it’s health insurance, property insurance, car insurance, life insurance or any other kind of insurance.  Period.

I am grateful today that Fred is on Medicare, that he was able to keep his great doctor, and that his insurance premium costs are a third of mine every month.  I’m also grateful that we can pay for the medical costs I am incurring, at least so far, and that is a luxury that I’m guessing more than 80% of Americans don’t have.  It is unlikely we will have our shelter or food or any basic needs placed in jeopardy because of medical bills, or have to have those medical-related debts discharged in bankruptcy.  It is unlikely I will be unable to continue to buy high quality organic food.  Eating extremely well has been for years a priority, but it is also an expense so many people don’t even get to consider.  Although my income is temporarily a little tenuous due to the inevitable slow down due to recovering from surgery, Fred is getting a job and we will be fine.  And clients will need help.  I have to just stay in the boat and ride out some stormy seas for a few months, maybe a year.

There is a lot to be grateful for these days.  I am grateful for clean sheets, going to bed early, good books, waking up to the first, tentative streaks of light around 4:30 a.m.  I’m grateful for Fred and his insight and telling me to take it easy (I sometimes even listen to him about that).  He is good at reading me and he is saving me from myself daily.  I love that man.  I’m grateful for my sister Kate coming to all of these appointments and for listening to me whine, cry, laugh, be scared, be happy and just be me multiple times per day.  I really don’t know what I would do without her.  I am so grateful for Sherrie, my old friend from Crested Butte, and her sister Debbie, for being there for me no matter what.  There are too many people to name who keep checking in and seeing if I am ok as surgery looms.  I might have to just list all the good things people have said and written to me and read that over and over again.

Last Friday my friend Steve Glazer died.  He outlived his pancreatic cancer diagnosis by over 3 years.  We’ve known Steve 44 years this summer.  He owned the Princess Theater in Crested Butte.  I saw Harold and Maude there, Bless the Beasts and Children, Sleeper, Slaughterhouse Five, King of Hearts, Midnight Express, Five Easy Pieces and Fantasia, among others, all by the age of 10.  I know, I know, not appropriate but those were different times.  We brought our sleeping bags to the Princess to lie down in the areas where there were no theater chairs, near the big potbellied stove, and we passed around huge bags of homemade popcorn and watched movies with a bunch of adults who were often as not, passing joints or tripping on acid, or both.  Tapley manned the projector and always let us in the theater no matter what the rating of the movie.  It was so much fun.

Steve gave me career advice all the time, beginning when I was a little kid.  In 7th grade I remember him saying, “You know Marie, two dishwashing jobs is not a good long-term plan.”  I told him, “Steve, I’m only in 7th grade!”  He told another, younger friend, when he “hired” her at age 11 to sweep the Princess, that “dinner was included” with her job.  Her parents were always in the bars and she was always hungry so of course Steve fed her.  What a treat to hear that from her this week.  The last time I saw Steve, last summer, he told me he was proud of me and that he “liked the direction the firm was going in” and told me to keep up the good work.  I remember so many things about him, mostly his kindness.  He let my sister and I housesit his geodesic dome when we were deeply untrustworthy teenagers.  He gave us Oreos when our mother, who was a hippie and very anti-sugar, didn’t allow it.  He gave us rides into town when we lived at Wildbird for a few summers.  He clucked over us when we were left to fend for ourselves early on.  He always told me I would be ok, that good things were coming if I worked hard.  He was right.

Steve knew my mother was not going to show up at my high school graduation in Colorado Springs in 1981.  I was “asked to leave” Gunnison High School my freshman year after Social Services discovered I was living alone in a trailer at age 14.  So I moved in with my dad in Colorado Springs, somehow made honor roll, and was awarded an academic scholarship to a college in Oregon.  Steve continued to check in, and showed up at my high school graduation along with my friends Debbie and Sherrie.  He drove nearly 4 hours to make sure an unsure kid knew he was proud of her.  I will miss him so much.  He championed us and loved us for a long time before we even knew he did.  Vaya con Dios Glaze, you made a difference.

steve glazer.jpg

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Cancer Teaches Patience

elk minerva

Cancer is teaching me to let go of timing.  My surgery has been rescheduled for three weeks later, on July 5, 2016 at 2:00 p.m., not June 17th.  Why?  Because my original plastic surgeon was out of network and therefore very expensive.  Even with my “silver plan” health insurance, the plastic surgeon specializing in DIEP flap reconstruction would have cost me $8,000.  Plus a DIEP flap is an intense surgery to volunteer for.  In addition to the surgery after the mastectomies, where abdominal fat creates boobs, there will be 1-3 other surgeries, all under general anesthesia, to do liposuction to obtain more fat from “donor sites” in order to “shape” the breasts.  Sounds painful but it is possibly the only way a committed feminist such as myself could achieve a coveted mommy makeover without actually selling out to the patriarchal ideal of female, you know, because of the breast cancer trump card.

Implants will be just fine and there is just one more surgery after July 5th.  But then there is a “nipple-creating” surgery.  Oh and tattooing the areola.  I wonder if I should get rainbows or stars or a series of tiny paw prints.  But I will probably just get the recommended pinkish circles.

I went to my hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado a few weekends ago, narrowly avoiding the frenetic summer tourist energy that descends earlier and earlier every year.  I ran into my friend Sue who had breast cancer 11 years ago.  She generously showed me her rebuilt breasts and they were beautiful, as is she.  Then we talked on a big bed in her house while her son, who graduated from high school that morning, enjoyed the fun party she was throwing just upstairs.  I suddenly burst into tears talking to her and she just drew me close and told me, “This is what we do, we help each other.”  Such generosity in the middle of a very big milestone for her family.  But that is her nature.  It is good for me to hear good stories and know people who are now recovered and cancer-free.

The next day I ran into my friend Diner who also had cancer 11 years ago.  She chose not to have reconstructive surgery and she is so happy with her results that her enthusiasm is infectious.  She gave me a ton of hope and a huge, long hug.  She was the perfect person for me to run into right before I drove out of town back to my life on the Front Range.  Her story has a happy ending too.

In those two days in Crested Butte I ran into so many people who gave me giant hugs and told me they loved me that I lost count.  I walked through town in a fog of that love, and it took me a few hours to walk up Elk Avenue because I kept sitting on benches talking with people or ducking into cafes for coffee with them.  I am so grateful for feeling at home there, in spite of having left 17 years ago.  It will always be special to me, always leaves me wistful and wondering what I would have done if we stayed, and how we would have survived.  In my deepest heart I still want to be there sometimes.  And that time will probably come again, with patience and timing if I am lucky.  I hope so.

My friend Kay is an ICU nurse from the Pacific Northwest and I met her on my first day of freshman orientation at Pacific University.  She was a smartly dressed Seattle sophisticate and I was a country bumpkin feeling out of place, thinking college was probably a mistake.  My fallback plan was always to be on ski patrol in Crested Butte, do construction work in the summers and be a fulltime writer.  I didn’t need college for that, or so my 18-year old self said.  At Freshman Orientation, as I was standing alone, talking myself out of college and my scholarship, Kay said hello to me and the rest is history.  And now, 35 years later, she decided to fly out to take care of me for the week after surgery.  As an ICU/surgical nurse, she deals with drains, bandages and pain management all the time.  I am so touched she is coming.  I am also touched by my friend Kitty’s offer to come help, and maybe she will be able to for the second surgery.  Even my dear friend Glo, who around the 4th of July is as crazy busy as I’ve ever seen her with her birthday, the Black & White Ball, the Fourth of July parade and other events, offered to drop everything and come help take care of me.  And Sherrie too, recovering from shoulder surgery, offered to come for a week.  You know how to make a chronic caregiver cry?  Offer to be her caregiver.

Still, reality crushes in on me a few times per day and I become teary.  It’s a little about the fear but a lot about the sadness.  I always liked my boobs and I am sad they are going.  I wonder if other women feel this way.  The boyfriend I had in Paris when I lived there my junior year of college called me yesterday to see how I was doing.  We talked for a long time.  Then my Paris boyfriend said he knew that somewhere, in his attic in Connecticut, he had a beautiful black and white photo of me naked in Paris, and that he was going to find it and send it to me.  I don’t remember him taking it.  I wasn’t exactly the picture of chaste young womanhood at the time but I kept my clothes on around cameras, generally.  So I feel a little embarrassed, but of course I want to look at 20-year old me, naked in Paris.  Especially now, three weeks before surgery.  So I told him I’d love to see it but to please not tag me on Facebook with it which made him laugh.  And then, because I was filled with both rigorous honesty and a bit of mischief, I told Fred a naked photo of me was coming in the mail soon from someone I have not seen in 30 years.  Fred laughed and said, “Bring it on!”

These days I am saying no to caretaking but it is an ongoing challenge.  It’s not personal, but I cannot care-take anyone right now.  My energy is devoted to healing and I just can’t listen to negativity, and even the news is tough to deal with much of the time.   I know I’m supposed to be of service to others, as a rule, but since my energy levels are so low (not from cancer, from stress), I can’t quite discern the difference between being of genuine service to those I love and to those who come across my path, and being sucked into an energy-draining, parasitic vortex of negativity.  So, I am going to have to say no for now.  And maybe I have to retreat inward in response to all the attention because I have to get ready for this big surgery.  It’s not personal, it’s self-preservation.

That does not mean I don’t feel joy.  I feel it every day, especially with my dog Lhotse.  Pema Chodron says, “Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, how precious things are.”  My dog’s spirit is big and is so carefree.  She is happy just to be out trotting along a sidewalk, even in oppressive heat.  She is just happy to be.  And sometimes she brings me a stuffed bear to try to share her happiness.

Each day I try to wear life like a loose-fitting garment, but I often fail.  Instead I find myself wearing life like a pair of size zero biking shorts on a size 14 ass, as I am riddled with various fears and attempts at control.  It’s ok to wear both, and I am not averse to Spanx-like support garments when appropriate.  One moment I’m so full of gratitude I’m buoyant and the next I feel I am stepping through a field covered in a thousand cow pie-sized fears that stick to my shoes.  But shit washes off.  Eventually.

I am still meditating.  I am resting well.  I am also in a self-imposed news blackout, or somewhat of one.  I am battling nerves, bad dreams about a scarred up chest and my fear Fred will be repulsed and others too.  That’s a bad dream two nights in a row.  And who are the “others” I’m showing my chest to anyway?   I am battling vanity and my insidious ego that predicts my nature is essentially shallow and furthermore, will not forgive disfigurement.  My mother would not let them take her breast, would not consent to disfigurement, and it killed her eventually.  Not me.  I love them but I will love the new ones and still be loving them when I don’t need a bra at 80 years old.

I have a half-assed but helpful yoga practice that consists of 4-6 poses every day.  I am stiff and uptight in the beginning but 10 minutes later I am better somehow.  I haven’t gone to classes lately because I just don’t want to cry in front of other people.  Even though Gary my yoga teacher tells me it’s ok to cry in yoga class, that everyone does it at some point.  So I do my half-assed yoga practice and that’s ok for now.  I have to forage for serenity where I can.  My friend Leah said she went foraging for serenity in the mountains this past weekend.  I love that idea.  I am borrowing it.

Then there is a friend of a friend, a young pastor, with soft-tissue cancer and a lovely friend just last week diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.  Their cancers make mine look like the common cold, if the common cold required a double mastectomy.  I feel weepy and say prayers thinking about them both.

I am beyond thrilled I will be at a 5-day writing retreat in Tahoe in mid-November.  I re-wrote the first 7 chapters of my book after my diagnosis.  This is a book I wrote a first draft of and then shelved for about 5 years.  So a month or so ago I submitted the rewritten chapters and was one of five writers accepted to this retreat.  So I am writing more and more these days with a goal to finish a good second draft of the manuscript by mid-September.  It hasn’t been that hard to write once I am writing but I tell myself stories about how much more important work is, and somehow writing then seems frivolous.  But it’s not.  It’s saving me like writing saved me when my mother left me in the Philippines one morning when I was 10.  I began writing a few days later.  And that is actually where the book begins.  It begins with heartbreak.  But it is really funny too.

The owls are here only intermittently.  The surviving twin baby great horned owl is a good hunter and around less and less too.  Her parents observe her and the surrounding neighborhood with patience.  I wonder if they have been having baby owls every January and bringing them back to the neighborhood every April and I just haven’t noticed for 17 years until now.  I have been so driven working as an attorney all these years and it is just in the last few that I am paying attention to the open space and trees and sky around me, really noticing all the animals.

Thanks again for all the prayers, for Fred every day, for the people of my hometown, for my long lost Parisian romance, for the card from my sister’s Paris boyfriend Jeremy, for the Mindful Lawyers group in Google Groups, for my steadfast family and friends and neighbors and co-workers and colleagues and judges who have all reached out.  You have helped me more than you know, and made me feel so much love and support that I am overwhelmed by the love every single day.  Thank you so much.  Now on to July 5th and what lies ahead.

grand canyon

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Cancer Is A Good Teacher

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Yes, I was diagnosed a little over a month ago.  Invasive lobular carcinoma of the left breast.  Probably the same cancer that killed my mother.  But if I’m honest, crack cocaine hastened her death by decades, at least as much as her untreated breast cancer that eventually metastasized.  My cancer is giving me the gift of remembering so much about her and about her hard life, her shitty choices, her addictions, her incredible intellect and sense of humor, and her deep love for us kids.  One of the last things she ever said to me was, “The best thing in my life, the best thing I ever did, was have you kids.”  And she meant it with tears in her eyes and a body like an empty bag of skin and bones.  She would be gone a few weeks later.  I was 24 and could not fix the unfixable.  And that time in my life was about as hard as it sounds.

Cancer makes me mad she’s dead, mad she made the choices she did not to seek any “western” medical help.  Mad she was flooding her body with carrot apple juice and orange juice and rice on the Gerson Therapy when cancer cells, we now know, have the highest amount of insulin receptors of any cell.  She was feeding her cancer with tons of sugar with all those juices on that idiotic vegan protocol.  I know this is stupid now.  So do the doctors I consulted, including the ones who have cancer-centric, integrative functional medical practices.  I didn’t know anything then, but I was just a kid trying to believe she would be ok eventually.  I was the queen of magical thinking.  Her death made me make a hard turn into a new life four months later, a new path away from her lifestyle of destruction that had become my lifestyle of destruction.  And now, more than 28 years later, cancer is teaching me I have to forgive everyone for everything.  Again.  And so I must revisit my mother’s untimely death at 53, and forgive her for dying, for leaving us, for every last little thing I ever held on to.  Again.  Doing so is helping me live at 53.

The day of my diagnosis, my doctor called me to tell me I have invasive lobular carcinoma in the left breast.  I was sitting down but felt like I need to sit down anyway.  She said something about genetic testing since my mom died at 53.  “I’m 53 and I’m alive” I want to say.  I am silent though, and instinctively started taking detailed notes.  I noticed I needed to breathe when I sucked in air involuntarily.  I didn’t know I was holding my breath.  She asked me if she can make some appointments for me, with her breast surgeon and her oncologist.  I say sure.  I need help.  Then I thought, “At least I know I need help.”

There are people I need to call, a list starting with my husband Fred.  My sister.  My dad.  My brother.  A friend who knows I was waiting on biopsy results.  I worry that they will have a hard time with this news but I start calling.  I swing from knowing in my heart it will all be alright someday to hot tears spilling out of my eyes on to the yellow legal pad, tears that create blue ink rivers in my notes.

After the many calls I go home and we talk again.  Fred is strong.  I don’t know what to say.  I am fearful and I am also fiercely determined.  I’m grieving my mother again, and her choice not to have a mastectomy.  Would she be here now if she had?  My Aunt Gloria, my godmother, calls me and says, at age 85, she wishes she could sweep me up in her arms.  And then she tells me her cancer story.  My Aunt Cathy calls and tells me she loves me; that cancer is survivable and then she tells me her cancer story.  Their stories have good endings.  I need them and I need their stories with good endings.  I am not my mother.  I am alive.  It feels like I have been studying health and cancer since my mother was diagnosed in the 1970s.  I have so much information.  I read my faxed pathology report where my doctor states I am “highly intelligent and well-informed, a reader.”  That makes me happy.  But it also says I have cancer.

That night I slept fitfully and woke up at 3 a.m. to the dog barking.  The moon was nearly full.  I walked to the front of the house and peered out the window.  In the yard and in the street are the elk, standing and shuffling in the cold air and looking at me looking at them.  I can feel their strength and power.  I can feel there are greater forces at work that I cannot possibly understand.  The elk move away towards the open space, coats rippling in the moonlight, liquid black eyes looking at me.  I feel such a cloak of comfort from them.  I am able to sleep afterwards.  And then they stay around me in the open space for another 4 days.

It’s just the first night.  So I don’t know what will happen or what I will decide to do.  I am meeting with a breast surgeon, an oncologist, a radiological oncologist and a functional medicine oncologist.  I had genetic testing and will know in 3-4 weeks if I have the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 mutations.  I make lists of questions for these doctors.  I try to talk about how I am feeling with people I can trust.  Everything is different.  I have to learn the lesson of taking care of myself.  It’s a lifelong one.  But for those first four days after the diagnosis, I walked with the elk herd and felt so alive and grateful.

Cancer is a puzzle of genetics, what turns genes on (epigenetics), stress, diet, thinking, environment and other factors.  We all have cancer cells in our bodies.  And our immune systems dispose of them.  Or not.  Cancer is making me look at the stress I perpetuated in my life, from deep in my childhood through adulthood.  I am meditating again.  I am slowing down.  I am saying no.  I am back to writing.  I am speaking my truth without fear.  I am eating a strict ketogenic diet.  My doctors told me my nearly ketogenic diet for the last 17 months slowed the growth of this cancer, that they are certain of that.  Now I am more strict and testing for ketosis a few times a day, eliminating foods that throw me out of ketosis.  I am actively starving my cancer with ketogenic eating.

I already have a very positive attitude and I am grateful that is my nature.  Magical thinking is not all bad and it’s worked for me in a lot of ways.  But I do not like or appreciate the tyranny of the New Age movement that tells me I caused my cancer, that if I was just was more positive and had better thinking, I would not have it or that I can cure it solely with my positive thoughts.  Or that this is karma for past behavior and thinking.  If you believe that, keep it to yourself.  I don’t need your punishing New Age bullshit, thank you very much.

That said, I take responsibility for my treatment and healing.  I take responsibility for the road I am on, the road I am choosing.  Some of my doctors disagree with it (such as my well-researched choice not to take Tamoxifen for the next 5 years).  Some of my friends, vehement vegetarians or vegans, none of whom have ever had cancer, none of whom are doctors or healers, who are, God bless them, trying to control the situation, and want me to “cure” myself with you name it:  Rife machines, other kinds of electronic zappers, Reikki, the Budwig protocol (an unproven diet plus flax oil is totally contraindicated for breast cancer), the Gerson Therapy, high intensity heat therapy and other “cures” from German and Mexican clinics, shamans, biomats, aqua-chi, magnets to tape on my boobs, eating only raw food, rebounding, baking soda, cold laser, black seed oil, medical grade hydrogen peroxide, high doses of curcumin, $4,000 water alkalizing machines, etc.  I appreciate that they care and want to help.  I do.  I actually already utilize many of the things they are suggesting (I’m teachable sometimes in a laughable way) and have done so for years.  I still ended up with a cancer diagnosis.  Many of these therapies or methods may be helping me but they clearly don’t cure cancer.  I love all of them for wanting to help by the way, and I have been that person wanting to help too.  But please do not call me or email me with your latest cure, “proven” only with testimonials, that you read about on the internet.  I don’t need that information.  I have so much information.  I am an excellent researcher.  And maybe consider that I have been interested in reading about cancer cures for many years, maybe since my mom’s diagnosis when I was 15.  Please consider that I am tired of saying, “Thanks but no thanks” when you tell me I “should” do this or that and worse, imply that if I don’t do what you are suggesting I do, I’m going to die.  Not helpful.

Cancer is becoming a gift but it’s too new for me to understand in any complete way.  I experience such a range of emotion every day it is like a roller coaster.  I am no spiritual giant, and I have to let the emotional storms roll through.  And like the weather, this too always passes.  When I forget to pray, which is often, I am reminded to do so sometimes harshly; forced into prayer while I’m in the deep troughs of my fear.

But hey, the doctors think it is early.  I do too.  There is a lot of good news.  This cancer was detected via biopsies after not showing up in 2 mammograms, not showing up in thermography, not showing up in 2 ultrasounds and not showing up in an Oncablot blood test.  My internist told me I really needed to get a biopsy and then my doctor, Kelly MacAleese at Women’s Imaging, agreed and ordered an MRI.  Based on the MRI, she did five biopsies which resulted in my diagnosis.  So Dr. Lipper and Dr. MacAleese saved my life.  Thank you incredible women.  I am their patient but they are more than just my doctors.  Invasive lobular carcinoma is rare, and usually is found after it is in several places.  I am so lucky to have cancer, as odd as that sounds.  But it is just the truth.  I am lucky.

I am scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy on June 17th.  I’ll be in the hospital overnight and then home for 2-4 weeks, (I’ve been told a range of 3-6 weeks so I am of course trying to control that by arbitrarily announcing a change in the time frame because of my unique healing capabilities which have never been tested).  I’m also told I will be unable to drive for 30 days or lift anything over 10 lbs for 6 weeks (again, clearly absurd instructions for someone like me but I will try to keep an open mind).  I expect I will be working an hour or two a day during my time at home (and I may have just made that up as well but it seems likely).  I’m being funny because I can’t help it.  But I promise I will not rush my recovery.  Please remind me of this promise.

Approximately 3 months later I will have reconstructive surgery, be in the hospital 3 days, and that will have a 4-6 week recovery according to the docs.  What I think I am getting, subject to me changing my mind or the doctors determining I do not have adequate body fat, is what is called a DIEP flap reconstruction.   That means they will take my own fat and create boobs.  If they determine I don’t have enough fat, I will feel awesome about that and want that news in writing so I can frame it next to the bathroom mirror and read it every day.  If I chicken out because it is such a big surgery, I will get a smaller surgery that involves just implants.  We’ll see.  Regardless, my medical team has promised me I will have the boobs I always wanted in high school.

My spirits are pretty good; I’ve had second opinions in oncology and plastic surgery, and 2 integrative medicine oncological consultations as well, plus an assessment from a former cancer specialist in NYC who is a friend’s father.  I now just need to see both an Amazonian witch doctor and a Masai shaman to complete my preliminary research into my condition.  I guess I should not be surprised that one of my consulting physicians called me a “hyper Type A”.

So, I’m in good hands and will know more in terms of the stage of the cancer and prognosis after surgery.  I feel optimistic, scared, determined, weepy and grateful.  And very weepy the last few days now that I have a surgery date.  All the research and second opinions filled my head with facts and figures but now I have to be in my heart, because I need to have faith that this will go ok, and I probably need reminders and help with that.

One friend, out of the blue, had a beautiful blanket knitted for me (see photo above) and also had it blessed by his pastor.  Another friend gave me a gorgeous piece of Ledger Art by a Mescalero Apache artist.  My Muslim friends at our favorite restaurant told me they are praying for me, and so are some Buddhists I know and a ton of Christians.  My dear friends who are on the Red Road conduct a healing sweatlodge ceremony every Thursday night that I attend when I can.  I feel those prayers.  I want all of your prayers.  I am not afraid to ask for them.  So please pray for me, or if you do not pray, send good vibes.  Thank you in advance.  I know I am surrounded by good people and good doctors and good, healing energy.

I have a lot of people to thank already for all sorts of reasons, including Fred of course, my sister for coming to all the appointments, my dear, childhood friend Kitty for taking a week out of her life to stay with us after surgery to ease me into recovery, my associate attorney Angie and my paralegal Amanda for pitching in so much during this time to cover my ass at work, neighbors too numerous to name, friends near and far who have offered to bring dinners and drive me places.  I’d also like to thank Alison Gannett for paving the way with her cancer and helping me with ketogenic eating, Dr. Carol Lipper and Dr. Kelly MacAleese for saving my life, Dr. Nasha Winters for running extensive genetics and showing me I have a genetic mutation that would make Tamoxifen ineffectual and make me prone to side effects like uterine cancer, my extended family, my dear friends in Crested Butte where I grew up, my friend Gina who took me to Sayulita for a very needed fun-filled week, my wonderful friend Robyn who explains the inexplicable, Constance who keeps me beautified and is so upbeat, my brother Mike who is always checking in on me and also his beautiful family, my new friend Shelly who I met walking down the street watching the elk, who is 6 years into her cancer journey and helping me with such selflessness, my dear friend Barb who tells me she know the angels have this situation, and have me in their arms, the animals who have come around me to help on a level I do not understand and cannot explain, and all the other forces in the universe helping me to change my life.  It is overwhelming to feel these waves of love and help.  And humbling.  Please think of me on June 17th, and in the weeks after.

 

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Gratitude List

Happy Halloween.

The photo is of a juvenile red tail hawk at dawn last month.  I took it with my iPhone.  This hawk, who I saw again on my walk this morning, is one of the things I’m grateful for today.

Last night Fred was returning from the Air Force Academy-Utah football game with my Dad.  After he dropped Dad off, he drove up I-25 and hit a bunch of debris in the middle of the interstate at about 75 mph.  Piles of wood or something that fell off a truck.  The impact sheered off the front license plate, dented and scratched up the right side of the car, did something to the alignment, ripped the side mirror and pushed some metal bar siding thing askew, but Fred was unhurt.  I’m so grateful for that, and that he took my big, heavy car down to the game instead of his Subaru.  I’m also grateful we are insured.

While Fred was at the game I went downstairs and discovered water coming out of the light fixture in the guest bathroom.  It could have been a broken water pipe.  I could have needed a plumber on a Saturday night.  But no, the drip was caused by condensation in the dryer vent which was packed with lint and a fire hazard.  The number one cause of house fires is lint according to my sister.  Easily fixable thanks to my brother-in-law Vince who came right over and pulled out the light fixture and used a flashlight and compact mirror to figure it all out.

I have so much more to be grateful for I can’t list it all here.  We are both employed and healthy, as is the rest of the family.  Bills are paid.  Election-related ads will soon be history.  And this might be the last, glorious autumn weekend before winter sets in.

But I’m sad today to learn of the death of my old friend Norm Patten, of cancer, on October 29th.   I’m thinking about his wife Christina, his daughter Emilie and his son Rewk.  I used to babysit Rewk back when he was called Rewkie.  Even at about 5 years old Rewkie was good at every sport he tried and a handful to babysit.  I also worked with Norm and Christina as a dishwasher and bus girl at the Elk Mountain Lodge when I was in 7th and 8th grade and I played softball with Christina on the Ruthless Babes.  They seemed so happy with my good work ethic-I was never late and even at 13, I felt compelled to sterilize every possible surface in the kitchen every day.  It was probably a sign of some OCD to come.  But by just showing up on time and wanting to clean everything with Clorox and a toothbrush I was clearly different from the average hungover hippy dishwasher.  My friend Tracey told me they took back-to-back river trips last year:  two and a half weeks in Alaska followed immediately by three weeks in the Grand Canyon on a paddle trip.

I think seeing the Pattens together as a family back when I was a kid was inspiring.  They were one of the few families in town staying together when all around me people were divorcing over alcohol, adultery, cocaine, money woes and the ubiquitous 70’s reason:  “needing space”.  I remember so few adult relationships that lasted or went unscathed by the turmoil of drugs, sex and rock and roll.  But the Pattens were a unit, a rare, solid family, and Norm was a good husband and wonderful father.  I saw that with my own eyes and it gave me hope.  I’m so grateful I knew him.

Rest in peace Norm.  Vaya con Dios mi amigo.

 

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TV Charity

So I was on an exuberant walk early in the morning a few days ago.  It was breathtaking, with the sun breaking through light snow and heavy fog.  I was inexplicably filled with joyous energy and broke into a run uphill.  My dog bounded in an especially cute way playing with a golf ball and zig zagging around me.  I said a little prayer and then of course became lost in my self-centered thoughts.  Then a gorgeous red tail hawk flew by with some sort of breakfast rodent.  And I had a ton of time to get to work, even with my foray into the hills on the golf course.  I have no idea why I get to have such a good life, certainly I don’t deserve to witness all the good stuff on that morning, including a body wanting to break into a run early in the day.

On the way back I knew I had to do something else before work.

A nice neighbor had a hip replacement a few months ago and then just had her knee scoped.  And then her TV died.  I knew I needed to give her the TV in my home office.  I don’t watch it much and of course it is a distraction when I need to write.  So I did the right thing, unscrewed the cable and walked it over to her house.  A small token for her kindness to our Saint Bernard, Sheba, in the years before Sheba’s death.

This weekend I cleaned up that cluttered office, throwing out 2 garbage bags of stuff and giving away 2 garbage bags of stuff.  The space feels better but I got a little panicky about no TV.  Like when I give something I no longer wear to my sister, she wears it and looks great in it.  Inevitably I want the thing I haven’t worn in 2 years, back.  But it always looks better on Kate and there’s the two-year rule.

My neighbor needs the TV more than I do.  Besides, we have a TV in the basement den and how many TVs does a person need?  Not as many as we had the other day.

Next weekend I will go through my closet and see what else I can give away.  It feels good.  And my office at home feels cleared out, clean and better.  Me too.

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