We recently had a company called Magic Hour provide a free photo shoot for our family. They do this work pro bono for people with cancer, and we are so grateful. The photographer who worked with us, Melissa of Icarian Photography, was wonderful. She made us feel instantly at ease. I have been in the mind of legacy lately, and what could be left for my daughter and husband, and so it was such a relief and gift to have this offered.
Here are a few shots:
I like to read. A lot. On days when fatigue wears me down, I rest here. Sometimes I close my eyes and the same soft breeze that brushes the Golden Gate wafts through those curtains. I remember the outside world, and I remember the long wide ocean that moves not far from me.
Our messy garden. The cherry tomatoes have gone bonkers. The colors and bees and flowers cheer me up. Sometimes the best living is not organized. In disarray you might find your heart.
I’ve always wanted to hike the Lake Tahoe mountain range. It’s been a dream of mine to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail. According to the link, it’s considered one of the most scenic hikes in the world, and I can see why. Starting from the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, the valley views are incredible.
Altitude: 8, 740 feet.
I went alone. I was a little nervous – not about safety, but more about my health. I’ve had a large number of lymph nodes removed due to cancer metastases, and one of the side effects of this (not mentioned in the “happy pink” and “you’re a survivor” positivity ticker tape) is the lifelong risk of permanent arm swelling, cellulitis, risk of cuts, bites, and possibly permanent manual massage and pumping and physical therapy that comes with lymphedema. After my breast cancer surgery, the list of “things to avoid to prevent lymphedema” included: high altitudes, vigorous exercise, pet scratches, dehydration, weight lifting, vigorous and regular movement of the right arm, saunas and hot tubs, and so on. The list was a devastating litany of losses.
The physical therapist told me, “You might want to think of getting rid of your cat. Also, avoid air travel.” More than the cancer, I felt like my life had been taken away. How much more of my body would be carved, how much more to lose? I went home and wept. I hated it all – the cancer, the lost tissue, the loss of activities I loved. Life.
But, as we must do to continue living, I regrouped. Such gratitude to my support group, to include online ladies, a hallelujah chorus of friends, family, writing group, community, my husband and daughter and wonderful colleagues. This pool of support buoyed me, kept me grounded, prompted (and prompts) me to get back out and live.
And so this hike, 6 miles in high thin air, was more than walking. It was a kind of milestone, a kind of fuck you to the limitations of this disease. It’s not the 10 miler I’d hoped, or the full 15-day outback trek I’d dreamed of, but it’s a start. A small victory.
The best, sauciest, crab cakes EVER. With wine and a sweet lake breeze.
I’m sick of brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, watercress, and other vegetables like artichokes and garlic and peppers and beets. I’m tired of walking the Green Mile for produce and minding each health-conscious bite.
When you are not a cancer patient (and I am impatient, wanting this to be over, which perhaps it never will be), food is an ally, a benevolent companion. You buy and eat, and cook and eat, in a set of light, repeated gestures that do not cause much pause.
Cancer shifts the scales. Food becomes more fraught. It becomes more heavily weighted with meaning, assessed on a scale of its antioxidant values and not of taste or flavor. I have found myself looking up food names and “cancer” many times during the course of a day in order to reassure myself that my meal is fighting free radicals. Searching for “maitake mushroom” and “cancer,” for example, brings up a list of products, research, and formidably-medical sounding articles that paves the way for each reassuring bite. I have felt, at times, a zealous worshipper at the secular altar called “health.” Too much. A person can become obsessive or worse, self-righteous.
Certain foods can become “good.” Some “bad.” And these judgements can extend to ourselves. You are a “good eater.” (Healthy, weight-conscious, working hard to resist with produce.) You are a “bad eater.” (Steak, chips, soda, sugar. Meh. Pass the beer.)
To. Hell. With. That.
I am starting a new diet called the Ice Cream and F&*k It Diet.
Because, sisters and brothers, you’ve lost enough. You’ve worried enough. You’ve googled and read enough. Stayed up late through the night, scrolled through your phone, lost a body part or tissue, reeled through waves of nausea, stayed in while your friends played, lost a sure future, and wondered-what-you-did-to-cause-it enough. You know what? Here’s the answer: We don’t know. People who jog and do yoga and eat vegan get cancer. People who smoke and drink live long lives. This isn’t an excuse to chuck all effort, but it’s a way to give yourself a break.
In that spirit, which is the spirit of We Don’t Know, So Go Ahead and Live, here are the essential principles of the Ice Cream and F*%k it Diet:
There are no essential principles.
Eat what you want.
Cruciferous (which means, by the way, “of the cross,” as in crucifix, a cross to bear) vegetables are great, but they will not save you.
We will all die. (Don’t say this at parties.)
Is there syrup on it? Frosting? Fat or sugar? You know what to do.
I know I know– “not every day.” Of course.
Popcorn with butter first, then the seats. Bonus if you scarf it before the trailers end.
I am recovering from my fourth cycle of Xeloda and Taxotere, and I’d like to talk about how things are going. This treatment plan is for a recurrence, a 5 cm tumor that showed up during my annual MRI in March of this year. The goal is to shrink this tumor in order to make it operable, and therefore remove it.
I receive Taxotere every three weeks, and, on the same day as the infusion, begin a two-week cycle of 4000 mg of Xeloda. Four pills in the morning, four at night.
As of today my eyes water constantly. My nose is an incessantly dripping faucet, causing me to wipe, drip, wipe, drip, and because of this I’ve become wary of cooking and paperwork. Restless legs make it difficult to fall asleep, leading to a cycle of fatigue and sleeping until 9 or 10 AM that has thrown my summer for a loop.
So far, I feel fortunate that I haven’t experienced Hand/Foot Syndrome, a common and difficult side effect that causes peeling, itching, and can cause the permanent removal of fingerprints. And so far, I have no neuropathy. Knock wood.
But the fatigue. I’m writing this to share with others in treatment, other survivors – you will know what I mean when I talk about the crash, the far, low tide that comes with waking and feeling as if some deep core of bones and blood has been removed, and all that remains is an easily-toppled monument of skin. You become a heap of unmoving muscle, resolved only to rest. Rest and sleep are what the body orders. Mail opening or reading an email becomes an orbit of language that revolves but does not land – I can’t wrap my head around any cognitively demanding tasks after infusions. Give me TV, give me easy magazines. Youtube cat videos and naps.
I find myself cueing up bingeworthy shows: old episodes of The Office, Handmaid’s Tale, Sherlock Holmes, and soon the latest Orange is the New Black. Some of these I watch at night when my husband and daughter sleep. Others I fall asleep to. Dr. Phil is another favorite. After all my losses, I can at least assure myself that I am not duped by internet Don Juans, or that no one in my family has been kidnapped by a cult.
The fatigue, it comes and goes. It is unpredictable and when it comes it must be honored. This is one of the many lessons of cancer: Listen to your body. It is its own untameable animal that requires tending, and if you listen it will lead you well.
How do you deal with fatigue? What are some ways you pass the time when your body says Stay?
I love fresh, homemade waffles, coffee, shrimp scampi, big piles of fresh greens with a light, tart dressing, peaches on the cusp of leaking, sushi, garlic bread, creme brulee.
I love a hearty burrito, melted cheddar, and the fresh combo of strawberries and cream.
Before cancer, I ate healthy foods, mostly, but I did not worry as much. Before the cancer diagnosis, eating carried less weight, less urgency.
Not anymore. For the past two years, it’s been a pretty strict regimen of cruciferous (and other) veggies, beans, fruits, eggs/fish, occasional bread and/or meat. I’ve limited sugar. I’ve sipped green and graviola teas with regularity, and taken a host of supplements: Turkey Tail, turmeric/black pepper, Vitamin D, aspirin, etc. I’ve exercised 5 hours a week, sometimes more, and I’ve kept my BMI low. All in the name of preventing a recurrence.
Which happened anyway. And while this local tumor continues to shrink, thank you Taxotere and Xeloda, I have begun to ease up on my food restrictions. I feel ambivalent about this. For example, instead of my usual morning Amla powder smoothie (with berries, sprouts, ginger, greens), this morning I ate a waffle with jam. Carbs and sugar. Another: Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday, and I ate an ice cream sundae (bubble gum ice cream and caramel sauce). It was heaven! Then, like a culinary schizophrenic, I went home and had a brussel sprout/kale salad with a small serving of salmon. This is turning into a pattern of inconsistency.
Part of me thinks: What the hell. Cancer has taken so much already. Must I give up favored foods? Another part: Keep the discipline, keep the habits. You never know if it’ll be the “nudge” that stamps out the tumor for good. It’s a pendulum of “good eating” and “bad eating,” mitigated and slowed by the fatigue of trying so hard.
Because it does take effort. Eating a healthier diet requires more intention and thought into food purchases, food preparation, and food keeping. To add this to the cognitive and physical load of a person with cancer is asking a great deal. It means added tasks, money, time and energy devoted to health. This is not terrible, can even be joyful, but it is more.
How do you manage eating, food, cooking, shopping, and staying healthy?
“Who can become lost in a narrative,
if all he can think of is the end?”
– Mark Doty, “Lament-Heaven”
And so, with cancer comes the question: What is the new narrative of my life?
How long do I have left?
What is my treatment plan?
Logistics: Do I continue to save? Plan a world trip? Get rid of my old stuff?
Planning, the economic and spiritual foundation of modern American self-efficacy, is the Harley-Cancer-Davidson motorcycle driver that breaks you off, sidecar sidekick, and leaves you in the little rig by the side of the road while he takes off down the two-lane highway of certainty. Putt putt, sputter. Stop.
And here you are, ditched and detached in the Death Valley of all deserts, left to contemplate your options. It’s quiet all right. And there’s no driver for miles. What to do, what to do?
I struggle with this. If we continue the metaphor, with Death Valley and the unmoored, detached passenger, bewildered and shocked at the side of the road, I’m still sitting. Two years later and I’m still sitting, still scratching my head, looking at the map and trying to figure out how to get back home. Do you know what I mean?
It’s kind of tragic. It’s also, at times, patently absurd. And funny. I mean: no hair! And what’s a lopsided gal to do when running? Plenty of room to contemplate.
Many other survivors and friends have come past, offered advice, suggested lovely and some-odd things, and pointed out alternate routes. But I can’t go back. I can’t go back to the home of the Old Body, the Old Life. The new is here. And I’m still working out how to navigate life, work, the process of living with chronic disease. I want to rush it. I want to “make it work,” learn from it, deal, manage, fix – do all the productivity-oriented activities my previous and old life would have deemed necessary in order to overcome any personal obstacle. And in focusing on the corrections and fixes, I wonder if I’m losing some kind of view.
That is, just being, living, fully taking in the transition. The road. The sidecar mishap-tragedy that, like Emily Dickinson, tells it slant. Because even in this, there is a narrative. There is story, there is process, there is some nugget of love and living that wants to find a way.
Here now, it seems to tell me. Look at your body, the earth, even the rocks at the edges. Sit awhile longer and take it all in.
The CT scan showed that the tumor is shrinking. It’s gone down by about 1 cm.
This should be good news, and it is, but the rise of the celebratory music is dampered by the ongoing knowledge of cancer’s continued presence. I am talking about a lack of trust, a lack of belief in the body’s full capabilities. This lack is not pessimism, but rather the realization that this body can and has betrayed me. Faith in a long future is a vertebrae that’s been removed. One slight hunch is now always impacting movement, tilting each tentative step. It’s a little harder to look up.
“Continue the treatment until it shrinks further.” Then surgery, then recovery.
My old life feels like a harbor from which I drift further away each day.
I do not want to sound sad. There is always coffee, or sunlight.
A friend or a flower.
A note or a text message, laughter, friendship, good books, food, family, naps. You, they, these things:
are all the antidote.
are all I need.
And the truth is? We are always pending, are always, like the pendulum,