Binge

Haagen Dazs

My husband, Jonathan, was out of town last week, and although I knew I would miss him, I also looked forward to getting lots of things done with more time to myself: Write, read novels, get going on turning my 26-year-old daughter’s long-vacated bedroom into a guestroom from its former incarnations as shrine and dumping ground. I also planned to eat salad for dinner every night and lose a little weight as a buffer against upcoming indulgent occasions. Instead I gained two pounds. I did eat a lot of salad, but I might have been ambushed by some late-night Haagen Dazs.

The real binge, however, was throwing myself headlong not into a pint of chocolate-chocolate chip, but into Season 4 of Parenthood.

Jonathan and I had tried a couple of episodes when the show first aired, but he didn’t like it, and I kept forgetting to watch it by myself in the rare free moments of a busy life. Then, in the fall of 2012, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands while recovering from surgery and six rounds of chemo for uterine cancer. I needed something that would absorb me without requiring concentration, or risk pushing me over the brink of existential despair.

I devoured Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, but Parenthood was my favorite. What’s not to like about a cast partially drawn from Six Feet Under and Friday Night Lights, set in Berkeley, no less? I was hooked.

By the time my cancer rolled around, we no longer had TV, so I could not watch Parenthood in real time once I’d made it through the first three seasons. I knew about Kristina’s cancer, though, from the way friends would say, “Do you know what’s happening now? Kristina has–” Then they’d stop themselves, either wanting to protect me from revealing the plot or from mentioning cancer in case they labored under the illusion that it wasn’t constantly on my mind.

Before long, treatment was over, I got better, and my busy life resumed. Plus, Season 4 was not yet available on DVD.

Finally, though, it was. Just before Jonathan went on his trip, I got the notice from the library that I had made it off the long waiting list. I had three nights of Jonathan’s absence to watch 15 episodes if I wanted to avoid late fees.

I decided to forget about converting my daughter’s room, and pretty much everything else besides work. Season 4, after all, centered on Kristina’s cancer. Calling it “research,” since I write about cancer now and then, I put Disc 1 in the DVD and sat back–taken back to long days watching episode after episode to distract myself from feeling scared and unsteady.

Here’s what other memories Season 4 brought back:

  • Telling our daughters I had cancer, particularly Emma via Skype, since she was working in Russia at the time. I remember watching the grainy screen as all the oxygen got sucked out of her. “I feel like I’m on another planet,” Emma said. Like Haddie in Parenthood, she couldn’t bear to be away either, and came back for an unexpected visit.
  • Wanting our daughters to carry on with their lives as before; downplaying our fears and bad days to reassure them as much as possible.
  • Being mad at my husband for saying I looked fine without my hair.
  • The relentless and unhelpful demand for positive thinking from people who don’t know shit.
  • Eating ice cream in defiance of the food police. (Do you sense an organizing principle in my life?)
  • Getting a fever and going to the ER on a holiday weekend. In my case it was the day before President’s Day, not Christmas Eve. I went right away, unlike Kristina, who ignores her deteriorating condition and almost dies of sepsis. There were no family reunions and presents around my ER gurney. All my scare did was cancel a dinner party and delay chemo by a week so I could finish a short course of just-in-case high-powered antibiotics.
  • Having a lot of helpful and caring people around, although with better coordinated food delivery so we never had a surplus of roast chickens left to rot in the fridge.

What didn’t ring true was looking like a deliberately bald haute couture runway model, or being perfectly made up all the time. In fact, my daughters dubbed me Gollem in my baldness. Oh, well, I’m in real life,not a TV series. Though I guess I could have had a shot at Lord of the Rings!

I’m looking forward to binging on Season 5 when it becomes available on DVD.

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What’s your favorite comfort food or DVD series to binge on?

 

Recovery Garden

 

 The Jewel Box, One Year Later

The Jewel Box, One Year Later

This week I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of our garden with a post-chemo post I wrote last year:

I’ve long dreamed of an English country garden–roses spilling over trellises, beds layered with delphinium and hollyhocks, velvety lawns sweeping down to the pond. But we live in California, not in a BBC period drama, and our budget is not as outsized as my fantasy. Even if it were, there is no way our deer-infested slope of chert that gets 34 inches of rain in a good year could ever resemble the Emerald Isle.

So I’ve had to adjust my sights some. For years I’ve looked out on a weedy, parched patch of dirt off our back deck, adjacent to a slope of scraggly rosemary and oleander that the neighbors’ dogs use as a toilet. I’ve been meaning to call in the professionals for years to prepare the soil and install proper irrigation. But somehow the time is never right, and I’ve kept putting it off.

One good thing about cancer is finally absorbing that there really is no time like the present. And speaking of presents, my friend Mary, knowing of the garden dreams I’ve long harbored, gave me a wonderful one soon after I began treatment: Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region.

These authors know about deer and chert, and that we have neither the climate nor the staff of Downton Abbey. I drooled over every garden-porn page, and, in between chemo sessions, set about turning my fantasy into reality by visiting my favorite nurseries for landscaper recommendations.

Most of the people I called seemed like they’d rather be waterboarded than bother with our site and budget. But not the lovely Ashley, who said she enjoys a challenge. I was sold when she remarked about our patch of weeds off the deck, “This will be the jewel box of the garden.”

After years of waiting, we were ready to go. Fortunately, the list of plants compatible with deer, drought, poor soil, hot sun, and neglectful homeowners is not that long, so the design phase was quick. Every morning on my way home from my walk and latte, I hauled rocks from a nearby field for mini retaining walls in the jewel box. Ashley and her crew arrived and transformed the entire site in less than a day just by cleaning up 20 years of scraggle. They finished the entire installation, from irrigation to microbark, in another two. Ashley left me equipped with deer repellent and instructions for running the irrigation system.

She also left me with a beautiful garden and that deep happiness you get when you finally let yourself go for what you want. True, the garden doesn’t look as good as Downton Abbey or the photos in my book. The adjacent trees rain down eucalyptus litter constantly. The deer have messed up the shredded bark and sampled the verbena. Still, what a pleasure it is to switch my focus from scary things growing inside of me to the vibrant life springing forth in my recovery garden.

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What dreams do you keep putting off? Which have you finally made a reality?

 

Steady Hands

Stomach injectionFor the past week and a half, since my husband Jonathan had eye surgery to correct strabismus, I’ve been applying a thin line of ointment to his inner eyelids each night. It’s been something of a slapdash operation–the ointment sometimes sticks to his eyelashes, sometimes runs down his cheeks. It makes me wonder how on earth I ever got drops into our daughters for pink eye when they were little—Jonathan, unlike them, has not even screamed or squirmed. Eventually we figured out that if he rolled his eyeballs back into his head, the ointment got within spitting distance of the target area. Still, it’s a lucky thing I never aspired to become a brain surgeon.

All of which sparked my memories of a year ago, in the days following my last chemotherapy infusion, when Jonathan gave me my final Neupogen shot. (Neupogen stimulates white blood cell production.) For five nights of each chemo cycle, I’d lain on the couch while Jonathan swabbed my exposed belly with alcohol before carefully plunging a syringe into the fatty tissue. The first cycle we’d nervously joked about the movie Memento, in which an injection gone awry leads to amnesia and an excellent film. But nary a drop of blood did he draw the whole time. I can’t imagine entrusting myself to anyone else.

There were many steady hands holding me throughout six months of treatment–my doctors and the always cheerful Kaiser staff, my therapist, my yoga class, Michael at Pine Street Clinic, my daughters (who in honor of my remaining wisps of hair dubbed me Gollem), and, of course my many wonderful friends and family members who cheered me with delicious food, walks, emails, flowers, CDs, presents, visits, and funny YouTube links. I wouldn’t have made it through without everyone.

Yet the steadiest was Jonathan, who was there from the first terrifying news of diagnosis through it all: hours of surgery not knowing how far the cancer had spread; uncooperative catheters; private sadnesses and fears; doctors’ visits; a wife with no appetite who didn’t put dinner on the table but who still obsessed about her weight; hair loss; and all the usual demands like taxes and college tuition. On top of it all Jonathan worked 10-hour days to keep the paychecks and medical insurance in place, and he did it all without complaint. He even endured my most incessant question: “How do you really feel?”

I’m not sure how he really felt. But I feel incredibly lucky to have him: steady hands, steady heart, mind, and soul.

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Who’s your steady?

 

Anniversary Purge

Recycling chemo papers

Today is recycling day. I toss into the bin a large cache, more than the usual fundraising appeals and advertising circulars. Chemotherapy and You lands on top of the pile, along with notes from consultations with surgeons and my oncologist, diaries tracking food intake, medications, and neuropathy ratings on a scale of 1-5, Look Good, Feel Better brochures, Radiation and You. It’s a good day for a purge—the one-year anniversary of my last round of chemo for a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer.

I’d let go of a lot of things already: the sense of having an uninterrupted life; the veil separating me from mortality; my “lady parts,” as my friend Deb calls the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and cervix removed by the surgeon. Then my hair. Sometimes, though less than you might think, my energy, appetite, and spirits.

It was a long winter. But then it was the first day of spring, as it is today.

A year ago, at the end of my last chemotherapy session, the staff presented me with a Certificate of Achievement,  Certificate of Achievementwith accolades about my courage and perseverance. Such praise felt unwarranted, as it wasn’t so much a matter of bravery as complying with the recommended treatment in order to regain my health. But I did leave feeling grateful. And so relieved to be done.

Today I hesitate to add my certificate to the recycling bin. It’s strange moving away from active treatment. Along with the sense of relief comes the fear of moving beyond chemo’s protective bubble. Anxiety about cancer recurring simultaneously recedes and grows as time passes. Will throwing out my Certificate of Achievement jinx me? But I toss it anyway, along with magical thinking. I’m happy to be done with cancer’s clutter.

My cancer treatment included some Chinese medicine, and my practitioner, Michael, prescribed for Days 5 through 10 of each chemo cycle anything that would help my body cleanse itself of dead cells. “Cleansing can also be figurative as well; anything that you do during this part that helps you get rid of things is useful—cleaning out closets and the garage, completing projects, and resolving personal and business issues and relationships.” My garage is still a mess. But today’s purge feels very cleansing.

I’m hanging onto my wig, though. Maybe it’s like Fat Clothes, the oversized garments in the back of the closet you can’t get rid of after you lose weight just in case it comes back. You never know.

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Read more Cancer Detour posts

 

Chinese Medicine?

Chinese medicine capsules

Chemo or no chemo? That had been the question when I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer in September 2012. I was fortunate to have caught it very early, but there was very little research about whether or not post-hysterectomy chemo was advisable for my stage and type. One study with a sample size of 12 women who did not get chemo found no recurrences. N=12=nothing to go by. My doctors were of mixed opinion, as was I, until a dream about a docile lion waking up and going on the prowl for red meat tipped the decision in favor of chemo. But there were other decisions to make. Here’s something I wrote way back when, right before the Presidential election. (By the way, I’m fine now.)

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I’ve had my doubts about chemo, but my deepest ambivalence has been about whether or not to incorporate Chinese herbs into my treatment. I just don’t lean alternative, to put it mildly. I really, really wish I could be like Judi Dench’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, embracing the allure of the new, but sad to say, that’s just not me. I’m more like Madge—the uptight Brit who sulks in her hotel room and escapes back to dank England as soon as possible.

But so many people I trust swear by Chinese medicine as an adjunct to chemo. When I told my beloved yoga teacher, Robin, I had cancer, the first thing she said was, “You must go see the oncology specialists at Pine Street Clinic.” Robin does not have a woo-woo bone in her body. As she puts it, “I’m from Indiana, and I don’t do anything that isn’t practical.” She works extensively with medical issues, and knows more about physiology and body mechanics than anyone I know.

So even though Robin uses a Neti pot, I trust her. I called Pine Street Clinic and set up a consultation, gathering along the way everyone’s opinions about integrative medicine. One friend told me she’d begged her partner to try herbs during chemo; they triggered a terrible allergic reaction and a lot of guilt. Everyone else had good experiences, many with the encouragement of their Western-medicine health teams. Even the Kaiser nutritionist was all for it.

“But does it work if you don’t really believe in it?” I asked her.

“Well, the placebo effect matters,” she conceded. “But I’ve seen it do real good no matter what you believe.”

Only my husband and I remained dubious. And, of course, my oncologist, who said, “Show me an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.” He really is kind of a numbers guy.

Michael from Pine Street asked me to send him my test results and some background information before we met. Wanting to make the right impression, I wrote a 5-page manifesto detailing not only my diagnosis and medical history, but also my staunch agnosticism, misgivings about positive thinking, and unwillingness to give up chocolate and lattes.

At the appointed time, I entered Pine Street Clinic as wary as someone loathe to accept a free dinner from the Moonies. The sun-filled, white-raftered room was crammed with fat Buddhas, oriental rugs, potted plants right out of the 70s, and two large, peach-colored poodles. Now that I’ve confessed my secret identification with Madge, I may as well finish off my reputation by adding that I’m not really a dog person. My stomach clenches when I encounter dogs in the workplace, even though some of my favorite people bring their dogs to work. And yes, I do mean those of you who are right now scrolling down to unsubscribe and canceling plans to bring over a casserole. Sorry. In chemo veritas.

The giant poodles didn’t lunge for my throat or crotch as I made my way to the restroom. Two sardonic flyers graced the bathroom wall, and there was a bumper sticker with a picture of a poodle that read “I Ride Inside: DogsAgainstRomney.com.” Despite my agnosticism, I was beginning to think I might be able to keep the faith with these people.

I sank into the plush couch and waited. And waited some more. I tried to quell my rising irritation by telling myself that I was merely imposing my wrong-headed Western notions of punctuality on an ancient and wise Eastern philosophy of time. This made me more irritated. So I switched to remembering that I wouldn’t think twice about being kept waiting at Kaiser, and checked my iPhone for the latest polling data.

About 20 minutes after the appointed time, Michael appeared, gray-haired and ordinary, with a firm handshake. After ushering me into his office, he remarked on my professed agnosticism by citing Martin Buber. Then he referenced research debunking the universal efficacy of positive psychology. Michael may have been late, but clearly he had done his homework. He then gave me two hours of careful attention, devising a protocol he thought would pass muster with my skeptical oncologist. Michael talked a lot about exercise and food (with no move to deprive me of baked goods); acupuncture and L-Glutamine to minimize anxiety and neuropathy; reading fiction to thwart chemo brain; and paying less attention to tracking polls to thwart brooding. He also suggested herbs, vitamins, and supplements to promote circulation, metabolize the toxic effects of chemo, and build immunity.

I wasn’t exactly hooked, but I definitely felt better about going the integrative route. What could happen, besides dropping a bundle of money, or possibly sprouting a third eye (not the Taoist kind)? While comparison shopping online for the best deals for all my magic potions, I encountered one testimonial after another about enhanced performance, superhuman energy, and muscle repair. Had I stumbled into the antechamber of Lance Armstrong’s doping ring?

Finally, my cache assembled, I sat down to a nasty mix of powdered beverages and capsules. The mysterious Ten Flavor Tea Pills looked like chocolate-covered dragees, so they were easy to swallow, but everything else made me gag. Would I shrink or expand like Alice, going down the Chinese medicine rabbit hole? I choked it all down and waited: for my stomach to settle, my third eye to sprout, and my treatment against cancer to go as smoothly as possible.

 

 

 

Fallen Arch

Tennessee Valley 9.22.12

When the arch in the great rock wall at Tennessee Valley collapsed a year ago today, I was surprisingly upset. I counted on that high-up window into the skies. It seemed like the Eye of God, some portal connecting us mundane earthlings who frolicked at the water’s edge with the vast embrace of the unending universe. Who would watch out for us now?

I first learned about Tennessee Valley from my friend Peggie soon after I moved to California in 1977. “You must go,” she urged, giving detailed directions for an easy day’s outing, just as she had opened up other California treasures to this East Coast transplant. Peggie, 30 years my senior, was a surrogate mother until slow erosion by Alzheimer’s led to her death a few years ago. Another rock who collapsed.

Because Peggie wasn’t my real mother, I took her advice, and went to Tennessee Valley time and again. Back then my friends and I were hardy enough to clamber from the beach up the nearly vertical slope for a closer look at the arch. It seemed, like our youth, that it would last forever.

Youth faded, but Tennessee Valley and its arch and my visits persisted. My future husband first introduced me to his parents there. The miles of hilly trails above the valley afforded good workouts with great views. Later, we’d coax our children down the valley floor’s wide, flat path through banks of lupine and sticky monkey flower to the beach with minimal whining. It was always a great outing no matter the weather and time of year, no matter the age and hiking ability of our companions. I could always count on Tennessee Valley.

So that’s where I returned when the bottom fell out. In September 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. Just days before surgery for a complete hysterectomy, I walked alone down to the beach, touching the salty water with my fingertips for good luck. Wave tag at Tennessee ValleyA father and his two young children played tag with the incoming waves, screeching with delight just as Jonathan and our girls had done twenty years earlier. I looked up at the arch; sunlight streamed through the hole in the rock in what I imagined as a focused beam of healing energy. Tiny, mutable humans on the beach juxtaposed against the impervious and timeless majesty of nature calmed my rising tide of anxiety.

A friend had sent me a CD of Marty Rossman’s guided imagery for undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—the holy trinity of my cancer treatment. With each phase, Rossman’s soothing voice intoned, “Imagine that you go inside to a very special place, a very beautiful place where you feel comfortable, relaxed, yet very aware . . . A place that feels safe and healing.”

Tennessee Valley was the place I chose. Every night as worry bloomed, I would put on my headphones and travel through the velvety green valley to the beach, where families frolicked under the watchful Eye of God in the solid rock. At Rossman’s invitation, I noted the sounds, the fragrances, the quality of the air, the time of day and year, the temperature. Always, I found peace, the ground firm beneath me again in my upended world.

My safe place was not supposed to come crashing down with a great rumble, tumbling into the sea at the end of 2012. But it had, just as my dependable life fell away when I was diagnosed. What could I get back now that it was forever changed?

I visited the scene of the devastation soon after the arch fell, bracing myself as I passed the lagoon at the end of the valley before descending to Tennessee Beach. The remote pinhole high up in the rock had transformed into a vast saddle of sky. It was more intimate, more inviting than before, almost a place of respite. The rock face, so recently altered, looked like it had been this way and would continue forever.

Tennessee Valley 1.25.13

Changed but enduring. Like me.

 

 

Extreme Makeover

Make-up

In September 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. Treatment was successful, and I am happy to report that I am cancer-free and doing well. I wrote for a private circle of friends and family about my experiences at the time, and am now sharing some of my musings here.

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Last week I went to Look Good, Feel Better, the American Cancer Society’s class on hair and make-up tips. The first part was all right, because I learned you could buy fake hair fringes to Velcro into your hats when you don’t want to bother with putting on your wig. Since I had been contemplating rigging up something similar using duct tape with my own hair after I start to molt, this seemed like it could save me a lot of trouble.

But then the real trouble started when we moved onto make-up. It’s not that I’m opposed to artifice, but most of the time I can’t be bothered. I made an exception for my wedding day, entrusting my face as well as my locks to my hairdresser. When I emerged, Jonathan looked at me in horror. I looked like a prostitute who’d seen better days. After scrubbing my face, I beseeched my 16-year-old niece Debbie to work some magic with her compact, and all was well.

Since then, I’ve stayed away from the professionals. Except when my daughters shame me into buying them tubes of mascara that cost more than a nice dinner out, I stick to the stuff from drugstores, and I make it last. I even have some of my mother’s drugstore eye shadow, and she’s been dead for 18 years.

So when the Cancer Society cosmetologist started talking, my heart sank even before she got to the cancer part. Who knew that even basic moisturizer needed to be applied using only an upward-sweeping motion? All these years I’ve been giving gravity an unnecessary assist.

Everyone at the class got little tote bags filled with donated product. It was just like leaving the counter at Nordstrom, if Nordstrom rebranded itself using cheap red nylon and a new “Look Good, Feel Better” logo. By this point I was hoping for maybe some donated pharmaceuticals, but alas, there was no Xanax in the bag. Only a million little pots and tubes. My tote didn’t seem to have any of the stuff the cosmetologist was talking about, but maybe that’s because even basic identification is beyond me.

Before we got to watch her apply make-up to a real, live cancer patient, however, we learned about proper sanitation techniques. Like sterilizing all your manicure equipment in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. This was easy, since I spend even less time on my nails than on my hair and make-up (although manicuring through nail biting is especially frowned upon for those with compromised immune systems). The cosmetologist then described washing down your countertops with hydrogen peroxide and laying in a supply of tiny disposable spatulas so that your fingers don’t spread bacteria as you dip into your various lotions and anti-age potions. Finally, she concluded the Germphobia FunFest with a surefire way to tell if your powdered make-up is contaminated. It involves a fine mist of witch hazel oil and blotting. But cancer or not, you’re apparently supposed to discard all make-up after 3-12 months. So I didn’t need any witch hazel oil to tell me I’d better find something besides that soft shade of green to sustain my sentimental attachment to my mother.

And I thought I’d been doing well to keep a separate Chapstick from my husband’s!

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Postscript: I decided to ignore the cosmetologist’s advice on make-up hygiene. Nothing bad happened, and I still have my mother’s heirloom eye shadow:

Mom's eye shadow

Line a Day for Five Years

One Line a Day, Five-Year Memory Book

Of the many kindnesses bestowed on me during my cancer detour last year, one stands out. My friend Mary, also a therapist who aspires to write, brought me a small aqua book with “ONE LINE A DAY” embossed in gold letters on the cover.

“This way you won’t be overwhelmed by the blank page,” Mary said.

We had often commiserated over our tortured relationship with writing: our avoidance of it, the ways in which life intervenes, how hard it is to find just the right groove between feelings so raw they burn a hole through the page and one’s psyche versus feelings so repressed our attempts to capture them in words are devoid of life. We shared feelings of fraudulence, futility, fatigue. We knew the misery and mercy of dinner to be shopped for and prepared, the wish to turn off the computer and drown ourselves in West Wing reruns. We knew how to rally one another, to persevere with a slim thread of belief in our own gifts and dreams because the other believed so whole-heartedly in them.

“Just one line a day,” Mary continued. “Anyone can do that.”

But what jumped out at me was the volume’s subtitle: “A FIVE-YEAR MEMORY BOOK.”

Five years! If Mary believed I had this kind of time ahead of me, I could begin to retrieve myself from the choking fear that cancer evokes of being dead and buried.

Since then I’ve written every evening in my aqua book. Mostly just mundane stuff—how my neuropathy rated on a scale of 1-5; Obama’s poll numbers; the little things I’d accomplished (or not) that day. There really wasn’t enough space to go any further than that. But restriction brings freedom, as my yoga teacher always reminds us when she urges us to open up a little more space by breathing through a constricted pose. The same is true of writing—being confined to a line a day freed up space to write more than I’ve written in a long while. The foreshortened time cancer threatened also brought an urgency that freed my mind from neurotic clutter.

And so I have lived, a line a day, breathing in each new morning, writing it out each night. “Five Years” permitted me to envision a future I feared I might not have.

Last night I closed out Year One. Tonight I begin in the second spot on the page for October 29.

Year Two. And then more to come. What a gift.

 

Awaiting Hurricane Chemo

Hurricane looming

 

Last year at this time, as Hurricane Sandy was barreling down on the East Coast, I was preparing for my own storm–chemotherapy for a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer (I’m fine now, unlike a lot of people whose lives were devastated by Sandy.) Here’s what I wrote a year ago, complete with topical references to the news and the upcoming presidential election:

 

I know my own storm is looming, and the warnings are dire—fatigue, nausea, hair loss, risk of infection and permanent neuropathy. But I don’t yet feel it in my gut. I’ve been hiking and working, grocery shopping, trying new recipes with complex ingredients, phone banking, seeing comedy. Surely the warnings don’t apply to me in my bubble of near-normal on such a beautiful day. How can the storm hit when the skies are so blue? People must be exaggerating; I’ll be able to ride it out more or less intact. I don’t want to evacuate my current life. The Mayor of Atlantic City is most welcome to tell me it’s safe to stay put.

But instead here comes Chris Christie shouting at me to stop being an idiot: “Don’t be stupid, take it seriously, quit working, eat organic, give up refined sugar and flour!” (Actually, I’d be really surprised if Chris Christie chided me about my diet.) Why can’t he let me linger with my illusions?

It’s not like I’m completely unprepared. I’ve been half-heartedly stockpiling guided imagery CDs, cancer-fighting recipes, baldness disguises. But I feel like Mitt Romney with his canned goods as I collect my little bottles of hand sanitizer in a hapless gesture against the onslaught.

Will I be flattened? Will the storm pass through me with only minor damage and disruptions? Like East Coasters preparing their kids for blackouts by saying how fun it will be–“Just like camping!”— I’m telling myself that sitting in Kaiser’s 5th floor infusion center for hours will be just like giving blood, such a good chance to catch up on my reading! But even camping and no-school days and New Yorkers get old fast. Besides, what if the damage is extensive? Will it take me months, even years, to dig out? Will I be one of the fatalities, if not in the literal sense, with a life so changed it will feel like I’ve lost everything? Will my inner and outer resources hold, especially once the initial crisis has turned into one long tiresome trudge? What if I can’t rebuild?

The storm is coming, but I don’t want to think about it just yet. Standing here now, before it hits, I can’t believe I’ll lose the sun, the warmth, this lovely day, even for a moment.

 

Head Trip

wig heads

In September 2012, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. Treatment was successful, and I am happy to report that I am cancer-free and doing well. I wrote for a private circle of friends and family about my experiences at the time, and am now sharing some of my musings here. 

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My husband and I spent the first night of our honeymoon 27 years ago in a beautiful bed and breakfast overlooking Napa Valley. It was high on a hill, had a fabulous hot tub, and served scrumptious banana bread for breakfast. The owners, however, made us very nervous—their bookshelves were filled with far-right Christian literature and books favorable to the Third Reich. When we opened the closet in our room, a Styrofoam lady’s head jabbed with a hat pin fell out.

I thought of that head when I went to check out the free wig program at the American Cancer Society. The office was abrim with white Styrofoam heads, all with blank eyes and wigs that looked like wigs. Another layer of pretending to have the same life I’ve always had fell away as I surveyed my options. Exactly one wig matched my hair color, even sort of resembling its texture and style.

Everything I’ve read since googling “Chemo hair loss” has advised not to wait till my hair starts to fall out. One site was especially helpful in propelling me into action. It essentially said, “You will lose your hair. Don’t waste any time in denial, hoping you won’t.” Being proactive gives you a sense of control, not to mention an actual hair color and style to approximate. At least I hoped to match my current look—the photos of henna’d scalps or jaunty stories about women with cancer trying out fun new colors and styles left me cold, even with my still-full head of hair.

Before my Google search, my research had consisted of reading strong, sexy, savvy stories in More Magazine. Fortuitously, given my recent initiation into the cancer club, there was a personal essay by Jenny Allen called The Cat on My Head, about her headgear choices during chemo.

Allen’s tale was truly hair-raising. First, there were the prices–$5,000-$6,000 for a human hair wig, though she guiltily settled for one that cost only $900, made from the hair of exploited women from India. In Allen’s world, synthetic wigs didn’t even merit consideration. Although the wig looked great, Allen didn’t like it. Instead she proudly chose fabulous scarves after stashing her wig in the back of a dresser drawer.

This story depressed me more than my diagnosis, more than leaving the hospital after surgery with a catheter. Luckily, my friend who was a few months ahead of me in the chemo circuit told me that her wig cost $150, and that synthetic wigs are now considered preferable and easier to manage than those made from human hair.

So that’s how I ended up at the Cancer Society, where cheerful volunteers stood ready to hand out free wigs without so much as demanding a doctor’s note to verify that I did indeed have cancer rather than a Halloween party to attend!

The volunteer and I quickly agreed on the one wig that sort of matched my hair color and style. As a person who has always been hair-illiterate—I sleep on it wet and barely know how to use a blow dryer—I didn’t even realize I had a style. But I quickly saw that even a bad hair day on a person who favors $20 cuts from non-English-speakers is more stylish than what awaited me. I stuffed my real hair into what looked like a very short stocking, joking that I could use the hairnet for bank robberies, too.

“Everyone says that,” remarked the Cancer Society volunteer.

Great. I am not just losing my reproductive organs and my hair, but apparently all claims to cleverness and originality.

My wig, despite More Magazine’s clever title, did not look like a cat on my head. It looked like a rabid squirrel pelt, if the squirrel happened to be dirty blonde going gray right before meeting its demise. The wig sat awkwardly and hung limply. Worse, I realized that I would soon have bangs, because that’s what hides the mesh nylon edges. I don’t want bangs—it reminds me of a childhood under my mother’s sewing shears as she tried to turn me into Julie Andrews. I don’t want cancer, either. But I don’t have a choice. I guess I’ll give this pelt a try.

The volunteer gave me a wire stand instead of one of the Styrofoam heads. She must have heard about my honeymoon.

*

After a visit to a stylist and lots of practice, I became quite fond of my wig. As one friend put it, “It just looks like you finally learned to use a blow dryer.” Here I am in my wig,  three months after completing chemo: 

wig

And here I am back in my own hair now, a mass of grey curls:

post chemo hair