Cancer Sucks.

March 23, 2011

It goes without saying, but I feel like saying it anyway.

In December I lost someone important to me to lung cancer (she didn’t smoke).

Last Sunday I found out my Dad has either multiple myeloma or bone metastases (origin unknown) with a dozen lesions on his spine and pelvis.

People in my family live forever. My grandmother on my mom’s side, Rosalia Gagliano, who never really learned English and always sent birthday cards in Italian (buon compleanno, bella!), lived to be 107.

My grandfather on my father’s side, was a hard-drinkin’, goateed Democrat (the opposite of my Dad) and lived to be almost 90.

So my Dad, 74, thought he had another 10 years, or so.

“That’s just not in the cards,” he said matter-of-factly on the phone this last Sunday. My Dad’s a pretty pragmatic guy.

The only thing that worries him right now is that any of us might be upset. So, the goal is to be there for my Dad in the way he wants me to be there for him.

Like he was there for me.

One of my most prized memories: It was a sweltering July morning. I had just gotten home from the hospital after my double mastectomy and was in the bathroom cleaning my drains–one of which seemed to be held in place by barbed wire. Of all the people in my house that day, I asked my Dad to come help, because being a pragmatic guy, he could handle it.

While the Dixie Chicks played on the radio, he tenderly cleaned my drains with peroxide and tucked gauze under the barbed wire then taped it in place. Comforted, I walked around the house with my concave chest, watering the plants and opening mail.

“I cannot believe how she has bounced back from this surgery,” I would hear my Dad say. “It’s only been three days. I’ve never seen anyone recover like this.” It made me feel strong and resilient and maybe even a little powerful. I don’t know if he’ll ever know it, but it was incredibly motivating and healing.

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad is very private and very self-sufficient.  I need to strike just the right balance between being there and not being there. I have a feeling it might be a little tricky. My prayer is that I’ll instinctively know the right thing to do, just like he did.

I love you papa.

It Can Happen to You

February 8, 2011

My dog Sophie sat under the kitchen table for years, with great, unflagging optimism. I would marvel at her evergreen hopefulness, as she would lie belly-down on the hardwood floor, looking up with patient brown eyes at the underside of the table on which that night’s dinner lay. Years of evidence to the contrary, she would wait perfectly still for that magical moment when the pork chops would levitate from the table, hang in the air for a few seconds, then drop to the floor with a juicy thud. Sophie’s eyes said it all: “It could happen.”

Then one day, it did happen.

My mom had come to San Francisco and wanted to go shopping at Union Square. She put a pot roast in the oven, turned the heat to low, and said it would be fine for a couple hours. Long story short, we spent more time than planned downtown. When we got back to my flat on Cesar Chavez street, I ran up the stairs to try on my new shoes while Mom ran up to check on her pot roast, which by now had been roasting for six hours.

“I think it’ll be ok,” she said, placing her smoking, ruined dinner on the table. Sophie took her position underneath and waited.

As Mom muscled through the hard crust of what now looked like a hockey puck, the entire “roast” flew off the serving platter. Sophie sprang. In what seemed like a slow motion slam dunk, she caught the “roast” in her jaws before it even hit the floor.

Victory comes to dogs who wait. Not often, but it is a possibility.

Which, finally, leads me to a point. And that point is that you can go through a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and reconstruction and still find love. I know because it happened to me.

I had a very supportive boyfriend through it all. He waited for two years for the glorious outcome of my reconstruction. But unlike Sophie’s prize pot roast, the outcome wasn’t so good, so he split. “What a dog,” my friends exclaimed. Not so. I got a lot out of that relationship, and it slowly and painfully led me to my current one.

I won’t detail all the bad dates that came between the two. That’s for another post. What I will detail is that during that time I waited with great hope and optimism for that one man who would see beyond my physical and emotional scars and see something else. Fear, sometimes. Resilience, maybe. Unflagging optimism, for sure.

That relentless optimism and a wholesome faith in my God, led me to my man. A list of adjectives cannot begin to describe his goodness, but I can’t resist: Bighearted, honest, compassionate, generous, patient, understanding, forgiving, funny, uncomplicated, complicated, deep, basic, true. We got engaged in Kauai on January 12. He just wags my tail.

For all you girls out there wondering how you’re gonna find love after cancer, remember this: It does happen. And it can happen to you.

The Neutral Zone

December 29, 2010

A funny story: When I got the result of my biopsy (positive for invasive lobular carcinoma), I called my friend Rebecca (not her real name) in Paris because she wanted to know the result. Rebecca and I were as close as friends can get. In the decade since we’d met, we had told each other big secrets. We had seen each other through divorce and heartbreakingly bad relationships. We had endured (or were enduring) our kids’ teen years. We were so close, in fact, that we could tell each other the real truth instead of  the “girl truth,” which is truth that isn’t really true; but merely supportive.

A year and a half later, I’d had my surgery, chemo and radiation. I also was working full time as a single mom with two teenagers. I was, to put it mildly, distracted.

One holiday weekend, I’d made plans to go biking with Rebecca. On the planned Sunday, I sat at my kitchen table, gazing out the window at my dying California pepper tree and wondering how I was going to cut it down. The phone rang. I sipped on my grande non-fat latte, planning my route up the pepper tree, mentally marking the sequence of cuts. I ignored the phone.

The next day at work, I looked at my Outlook calendar. “Bike Ride with Rebecca,” was the text I’d put in the Sunday box. My heart sank to my socks. Shit! I had forgotten about the bike ride!  I called Rebecca. She was pissed, as expected. I apologized profusely. She wasn’t appeased.

I went to work and sent an email. Again, apologizing profusely. My memory, since chemo, has become a plastic knife in a drawer full of Henkels precision blades. If it is not in writing, it does not happen. If it is in writing, it might happen.

Rebecca wasn’t buying my apology, and she told me so. Then she sent me an email that provided further explaination. She wrote that it was clear that I didn’t have my priorities straight. I was stunned.

My ex was friends with Rebecca. After several months of silence between me and Rebecca, he and she ran into each other at a trade show. Whe the topic of me came up, she expressed her disappointment in my skewed sense of what was essential and what was not essential in life. She said she had been there for me totally and was disappointed in my lack of appreciation. She compared me to her friend, Alice, who had done cancer so gracefully, effortlessly. Alice, apparently, did not forget her appointments.

I guess it’s not really a funny story. As I sit here writing, I still feel the sting of those words and am filled with bitterness, defensiveness, incredulity, unforgiveness.

The main point of this story: There is no way to adequately explain to someone who has not been through cancer how tired, forgetful and distracted you were and still may be.

This holiday, I had a similar experience. I had forgotten something important, and the repercussions were intense. The fallout has filled me with rage.

I called my best friend Sharon in Tallahassee. “How are you?” She asked. I told her the truth: “I am a venomous bag of hatred.” I told her about going to church (for the second time this year) and crying at the music’s lyrics about forgiveness. I’d been praying to be forgiving, but all I could feel was misunderstood and royally pissed off.

Her advice: Stop trying to forgive. It doesn’t come from you anyway. Just live in neutral for a while. Stop thinking about how mad you are. How right you are. How wronged you were. Just put it on a shelf for a while.

So that’s what I am going to do. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Unless I forget.

Obon for Mrs. Edwards

December 8, 2010


I’m sitting here in my cubicle, watching the cars drive by; watching our IT manager brave the rain in a noble attempt to get some winter exercise.

 And I marvel at the ordinariness of their driving and walking. I wonder how, knowing that Elizabeth Edwards died from breast cancer yesterday and that millions of women will die from the same disease, they can drive and walk with what seems like naive oblivion.

 I wondered the same thing, when as a mom who had just returned to full-time work two months prior, I listened to my radiologist gently tell me on the phone at work that my ultrasound/biopsy revealed the fact that I had 10 lumps in my right breast. “Infiltrating lobular cancer,” she said. Not, “Infiltrating lobular carcinoma.”  I listened as I stood in the corner of the stairwell by the elevator. I listened as I watched someone drop a pat of butter on the carpeted floor as they walked back to their cubicle with their lunch. I listened as I watched the receptionist answer the phone and route calls. I listened as I heard my own terrified voice ask Dr. Borofsky questions.

 When I walked back to my desk, I wondered how everyone else could go on with their lives with this devastating news hanging in the air.

 Two months later, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy, followed by chemo and radiation.

 It is now almost five years since my surgery.

 What I’ve discovered in that time is that there are people feeling with the same depth of concern, compassion and sadness that I am feeling. The world may look normal, even oblivious, but there is a community of women who have experienced what I have experienced; who know what it feels like to have had and to live with cancer; who understand that terror management and practicality and faith is what keeps us looking normal while we learn a new job in a swingy brunette wig with a chest as flat as a prairie under our prosthetic breasts; who understand that every new milestone of our children’s lives (the braces coming off, the first day of college) fills us with inexplicable joy and gratitude.

As I drove in the rain to work today, I listened to the radio with a heavy heart as Elizabeth Edwards’ voice filled my 2000 Toyota Sienna. It was an interview in which she talked about the lasting impression of seeing an Obon ritual in Japan, where little boats with lighted candles in them float down a river, symbolizing the souls of the dead finding their way to “the other side of the river.” It was a stunningly beautiful image. Tears welled in my eyes. And no one in the cars around me noticed. I wiped my eyes and smiled. Because I knew there were people on I-280 south who were listening to the same radio interview, who had a mother or a sister or a daughter or a wife who had had breast cancer. Who themselves had or have breast cancer. And I knew, as they drove looking straight ahead, that they were feeling what I was feeling.

Mothers and Daughters (and oil and water, and Israel and Palestine…)

July 25, 2010

One day while driving home from work, I called my friend Kyle in tears.

“My daughter hates me.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” she said, “I have two daughters. Double the hate. In fact, I made [honey] kosher chicken noodle soup last weekend and she gave me shit about it.”


“We’re Jewish, but [honey] is orthodox. She only eats kosher. And she has to have her kosher food made in separate pots and pans and served on separate dinnerware. I make [honey] kosher chicken noodle soup every Friday night to make sure she’ll have something kosher to eat for the weekend.”

“Wow. That’s really nice of you.”

“Except for the fact that I was chopping the carrots and celery with my bare hands, which made [honey] wretch and gag and proclaim me disgusting.”

“You asshole!”

“I know! I feel horrible!”

A couple of days later, I was telling my boyfriend about an incident with my daughter. “You know,” I said, “this sounds like hyperbole, but going through cancer was easier than living with a teenage girl who absolutely hates me. No matter what I do, it’s wrong. And not only is it wrong,  I am wrong. Everything about me is disgusting, including my voice, my appearance, my beliefs, my approach to life, my relationships, my job, everthing. When I was in treatment, I may have been scared to death and tired, but my own sense of self-worth actually increased.”

“When you had cancer, you probably thought, there’s an end to this,” he said. “With daughters, it can feel interminable. You lose them for about four years, and it’s an agonizing four years.”

I don’t know when this tumultous mother/daughter relationship will resolve itself, and sometimes in the moment it feels impossible to repair. But the one thing I do know is that all I have is this day, this moment in time when I have the absolute luxury and honor of angsting about my relationship with my daughter instead of worrying about my post-op drain. Or my sore post-chemo arm. Or my post-radiation narcolepsy. But this morning as I sit at my kitchen table wearing embarrassingly old pajamas with unhighlighted hair and unmanicured nails, drinking coffee out of the mug my daughter gave me “just because” when she was nine, I am beyond grateful.

photo: feet belong to another, hipper, mom and her daughter…