Friday, September 23, 2016

Rising Up To The Challenge of Elvira

We would meet in the parking lot of Wheaton Woods pool and decorate our cars with black and orange streamers. The chill of the early morning air was nothing compared to the wall of water we would soon be launching in to as we strived to sweep the field with blue ribbons. Someone would be playing our team song on the single front speaker of their 1970’s station wagon loud enough for the entire parking lot to hear. The Eye of the Tiger. Survivor’s finest song. For years that tune started the adrenaline that would carry me toward victory, which manifest as a ribbon in hand at McDonalds on any given Saturday during the summers of my childhood. What I took for granted was the fact that Dave Bickler wasn’t singing about Elvira, the Queen of Darkness, at any point in his illustrious career. Instead, he was singing about ‘our rivals’. I suppose it made a lot more sense for him to be singing in generalities rather than specifically focusing in on a single figurehead of Halloween, but for years and years, I conjured her image while I waited for the gunshot on the blocks. ‘Rising up to the challenge of Elvira’ rather than ‘Rising up to the challenge of our rivals’ shaped my entire perception of sport and competition during the most formative years of my life. I was going to beat that scantily clad mistress of the dark no matter what!
I’m pretty sure that I have some undiagnosed learning disability that allows me to find and replace rational thought with an Elvira narrative. I think it lives in the same part of my brain that can’t spell, or formulate sentences into grammatically correct arrangements. I am an enemy to those who are sticklers for proper grammar. They think I’m ignorant, and aloof to the strict written rules of the English language. And in todays world, where 93% of communication happens through fingers on a device, coming across as an educated scientist is a real struggle when you read over your/you’re typo’s a few times before hitting send, only to realize afterward that you racked up a bunch of incoherent sentences to someone you have no relationship with.  ß See that? It’s a sentence ending in a proposition, ENDING IN A PROPOSITION! Ok, It’s a preposition, but I only just realized that after furiously typing the previous sentence.  I can come up with a hypothesis to explain results fresh off the columns, but man, do I find the English language vexing.
In the end, I think I get my point across just fine. I am pretty sure that no one questions what it is that I actually mean. I hope like hell that people can see through the many oops’ of my writings to see my intentions, what motivates me, what I’d give my life for, how deeply I love, how intensely I want to help everyone who has been handed anything but flowers in this world.

I guess I can do all of those things with my heart and still have room to fight Elvira. Write?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Urban farming as a recovering scientist

We took a trip to the garden center around the corner from our new house and picked out a variety of seeds. I wasn’t entirely sure what we were going to do with them, but there was a garden store, and they had seeds, and the seeds were really cheap and small, and seemingly innocent. The girls wanted pumpkins and watermelons, while I opted for the much more sophisticated beef steak tomatoes. I bought those tiny little seeds half-heartedly, with the idea that we could learn about the germination process, but not much more. There’s no way that this suburban girl could have foreseen the series of events that have since taken place between that moment and me interrupting my home grown vegetable dinner tonight in order to lock up the chickens and ducks for the evening.

I had been at the bench for 15 years, and was accustomed to days that didn’t include a lot of sunlight. I had one of the most coveted benches in my graduate lab. It was next to a window that faced a wall. But, you could tell whether it was day or night by the shadows cast from outside facing windows down the hall. In the height of summer, the soft yellow glow of the sun filtered in enough to overcome the single tone fluorescent glare that filled the medical school. And those summer nights? Not so much, unless crunching data with the windows open constitutes a good time in your many books. Being a scientist is time intensive. Being a mom is more so. Being both is fabulous if you don’t need much sleep and have no hobbies at all. Not even a favorite TV show. Not even one you don’t really like.

But then cancer happened, and time went insane. It became a monster. It scared the crap out of me. It threatened to leave me, while carrying everything I loved far away. I tried to fill every second of it to lock it in place. And man did I succeed. I kept time so busy that there wasn’t even a fraction of a second for it to remind me of all the horrible possibilities that it had in store. Science and advocacy by day, advocacy and motherhood by night, science into the wee hours, and a clonapin to keep me from waking up from dead dreams. For months, then years. And then I stopped.

When I left the bench, I walked in to a life that didn’t require my hands on a pipette in a cold room at night. I haven’t even seen a timer in years. I spend my Saturday mornings with my family. I make breakfast for my girls. I go to seed stores and buy random things.

About a week after our germination party, we planted the shoots in dozens of little peat moss square strips and set them up in the big southeast facing bay window that seems to catch sunlight from dawn to dusk. And when they sprouted? We were hooked. All of us. The plants followed the sun like little green worshippers, each leaf  trying to reach above and beyond the others toward those rays of light. It was life like we’d never seen it before. My girls monitored the rapid growth of their favorite plants for months as we waited for the farmers almanacs much anticipated last day for frost.

We planted each little experiment into the freshly tilled earth on Mothers day and went to sleep hoping that we’d wake to upright plants thriving in the back yard garden. The next morning, we moved our sore bodies to the window to sneak a peek, and sure enough, there they were, bending with the gentle breeze as they reached for the sun.

The only thing missing was fresh manure, so Ted and I went to the seed store and bought 4 ten day old chicks. We went back a few weeks later and bought 2 baby ducks. And then we built a huge coup under the deck. And started looking at baby goats all as we harvested the world’s best tomatoes that were pulled from plants growing next to Charly and Maddy’s pumpkins.

My babies nurtured every plant, they looked into the flowers to see for themselves how pollination works. They pulled carrots and beets with anticipation and examined the shapes and sizes of each with a mixture of accomplishment and wonder. They plucked snap peas in the morning for their snacks, and cut broccoli in the afternoon for their dinner. They placed their harvests in a fuzzy pink bunny basket, and walked the garden like pro’s, picking only what was ripe, and only what we needed for that day.

All of life’s lessons unfolded for my babies in that garden. The cycle of life, the importance of death, responsibility, nourishment, sharing, hard work, diligence, patience, opportunism, accomplishment, and how to clean dirty little finger nails were readily available for the picking in my back yard.

I went to the seed store because I wasn’t on a timer. I go back all the time because I’m letting life unfold instead of forcing myself into every second of it.  My girls are learning how to cook and bake with food they made from a packet instead of a package. I love it all, the lessons, the very green life, the memories and especially the zucchini bread. Life has never tasted so sweet. Next up? A hydroponics system in the basement for the long winter months. If you need me, I’ll be surfing amazon looking for grow lights.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Even the stairwells are haunted in Cancerville

There’s a suite of offices at Dana-Farber that has a couple of admins, some filing cabinets and a coffee maker. I walk briskly past it every Friday on my way from one meeting to another as though I am trying to discretely run from a ghost. Once upon a time, that was a clinical floor, and I was a patient getting blood work in the post-diagnosis haze of Cancerville. Now I find myself trying hard not to see the color of the walls the way my mind recalls them from my days in the chair. I’m in that place that lies between patient/advocate/scientist. You know, where you are grooming over patient data in a Johnny waiting for a scan, and then looking at a genomic analysis after you get your results?

Over the past 6 years, I’ve been imaged on every machine in the Partners system, some multiple times. After each scan, I find a new place to sit and wait in mortal fear of what will be delivered on the other end of my cricket ring tone. As a result, I’ve infected every inch of that massive complex with my very rational fears.  

But that’s just me, and I can handle myself.

What I truly struggle with are the ever-present faces of my friends who I saw in earnest for the last time in that cafeteria, or in that waiting room, or in radiology, or on a bed in Brigham’s. In only one instance did I know for sure that I was walking away from a friend forever. I ducked into a stairwell and wept silently. My tears were met with the most heart wrenching sound that haunts me to this day. It could only have come from a person at the instant they found out that their loved one died. We can’t make that sound, it has to be ripped from us.

So if you see me walking down the hall a little fast, or eating my lunch facing the wall, or reluctant to stand on one particular side walk, it’s ok, really. In the words of Bobby D. ‘It’s life and life only’

Friday, May 6, 2016

Waiting for the prick

It’s been 5 days since my CT scan and I’m still enjoying the pleasantries that linger after ingesting bottles worth of contrast dye. I have this weird Pavlovian relationship with the metallic taste in my mouth, and the other effects that are better left undescribed. Unlike so many people who know their bodies well, I feel like me and my body are frenemies. Clearly we are co-dependent, but for reasons that remain a mystery to me, parts of my body take it upon themselves to convince me that there are tumors constantly popping up. 

My body has gotten so good at fooling me, that in the past, I’ve actually seen things that weren’t there. I would take pictures and send them to my oncologist(s), and they’d tell me that everything looked fine. My husband would stand next to me while I pointed at what was clearly raised bruised areas around my mastectomy site, and he’d claim that he didn’t see what was so clearly wrong to me. I chalked it up to low-resolution images and bad lighting.

Angiosarcoma can come back as a subtle persistent bruise, or yellow discoloration of the skin, or a painless mass far away from any nerve endings, or painful lesions in bones, or symptomless tumors in the brain, or inexplicable pain radiating throughout your body.

The chances of recurrence are so high, that when I asked one of my first oncologists if he knew any long term survivors from this disease, he looked at me and stumbled through an explanation of why I needed to think of myself as an n=1 case, and to not compare myself with the statistics. He never did say whether he’d had a patient live into old age, so I’m guessing that the answer was no.

And so the stage has been set for me to become addicted, in some twisted sadistic way, for the prick of the needles that kick off scan day. The blood draws, the contrast injection, that sweet little butterfly that gets taped to my arm, or wrist depending on how hydrated I am. I rely so heavily on this process to either reset or end my sanity.

Unlike some common cancers, there are many times that we, the rare and mysterious, go from scan to scan waiting to see if an anomaly grows before ruling out metastatic growth. I have had numerous scans or MRI’s where a vascular lesion has popped up, usually too small to biopsy, so the only course forward is to wait. Wait for the next prick that will trigger a host of emotions that span the depths of despair, to a timeless sense of gratitude, and everything in between. They call it NED, but it isn’t really, it’s more like No Evidence of SH!T we can Interpret, so I’m going to start calling it NESI.
My oncologist called my a couple hours after my scan on Monday, because he’s a good man, and he understands that I will be frozen in a 2 dimensional pane of glass, so delicate that even a high pitched voice could shatter me until I hear the results.  He asked how I was, and I could tell by his tone, that I was GOOD. After asking him how I should answer, he said, “great, you are great”.  NESI once again.

How bittersweet it is and always will be, no matter how short or long I get to hear those words.  And so it is that I find myself with new resolve to figure as much out as possible while keeping as tight a grip as possible on my mortal coil.  Here’s to the reset, and to the inevitable ramp up until the next prick.

Friday, April 22, 2016

They call me the bag lady

We had just finished digging out the moat for our drizzle castle when she walked by. Bent over, scouring the strand line with a plastic bag in hand, a woman hunched over made her way toward us. I assumed she was collecting shells. My thoughts immediately returned to our castle, and I dipped my hand into the salt water and sand mortar that the girls drug up from the sea to make my first spire.

As the liquid sand slipped down through my fingers, the woman came closer, and muttered something underneath her breath about how we need to save the ocean. The girls looked up at me for clues in order to determine how they should react.

“Are you picking up the trash on the shore line?” I asked. She looked at me, still bent over and said something that resonated so strongly that the look on my face alone was enough to prompt my girls to pop up out of their sandy fun in order to help Anna Lisa save the sea.

“People ask me all the time why I do this, and I look at them and say, because you won’t”.

We didn’t talk much, but rather quietly picked up trash along side her for close to an hour. We listened to her musings about how happy she was to have the girls with her. She taught them all about the history of this stretch of coast, and how what used to turn up sea shells now turned up plastic, and cigarette butts, and sometimes even tooth brushes from the cruise ships that harbored not too far off in the distance.

She talked about the lessons that she had learned over the 60 years that she had been combing this same mile of sand in order to help even one creature in the sea. It was her paradise, and the thought that a ponytail holder could slowly kill a creature that was only trying to grow, was unconscionable to her.

So every day, she would begin her walk in search of  a plastic bag that someone had tossed away from their lives with no concern at all for where it ended up, and she’d begin her 4 hour trek, bent over, looking for the detritus of human life.

The girls felt the immediate reward of helping her. They basked in her praises, not about them, but rather about the good that they were doing. She told them which animals they were helping when they picked up the tiny pieces of plastic, and which ones they saved when they hoisted bigger pieces of debris that would have made it back out to sea if not for their intervention.

When you have a child, you can tell that they’re smiling even if they are facing away from you. There are always hints and clues to their happiness, and for that hour, I could see the raised profile of smiling cheeks that narrowly escaped the contour of their little blond heads as I followed behind picking up trash.

“They call me the bag lady, but I don’t care, I love this place too much”, Anna Lisa said as we neared the jetty where the majority of the trash was deposited by the four wheelers that scrape the surface of the sand for us tourists.

We were nearly finished, when she looked at the girls and said that she wanted them to come back to her cabana in order to pick out their favorite shells. Back before she cleaned the mouth of the ocean for all of us, she would collect the finest shells that the sea would offer up.

The girls were so excited, what a great souvenir for them. I think I was actually more excited than they were. I always tell them to help people, and to not expect anything in return, but to rather enjoy the act in and of itself. And they did. They did what other people wouldn’t do. They warmed the heart  of a stranger. They helped a fraction of a percent of creatures that they’ll never see, and they thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it.

When we walked into the cabana and saw 60 years worth of the most beautiful shells, and sponges, and coral, and sea fans that Anna Lisa had collected, they were amazed, and excited to pick out their favorites. Maddy held a 2-pound chunk of Coral all the way home, flight and all.

They both learned first hand, that the real reward was the act, in and of itself, of kindness toward a stranger. Now the memories of that day will sit on the windowsill as a reminder of the time they helped an old woman save the ocean.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Never Been Better

When I wrote the title for this blog, I was completely shattered. Reeling from the words of my oncologist who told me there'd be 'someone else' to raise my 2 and 4 year old children, trying desperately to erase the images of what angiosarcoma looked like in the literature, dizzy from the vertigo that set it after looking down that steep Kaplan-Meyer curve.

I wrote the title in earnest though. I had never been better. I had a great life. I didn't need be smacked in the face by mortality to suddenly realize that I had been taking things for granted. I lived in the moment, which I still to this day believe is the best measure of a life well lived.

I wrote this blog for my family and friends at first, to let them know where in details of a cancer life I was. I carried it on to let my children know how much I loved them. I wanted them to learn the lessons that I thought would take their entire childhoods to impart. It's more important to live well than to live long. Never live in fear.  Help everyone, all the time and don't expect anything in return. Be silly. Follow the golden rule. Be kind to yourself. Do something. Do everything. Never be bored.

It's been six years. And I know without a shadow of doubt that my kids have learned those lessons. Something as simple as an empathetic look when they see someone who needs help, makes me realize that they get it. All of it. All the important lessons that I was told 'someone else' would teach them, are inextricably woven into their world view.

Now, if only I could get my girls to turn off the TV and clean their rooms....

Sunday, February 28, 2016


The other night Charly was talking about adding a cartwheel to her beam routine. For those of you without 10 year old little girls in gymnastics, this is a pretty serious undertaking. She doesn’t have to add it, it’s not a required element, but she’s just on the cusp of nailing it every time, and wants to add it anyway. It’s a risk. An unnecessary risk. She asked what we thought, and without hesitation, Ted and I both said, take it! We said it for the same reason. It’s better to try and fail than to never have tried at all. We made sure that we were pushing her sense of spirit rather than her desire to score higher at a meet, and she got it. Completely.

Ted and I met at a drop zone in Northampton packing parachutes.  This was before I dropped out of civilized life to drift around the country in a ¾ ton Chevy conversion camper van for close to a year. I was never much for convention, so when my children, who live in a world far removed from my vagabond ways, take steps into parts of the world that are not a slam dunk guarantee, I smile from ear to ear. Even though I eventually grew up and committed myself wholeheartedly to science, I’m still a risk taker. And for that, I am grateful beyond measure, and will do my best to guide my children toward any path less traveled.

The past six years have been filled with uncertainly. And at the crux of each major decision was an element of risk. Had I taken the safest route at any juncture, I would likely still be toiling away as an 11th year grad student. When I reflect back on the many MANY people who have influenced me since I’ve been on this side of the great cancer divide, there is one person who provided me with such an impactful perspective change by uttering two words, that I think I have him to thank for jumping every time.  

Allan Jacobson, my graduate thesis chair, is a force of nature. Anyone who has met him has likely snorted with laughter and expanded their minds at the same time. Allan was one of the first people that I went to full of pride after our first year at cycle for survival. I went to him because we did it. We did what we never thought we could.  We raised the equivalent to an R01 when we set out to raise a 50K grant. There was going to be legitimate research squarely focused on Angiosarcoma, and in a world where there was once nothing, no hope, no recourse.

Allan looked at me and said, “Now What”.  I was too busy reveling to take a step back and ask that of myself. Now What? Allan said that as great as our accomplishments were, that we needed to focus more than ever on what was next. What a humbling experience to know that there would never be reason to be full of anything except the drive to do more.

I wasn’t going to accomplish “Now What” from my graduate bench. But man was it scary to defend my thesis. I left behind the shelter of an incredible graduate mentor, who provided a safe pace for my mind and my heart. I left behind kick ass insurance. I left behind the type of science that fueled me. It was a risk. A very necessary risk. And when I talked to Ted, it was clear to both of us that I had to take it.

I know, in the deepest recesses of who I am, that I will never attain my ultimate goal, even though I traded in my plastic spoon for a chisel. But I will take every chance that comes my way in order to come one step closer to, “That’s what”.