Math, English, and Cancer

During the summer of COVID-19, I commented on a riddle posted by a friend on Facebook. I answered correctly and reposted it as part of the deal. Things got crazy after that with the many answers I received. Psychology papers could be written on behaviors from analyzing the way people responded. I found these reactions more fascinating than the answers people gave.

Here’s the what I posted:

Why did I participate? I rarely partake in social media challenges and group activities that involve my committing to share with others. I try to stick with content that involves me directly or issues that are important to me. So, why this one? It was fun. I read the problem carefully and figured out the tricky parts and was pretty sure my answer was right. I like being right as much as the next person. It was also something to do that I hadn’t done before. I have found myself bored at times during the pandemic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I am not here to fault those who were incorrect. Notice I’m not sharing the answer as it’s not important. I am not going to respond to guesses left as replies. You can check Facebook if you need to know the answer. My focus is on human nature. I am not a psychologist. My only qualifications in offering my opinions are as someone who has observed a lot of people informally as we all have.

These opinions are mine:

Q: Why did some comment once, accept they were incorrect, and move on?

A: They thought about it and then forgot about it. They just weren’t into it. They had other interests.

Q: Why did some answer multiple times?

A: They were into it and couldn’t let it go until they knew the answer or died trying. Both resilience and insanity cover these folks. Naturally, anyone who both reads my blog and answered several times has categorized their behavior as determined and resilient.

Q: Why did some comment privately and not post their answer to be seen by others?

A: Privacy is a treasured commodity these days. Some people are more private and don’t like posting publicly.

Q: Why did some who were correct write their answer in the form of a question whereas so many who were wrong committed to their answer decisively?

A: Perhaps these folks were humble and modest. Perhaps they saw the long list of incorrect answers and felt a wave of insecurity. What struck me as curious was not one of the wrong answers had a question mark after it. It was only a few of the correct ones that answered using a question mark.

Q: Why did some bring in other people who critiqued the language of the question when their initial answer was incorrect?

A: Tone is hard to detect sometimes in writing, especially in texts or quickly written comments. I couldn’t tell for sure if one person was insulted or not that her response and reasoning were deemed incorrect. Her fellow supporter backed her up and I thought they were planning to take it to whatever higher court they could find. I discovered she was even having conversations about it on her own timeline. I hope this means that she is passionate about puzzles. She would have made a good lawyer. Maybe a detective.

My opinion is some people made the question far too hard and introduced variables that didn’t exist. There were no lions hunting that day. Everything happened in linear time and in the same general setting. But hey, it is 2020, and I suppose a parallel universe exists for riddles. One friend I taught with asked me when I was going to share the right answer. I wasn’t planning on it per how I interpreted the directions. Only those who got the right answer would know so they could have the honor of posting. I decided to go ahead and post it simply because I felt bad repeatedly telling a couple people they were wrong. A bolt of lightning wasn’t going to strike me for going against the rules. It wasn’t a big deal. One childhood friend commented afterward that there had been family debates and involvement from neighbors. I guess that means I’m not the only one who has experienced some periods of boredom with life as we know it these days.

Again, I find it all fascinating. Rarely have I posted anything with as much interest and interaction. Posts about cancer haven’t received the same attention and level of response. Honestly, that frustrates me because this riddle doesn’t matter one bit. Cancer sure matters but too many keep scrolling past those posts because they aren’t “fun” posts.

Math is concrete. Even if there are equations with imaginary numbers and unknowns, answers are still derived. I love math. I no longer have the quadratic formula memorized, but it was used regularly in younger days. As a teacher, I loved teaching that there were multiple ways to arrive at the same answer. We learn to do a long math problem methodically and break it down into parts. We go back and find our mistake if something doesn’t add up.

English and words can be up for more interpretation. There can be ambiguity. Some words have subtle differences. As readers, some of us are more apt to read something quickly and miss needed information. The thing is we often don’t know we missed something and we don’t go back and reread. I miss information. I missed information in a novel my book club read that was provided in the first chapter. Hence, I was sure this big event was going to happen in every chapter that the author let readers know was going to happen toward the end of the book. I didn’t catch it.

So, I wonder . . .  is cancer more like math or English?

There are some absolutes like with math. Math is used in formulating treatment drugs and prescribing the needed amount. Tumors are measured in terms of millimeters and centimeters. Statistics are applied to the probability of very early stage cancers not returning after treatment. Drugs for metastatic cancers come with an average number of months without disease progression. Studies and trials contain graphs upon graphs of data. There is math involved with my oncologists, nurses, and the pharmacists that I know nothing about. There are a lot of numbers in cancer. Mathematical oncology applies computational models to help understand cancer development, growth, and reaction to treatment. I do not pretend to understand but seriously question if it may be used to prevent a patient from trying a treatment because the math doesn’t support it. It would be the worse case scenario of someone being reduced to a number and not a person with other important factors influencing a treatment decision.

Cancer can also be like the English language (or any language). Anyone who has had cancer or lives with cancer has a unique story to tell. My story is different from yours. There may be similarities, but we’re each our own storyteller using our own lexicons to share our stories. Our myriad stories convey hope, sadness, love, fear, joy, and anger. We speak and write of the factual details of cancer. Whether spoken or written, our words express anxieties that come with scans and office visits. Stories are emotional. Life is quite a story.

A cancer story isn’t understood by everyone. I understand not everyone understands what the word metastatic means. Reporters should if they are covering a story concerning it. They need to know it can’t be cured. Nurses need to know. There are different interpretations on what chronic means when referring to cancer. Just to be clear, Stage IV cancer isn’t chronic. Chronic means you have a manageable disease where you can still reach a normal life expectancy. We aren’t there yet. I want it to be chronic as much as anyone. Is it correct to refer to someone who is metastatic as a survivor, thriver, lifer, or another term? It gets complicated because individuals prefer what they prefer. Words can push buttons. Words that push mine are journey, cancerversary, and words describing cancer as a battle. For example, people don’t lose their battle. Saying that implies they are losers because they died. Utterly wrong. They died and it’s awful.

Then there’s the human nature element. Some of us may be more vocal whereas others want to comment privately. Some got it figured out on the first try and some kept trying over and over and over again. There are those who will advocate assertively until the right person shares their interpretation of data. Some of us will keep trying. If one solution doesn’t work, we will keep hammering away at it. We all have different ways of approaching a cancer experience just as there were different ways to approach a number story. We are all different. We are alike in wanting an answer.

Unfortunately, cancer is still a riddle. One that needs a definite answer.

More Thoughts on Identity

There are plenty of labels and titles used to assign and confuse our sense of identity. Male, female, husband, wife, widow, single, married, father, mother, childless, son, daughter, brother, sister, only child, and friend. Adjectives also serve this purpose. Beautiful, plain, ugly, happy, sad, funny, depressed, selfish, and giving. Jobs and careers do the same. Perceptions of illness and wellness are also part of the picture. I live with words like patient, survivor, thriver, lifer, metavivor, warrior, and numerous others.

Interests and beliefs both differentiate the narrow scope of labels and titles. Here true identity may lie if you are lucky enough to truly “Know Thyself.” Learning and teaching are two of my core beliefs and huge interest areas. I love reading, writing, and thinking. My interests branch out to other areas. I feel good when I exercise. Listening to Bon Jovi makes me feel just as good as John Denver folk songs. I am interested in nature photography and hiking outdoors. I love time with my friends and family. A good chocolate dessert or caramel is savored.

Identity must be a combination of all these things combined, each like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle really takes on many aspects of the self. Neither is complete without all the pieces. Woe to the puzzle doer to near the end of a puzzle and realize a piece is missing. You know what that piece is and how it will complete the picture, but it still isn’t the same. It’s almost complete, or as complete as it can be, but it just isn’t the same as irrefutably complete, done, and finished. It is very troubling when a person’s identity is missing a piece or two from the puzzle. It may seem obvious what piece is needed to go into the empty space, but everyone still wants to find it to finish the puzzle and make it whole before moving on to the next puzzle.

Maybe we even have a tough time seeing our true selves. It all gets very muddled. Someone else cannot tell you who you are. Identity, strength, and happiness are all inside jobs. It’s very challenging because so many outside factors influence who we are. Those labels, socioeconomic status, who we know, where we live, and even ancestry all are puzzle pieces.

It’s with friends that none of these other definers really matter. People do not say so and so is my friend because they were really good at self-care, took remarkable pictures, or could fix a flat tire. My friends are my friends because of a shared past and the similar interests and values we still share today and hopefully will share well into our futures. We laugh, we help one another, and we are just there to support one another. These are the qualities that transcend all the names, titles, adjectives, actions, and changes over time. Your true inner qualities always remain.

I can’t fix a flat. I hope that admission hasn’t cost me any friendships.

Back to the question, Who AM I? The AM changes over time. Just as the land changes over time, so do we. The Grand Canyon in its infancy was not a canyon at all but instead the great Colorado River flowing southward through Arizona. It is really an awesome feat in physiology how humans change from infants, to children, then young adults, and then through so many different stages of adulthood. And that’s only on the outside.

Thoughts, words, actions, core beliefs, and values all converge together in the I AM. I AM giving. I AM a reader, writer, and thinker. I AM a storyteller. I AM someone who enjoys the outdoors. I AM someone who enjoys the indoors, too. I AM someone who likes to laugh.

I AM loved.

I AM me.

I wrote an I AM poem back in 2012 and posted it back in May, Ideas definitely revolve around identity. You can read it here.

Living as someone with metastatic breast cancer is only one way I continue to define myself, but I don’t want that to be the first thing that people notice about me. An illness shouldn’t define anyone. Others can’t define you in terms of an illness. Unfortunately, illness seems to be the domino poised to cause others to fall.

Figuring out who I am as I navigate identity amidst medical treatments and side effects seems like a never-ending onion where a new layer is continually being peeled back and makes me cry. What doesn’t change is that I am always whole. What if instead of an onion being peeled, I was a tree that kept adding ring after ring with each passing year that told my story? I see a strong mighty oak firmly rooted in the earth that is solid and has witnessed much. Older but wiser. Unflappable. Still there. Bigger. Changes are inevitable, but I choose to see myself as whole and complete with whatever changes that life brings my identity.

There is a Quaker wisdom to “Let your life speak.” It means to let your highest truths and values guide your choices. Who I am lies in my truths and choices that begin as thoughts and materialize as actions. Love, joy, kindness, and making a difference is who I am, and who I will always be. My life will continue to speak.

Cancer – A Master Thief

The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie of all time. Dorothy believes the world that is somewhere over the rainbow is such a happy place where all is perfect and well. There are no worries or fears. Troubles melt like lemon drops. The song says so. Everyone’s dreams come true and undoubtedly you are who you see yourself as being. Back on solid ground, life is not the same. Birds fly over the rainbow and we long for the ability to fly. The song says that, too. Dorothy discovers that over the rainbow isn’t all she thought it would be, but she learns a lot while she is there.

Oz certainly isn’t Kansas anymore. All isn’t perfect there any more than it is in our realities. Once someone hears the word cancer, Kansas and anywhere else has changed forever. The twister destroys and maims like cancer. It doesn’t care who you are and doesn’t explain why one home is left unscathed and another is completely gone. Oddly enough though, it’s the twister that is the impetus for change and transformation. It took her to the beginning of the yellow brick road. It made it possible for Dorothy to discover her truth and strength.

The tornado is a defining moment where everything changes.

Cancer is a defining moment.

While Dorothy is in Oz, she learns that she was whole and loved in Kansas. I can identify with Dorothy. I think we all can.

Feeling whole is harder when life presents so many lessons in loss.

The grass is always greener. What I have now that I think sucks will look good next to something that sucks even more later.

Traits of loyalty and determination have been attributed to Dorothy. These are two very fine qualities. She was loyal to her friends and they were to her. She was determined to find her way home in a strange land.

Dorothy returns home as we all do.

The movie is filled with aspects of identity spread across all the characters. Dorothy’s friends in Oz believe they lack qualities that all along they have. The Scarecrow has a brain and has both intelligence and common sense. The Tin Man is caring and compassionate. The Cowardly Lion has courage and might. We are smart and resourceful. We love living and those around us. It is okay to be scared, but each of us does not know the depths of our own inner strength. We have all these positive traits.

It would be far too easy to label The Wicked Witch of the West as fear, or evil, or cancer. She sure is scary and selfish. She is green, the color of envy. As a child, I would cower and hide behind a large upholstered chair as I watched her each year when the movie was aired on TV.

The witch terrified me to my bones. Those. Monkeys. Freaked. Me. Out.

Switch to Elphaba in Wicked and I absolutely love her. She rises and conquers. She is just as green, but now it is beautiful and healing. Her greenness defines her. She has serious challenges. In the end things work out for her (just as they do for Dorothy in the 1939 movie). How I think about the witch depends on the version of the story. It’s a perspective thing.

The business of cancer really screws with identity.

I knew exactly who I was before 2012. I was a successful and established teacher working in a district I loved at a school I loved. I was a devoted daughter and good friend who found joy in helping. I was in the process of becoming an adoptive parent. Joy, joy, joy to me.

Cancer turned all that upside down. I retired. My parents are deceased. No one calls me daughter now. Plans to adopt came to a halt. My life has changed dramatically. I can’t get back the way it used to be. The list of those who help me is longer than those I can help.

Cancer steals identity.

 It steals hair and creates an unrecognizable stranger in the mirror. I used to be unrecognizable to others, too. I could stand right next to someone I knew who hadn’t seen me in a while, and they wouldn’t know me. I was a stranger with straight brown short hair that framed my face. It suited me. Looked natural. Worked out well if I didn’t want to see someone, but I usually did. Usually. When I took off my wig, I became another version of myself that was unrecognizable. Little hair remained, mostly grayish, not enough to be accepted as a cute style that I’d have on purpose. The little I had eventually disappeared. The lack of eyelashes and eyebrows compounded the look. Cancer stole outside and inner identities.

Cancer is a master thief.

I felt the real me disappeared into the past. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I missed her. She has reemerged and I look more like the me I know and love.

But how long will she stay?

Identity isn’t solely based on the way I look. Cancer has messed with my inner self, too. Cancer may be a master thief, but I am the master of my I AM. That’s where I’ll pick up next time. Until then.

“Over The Rainbow”

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue.
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops,
That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow;
Why, then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

I sincerely hope you were humming if not singing. 🎶

What I Did Last Summer

Spring was lost.

Summer was lost.

Uneventful days passed.

Life inched by like a snail going nowhere.

COVID has consumed six months now.

Six months gone.

Mostly alone.

Gone forever.

And yet I look at the good.

I can’t help it.

Good is always around.

Also forever.

One place I found it was in flowers.

Repetitive days of solitude

And safeness

Drew me to nature.

My camera my paintbrush.

Flowers my canvas.

So many patterns and colors

From 6 inches away.

Wonder

Beauty

Life

Joy

Summer was not lost after all.

A world covered in flowers is not only beautiful but a reassuring constant.

These thoughts formed as I thought about what I did over summer. There were a couple momentous events that I celebrated because birthdays and related plans still happen in pandemics. Most days were quiet. There was a lot of sameness and not much to shout about. I viewed medical appointments as chances to socialize a bit. My trips to the grocery store twice a month held high excitement.

My photos visually reflect what I did last summer whether I puttered about my back yard, paused to take a photo while walking in the neighborhood, or found myself in a favorite nature setting.

Patterns and colors in flowers captivated me this summer.
Everything about this makes me feel happy. The bright vibrant color. The layered petals. The petals slowly unfurling and still emerging from the center. It is a world in itself.
Floating flower art feels very zen.
Blues and purples are a soothing combination.
These colors remind me of a sunset. I marveled at several of these and found all were slightly different, just like every sunset.
This succulent reminded me of glazed pottery. I’m pretty sure it follows a Fibonacci sequence.
Bee balm attracts so much life. Watching its visitors has brought many happy moments to my summer.
Every flower has a story. I am one flower sharing mine.

Morning Yoga

I want to stay as healthy as possible so I can do the things I want. It’s been harder lately as I’ve experienced some side effects in my feet and hands that make moving not fun. I believe they will improve. I believe I have some control. Who knows if I do or not, but I like to believe I do.

Belief is powerful.

We become what we believe. Beliefs become our words and actions. Keep in mind I don’t believe I brought on a cancer diagnosis by my thoughts or actions. No blaming myself. Belief is part of my personal treatment wheelhouse. I believe I can maintain my health. Staying active is the action to match that belief.

My oncologist told me not to alter what I was doing as a means of preventing some of these uncomfortable and at time painful side effects. I’m not sure she fully understands how intense I am. I don’t look super athletic. I’m not. Yet, I push. I sweat. I make decisions I question once I’m well past the point of no return. I woke up the morning after my first cycle of Doxil and felt so good I walked four miles in the heat. I wake up extra early on the days of my treatments so I can get a good workout done before I go and spend the bulk of my day at the hospital. I exercise even on my down days. I choose easier work, but I still choose something. She repeated her advice not to limit my activities the day I went in for my second cycle.

With her guidance in mind, I’m still keeping up my activities, but I’ve taken it a little easier for several days after treatment and integrated more yoga into my routine. The chemo care sheet says not to create extra friction on hands and feet for up to a week after each treatment. I see yoga as a way to work on core strength and flexibility while also quieting my mind. Yoga can grow my inner strength in addition to my outer strength.

Usually, I don’t stick with it very long. I feel tired after thirty minutes and not incredibly successful. I would improve if I practiced poses more as part of my practice.

I never did yoga outdoors until one glorious morning. I didn’t think I’d like it. I felt too self-conscious. Heat and bugs would bother me. But I went for it and loved it.

No heat and no bugs made my yoga time feel more refreshing.

I love that I still have new things at this point in my life.

I’ve been rising early on Sunday mornings, even earlier than on weekdays. On this particular day, the forecast was to reach the upper 80s. Hot weather is not my cup of tea. I wanted to get my workout done before it got too hot and definitely while my patio space was still in the shade.

Thoughts of the back yard I created wandered through my mind as I practiced. I admired my red bee balm knowing I was responsible for planting it. A hummingbird visited while I was out. I see them often enough due to the flowers in my garden. I always take it as a good sign when I see them. Cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, and robins filled the air with their singing. Dew glistened in multicolored glints off the green grass. The outdoor air felt good on my skin. My senses took in my environment.

Other than myself, there were no people and no people sounds. I was alone in this piece of paradise for a few moments. I felt total oneness with my surroundings. I noticed close to a dozen different shades of green.

There was an insane level of power and peace at the same time.

I held poses much longer than I usually do in my wellness area in my basement. My commitment was to do what felt good and not commit to a set time. I did everything I wanted and practiced a little over an hour.

It was a time I could consciously focus on my breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Cloud watching was included as some breath work. Lying flat on my back and staring upward was a good rest from some hip extension work. I love watching the sky. Cirrus clouds brushed the sky. I looked for animals as shapes drifted by slowly. Somewhere in my childhood was likely the last time I took the time to see the sky from this perspective. I’m looking forward to doing it again.

When I finished, I walked in the grass barefoot. It was more needed sensory work. I am someone who has always liked something on my feet. I’ve never been a barefoot kind of gal. The dew kissed grass was too much for my toes to resist. I walked slowly and each step became part of a reflective meditation.

Maybe I used my hands and feet more than I should have. Shoulding is a horrible business. I was told I could operate business as usual. So far, my feet seem to be faring better than my hands. My palms look shiny and waxy. They are a bit red in between my fingers and have peeled very minimally. I did them in a couple weeks ago wringing out water from towels when my air conditioner broke and my furnace leaked. I cleaned it up because that’s what needed to happen. In addition to the cost of a new air conditioner, it cost me my hands. Every crease where there are joints on my fingers are red, stiff, inflamed, and painful. I’ve been using a ton of lotion on my soles and palms. Days of not adding extra stress to them have helped more than anything. It took about ten days for my hands to heal so they don’t hurt. The joints still feel leathery, look different, and flare up after treatment or when I overdo it. I will continue to practice good self-care.

Until next time – Namaste.