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. 🎶

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.

Two Years Blogging

My second year blogging is in the books. I’ve explored expressing myself a bit more through personal narratives and even poetry. I’ve covered a variety of topics. I hope I have made connections with readers as I’ve shared what goes through my mind and in my life as someone living with metastatic breast cancer.

There’s no need to have cancer in your life to read it and get something out of it. Not everything I write about is specific to the cancer experience. Themes of fear, trust, and identity apply to all of us. Memories of joy or moments that teach an important life lesson reside within all of us. However, it’s often when I appear to veer off the cancer path with my writing that I come back to say something about the cancer experience. Maybe I’m only speaking to me. Joy is important for anyone with metastatic cancer. Memories can be bittersweet, hopefully mostly sweet. Life lessons help us embrace the now. Some of these lessons are difficult to embrace. Maybe they help us understand our now one lesson at a time.

I am always interested in growing my audience. Please share my blog with anyone with whom you think may benefit from it. I also want to take a moment today to thank you for reading and sharing your comments. I love reading them and you are always welcome to leave a comment at the bottom of these posts. Today, I’m interested in if you’ve had a favorite post over the last year. I have many favorites, but know I am biased.

Recently, I received a few compliments on my blog’s title, Finding A Way. It conjures up many thoughts in my mind. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If there’s a will, there’s a way. Look at a challenge from multiple perspectives. Approach something in a new way. Venture outside of your comfort zone. Find a way to get it done.

Find a way.

There have been some remarkable things I have attempted while living with metastatic breast cancer. I figured out how to keep teaching for four years after my diagnosis. I’ve discovered new ways to enjoy exercise. I’ve developed hacks for when things are hard. I’ve found a way. Maybe it isn’t always the best way or the easiest way, but it is a way.

The phrase “finding a way” is defined as having an opportunity, or an intention, to arrive at a specific outcome. That definition fits the vision I continue to have as a mantra in my life. My blog’s title got me thinking about other expressions that are essentially synonyms for it. It turns out there are dozens of substitutions. Some fit better than others. Some were noted as more common in the UK. Some are positive. Quite a few have negative connotations and that surprised me. Apparently, finding a way can be by hook or crook. Wordhippo.com is my source. See what you think.

Synonyms are listed in no particular order but tend to follow the order from Wordhippo. I understand if you skim them since there are many.

Getting, contriving, arranging, engineering a way, managing, succeeding in, organizing, working it, fixing it, compassing, coordinating, designing, maneuvering, swinging, swinging it, setting, orchestrating, making arrangements for, fixing, fixing up, setting up, pulling strings, pulling wires, sorting out, seeing to, finagling, framing, negotiating, machinating, manipulating, finessing, masterminding, elaborating, developing, executing, shifting, angling, cogitating, achieving, projecting, jockeying, hitting upon, carrying out, playing games, effecting, wrangling, passing, plotting, scheming, devising, conspiring, intriguing, conniving, colluding, planning, hatching, cooking up, operating, being in cahoots, collaborating, hatching a plot, concocting, faking, fabricating, rigging, forming a conspiracy, laying plans, shamming, abetting, exploiting, manufacturing, promoting, getting in bed with, coming up with, controlling, falsifying, simulating, feigning, conducting, handling, bringing about, pulling off, conceiving, constructing, staging, scamming, doctoring, tricking, wheeling and dealing, and conning.

The list goes on, but I think I’ve listed plenty.

One word that didn’t appear that struck me as strange:

Believe.

Finding A Way is about believing. Pure and simple. Unwavering. Unconditionally.

Shall I change the name of my blog to embody ideas of conniving, plotting, or scheming? Nah, it’s better to stick with ideals like succeeding, achieving, and developing. I will keep the title as is. It works. Onward to a third year of finding a way. You know what’s coming . . .

Always.

Ice Cream Memories

Good memories are sweet like ice cream.

My ice cream specific memories from past vacations are vivid enough to eat.

Dippy’s is a small ice cream shop in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, offering about 20 flavors daily. It’s a simple whitewashed building for to go service. There is a small porch outside with patio seating for relaxing and looking at the flowers and passersby. An old-fashioned red popcorn machine is positioned just outside the door for those preferring kettle corn reminiscent of movie theater popcorn drenched in butter flavoring with lots of yellow food coloring.

Dippy’s was a place to take a break from all the other relaxing being done on vacation. It was a good mid-afternoon or early evening treat. The fact that it was a few mere steps from the corner hotel where I stayed didn’t hurt.

There is something about an ice cream store that makes me feel like a kid again. I thought this was as true for my mom as it was for me. She would sit in front of the store in one of the wrought iron chairs wearing her shorts that came to her knees with a smile from ear to ear. She possessed something childlike even though she was into her seventies.

She always apologized that she couldn’t share her butter pecan or turtle ice cream because of my tree nut allergy. It didn’t bother me for the same reason I never offered to share my ice cream with her. All free sampling was done inside at the counter.

Rules are rules.

My grandma enjoyed ice cream into her nineties. Grandma would have a bowl of ice cream often during the evening on the farm. One thing I’m completely convinced about is the existence of an ice cream gene and that I got it.

Both my maternal grandmother and mother died from metastatic cancer. My grandma was diagnosed with liver cancer. She didn’t go through gads of scans to see if it spread and chose not to do treatment. She was 96 years old and only lasted a few months after the news, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe she had metastatic disease. Anyway, genetic testing has revealed zilch in terms of the metastatic breast cancer in my body being inherited. I wonder if research hasn’t yet discovered the link.

Back to happy memories of ice cream because those memories make me feel happy. They take me back to a simpler time that was relaxed and unrushed. A bit of that feeling is captured whenever I enjoy a scoop or two. Sometimes those memories take me back to as recent as last week and other times much further.

Some memories take me back to summer nights in early childhood. People sat outside after supper just to relax. My sister and I would sit on the front step of the house in the humidity enjoying a bowl of ice cream before our bedtime stories.

In my childhood, I was a chocolate or vanilla person. Discovering mint chocolate chip made me feel pretty sophisticated. I still love mint chocolate chip, but favorite flavors also include cookie dough, coffee, and chocolate peanut butter.

Chocolate peanut butter was recently enjoyed on a lovely summer day.

I love moments of simplicity. I’ll take every single one I can get living with metastatic breast cancer. Memories that make me smile are delicious. That’s true whether I’m sitting on the front stoop as a child, outside at Dippy’s, or sitting along the waterfront outside Wilson’s Restaurant  in Door County slowly working on a double scoop while watching the sun dip below the water. It holds true if I’m home enjoying a dish.

Even Snoop Dogg knows ice cream is a good thing. Only Snoop knows his plans for the future, but maybe he was serious when he said, “When I’m no longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.”

He would get no complaints from me.

Is all this just about ice cream? Yes and no. Sometimes ice cream is just ice cream. Ice cream is surely one of the better things in this world. You’re never too young or too old for it. There is a flavor for everyone. It’s a simple pleasure.

It also can be a metaphor for life.

Ice cream melts quickly.

Enjoy it before it’s gone.

Side Effect Smorgasbord

Side effects from cancer treatments often feel like they are heaped onto an overflowing plate from a smorgasbord at the cancer cafe. Every treatment comes with a long list of possible effects with the caveats that most people don’t experience all the effects and they range in severity. That’s true enough. I’ve experienced many of them over time due to the reality of being on multiple treatments. The list below is not complete. Side effects I’ve had the displeasure of having include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Neuropathy
  • Insomnia
  • Mood changes
  • Higher risk of infection (low white blood cell counts)
  • Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
  • Easy bruising and slower healing
  • UTIs
  • Chemo Brain
  • Appetite changes
  • Weight changes
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Hand foot syndrome
  • Dry skin
  • Dryness of mucous membranes
  • Chemo induced menopause

An entire separate buffet needs to be set out to adequately serve all the undesirable dishes that accompany chemo induced menopause. Sexual side effects are a big part of menopause. Entering it as a chemo induced experience brings some unique spices and flavors to the smorgasbord. Fortunately, there are ways to address these effects so women are more comfortable and happier.

Emotional side effects like anxiety, depression, grief, and identity questions may not directly be caused by a cancer drug, but they certainly can develop or become magnified from diagnosis, throughout treatment, after treatment, or carry into what’s next. Trauma also can develop from a myriad of cancer moments. These are available at the smorgasbord and it’s all you can eat. 

Addressing mental health side effects are just as important as addressing physical side effects. No, a person doesn’t have to suck it up or get over it. Positivity is not a cure all. I may not feel like gutting myself emotionally and exposing all my pain as a casual conversation. Someone may look just fine on the outside and be struggling within.

Unfortunately, I have added a new side effect to my list in the past month:

  • Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing

Fun fact: a person can’t swallow and breathe at the same time. I have had three of these esophageal spasms, triggered by taking oral medications and supplements. I’ve described it as comparable to a swallow getting stuck but there is nothing causing an obstruction. It feels like I imagine a heart attack would because I can’t breathe. Scary isn’t a strong enough word. And it’s painful.

It’s a triple F moment for sure.

The same week as one of these spasms, I discovered I had mouth sores. They were on the inside lining of my mouth in both cheeks. Perhaps as far back as my throat. No wonder my mouth hurt! It explained my ongoing pain and difficulties eating and speaking in addition to swallowing. I called the triage line two days in a row. The previous day I called because my throat still hurt from the spasm episode and I discovered one whole pinky toe had turned into a flaming blister. The blister is a sign of hand foot syndrome. It turns out I need to keep rinsing my mouth throughout the day with warm salt water and keep my mouth as clean as possible. This easy at home solution worked quickly and the sores have resolved. Omneprozole is successfully preventing any more spasms.

Drugs are often prescribed to deal with side effects and they also have side effects of their own. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Serious side effects (more serious than those covered) like heart, liver, and kidney damage can also result from cancer treatments. The term side effect seems like it’s lacking when major organs can suffer permanent damage.

So . . . which side effect is the worst?

Whichever one is happening at the present moment.

Rarely are side effects ever on the side.

This smorgasbord sucks. I want to order off the menu and go straight to desserts. Ice cream sounds delightful.

Consider responding:

  • I know my list is not complete as there are side effects I’ve dodged. Please share others if you’re comfortable.
  • What side effects have you found challenging? What has worked well to manage them? Please add your comments so others may benefit.

Dodgeball

I was consistently the next to last child to be picked for teams back in grade school when that was still deemed an acceptable way to form teams in physical education class. I’m not sure what great minds came up with it or chose to enforce it year after year, but I was reminded a few times weekly of my low skill level with little intervention to teach me what I failed to figure out on my own.

Dodgeball was always a popular game back in my youth. I never lasted very long as a player. I wasn’t expected to, and it was a group game where no one expected much of me. It was a game for the tough boys who took no account for their classmates as they knocked others out one by one. The game incorporated agility, coordination, running, jumping, catching, throwing, and of course, dodging. I did none of these things well. I quickly was pegged out and spent most of the time watching those who the game was made for strut their stuff and whip balls at one another with a force and meanness that communicated you better not mess with them.

There were two sides. Catching balls or hitting someone with one sent the intended person to the prison. There were three bowling pins that needed protection. These marked the far border at the end of your team’s side. The game was over when either the opposing team had knocked down those three pins or all of the players had been knocked out due to their lack of dodging or thrown balls had been caught. Those in prison could be set free if someone lobbed a ball over all the others and someone on your team in prison caught it.

There is one distinct memory I have of dodgeball in gym class from about the sixth grade. Somehow, I was the last player standing on my side. It wasn’t due to skill on my part. I just hadn’t been knocked out yet. The other team had everyone still playing. None of their players were in prison. The sides usually weren’t ever that uneven. How was this scenario possible? But I was alone and had to guard the one remaining pin. I was an underdog if there ever was one.

Most of the balls were on my side. The other side had two left. Out of kindness, they waited for me to get into position before deliberately firing a ball at me. It wasn’t a great strategy on their part, but whatever. Although not an athlete, I was a smart cookie even in my youth. I positioned myself in front of the remaining pin and squatted down like a catcher behind home plate. I was going to protect my pin and in doing so make myself a smaller target. I held out my arms and waited for the incoming balls.

They took turns throwing the ball straight at me. Why? Dodgeball is not a polite game! Another tactical error on the other team’s part. It prolonged the game. I wouldn’t be able to catch two balls at once, let alone one. Ball one came straight at me. It hit me and my arms instinctively wrapped around it. I caught it! Unbelievable!

There was only one ball left. The gymnasium was quiet as the second ball was thrown straight at me.

By some miracle, I caught it again!

All the balls were now on my side. Two of their players were in prison. One pin was left standing. It was up to me. My next move would either free everyone on my side and extend the game or end it by another player catching my attempt.

The game ended.

I learned a few things that day.

Use my head.

Play strategically.

Never give up.

Do my best.

I learned I could catch things other than colds and drifts.

Fast forward to the present. Lately, I feel like I’m in a game of dodgeball with a few stressors that inconveniently want to converge all at once. Appointments. Scans. Social opportunities developing all at the same time. A broken water heater. Appointments rescheduled. Several excellent fundraising opportunities and all the work to put into their details to favor their success. Any moments I think I have carved out for me somehow disappear. Keeping up with regular household responsibilities frustrates me because they just never end.

I dodge.

As soon as I dodge one something, another two or three materialize. I never get ahead.

More dodging.

I have learned how to dodge like a professional.

Dodgeball isn’t a team sport. It never was for me. My memories of it, of physical education class in general, showcased the natural athletes without really taking time to teach the rest of us.

I can dodge today until the cows come home. I have acquired high skills in avoiding topics I don’t want to discuss by switching topics, diverting attention, and being honest that I don’t want to talk about something and won’t talk about something when dodging fails. Dodging doesn’t get me where I’m going as quickly if I’m ducking to avoid being hit by incoming matter.

Dodging isn’t my game. I don’t like people throwing things at me. I am not a runner. I am still a pretty good catcher. Time should not be spent dodging or preparing to be hit by intentionally thrown objects whether those objects come in the form of words, behaviors, or round rubber gym balls.

Dodging doesn’t give me what I need.

I need more uninterrupted time for me.

How?

I work out. I can focus on self-improvement one hundred percent whether strength training, working on flexibility, agility, balance, functional movements, and other realms of fitness. I build on what I know how to do, challenge myself, meet goals, and repeat.

My friends, reading, writing, exercising, and delegating tasks are all effective moves I have to dodge stress. Even doing something new is a way to reset. Giving myself some structured quiet time, watching a candle flame blur, listening to music, and meditating are almost forgotten luxuries that simply need to be prioritized again.

We all need to find ways to dodge life’s stressors and find that priceless time to dedicate to our well-being. Being on guard in a perpetual game of dodgeball is not a healthy choice. Waiting to be taken out by the next ball cancer whips at me is not how I am planning to spend time. I will not be tense, stressed, and feel like I am always dodging some unknown or dreaded event. It is tough for me to escape mentally. My fear reflex flinches almost daily. I have better things to do. Dodging keeps me away from what I want to do.

It’s funny when I think back to that moment in gym class when it was up to me to decide what would happen next in the dodgeball game. I really thought I had a chance to get the ball to my teammates. I did have a chance, just not a good one. Many instances mirror that in real life, especially when living with cancer. I believe I still have a chance. Belief motivates. Belief sees me through. No longer a child, I am stronger now and not as afraid of being hit with an incoming ball. I hope not to flinch as easily as I move forward. Sometimes I will dodge, and sometimes I’ll hit my targets with precision and force. It’s time I hurl balls at a few things I’d like to knock out of my way. Offense is a good defense.

Patients Have Names

I transferred from a smaller cancer clinic setting to a cancer center in a major hospital late last summer. I still believe I am getting excellent medical care.

There are some differences, differences I don’t like. They stem from the sheer newness of my experiences and the size of the cancer center. In time, the newness hopefully will feel more familiar. The gargantuan feel of the hospital maybe will feel smaller as I’ll only go where I need to be.

I’m not so sure about the size. There are two waiting rooms for labs. I’m given a pager that lights up and vibrates when it’s my turn like the ones used in restaurants when your table is ready. Sure, it’s a way to keep things moving quickly and it provides some privacy, but I have a perfectly usable first name. Then I go to another level for the breast center clinic where I wait in another waiting room. After the office visit, I trek upstairs again and get comfortable in a third waiting room where I wait for treatment. I check in at some type of reception area each time. So far, I have had moderate to long waits in each of my waiting rooms with no updates as to how much longer I’ll be waiting. I took my time between waiting rooms two and three last time and went to the germateria for lunch. I still had a good wait when I made it to the last waiting room.

I feel confident about the growing doctor-patient relationship I am developing with my new oncologist. It’s different from the one I had with my former oncologist, but it should be as she is a unique person. Oncologists are not one size fits all just as patients are not.

The treatment area is where I’m identifying more of a repetitive insensitivity issue.

It’s less personal. An identification bracelet is strapped on and it’s scanned to populate my personal information. It beeps. Every time. I hate that bracelet. It’s one of many factors that make me feel like I’m an illness. I will move past it.

I have a name and I’d like for my nurses to use it.

On my first visit there, the nurses noted it was my first treatment so I needed to be watched for a possible allergic reaction. No, it was only my first treatment at that facility. It was my 10th with this protocol and my 109th overall. For whatever reason, this important data wasn’t coming up. It’s a distinction I happen to think is worth knowing and should be correctly documented. Could just be me. Talking to me, bringing the patient’s voice into the discussion provides meaningful, not to mention accurate, information.

I know I have to give up comparing how my new place is different from my old place, but I never had to wear an ID bracelet in the old place. Everyone knew me. They took a genuine interest in me. We knew things about one another’s lives on personal levels. If an appointment needed to be changed, I was called. Here, I get a letter informing me appointments have already been changed without consulting me if the changes work for me.

Patients also have telephones by the way. It’s a good thing I’m not working and have a little more flexibility.

There’s more. Most of the nurses just swing in and out of my treatment cubicle and it’s all business. Some tell me who they are; some do not. Some are friendly; others not so much. I usually have more than just one per visit because they are running around caring for multiple patients at a time. I’ve asked for their names. My bracelet gets scanned and apparently that’s sufficient.

I have a name.

I am more than my ID bracelet. I am not a number. I am not an illness, and I am so much more than a patient. When multiple nurses shuffle in and out, it makes me feel like I’m not assigned to any nurse specifically. I feel like I’m an inanimate object on an assembly line. Truthfully, I feel a little bit that way when I have to visit three different areas on one visit. I feel that way when I’m not consulted about appointment changes. Asking if bigger is better in terms of patient care is a whole other topic.

I have had a couple of very friendly nurses. They visit with me and I do feel like I’m starting to get to know them and build connections. Personal connections and positive relationships make my health care better. I know their names. I recognize them. It helps me feel like I belong. Patients have names and it’s not unreasonable for nurses to use them. I empathize that they are spread thin and have a lot on their plate. I get that a lot is asked of them. I know from visits with my nurse friends at my old place how they are often left out of the loop with decisions that affect them. I know that more and more is being asked of them and that they have to do more with less. I know that some of these decisions don’t put the interests of the patients first. I know they referred to me as family. I felt the same and I miss them. I know all their names (Karen, Sue, the two Brookes, Kari, the two Ambers, Amanda, Sandy, Kay, Kelly, Justin, Nina, and Beth).

Is knowing a patient’s name too much to ask? I don’t think so.

As a teacher, calling a student by their name lets the student know you recognize them, that you care about them and their success, and it fosters a sense of trust. Students feel comfortable and, oh, I don’t know, it has a positive impact on learning. If I were a parent, I would not want my child to have a teacher who didn’t know their name. I would like my nurses to know who I am. I believe being recognized, feeling cared for, and trusting your healthcare providers will have a positive impact on care given and care received.

Going forward, I will be proactive and introduce myself, letting my nurses know that using my name makes me feel valued. I won’t be able to change the three different areas I visit when I’m there. I won’t be able to change how long I wait. I won’t be able to ditch the ID bracelet. I may not even be able to do much about whether nurses take my encouragement to use my name. All I can do is try.

Update: Most of this post was drafted about one month ago. My past two visits have been more positive in terms of my interactions with my treatment nurses. Situations change. I hope mine has changed for the better. I could have chosen not to publish this post, but I went ahead with it because it’s important to remember patients aren’t numbers, or statistics, or are treated like part of the equipment we are hooked up to when receiving treatment. We are people. We have feelings. We have names.

 

Empathy and Cancer

Empathy: the ability to understand and share feelings with another.

I recently read a blog written by an older woman who had a cancer scare that she had to deal with on her own. Her husband had passed away from cancer and she had had enough of it in her life. Her feelings are understandable. Two mammograms directed her to an ultrasound. The ultrasound triggered a biopsy. Her timeline read very much like mine did. One test after another was given with heightened urgency. Everything was fast tracked for this woman because the doctors were worried about the outcome of tests. She didn’t know how she would do cancer alone. Thankfully, this woman did not have breast cancer. Of course, I am glad it turned out this way for her.

She said her experience gave her empathy for people who are alone.

Hello?

I’m sure this fellow writer is a lovely woman. Supporting someone through illness is hard. Losing him/her to that illness is excruciating. I do not diminish her pain because I know it’s real. I can empathize with her because I have lost people in my life. Cancer takes too much.

I am confused though why empathy needs to be directed toward people who are alone. Is aloneness somehow lesser than togetherness? Do my experiences when I spend time with friends, family, or a group of people give me empathy for people with partners? They do not. I may at times feel a little thankful to be back home and away from some of the stimulation and unwelcomed opinions, but I do not have empathy for people in a relationship. It sounds absurd when the shoe is on the other foot.

Somehow the comment rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed more bothersome to me that she felt empathy for people who are alone than for people who have cancer. I just kept scratching my head. It felt like pity or that someone was feeling sorry for me. I don’t want someone’s sorrow. Her remarks made me feel like she was saying, “Thank goodness I didn’t have cancer and the double whammy of being by myself!” This is more of an inner reflection than what was likely intended. I guess being on my own is a bit of a touchy subject for me, mainly of how I feel society perceives it as something less. I feel like I’m regularly defending my status. Sometimes I feel forgotten. Having cancer and being on my own really isn’t so hard. For one thing, I am reliant on myself and can organize appointments, etc. in a way that works best for me. I don’t have to check with others when I need to change my plans. I know how I feel and I don’t need to try to convince or explain those feelings to someone else. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wish I had a little more help and didn’t have to figure everything out. And I do have help. I have plenty of support. I ask for what I need. I feel connected to so many and have nurtured meaningful relationships. Technically, yes, I am doing cancer on my own, but I’m also not. It’s complicated.

“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” ~ Brené Brown

Enjoy a short clip from YouTube where Brené Brown explains more about empathy.

I am not sure I’ve done all those things in my reaction to what I read. This post itself has been difficult for me to write. I have felt angry and questioned those feelings. However, it is completely okay, in fact it is fine, more than fine, for me to feel anger. I feel misrepresented. I feel there are indirect implications that are at my expense while someone else is expressing gratitude. Gratitude is not gratitude if someone (or another group) is put down in order for another individual to feel grateful. Nor is it empathy.

Empathy means a lot to a person whether they have someone at their side or they are on their own. Empathy is a universal yearning we all need and we all have the capacity to give. You are putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It still isn’t quite the same because at the end of the day you put your own shoes back on. Still . . . there are moments when you almost get it. The important part is that you try to get it. I have beloved friends who try to get it.

One of my goals with this blog is to change perspectives on cancer, particularly advanced stage cancer. When I read something that feels a little, “Oh, that poor person has cancer and is alone,” I don’t like anything in that sentence because that feeling of pity permeates whatever sentiment is trying to be conveyed.

It doesn’t feel good.

What feels good is being welcomed to a group. I’d rather hear a compliment about something amazing I accomplished instead of a question on whether I went with anyone while achieving it. It feels good to be appreciated for my other qualities. It feels good to be included in things. If I’m unable to do something, then I may need to pass, but I appreciate being included. I like it when people remember things about me and respect my thoughts and opinions. I like it a lot when I’m not constantly asked about my health and truly treated like one of the gang. A small bit of thoughtfulness goes a long ways. It is how I believe we all can treat one another respectfully and compassionately.

Empathy in action is a lifestyle choice.

IMG_1172 copy 2
Taken at the UW-Arboretum in Madison, WI.

It’s possible I’m confusing empathy with sympathy, but I don’t think I am. In fact, I think some other people are. I certainly don’t want anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. It belittles and demeans if directed at me because I’m living with cancer. I want an even playing field. Don’t give me something or take something from me because of my health. Don’t give me something or take something from me because I’m single. I didn’t ask for your sorrow or pity. I’ve asked for your encouragement, support, and friendship. These are the things I offer.

There is something else you can give me: caramel. If someone were to offer me a caramel, I would not say no. Really good caramels are an entirely different story. It just might be an edible form of empathy.

Empathy is feeling as sad for a friend as if the event were happening to you. It’s understanding your friend is in a lot of emotional or physical pain. Empathy is understanding a perspective that’s the polar opposite of yours. Parents and teachers demonstrate empathy every time they know that something that isn’t a big deal at all really is a huge deal to a child. You show empathy to me when you understand that I may cancel plans, not feel one hundred percent, and don’t ask me a laundry list of questions. It means a lot to me when you share something hard in your life rather than me always explaining my latest hurdle that I try to embellish with a little humor thrown in for good measure.

Empathy is not making comments along the lines of “It’s too bad you had to get cancer.” Yeah, I just don’t know what I was thinking when I was in the cancer store. It isn’t empathetic to tell someone what he/she feels. Neither is telling someone what he/she needs to do to fix what is deemed not right (health, job, loss, etc.). Empathy is not putting someone down or saying things could be worse or that he/she should feel grateful. The words “at least” aren’t used at all. Please don’t tell me to live life to the fullest because tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. What many people don’t understand is that I’m running from that stupid bus every day. These things seem obvious to me, but I’ve heard them all. Perhaps the intention isn’t to show empathy, but to show something far less kind. I can’t figure it out.

And empathy definitely is not knowing what it might be like to have cancer and be alone because you had a scare and everything turned out just fine. You put your own shoes back on and walked on.

Empathy is something we all need and we all have the ability to give. At best, we understand what it’s like to be scared, perhaps terrified about our health and our future. We understand all the “what ifs” that run wild in our thoughts. We understand that disease can be a very lonely place to live. We can relate to one another that our upsetting news, event, or circumstance may be completely different from another person’s struggle, but that they are the same in that they are unsettling, frightening, and possibly very lonely feelings. We understand people are doing the best they can with what they have. Empathy connects us to one another. Through empathy we can share with and support one another. IMG_1836

I can empathize with those feelings.

I am not alone.

You are not alone either.

Consider replying:

  1. Where have you seen empathy alive and well in your life?
  2. How do you best handle situations when someone is not empathetic?