Adventures with Cancer Part 1

PART 1

It was like a grain of sand, or a sliver just under the skin, maybe something magical I thought I was feeling. It was elusive at first, rolling away from the pressure of a fingertip. Over weeks, possibly months it grew. Then it seemed as if something was truly there, a tiny bump. An ingrown hair? A lymph node? Eh, it’s nothing.

It became a little secret that I put away for later, later. But then in bed at night I asked my boyfriend, Can you feel this? Is this something? With the touch of his finger,  what I’d believed was in my imagination was confirmed with a sleepy Umm hmm.

The doctor’s room was cold, I had on a tiny gown tied awkwardly around my side. As I readjusted myself I noticed my legs were sticking to the paper spread across the examination table. Every time I shifted the paper stuck to my legs. There was a two-year old Sports Illustrated in the magazine rack and a few pamphlets about STDs.

It’s a cyst, the doctor declared, washing his hands with his back to me. So I don’t have to do anything about it? I confirmed. No, it’ll probably just go away in time, nothing to worry about, he said, leaning his back against the sink with his arms crossed against his belly.

So my cyst and I went on our way, on the subway back to my office, back to joking around with coworkers, back on the subway uptown to the tiny apartment I shared with my boyfriend turned fiance.

Every night as I read before bed I’d unconsciously find my hand covering the spot that seemed to me to be getting bigger. It’s getting bigger, isn’t it? I asked my fiance. I think so, yeah, he said, maybe you should get it checked again?

This time I reminded my doctor that my mom had breast cancer. Breast cancer that had returned. You know my grandmother and my mother had breast cancer, right? Again he assured me that it was a cyst. It would just leave an ugly scar if he took it out. Nothing to worry about.

My fiance and I went to my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Minnesota. The cyst was uncomfortable. Rubbing against my dress, interfering with my bra. I pulled one of my cousins, an E.R. doctor, to a private spot. Can you look at this? I asked. Looks like a benign fatty tumor, he said, but you should have it taken out.

The next week I went back to my doctor. Look, I said, I’m getting married in a couple of months and this thing is getting big. When I’m wearing my wedding gown and lift my arm you can see the lump. Can you please take it out? The doctor said it was too big to take out in his office. He referred me to a dermatologist. That doctor would take it out. No problem.

Can I see it? I asked the dermatologist after he and the resident had removed the lump in his office. It was in a small vial floating innocently enough: white, solid. Not what I imagined a cyst to look like. I made small talk with the doctor, joked around as I always do. He didn’t say much. That night I was in pain. I called the on-call doctor and said that Advil wasn’t cutting it. You really shouldn’t be in this much pain she said.

A week later I hadn’t heard from the dermatologist’s office. Wedding plans overwhelming me. Flowers, music, the Rabbi and Cantor, where were out-of-town guests staying? I called the dermatologist’s office. We had to send it to a different lab for more testing, the doctor said, I’ll call you.

A week later a phone call at work. The doctor would like to see you in his office as soon as possible. My stomach dropped. I tried to put it out of my mind. But something wasn’t right. My fiance met me at the doctor’s office.

We were escorted to the back of the office, to a dark paneled room with medical encyclopedias and family photos. My fiance and I held hands, my knee bounced up and down, up and down. The small staccato of my knee was the only sound.

Soon the doctor came in, sat down behind his desk, and said I got the pathology back and unfortunately what we took out was malignant. It is cancer.

I have cancer? I looked at my fiance, soon to be my husband, and said FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. 

Read PART 2 here

Small Ways To Make A Huge Difference

In light of recent mind-boggling decision-making by Susan G. Komen for the Cure I thought I’d suggest a different approach to giving: Keep it local. Bring it back to your community.

When I had cancer it was the outpouring of support from coworkers, friends and family that carried me and my husband through the treatment. Each gesture, no matter how small, added up and made a huge impact.

We all know someone nearby who is dealing with adversity in one way or another. You get the phone call or email about a friend recently diagnosed with cancer, you see a parent at school wearing a hat over his or bald head, you hear through the social grapevine that someone is dealing with the loss of a job, a divorce, a death in the family.

How do we take care of those in our community who need help? If you feel like me, you might worry about being intrusive or knowing just the right thing to say.

Here are some suggestions for how you can redirect time, energy and resources back to your community.

1. Think small. Really. It makes a big difference to most people just to know that you are thinking about them. Send a handwritten note or a card. It doesn’t have to be a work of great literature. Just a simple: “You are in my thoughts. Sending you my best wishes” will suffice.

2. Think food. Make a simple meal. (Find out if there are food allergies or dietary restrictions.) Freeze it and label with a date and heating instructions. Send the meal in a container that does not need to be returned. If you don’t cook (like me), ask if you can deliver a pizza. Give a gift card to a local restaurant that delivers. Slice & bake cookies.

3. Think music. When I was going through chemo a dear friend made me a Kick Cancer’s Booty song mix. I listened to those tunes during chemo infusions and it really gave me a lift and was a great distraction. Give a friend a few CDs from your collection to listen to. Make a mix of comforting songs for a grieving friend.

4. Think companionship. Sometimes people just want to be alone. But often people need a buddy. Offer to drive to appointments, sit in the waiting room, share a meal, etc. You really don’t need to talk very much. Just listen and let the person guide the conversation.

5. Think daily needs. Offer to babysit, fold laundry, do groceries, pick up dry cleaning, drive carpool, empty the dishwasher, mow the lawn. Give a gift card for cleaning services, babysitting, a handyman, a dog walker, a pet sitter or a local grocery store.

6. Think family. Children are deeply impacted by an ill family memory, or death of a grandparent, divorce, financial strain, etc. Send a note or small gift to the child, take them to the movies, library or out for ice cream. Be a safe person for a child to lean on when things are difficult. Also, support the spouse. It’s just as stressful to be the spouse of someone going through an illness as it is to be the patient.

Think local. I promise it’ll make a huge difference in a real way.

What are your favorite ways to support a friend or neighbor who is facing adversity?

You Were The Perfect Mother For Me

On the one year anniversary of my mother’s death I am sharing a letter I read to her shortly before she passed.

Dear Mom,

Did you know that I’ve saved all of the cards and notes you’ve written
to me over the last twenty years? Since I feared that cancer would
take you away from me one day I’ve kept all of your written words so I
could have them to comfort me.

You’ve always made me feel like a special person, like someone who has worth. You did such a great job of this that for a long, long time I didn’t feel like I could exist in this world without you to help me feel good about myself.

I thought of not having you and a stone would grow in my heart, weighing me down, filling me with dread and apprehension. You have always been like a
lighthouse that I could depend upon to steer me through rough seas.
You have been that reassuring light that meant: “You are safe, you are
steady, I am here.”

And boy, did I ever need that over and over. There were many years that I had to rely upon you and your light to get me through very hard times. Hard emotions, hard relationships, internal strife, money issues, self-esteem issues, etc.

You were always right there, on the other end of the phone line giving advice and reassurance, helping me see things from a different perspective and
offering the benefit of your own experiences.

I know that being my mother has not always been an easy task.
Sometimes I pushed you away because it was the only way I could figure
out where you started and I began. Sometimes we disagreed and said
hurtful things to each other. I know my decisions have not always been
ones you would have chosen for me. Despite all of that, you have
always stood by me and I’ve always known that you love me and are
proud of me.

Through you, I’ve learned to stand on my own two feet, and even figured out how to roast a chicken! You have given me the gift of a strong backbone, and the ability to laugh at my own foibles.

I have always been so impressed by how many people love and call you
their friend. You have dear friends who go back 40 plus years, people
who have traveled across the country to spend time with you and tell
you how much you have meant to them. Your friendship has truly been a
gift to so many. This is another attribute I aspire to.

You have taught me how to be a good listener, to empathize, to support and
appreciate all types of people. I will never be able to fill your
shoes, but I hope to keep in close contact with my aunts, uncles, and
cousins just as you have always done. I really believe you are the
glue that has kept our family so close.

Thank you for taking me and Marc on vacations and for tolerating us
when we were fighting and when we didn’t appreciate our good fortune.

Thank you for being so accepting of your siblings. Because of you I
have a wonderful relationship with Marc, and Dad, and I really think
it is because you taught me to be tolerant and forgiving. Please know
I will take good care of Dad not only because I know you’d like that
but because I really love him and enjoy him.

Thank you for my first very creamy and sugary drink of coffee, for my
first sip of wine, for all of the big family dinners, and for the
nightly 6:30 dinners when we would argue, yell, debate and laugh.

Thank you for instilling in me a love of Judaism, and for always being
a second mom to my girlfriends. Thank you for taking such good care of
Mom Mom because it really taught me to appreciate the next generation
and gave me a wealth of memories of her. Thank you for taking me to
Brazil as an adult, and for going on my first honeymoon with me.

Because of you I love to travel and explore new places. Thank you for
supporting me when I decided, out of the blue, to pack up and move to
New York City. I’ll never forget that rainy, rainy day when you and
Dad were there watching me graduate. Thank you for helping me get through having cancer.

And most of all , thank you for being there for the births of my children. Thank you for loving my children like they are your own. I’ll never forget the six weeks you spent with me and Ruby, and the countless hours you walked and rocked and adored all of your grandchildren. I have loved sharing stories about the kids, and laughing about them and being so proud with you.
Speaking of people who love you…what an amazing grandmother you have
been to Ruby, Lucas, and Theo! You have helped them build so many
memories that they will always have: making corncakes, having
sleepovers, trips to the beach and movies, drawing and painting,
laughing and playing.

I want you to know that though I will be lonely without you, though I
will grieve long and hard and will miss you every moment of every day,
I will be okay. I will look for you in the flowers, in the butterflies
and in rainbows. If there is a cat who comes through our backyard, I
will think of you and hope it is you peeking in my window and checking
in on me and my family.

Whenever I eat buttered sourdough toast or a good donut, make fried matzoh, or have a good, hot cup of coffee I will think of you.

Whenever I hear the giggles of my children or have a good cry I will think of you. Those times when I have a nice, long chat with a close friend, or talk to one of my favorite cousins on the phone, I will think of you.

When I walk through the mall, or eat something delicious in a restaurant, or travel somewhere new, I will think of you. When someone annoys me, I will want to tell you, and when something amazing happens I will think about sharing it with you.

Listen for me, because I will be talking to you and dreaming of you.
When the kids do something new and interesting, I will think of you,
and when I spend time with dad or Marc or Stacy, I will think of you.

When I plant poppies in the spring I will think of you, and imagine
you with Pop Pop. When I read a good book, or listen to waves of the
ocean rushing in and out, I will think of you.

Thank you for all of these gifts you have given me. You have been the perfect mother for me, and because of that I will go on, and so will you.

I pray that all of these memories we have built together will carry you gently off to your new life. I pray that you will watch us and laugh with us and
shake your head at our antics. Please know that you will always be
with us, in our hearts, and in our memories.

I will love you always.