Friday, May 29, 2009

Does Cancer Make You Brave?

I don't know, but, in my case, it at least makes me more willing to take risks. Here are a few of my latest:

Fear of Fiction: When I was a child, I wrote fiction with abandon, but gave up in high school. Those really great writers managed to uninspire me. I could never come close to writing anything as great, so why even try? I've just broken the fiction fast with a submission to pal Paula Johnson's Rose City Sister's Flash Fiction site.

I Hate Irrational Numbers: I'll be reading this piece at the IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) Reads Its Own event on June 7, 2 to 4 pm, at Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles.

Improv Improvement: My improv class will be showcasing its work at the Ice House Comedy Club in June. I'm brave enough to take the class and brave enough to participate in the show, but I'm not quite brave enough to invite my friends. (At this point, potential humiliation in front of people I'll never see again seems preferable.) But bear with me; I'm workin' on that.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rest in Peace, Brownie

Last August, during a weak moment (inserted into a weak week and an ever weaker month), Cynthia asked if she could take care of her friend's chihuahua. "Is it temporary?" I asked weakly. "Yes, Mommy," she assured me.

The moment that Brownie moved in, I knew that I had made a fatal error. (You can read the whole story, "Help, There's a Chihuahua in My Kitchen" here.) Brownie didn't care that she had an eviction notice. She was here to stay.

Brownie was a pain. She yapped at guests, terrorized the cats and annoyed Betty. She threw me into frantic yelling fits of "SERENITY NOW!" But, somewhere along the line, I started to fall for the little terrorist. Just yesterday I spent more than an hour in our back yard watching Brownie and little Coco (yes, another dog) scamper about.

You can see where this is going, can't you? (I, on the other hand, am very slow to pick up on foreshadowing.)

When Cynthia woke up this morning and found that Brownie wasn't in her room, she looked outside and found her dead dog in our side yard. Brownie's neck was bleeding and her entrails exposed. We suspect a vicious raccoon.

All of us are sad and traumatized. And I never thought I'd say this, but I miss you, Brownie.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mutts for Marrow and Pasadena Relay for Life

Bill and I and the "Mutts for Marrow" team for the Pasadena Relay for Life will be at the Pasadena City College Stadium from Saturday, May 30, until Sunday morning.

We'd still love to have our local friends join us for all or part of the day. Our team has raised enough money so that we can "redistribute" the contributions to other team members. That means that you can get a free T-shirt, free breakfast-lunch-dinner and an endless supply of Starbuck's coffee, even if you haven't raised a dime. All you need to do is click here or on the "Relay for Life" logo to register for our team. (Pick the FREE team member option.)

We'll also be signing up potential donors for the National Bone Marrow Registry. If you know of any minorities or "mutts" between the ages of 18 and 60 who aren't on the registry, please encourage them to come by the Mutts for Marrow tent on Saturday.

Here's the schedule of events for Saturday:

8:00 am Registration and Breakfast
9:00 am Opening Ceremony
9:45 am Survivor Lap
10:00 am Caregiver Lap
10:15 am Parade of Teams
Noon Balloon Toss
12:30 pm Lunch
1:00 pm Frozen Tee Shirt Contest
5:00 pm Bra Contest
6:00 pm Dinner


8:00 pm Miss Relay Contest
9:00 pm Luminarias Ceremony
9:30 pm Remember Walk

I haven't pushed hard for donations this time because so many of you were so generous for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's walk in September. But, if you'd like to donate to the American Cancer Society on behalf of the team (we're just shy of our $2,500 goal) or me (I'm $50 shy of my modest goal) or any team member who hasn't yet raised money, we'd all be appreciative. Just click here or on the "Relay for Life" logo on the left side of this blog.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Numbers, Odds, Randomness and Uncertainty

I love numbers.

Those words might come as a surprise from a writer, but, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been smitten with numbers as much as words. Numbers are comforting. They explain. They form patterns. They offer proof. They tell stories. They can predict the ending for those stories.

Or so I thought.

Turns out that my elaborate spreadsheets, line charts and data during treatment did little in the way of comforting, explaining, proving or predicting. At best, the numbers gave me the allusion of control.

In spite of my disillusionment with digits, I'm still fascinated by the science of predictability and the age-old question, "What are the odds?"

I was especially intrigued with this NY Times opinion piece by "the editors" and Leonard Mlodinow, author of “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives."

The author's answer to this email question struck a chord:

An earlier post by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes the argument that uncertainty — not knowing what misfortune will come — makes people more unhappy than misfortune itself. Do you find that to be true?

It does seem to be true of my own psychology. Also, I find that what’s most important, whatever happens, is how you deal with it. And once something bad actually happens, you can start that process, and bad can eventually even turn into good.
I'd never heard the uncertainty/unhappiness theory, but I can certainly relate. For me, the hardest stretches during diagnosis, treatment and remission have been the pockets of uncertainty. And Mlondinow gets it right in his response.

So how do we deal with the uncertainties of illness or life? Carl at A Pastor's Cancer Diary does a great job of describing the frustration (and eventual acceptance) of living with uncertainty, what Dr. Seuss called "the most useless place. The waiting place . . . "

For Carl and others, the operative word of "living with uncertainty" is living. And you don't need a spreadsheet for that.

(Leonard Mlodinow will be at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena on June 11. I'll be there.
5-25 Update: Oops. Mlodinow was at Vroman's in 2008. I'm only a year late. He's a local CalTech guy, so I hope I have another opportunity to hear him in person.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beauty and the Blight

My garden is a little microcosm of life. There's lots of beauty, but there's also plenty of weeds, crab grass and a few eyesores. It all depends on where the eye chooses to rest.

And sometimes it's about covering up the blight and creating something beautiful in the process. Read more about it at Open Mouth, Insert Fork.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Feeling Grateful

I keep waiting for the day when I'm one of those patients who reports for duty at the City of Hope once every six months. But, thanks to my recent complications, I've been driving to Duarte three times a week - a far cry from twice a year.

At least my frequent visits have reminded me of a few of the many things for which I'm grateful.

I'm a celebrity: Well, not really, but my doctor and all the staff treat me like one. I thought about this when I watched Farrah's Story and saw my doctor consulting with real-life celebrities Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal. All of us City of Hope patients get treated with the same level of care and compassion as a star. And we don't have to put up with the paparazzi.

I have enviable physical assets: Forgive me for bragging, but I have great veins. They are so outstanding that phlebotomists (blood takers) and nurses almost always comment on them. When I went in for my CT scan yesterday, the nurse said he didn't even need a tourniquet to pump my vein before the insertion of the IV. I'm an easy target and an easy blood draw and rarely feel a thing.

I wonder if Blood (a magzine for hematologists) would be interested in a center fold?

I'm covered: Cancer and serioius illnesses can be financially devastating, with or without insurance. (Mike C knows a thing or two about this.) In my case, all of my sky-high medical expenses (except for our annual deductible) have been completely covered. Not a day goes by that I don't thank God for this.

I'm surrounded: Loving, supportive, positive people are all around me, nearby and around the world. How about a giant group hug?

What about you? What are you grateful for these days?

(And, in case you're interested, those darn EOS went UP AGAIN. I am NOT thankful for that.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

You are getting VERRRY sleepy - More EOS talk

Each day I'm more energetic and more active. My cough, however, persists, and I'm still breathless after climbing a flight of stairs. (I only wish that I was breath-taking, instead of breathless.)

At the risk of inducing naps, I found out something surprising during today's visit at the City of Hope. We have been regularly checking my white blood for eosinophils (EOS), and, of course, expect to find nothing. After all, I've been on a high dose of Prednisone (60 mg.), a steroid that efficiently annihilates EOS.

But, for some unknown reason, mine are on the rise again. Last Monday, EOS made up 10% of my white blood, when it should have been nada. How can this be? My suspicion is that those same EOS have crept into my lungs. I'm scheduled for a CT scan and pulmonary testing on Wednesday and a consultation with my pulmonologist on Thursday. I'm voting for a diagnostic bronchoscopy so that we can get to the bottom of this.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Isn't It Romantic?

There's at least one good thing about being diagnosed with pneumonia: Everyone knows what it is.

No need for long-winded explanations or that snooze-inducing word, eosinophils. If you think that coughing turns you into a social pariah, try dropping the word "eosinophils" into a conversation at a cocktail party. Eyes will glaze over. Heads will nod off to sleep. Gin and tonics will need to be refreshed. Long-lost friends from across the room will suddenly appear.

But, at the risk of putting all the new Cancer Banter followers into slumber mode, I don't think I have pneumonia. I believe that the cloudy x-ray with the infiltrates and the shortness of breath and the coughing and the fatigue are the work of those pesky little eosinophils. The prednisone has battered them down in my white blood, but I think they may have infiltrated my lungs.

My doctor, a hematologist, disagrees with me. He thinks that it's a simple case of pneumonia and that the antibiotics will have me healthy again in no time. I hope he's right.

I just saw my doctor on Farrah's Story, the Farrah Fawcett documentary of her struggles with cancer. He's shown at the City of Hope in a consultation with Farrah and her long-time love Ryan O'Neal. Now that's a love story.

But hematologists have nothing over Farrah and Ryan in the romance department. Don't forget that the "Eos" in eosinophils is from the Greek Goddess of the Dawn. And the "phils" is from the Greek word for love. As a matter of fact, two other components of the white blood end in love: neutrophils and basophils.

What's that you say? You need to refresh your gin and tonic? Alright then.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Accordion Blues

Funny that I should write about the old squeeze box of life the other day. You know the number - expand, contract, expand, contract. The point of that post was to talk about how my life has expanded.

But it turns out that my life has also been slowly contracting for the last 11 days. With a hacking cough that has turned me into a social pariah, I found myself making and breaking dates and staying home more. On top of the cough, I was short of breath from the smallest activity, like walking across a room. Add in fatigue (in spite of a healthy, daily dose of 60 mg of Prednisone), and I was very content to be housebound.

I can't believe this was the same person who, just 12 days earlier, drove solo like an old-fashioned Dad (straight without stopping) from SF to LA and then, in response to a text message, met a friend at an improv club in Hollywood on the way home.

Tonight I received an email from my doctor with the results of the chest x-ray that I had yesterday at the City of Hope. I have infiltrates in my lungs, which means I have something that looks like pneumonia. At least we'll be treating it like pneumonia. Here we go again. (By the way, I'm one of the luckiest patients. My doctor emailed me with the results of my x-ray and then called my pharmacy with the prescription for antibiotics after 8 pm.)

I'm always just a little relieved to find out that there's something amiss and that I'm not just becoming a lazy, out-of-shape wimp.

Time to contract again. Just a little.

(Recommended blog: Running for my Life: Fighting Cancer One Step at a Time. Runner and writer Ronni's life has taken more twists and turns, ups and downs than the Dow Jones, but she always comes back, one step at a time. She is currently recovering from her THIRD donor stem cell transplant. I love her observations, insights, humor and spirit. When she describes getting platelets or going through a pulmonary function test, you're right in the chamber with her.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Vida Loca - Crazy Mint

Anyone who has had a diagnosis of cancer or has had a friend or family member with the Big C knows this: It can make your life just a little out-of-control crazy.

And then there's the every-day kind of "crazy." It's up for debate who said it first, but craziness (or insanity) is often defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I discovered that's exactly what I was doing in the garden while trying to grow a crazy little herb called mint. You can read the full story at Open Mouth, Insert Fork.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Life is a Squeeze Box and Relay for Life

There's no doubt about it.

Cancer or any serious illness can contract your life. Heck, even a bad cold can reduce your daily existence to a box of Kleenex, a bottle of Nyquil and a remote control.

What I didn't realize is that, sometimes, cancer can also expand your life in unexpected ways. I won't even attempt to name all the people (both online and offline) who have made my life richer. Today I'm going to talk about one of those people.

I met Bill Kavanaugh through his blog, Lymph Notes, and was instantly smitten. Who wouldn't be after reading about how Bill's (or Baby Billy Bird, as he refers to himself in the blog) friends dressed in costume when escorting him to his chemo sessions. Or how they painted his bald head like an Easter egg. Or how he spent the day at the Happiest Place on Earth. Or his poignant response to the repeal on gay marriage.

We met in person a few months ago and instantly hit it off, even though we're complete opposites. He had Hodgkins Lymphoma; I had non-Hodgkins.

But we're alike in one fundamental way: We both like to do good while having fun.

That's why I immediately said "YES!" when Bill asked me to be a co-captain for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in Pasadena on May 30 and 31. (Click here for the complete schedule.)

Our theme is "Mutts for Marrow," and we're going to raise awareness of the need for mutts and minorities on the National Bone Marrow Registry while we raise money for cancer research and support.

Do you like to do good and have fun too? Sign up to walk with us. You can come for an hour or the day. I'll be making sugar-bone cookies as doggie treats, we'll be taking photos by the dog house and we'll share a pot-luck dinner on Saturday evening before the Luminaria. Yes, we'll have a doggone good time.

And, if you can't make it, maybe you'll throw us a little bone. I usually like to support smaller charities (like A3M) insted of mega organizations like the American Cancer Society, but when I found out that they provide free transportation for cancer patients here in the Pasadena area, I felt like I was seeing a more direct connection between my dollars and the local benefits.

I promise: Whether you walk or give, it will be a life-expanding experience.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Social Pariah Strikes Again

I'm coughing again. A lot.

I no longer have eosinophils in my blood, but the coughing has become progressively worse over the last week. I don't know why.

I do know that I am, once again, a social pariah. With the heightened anxiety over swine flu, the public reaction is far worse than last year.

Yesterday, I had two different cashiers ask me, "Are you sick?" in an accusatory fashion. "Yes, I guess I am, but I'm not contagious," I answered. Or maybe I should have just said, "No, but I just have this annoying cough." Or maybe I should have asked, "What happened to 'Have a nice day.'"

This evening, I couldn't stop coughing during the WriteGirl PlayWriteGirl Event at the Pasadena Playhouse. Teen girls wrote monologues and short skits during a day-long workshop, and professional actors from film and television brought their words to life. Before the show started, I offered a preemptive apology and explanation to the woman sitting next to me.

Once the show started, I tried to stifle my coughs and let them erupt during clapping. And I was fastidious about covering my mouth with both hands.

I noticed that each time I coughed, the elderly lady sitting in front of me moved her program to her left ear. The first time, I thought it was a coincidence. Then she did it again and again. Soon, she wasn't moving the program from her ear. This passive-aggressive act made me so intensely uncomfortable that I apologized to my friend and left before the program was over. (Of course, that meant climbing over a dozen legs and then hopping over a chair to make my escape.)

I'm thinking of getting a few buttons printed:

- I do not have swine flu.
- Ask me about my EOS.
- Cough 'til you drop
- No thank you, I do not want a cough drop.
- I'm sorry.

Stinky Leeks and If I had a mentor

Miss Havisham challenged me to answer the question about what my life would have been like if I had a mentor as a teenager.

The challenge got me thinking about stinky wild ramps and . . . possibilities. Find out how at Open Mouth, Insert Fork.