On Strength

So many people have told me how strong I am. I do not always feel strong.

What does it mean to be strong? My parents recently traveled to Scotland and discovered that our family name is connected to the MacLeod clan, whose motto is “Hold Fast.” That seems, at least at first, a reasonable way of thinking about strength: holding fast, holding tight, holding on. When people ask me how I am doing, I often find myself resorting to a more casual expression of the same idea: “hanging in.” “Strength,” for most I think, tends to call up ideas of persistence, toughness, control, perseverance.

But I have felt strongest, and most at peace, in moments of letting go.

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Not long after my initial diagnosis, when I was really reeling, a former student of mine, Carrie, sent me some wise, encouraging words. She wrote, “You’re one of the strongest people I have ever met. Strength doesn’t mean you can’t be mad, that you won’t cry, and that you won’t break down. All of those are forms of strength.” They don’t sound that way, at first. They sound like losing it. But in reality control was never mine to lose. And each of these responses is a form of letting go.

In the past few months, I’ve seen several videos titled something along the lines of “How Heavy is Your Glass of Water?” circulating around Facebook. My preferred version, by Knowable Studio, is “Remember to put your glass down.” The message in each is the same: a psychologist, speaking to an audience about stress, holds up a glass of water and asks how heavy it is. She goes on to make the point that its absolute weight is irrelevant. The longer one holds it, the heavier it feels, the harder it becomes to function. The same is true with stress and suffering in our lives. The lesson: remember to put the glass down.

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So I have found my own ritual way of setting the glass down, a physical as well as mental process. I prefer to find a place outside and sit or kneel on the ground, hands open to the sky, my heart lifted, my eyes closed. Then I have a short conversation with the universe.

The first time I engaged in this ritual was almost accidental. It was our first evening on Folly Beach, when we were still waiting on some significant test results. I went for a sunset walk on the beach, collecting several Tellin clams and jingle shells along the way. Stopping to watch the light change as the sun dropping behind me reflected off and outlined a bank of clouds gathered over the ocean, I sank to the sand, facing the horizon, and spread my treasures on the beach before me. I told the universe and its various representatives that I needed to give this weight to them: Universe, God, Goddess, Jesus, Buddha, all that is that is greater than my knowledge and understanding, all that is that is Love in this world, I need to give this to you, because I cannot carry it. It is too much for me. I sat in silence for a few minutes, shed a few quiet tears, then rose and walked back up the beach, leaving my shell offering. I felt a distinct lightness, a sense of renewed peace.

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I’ve repeated a similar ritual since. Once is not enough; it’s too easy to begin grasping and gripping and holding on tight. Letting go requires practice. Letting go is scary, largely because it does mean giving up the illusion of control.

Sometimes I fear letting go, because I’m afraid it sounds, or feels, like giving up. Accepting I cannot control all that comes, saying I’ll embrace whatever happens, whether it’s what I want to happen or not, feels a little like giving the universe permission to do its worst. Maybe if I just hold on and worry over all the details and possibilities, a little voice in my head says, it will better prepare me, even prevent a bad outcome. Of course, that’s balderdash. Letting go does not mean surrendering my desire for health or long life. It’s simply an acknowledgment that I can hold on as tightly as I want to a desired outcome, but there are no guarantees. And there is power, peace, and strength in accepting that truth.

I remind myself of this fact as we anticipate the next appointments, the next pieces in the process: first, follow-up imaging, post-chemotherapy, to see how much the treatment shrank the cancer, and then my surgery consultation. I confess I’m bracing myself; thus far, outside the “no metastasis” declaration, the news has always been worse than we’d hoped: you want them to say the lump is benign, but it’s cancer; you want them to say it’s Stage 1, but it’s Stage 3. It’s strange, how you can find ways to keep shifting the barometer of what you can accept: I can deal with X as long as not Y, Y as long as not Z. The internal bargaining is exhausting and doesn’t accomplish much. I know I’ll fare better if I can let go of my ideas about what should be and meet myself and the world where we are.

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Perhaps I’ve been driven to seek my strength, the solace of letting go, outside on the sand, or under the trees, by the same impulse poet Wendell Berry renders so beautifully in “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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That evening on Folly Island, as I made my way back to our beach house, I paused to sit again on one of the large jetty boulders closest to our rental. When I looked down, a single olive shell rested in a cup of the rock at my feet. I reached down to pick it up, recalling that the very first time I’d told my now-husband Steve I loved him, I’d done so on a trip to the beach, by placing an olive shell I’d found on his pillow.

Was this new olive shell a message? A portent? I don’t know. I hold on to it as reminder to keep letting go. It tells me the peace of wild things is with me, and that is enough.

Autumn on the Parkway

img_9940Yesterday my husband Steve and I took a short drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping to see some fall colors. My energy and mobility are still pretty limited—for whatever reason, the Taxol has settled into my knees, leaving me to creak around arthritically—so a mountain drive seemed like a nice way to get out of the house and breathe in at least a little fresh air.

The sky was clear and blue, the weather a perfect balance of sunshine tempered by a crisp, occasionally brisk breeze.

The colors this year are pretty lackluster, however.img_9957

Just driving along, looking out over the long-range vistas provided by many of the Parkway’s overlooks, there wasn’t much color to see. The rolling mountains along either side of the ridge, while always lovely in their swells and dips and graceful silhouettes, didn’t offer any breathtaking vistas of brilliant hues. Most of the mountains and valleys remained green, or had simply faded to a kind of dusty, rusty brown, without any fanfare, without any autumnal spectacle. From that perspective, it would be easy to say there was no color at all.

img_9945But every so often, as we rounded a bend and the sun shone just right, a beam filtering through the trees lit up a few yellow poplar clustered a little ways back in the under-story. A low-growing shrub dappled the roadside bank with orange here and there, if you watched carefully. We had to pull over and walk a few feet up the Appalachian Trail to spot the scarlet of a single sassafras leaf, the mottled red and gold of a maple.

Some seasons of life, perhaps, are like that. The beauty is there, it’s just harder to see. You have to look a lot closer to find it. You have to let go of your ideas about the grandeur that should be, and cherish instead the smallest offerings.

Like a quiet afternoon with the man you love, a few moments on a windy ridge with the sun warm on your face, a sliver of splendor you can hold in your hand.

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Heads Up! #4: Red Velvet Day

This rolled-and-ruched red velvet cloche is one I found at an antique store and fell in love with immediately. Its hue falls somewhere between red and pink, depending on the light, and its organic folds and pleats are full of movement, even when it’s simply resting atop the head.

The hat is finished with one wide grosgrain band that wraps and encircles its narrow brim, and a second, doubled ribbon in the same shade that gathers the pleats on the right side of the back crown. The only tag inside indicates that it was “Union Made in the U.S.A.”

Sometimes I feel a bit silly or indulgent playing with my hats. I mean, I have cancer. I should be serious, right? Every day I’m reminded that energy and time are finite quantities, so I should use them wisely, yes?

Pish. Today is the only day we have. That makes it all the more important to embrace frivolity, joy, and superfluous delights, which really aren’t superfluous at all.

This topper’s bright color and sassy cheer, by the way, make it a great hat to mark two notable milestones: the conclusion of my chemotherapy, and the advent of the autumn leaf hues that are finally beginning to appear!

Heads up!

All photos by Laura Wade Photography.


∼ Beautiful, quirky vintage hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (currently bald) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼

 

Thinking About Pink

October, as most are likely aware, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My husband Steve has been doing some traveling lately, and he’s sent back a few reports on the awareness efforts he’s encountered on the road. Yesterday all the flight attendants on his trip sported pink ribbons, and the in-flight magazine had a feature story. A couple of weeks ago, he dined at a restaurant that served up pink tortilla chips. Not that travel is required to see plenty of pink during October: I previously noted the Ulta ad that landed in my mailbox, and every time I turn on the television, I find a public service announcement for a tie or scarf I can purchase to help the cause.

think-pink-cafe-000-page-1Public support and awareness is a good thing, of course. Our local mall recently hosted a “Positively Pink Parade,” raising funds for the Every Woman’s Life program, which provides free mammograms to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women in our area. Personally, I had the opportunity to attend a retreat for breast cancer survivors sponsored by our local breast care center. It was a powerful experience, both uplifting and draining, physically and emotionally. We interacted with other survivors, created healing art, asked questions of a panel of doctors. It was humbling and inspiring to hear the stories and witness the resilience of the women gathered there, several of whom referred to our shared experience as a kind of sisterhood.

Yet I find myself resisting the proliferation of pink, the idea that with my diagnosis I’ve joined a club of sorts, one that comes ready-made with a club symbol, theme color, purchasable bling, and annual rituals. Maybe all of it takes me uncomfortably back to my visit to the wedding book aisle as a forty-something first-time bride, when I felt like I’d been transported into Barbie- and baby-land, all pink and purple book covers and unrelentingly cutesy fonts. I mean, wedding planning is something grown women do, ideally, not tweens. Similarly, I find much of the imagery of Breast Cancer Awareness Month cloying and cutesifying, when not disturbingly sexualized. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as “pink-washing,” and while some women find solace there, many others experience the explosion of pretty tchotchkes and slogans like “Save the ta-tas” as more trivializing than empowering. At times the approach seems almost celebratory.

There’s nothing fun about having breast cancer. At this moment in my journey, I am faced with deciding whether to have only one or both of my breasts surgically removed. I am about to undergo genetic testing to find out if my ovaries might need to follow. There’s nothing cute about contemplating reconstruction options. There’s nothing sexy about the prospect of losing my nipples, all sensation in my breasts. There is not enough pink tulle on the planet to make any of this palatable or easy. I will not need souvenirs manufactured in China: the scars I will come to bear will be pink ribbon reminder enough.

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I like pink. I even own a pink tulle skirt—purchased long before my diagnosis. To me, it says “ballerina,” not “breast cancer.” The only statement it makes is a style statement, and I’d like to keep it that way.

This is not a club I would have chosen to join.

Given a choice, I’m guessing most people wouldn’t. (I think of Groucho Marx, who reputedly once sent a wire stating, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”) I’m not a joiner by nature, never have been, so some of my resistance no doubt stems thence. My husband Steve compared this process to graduate school. Deep bonds are forged there—often through some trial and misery—that remain for a lifetime, but once you graduate, you’re no longer a student, and you move on, leave that identity behind. I am a person who lives where I am. I don’t wax nostalgic about high school, or grad school, or my first job or home. I turn my attention to the people and places of this moment.

I expect my experience with cancer to be similar. For now, a significant part of my identity is “cancer patient,” but (god willing) that will not always be true. And I will, for the rest of my life (god willing), be a cancer survivor. But I am and will also be a writer, a teacher, a wife, an artist, a daughter, a friend. I will always be of a double mind about having had this disease. Cancer is teaching me important lessons about how to pay more attention to what really matters, how to let go of what doesn’t. But if I’m honest, given the option to go back and not have cancer, I can’t say I’d embrace it, even if it meant losing a lesson or two.

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Let me say again: public support and awareness are unequivocally good. If a pink parade ensures a woman gets the mammogram that saves her life, that parade is worth every ounce of its pink bling. If 5,000 people buy beaded bracelets at Ulta, and that money goes to ground-breaking research, those bracelets are worth their weight in gold.

Yet I wonder how successful these events are in terms of really educating people. How many people know that most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history? How many people know that there are a number of different types of breast cancer, and each has different treatment protocols? How many know that, even with those differences, surgery is still almost always the standard bearer? How many people understand that even once you are “cancer-free,” there is a waiting period, a wondering period, when recurrence is a concern, up to 3, 5, even 10 years? Research is advancing rapidly in many ways; doctors can target treatment so much more effectively than even five years ago. Yet the primary cures—mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation—remain pretty darn toxic and brutal. When will that change?

Given the prominence of pink in October, I find it hard to imagine that people aren’t “aware” of breast cancer in a larger sense. It’s other cancers that often get short shrift. My husband is a testicular cancer survivor; a dear friend is a survivor of intestinal cancer; a Facebook friend from high school has just seen her daughter treated for brain cancer. These forms of cancer don’t get the press that breast cancer does, but they cause just as much pain and suffering. All cancers hurt. Maybe we can pull back a bit on the pink and invest in understanding causes and treatments that work while doing as little harm as possible.

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So if the bling is not your thing, what can you do? From the front lines, here are my recommendations:

  • Ladies (gents, too, especially if you have a family cancer history), do your monthly self-exams. Get your mammogram. Ask if your facility has 3-D mammography. If you are informed (as, by law, you must be in many states) that you have “dense breast tissue,” ask your doctor what your rights are to a follow-up ultrasound, paid for by insurance. If you have a history of family cancer, you might want to ask about genetic testing and/or additional screening: those with established risk factors have access to more options.
  • Donate to research—and do your homework first. From my explorations thus far, I recommend Stand Up to Cancer, the American Cancer Society, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
  • Alternately, focus on local initiatives and care centers, or directly support individual families and patients you know. A colleague of mine organized a Meal Train for us during chemotherapy, and it was an absolute godsend. A cozy blanket to cuddle under and Lifesavers to suck on during the saline wash while in the chemo chair will, I can attest, be deeply appreciated.

Cancer sucks. Let’s kick its butt together.

Do Good to Feel Good: Plant a Tree

Last weekend, Steve and I took advantage of a beautiful fall afternoon (and  little extra energy) and went for a short walk on one of the trails in Mill Mountain Park, a forested space we are lucky to have just minutes from our home. Our walk was more stroll than hike, and it included a peaceful interlude resting on a bench halfway through. In a sense, we were doing what the Japanese call “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku), immersing ourselves in the woods for a while, which has been shown to have powerful physical and psychological benefits.

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As Steve noted in his recent guest blog on Taxol, the chemotherapy drug I am currently taking, trees offer us and our world so many benefits. So, for this installment of doing good to feel good: consider planting a tree!

Plant a Tree

Trees help remove pollution from the atmosphere, clean our water, cool the earth, provide habitat to wildlife, and even reduce crime (see the National Arbor Day website for more detail). Trees are, of course, also a source of great beauty.

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And research has shown that walking in the forest, breathing in the phyto-chemicals released by trees, can help fight cancer. In honor and celebration of today’s last chemotherapy treatment, I want to say thanks to the trees!

So, do good to feel good: visit the Arbor Day website to explore what trees flourish in your area, and what might be successfully planted this time of year. Consider planting a tree sapling in your yard today, or if that isn’t feasible, consider support planting trees in another area of the world.

Trees are good for the planet, and good for you!

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∼Science–and common sense–tells us that doing something good for others is good for us: it raises our endorphins, boosts our self-esteem, gives us an emotional lift. Doing good is good for others and for healing ourselves. In this feature, I occasionally suggest a small action each of us can take to make the world a better place. I will if you will!∼

Special Guest Post: The Chemistry Professor & the Poisonous Tree

Today’s post is authored by my wonderful husband, Steve.  As I approach my last chemotherapy appointment this Friday (yay!), he shares the story of Taxol, the drug at work on me.

Pacific Yew
Pacific Yew

My wife sleeps in the reclining chair of the chemotherapy treatment room. A shawl knitted by her sister-in-law, herself a breast cancer survivor, is wrapped around her shoulders. A bright fuzzy blanket made by her mother lies across her lap and legs. Two plastic bags on the IV stand feed a clear liquid through the tangle of tubes to the port on her chest and then straight into her heart. The chemical in the liquid works in a unique way to halt cell division, which stops the cancer from growing. Drop by drop, minute by minute, it flows through her veins to poison the tumor that threatens her life.

I’ve spent my career as a forester, so I’m fascinated by this chemotherapy agent which was found in the bark of a tree. An unremarkable and slow-growing tree compared to its neighbors in the moist mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, rarely reaches 50 feet tall. All parts of the tree, except for the fleshy aril surrounding its seed, are extremely poisonous.

Bark of Pacific Yew
Bark of Pacific Yew

Seven years before Sandee was born, botanist Arthur Barclay from the New Crops Research branch of the US Department of Agriculture and several graduate students were roaming the deep forests and steep slopes of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington. They collected samples of stem, fruit, and bark from a scraggly Pacific yew and sent them to labs for study. Researchers spent decades trying to identify the compound in the bark and its medicinal properties. It wasn’t until Sandee was in her mid-teens, however, that the drug derived from the yew bark, Taxol, entered clinical trials for cancer treatment. Only in 1991 was it shown to be effective against breast cancer.

But while life-saving for cancer patients, the production of Taxol could have been devastating to the yew trees.  In the early days of Taxol research, it took about 6 trees to produce the 25 pounds of bark needed to produce just one-half gram of Taxol, the amount required for a single patient. And removing the bark kills the trees. There simply were not enough of these trees to supply the needed quantities of bark; mass production of the drug could eradicate the species.

~ ~ ~

In 1999, when I moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, I met David Kingston, a tall, lean Englishman with a penchant for bowties, born in London and educated at Cambridge University. He was an elder at the church I attended, and his earnest yet compassionate and thoughtful approach to preaching made his sermons some of the most impactful I have heard.

English Yew, Oxford
English Yew, Oxford Botanical Garden

Dr. Kingston is also a chemistry professor at Virginia Tech. He was part of the research team that tackled the problem of synthesizing Taxol so that it could be produced sustainably. The Pacific yew has a cousin, the English or European yew (Taxus baccata), with its own long and storied history. English yew has been used to make bows for centuries, dating as far back, according to Homer, as the siege of Troy, and poet William Wordsworth spoke of a yew tree “of vast circumference and gloom profound.” The English yew is far more widespread than the Pacific yew, growing even as an ornamental shrub in the US, and its needles can be harvested without killing the tree. Dr. Kingston and his collaborators found a way to use a compound from the needles of the English yew to create the molecule needed to synthesize Taxol. It is this compound, hidden away in the bark and leaves of trees, decades in the making, that is coursing through Sandee’s veins while she sleeps.

Oxford Yew Stats!
English Yew in Oxford: 370 years!

I think of the times Sandee and I have hiked through forests, sharing our love for natural spaces. I remember the hike we took in the Cascade Mountains of Washington on a day off from her writers’ conference. We may have walked right by one of these Pacific yews. I recall the 370-year old English yew in the Oxford Botanical Garden we encountered a few years ago. I think of the millenia that people have used plant products for healing.

And I marvel at the decades of patient, persistent efforts of scientists and doctors who have overcome so many challenges to bring a compound from the bark of a poisonous tree into the very heart of my wife.  I’m honored to have known one of these scientists, but I am grateful to them all.

Be Kind. Always.

Not too long after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, a meme appeared in my Facebook feed: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.”

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I had seen this piece of wisdom before, but prior to my current struggle, it was essentially an abstraction. I’ve quickly come to understand it at a much more visceral level. You never really know what’s going on inside another person. So be kind, be compassionate.

Because you never really know.

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 A parable of sorts.

In between the date of receiving my cancer diagnosis and going broadly public with it, I shared a post on my Facebook page that listed which members of congress had voted to allow those on the Terrorist Watch List to buy assault rifles. Though headlined with the clear stance “Vote the nay-voters out,” the list itself was pure information: who voted for what. Immediately a Facebook “friend”—John, someone I barely remember from high school—responded with disagreement, and a lively thread largely populated by three additional friends who supported the initial stance ensued.

I’d shared the post the same morning I had my first appointment with the breast surgeon. There I learned that my cancer was Stage 3 with lymph node involvement, that I would need chemotherapy before surgery, that further tests were required to verify there was no metastasis. It was heavy news, not what we’d hoped for, and in that moment the second amendment quickly shifted pretty far down my list of concerns.

In the thread, John had moved fast to dismissive comments peppered with things like “STFU,” “you don’t have a clue,” and broad insults to all liberals. I have no patience for incivility of that sort on a good day, and the rapidly rising snark factor upset me. After a few more snipes and insults, I wrote the following on the thread:

“John, enough. I am not having the best day ever and this stuff is not helping. Thanks all.

And just a note for the future. I don’t post things on my page as an invitation for other people to shoot them down and argue with me. I post them because I believe in them. You don’t have to agree, but neither do you have to try to start an argument. My mind is unlikely to be changed, and I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life.”

I pointed out I’d never once picked an argument deliberately on his page, although he frequently leapt at the chance to tell me how wrong I was in my posts. I asked him to stop, to show some restraint, as nicely as I could.

His response: “Spoken like a true liberal. Only post if you agree. No opposing arguments. Got it.”

And then he posted this (completely unsourced, terrible visual-quality) graphic, on causes of death in the USA:

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The number three cause of death listed: cancer.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

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Since my own diagnosis, I’ve had a friend suffer from a serious spider bite. Another saw his sister diagnosed with cancer. Two friends have seen their beloved dogs through serious surgeries and biopsies. Another, an avid runner, is laid up for a few months after surgery to repair ruptured tendons and ligaments. Still another tragically lost her son to suicide. A former student faces abdominal surgery for ongoing health issues, a dear friend has heart surgery coming up soon. The aging parents of several friends have been in and out of the hospital multiple times, and one young woman lost her mother. Another girlfriend has feared loss of a job. A twenty-two-year-old model I’ve worked with continues his battle against leukemia. Two friends have disclosed serious depression. And countless people now face recovering from the damages of Hurricane Matthew.

And these are just some of the battles I do know about.

What of all the others? The man in front of me in line at the grocery store? The student sitting quietly in the back of the coffee shop? The neighbor loading a box into her car? The commenter on the online thread?

Since my own diagnosis, I have been the recipient of depths and breadths of kindness that I do not know how I will ever repay. Notes, cards, music, books, food, flowers, yoga, housecleaning, hugs, prayers, gatherings of support, so so many words of encouragement. I have been moved to tears by the incredible love and generosity of the people in this world.

That is the world I want to live in, to help create.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Be kind.

Always.

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