Independence Day: New Blog Title Debut!

At the party with friends Cheryl and Brigitte

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US, typically celebrated with cookouts, parades, and fireworks. Steve and I have an annual tradition of attending a pool party thrown each year by a hiking friend, Jeff, and his wife. They grill hotdogs and hamburgers, everyone brings a dish to share, and we sit outside in camp chairs (or inside if it rains) and occasionally take a dip in the pool. Jeff always takes lots of fun pictures, and it’s a great afternoon spent with friends.

At last year’s July 4th party, Steve and I were still trying to get our heads around my recent diagnosis; it was so recent, in fact, that we’d told a few of our friends, but not yet all. I had an appointment on July 7th to get my port surgically implanted, and my first chemo was set to begin on July 8th. I remember feeling strangely calm—I managed to talk with some of the friends who knew what was happening about my illness without ever crying. But it was hard to feel genuinely celebratory, anticipating a year whose few certainties included pain, grief, and loss. It didn’t feel much like freedom, of any kind.

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Rose bouquet

This year felt much different. Two weeks out of my last major reconstructive surgery, I’m doing well and feeling stronger each day. This year’s Independence Day was marked by a return to a sense of personal independence, of healing, hope, and looking forward to regaining health and strength. My friend Cheryl surprised me with some beautiful roses, a happy acknowledgment of a day that had more significance than even she may have realized. There’s still a long road of recovery yet to travel, but I’m so grateful that this holiday, my struggle was trying to get my head around just how much can and has transpired in a year. I am once again free from cancer. It feels like a whole new world.

So, in honor of Independence Day, I’m making the name change of the blog official: Still Life, Beyond Cancer. As some wise friends have pointed out, I may wish to make still another change in the future, as I continue to heal and my world shifts and changes further. For now, I think the word “beyond” acknowledges both my cancer-free state (hooray!) and the fact that the physical and emotional effects of this past year still affect me daily. I hope that continuing to tell my story helps others who are themselves survivors or who know and love survivors.

Cheers!

Survivor: sur– referring to beyond, in addition to; -vivor as in vive, life. There’s life beyond cancer, something I’m thankful for each day.

Over the next week or so I’ll be updating some of the images on the site, too, to reflect the change visually. Now that my last major surgery is complete, I hope to resume a weekly posting schedule in the near future as well.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

And—better late than never—cheers to freedoms of all kinds, to (re)gaining independence, and to those fighting for both.

 

 

Heads Up! #7: Cozy Cobalt Felted Wool

img_0912Like much of the U.S., we recently had snow here in Southwest Virginia. I usually welcome snow, as it tends (at least here in the South) to make us slow down a bit and refocus our attention, for a day or two, on things like nature’s beauty, play, and family. The cold inspires gratitude for the warm shelter I call home, a gift denied to too many.

Our recent snow days–accompanied by single digit temperatures–seemed like the perfect time to feature my cozy cobalt felted wool hat, handmade by artist Sandy Stanton. I purchased the hat new back in September at the Asheville NC Homecrafts store, located in the Historic Grove Arcade in downtown Asheville. There were so many wonderful hats there to choose from, it was tough to select just one (I didn’t; I’ll be featuring my second purchase at a later date…). But I was immediately drawn to the beautiful blues of this hat, its primary cobalt accented by a band and flower knitted from an ombre-dyed yarn that shifts from jade to turquoise to cadet blue, into gray, brown, and finally cobalt at the flower’s center.img_0951

I gravitate toward shades of blue in my winter clothing, perhaps as a way of harnessing and transforming the emotional blues I often suffer in cold weather and its long, dark days. When so many other colors disappear from the landscape in winter, we are left with the blues: the crisp cerulean sky that reigns over the coldest days, steel-blue clouds signaling an oncoming storm, ice’s translucent aquas, the ethereal periwinkle of moonlit snow. Beautiful in their own right, these winter hues also recall the blues of kinder seasons: the robin’s egg blue of a cloudless autumn afternoon, a pewter horizon hanging over a sapphire sea, water lapping at the azure edges of a sunny backyard pool.

Occasionally snow days are an unwelcome interruption: they frustrate routines, delay travel, cancel our much-anticipated plans. But even when the clouds confound us, the thing about snow is this: it eventually melts. The storm will pass, the roads will clear. And as the world emerges from its white cocoon, the sky above will spread its wings, inviting us once again to delight in its fair, wide, beautiful blue.

Heads Up!

Photos by Steve Prisley


 ∼ Beautiful, quirky 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. ∼

Heads Up! #6: Vintage Sparkle

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I celebrated a birthday at the beginning of this week. I think I can safely refer to myself as being in my “mid-forties” for one more year. The next time candles grace a cake for me, however, I’ll have shifted firmly to the “late-forties” category.

That’s okay. More than okay, actually. Being a breast cancer patient has given me a whole new perspective on aging. Growing older–having the chance to grow older–sounds pretty darn good. Aging has its challenges to be sure; even before I was ill, it had started taking me longer to recover from strenuous hikes, or late nights with friends, than it did ten or even five years ago. But given the various losses of mobility, energy, and dignity I’ve recently endured–and survived–I know I can cope with growing old. (And in the meantime, I better understand why old-timers sometimes feel cranky.)

Though I suppose any vintage hat that has retained attitude and elegance could serve to underscore the merits of aging, I thought this one especially apt: a gray felt cloche topped by a feather detail. It appears sedate at first, but a closer look at the crown reveals a colorful medley of pink, green, and black-and-white feathers underneath fine netting. The gray brim of the hat is ringed by a satin ribbon that might, in its youth, have been bright pink, but has since faded to a lovely mauve. A round rhinestone accent, though darkened a bit by time, adds sass and sparkle.sandee-55

The hat is tagged as an “Evelyn Varon Exclusive.” According to Brenda Grantland in a comment on the Collectors Weekly website, Varon was a “French milliner whose designs were so popular that they were copied in the U.S.  A March 11, 1914 issue of the Evening Post Page of Wanamaker News reports that the store was offering copies of hats designed by Parisian milliners Suzanne Talbot, Evelyn Varon, Jeanne Duc, Caroline Reboux and Paul Poiret.” Grantland also claims that Varon designed costumes for the original Broadway version of Pins and Needles, but I haven’t been able to verify that claim.

In any case, it’s fun to embrace a little touch of 1914 Paris right here in 2016 Virginia. Ooh la la!

Heads Up!

All photographs 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. ∼

Heads Up! #5: Deep Purple

It’s a big day in the U.S. of A. today: after months (years) of wildly optimistic campaign promises, sometimes baffling debates, and too many social media meltdowns, the presidential election is finally here.

A big day deserves a bold hat!

This purple velvet beauty, trimmed in a sweep of iridescent blue, green, and white feathers (peacock, perhaps?) and a wide purple grosgrain ribbon, makes me think of the femme fatale in a 1940s film noir. The brim is low and wide, dipping below the eye on one side, giving it a bit of mystery and drama.

I find it pairs well with black and a bit of attitude.

Still, its bright hue and asymmetrical fold keep it from getting too serious.

Maybe we should keep that kind of balance in mind when we’re talking politics?

The hat was made by “Wesco.” There have been at least three different U.S. companies who sported that name, though it was not clear which of them were in the millinery trade. There are a number of other vintage hats on Etsy and eBay advertised as “Wesco” chapeaux, but no one notes any additional details.

It is a hat, then, with more mystery than history. On a day that’s making history for other reasons—the first time we have the opportunity to vote for a woman as a major party candidate for president—perhaps that’s just as it should be.

Heads Up!

All photos in gallery 1 by Margaret McGlaun.

Header photo and all photos in gallery 2 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. ∼

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. ∼

 

Heads Up! #3: Crossroads Hat

I picked this cream straw hat up at an antique store somewhere along the way because its two-way arrow made me giggle. I like its wit and its honesty: don’t we all feel pulled in different directions, unsure which path to take, just flat-out confused at times?

The hat is a Betmar, a company that still makes hats today. According to Betmar New York, “Betmar’s history goes back to the depths of the Great Depression in America,” in 1933.  “A partnership was formed with a skilled old-line cap maker with roots dating back to 1911 in New York. The name chosen was taken from Betty Marks, the first designer for the hat company.”

I honored the hat’s playfulness by highlighting its own dual nature.

Worn straight on the head, its bucket shape recalls a pith helmet, with a little nautical nod. So I embraced its military bearing with a buttoned-up look.

Paired with a vintage 1920s dress, the hat feels flapper-ish and adds a little fun (and some much-needed head-shade) to a sunny afternoon in the park.

The crossroads hat definitely captures the dual mindset chemotherapy requires: embracing toxic chemicals and unpleasant side effects now in order to achieve health, long-term. It seems equally apropos of our current election season….

Every day is a kind of crossroads. Every day, finding whatever beauty and joy in the present that is possible is a path we can choose.

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Heads Up!

Photographer: Steve Prisley


∼ 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. ∼

Everywhere’s a Metaphor

You know how when you buy a new car, suddenly that make and model starts showing up on every street you drive, every lot where you park? You’d never noticed it before you owned said car yourself, but suddenly it’s everywhere?

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the same thing happens. Instantly, it seems, every magazine you pick up has an ad for a new cancer drug, or a story of someone’s battle with cancer, or both. Every novel you read features a character with a mother or brother or friend who struggles with the disease (often used as shorthand for explaining the character’s current problems, especially if the mother’s/brother’s/friend’s cancer resulted in death). Watch any TV series long enough, and there will be a cancer mention, if not a full-on plot-line. Turn on NPR, and it comes up in that day’s interview.

Was I just not paying attention before now? Sometimes I wonder. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who reveal, once they hear I have breast cancer, that they are survivors: the technician who administered my pre-chemo EKG, a nurse practitioner I saw for an unrelated issue, my massage therapist. Friends have told me about mothers, aunts, sisters, co-workers who’ve traveled this path. It’s not that cancer had never entered my personal sphere: my sister-in-law is a six-year breast cancer survivor, and my husband, though his journey took place long before we met, is twenty-nine years cancer-free. But now I see it everywhere. Now it feels epidemic.

And with it come the metaphors.

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Professional hazard: when you’re a writerly type, and you’re trying to make sense of the weird detour your life has taken, the metaphors are dogged. You’re in the early stages of diagnosis and testing, and you drive to the beach. The weather is gorgeous for a few miles, then suddenly the gray gathers ahead, and your road leads straight into dark, threatening clouds. Rain pummels the car with such force you slow to a crawl. It lets up, a breather. You keep driving, round another bend, the storm crashes again. Just when it seems you’ll have to pull off the road to breathe without fear, the road bends westward, and the sky ahead shines clear and blue. You even catch a glimpse of a rainbow before it shimmers away. A bank of black clouds still hovers to the left. Will the rain follow you? Will the road turn directly into its path again?

You walk a mountain path through a nearby park. The first 100 yards of the trail are open, exposed to the blazing sun. It’s hot and uncomfortable until you reach the wooded portion of the trail that winds through the trees, where the dappled shade and a light breeze keeps the heat in check. It’s an out-and-back route, so you’ll trace those same 100 yards at the end of your walk. They weren’t fun at the beginning, and you know they’ll be even harder once you’re tired and spent and sweaty from the rest of your walk. But the only way home is back through.

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According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Chemotherapy, I think, is a first-rate test of a first-rate intelligence—and it’s a tough one, physically and psychologically. Embracing chemo means embracing toxic chemicals and nasty side effects that feel a lot like “harm,” even as you understand they’re doing “good” by helping you defeat the threat of the cancer.

Though the comparison feels more cliché than metaphor, chemo, for me, has been a roller coaster. Most breast cancer patients who have chemotherapy are on an every 2-week or 3-week cycle. As a two-weeker, I have one good week and one tough week. To concretize: imagine you’re going to be hit by a truck and catch the flu at the same time. For a week, you have intense body aches, nerve flare-ups, fatigue, nausea or other digestive issues, headaches, some fever. The worst passes after four to five days, followed by a couple days of lingering, less intense symptoms. You feel better, maybe almost normal, for a week. Then you willingly throw yourself in front of the truck again, because the truck is going to save your life.

I’ve been lucky, all things considered. My treatments have consisted of two sets of drugs, the first four a combination of Cytoxan and Adriamycin, and the second four rounds of Taxol. The first were the hardest, in part I think because of the ripple effect of adding drug-upon-drug to control side effects. In addition to the two chemo drugs in my drip, there was a steroid and two anti-nausea medications. I was also given a drug to boost my white-blood-cell count the day after chemo. Add Claritin to counter the bone pain brought on by the white-blood-cell booster, two at-home nausea meds should I need them, and laxative because all the anti-nausea meds cause constipation. I was already taking Ativan to sleep at night and Tylenol for discomfort. We’re talking twelve drugs going into a body that until a few weeks before hadn’t been processing anything more complicated than ibuprofen and the occasional Tums. Thankfully, I didn’t need all that was on offer—nausea wasn’t a major issue for me; I’ve only thrown up twice since I was eighteen. For what it’s worth, I did spend those eight weeks belching like a seventh grader. This phenomenon was not caught on camera.

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Taxol, for most, is more easily tolerated and requires fewer maintenance drugs, though I am in the 20% of patients (yay!) who experience fairly pronounced bone and muscle pain, and the cumulative fatigue that’s been promised is setting in. But on the whole I’ve done well. I’ve hydrated like crazy, brought yoga and massage on board to help, stayed in communication with my doctors so adjustments could be made, and (knock on wood) had no major allergic reactions. The worst event was a single scary blood pressure crash one evening after the first treatment.

The being yanked back and forth has been, perhaps, the toughest piece. The days I’m out and about, dressed, seeing friends, playing with hats: those are the good days. I seize them joyfully because I can (and because after a week parked on the sofa binge-watching The Mindy Project, I am restless and bored and eager to interface with actual people). It’s necessary to find and relish the joy, to resist succumbing to the undertow of I feel good now, but I know I’m going to feel bad again. The upside of knowing: I can plan around it. The downside: the pressure of trying to cram in everything I need and want to do, especially with increasing limitations. At first, I was fully functional during my “good” weeks. Then I started limiting myself to no more than 2 outside-the-house commitments or errands per day, then one, and I’m rapidly heading toward an every-other-day energy conservation model.

In truth, all of life moves this way, back and forth between the strong days and the hard ones. In a way, having some measure of predictability is a rare gift. In our everyday lives, none of us knows when such shifts will occur, when we will turn into the path of the storm, when the trail will grow hot and steep, when or if the rainbow might reappear.

My current shifts are dramatic and clearly delineated, but the biggest change is in my own awareness. These shifts have always been. They will always be. I can neither anticipate nor thwart them, and trying to do so just makes more wasted energy. The best, the only, place for me, for any of us to rest is here, now, in this intricate present.

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