Be the Tea, Buy the Tee to Support Breast Cancer Research

Be the Tea: A Parable about Adversity

I was inspired by the following story (many versions feature coffee, but I drink tea!) to create an original t-shirt design through the fundraising site Booster. Shirts are $15 and all profits ($5 per shirt) go directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Order by December 28th:

A young woman is struggling through a difficult time in her life, and she seeks her mother’s advice. The mother leads her daughter to the kitchen, where she has placed three pots on the stove. After each has simmered a while, the mother asks her daughter to lift the lid of each of the pots, and tell her what she sees.

The daughter lifts each lid, one at a time, and then replies, “I see eggs, carrots, and a bag of tea leaves. Each is boiling in hot water.”

The mother nods, and asks her to look more closely. “What happens to an egg in boiling water?”

“It was fragile, but then it becomes hard,” the daughter replies.

“And what happens to carrots?” asks the mother.

“They begin hard, but in the water, they become soft and lose color,” replies the daughter.

“And what about the tea leaves?” asks the mother.

“The tea leaves turn the boiling water into tea,” replies the daughter.

“Yes,” says the mother. “Remember that. When in boiling water, the egg grows hard, and the carrots grow soft. But the tea? The tea changes the water it is in. When you find yourself in hot water, when you face challenges and adversity, strive to be the tea.”


As I face surgery at the beginning of next week, I have needed to remind myself of this tale, and its lesson, again and again: instead of letting difficult circumstances harden what is fragile, or weaken what is strong, use them to transform not only yourself but the world around you for the better.

Healing from cancer is a long and arduous journey. I hope you will consider supporting breast cancer research efforts by purchasing a “Be the Tea” t-shirt designed by yours truly between now and December 28th:

Thank you!

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.