Our judging panel selected the following four finalists for Bay Area Cancer Connections 2014 Annual Writing Contest. These women wrote essays inspired by their personal experience with breast or ovarian cancer. The winner was announced on July 1, 2014 at the Kepler’s Books reading event – congratulations to Virginia Dimplf! Her essay “Today is Enough” was published in Bay Area Cancer Connections Fall 2014 Newsletter.
Today Is Enough
By Virginia Dimplf
New York was shivering under a polar vortex while here in California we were doing daily rain dances to ward off one of the worst droughts in history. But I was off to The Big Apple in the morning with some gal pals and nothing was going to deter me. I had a great plan: four friends, three plays, two pizzas, one shopping expedition, all finished off nicely with a walk through Central Park in the snow and a whole lot of laughs in between.
It had been exactly one year since I completed my breast cancer treatment, and I was still practicing when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” I was saying yes to fun, friends and family that made me laugh out loud, and who supported and encouraged me to move on from what was no longer working in my life. I said no to the demands of my corporate job in favor of the more flexible hours of consulting, and was declining dinner parties that required me to bring the apps, not the software kind, but those featuring the latest artisanal cheese, skewered this, roasted that, or pizza topped with arugula. Going away with girlfriends for the weekend, however, was new for me.
I was a work in progress, educating myself and working hard at doing all I could to keep the cancer from recurring. I threw out the last of the toxic cleaning supplies and plastic food containers, hung out in the aisles of health food stores, read shampoo labels and dropped off truckloads of pots and pans with coatings of unknown origins. I was determined to live healthier, more joyfully and with greater purpose than ever before. I had accepted the moniker of ‘survivor.’
Walking through our front door the night before leaving, I was anxious to tell my husband, the latest details of my New York travel plans. He didn’t so much as greet me at the door as simply handed me the phone, “It’s your Doctor.” In a New York minute, all of my joyful doing and practicing of new life lessons faded to grey as the anxiety of the cancer returning came into view. On the other end of the line, my oncologist encouraged me to enjoy my weekend away assuring me that we would redo my blood work when I returned. In the meantime, she would set up an ultrasound and MRI just in case. I hung up knowing that “when I returned” I would be facing the news that my cancer had returned unwelcomed.
It has now been six months since I received the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. I am one of more than 155,000 men and women for whom there is no cure. My course of treatment is not as clearly defined as it was with my initial diagnosis. I will stay on an oral chemotherapy regimen until the cancer cells are no longer retreating or the side effects become too debilitating. After that I will consider the next course of treatment and the next and the next. But, so far, so good.
With metastatic breast cancer comes one kind of clarity: I no longer live with burden of uncertainty of whether the cancer will return. I live, instead with the knowledge that it has returned. This unconsoling clarity raises more uncertainties, different burdens, new questions. Am I still a survivor? Will the cancer metastasize to other organs? What does this all mean for my quality of life? How do I want to spend my days and nights now? How many more days and nights do I have to spend?
Of course, these are big life questions to which there are no universal or certain answers. But my new reality requires new learnings and new knowledge. Here’s some of what I know today:
I know that I don’t want to go to battle against something that has no known cause or cure, rather I want to continue to nurture the compassion in myself that will help make a difference to me and others in my life.
I know that I need to find new language that describes my own personal journey and that being a ‘survivor’ is no longer adequate or descriptive enough as I face the limits of this metaphor.
I know that some days I am better and more skilled at living with new uncertainties than on others.
What I have done, and what I’m doing is enough. It is enough to read a poem, to drive my neighbor to church on Sundays, to walk 3 – not run 5 – miles with a friend, to send a surprise riddle to a grandniece or nephew. It is enough to write a letter, sign a petition, donate my time and money to those organizations that matter most to me.
I know that for today it is enough to practice being more and doing less.
By Petra Lentz-Snow
Scary as hell, the first infusion was a big ordeal after all. Despite nurses and doctors assuring me that most people do really well my body had a hard time from the get go, starting with taking in the drugs, which resulted in twice the usual amount of time in the infusion center. At the end of the day I feel heavy, almost sloshy with 6 hours worth of drugs swirling around my body, mind and psyche. And yet, coming home that night, the prevailing feeling is incredible gratitude for all the ways that I have been held in this and for the pure gift to be alive at this time.
Over the course of the next two days my body begins to gradually interact with all the substances that have entered my bloodstream. There is a distinct sense, not just in my body but also in my psyche, of mixing the different shreds and particles of my self with the new substances that have come in. Old strands of being-ness seem to come apart and interconnect with these new substances – the alchemy of a new becoming. I don’t know what it means yet, but I do know that I will never be the same. That I have crossed a threshold and am now in unknown territory. And that alongside my physical cells dying I feel the fluid and almost magical surrender of any old emotional holdings, a tribute to my psyche preparing for death, alongside my body.
Somewhere, somehow there is a deep knowing in my bones, that I have encountered only once before, during the birthing of my son, some deep sense of what I need and how to move with the many symptoms that fluctuate through my body. In some mysterious way, my body seems to know something inside it is dying and this once strong and vibrant system is now frail and endangered. And it is passing this information on to my consciousness in clear, succinct messages such as “put warm socks on, get out of the draft, lay down, be careful in the sun” or turning down the temperature of my beloved hot shower in the morning.
And yet, side by side with the wisdom of the body, there is a simultaneous and disorienting lostness here. Not only does my body not move and function the way it “should”, not only do signs and symptoms rage cross platform through all major body systems, but things don’t smell the way they should or taste the way they look. While those seem small and acceptable changes compared to the flaring, cramping pain in joints and bones or the simultaneous inflammation of all internal body linings, from mouth sores all the way down the digestive tract to violent diarrhea on the other end, not being able to remember and orient myself in the world of smell and taste is more unsettling than I can explain.
Chemo is no doubt an underworld journey and like any other ordeal it offers both deep abyss, pain and dying as well as irrevocable transformation and freedom from old unhealthy bindings. The systematic brush up with death feels like a bush fire raging through my self, scorching not only my intestinal linings but also my emotional foundations and formations. And while some part of me is witnessing this journey with true and honest fascination, there is profound and very real fear inside me as well about how far this process will go, and if I will live. “What if there is nothing left of me by the end of this?” the small voice wonders during the week that I am bedridden and trapped in the suffering of too much pain.
The fear is real. What is really happening inside my body is that cells everywhere are forced to halt their growth, decay and die. For the ego, this death feels just as real. It doesn’t know that there will be an end to the chemo regimen. It doesn’t live in the future. Now it feels like it’s dying, now!
There is no level that goes untouched or spared in this passage. The change is deeply internal and yet, it also manifests and “marks” us externally, most prominently with the loss of our hair. Breast cancer heroines are marked with humiliating baldness, for all of the “normal” world to see. So not only do we have to let go of our own attachment to the sweetness and femininity of flowing hair, our image, and all the projections that go with it but we have to let go of the outside world projections as well. More surrender…
Two weeks after the first infusion, right on schedule, my hair cells are letting go. Sitting on the front lawn of our high desert home, the first strands of hair are starting to come loose and drift into the evening breeze. Every time I brush over my head, a few more hairs come out. I offer them to the wind and the grass, with a sense of soft sadness and a tenderness that only loss can open us up to. Another threshold crossing. How many more are there to come?
I decide to make an offering for each drift of hair coming out, for the many women that have gone through treatment before me and for the many women that will go through it after me, that they may find complete health, healing and transformation. And for myself I ask that with every hair I lose, I may say yes to my dying, to die to (and not from) all that no longer serves, surrendering any old wounds and patterns that perpetuate suffering.
That I may say yes to this new baldness, this new emptiness, this not knowing self. That I may turn ever more into my becoming, so that my essence may shine through the cracks of this new vessel to be, serving beauty herself and sharing the gift that I have taken birth for.
Fighting for My Number One Fan
By Victoria Denneno
I plant my back foot and kick the dirt with my front, my bat drags across the plate before I pick it up and put it over my shoulder. Before stepping into the box I glance over to the grass on the third base side, scanning the crowd I find a constant, familiar face. Sitting in her deluxe camp chair, donning our team colors and her pink Dana Farber Red Sox hat, is my number one fan. “HIT THE BALL VICTORIA!” I hear being yelled from the crowd. I smile under my helmet and step in, laughing to myself and thinking “Thanks mum, as if there is any other option”.
That was my mother, always sitting on the sidelines, her pink Sox hat shielding her face, cheering louder than the other moms combined. I don’t remember her missing a single softball game during my entire life. I always knew she would be in the stands for all mine and my sister’s games, graduations, awards ceremonies, and weddings until breast cancer threatened to take that away from us. I was fifteen when the big C entered our life. It’s terrifying to see your independent, strong, and fearless mother broken down. Luckily my mother is stronger than Wonder Woman. My mum was the youngest of fifteen children born to an Irish family in Dorchester, MA. This was where she learned to be a tough woman with thick skin. This toughness was tried and tested at Quincy Medical Center in the 1980’s when Mary McDonough became Nurse Mary, the charge nurse of the emergency room. It was there that she met an EMT named David, who only knew that her first name was Mary. My mum was one of five Marys working in the ER, so he had a cop friend run her license plates thinking he would just find out her last name. Their first official meeting went something like this: “Hi my names David Denneno, your license is expired but do you want to go to breakfast with me after your shift?” Needless to say it’s a miracle that my sister and I are here today but lo and behold here we are. About a year after their initial meeting in the ER my parents were walking down the aisle in our church in my dad’s hometown. Shortly thereafter I came along, followed close behind by my sister. My hardworking mother managed to raise two young children while working overtime to put that EMT through nursing school not once, but twice for his registered nurse and nurse practitioner certifications. I always knew if I grew up to be half as strong and hardworking as my mother was then I would consider myself lucky. It wasn’t until 2010 when her strength and courage would be put to the ultimate test.
Lucky is not a word you think of when you think of breast cancer but luck was definitely on our side. My mum’s cancer was caught early and with one surgery and a round of radiation my mum was cancer free and has been for five years. Our mum is my hero and it was difficult to see such a strong woman constantly tired and in such pain. Her strength and determination was what kept her alive. Throughout her treatment she never missed a day of work, or a game. Since the day my mum was told she was in remission, our whole family has dove into raising awareness for the disease that threatened our family. After participating in many small breast cancer walks in Boston and Cape Cod we decided to strive for something bigger. Last year I crossed the finish line of the Two-Day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer with my hero by my side. Watching my mother and hundreds of resilient survivors like her has been an inspiration to my sister and I. We will be joining our mum again this year to walk the 39.3 miles through Boston, making countless memories, but it is her willpower, strength, refusal to give up, and passion for awareness that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
I safely reach second base and look into the crowd. I get a thumbs-up from my dad who is coaching third, and then I smile and send a discrete wave to my mother who is now standing and clapping with all her might. I look my family and thank my lucky stars that breast cancer lost its battle against the Denneno family.
Not Quite Ready
By Jean Barrick
Tired from shopping, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the mall and put my legs on the seat opposite me, figuring nobody would see them under the long white tablecloth. It was just before Christmas and I wasn’t quite ready. I thumbed through a holiday catalogue, its pages filled with diamonds and cars and other sleek gifts. I thought about how commercialized Christmas had become in America. Looking out at the crowds thronging the mall, I wondered if others might also be resisting the frantic rush to find a perfect gift for someone who already had more than they needed. There must be a more meaningful way to celebrate the birth of a peacemaker.
Then, for reasons I can’t explain, my mind wandered back to a Friday in May of 1977 when I was about to undergo a mastectomy. My surgery had been scheduled for ten a.m. but the day wore on. I wasn’t called, and my stomach began to growl. Finally a nurse came in to say that the operation scheduled ahead of mine had taken longer than expected. “You’ll probably have to go home and come back on Monday,” she added. I wasn’t looking forward to surgery, but had already been prepped. The possibility of postponement was frustrating.
About three o’clock a nurse informed me that they would be able, after all, to operate the next morning. So I gobbled a sandwich in the snack bar, took the elevator back to my room, and settled back in bed to read my friend Lee’s gift, Erma Bombeck’s The Grass is Greener over the Septic Tank. I can only imagine what the patients on the other side of my curtains must have thought when they heard me chortling as I read.
Early the next morning a pleasant young man wheeled me toward the operating room. Sorry you have to work on Saturday,” I said.
“I’m the one who is sorry,” he replied. “that you need to have this operation.
* * * * * *
The lunch dishes rattled around me, breaking my reverie, and my mind switched back to the present. Munching the last bite on my plate, I thought about the woman who had surgery just before me that Friday morning long ago, and why hers had taken so long. I had visited her on my return trip to the hospital for chemotherapy treatments. Remembering that she died a few months after surgery, I counted my blessings again. Then suddenly I thought, “Maybe I could visit other cancer patients who might need cheering during the holiday season.”
I folded my napkin, paid the bill, and rejoined the busy crowd of shoppers. With blood once more circulating in my legs and the new idea spinning around in my head, I quickly made a few purchases, then headed home. I called a local hospital and blurted my offer to the first person who answered the phone.
“Just a moment. I’ll refer your call to Patient Relations.”
“What a good idea,” the next person on the line said. “Let me connect you with the Cancer Ward.”
There, someone seemed to like my idea, but said the head nurse was out. “You’ll need to speak with her. She could call you tomorrow.”
The next morning I didn’t wait, but called back early and asked for the head nurse. “I have your message,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. Have you had radiation?”
“No,” I replied, “but I did go through chemotherapy treatments for two years back in 1977. I was part of Dr. Bernard Fischer’s experimental programs. I got through treatment just fine and have been free of cancer ever since.”
“Who was your surgeon?” she asked.
“Both surgery and treatment were performed at the Naval Hospital in Oakland. Neither of my doctors is there now.”
“I see.” She hesitated, then added, “It’s difficult to make this sort of arrangement. We have to protect our patients’ privacy.”
“Oh . . . of course.”
Response to the same offer at another hospital was similar, except that the nurse there suggested helping patients taking chemotherapy in doctors’ offices. She gave me the names of two doctors.
Sitting at my desk, I realized that this idea for doing something before Christmas to express gratitude for my good fortune was not going to pan out. I felt discouraged. Just then I happened to notice my church bulletin and thought about the Cancer Support Group I had started there several years earlier. Finding a list of participants, I called one of the members, a dentist who had been battling cancer for years. He expressed regret that he had needed to stop flying to Third World countries with other doctors to offer free care. Another person on the list, a woman who had just finished both radiation and chemotherapy treatments, said, “Thanks so much for calling. It’s such a busy season and you don’t even know me.”
I contacted everyone on the list. Then, inspired by their responses, I called a few more people just because they lived alone. Afterwards I sat quietly by the phone. A beautiful Christmas Carol sounded from the radio.
Yesterday I wasn’t quite ready for Christmas. Now I am.