An Ode to My Node

Written just prior to my leg surgery last month; as part of first-line defense in light of recent diagnosis with stage three malignant melanoma. Surgery called for a wide resection at the heel, complete removal of popliteal nodes at the knee and superficial as well as deep inguinal nodes of the thigh.

Chanukah, Festival of Light

Chanukah, Festival of Light


You have been with me all my life,
Through small booboos, sprains and stains,
You have served me well.
I pray for heavenly wisdom to restore harmony and balance in absence of my precious inguinal and popliteal nodes.
We must part ways but those that remain will know- they have been watching you and learning how and where.
With love and light I release you from your service and welcome renewed and stronger vitality, health and balance.
It is no coincidence that you depart in Chanukah. G-D’s miracles are with us daily and stronger in Chanukah. Chanukah means dedication; and I am dedicated to holding on to dear life.
May the miracle of the menorah and its light guide my surgeon, medical staff, pathologists and oncologist to speedily restore health and balance within this vessel.
Exist in peace in melanoma. Thank you for the lessons.
Ingui and Popli, you are miracles and that I felt you when I did is divine intervention. Thank you for calling to me. Rest in peace dear friends.
This vessel is to remain filled with love and light.

The Minute I Started Loving Myself, I Was Saved.

It was 23.30 and I was lying in bed staring wide-eyed at the darkness. I don’t usually lay in bed and stare quietly. I’m always reading or doing a guided relaxation before bedtime. Tonight a feeling overwhelmed me. A compulsion to touch myself; no, not that way… In an unprecedented move I thanked my body for everything it has carried me through and stroked my outer thigh the same loving way I caress my daughter’s beautiful head with awe and gratitude. And the instant this feeling of gratitude fused into a loving ball of energy in my palms, and my fingers stroked my touch-starved skin, I felt it. An immovable pink-pong-size lump. I instantly and instinctively knew what it was, Cancer. A duplicate of the exact moment ten years prior when I felt a golf-ball-size lump in my breast. Then I had been supporting my arm across my chest with fingertips crammed in my armpit while cradling the telephone in the crux of my neck. There is no mistaking the moment; when your fingers sense a solid, painless, and immovable round mass mixed with an overwhelming visceral feeling of an alien presence that has been unearthed and that your subconscious has been aware of for years thrust in one instant to your forefront for reckoning. It was a miracle then. It was an even bigger miracle now.

Healing-Touch-5 Malignant melanoma. How was I to feel this lump in my thigh just below my underwear line? While showering? I was always using a bar of soap or a sponge and so my fingers don’t make contact with my bare skin. Self-exams are for breasts not bikini lines. And melanomas, well, there are clearly defined ABCDEs and dermatologists for that, which I have been seeing religiously. No. If I hadn’t had this feeling wash over me out of nowhere to touch myself in a gesture of love and gratitude, I may have been given the final countdown. Instead I was diagnosed with stage three Malignant Melanoma which has metastasized from my heel up my leg from a lesion no one knew was melanoma and reached my inguinal nodes at the top of the thigh, on its way closer the inner sanctum, my organs. Stage three malignant melanoma is a lot less glamorous than stage two breast cancer; breast cancer is Operation Dessert Storm, fought with a huge arsenal of weapons while melanoma, by comparison, is a barren land of sitting ducks. But I chose to believe that because my dermatologists didn’t pick-up on it likely for years, that if a miracle happened, then it happened (again) for the purpose of guiding me back on my path. But, going back to the miracle. Some miracles still happen daily and do come in the format of miracles. Mine did. My spirit and my subconscious, in its infinite wisdom, besieging me; my G-D given lymph nodes, now extensively replaced by metastatic neoplasm, performing a final task before being overcome with disease; beckoning me angelically to touch them, to love myself, and be saved. My third wake-up call. And, finally, I am awake.

Motherhood helped me get over my mastectomy

It’s been five and a half years since my mastectomy without recostruction. I’ve practically forgotten what it was like to have tender breasts once a month, or pay attention to cleavage– make sure it’s there when needed and not when it’s not. I’m chill about it now, but this is very recent.

I admit that I had a lot of anger up until I became pregnant. I was stuck in anger. In a big way, too. I can be the most confident woman but put a naked girl in front of me (movie, etc.) while my partner is nearby and I go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye! I know why I was angry: doctors were reluctant to perform ANY type of reconstruction on me due to the radiation damage to my skin. It meant a 70 percent chance of complications if I went ahead with it. What I wasn’t prepared for was how long I would be stuck in the “anger” phase of my grieving.

When I got pregnant I realized I won’t be breast feeding. It didn’t bother me so much. I may have had a symbolic cry to grieve over that aspect. It’s after my daughter was born and I was immersed in mommy world that I believe the transformation happened. I naturally drifted out of cancer/mastectomy world, which consumed me more than I care to admit, and into mommy world where I was called to duty. Sure, in mommy world I had even more constant reminders of breasts. A day didn’t go by without being asked by other moms if I’m breast feeding or watching other moms breast feed. But breasts were now de-sexualized. I was finally seeing them for what they were made for and not from a man’s perspective, which is how I viewed them constantly.

Lately the dreams have stopped– those of self-regenerating breasts; dreaming of waking up and, surprise: breasts! or how the surgeons “left some” behind. My preoccupation with my breastlesness is almost non-existent, as in weeks go by and I don’t think about it. I proudly walk around naked in front of my baby girl, who is almost two, and it feels great to teach her pride in her body.

In order to survive I may have removed a number of body parts and organs that made me a woman, but I’ll never go back to thinking that less of me is a lesser me.

I’m beautiful in my way
‘cuz G-D makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track baby,
I was born this way
…I was born to survive
(Lady Gaga, Born This Way)

What’s the rush? It’s only cancer

Please read Unbroken Home: the challenges of being a single parent first and then please come back.

It has been a while since I’ve written. Sadly, I’m divorced now and a single-parent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here. There were the usual interpersonal dysfunctions but there were tell-tale behaviors I chose to ignore early on. That’s where I’m stuck. I’ve made some solid decisions that have propelled me from illness to survivorship and yet I failed to chose the perfect life-long friend and mate? how?!

It’s really simple. I let fear guide the most important decision I can make. I was rushing. Rushing to get married because I wanted to be married before I died; rushing to the altar because I wanted my dying grandfather to see me marry, which he didn’t as he passed a week before the wedding.

I know the school of thought that says there are no mistakes and everything is for a reason. We have a beautiful 19-month old baby girl and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But ignoring serious signs of trouble when you’re dating is just bad decision-making. Oh, yes, it was a decision! I didn’t want to die alone at any cost.

But now, I’m back at square one and breaking free from an abusive relationship (and mending a broken heart) has proven to be more mentally challenging than battling cancer. Taking time to heal, being grateful, being present, and practicing patience– lessons, it would appear, I’m learning by hook or by crook.

While searching for support, I was surprised at just how many survivor single moms and divorced ladies are out there. Moreover, those who have had multiple cancers and have several children to care for alone; G-D bless them!

On one hand this experience has made us strong but it also left some of us more vulnerable than before. Still, I have to give myself kudos for getting out of an abusive relationship before it completely wiped my identity and altered my daughter at the core.

Reading the essay Unbroken Home reaffirms that I am not alone in life or in parenting.

I hope you’ll slow down, too, and know that no matter what, you are not alone.

Gluttony, guilt, and eternal life: meditation for the days of atonement


I’m going to die, one day, but first I want to become a centenarian. Is that even possible as a cancer survivor?! I want to be with my Daniella (now 15 months old) for as long as is humanly possible. I simply never want to leave her. I also want to beat the odds.

Now more than ever, with a looming divorce and single-parenthood I feel the pressure to take better care of myself. A cancer survivor becoming the primary caregiver – all me – all by myself – all the time- no one to take over nights, early mornings or when I’m sick. I know it’s been done. But I’m tired. I’m so tired. And when I’m tired I worry. I worry about how this stress will play out in my body, on my heavily beaten body. The toll of chemotherapy, radiation, stress of making life-altering decisions, surgeries, and on and on.

Understand, I have gone back to my old ways. For too long now I haven’t watched what I eat, drink, do or not do with anti-cancer vengeance like I used to.

The guilt alone is enough to cause disease. Argh! I’m being being too hard on myself. It’s just that I have struggled so hard for it to not be cancer that takes me in the end but if it has to be then much much later, please. But no one knows how they were meant to go and when. On Yom Kippur I will be reciting the ancient prayer Unetanneh Tokef which contemplates “…who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.” Well, I don’t like any of these ways. And again, I’m back at square one.

One day I will have to leave this planet and my Daniella. Will three cups of green tea, eight cups of water, eight hours of sleep, SPF 30, 30 minutes of moderate exercise, flossing, two tablespoons of olive oil, and five-to-ten a day, really allow me to stick around longer?

Missing the point, am I? Perhaps I should heed the spiritual lifeline at the end of the prayer “… But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the Decree!”

Soon it will be the Hebrew month of Elul, also known as days of atonement. In preparation for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashannah) I will attempt to review all my known sins and wrong-doings that have likely imprinted themselves in my body at a cellular level. Thankfully this damage may be reversible with repentance. I’ve never actually taken a spiritual stock of my progress, but this year I will sit with a pen and paper and make a list of my transgressions against my fellow man and those against G-D. If not now, when? Right. I will share my list with you and endeavor that it complement any consistent or transient lifestyle efforts that I make to bring about healing.

The month of Elul and the countdown to the Day of Atonement begins Wednesday, August 31.

In the meantime, please enjoy this modern-day version of Unetanneh Tokef by Israeli composer Yair Rosenblum. First performed at a memorial for 11 soldiers from kibbutz Beit Hashita who fell during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, it is often played on Israeli radio during the High Holidays.

Lord, thank you for the sequel we are about to receive


Could Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King be the reasons that I am alive today?

When I finished my cancer treatments on December 19, 2002, I celebrated by going to watch the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I never read the book or seen The Fellowship of the Ring, but after coming out of the movie I was a devotee. Problem was the next movie was to be released in a year, like most trilogies. I thought it was very unfair to anyone facing cancer; why wait so long between movie releases when some people are dying? I fortunately didn’t get a poor prognosis but the fear of re-occurrence was present at the time. What if I wouldn’t make it? I decided then and there that would be my goal – live to see The Return of the King the following year!

In December 2003, I must have been the only person sitting at the theater with popcorn and a diet cola in hand, tearing and reciting the “Shehecheyanu” prayer during the opening credits. “Blessed are You…who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Consequently, the 2000 year-old Jewish prayer is reserved for very special occasions and not commonly said for making it to the movies. Nonetheless, I felt grateful.

Not only that, I admit that chemo was all the better thanks to five seasons of Sex and the City on DVD. To anyone undergoing cancer treatments, I strongly encourage immersing in movies, television or book series particularly those that are still ongoing and set to continue releases at future dates. No joke. It’s very easy to start focusing on just cancer or just the body. Frankly, I think distraction and brain candy are as important to our spirit at stressful times as much as yoga, meditation, proper nutrition and rest.

Could the key to surviving cancer rest with Hollywood or Random House? I don’t mean to trivialize death and dying or survivorship but what’s wrong with wanting to live for a sequel?

I’m now nine-years out, looking forward to the final installment in the Twilight Saga Breaking Dawn:part 1 which will be released this November. Looks like I’ll have to wait past my ten-year anniversary for part 2… Good!

Radical mastectomy, radical breakup: how I learned to let go when the time was right

Springtime, 2005. I miraculously recovered from breast cancer just three years prior but I hadn’t dated anyone seriously. I must be ready now, I thought. I was beginning to think long-term again. I’ve done the stupid, immature, save-him, change-him, mother-him relationships and I was ready for something serious. I even began loving my smaller radiated breast. But, breast cancer came knocking again and this time both breasts would have to go.

Maybe you’ve been there: you’ve had breast conserving surgery but your breast is scarred; you’ve had edema after radiation, so your breast has shrunk and became leathery; you’ve had a uni-lateral mastectomy so now you’re a little uneven; or you’ve had bi-lateral mastectomy so his pectorals are now bigger than yours. Will a man sexually accept me as I am? Will he still love me with less breast, fewer breasts, or none at all?

Photo by bzhmatth's photostream

These kind of crippling thoughts clouded my decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy. It was the second “new” breast cancer for me and I didn’t want to go for a third or a re-occurrence. So it would appear that I was still plagued with insecurity, but there was only one right thing to do and that was to have the surgery. Concurrently, I was dating someone for the first time since my cancer diagnosis at age 27. Although not marriage-material, it was still comforting to have him tell me how beautiful I am and that it wouldn’t matter if I did or didn’t have any breasts– a statement I gladly grasped onto. The surgery was successful; I was elated that a weight had lifted off my chest, figuratively. All I had to do was rest and heal. But, four days post-op, while I still had staples sealing my surgical incision and pools of blood and puss collecting in drains on both sides of my chest, he broke up with me. Why? I don’t know; just because. I cried and cried, I sank into a depression, and attributed it all to my lack of breasts. How wrong was I?!

First of all, not everything is about breasts. Wait, let me repeat that: not everything is about breasts! Secondly, he was clearly not for me if he could hurt me at such a vulnerable time (my mom still has a bounty on his head.) But, the critical mistake was how I handled and coped with the situation. Instead of letting go I foolishly held on to the relationship long after its natural life and my health paid the price.

In her blog, The happy children of unhappy endings, Terri Wingham talks about a Martha Beck Article Making Your Goodbyes Good, about how we should probably allow certain organic endings in our life to happen without attempting resuscitation or resurrection.

It took me five months to regain my strength after what should have been an easy break-up simply because I had allowed myself to sink so deeply. After that I vowed to let go of anyone venomous or anything poisonous in my life and I’ve done it! My prophylactic mastectomy (and hysterectomy in 2010) are not just proof that I’ve gotten good at cutting off body parts to ward-off disease, rather they are a testament to how much I am trying to hold onto dear life! Radical breakups have become a necessity in my life, just as much as the radical mastectomy and hysterectomy.

A month prior to my diagnosis in 2002, I had resigned from a job that I had spent years studying for and working at. Ironically it had been at a health club as a fitness coordinator and personal trainer, but something didn’t jive with my energy and I began to suffer to the point of anguish. For over a year I would tell my family over and over, “I hate this job. It’s going to make me sick!” At hindsight, the cancer was probably already present in the body for months or years but I can’t help but wonder whether it would have exploded when it did and as fast as it did had I promptly heeded the voice telling me to quit?

I am now at a similar juncture professionally. The company which I worked at for six years has new owners and a new administration and I do not mesh with their ways even though I always give them 100 percent. Fortunately, the decision is a no-brainer by now.

Easier said than done? You know better than anyone that life is short, so why not give your energy to what you love and whoever loves you. Let people and events serve their purpose. If it doesn’t seem like they had any, create a purpose for them.
Make them a springboard to your next higher adventure.

I would like to thank evil-boyfriend and creativity-suppressing-corporate-bureaucrat-boss for the lessons you’ve taught me. Life is pushing me in a different direction and it feels life-affirming swimming with the current.

Baby swim

Irridescent snails, flying ninjas, and self-regenerating breasts

IMG_3770a

Cancer Dreams…

The night following my first chemo session I had a dream that a very slow iridescent red snail was slowly moving in space and everything in its path turned to love, beauty, and health. I have no idea what it meant but it was vivid, colorful, and empowering since I knew the snail represented an ally and possibly my own body cells.

The same night my next dream was of lightning-fast ninjas flying through the air thrashing their swords right and left – fighting hard! They were so swift and efficient. I sensed that my job was to stay asleep so they can get the job done. In the morning I was impressed with how physically powerful the dreams were and what a fight we put on!

I never had more powerful dreams as I did on the first night of chemotherapy.

Since my prophylactic mastectomy in 2005 (no breast reconstruction), at least a few times per year I dream about my non-existent breasts. I dream about them often whenever the decision whether to have a breast reconstruction is back on the table or if I had just seen a breast-oriented movie like Superbad, Knocked Up or various other guy movies. I dream that my breasts grew back, that the surgeons never took them off, that they left one breast, and even that they left a part of the breast with or without the nipple (it varies). In my dream I am so excited at the discovery of a breast that my first waking thought is “Yippee,” until I fully awake a few seconds later to have reality sink in. The funny thing is that I get disappointed each time to discover that I still have no breasts; sometimes it feels like I want it so badly that it should alter reality and the laws of physics and simply manifest!

Whenever I do appear in my dreams now, I still picture myself with my phantom breasts. They just never leave me; or maybe that’s just how we’re wired to think of ourselves –whole.

“You must have done something bad in a past life” – say what, doc?!

Doctors are supposed to be people’s persons but some of them forget that there is more to their patients than meet the stethoscope. Here are some of the comments that either bothered me or boggled my mind. I know I shouldn’t take it personally, but some I did.

Category: annoying
I’ve always hated when doctors just tell you all the information without considering if the patient wants to hear “bad news”. As my radiation oncologist was examining me post-radiation I asked him about follow-up visits. I had only focused on breast cancer until then. That all changed when he blurted, “Yes, well, we have to keep monitoring you since in 20 years you can get some nasty metastases from the radiation.” – Thanks, Doc. Now that I was in remission, I needed to know that as much as I needed to know the exact day and time I would die.

Category: boggles the mind
After my first battle with breast cancer I was quite vigilant and whenever I felt something in my breast I would go to the hospital (and when they dismissed me I would go to a private clinic just to get an ultrasound and a second opinion.) So, I had gone to the private breast clinic to examine a painful hard spot in my non-affected breast. As the doctor was performing my breast ultrasound he noticed something and says “uh-oh… (pause)… You must have done something bad in a past life.” I began to cry; he noticed but didn’t apologize. Fortunately it turned out to be just a fibroadenoma (benign).

Category: hmm, hmm
This one actually belongs to my girlfriend who is blessed with a large bosom. The doctor was performing her yearly clinical breast exam when he happily concluded, “You’re good. All fat glands. You could feed an army with these.”
Soldiers at Texas City (LOC)

Category: funny
During a vaginal ultrasound for ovarian cancer screening I was told, “Your ovaries look great. You ovulated from the right one this month – if you had conceived, the child would have been a republican.”

What shock-and-awe phrases have you heard?

The cancer alumni: membership without privileges?

There are privileges when you are diagnosed with cancer, battling it, and just recently graduated treatments. There is a plethora of services, support groups, associations, and websites dedicated to you. The goal is to treat you and then help you integrate into post-cancer life. But what happens to the alumni who are a year or more post cancer. Is it just me or are others experiencing residual emotions with nowhere to turn?

Even my university sends me an alumni magazine and provides me with group discounts and deals reserved just for us. I’m not looking for discounts, but I do want to know things like: what they are doing now (inspirational stories of cured and remission), what to do about lymphedema, how is cancer still affecting marriages/relationships/sex lives, self-image problems that linger, fears of re-occurrence, passing on genes to our offspring, and more.

Last week I went to my local chapter of a well-known national non-profit organization dedicated to cancer patients, but it is now nine years after my diagnosis. I am suffering some negative emotions still related to the experience and I wanted to attend some of the classes about stress management and relaxation and also some of the support groups. I was basically told that I can’t since the resource is there for newly diagnosed and recovering patients, max a year or two out. I don’t think it’s right. I didn’t come to freeload on yoga classes; I was reaching out and I needed help with issues that I had either not dealt with properly or that are unique to survivorship.
Is it just me or is anybody else experiencing some cancer after-burn? Have you sought help?

HELP

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