A New Kind of Greeting Card

My friend Mark just sent me the following link. Check it out — here is a designer who, inspired by her own experience, decided to design some greeting cards she thought would be appropriate for dealing with cancer. Not a bad idea. Maybe I should get in on this. Funnily enough, I can relate to each and every one of them based on things people said or didn’t say while I was going through treatment, even if I would design mine slightly differently.  🙂


What Matters

We take so many things for granted. It is human nature. And there’s no escaping it. No matter what.

People are always asking me if I “see life differently now.” I suppose this is another way of asking if I don’t take certain things for granted as much as I did before. Or at least that has to be part of it. My response to this question is always “of course.” How can I not see things differently after the last nine months? I’d have to be an idiot. Or just really really set in my ways.

But it’s complicated. It isn’t black and white.

I do not have what you would call a quiet mind. Far from it. In fact, there have been many times when I wish my mind would shut the fuck up, but it has no intention of doing so. Ever. For instance, the whole time I do yoga, which I haven’t done in a long time but will take up again eventually, my mind is leaping around. And I can’t take a nap to save my life. Here’s how literal I am being — I have not taken a single nap in the last nine months, from cancer diagnosis until right now. Not one. Not even the day of my surgery or the day after. Not even after chemo. If I try to nap I will just lie in bed and my mind will race. Synapses firing. Problems being uncovered, to-do lists growing. A few minutes after they woke me up from my surgery I was ordering my husband around, telling him which emails to send. Totally mental, comme d’habitude.

I’d like to have a Kevin Costner method such as in For the Love of the Game when he is on the pitcher’s mound with all the noise (one person is even yelling at him that he sucks) and he just says to himself “clear the mechanism.” And it all goes away. That would be groovy. But alas. I am not Kevin Costner. That doesn’t mean I never quiet my mind. I do it sometimes. But I’d say that its natural state is pretty fired up. There’s a lot going on in there.

This has not changed. I do not believe it will change. It is the way I am.

But what I think about has changed. In so many ways that it is hard to sit here and even think about enumerating them.

Here’s a big one: I don’t think about death the same way. We all know rationally that we are mortal, but to really believe it, to really feel (I hate split infinitives but I’ll get over it) that way is something. I think that there are a lot of people who just bumble (or stumble, or both) through life assuming that everything will be all right and that nothing bad will ever happen and then of course even these people will eventually have something happen because no one has lived forever, yet.

Particularly after becoming a parent I had, naturally, allowed my mind to wander over to the dark side and consider what it would be like to die. Not to die of old age or at an old age, but to die before my time. To be robbed of a long life. To be robbed of precious time with loved ones, with children, with a husband, with parents and family and friends. But only occasionally did my mind go there and it got the hell outta there PDQ (that’s pretty darn quick — do we have that expression in the UK? Do tell, English contingent).

I let it go there more often now. It is not just some crazy thought that flashes by. No longer a pesky smear on my windshield that I can just spritz away. Shake my head and drive on. It’s more like a chip in the windshield now. It’s a crack. Repaired but present. The windshield is intact but it will never be the same.

Do I appreciate things more now? Like time with my children and my husband and my family and friends? Yes. I definitely do. Sometimes I try to sit back and breathe deeply and just inhale the moment. Just take it all in and bask in the present. It was always precious but it’s more precious now. Sometimes it feels more fragile.

Do I still sweat the small stuff? What about the big stuff? Well, I do still experience stress. But so far, not as much. In fact, I would venture to say not nearly as much. I do still tend to get ticked off when people waste my time. Time being precious and all. And I don’t like mediocrity and carelessness. Life is too short for those losers.

Here’s an example: We are renting a lovely Edwardian house in front of which is a hedge. Part of the hedge has been losing its battle with old age or whatever is afflicting it for some time now and has become an eye sore. For months I have asked that it be dealt with and finally, finally today, the gardener came and did something. “Something” is a generous word for what he did. What he managed to do was leave it looking far worse than it looked before. He uprooted about one half of the dying portion of the hedge and then in its place clumsily planted three new plants. So now there is healthy green hedge in bad need of a trim next to dying ugly yellow hedge next to much shorter and father set back green leafy plants. It’s bad. It looks as though he did it all blindfolded with a chain saw after a three-day bender. And the detritus that he left in front of the house was so astonishing that when I returned home today I nearly walked past the house because I saw all this crap out on the pavement and thought oh how awful what asshole left that mess in front of his house? And then I realised it was my house.

Why did I tell you that story? Because that kind of shit still bothers me. I am not going to lose sleep over it. But it pissed me off. Mostly because it involved carelessness, laziness and ugliness. Those have no place in my life. Too bad they’re around so much everywhere you look.

But maybe they are there to allow us to appreciate all the beauty. One of the most beautiful things has been friendship. Friends and friendship. I have such wonderful friends. I don’t know why I have been so lucky. I feel that I’ve received far more than I’ve given. Not really fair at all.

I have some humdingers of old ones but also a good number of new ones — people I have met just since moving here. People who rallied and supported us, cooked us dinners and took me out to distract and entertain me. Friends who went and picked up my wig and smelled it first to make sure it didn’t reek of armpit anymore (read Armpit Wig if you don’t know that story; it will make you laugh unless you are brain-dead). Friends who carried trays of roasted chicken with all the trimmings down the street that must have weighed 10 kilos. Friends who gave me Wimbledon tickets which we enjoyed even though it rained (who cares it was just some rain). Friends who don’t mind that I bought the same coat even though we are going to be seen all over town wearing it at the same time (well she did already buy the same shoes I had so…). Friends who came to chemo with me. Some more than once. Or across an ocean. People who had been through similar experiences and shared their own stories (and reconstructed boobs) with me. Mostly in random ladies’ bathrooms. People who had never been through anything like what I’ve been through but have listened to me go on and on about everything. Being patient. People who read this.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about whether I see life differently is that although the answer is yes, it isn’t always automatic. It is, for me, a learning process. Sometimes I have to step back and tell myself to stop [stressing out] [obsessing] [freaking out] [beating myself up] over something. Or to appreciate something more. To savour. To roll the taste of an experience around on my tongue and consider it as I chew.

I know more what matters now. But I’m also still learning.



Tuesday afternoon I got a call from the school nurse that my older daughter was in her office complaining of a stomach ache. It was right before my younger child was about to be dropped at home by the school bus, so I couldn’t leave home and come to the school. Had to tell the older child to sit tight and take her regular bus home. She was a good sport. In the English spirit she kept a stiff upper lip and made it home mostly in one piece.

I gave her a mild dinner and by the end of the night she was doing fine and happily went off to school the next morning. The Force is strong with that child.

Yesterday morning I was scrambling to get ready for a breakfast to benefit breast cancer in Clapham (southwest London) where it is très français, hosted by my beautiful and effervescent new French friend and fellow survivor. The phone rang. It was the school nurse again.

This time it was the younger child, who had thrown up on the school steps after the bus ride to school. She tends to get motion sickness from time to time (like the day after we arrived in London last summer when I had the swell idea to take the kids on the double-decker Original London bus tour, during which Charlotte threw up right on me at point-blank range and when asked why she didn’t warn me, responded: “the throw-up was the warning”). Anyhow, I didn’t think much of it, particularly since Charlotte told the nurse she felt fine après puke and wanted to stay at school.

She made it through school all right but of course she was not fine. Duh. She had the same 24-hour tummy virus her sister had had the day before. At Charlotte’s swimming lesson, she started complaining of tummy pain and then had to be carried half way home (thank God my law school roommates are in town visiting and had come to the lesson, since I could not have carried Charlotte and my purse and the backpack with swimming gear all at once).

Once we were home, my friend bathed the child to help spare my ailing hands (dry and hyper-pigmented with two very slow-healing boo-boos — a mess). These people flew all the way to London for a few days without their four kids and they voluntarily came to a children’s swimming lesson and then had to carry and bathe a 45-pound kid (that’s three stones and a pebble). Or maybe they just really wanted to see me bald in person.

After the bath, Charlotte put herself to bed at 6:00 pm — when I went to check on her and offer her some plain pasta for dinner, she was already fast asleep. I thought maybe I hadn’t heard the last of her but I went downstairs to hang out with my friends and get Isabel some dinner. Charlotte didn’t make a peep during the entire visit. “Think she’ll go twelve hours?” My friend asked. “Maybe,” I said.

The minute they left the house, of course, my husband, who had come home early to hang out, heard crying and raced upstairs. Sure enough, Charlotte had woken up and vomited all over her bed. I mean all over. It was on her pyjamas, pillow case and pillow, stuffed animals, duvet cover, bottom sheet, side of the bed and rug. And it was some nasty smelling vomit, too. Really acidic. The worst, I do believe, I have ever smelled. Thank goodness parents are immune to their own kids’ vomit.

We started the tedious process of removing all offending items from the room and balling them up in preparation for washing. Bill carried the bulging wad of ickiness downstairs while I somewhat creatively remade the bed, throwing in a waterproof zip-up pillow case, which was leftover from being a maternity patient, on the fresh pillow for good measure.

When this was finished and Charlotte was safely tucked away it occurred to me that I didn’t mind at all. I didn’t mind cleaning up the throw-up. When you are a parent you don’t really mind these things. You clean up seemingly infinite poop and pee and puke. I might have whistled as I worked had it not been getting late.

I’ll tell you why.

Because I was well enough to help her myself. I wasn’t lying in bed downstairs while all of this went down. I was right there on the front lines, wiping her face, picking up chunks and opening the window to air the room.

Please understand: I know that I need help. I needed help yesterday at swimming when I couldn’t carry Charlotte and was trying to save my hands by not doing a bath. I need help all the time and have learned to ask for it when needed and accept it when offered. And I am not a person used to getting a great deal of help — or at least I wasn’t until now. You become accustomed to it because you have no choice.

There was just something about taking care of my child, changing her bed and making her clean and comfortable and safe that made me think: Boy am I fortunate to have been able to clean up that puke. I reflected on all the times we did it in the middle of the night when she was a little baby and a toddler. Padding into her room together to assess the damage and then stripping the crib and starting midnight laundry.

Those aren’t bad memories. They are priceless. They are killer.

And they made me think of all the moms and dads who are ill who are not able to care for their own children. And how hard that is.

I am sending them all my love right now. Won’t you join me?

What I Wore To Chemo Today

My treasured friend Susan of 17 years came all the way from America to visit with me today. That visit happened to coincide with my first of four doses of Taxol (see my last post, Countdown, for details on that). Thus, our visit was conducted in the chemo treatment suite in white leather chairs. Susan is the director of the most prestigious public interest fellowships in the law, “a legal Peace Corps” as described by The Los Angeles Times.

Back in the days of good posture and (naturally) perky boobs (see Boob Retrospective — don’t you want to read it just for the title?), I was Susan’s legal assistant at the New York law firm that established the fellowships. We bonded immediately. She has too many qualities to list in the time I have before the fatigue hits me so just trust me on my compact description — she is HIGH QUALITY in every respect. But I do have to mention some specifics: she is both a philanthropist and a fashionista, has a wicked sense of humour, is not afraid to say “fuck,” is a hot ticket, is highly intelligent and has a true gift for friendship. And that just scratches the surface.

Anyhow, years ago, after I had left the firm and was a One L at Harvard Law School, Susan came to speak to the students about the fellowships. A Two L aspiring fellow had called her with some questions on the application process and Susan had told her to come to the talk and meet me (a built-in resource, having been through the process as Susan’s right-hand gal) so that I could help her and any other public interest students so-inclined.

Susan is very fashionable, but always very tasteful, and she had kindly bestowed upon me a number of designer suits that she no longer needed. She figured I would be wearing one at the meeting to please her and make a good impression on the students. Pale blue Armani, perhaps? Crimson Feraud?

Of course when she showed up I was sitting on the floor in a cheetah print mini dress I got at the ten-dollar store and knee-high boots. Oops.

So last night when I thought about seeing Susan after quite a long stretch of not having seen her, I realised that an appropriate ensemble was in order. I mean I didn’t want to embarrass her again and make her feel uncomfortable in the chemo suite, for Christ’s sake. She flew across an ocean. And to top it off I am bald now, which doesn’t help one’s appearance.

This morning I scoured my closet, keeping in mind that I had to allow decent access to my port site near my left axilla for blood draws and administration of chemo. I selected and then rejected several choices as inappropriate, but finally settled on the perfect kit (look it up, Americans, it’s Breeteesh). At this point of course I was late. So pathetic to be late to one’s own chemo. And to top it off the nifty phone apps I downloaded in order to get a taxi to show up at my door refused to work and the cabs and car services were all popping up with “unavailable in your area” messages. Unacceptable. And there was no “FU I have cancer come anyway” button.

At that point I had no choice and gulped down the rest of my flat white (like a latte but better), wiped the cinnamon from the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand, and dashed out the door to get to the tube. It was raining again and so I put on my silver wellies so I wouldn’t soil my outfit. I had not planned to be sloshing about — thought I’d be cabbing it door to door.  Grrr.

I dashed into the tube, which of course crawwwwwled along. Blasted Northern Line. When I finally reached my stop I catapulted myself onto the platform, ran (yes ran) up two escalators and flung myself outdoors to hail a taxi. I was still a good 15-minute walk from treatment. Luckily I found a cabbie right away. He dropped me off in front of the clinic (most people know it’s a cancer place) and then refused to make me pay for the fare. It was lovely, really, and I was touched if not a little surprised. I mean people get dropped off there all the time and I am sure they usually have to pay. It must have been the combination of my elegant attire and — oh — the fact that he knew I was a cancer patient.

So, I was about ten minutes late. Not fatal. But I was concerned about getting a good seat under the skylight. I practically jumped down the stair case and was scolded by a lady not to rush (good point — headline: “she makes it through four chemos only to hurl herself down a flight of stairs at chemo and end up a quadriplegic”).

The staff ushered me to a nice, sunny pod. I yanked off my wellies, hung my coat up and waited for my friend. I hoped that she would like my outfit. I did not want to let her down. Again.

A blond breath of fresh air in a red and gold silk scarf, persimmon sweater and chocolate trousers breezed through the door. Susan had arrived. She saw me. She smiled.

What? You were expecting Rene Lezard? Please, people.

Nothing says “cancer, kiss my ass,” like matching leopard print tops and tails.

We killed it today, Susan and I. Easiest bloody chemo I ever did.

Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.

Armpit Wig

If you read my last post, “Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo,” you will know that I shaved my head in early March after trying out a number of different hair lengths. Hard to believe that I have been bald for that long already. Harder still to believe that I will be bald for my fortieth birthday on May 12. Not exactly what I had in mind when I thought about “fabulous at forty.” I need me a Lady Gaga “do” right quick. After I post today maybe I’ll run out and buy a light pink bob with fringe (that’s Breeteesh for bangs).

Before chopping my hair for the first time after my surgery, I began to contemplate a wig. I figured I would wear scarves most of the time (which I do) but it is nice to have a back-up plan should one want hair.

I asked around. Everyone recommended synthetic hair. Human hair is very expensive and you have to style it (i.e. wash and condition it, blow it dry and then make it be-have, baby), whereas synthetic hair is low-maintenance, requires less washing and will snap back into shape as it dries naturally on its wig stand. You don’t want to blow-dry a synthetic wig. It might melt.

With both kinds there are limitations. But a good synthetic wig can look pretty realistic.

My wonderful, kind and generous friend Kate had flown over from the States to accompany me to my first chemo, after which I felt okay. So we decided to have a “fun with cancer” day and go wig shopping right after treatment and lunch.

We cabbed it to a tiny establishment in Kensington touted as the go-to place for chemo patients desirous of a wig. They had a good selection and a nice saleswoman helped me try on many different styles and colours.

What not to buy became clear pretty quickly. I have a rather small forehead, so a heavy fringe (you should know this word by now if you have been paying attention) didn’t suit me. Also a no-no was anything too dark as it washed me out — not a good look when one is a cancer patient.

I felt a little bit like Goldilocks on the first two tries, except that I wasn’t in a house of bears and I didn’t have curly gold locks and I wasn’t eating porridge. Nothing was quite right. I just wasn’t feeling it. Too short and helmet-y made me look like a soccer mom (not my thing, really). Too long dragged my face down and wasn’t practical. About chin length seemed to work well…

We finally appeared to strike gold, or rather copper, when I tried on a chin-length ginger (that’s Limey for red head) number with great movement. But when they pulled out the same wig in the nice rich brown colour I wanted, it was slightly shorter and sort of poufed out at the wrong place. Foiled again. At this point I had had enough and was starting to get frustrated. Also, I began to feel tired from the chemo and all the decision making. If you think that a trip to the department store to buy new skinny jeans is tiring try purchasing new hair after chemo. It’s really a bit draining.

So we packed it in and went home. Wigless.

The next morning I had more surgery to install a portacath into one of the major arteries in my chest so that chemo going forward could be administered via the port. This avoids damage to the veins in the arm, which can happen after repeated treatments, so lethal is the shit they pump into you. Following that I was too sore and tired to go wig shopping again anytime soon and the next day, Kate had to fly back. So there I was, still without a wig and on my own.

After a few days I felt better and was back at it. I went to a well-known major department store. They sold wigs and hairpieces in two places, on the ground floor and in their posh salon, upstairs. I decided after my initial disappointment and frustration to think outside the box and try some wigs that didn’t really resemble my real hair. Trying too hard to match it didn’t seem to be working out for a couple of reasons. For one, synthetic wigs are mostly straight, whereas my own hair is wavy. They had some wavy ones but they looked pretty 80s and were lame. Also, getting the same colour is an impossibility.

Anyhow, I decided I was approaching it wrong and needed to have more fun with the process. I tried on a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe (it was pretty hot, actually). “Happy birthday, Mr. President…” I tried on a human hair brunette wig just for shits and giggles, but the hair was very thick — probably of Indian origin — and it just looked weird on me. I liked a dark red one, definitely a contender, even in the red, but not enough to buy it.

I have to admit I have always had a platonic crush on Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. She had great jugs and was such a tease (did the Professor ever get on that?). So something kept drawing me to the red ones.
But I wasn’t quite sure/ready so I noted the style number and went upstairs. When I got to the salon it was the wig lady’s day off so I tried on a couple half-heartedly, including a severe salt and pepper bob which made me look about 50, and another red number. Then I made an appointment with the wig specialist for the very next day.

That morning was a Thursday and I began the day with a visit to my plastic surgeon for a little instaboob (see the end of my blog entitled Boob Retrospective if that doesn’t make sense).  I returned to the store with my husband in tow. The wig lady was good. She was a stylist and had worked in the industry for years, including on fashion shoots, and then developed an interest in helping cancer patients with alopecia when her own mother was diagnosed. She sized me up and pulled out three or four styles she thought would suit me. I tried on yet another red number, shoulder length with light fringe and long layers. Great colour and movement, but not sure. Then she whipped out a very chic, chin-length deep brunette bob. I put it on. I posed. I became European. I became… Gabriella. I envisioned myself strolling down the street in Florence with a large Prada bag and a small dog, nodding to the men who were blowing kisses and whistling as I passed. Che bella

It was by far the best one I had tried on and, as the wig lady pointed out, it was “me” even if it wasn’t really me. My husband didn’t like it at first, but when I tried on some others and then reemerged with it he came around. So I bid him ciao and set about making my purchase. I got the works. Wig stand, special brush and Revlon shampoo and conditioner for synthetic hair. The wig lady took me downstairs to get the VAT off my purchase — I had to fill out a form that said I’d had a mastectomy and voilà, VAT-free wig. I ought to get something out of this, no?

To celebrate I bought some new make-up and by then I was so high I practically skipped out the door. On the tube I came up with a new MasterCard commercial to sum up my day:

Stylish new wig: £383
New NARS make-up: £85
Bigger tits in 60 seconds: Priceless

I went to the girls’ school to pick up Isabel and her pals and bring them to hip-hop class. I tried on Gabriella in the locker room at the hip-hop place and a friend snapped a pic.

That evening when I got home, I assembled the wig stand and opened the shiny box containing my new wig.

Something was not right.

What was that smell? I looked around the room, inhaled again. I sniffed my armpit. Nope, it was not I. I looked down at Gabriella. Could it be? No….

I picked her up, had a sniff. Oh, fuck. Gabriella smelled strongly of armpit. And not my armpit, mind you. Someone else’s armpit. Definitely female, due to the slight undertone of musky perfume. I frantically turned her around in my hands and inhaled every inch. The offending areas were the crown and down the right side.

The horror, the horror!

My mind was racing. “What the hell am I going to do?” I thought. I tried to think of a tactful way to phone the store and explain that my brand new wig smelled just like armpit, but not my armpit. To a British person. I considered saying nothing and washing Gabriella to see if the smell would come out. But what if I removed the tag and that didn’t work? Then they might accuse me of imparting the armpit smell myself. Maybe they would think I was into something kinky and was wearing the wig in the wrong place. I decided to sleep on it, my buzz from the day having been thoroughly killed.

The next morning I decided to come clean. I called the salon and thankfully reached the wig lady. “Er,” I stammered, “I have a sort of a strange issue that I need to discuss with you.” I explained that although I was thrilled with my purchase, I had gotten the wig home and noticed a peculiar odour emanating from it. I held my breath. “Oh bring it right in,” she responded. “I’ll take care of it.” Phew. She said she would either have it cleaned or get me a new wig, which might take over a week if it wasn’t in stock. I felt hot prickles go up my back as I recalled my experience at the first wig shop where the “same” wig did not fall the same way as the first one. I feared I might never see Gabriella again. And would have to start all over.

But that afternoon I took her back and handed her over. I left. Wigless again. I felt I had lost a good friend.

A week later I got the call. It was the wig lady. Gabriella was ready for pick up. She had gone back to headquarters and been washed and styled by their top stylist. I smiled.

The next day my friend, Susan, a terrific gal and a fellow Houstonian (I was born there), emailed with intentions of visiting that very store and did I need anything? I hesitated. “Well, actually,” I wrote, “my wig is ready to be picked up. But the thing is, you would have to smell it before you leave the store, you know, to make sure that it is really clean and fresh.” I bit my lip. Maybe this was too much to ask of a friend, even a very close friend. “I’ll do it,” she wrote. Hot damn.

She emailed once she had the goods in hand. “So, did you smell it?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she wrote. “I smelled it so hard I probably got snot on it.” “As long as it is your snot,” I replied. “I’ll do a DNA swab when you get here.”

Now that, people, is a true friend. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The doorbell rang. It was Susan. She handed Gabriella over. I lifted the lid and took a whiff. Fresh and clean and completely armpit-free.

So the morning after we shaved my head I put on Gabriella and left the house. I went to lunch, alone, at Le Pain Quotidien on Marylebone High Street. Leaving the house with a wig on and nothing under it for the first time was a strange experience. I kept having to remember to move my neck. “Oh God,” I thought. “Everyone knows. Everyone knows I am wearing a wig.” I tried to ignore these concerns and ordered. Then I struck up a conversation with a nice young couple who had a new baby. I reminisced about my girls when they were babies. “How old are they now?” The man asked. “Five and seven,” I said. “Oh you must have been really young when you had them,” he responded.

Dude, you just made my day. Made me feel like we can kill it, me and Gabriella together.