Category Archives: File under Not who I was and not who I am going to be

What I learned about myself in a blog hop challenge

Fellow blogger Nancy Stordahl has challenged me to blog hop. As you’ll read, I’ve never done one of these before. I have to admit, I was rather surprised at what I discovered about myself.  See if you agree.

Who are you?
I wonder about this a lot, post cancer. I once was certain about who I was, but now I’m not sure at all. I’d love to be an Audrey Hepburn character living in Paris, driving a red Mini Cooper around the Arc de Triomphe and living in an apartment with ornate pickled-wood paneling and doorlike French windows that overlook some busy Parisian street, hanging out with artists and art gallery owners and spending brooding afternoons along the Seine drinking rich, velvety coffee at an outdoor café. Hepburn died of a rare cancer at the age of 63, only a bit older than I am now. She was deeply compassionate and left a brilliant legacy based on the work she did with UNICEF, bringing the plight of those living in poverty and victims of political upheaval and starvation to the world’s attention.
It’s unlikely at my age that dream will come true (although her legacy gives me food for thought). Now I think I’d rather be the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, running around yelling “Off with their heads!” and “Here it takes all the running you can just to stay in place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast.”
“Where do you come from? And where are you going?” the Red Queen asks Alice, who admits she’s lost her way.
I fear I am more like Alice and less like the Red Queen, despite my aspirations.

Share anything you want about your cancer (type, stage, when diagnosed, whatever.) Share something about yourself such as where you live, the name of your blog and it’s “mission”, a challenge you have faced or are facing now, or whatever you want.
I have metastatic breast cancer, which is a chronic disease until it’s not chronic; then it becomes terminal. I was first diagnosed in 2011, then had a recurrence in 2015. My blog is called Breast Cancer Conscript because I feel I’ve been drafted into a war I have no appetite for and yet now am in a battle for my life. As you can tell, I don’t have an issue with the battle metaphor when it comes to characterizing my plight with the disease. It’s the closest I can relate to a military veteran who has experienced a life beyond the ordinary. Navy Seal (and disgraced Missouri governor) Eric Grietens, author of Resilience, puts it best when he writes:
“The frontline was where battles were fought and fates decided. The frontline was a place of fear, struggle and suffering. It was also a place where victories were won, where friendships of a lifetime were forged in hardship. It was a place where we lived with a sense of purpose.
But frontline isn’t just a military term. You have frontline in your life now. In fact everyone has a place where they encounter fear, where they struggle, suffer and face hardship. We all have battles to fight. If you want to win any meaningful kind of victory, you’ll have to fight for it.”
My blog focuses on that fight, including just getting through a day, getting through other life-bombarding tragedies, helping to shape public policy so that it leads healthier outcomes for all of us and hopefully one day for a cure, bringing to light promising research, advice for overcoming some of the issues cancer patients face – from how to make a living while also tending the disease to how to deal with mind-boggling health insurance issues.

Have you ever participated in a blog hop before?
I’ve participated in a sock hop, a bunny hop but never a blog hop before.

What’s your favorite sort of blog post to write and/or read – personal story, informational, how to, controversial, political, opinion, rant or other?
I like to read stories and tell stories and find new ways to do that, whether it’s through pictures, sounds or lame videos I’ve made or any other novel approaches to storytelling. I’m always experimenting and looking to others who experiment.

Describe yourself in three words. Yes, just three!
Stirred the pot.

Name three of your favorite books from your youth (whatever age that means to you.) that had an impact on you.
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold

What’s your favorite dessert of all time?
Anything dark-chocolate based that includes a cappuccino along the left bank of the Seine under a starry sky at midnight.

Tell us about a special pet you have, had, or would like to have. (Never wanted a pet, that’s okay too.)
I had an Australian shepherd-German short-haired pointer mixed pound puppy named Nietzsche when I was a single, young woman. He used to eat my boyfriend’s underwear and loved to run alongside me when I biked along the river, his tongue hanging out like a ladle. He had a very independent nature (my mother called him “willful”). One night he ran off, not returning until mid-morning, despite my all-night, desperate search for him. His face was swollen from bee stings. I just took him to the vet, letting the secret of the night’s excursion reside with him alone.

What’s something people don’t know about you and might be surprised to learn?
I’m the sewer commissioner in my hometown. My motto: The shit runs through me.

Do you believe healthcare is a privilege or a right?
Right, hands down. And I work hard to secure that right for EVERYONE.

What’s your favorite thing about blogging and/or reading blogs?
I like the connection and the community, but most of all, I love the changes blogging can bring about, from increased research funding to public policy initiatives. Every piece a blogger writes is one step closer to a cure for cancer.

What’s something you really suck at?
What’s something I don’t suck at? is a better question.

What’s something you’re pretty good at?
I’m really good at sucking.

How do you escape from cancer (or life in general) worries?
Ah, if such a thing were actually possible. Cancer is like a shadow, so it’s nearly impossible to escape. I call it “the enemy within” and my goal is to make peace with it until I can annihilate it completely (and I do hold out hope for that day) which helps to relieve any worry I feel about it. Running and staying physically active keeps me sane. Humor keeps me from driving off a cliff.

Here’s what others in the challenge have to say:

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A river runs north

May 1 is a day of seduction.
Without fail, it arrives cloudless and sunny, warm and fragrant, casting off the vestiges of a cruel winter.  Fear? Toss it out the window. Success is an open road looking for someone to tear it up.

I remember feeling that way 10 years ago, before the Nishisakawick Creek coughed up its sedge to form an island where its mouth meets the Delaware River. Back then there were a few scant sycamore trees that jutted up from the river, catching dead leaves and twigs in the rapid flow. There were no signs that the island would one day block the creek’s entrance, forcing the river to flow up instead of down. Had I seen it, I tell myself, I would have known.

But the truth is, we never really know life’s irony until it stares back at us from the page. And this story is no different. May 1, 2008, I started out on a morning of hope, launching a new business with my mother and father as partners. Sure, we had failed as a family unit. They’d divorced some 30 years earlier. But we’d learned from our failures. Time is a great healer, afterall. We were no longer mother, father and child, but adults who had experience in the world. Our business venture was destined to succeed.

As I made my way down River Road that morning, fire police detoured traffic onto Dark Hollow Road where I’d normally turn anyway. A sign, I was sure, that I was on a guided path. “A tree down,” I thought before losing myself in other mind chatter.

My mother would arrive late, complaining about a power outage that kept her from drying her hair. We huddled, vowing to knuckle down, make calls, do whatever it took to make this venture work.

Uneven road ahead

Only now do I see the irony. Yes, a tree did come down, ill-timed, crushing my stepfather’s car and killing him instantly. Nine months later, my father would be diagnosed with lung cancer. Our fledgling business venture would be buried along with him. My sister’s crazy outburst at his funeral wasn’t inconsolable grief, but a softball-sized tumor lodged in her brain.

I’d pay only scant attention to the thickness I felt, like a jelly fish, in my right breast while showering at my father’s house after his death. “Perimenopause,” I thought, before my mind wandered to the mold in the grout lines and whether I could adequately clean them or would need a professional before I could put the house up for sale.

By then, a large tree trunk had lodged between the river sycamores and on a sun-baked August day if you looked real hard you could just about see the sedge that was starting to mound at their base, not even enough ground to stand on.

Running in place

The next May 1 I was in Jacksonville, Fla. helping my sister navigate a life, post-cancer, that had taken a chunk of her brain and part of her mind, leaving her at times manic and at times depressed. It would be another beautiful, cloudless day. She would come and watch me run a 9K race, sitting on a curb, throwing up in the gutter from the mega doses of steroids she was on to reduce the swelling caused by the brain radiation. My mother was there. A new venture. Not of our choosing. One that had us chaffing life’s bit.

By the next May 1st I was bald and scarred, recovering from chemo and surgery. It was cloudless and sunny and my neighbor would insist on me joining her for a long walk with her dog along the river. The river sycamores were getting thicker, their trunks bent over nearly parallel to the fast flowing river. A piece of opaque, ragged plastic got caught in one of them, rattling in the wind like a sail.

Rising from the ashes

The next May 1st, cloudless again, the plastic gone and with it wind from my own sails. I’d buried my sister nine months earlier and felt bewildered by the world I was now living in. By now, the sedge had settled, forming two islands just off the river banks. Enough ground to walk on with a sedge sandbar starting to fill in between the two shorelines where marshy grass grew. By summer, the marsh choked the creek flow, pushing the river northward along one of the islands.

I made friends with the kids who moved next door and we’d spend summers exploring the islands, looking for fossils, feathers and bones, making up stories about where they’d come from or how they’d landed there. Taking picnic lunches, throwing sticks for the dogs and swimming.

We built a bridge across the north flowing river so we could get to the island without getting our feet wet. Stone pile sculptures magically appeared, as did a stick hut where we could hide out from the strong, summer sun.

Finding a new flow

Three  more May 1sts passed, all cloudless, sunny and warm. My hair grew back, and so did the cancer. The new drugs I was on fought it back until the river flowed north again that summer. By then, people were finding their way to sedge island to fish, leaving trash and the rotting spoils of their catch. Scrubby shrubs filled in between the sycamores. The kids were now older and we stopped our treks to the island, except for the dogs who still liked to walk its perimeter while chasing sticks.

Last May 1st was dark and overcast, and yet my mood was buoyant. I’d just come home from a writing retreat with plans to sign up for summer triathlons, eat healthy and start writing projects anew. I’d moved my treatment from a community hospital to a research setting. The new regimen was working and my options for future treatments, endless. I’d weathered the emotional move from one oncologist to another.  The river flowed north, but I was used to it.

Defying logic

Here I am today, another May 1st. Sunny, cloudless, warm. Tonight I’ll go to dinner with my husband and my mother. We’ll talk about my stepfather, our losses and the ones we still have yet to endure. The sycamores on sedge island are now about 15-foot tall, standing nearly upright. A bore infected the aged ash trees along the river bank. Their rugged bark looks starkly naked against the backdrop of the maples now budding. On my way back from the river, I walked past  pear trees in bloom. The pleasant fragrance caught me off guard. My throat tightened and tears welled up.

Life has turned upside-down. An author whose book on resilience got me through my darkest hour is now under indictment for enslaving a woman and taking photos of her. His words which once soothed now ring hollow. My family as I knew it has gone. Others have abandoned me, replaced by new friendships with deeper roots.

Yesterday I ran a half marathon with my other sister, her husband and my husband. We went out for lunch afterwards and my niece and nephew fought over who would sit next to me. This summer, I’ll take them to sedge island. We’ll look for artifacts and make up stories and I’ll show them how, defying all logic, the river runs north, but still it flows.



This post is dedicated to Stephen R. Hance, 1948-2008, who believed in me always. Pictured here, with my late sister Tracy Johnson Pollick. They always remind me that no matter what direction life takes, go with it, because even when a river flows up, it will eventually find its way down.






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Breast cancer

Change comes from new habits, from acting as if, from experiencing the inevitable discomfort of becoming.