“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein
Today was different. It was the first time that cancer and surviving cancer didn’t even cross my mind – up until about an hour ago when I sat down to write this blog. I almost made it through an entire day without giving the “c-word” a thought. Maybe I’m learning to stop questioning.
I have been preoccupied the past two months and so you may have noticed my silence and absence from this blog. In February I realized that my life was becoming stagnant and I wanted to start living for today. My scars from cancer, both physical and emotional, are fading. And so I made plans to change my life. Surviving cancer has now taken a back seat to moving forward with my life. I’m not only moving forward…but I am actually moving.
Next Tuesday the house that I have lived in for 17 years will go on the market. I love my house with all my heart but it is time to move on to a new and exciting chapter. I’m heading South. Savannah. Packing up the house, loading up the car with the dogs and a very big cooler filled with Trader Joe’s products I’ll find hard to live without until the chain opens a Savannah outpost. Or, friends send T.J. care packages (hint, hint).
Tomorrow is my birthday and it is also a personal milestone. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time I grew concerned that I would not make it to this year, my 53rd. My mother had died of cancer at 53 and since her death I always wondered about my own mortality. Now that I’ve made it to the year I’ve always feared, I am breathing a very big sign of relief. I was not predestined to die afterall. Maybe that is why I forgot all about cancer. Today I actually felt the change in the season and in my life take place. I am not only alive, I AM LIVING.
Spring is a time of renewal, of rebirth, and new beginnings. And so my new beginning begins. Hope really does spring eternal!
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
— Alexander Pope
This past week I took time out from working on The NAKED Project to mentor a 14-year-old girl for her Montessori school’s work/study internship program. She wanted to intern with me because of her interest in fashion and magazines. Interests shared by most 14 year girls. The project I assigned to her was to create a magazine that embraced and celebrated the hobbies and preoccupations of her peers.
To get to know my intern better, I had her create a vision board that represented her interests/thoughts/emotions. My belief is that creative expressions often tell more about what a person is thinking and feeling than verbal communication.
Toward the end of our first day we reviewed her vision board (above photo) and discussed the concept for the magazine that she would go on create during the week. One look at her vision board and I was drawn to the letters she assembled, forming the words “Be Different.” At a time when so many teens are feeling the pressure to conform in our society for fear of being bullied if they don’t, I felt that her message was a bold and authentic statement as well as a great title for a magazine. Short, catchy, honest and direct.
When I look back, I think my teen years were some of the hardest. You are just beginning to develop your own identity while being besieged with pressure to “fit in.” It takes great courage for a teen, either male or female, to break away from the group mentality – to be different. The media messages are mixed and confusing. Shows like MTV’s Skins depict the blatant debauchery of our youth while Glee sends a message that being different can be creatively rewarding.
At the start of our project I had asked my intern how she liked her art courses at school. She was indifferent – bordering on slightly critical. Her main complaint was that the instructor said “trees must be brown” leaving no room for personal interpretation or expressionism. I told her that this project was all about thinking outside the box. She embraced the assignment.
Yesterday as we worked on the completion of her magazine project, I was overwhelmed by just how “outside the box” her thinking was. Her story ideas where original, her writing thoughtful, and her visuals impressive. Many of us underestimate the creative potential of our youth. It seems with so much of their time spent on applying for high school or college admissions and focusing on S.A.T. scores that the fine arts can often be overlooked in the process. Creative self-expression through art can help students gain insight and self-awareness, increase self esteem, develop interpersonal skills, and release stress. I found it interesting that most of my intern’s classmates selected to work with professionals in creative fields. Gallery owners, glassblowers, sculptors, and photographers also participated in this internship program. Art is inspiring.
Mentoring is rewarding. Whether it is mentoring women newly diagnosed with breast cancer or young students with their work/study projects, I find that I grow and learn as much from them as vice versa. Taking some needed time-out from my dedication to The NAKED Project was beneficial. This week I was able to look at the world through the eyes of a healthy, unique and enthusiastic 14-year-old girl. Optimism can be contagious – I think I caught hers.
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Last Saturday I went to the opening reception of artist Stephanie Joyce‘s exhibit “Nature’s Poem.” Stephanie is a painter and printmaker influenced by elements found in nature. One of her pieces (pictured left) is a monoprint on metal plate titled “Paths Crossing.”
Close by “Paths Crossing” Stephanie had printed an abbreviated text of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers.” Contemplating Stephanie’s works of art while reflecting on Kunitz’s observations on the transitions that take place in human existence, I had one of those surreal ”aha moments” when the journey I have been on for the past two years all came in to focus and clarity.
One of my New Year resolutions is to stay on my path. Even though it appears that I have recovered from breast cancer, I am more committed than ever to helping other women confront the disease with confidence and strength. NAKED is my gift and I hope that in the way a piece of art or poetry can inspire, so too will this ongoing project.
In my December 2009 blog titled Crossing Over I wrote, “And as this year comes to a close, so too does this chapter of my life. I will continue to write but it will only be about the chapters yet to come!” Ironically one year later the poem that so moved me ends with Kunitz’s writing, “Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.”
Wow, I think I am having another “aha moment.” I am not who I was. I read that aha moments become more frequent as we nurture authenticity, humility and awareness in our lives. I think I am learning to live in the layers, not the litter. I am not done with changes. I am not done with the chapters yet to come.
Following is poet laureate Stanley Kunitz‘s “The Layers” in entirety:I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned campsites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”- Carl Bard
We have all been mesmerized the past 2 days by the media coverage of Ted Williams’ meteoric transformation from homeless panhandler to overnight celebrity. It’s the perfect feel good story to kick start 2011.
Here is a man that had so much going for him – a golden voice, a successful radio announcer career, and a family that raised him with love and foundational values (at least that’s the feeling I get after listening to his mother being interviewed). But somewhere along the way, Ted’s life took a downward spiral. Alcohol, drugs and non violent crime all came into play.
Sometimes in life we are given second chances. What we do with those second chances is largely determined by the insight and wisdom we may have gained through an adversity. Listening to Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira interview Ted this morning, I was particularly moved when Matt asked if he is “emotionally ready to accept this second chance; to do the right things with this second chance.” Ted replies, ” I was ready to mark 2010 as another year wasted until I realized in 2010 I found a new sense of spirituality.” Ted’s words resonated with me.
Like Ted, I was given a second chance to make a brand new ending. My story was not of a personal decline due to alcohol or drugs. My decline came from confronting breast cancer for a second time. Learning I had the aggressive HER2+ form of the disease, I wasn’t sure what my ending would be. This month (January 13th to be exact) it will be two years since I underwent a bi-lateral mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments. We both survived disease – alcohol and drugs for Ted, cancer for me.
Second chances are a gift, not a privilege. I will never loose sight of that and I hope that Ted, with his newfound celebrity status, won’t either. He is in a tremendous position to give back – to be the “voice” for others that have found themselves homeless and in despair. It will be interesting to watch the media generated reality of Ted Williams’ new life unfold.
I wish him the strength to continue on his path of sobriety and spirituality, the courage to avoid the temptations that can accompany celebritydom, and the compassion to reach out to those less fortunate. I wish Ted a brand new happy ending.still photograph from video by Doral Chenoweth III copyright 2011 all rights reserved ]]>
As a featured guest speaker, I didn’t want to sound like a complete outsider to the sport. Especially speaking along side inspirational rower Diane Cotting. So I turned to the internet for a crash course in Rowing 101.
You know that moment of elation when you figure out the final clue in a crossword puzzle, well that is how I felt when my google search led me to US Rowing.org. I couldn’t believe the analogies between rowing and fighting cancer. By the time I finished reading about the sport and US Rowing’s list of insights, I thought wow, I didn’t just battle cancer, I power 10‘d it! Both are competitions requiring strength, stamina, endurance and a fierce determination to cross the finish line.
In rowing, sometimes conditions can throw a race off course. Blame it on the wind.
Novelist Arthur Golden wrote: “Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”
My life was thrown off course by the adversity called breast cancer – not once but twice! Just like a strong wind, breast cancer blew in to my life, knocking me off course. It tore away from me all but the things that could not be torn and it gave me the opportunity to see myself as I really am. I can honestly say I am a stronger, wiser and a more compassionate person for having encountered the disease. For that I will be forever grateful.
At age 46 I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ in my right breast. Following a lumpectomy, I underwent eight weeks of radiation and walked away from the experience feeling cured, fortunate and very grateful.
Three years later I received a second diagnosis of breast cancer. An annual mammogram revealed new abnormalities, in my left breast. I would learn that I had the aggressive HER2+ form of the disease.
The second time around, I would not get off so easily. I faced a difficult decision. Without a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy, the chance that the cancer would metastasize was significant. On January 13, 2009 surgeons amputated both my breasts and began reconstruction.
When faced with adversity, there comes a critical moment in each of us when we are forced to make the decision to either fight or retreat. I chose to fight. The sprint was on. I was competing for my life.
US Rowing Insight #1 – Rowing is a Total Body Workout
Well let me tell you this – so is breast cancer. Definitely not for the faint of heart. After my mastectomy it was a workout just to wash my own hair. My upper body strength was diminished. It has taken me more than a year of practicing yoga 6 days a week to begin to regain the strength I had in what I like refer to as my life B.C. (before cancer).
US Rowing Insight #2 –The sport demands endurance, strength, balance, mental discipline, and an ability to continue on when your body is demanding that you stop. Whoa, talk about similarities! On or about my 5th treatment of chemotherapy my body was demanding that I stop, halt, retreat! I didn’t think I had the strength to go another chemo round. So I did what rowers are taught to do, I went inward and used all the mental discipline I could muster to push onward. I visualized completing the race – for me that happened last December when I received my final I.V. injection of Herceptin.
US Rowing Insight #10 Teamwork is Number One
Those of us who have confronted cancer know the importance of teamwork. From the minute you receive a breast cancer diagnosis you need to start assembling a team that will help you transition from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. I could not have done it with out my team of surgeons, oncologist, radiologists, chemo infusion nurses, lab technicians, friends and family.
I also had another support team – a film crew that was with me the entire journey. Why a film crew you may ask? Well, I had been denied health insurance because of my pre-existing condition – breast cancer round 1. I was facing a life threatening disease with no coverage. Producer Roynn Lisa Simmons’ documentary about me, titled Naked, tracks my battle with health insurance as I fight for survival. Naked helps women understand what a breast cancer diagnosis can entail and dispels the fear that can surround it. The goal of the documentary is to inform, educate and empower.
I am not unique – I bet that each of you here know someone that has confronted breast cancer…a mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, colleague, or neighbor. One in every eight women in the United States (about 13 percent) will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2009, an estimated 192,370 cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed, as well as an estimated 62,280 additional cases of in situ (non-invasive) breast cancer. Breast cancer does not just target women; one in every 1,000 men will face the disease. Currently, there are 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. Many are here amongst us. I honor your presence. I honor your strength. I honor your courage.
Each 500 meter sprint taking place today will last approximately two minutes or 120 seconds. If you think that is fast, think about this. Every 69 seconds a woman dies of breast cancer. That woman won’t make it to the finish line. Your participation and support of today’s Row for the Cure can help change that.
Thanks to the medical advancements and breakthroughs that have been made possible by funding breast cancer research from events like today’s, I was given a Repechage – rowing terminology for a second chance. My second chance allows me to live life to the fullest and to inspire others to do the same.
I not only survived but I think one could say I brought home the gold!copyright 2010 all rights reserved ]]>
On Wednesday night I received a phone call. A friend I haven’t seen in two years had died. Suddenly. She came home from work on Monday complaining of a headache and by Wednesday morning she was dead from a viral infection that spread to her liver. Such sadness fills my heart. Sadness not only for my friend that died but sadness for the family and friends she leaves behind.
I have to ask…why? Having survived two occurrences of breast cancer, I’ve contemplated death probably more than the average person. I even wrote about it in my November 26, 2009 blog entitled Transformation. Today, I have no answers. I only know that I was given a chance to reflect on my own mortality; given a chance to choose life over the fear of death; given a chance to survive. My friend never had that opportunity. Nor will she have the opportunity to see her oldest son graduate from college in a couple of weeks. Or see her daughter off to her high school senior prom. Or her middle child, a son, grow in to manhood.
Yesterday, the double whammy struck. I learned that another dear friend who had survived a rare form of cancer when she was 15 years old is now hospitalized and being treated for “familial adenomatous polyposis” colorectal cancer.
So as much as I thought I had come to terms with physiological death and its inevitability, I now realize that I have only come to terms with my own philosophical views of death. I was not prepared for the sudden death of one friend and the possibility of the loss of another. It brings all sorts of emotions floating to the surface. Emotions that I have kept buried…suppressed. Call it my survival instinct.
I am not experiencing survivor’s guilt; just reflecting on the mournful passing of a friend too young to die and the concern for another. As a believer in existentialism, I am interested with human existence, finding self, and the meaning of life. It is weeks like this where I am challenged to find the meaning of life. This week will not be one of perfect endings.copyright 2010 all rights reserved ]]>
Within a matter of hours, all that will be left of 2009 will be just memories. I will spend these last hours reflecting and at the stroke of midnight a new beginning for me will take hold. The past month has been a countdown as I anxiously crossed each remaining day of 2009 off the calendar. I felt like I would not be able to completely move on until the calendar year officially crossed over. It has been almost a year (January 13th to be exact) since I underwent my bi-lateral mastectomy and my life was permanently rearranged.
I have made a list of resolutions. A few I will share but the majority I will keep to myself. In this age of over-sharing, I find that others soon tire of the daily tweets, posts and blogs. Yet having said that, I don’t think I could have made it through the past year without sharing – it was cathartic to my recovery and so I thank all of you who read my blogs and posts and offered words of support, wisdom and encouragement. The one resolution I do wish to share is that I am no longer going to write about 2009. I am determined to put closure on my year of cancer – my year interrupted.
On January 7th when I meet with my oncologist, I expect to receive his o.k. that I no longer have to remain on herception I.V. drips every 21 days. I will have completed the one year protocol for the targeted treatment that waged war on my aggressive HER2+ cancer cells. The scars across both my breasts are starting to fade; so too are the memories of the toxicity that accompanied each chemo infusion. My hair is slowing growing in and if you met me for the first time, you would have no inclination that I am a survivor of the disease…not once, but twice! And that is how I choose to be viewed. Please don’t misunderstand, I am proud of my survivorship but I am anxious to move on. I have spent this past year not only dealing with cancer but with changes in my body, my identity, my femininity and society. I hope that my experience with the disease may perhaps provide a useful, even poetic, memoir for others who may follow in my path. Too often those afflicted by breast cancer hide their disease out of fear that others will view them less than whole…damaged goods. Having been there, I can fully understand but I hope that my “sharing” will make it a little less frightening. Cancer was my ‘NAKED’ reality.
And as this year comes to a close, so too does this chapter of my life. I will continue to write but it will only be about the chapters yet to come!
I wish you all a most joyous, healthy and prosperous NEW Year!
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“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.” – Buddha
I am learning to live in the moment. Not an easy task for a perpetual planner. I was forced to put my life on hold for close to a year while I underwent three surgeries and 5 months of chemotherapy. No place to go, nothing to do but focus on getting well. I had lots of time to think. Perhaps too much time. And so I have had a hard time trying to quiet my mind lately.
I have taken yoga instruction for more than 12 years. For me yoga was always a form or relaxation. When I finished chemo and felt well enough to stretch both my body and my mind, returning to yoga was one of the first steps I took on my path to renewed wellness. But this time it was not merely for relaxation, but to quiet my mind as it raced at uncontrollable speeds. It has been a challenge to slow my mind and literally and figuratively catch my breath. And breathe – just breathe. I don’t think that I will ever be able to achieve that place where one is one with the moment but I sure am trying. I am constantly distracted by thoughts. Those thoughts cause my mind to wander, to daydream and to fret about the future. Yoga forces me to meditate – to spend one hour of just letting go. And while I love the moments of strenuous stretching in the yoga asanas, it is the quiet “savasana” or the corpse pose that I look most forward to. In this final pose of a class, I allow my body and mind to relax and to visualize my spirit being healed. Free from disease, from stress, from anxiety about the future.
And, with the New Year rapidly approaching I need to focus on the future and not dwell on the past. I will treat the year 2009 as a gift of learning and growing. No regrets. If cancer taught me one thing, it is that even the best laid plans can be interrupted. So 2009 will be the year my life was interrupted and 2010 will be the year I move forward. Yoga will help keep me grounded and ever mindful to heed the words of Buddha and live in the moment as wisely and as earnestly as I can. One day, one moment, one breath at a time!
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“Coming to terms with the fear of death is conducive to healing, positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.” – Stanislav Grof
I have to agree with Czechoslovakian psychiatrist Stanislav Grof’s belief that coming to terms with the fear of death is conducive to healing. At least it is for me. I came to terms with death early on in my life. I was just 15 years old when my mother died of pancreatic cancer. She was only 53 and although at the time that age seemed eons away, I would learn just how fragile life could be. While I was aware of death at age 15 and the sadness that surrounds it, I didn’t fully conceptualize it until I was 46 years old and confronting the news that I had breast cancer. I think there is a critical moment in all of us when, upon hearing a life threatening diagnosis, we make the decision right then and there to either fight or retreat. I chose the prior. Little did I know at the time that the battle had only just begun. Cancer occurrence #1 was “a walk in the park”. My diagnosis of Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ was non invasive and after a lumpectomy and a five-week treatment of radiation to my right breast, I was able to walk away from the experience feeling fully cured.
But cancer was not to be finished with me. Four years later and feeling better than ever, an annual mammogram turned up new and alarming clusters of calcifications in my otherwise “good breast” – my left. This time the pathology report would not be so promising. In addition to new formations of calcifications, my left breast also had aggressive HER2+ cancer cells. And if you’ve read all my previous blogs to date, you know the whole story by now.
So here I am, one year later. I am on a threshold. I chose to fight – and if Dr. Grof is correct (and I think he is), than I am having a positive personality transformation and consciousness evolution. I am metamorphosing out of the cocoon that I have been trapped in for the past year. I chose life over the fear of death, not death itself. And in doing so, I have realized an awakening within me that never could have happened B.C. (before cancer).
I shared this feeling with photographer Claudia Hehr who has been chronicling my journey through her camera lens this past year. I felt that a photo shoot representative of my transformation was called for. And so with Claudia’s visionary eye and make-up artist Cheryl Esposito’s skilful hand, we were able to capture my symbolic metamorphosis in a series of artistic photographs I like to refer to as the “white album.” In many cultures white represents purity and freedom. My transformation through cancer has giving me a freedom I have never known. Having fought cancer twice in my life, I feel that I have confronted the beast head-on. I have come to terms with the possibility of death but have chosen to live instead – each day, in the moment. Never knowing what tomorrow will bring; yet fully conscious of the transformation that takes me from one day to the next, with no expectations – only gratitude for making it this far.
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After finishing my last blog entitled “Limbo” I couldn’t write any more for a while. I was too busy trying to maneuver my way through re-entry – the “so now what?” part of my recovery process. Cancer has changed me and I just can’t seem to figure out what to do with the new me. Ironically, the writing flowed while I was at my “chemo” sickest. Now that I am feeling better, I find my mind goes off in tangents and I can’t focus while writing. I like to think that I can attribute these tangents to what I have coined my “C.A.D.D.” or Cancer Attention Deficit Disorder. With chemo, I was too sick most of the time to think beyond just making it through the day. But now, my mind spins with all the projects I put on hold; things I want to accomplish; lists of things to-do; people I need to meet with; letters I need to write; etcetera, etcetera. I am so overwhelmed by all that I think I should be doing, that I end up doing nothing at all! It’s a vicious cycle.
For me, like most, cancer was a life changing experience. What I once considered important now seems irrelevant. I know the direction I want my life to take, but reinventing oneself overnight is never an easy task (even for the healthiest). I have spent my entire working life in the fashion business as an editor, stylist and writer. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities that my career afforded me. However, it is time to put that career behind me and to move forward in a direction that is more meaningful to the new me. That me is still in the discovery process.
Being the subject of a documentary film and a photo exposé was/is a cathartic experience. I have tangible reminders of what I went through this past year. I seem to have forgotten the pain (funny how our brain can wipe out the bad if we allow it) but I never want to forget the experience. Getting the documentary and book out to the public is my priority at the moment. Yesterday, I learned from the documentary’s producer Lisa Simmons that PBS P.O.V.’s review committee passed on the rough cut of the film. No explanation was given. I won’t kid you, the rejection hurt. How could it not? NAKED has been a labor of love from all involved since the very start. PBS’s decision to pass on the project was not a personal affront to me or to the producer and I shouldn’t take it that way. Hundreds of documentary filmmakers also submitted projects that were passed on. Only a chosen few would actually get “green-lighted.” So I must move on and hope to find another network that will be interested in airing the documentary. I have learned that moving on is important. Cancer Lesson #1 – there is nothing positive that can come from dwelling in the past.
Cancer Lesson #2 – learning to cut some slack! I can be my own worst enemy at times. Being hard on myself is something I acquired early on in my life. Perhaps that is why I have been suffering from writer’s block. I am trying so hard to catch up with the time I missed while being sick that I am paralyzing myself in the process. So this morning I decided to put everything else on hold and sit down in front of my computer and see what, if anything, would happen. Accepting that if nothing happened than so be it. Ah, but this happened! I wrote a blog entry for the first time in months without undue effort. And in the process, I learned that by cutting myself some slack I am allowing the “new” me to emerge. Slowly but surely!
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