Posts from March, 2011

Ann’s Diary: Because I Can

When I was little I wore a tiger paw bikini that I loved.

In the late 60’s terry cloth suits for kids were the rage and mine, white with a paw shape striped like a jungle cat’s fur was my ultimate favorite swim wear. In photos of me and my 5 brother and sisters and 11 cousins clustered around our 4 aunts and uncles, 3 sets of parents and our (maternal) grandparents sitting for cocktails on a Maine beach, the suit features prominently in slides my mother either took or had a beach walker take with her leather-bound Nikkormat camera. Mom, in her paisley cover up and grecian style sandals, wore that thing like jewelry.  She loved taking family pictures. And I’m just like her.

But taking a photo of myself in a bikini hasn’t happened since those days clustered around my grandpa back at Goose Rocks Beach.  I was either too modest or too pregnant to even think of putting on a two piece. Then I got breast cancer and along with it, a double mastectomy.  Now I have no breasts–and I don’t mean small ones, or fake ones, I mean ‘no’ ones;  nada, zilch, zero.  I made the difficult decision to do without a fake pair and just live as I am.

Many times my lack of breasts isn’t even noticeable, as I try to stay slim, eat well and exercise.  And anything that emphasizes nipples and curves kind of highlights the situation and so has been a no-no on my shopping list.  So when a friend recently suggested I bring a bikini to my beach getaway with my cousin, I thought she’d lost her mind.  The upper part of a bikini is basically a piece of cloth designed to thinly veil the sexuality beneath it. Assuming you have sexuality beneath it.

Which brings me back to me. I’ve lived as a breast less woman in America for 7 years now and I’ve graduated slowly from baggy shirts to high collars to solid print scoops to sleeveless v-necks.  Now fighting metastatic breast cancer, I am trying things I’ve never had the guts for in the past because I’m still here and to put it simply, because I can.

I suppose we all decide we simply can’t do things–we’re either not smart enough, not tall enough, not brave enough, not rich enough.  And maybe that’s in part true but in reality, we put a lot more restrictions on our movements than anybody else ever could.  Once you tell your mind it’s out of the question, then even picking up a pencil is now truly out of your reach.

Blah blah blah–what’s my point? My point is that today, 40 years from the last time I did this, I put a bikini on. I borrowed it from that friend who told me I could do it.  She even said I should do it. I’ve been working out and doing my anti-cancer diet and the good news about eating nuts and twigs for a living is that the body doesn’t hold onto much fat.  And she’s right, I’m looking okay these days.

I took the suit, packed it in my bag, and pulled it out and looked at it.   But until I told myself I could do it, I still couldn’t.

So today, I told myself I could. (see below)

And I hope whatever it is that you’ve been thinking you can’t do, some one of these days you can tell yourself that you can, too.

Posted March 30th, 2011
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: My Cousin Sarah

I had a cousin when I was little named Sarah.  We lived 8 states away from each other, saw the other rarely if ever, and never spoke on the phone. We were a year and a day apart in age and worlds away from each other in gifts–she a tomboy, spoke her mind, unafraid to defend herself in a fight;  me a Lipsmacker lover, cautious and worried, and always afraid to defend myself in a fight.

Yet somehow, every time I saw her–at the occasional wedding, Catholic holiday or old relative funeral, was like was coming back to the pool after too long in the sun—“aaaaahhhhhh.” She was one of my dearest friends and though I had 4 of them at home I saw Sarah as a sister. My sister. And any time we were together, I knew I was going to have a blast.
Then we grew up.  Time took us traveling–she moved a few times, we both went to high school, then college and graduate schools and then off to big cities and new friends.  Throw in our respective climbs up the career ladder–hers in marketing and mine in TV journalism,  and a romantic relationship or two and we lost touch.

Sarah moved to New York and I moved to Virginia and in the days before cell phones, Twitter and Facebook you could easily lose touch with someone via a lost phone number and a canned voice saying “that number is no longer in service. If you need help, hang up and dial your operator.” I would have done so to get Sarah back in my world but like me, my operator had no idea where she had gone.
Besides, I was too distracted to find out.  Concentrating on becoming the next Katie Couric I had little time to track down lost friends.  So my Sister-cousin–my partner in holiday crime– slipped away from my world, along with at least 3 old boyfriends, 7 neighborhood pals and every single person who signed “friends forever” in my junior high yearbook.
Three decades later my film, the Breast Cancer Diaries, aired on Discovery Health and within a few days I got an email on my film’s webpage from a familiar cyberface:  my cousin Sarah.  She’d seen the film and felt compelled and excited to be back in my life–having just see my world collapse and watch me fight my way back over 9 months of cancer hell condensed into a tight 72 minute documentary. I almost cried reading the note.  As our Irish luck would have it (our mothers are sisters and both have ties to the Old Sod) I had moved within an hour’s plane ride of her. Suddenly, magically, we were back.

It’s hard to put into words what our present friendship feels like for me.  Though I’ve never had a long lost twin I can only imagine that this is a scratch-the-surface take on it.  When I say that Sarah was my special cousin as a child I’m not gilding the lily–I’m dead serious.  And when we lost touch it was one of those things that when people would say “do you have any regrets?” would pop up in my head, right along with dating that tall dark and dreary guy I wasted a year of my life on post college.

So as I write this blog I am happy to tell you that Sarah and I are about to embark on a trip together.  It involves an airplane, a fancy hotel, miles of sandy beaches, and two girlfriends laughing it up.  We haven’t been side by side holding hands and getting into trouble since we stole Nana’s pecan tarts from under Auntie Ann’s nose just before Christmas dinner back in 1975.  But this friendship, pock-marked with my cancer, her failed marriage and our devastatingly long absence from the other’s life, is about to enjoy a rebirth like you read about in What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

And just like we used to, I’m expecting that the two of us are going to have a blast.
Posted March 29th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary: My Cousin Sarah
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: Ice Cream and Envy

One of the hardest things for me about being a cancer patient–aka fighter, survivor-back-battling-again, or whatever you are when you have metastatic breast cancer– is what other people go through around me.

I’m talking about the strange syndrome that I don’t know if it has a name but I’ll try to describe it.  It’s the feeling that I, as the cancer patient, am receiving nice things, heaped-on attention, and have so much sympathy thrown my way that sometimes those around me can begin to feel, for lack of a better word, jealous of me.

The supreme irony being that who in the world is truly jealous of a cancer patient?  Nobody is.

But I actually understand and appreciate the validity of this syndrome because it happened in my first go-round with breast cancer.  When I was getting unexpected visits from dear friends from miles away and having whoopie pies delivered to my door, some in my life were feeling like Santa forgot to fill their stockings, too. And the people closest to me began to feel left out– not of the cancer of course, but of the attention I was getting.

There’s no easy way to get around this syndrome–which emulates survivor guilt but is more like survivor envy–at least I haven’t found a way around it. And maybe you haven’t, either. After all, when anything bad happens to friends or even strangers, we– the ones who don’t experience the trauma–often rush to the side of the person, or give money, or donate– because we want to show our love and compassion.  And maybe there’s even a little bit of a verboten sense of relief that it’s not happening to us going on in there too–I don’t know.  Whatever it is, I think it’s all normal.

But the abnormal creeps in when we’re the ones watching all this goodness literally happen around us and we–in our imperfect human forms– want a little for ourselves.  It’s like the kid next to you getting a second helping of ice cream because his dropped.  Meanwhile yours is all gone because you ate yours–yet you still feel a little jealous of Mr. I-still-have-a-fresh-new-cone.  Like I said, I think it’s all normal.

I don’t know what to say about this syndrome except that, like all things cancer, it sucks.

And if you’re feeling this syndrome, I promise you, I understand–and I sure don’t hold it against you.

But if you ever need some help getting by it, just know this:   the good stuff I get is far outweighed by the bad feelings I stuff deep down inside me every day about my future.  Things like the doctors telling me that eventually ones cancer gets so used to the meds it begins to outsmart them–and take over.  Or the fear I feel each time I go into an infusion room and see people curled up in recliners with IVs in their arms, crying.  Or the skeletal photos of Dennis Hopper before he died of cancer.

All that crap–the fear of physical pain, emotional suffering, shriveling illness and

a premature death–-I feel it all the time.  Of course I don’t live in that space day to

day or I’d go insane, but these feelings are always on my perimeter, and I can’t

push then away because they are the realities of my cancer life.

I know you love me and that what you sometimes feel about my cancer swag is a natural feeling–so go ahead and feel it.  Just know that if I could give up this second helping of ice cream that’s being forced down my throat and never lick this friggin cone again, I would.

Posted March 28th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary:  Ice Cream and Envy
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Snowbound in Yosemite

This past weekend I put my cares away and headed for a weekend at Yosemite National Park in Northern California.  Thrilled with the thought of the majestic beauty of a place I’d only seen in 6th grade Science books, I helped pack the car and the kids and my husband and we headed out with friends for two spectacular days in the wilderness.

As a metastatic breast cancer figher I have learned not to sweat the small stuff.  However, this weekend I confused small stuff with important details.  Like what’s the weather going to be like at 6,000 feet.

Heading into the mountain we hit more snow that I ever remember encountering in the great state of Maine, where I reported news, weather, met my (local) husband and  raised our two children.   Unlike Maine’s storms, which practically come with a red carpet and fanfare announced via the local news media, this storm jumped us on the road.  I didn’t know what “chains” were until I saw a sign that said they were mandatory, and we weren’t anywhere near a prison.  My husband got out and at 5,500 feet, slipping and sliding in our formerly-New-England-based front wheel drive car, encased the front wheels in these “mandatory” cables.

From there it still took us two hours (at least twice the usual time) and one snapped chain before we reached our destination.  The road was not plowed, there were no lights on the rental home, and  a “where’s-the-key” later, we got into our 2-day “chalet” and prepared for our weekend fun.

And we had it–a hot tub on the deck, a fireplace with a few cuts of wood, good food, great friends, kids that got along–it was fantastic.  Until Sunday morning, when I awoke to see my 4 foot daughter standing near a sliding glass door that measured snow up to her knees. Two hours later, it was at her waist.  By  1 p.m the snow reached her chest.  By four o’clock, and our departure now completely snowed in, the white stuff hit my child’s shoulders.  By bedtime the power had gone out and we were engulfed in one of the worst storms the region had seen that year.

Monday morning, no heat, dwindling firewood and a few pancakes and sausage were what was left of our fantastic getaway weekend.  Freak that I am I asked the children to write a small essay on their “Donner Party” weekend (look up the Donner Party–it’ll curl your hair) so that we could prove to their teachers that they weren’t only playing pool and running around in pajamas on a weekday morning when the rest of their classmates were at their desks learning Math. (My son’s title–“Donner Pary Reborn;”  my friend’s daugher penned “Donner, Party of 8.” Home schooling never came so close to real life as this past Monday tucked in a snowbank in Yosemite.)

We finally got out–thanks to a well-timed walk and a conversation with a fellow stranded stranger who, when asked if she was stuck too, blurted out–yes, but there’s a convoy leaving at 4 p.m today.  Armed with this free information (that wasn’t given on the park’s emergency phone number line) we packed up and headed out of Yosemite–along with 70 or 80 other stranded motorists and motor-home operators and the 4 wheel drive escort of the National Park Ranger service. Lining the one-lane freshly plowed and formerly closed highway out of Yosemite we looked like a funeral line minus a dead body, add 7 feet of snow and carloads of relief.  We were going home.  None of us could have been happier when the should-have-been-hour ride ended after 3 long ones and delivered us out of the national park boundary–to a lower elevation that turned the hazardous snow back to manageable and welcome rain.

In retrospect, this weekend was a disaster–and an adventure.  Of course no one wants to pay 400 dollars a night for no heat, no electricity, no shoveling, and kids who snack on raw pasta for food.  But really, now that we’re all safe and sound, this crazy, snowbound, wacko weekend will be among the highlights of my year.  As I told my son, “An adventure is a disaster seen in hindsight.” Or is it “a disaster is an adventure seen in hindsight?” Either way, I didn’t make that line up, but this weekend I lived it.

And I loved it.

Posted March 22nd, 2011 by
Snowbound in Yosemite
Posted in: Ann's Diary

Ann’s Diary: Dad’s Dementia

My Dad has dementia.  Maybe yours does too.  If he does you know the look I’m about to talk about, the one where his eyes look at you but they aren’t quite sure who they’re looking at.

My Dad and I had a strained relationship as I grew up.  He was hard on me and I was hard on me so I learned to fear him and be afraid of me. Or rather, be afraid to try to be me.  Instead I behaved the way I thought he and my mother wanted me to, and as a result took a long time to discover who Ann really was.  Along the way, some dreams were lost. I’m sure many reading this blog have a similar story, as parents are not perfect.

Today, however, my father is perfect.  Not mentally–mentally he’s quite imperfect.  The doctors say his dementia is caused by wounds he received in World War 2.  It’s a hell of a delayed price to pay for putting your life on the line for your country, and a protracted price to pay for freedom.  But because of this wounded way of getting the disease, Dad’s dementia plays out in the most unusual way:  he is a love.

And growing up  I could never have described my dad that way.  I was afraid of him. He was a nice man–respectable, honest, sincere and hardworking. But as the son of a doctor from Boston and the 7th of 8 children, my father was not the warm and fuzzy type.  I don’t remember him ever reading me a book, holding my hand or telling me he loved me.

Of course he did love me.  He took incredibly great care of me and my sisters and brother.  We all have college degrees, we all had a roof over our head, private schools and bicycles.  He did well by us, and we learned honesty, integrity and character from him.

But we didn’t learn hugs and kisses–until now.

Now my father, in his demented state, can’t stop telling me how good I look. He may not remember my name but he sure as hell takes every opportunity to tell me my teeth are gorgeous, my hair looks great and that my pajamas make me look like a movie star.

When he comes down in the morning for breakfast Dad sings my mother’s name with a childlike quality that would make a preschooler giggle.  He kisses her three times on the forehead goodnight as he pats her freshly coifed head and tells her how amazing her hair looks, how wonderful she is.

And he is never at a loss to tell me how he’d be lost without her.  “She’s so good to me,” he purrs, and she is. In 2012 they will be married 60 years and these last 4 years my mother has strained under the “for worse” clause more than she expected she’d have to.  Having a husband who used to rule the roost now cling to you for toothbrushing instruction is a mind-blower at any age, never mind the so-called golden one.

But both she and I know it could be much “worse” than the “for worse” she’s dealing with. So we attempt to count our blessings.  Fighting metastatic breast cancer makes me search for the positives more now than ever, and mom’s in a similar boat.  After all, what other choice do we have?

I’ll never know what it’s like to watch the man I married 58 years ago strain to follow a sentence.  Or forget the day. The date. The name of his son.  How to turn on a radio.

But I do know two things:  to have my father tell me he loves me more times than I can count in a day is a gift I will gratefully accept with an open if not breaking heart.  And to have a mother put one foot in front of herself each day and try her best while facing her “worst”, even when her best doesn’t quite reach the mark she’d hoped for, is a lesson in courage, honor and grace that I hope I live up to,

whatever the ‘worst’ that may still await me.

Posted March 16th, 2011 by
Ann's Diary:  Dad's Dementia
Posted in: Ann's Diary