Post Election Blues

 

A cataclysmic shift in my personal life seems to be running parallel to the end of an era. As Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were battling on, breast cancer knocked me out of my routine. I eventually returned to work, only to wonder if I should seriously think about retiring. Age 54 is early for such musings—though not necessarily for a cancer victim who does not yet know if the cancer is completely gone.

Case in point, I watched my father eagerly move into his retirement when he was in his early sixties. Not long after that, he lost his life to leukemia and pretty much missed out on this passage. If I want a retirement at all, it may need to be now. I’ve got books to write, places to see, and people to spend time with. I’ve also been feeling the need to revamp habits that might be shortening my life—to become disciplined in ways that have often eluded me (yoga, meditation, singing, diet, and exercise). While I’m already feeling pretty good, memories of the weakness I endured during cancer treatment tend to surface and remind me these days are precious. I am now acutely aware of how physical well-being is dear. I may not have a lot of quality time left. Then again, I may defy the odds and live to be a healthy octogenarian.

Breast cancer did prompt me to follow the election more closely. My couch became a second bed, a place to crash when I wasn’t feeling well. Based on what I saw on television, I did not envision the outcome that actually occurred. I’ve been happy with the focus on equal rights and opportunity for all—kindness toward all. I want the country to keep working on that. I want America to become more compassionate and less catty. In my opinion, our country is too self-indulgent over unkind speech. It’s entertaining in a way, but it’s not loving. I do believe we are on this planet to transform our hearts. As a serious Zen student, I try not to participate in left-right, back and forth quipping. I’m not beyond it—I’ve done my share. This election season, however, I decided to make it a practice to refrain from picking on those I don’t agree with. Hand in hand with that aspiration came another centered on trying to note moments of judgement and anger over what others were saying. A judgmental attitude also pulls me away from developing a loving heart.

I have joined a conversation that occurs – not every moment – but here and there. Cancer survivors sometimes need to talk. The increase in breast cancer occurrence – the occurrence of all cancers – has become sobering. I recently finished my first breast cancer walk. I found the ritual whimsical and fun. I reveled in the opportunity to wear a Survivor T-shirt, and to see this word reflected on the backs of others. I enjoyed the spark in the air, the celebration, the happiness I felt around me. Diseases like breast cancer bring people together to express their better selves.

It’s hard not to add up the recent negatives and whine, “Why is this happening to me?” America’s political story is not going the way I’d like it to. Neither is the story of my life. Yet breast cancer has brought on surprising moments of inspiration, insight, and love. It has helped me strip away anything that has begun to seem insubstantial in the face of tougher challenges and limited time. I don’t always have to pack as much into my day. I try to give attention to things that matter. I’ve also been giving myself permission to breathe and take in the scene around me. Sometimes just listening to what is going on is enough. This sense of moving in slow motion may still be a side effect of cancer treatment that will go away as I return to 100% (should I be so lucky). Perhaps I’ll eventually stop finding such meaning in simpler moments and dive back into to crazy-busy mode. Or maybe it really is time to move toward the retiree mentality. Either way, remaining fully alive is my latest goal.

Falling Back in the Land of Perpetual Sunshine

When it comes to the question of daylight savings—whether or not we should keep it—I’m in agreement with those who’d prefer to leave things alone. In San Diego, daylight savings allows for the possibility of a last minute beach walk. Once we fall back into early morning sunlight, such strolls are off until spring. I don’t begrudge this shift of light. I’ve been finding it strange of late to stumble out of bed for a bathroom stop—with the reassuring thought there are a few more hours for sawing z’s—only to discover it is already 6 am. I guess seasonal changes such as this one prevent our lives from becoming too bland.

I do look forward to fall activities in San Diego County, heading to Julian for apple pie, for example, or packing the car for a desert camping trip. It is strange I should feel this way, as the loss of a true fall was one of the first things I mourned when I first moved down here. I eventually learned to anticipate a subtler shift in the air, which I can now detect as adeptly as I once noted the scent of wood-burning stoves and rotting blackberries. The fall season beckons us into a deeper sense of coziness, even in the midst of perpetual sunshine.

Once Labor Day Weekend ends, the beaches in San Diego County empty almost overnight, becoming the domain of locals once more as lifeguards move to a reduced schedule. People still make their way onto the sand, but it’s less frenetic—easier to take ownership of the whole show. Meanwhile, desert communities begin to watch the tourist season ramp-up. Temperatures start to drop, and it’s not long before the outside air becomes perfect for a long hike in the backcountry. If hunger strikes adventurers on their way home, odds are there is a good restaurant to be found. Businesses begin to open for tourists and snowbirds in search of placid weather—or they move to longer hours.

Speaking of restaurants, skies may still be blue, temperatures may still be warm, and most trees may still be green in these parts—yet fall specials abound. Walk into your favorite haunt, and you are likely to find heartier meals, darker ales—ubiquitous pumpkin treats. Foods like these give us the illusion of being in a grand autumn display. They evoke an explosion colored by the sort of palette available in other realms (though “real fall” can be found in the nearby mountains). I recently consumed a pumpkin scone, only to transported back to the Pacific Northwest, where the changing leaves are worth checking out—if the rain doesn’t take them down too early. That pumpkimy taste makes me want to grab more blankets, light a fire, and make a thick soup. I suspect we humans need to turn inward once a year as much as bears need to hibernate. Falling back to standard time is sure to compound this nesting impulse born of darker nights.

Meanwhile, the harvest may be ending for many farmers, but the educational world has just begun to sow new seeds. We educators are piloting projects—or we’re egging our students to get going on theirs. It is this paradox of beginning and ending at the same time that prompts me to embrace the fall. So let the light slide back one hour. Once sundown shifts from 6 to 5 pm, our students are more likely to get their homework done before bed.

 

 

New Normal

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Eight months ago, I received a phone call from a scheduler at UCSD’s Breast Imaging Center. My routine mammogram, which had been done the day before, was deemed abnormal. They wanted me back for more screening—ASAP. That day marked the first chapter of my breast cancer story. This afternoon I completed my last radiation treatment. While I have yet to meet with my medical oncologist to receive a prescription for Arimidex, there is not much more for me to do but wait, recover, and hope for the best. I was actually surprised to learn my doctors don’t have a surefire test to determine whether they got it all. Instead, they intend to follow me for a few years to make sure I remain cancer-free.

It goes without saying cancer treatment precipitated a dramatic shift in my routine. Now I’m finding it strange to think about returning to my regular schedule. I can never completely be the person I was before I was diagnosed, though I suspect I worked through a positive transformation, even as the healing process harmed me physically. At the risk of sounding trite, life does feel more precious. I hope I never again take for granted the time I have left. I do suspect the heightened emotions I continue to experience over this challenge will become muted as they fade into a bad memory. Still, I’d like to refrain from dropping the ball on the rest of my life.

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Radiation Therapists at Moores Cancer Center celebrating my “graduation.”

Breast cancer did help me take stock. As I’ve faced the possibility of dying too soon, writing has become the one calling asking for more attention and commitment. It is an area where I still feel unfulfilled, though I’ve had some minor successes that have kept me in the game. In the end, I’m not sure what sort of milestone I need to feel like I didn’t blow it. I’ve just decided to ratchet up my intention and stay on target with some new goals. During the last eight months, I was often too paralyzed to do much at all. Yet eight months is a long time. When I did have the wherewithal, I organized my writing business by developing a list of tasks that might help me get my work more fully off the ground. I’ve already begun to attack some of these projects.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun to wonder if my body will fully return to where it was eight months ago. I did pretty well with the chemo and radiation treatments, but I am noticeably weaker. Case in point: during the summer of 2015, I was climbing Cowles Mountain (1594 feet) every few days wearing a full backpack in order to train for a trip on the John Muir Trail. I could do this without stopping, though I usually took a water break. I doubt I could climb this modest peak pack-free right now. I can get a good walk in on the beach, but hills are quick to remind me of how much stamina I have lost. I certainly plan to continue participating in activities that will improve my strength and endurance, though I suspect patience will be paramount as I work through radiation fatigue and the residual effects of chemo. Besides, I no longer know what my true limitations are. I do know I’m not yet ready to accept a new normal where my fitness is concerned. At some point, I’ll have to put my recovery measures to a test by hitting the Cowles Mountain Trail and seeing how high I can climb.

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How Breast Cancer May Derail the Voice Break Epilogue

In the spirit of lifelong learning—in the spirit of chasing a 10K as an aging adult—I began to work on my singing at the age of 46. I studied it fairly consistently until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I am now 54. My reasons for getting started are chronicled in a long poem, Voice Break, which is mainly about the foibles of an adult new musician (and a little bit about learning to write poetry).

Voice Break covers the first two years of my voice lessons. By the end of the poem, the singer—moi—has just completed a semester of singing with the Cuyamaca College Choir (in El Cajon, California). I continued to sing with them for another semester and then moved to their sister college to work with the Grossmont Master Chorale. I now have more than 8 semesters of college choir behind me. During those years, I also studied singing with a voice teacher, Esther Jordan.

I am not writing this piece to make any claims about my voice—though my singing has improved. I’m revisiting this thread of my life because cancer treatment may drastically change the quality of my sound. As I move from the chemotherapy unit to radiation oncology, I find myself wondering if I should continue singing when and if my life returns to normal.

Singing did help me feel better during the first two months of this ordeal. I practiced when I could, though not every day. I knew it was time to stop when I began chemotherapy. This was mainly because my medical oncologist put me on steroids in an attempt to ward off an allergic reaction to the infusions. I was pretty certain the steroids would wreak havoc on my vocal cords, and I did get some validation on this hunch. Around the time I was taking the steroids, I was told my speaking voice sounded different.

In addition, my medical oncologist warned me the Taxotere/Cytoxan infusions I ultimately faced would probably force me into menopause. She turned out to be spot on. The chemicals quickly shut off my reproductive system, as if to close that valve with one big yank. Though this was a side effect of the chemo, it was an outcome my doctors wanted. Overexposure to estrogen is the likely reason for my breast cancer. If my reproductive cycle starts up again, my oncologist plans to shut down my ovaries with a monthly shot. Granted, I would have dealt with menopause if I hadn’t gotten breast cancer. I’ve just been thrust into the change rather abruptly. I don’t know how this shift in hormone levels will affect my singing.

So now I beginning six weeks of radiation. Fortunately, I won’t be taking any more drugs for a while. However, they are radiating the lymph nodes above and around my clavicle, along with the incision sites. I did wonder if this would harm my voice box as my lungs are at risk for minor damage. My radiation oncologist has reassured me my vocal cords should not be harmed by the radiation treatments.

There’s more. Once I am completely finished with the three big cancer treatments – surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation – it is likely I will need to take Arimidex for five years to ward off breast cancer recurrence. This may be the most important leg of my treatment, according to my medical oncologist. The cancer came on pretty fast. I did ask her if Arimidex affected the singing voice in any way, and she said she’d never heard anyone complain about this.

I recently added some light singing practice sessions to my routine. As a cancer patient, I’ve learned to engage in anything that makes my daily existence seem normal—it’s easy to feel as if one has dropped out of life during the treatment process. Singing practice does evoke memories of a healthier being. It is also a joyful act, which can only bring on unseen benefits. So far, my voice doesn’t seem overly different, though I haven’t yet tried to record it to find out if my sound has changed.

 

 

 

Break Between Cancer Treatments

A lot of people blog about the writing life. That was my intention when I first put up this site, which was actually designed to promote my work. Like everyone else, I thought I’d share my thoughts about writing as I finished pieces and ultimately sent them out. It wasn’t long before I broadened this aspiration to include any topic, not just writing. Push-button publishing provided a reason to come up with polished pieces—to see how far I could take short essays without turning to an editor. I quickly learned blogging is also a great way to work on facing one’s goofs and imperfections!

My most recent posts focus on cancer and recovery—I’ve been housebound for four months. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I hoped I might take advantage of my convalescence and get some writing done. That possibility quickly eluded me. After I learned I had a few positive lymph nodes, I experienced a fair amount of fear over what was coming. Chemo treatments brought on foggy thinking and genuine discomfort. The best I could do was stick to my goal of one blog post per month. I also chipped away at a poem about what else… breast cancer. It’s a long poem.

I had my last chemo infusion a few weeks ago—radiation is next. It will be roughly three more months before my life returns to normal (knock on wood). I’ve been doing everything I can to improve my chances of living cancer free for a long while. Aside from following my doctor’s orders, I take walks, eat well, and stay connected with people. Yet I’m getting cabin fever. It didn’t help that chemotherapy slowly brought on an aversion to my own home. I began associating my couch and environs with the chemicals running through my veins in a way that made me blame this living space, albeit irrationally, for what I was going through. I was willing to head almost anywhere—to get away from here. Fortunately, I’m coming out of the chemo cave. Chemo brain has already faded. Even better, I don’t have to be back at Moores Cancer Center for a few weeks. They’re giving me a breather.

I’ve just begun to feel well enough to revise an old novel manuscript. I’d actually planned to work on the project during the spring, but it was waylaid by this health drama. When I finally did pull the manuscript out, I wasn’t sure if I would connect with it. Yet I found myself digging right in, occasionally going into the zone. As the hours passed, I experienced some much need optimism. I began to muse, “Maybe I won’t lose anything.

I probably couldn’t have started a new novel during this time. I believe I have forward flow on the old one, because a lot of the work has been done. The scaffolding is in place, and that allows me to focus on style, plot, character development—new ideas. I don’t have to fight a story that’s not coming. I can play with this one to my heart’s content. So far, a sense of accomplishment has punctuated each writing session. That doesn’t always happen, believe me.

I hope to have the stamina to keep up this pace as I deal with radiation. Even if I don’t, I expect my newfound momentum will hold up during the impending break between treatments. It doesn’t matter how well I’m actually doing with the revision process. I’ve needed to feel passion for something in the middle of this upheaval, because chemotherapy dulls just about everything. Indeed, I’ve been yearning for a taste of what I was like before I barreled into this ordeal.