Remember to celebrate

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Today I am celebrating a fantastic milestone. Three years ago today, I got some of the best news of my life, and it was contained in two words: No cancer.

It was only three days after my bilateral mastectomy, and my surgeon called. She left a message. She cut right to the chase: Hi Erika, It’s Barb Schwartzberg. Good news: No cancer!

I saved that voice mail for a long time. But even now that I don’t have it, I can still hear her voice and remember how I felt in that moment.

I still had quite a road ahead of me. I had been through six months of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy. And I still had radiation therapy, six more months of infusions and reconstruction ahead. But at that point I knew that the disease was gone and everything from that point on was about prevention and healing: my wheelhouse.

These three years have been filled with so much: travel, education, opportunities, a move, time spent with my family and lots of opportunity to be grateful.

Having a complete pathological response to chemotherapy was the best possible outcome, and I’m grateful every day. About 60% of patients in my shoes have this result. So it was by no means a guarantee but somehow I always felt I would be one of the lucky ones. I could feel it in my bones.

I’ve made the most of these three years. Here’s a sampling of my recent adventures.

Spring Semester

This semester, I started a master’s degree in Foreign Language Education alongside my bachelor’s in German. It was a full and challenging semester. I finished with 100% in both my master’s classes and a 98.9% in my German class. I started clinical field experience this semester and had the privilege of doing so in Providence Day School’s Upper School German classes. I learned so much and enjoyed being accompanied by a fellow master’s student and Munich native (who happens to be a bad ass boxer dubbed The Bavarian Hercules. Google it.) I learned a lot of language from him in addition to the students. There’s nothing quite like a native speaker to tell you that you make no sense.

That said, I had some unique experiences in my German class this semester. I participated in a debate on the merits of free higher education. I taught a class about Karneval and separable prefix verbs and I (mostly) overcame my fear of sounding stupid and just spilled my guts in German — right or wrong. All German, all the time. And I loved every minute.

My master’s classes were good too. I learned how to write effective lesson plans, effective methods for teaching foreign language, including the use of technology and all about the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language and the standards by which language skills are taught.

In the end, however, I have decided to unenroll from that program. Instead, I am investigating master’s programs in DaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache) or German as a Foreign Language. This program is offered at many German universities and is a four-semester program. So, yes, I would be living in Germany during this time. Twist my arm. I may or may not re-enroll in the master’s in Foreign Language Ed later. Not sure on that yet. More on this as plans unfold.

In two weeks from today, I will be going to Germany to study abroad for summer semester. I will return in August in time to begin my fall semester, and I’ll graduate with my BA in German in December 2018.

While in Germany this summer, I’ll be studying German at Goethe-Institut. I’ll be in Hamburg and Freiburg. I’ll be in class five days a week for five hours a day. Like I said before, all German, all the time! While I’m there, I’ll be seeing a concert, running a half marathon, visiting friends, taking a jaunt to Switzerland and perhaps to Holland and whatever else pops up!

The best way to reach me while I’m there is What’s App. If you have my phone number and want to keep in touch while I’m abroad, just send me an invitation through What’s App, and we can connect. I already sent invitations to a number of you. It works just like texting except that it’s over Wi-Fi and, as an added bonus, you can make both video and regular phone calls. It works well. It’s what Michael and I use to keep in touch when we’re separated by an ocean.

Keep in mind the time difference. From the East Coast, it’s six hours ahead. So, Aspen, that means eight hours for you. Anything you send after about 2 in the afternoon (MT) will be answered the next day.¬† And Leland, that’s nine hours for you. ūüôā (I know you didn’t need me to do the math for you, but that’s why it’s funny! See you there! P.S. Any way I can convince you to run the half with me?? LOL)

My sister

She moved in with me! In April, she resigned her full-time position to pursue a new career. Meanwhile, she is living with us in the “Kerrianne Suite” and is doing contract work for her former employer. She and I packed up and moved her house in rain, snow and wind. We arrived in the dark of night in North Carolina then awoke to blue skies and sun. Last week, we began her tour of NC to explore the areas and opportunities the state has to offer. We went to Boone and Asheville. Good lord, my heart aches for the mountains. Charlotte is a nice city, but it’s a city. I like it, but I do not love it. I’m looking for a way to finagle my way back to the mountains. App State does have a German program! Look out, I just may find myself teaching in Boone!

We spent a few days by ourselves in Western NC, then Michael and Zach joined us for Mother’s Day. We hit lots of fun places including The Art of Living Center, App State, The Blue Ridge Parkway, Mt. Pisgah, Black Mountain, Catawba Falls, LEAF Festival and more. Here’s a glimpse.

My new car

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I love this thing. It’s so cute and fun and zippy! It’s got a six speed manual transmission and sport mode. I’m applying for my personalized plate now.¬† It has four seats. It’s not the most comfy back seat but it’s space for yoga mats and fleece pullovers. Also there is a small trunk space/hatchback. I can fit six bags of groceries back there.

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Aspen inherited my Honda Crosstour, which she is over the moon about. Michael and Zach drove it to her in Colorado during Zach’s spring break.

Spring time in Charlotte

And now I’m heading out for my run. I’ve been so consistent this time around. I feel good, and I’m running completely pain free — including no shin splints. I have zero bone pain and I am up to 7 miles for my long run this week. I am looking forward to finishing my last five weeks of training in Hamburg. It’ll be flat and cooler and maybe even rainy and chilly! One can hope.¬†I’m not sure if I’ll write any blog posts from Germany. I’ll see how much time I have. perhaps I will when I return in August.

Auf wiedersehen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mixed bag

This being my University’s Spring break week, I have a little time on my hands to recreate. I also have projects due on the last day of break (which just seems rude to me) so I can’t goof off too much. I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about a few things.

The first thing on my mind this morning is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aka the Academy awards or “Oscars.” The awards were televised last night and,¬† in my opinion, sometimes they got it right. And then there are two times when they simply did not…

I agree wholeheartedly with Frances McDormand as Best Actress, with Sam Rockwell as Best Supporting Actor, and with Allison Janney  as Best Supporting Actress, but I do not agree with Best Actor or Best Picture. They got it wrong.

[Disclaimer: I didn’t see every film nominated, but I saw all but one nominated for Best Picture (Phantom Thread). I can’t comment on things like Best Director and Editing and Lighting and Original Screenplay because I’m not sure what some of those things mean. To me, some of that stuff is splitting hairs. If a movie is truly the “Best Picture” shouldn’t it also have the best of the other stuff too? Maybe, maybe not. But those are the categories that I doze off for. I will say that I am happy that Jordan Peele got the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I liked that movie a lot.]

What do I think are the right choices for Best Actor and Best Picture? Timothy Chalamet and Call Me By Your Name, hands down. There were times when I had to remember that he was playing a role. He was so genuine. And I loved his dad, oh so much. That speech? O. M. G. Parent of the freaking DECADE! I wish I’d heard that speech before. I wish I’d given it before. I wish others had been given it before. It was a speech to his son about not trying to numb the pain of lost love because doing so numbs the good parts too and not everyone is lucky enough to get the good parts as good as his were. Tears for days.

The theme of the movie is relevant and is a story that needs to be told. It’s about young, gay love. But it’s also about old, straight love. And parenting. And finding a way through hard times. And it’s wonderful to see how our world has changed for the better since the early 80s (and not just in fashion and music playing technology).

I am simply in love with this movie and will see any other movie starring Timothy Chalamet. He blew me away. Not that Gary Oldman was bad. I really have no criticism of his performance whatsoever. But it wasn’t as good as Timothy’s, and that’s all I have to say about that.

As far as The Shape of Water goes (aka Frankenstein in Water), it was a well-made movie that I didn’t need to see. It was a long way to go for the metaphor, and I was not at all surprised that those marks on her neck ended up being gill slits (fake gasp!). All of the reviews I read said things like “weird but wondrous” and “sounds ridiculous but works, miraculously so.” I’d stop at weird and ridiculous, personally.¬† “Winsome finesse?”¬† Couldn’t disagree more.

Germany

I am headed to Germany for a semester. I hope that those of you that have expressed interest in visiting me abroad will do so! Please reach out to me privately for details on when I’ll be where. Let’s make a plan to do it up, Deutschland style! Or Switzerland or Holland or France. I’ll be making trips to all of these places, or others if you have a burning desire. Just reach out, and let’s make a plan! I’m leaving in May, so let me know ASAP. You have my email and my phone number. ūüôā

Some good news on this front as well — Last week I got the news that I’ve been awarded a scholarship to support my semester abroad! It is granted through the German Language and Culture Foundation and is specifically intended to support a student who is studying German and plans to teach. I was so happy and surprised.

I am really looking forward to studying while I’m there. Last time was all vacation. This time, I’ll be in German class 5 hours a day, 5 days a week for two separate sessions. One in Hamburg (in the north, near the North Sea and enveloping Lake Alster) and the other in Freiburg (in the south, along Lake Constance, and a stone’s throw from Switzerland).

Roger Bannister

Roger Bannister died. He was the first person to run a sub-4-minute-mile. Just let that sink in for a minute. Less than four minutes to run a mile. A whole mile. At four minutes (technically 00:3:59:40) into my run, I am still trying to convince myself that I brought the right gloves. I’m trying to figure out my course for the day. I’m trying to talk myself into wanting to go the whole distance. Meanwhile, this dude is already done. Insanity.

I read an article about him where he said that his greatest achievement wasn’t his running (he was an Olympic middle distance athlete) but rather, his life as a family man that constituted 14 grandchildren. He was also an accomplished doctor for 40 years, and he was knighted by the Queen in 1975. Impressive, on all counts, Sir Bannister. RIP.

 

How to eat an elephant

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One. Bite. At. A. Time.

I remind myself of this every day.

What do I have going on that seems so big? Well, a few things. I have my German degree that I’m working toward. I have my master’s in teaching that started this semester. I have my semester in Germany that I will begin three weeks after this semester ends. I have taxes. I have an ailing furnace/AC. And now I have osteopenia (more on this later). I also have two kids, a husband, and a household which deserve my attention.

So I feel overwhelmed. Often.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend on the phone while I was going from place to place. The first place happened to be Providence Day School where I completed my Clinical Field Experience hours for this semseter. And the second place happened to be Earth Fare so I could buy food.

I wasn’t feeling like grocery shopping, but it needed done. And so I was grousing a little and trying to somehow convince my friend that he should graciously take on this task for me. He pointed out that I wouldn’t want to be doing his job either, so we should just stick to what we’re good at. I agreed. After we hung up, I remembered the day my mother-in-law died.

It was fifteen years ago now but I remember that right after she died (which we knew was coming), Michael and I looked at his sister and her husband and said, “you wanna go get something to eat?”

It felt weird but we had been at the hospital for a really long time. My husband and his sister had been there for more than 24 hours straight. And I had gotten up at 3 am to drive to Pittsburgh to be there to say goodbye. We were emotionally, physically and spiritually spent. So we went to TGI Friday’s.

As we sat there, I thought that Karen (MIL) would have loved to have been doing this mundane thing with us. Just ordering a burger with the people she loves.

I had this thought a lot in the days that followed. “Karen would love to be here playing with Aspen.” “Karen would love to see the mums blooming.” I have continued to have these thoughts every time I lose a loved one. “So and so would love to be doing X,Y or Z.”

While I drove in my car yesterday, I thought about that again. And tried to remember that I don’t HAVE to go grocery shopping for my family, I GET to. I don’t HAVE to participate in a debate in political topics in German, I GET to.

What if all of that were suddenly taken from me? I’d be devastated. And so, I changed my attitude. I happily bought groceries. And brought them home where my husband carried them all indoors and we put them away. Later I made a delicious meal that we all shared. These things aren’t chores. They’re opportunities. They’re privileges. Happiness is a choice.

Yes, I still have a shit ton to do, but would I trade places with anyone else so that I didn’t have to do any of it? Not a chance.

So instead of just eating the elephant like it’s a chore, I’m going to eat this elephant with the gratitude it deserves. With each bite, I gain something far more than a check mark on a to-do list. While I’m at it, I’m gaining skills and knowledge and fluency and experience and groceries. I will remind myself to be grateful for the mundane things that I get to do.

Osteopenia

I have it. Yep, I went for a bone density scan last week and I got the news a couple of days ago that I have moderate osteopenia in my spine. Osteopenia means that my bones are softer than “normal” but not soft enough to consider it osteoporosis. I’m not quite sure what all this means yet. I will see an Endocrinologist in a couple of weeks to discuss it all. And tomorrow I’ll be chatting with Butch for the actual low-down.

The news wasn’t entirely shocking. I have a lot of the risk factors already: female, tall, caucasian, thin, likely family history. I already don’t drink soda, so that’s good. I also don’t drink very much alcohol either. And I have never smoked.

Chemo was the kicker, however. Early menopause caused by chemo is the main reason my oncologist ordered the bone density scan. It’s too bad that this is a side effect, but, hey, I’d rather be healthy and here and dealing with osteopenia than not here. So, I will see the doctor in early March to discuss treatment options.

On being a decent human

Do you have experiences where somebody brings up a topic that you were just talking about someplace else? And you think, “OMG! I just said this last night!” Happens to me all the time. It’s not happenstance, I believe. There’s a reason why you have certain people in your life. Even if they’re not in the same network, we tend to attract similar people into our little circles of life.

The week of MLK Day, this happened to me. Michael was traveling, so ZMF and I were on our own. It was cold here and I was longing for the days of plucking ripe tomatoes and squishing warm dirt. (I have simple needs. ;-)) It got me thinking about how much I (and we) take from the earth. But what do I give back? My little slice of heaven here at the end of my cul de sac yields plentiful produce, beautiful flowers and a plethora of wildlife. But what do I give in return?

I started to ask myself. I came up with four things:

I put forth effort (mostly in the hopes of yielding something).

I put out birdseed.

I throw bruised fruit into the brush.

I use organic house cleaners, soaps and shampoos, fertilizers and seeds.

And this is all good, but I feel like I could be doing more. My immediate thought was composting. I could give back nutrients that I take from the earth. I can grow the tomatoes, peppers and herbs and then put the stems and cuttings back into the soil after decomposition. That’s simple. Settled. I’ll start composting.

But the question lingered.

The next morning in yoga class, my teacher brought up this very idea. Not of rotting vegetables, but of giving back at least at much as we take. He used the example of human rights. We all demand rights, right? Equal rights. Voting rights. Reproductive rights. Religious rights. But, do we give back to others all this respect, equality and human decency that we demand so readily? When is the last time that you sat in traffic and fumed over the person who made a “dick move?” When is the last time that you got your panties in a twist over a messed up restaurant order?

For some of us it’s recently. And frequently. When it happens, we feel justified in passive-aggressively rolling our eyes at the barista who put some mysterious syrup in our latte that was supposed to be a straight-up latte, thank you very much.

Why do we get so pissed? Maybe some of you don’t. Kudos. Maybe these aren’t your hot button issues. There are others I know who act like the world is in their way.

I feel like our society has lost its desire to be nice. Genuinely nice. Not just because we’re taught about customer service or what happens to you when you die. Rather, as end goal in its own right because being a decent human being to other human beings is the most important thing in the world.

My sister recently told me about a woman who moved to Columbus, Ohio, from India. She got spat on. She was told that she needed to repeat herself because no one could understand her. And she was told to “go home.” Seriously, what is wrong with people?

Maybe this strikes a chord with me because I will soon be living in Germany. I will be trying to navigate things like laundromats and grocery stores and pharmacies. I’ll need haircuts and pedicures. And I have high hopes that the good people of Germany are nicer to me than those Americans were to that woman.

All of this got me thinking (I do that when I wake up at 3 am). Maybe giving back is as simple as being kind. Talking kindly. Small gestures. I don’t need to give Bill Gates-level donations. I don’t need volunteer Mother Teresa-level hours. I’ll do what I can, of course. But what if we all decided to act like decent human beings? If we stopped spitting on immigrants, for starters?

In a TED Talk I watched recently, the speaker cited a study wherein the group was divided into two. They were all given the same amount of money. One group was told to spend the money on themselves. The other group was told to spend the money on someone else. Afterward, they were interviewed to find out levels of happiness and satisfaction. Lo and behold, the group that spent it on others reported feeling better and overall happier.

It feels good to be nice to other people.

Have you ever had a day where you wanted to go back to bed and wake up again so that you could start over? Then suddenly, something good happens to you? Someone does or says something nice? It changes everything!

Everyone is going through something.

I remember the day I got the diagnosis that I had cancer. A few hours later, I had to go to the grocery store, because, you know, life does go on as usual. As the boy was bagging my food. He said, “How are you today?” For a minute it didn’t even register that someone was talking to me. He repeated himself. And I muttered a pretty bland, “I’ve had better days.” And I have. No doubt. But this boy tried to give me the old “chin up” speech. Clearly, this was not a Wrong Coffee Order kind of day, but it was still nice that a strange young boy was trying. It made me smile. Even if for a minute.

I’m not saying that we can all fix each other’s problems, but for heaven’s sake, we don’t need to make them worse.

Everyone is going through something. I’m going to do my best to give everyone a little something nice. Because I know I’d sure like that in return.

Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand, e.g.

Recently, my mom’s priest, Father Peter, asked me what I do for a living. I said that I’m pursuing a degree in German and a graduate degree in teaching it. He asked me why and I told him what I’ve always felt about it: it’s the most efficiently expressive language I know.

In fairness, I don’t know a lot of languages. But I did study Spanish for five years in school, and I’ve been to a handful of Spanish speaking countries. And I took a few semesters of Italian. And I dabbled in French before going to Paris. I really love languages and German stands out to me above the rest for having the richest vocabulary and the strictest grammar.

Maybe strict grammar sounds less like a perk than a pain, but to me it’s awesome. Having a set of rules to follow makes deciphering their seemingly endless sentences possible and, dare I say, simple! Well, I’ll say simpler. It’s for these reasons that I want to teach German to the higher levels of learning. I’ve got a ways to go in this pursuit, but I’m working on living there for a while. More on this when the details are herausgefunden. (It’s going to happen, I’m just finalizing the duration and living arrangements.)

The example I gave Father Peter is “einmotten.” When I look it up on dict.cc it says that there is no translation. The best it gives is “to mothball,” which makes zero sense to us. But what it means is to put your clothes up, in a container with mothballs to preserve them. I learned this word from a German hip-hop song (below) that my infinitely wise (street and academically) friend, Marion, helped me translate.

I could come up with a million examples of how the German language encompasses a world of feeling in a single word, but in English we need several. Take “Gem√ľtlichkeit.” In English that roughly translates to “an atmosphere of comfort, peace, acceptance, friendliness and coziness.” Also, Schadenfreude. It’s a word that means to be spitefully or maliciously happy about another person’s misfortune.

Father Peter then told me that German is the language of religion. He’s from Slovakia but has lived in the US for about 20 years, I think he said. So he speaks five languages, German being one of them. He said that when religious scholars write, German is the commonly accepted language for that reason, it expresses complex ideas thoroughly and efficiently.

I hadn’t known that. Es war eine Offenbarung. Here’s a list of interesting German words that I’ll be adding to my Wortschatz.¬†¬†https://www.fluentu.com/blog/german/german-words-in-english/

And for added fun, ūüôā here is the German hip-hop song that puts me in an immediate good mood. I will be adding it (and others by Peter Fox, Falco, Nena, et al) to my running list. It only makes sense to run to German music as I train for my half marathon in Hamburg later this summer. Viel Spa√ü beim Zuh√∂ren!

Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr! (Happy new year!)

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My babies in their Christmas Eve PJs. (Ages: Aspen – 19 years and eleven months.¬† Zach – 16 years and 5 months. ūüėČ )¬†
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Aspen’s first Christmas – 11 months. Walking like a boss. I guess Manny wasn’t getting enough attention in the moment.
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Zach’s first Christmas – 5 months. He woke up on Christmas Eve with periorbital cellulitis. We think he was bitten by a spider. His eye got better fast. He loved this snowman’s nose.

I didn’t send Christmas cards this year. Life has been very full, and I didn’t make the time to squeeze in cards. I do appreciate all the cards I got from friends and family. I keep them displayed all during the season, and then I preserve the fronts of the cards for gift decoration next season. Thank you to all who sent them. I love getting updates, photos and happy wishes.

I’ll do a year in review in lightning speed — or not. It was a full year. Read it all, or none, or skim. Whatever floats your boat. This blog is a bit of a time capsule for me, so I’m going to include some details.

Let’s start with how much more I prefer writing the year 2018 than 2017. Even typing it is more pleasing. 2018 includes the sign of infinity. 2017 is sharp, pointed and harsh. I prefer the softness, the inclusion, the possibility.

Aspen has decided to take a year off school. No, I’m not upset about that. If you can’t take time when you’re 19 to figure out what you want to do with your life, when can you?! So, hat’s off, baby girl. In the meantime, she’s serving at Red Lobster and has a rescue dog that she loves. She has future education plans. Most of all, she’s kinder, braver and more thoughtful than most full-grown adults I know so, I’ve done my job in raising a decent human being. So, no. Not upset. (Sidebar: she turns 20 later this month. I have a kid in her 20s.)

Zach made the honor roll last six weeks, much to his chagrin. When I showed him the letter from the school, he groaned and said, “really??” Yes, dear, really. He’s a smart cookie, and he knows it. He does well in school, nearly in spite of himself. You see, he thinks that school is yet another government institution that teaches us only what they want us to know and the real education happens in life. So, yea. He’s sort of got the head of the nail there. But because our rule is 80% or above in every subject in order to drive, he accidentally makes the honor roll. Oops.

Michael is doing well at work. He loves his job as EVP and is making the Hamburg folks happy with the performance of the US and Canada. This year, for the first time, the US and Canada outsold all other markets worldwide. (Brief happy dance.) He’s going to do a half Ironman later this year and has started training thanks to our new membership at Lifetime Fitness.

2017 was a strange year for me. It doesn’t get much stranger than a Trump Presidency. I have a good feeling for 2018, though. Not that things will look up for him, but that they’ll get so dismal that we’ll finally be able to get him out of office. I’m really counting on it. Surprise. I’m a democrat.

There were five deaths in my family this year. I won’t go into details on who and when. Everyone grieves in their own way. I’m kind of quiet on the matter, publicly.

I had an exceptionally successful first semester as a second act college student this fall. I got a 99% in my German class and a 100% in my Holocaust class. And I relished every moment. For real. Next week, I start my master’s program too. I’ll be taking three graduate classes and one advanced German grammar and conversation class. Then over the summer, I will study in Germany at Goethe-Institut in both Hamburg and Freiburg. I’m already scheduled and have the dates, accommodations and payments made. So it’s a done deal. I’ve applied for a handful of merit-based scholarships. Some are specific to German. Some are specific to second degree-seeking students. Fingers crossed! (Dr√ľck mir die Daumen!)

Health wise, I am healthy. I began seeing a new doctor who practices a lot like Butch. I have to drive about 45 minutes to see her. But I’m willing to do that for the kind of care I receive. In fact, I would walk five hundred miles.¬†I am running again. And doing yoga. I’m trying to start weight training. My upper body will benefit immensely from this once it gets accustomed to the practice. I have to be careful. It’s pretty mind blowing how much a mastectomy changes one’s function.¬†I started going to my craniosacral therapist again. She’s amazing. This type of bodywork is life changing.

I haven’t been writing my book at all. Seriously, not a single word since before I left for Germany in June of 2017. And yesterday, I decided to be happy about that. I had been feeling bad for not going back to it, not sticking to it, not getting my first draft done when I wanted. But I realized something. It may not happen. And that’s great! Here’s why: Maybe going back and revisiting cancer isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing right now. Maybe I’m supposed to be focused on the present day and planning for my future studies, career and travel. Maybe cancer changed me in a way that has allowed me to think more clearly about what I want to be doing now and not getting mired in the past. So, book or no book, I am where I am supposed to be. The book is saved on my computer and a flash drive if I decide the time is right to write. Till then, onward.

The Holiday

Christmas was great. Aspen came home. Kerrianne flew down. We ate, walked, played games, saw movies, exchanged gifts, held our Christmas Eve Last-Minute Gift Exchange Shopping Extravaganza, went to yoga and cooked. On the 27th, Zach flew to Colorado to be with friends. Then on the 28th, Aspen went back to Colorado. Then on the 29th, Kerrianne went back to Ohio. I miss Colorado Christmases. So, for this year’s Christmas, we’re all going to Colorado to spend the holidays.

Michael and I were empty nesters for a handful of days while Zach was in Colorado. It was a cold few days that we enjoyed mostly indoors. But we did venture out every day to Lifetime Fitness or Whole Foods. And each night, we went to the movies. We saw: Lady Bird (thumbs sideways), Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri (thumbs up. Frances McDormand is a genius.), Downsizing (thumbs sideways), The Darkest Hour (thumbs up) and The Shape of Water (thumbs down). This last one was just a long way to go to make a point. I understand all of the symbolism and message. None of that was lost on me. But I decided somewhere during the movie that had it been on TV, I would’ve changed the channel. That said, it was a well made movie that I didn’t like.¬† Yadda, yadda, yadda … Zach came home yesterday, exhausted and happy.

Hello, I Love You

Ever feel like you’re in a movie and the song playing is the soundtrack to your life? Well, I had one of those mornings today.

Today I drove Zach to school. Normally he takes the bus, but today he missed it. He hardly ever does so I don’t mind tossing on a pair of sweats to drive him there on those rare occasions. We pulled out of the driveway and he started playing “People are Strange” by The Doors. Indeed they are, Zach.

As I continued through the neighborhood, I realized that today will be the last day I ever drive one of my kids to school — ever! For today is the day that my baby will take his driver’s test.

How do I feel about that? Let’s see. First, I’m terrified. But wait, I’m happy, too. And that sums up parenthood.

He’s taking over Michael’s Jeep as his car and has already outfitted it with the proper window clings (Never Summer, et al.). He’s a great driver. But people drive like idiots, and they can’t take their eyes off their phones. And my baby is out there alone now, so stop it everyone!!

From now on, he will be able to drive himself to school and work and on dates. And he can hop in the car to go buy ketchup. Or eggs.

I will celebrate later today when he gets the paper in his hot little hands. Then every time he backs out of the driveway, I’ll ask the universe for his safe return. That’s my baby.

Don’t suffer needlessly

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to join 4 or 5 Facebook groups for women dealing with a current or past breast cancer diagnosis. I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from women who are in my position as well as a chance to give back any advice or perspective I’ve gained in my nearly 3-year experience.

In the few days that I’ve been a member, I have seen some pretty eye opening posts.¬†There are two topics I’ve seen a lot about: post-mastectomy soreness and skin care during radiation. I hope that I can shed a little light. Please share this information if you find it useful.

Soreness after mastectomy

After a mastectomy (particularly a bilateral mastectomy), the entire torso may be sore, to some degree, depending on your pain tolerance. Why? Because breasts are not external objects that are simply removed. Incisions are made and the surgeon’s hands and instruments are placed under the skin all the way up to the collar bones just below the chin because breast tissue is not contained solely in the “cup” of the breast. It’s all along the chest wall from clavicle to bottom of the ribs and side to side. They do a procedure they call “scraping.” It can leave the body feeling sore.

I remember when I breast fed my kids. When my milk first came in, I had fullness and pressure all over my upper body. Not pain, but intense fullness. It started near my shoulders/clavicle and spread to my pec area, and outward under my arms. Finally, both kids got the hang of breast feeding and relieved this pressure. I remember waiting and waiting for them to wake up so that they would nurse, and I’d feel comfy again.

The reason is that breast tissue, milk ducts, really cover far more surface area than just the cup part of the breast that we typically associate with boobs.

That’s why tissue must be removed from the entire chest wall. And that’s why soreness covers a large area. Muscles are affected, nerves are affected. It’s a very involved procedure. I hope that doctors are fully explaining this to patients.

Skin care during radiation

There are radiation oncologists who “allow” patients to use skin care products during treatment. I urge women who find themselves in need of radiation to find one of these doctors. I saw some pictures this week of a woman who was severely burned. Others were commenting that they were “allowed” to use cornstarch only. I almost cried.

When I was about to undergo treatment, I met with 3 radiation oncologists. The first was just a scary person in general. I wouldn’t have gone to her for a manicure let alone life saving treatment. So I honestly can’t remember what she said. Bad vibes.

The second was Dr. Jewell. His nurse talked with me extensively about treatment and all of the products that they approve for my use during the weeks of treatment as long as my skin was left clean and clear during the actual treatment.

I really liked Dr. Jewell and his staff, but I got a third opinion because the first was so bad I almost couldn’t count her.

The third was equally a nightmare.¬†She insisted that I use nothing on my skin for the entire 6 weeks. I would be permitted to wash with Dove soap and use cornstarch. I’ll tell you what I think of Dove soap and cornstarch.

Dove soap is actually marketed as a “beauty bar.” It’s meant to moisturize more than clean. And the quality of its moisturizers is very low grade. It has a list of more than a dozen ingredients, most of which are preservatives and detergents. It’s a bunch of crap. It’s not the kind of stuff I’d put on my skin even if I weren’t going through radiation, so why start now? Second,¬†cornstarch is used to keep the skin dry. Dry? Really?? That is not at all what is needed. Chemicals and dryness. No thanks.

In the end, I went with Dr. Jewell. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

During radiation, I was actually under the beam for about 55 seconds, which is typical. It doesn’t have to be long to be effective. The skin on my upper left quadrant was to be completely clean and clear. My radiation time was 10:45 am so I’d shower and go to my appointment without using any products on that area. But, in my purse, I had a naturopathic apothecary.

In the changing room after treatment, I applied a mixture of calendula cream and emu oil. Calendula cream comes from the calendula flower, a member of the daisy family and often called marigold. It has myriad benefits. Butch recommended it to me. Here’s what I found on the web about it: “Calendula creams¬†and washes are used to disinfect minor wounds and to treat infections of the skin. The antibacterial and immunostimulant properties of the plant make it extremely useful in treating slow-healing cuts and cuts in people who have compromised immune systems.” Boom. Done. It can be found online, in stores or maybe your local naturopath has it in stock.

Emu oil is extracted from the adipose (fat) tissue of emus.¬† Here’s why it’s good: “According to WebMD, emu oil contains fatty acids that can reduce pain and swelling and may help reduce sudden inflammation and chronic inflammation. If applied directly to the skin, emu oil can help reduce pain and irritation from shingles, bedsores, hemorrhoids, insect bites, rashes and razor burn, and more.” It’s not as hard to find as it sounds. I got mine at GNC. It’s also online.

As soon as treatment was over, I squeezed a generous amount of calendula cream into my palm and mixed in emu oil. I then applied it to the entire area of my chest (more on coverage area in a minute). I took my time and followed the nurse’s advice about being gentle and working with the direction of lymphatic drainage.

Then, I’d reapply later in the day. Around 3 or 4 pm, I repeated the process.

At bedtime, I used a whole different product. It’s called tamanu oil. It’s smelly, it stains everything a sort of greenish color and it’s sticky. But it’s so worth it. I¬† simply sacrificed two t-shirts and a pillow case that I wasn’t heartbroken to toss for the cause after treatment was over.

Tamanu oil comes from a nut grown in the South Pacific and has been used for centuries to clear up almost any skin condition. Here’s what the web says: “Tamanu is one of the most effective agents in promoting the formation of new tissue, thereby¬†accelerating wound healing¬†and¬†the growth of healthy skin. This process is known as¬†cicatrization¬†in medical terms. Essentially, it means that tamanu oil is a¬†powerful skin regenerator.” This recommendation came to me from my plastic surgeon. I bought mine at Vitamin Cottage (a regional chain in the CO, NM, AZ, CA). It’s also online.

Now, here’s the important part.

It worked. Like, crazy good. You know how I know? Because I accidentally did a scientific study.

I didn’t realize that the beam went as far back to where the back of my armpit meets my shoulder blade. So I wasn’t applying any of the creams back there. Somewhere around the end of treatment, I had a relatively small (a few inches) but painful, deep burn there. It was right where the arm moves and swings against the body, so I felt it far before I saw it. And I was surprised to realize that the beam was being aimed that far back (cancer cells had been in my nodes).

Once I discovered it, I had to use silver sulfadiazine cream to prevent infection. It’s an antibiotic that is used to treat second- and third-degree burns. And once the sore closed over, I used my other formulas there. So I know, for a fact, that had I not used this regimen, I would’ve suffered needlessly.

The doctors who didn’t “allow” skin care during treatment said that the reason is that they didn’t want the radiation to be blocked. Hey! There’s some news! You can block radiation with calendula cream and raspberries, folks! (Yes, one doctor told me that there are too many good antioxidants in berries to eat them during treatment). I bet Marie Curie wishes she’d known that! Or the technicians who administered my treatment. Little did they know that they didn’t have to leave the room and go behind a lead wall to avoid the scattered radiation. They could just stand there coated in calendula and eating a big old bowl of berries. Problem solved.

Here’s the list in short form: immediately after treatment, I used a blend of calendula cream and emu oil. Six hours later, I reapplied. At bed time, I used tamanu oil. In the morning, it was all washed off in the shower in time for the next treatment.

My skin looks amazing. Not only did the products work, but the application gave me at least three opportunities a day to massage the tissue and keep it mobile.