Monday, November 30, 2009

Status Quo

The kids are doing their homework at the kitchen table. Leftover turkey and stuffing are slated for our dinner tonight. Patrick's returned to college, studying (hopefully) for upcoming finals scheduled to take place next week. I started doing a little Christmas shopping today. Things are quickly retuning to normal; the status quo emerges once again, following the happy chaos we enjoyed during Thanksgiving while visiting our families and staying up later than usual to chat.

Just as things are returning to normal again, I find myself facing another change in the usual status quo. For almost two decades now, I've refused to purchase a dog for my pleading children. I mean, really: dealing with dog-chewed shoes? Training it to go outdoors during countless sub-freezing nights just so that it can urinate? No thanks!

We all know that puppies can be a challenge. I had a dog when I was a child, a fact that my kids constantly reminded me of, prior to my relenting to getting a dog in the first place. I also remember my mom doing most of the work back then. My mother typically let the dog outside, cleaned up after her, and fed her. Day after day.

A few months ago, I noticed my youngest, Caroline, "walking" her dog - a stuffed animal - outside on a leash. Peering through the living room window, I watched, open-mouthed, as Caroline repeatedly stroked it and talked to it. She didn't see me. For the first time, my eyes fell to the floor as reality struck me: my children have never had the pleasure of taking care of a dog, walking it, and experiencing the unconditional love that exudes - day after day - from most canines to their human friends.

The girls are just thrilled that Christmas is around the corner, and a puppy's not only on their wish list, but she'll be arriving this Thursday, three days from now. A ten-week-old Havanese puppy will become our newest family member. Soon, the status quo will be disrupted.

Why did I give in to my children's whining and pleading this time around? This time it just felt right. I've no other explanation, really. I just hope I'm not making a mistake. Even though my daughters have drafted and signed a "contract" that states that they will be in charge of the dog's care, I am realistic. Soon I'll be the one who takes the dog outside in the middle of the night while the girls are sound asleep. I'll be the person in charge of her meals, and I'll be cleaning up the mess while my daughters are at school.

What about my coveted status quo? In my opinion, maintaining the status quo is very much overrated. And when you stop and think about it, the status quo is really only as important as you demand it to be. The girls will be speechless when they see the puppy. Sure, the status quo will be altered in our home, but hopefully, it'll be for the better. Day after day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Last evening, while my daughters and I were quietly eating dinner, we heard the kitchen door opening. I knew that my husband was out of town, so I couldn't imagine who would be coming into our house. I'd read in the newspaper that a house in a neighboring town had been broken into a few weeks ago while the owners were at home and asleep. Apparently, while their house was being ransacked, the pour souls were held at gunpoint for hours. Hearing my kitchen door squeak as it was opened last evening immediately made my heart race. Did I forget to close the garage door? What next? Who could be there?

Just then my son strolled in! Both Melissa and Caroline simultaneously darted from their chairs while shouting "PATRICK!" upon seeing him walk through the door and into the kitchen. Meanwhile, like a domino effect, the girls' quick actions awakened our cat, Ritchie, who was previously sound asleep on the kitchen rug. Anyone who has a cat knows what typically happens at this point.

Notably frightened by this intrusion and with pupils immediately dilated, Ritchie jumped to his feet, arching his back in a lame attempt to defend himself. The tiny hairs on his tail flared and bristled outwardly so that his tail appeared to be more than twice its normal size! I don't think I've ever seen him look more irritated and annoyed! The kids found the cat's expression and appearance so hilarious that the sight of him just added to the excitement and surprise of seeing Patrick! Laughter filled the kitchen, followed by hugs, one at a time, as we were all so eager to embrace my son, who wasn't supposed to come home from college until tonight. He'd found an earlier ride home, and he wanted to surprise us.

I just love surprises, and this one was one of the best ones I've had in a long time. Upon waking this morning, I couldn't help but think that when I see Patrick at lunchtime today (since he'll likely sleep in until noon), I have so much to be thankful for. I know that the story of the cat and his funny reaction to our outburst upon seeing Patrick arrive expectantly last evening will continue to flavor many more Thanksgiving recollections over the years. I can hear it now from one of my kids, "Remember a few years ago when Patrick came home early and surprised us, and the cat went crazy, and ..."

And I can see them all smiling.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Letter to the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition

I received a letter from Sarah, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, which is a very active organization located in Harrisburg, PA.. (I receive this organization's monthly newsletters, and I participated in the most recent conference, held in October, 2009). Due to the recent "changes" proposed in breast cancer screening, specifically, delaying initial mammography until age 50 and discouraging Breast Self-Exams, Sarah's letter had encouraged breast cancer survivors who were diagnosed in their 40's to share their stories and their reliance on mammography screening. Please read what I wrote to her regarding this issue:

Dear Sarah,

I am a breast cancer survivor. Here is my story.

At the age of 43, I felt a very small lump in my left breast, specifically under my left armpit area. Initially, I was not very concerned about this finding because I have a history of fibrocystic breast changes, and I believed that this lump was just another one of those benign, small nodules. But I visited a general surgeon just to be sure, in November, 2005. Her exam and palpation of the lump were inconclusive at that time. She recommended that I have my annual mammogram, which was scheduled to take place in January, 2006. The mammogram report acknowledged the lump, but again, the radiologist was unable to confirm that it was malignant. I then underwent an MRI scan which was also unclear, in January, 2006.

It was only after the biopsy was performed in February, 2006, that a definitive diagnosis was made: Stage 1, Grade 3 (the most aggressive rating) malignant breast cancer. The biopsy also showed that the cells were HER-2 Positive, poorly differentiated and extremely aggressive in their make-up. If left unchecked, the cells would have very likely spread quickly to other organs, and most likely, death would have been the result.

I underwent a left breast lumpectomy, 15 months of chemotherapy and Herceptin, and 33 daily radiation treatments at age 43.

I have no family history of breast cancer or any other type of cancer. I'm not at all obese, I've been an active runner for ten years, and I've followed a low fat diet for nearly 30 years. The news came as a complete shock to me, my husband, and our children who were 15, 9 and 6 years old at the time of my diagnosis. Simply stated, I have no risk factors, except that I am a woman.

I am quite certain that if the new "mammography screening guidelines" were in place today, I would not be alive to write this letter. If women are instructed to wait until age 50 to have mammograms and are discouraged to perform Breast Self-Exams, I feel that their lives will be in grave jeopardy. I am concerned that women will put off having mammograms, or simply forget whether or not it is their time to have one, if the recommendation is relaxed to "every other year mammography," as it is proposed. For many women like myself, waiting until age 50 for initial mammography screening is a death sentence. If this proposal is passed, breast tumors that could have been treated early will have become much more invasive, resulting in more lives lost and more children left motherless.

Early detection is crucial. Mammography and self breast exams are key elements in early detection and prompt treatment.

Please consider this letter a heartfelt plea to keep mammography screening at age 40 and earlier for women at high risk. Please continue to encourage all women (and men) at all ages to perform monthly breast exams. The risk is just too great.

Karen L. Holmes, R.N., M.S.N.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baking Cookies

I know it's a bit premature to do this, but last evening my ten-year-old daughter Caroline and I made gingerbread cookies from scratch. I had recently bought a nonstick cookie pan which contains little wells of all sorts of holiday shapes, just the perfect size for making formed cookies. There's a stocking, a wreath, an angel, and many other very detailed shapes for a total of 12.

We added the ingredients one at a time, and as I opened the small container of cloves, I lifted it to my nose and savored the aroma. For a moment I was a child again, too. The cloves smelled like Christmastime. The spice reminded me of pumpkin pie, and laughter, and warm conversations that circled around countless Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the company of grandparents and cousins.

Caroline's questions and the burring noise of the electric mixer interrupted my thoughts and nudged me back to the task at hand. I placed the cloves container under Caroline's tiny nose, as she'd sat perched on the counter, positioning herself at just the correct height to see - and participate in - each step in the cookie-making process. Smiling, she also took a whiff of the spice. I couldn't help but think that this particular smell might also be etched into her brain for decades to come. Would she reflect on this time when she's 47 years old and baking cookies with her own daughter or son?

Flour seemed to fly everywhere, and I momentarily remembered that I'd just cleaned the kitchen earlier in the day. But I said not a word about her fumbling fingers and the mess that ensued. (Believe me, it was difficult to keep my hands to myself!) Our time together making cookies might be one of those events that remains engraved in her memory long after I'm gone, so don't spoil it by trying to keep a clean kitchen! I thought.

Finally, it was time to bake them. For Caroline, this 9-minute period seemed endless. She waited ... and waited ... and waited patiently for the oven timer to beep. Finally the seconds passed down to zero, and the long overdue "BING" sound summoned us. The whole kitchen swelled with the tantalizing aroma. After I removed the hot tray from the oven, she almost couldn't contain her excitement. We gently lifted each precious treasure from its warm little cavity. She smiled with anticipation, eager to see how the cookies turned out. And they were just perfect!

I remember vividly making cookies with my older daughter, now 13, a few years ago after I'd been through the heat of cancer. I remember praying and asking God at that time for the blessing of having many more years of making cookies with my children. It's amazing how something so simple can become so monumental in our small minds. Making cookies - no matter how messy it can get - has never felt quite the same to me after that.

God answers prayer. We never know how many more "cookie" times we'll actually have, but we do know that He has planned every day for us and that He already knows exactly how each day will "turn out." We just need to trust Him. Our lives rest ever so gently in His hands, and if we allow it, He will create within us the most perfect shape of all: the heart of Christ.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Time For a Change?

"A government task force said Monday that most women don't need mammograms in their 40s and should get one every two years starting at 50 — a stunning reversal and a break with the American Cancer Society's long-standing position. What's more, the panel said breast self-exams do no good, and women shouldn't be taught to do them."

Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it? Things sure have changed! Yet that's what a panel of "experts" is supposedly proposing. I was stunned last night as I heard that announcement on a news channel and then read about it just now.

I was diagnosed at age 43, which was 4 years ago. After reading about this new proposal, however, I couldn't help thinking that if I'd had to wait until I turn 50 to receive my first mammogram, I am quite certain that I would not be alive to write this post. My tumor was quite small, but it was grade 3, the most aggressive type. It was also classified as being "HER-2 positive," another characteristic that makes it extremely aggressive. Fortunately, it was noted on a mammogram and confirmed by a biopsy.

And I have no risk factors. Under the new guidelines suggested, I would be one of the women who would not have been eligible for a mammogram or biopsy at age 43.

Sure, many biopsies turn out to be negative, meaning no cancer present. However, the biopsy is one test that I believe is worth the money. Quite simply, it saved my life. Same is true for the mammogram.

Let's hope this new proposal doesn't come into effect. There's just far too much at stake, namely our lives. This is one change I'll not support.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


My oncologist called me today. I had received a message from her yesterday (my 13-year-old daughter had answered the phone while I was out). Melissa had relayed to me that the MRI scan of my breasts was okay, but that I could call the doctor the following day. I'd thought the message meant that I could call her if I had a question or something. There was, however, a little more to it than that.

As the doctor spoke to me, I became silent. I listened intently because I didn't want to miss one single word of what she was saying. Her thick Middle-Eastern accent was strangely all too familiar to my ears. I should have known better; each time she's ever called me (since our very first meeting three and a half years ago when I was originally diagnosed), her news has always been sobering.

It turns out that when I spoke directly to the doctor today, she informed me that the MRI did show some "enhanced tissue in the right breast" -- the "other" breast. So, the doctor suggested that I have another MRI scan in 6 months, rather than a year from now. She told me that the additional MRI scan is indicated to "keep an eye on things." In a perfect world, the only person whose eyes should be looking at my poor breasts would be my husband's. But this isn't the perfect world anymore. That world disappeared thousands of years ago, when Adam and Eve didn't listen. Well, believe me, I'm listening.

Oddly, I had just posted how happy I was to hear that the recent MRI was normal. And it could very well be -- normal, that is. But there's that black cloud that just won't ever quite disappear from my cancer horizon. Most days I don't even notice it, but today it produced that evil darkness that distorts my perspective and smothers my spirit.

But do you know what the best part of all is? I'm praying to the One who hears my prayer... and listens. And He'll hear every single word I speak. He's in control of my life, and from this day forward, I can't waste one more minute worrying about a dark cloud that may never develop into a tempest.

I just need to keep listening ... to the One who promises to walk every step with me, through every storm.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Negative Messages

I just love receiving negative messages. Negative?!? Yes.

Yesterday afternoon, after I returned home from my girls' parent-teacher conferences at their school, I saw the note that made me smile. Penned by my 13-year-old daughter, who wrote the message down on a torn piece of paper, I read silently:

"Mom, the MRI is O.K.. Call her tomorrow."

*Gulp.* Smiling, I spun around and asked Melissa, "The MRI was okay? Call WHO tomorrow?"

After my daughter shifted her gaze from the T.V. screen long enough to look at me, she assures me that the woman on the phone who had left the message earlier said that the MRI was, indeed, okay and that I could return the call in the morning.

"Oh, and she had an accent," Melissa added.

That's my oncologist, a wonderful woman with a Middle-Eastern accent that is sometimes very difficult to understand.

But, thankfully, the result was negative - meaning no recurrence - no matter how it was relayed. And I'm still smiling...

I love getting negative messages.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Gift

Life is a gift. That's the comment that I heard on my radio this morning at 6:15 AM, when my alarm went off. It's not really an alarm, but instead, the Christian radio station comes on and delivers soft music to my sleepy brain. A nice way to be awakened. Especially to these words: Life is a gift.

You know, I hear those words, and I believe them to be true, but do I truly live them? Do I see each day as the unique blessing - or the gift - that it was meant to be?

Yesterday, I had my MRI scan. I survived it, even though I'm glad that that's over with for another year (hopefully). But as I drove home from the hospital afterwards, did I really behave as if life is a gift, or was I just so glad to be out of there, that I overlooked the most important fact: I have the gift of life. And I'm well enough to drive, to shop for groceries, to shower, to run, and to do all the things that I take for granted every day. And suddenly, sitting behind the wheel of my minivan, I found myself mentally caught in that hard place between being a woman and acting like a child. I moaned about the test; I worried about it and what the results might show. Immature in my thinking, I realized that I was not unlike a young girl who doesn't understand that life really is a gift. And we're all called to use that gift to fulfill God's purpose for us.

To a large degree, we make each day what we want it to be. Sure, there are bumps in the road that trip us, and we find ourselves flat on our faces at times. Cancer did that to me. But we're strong. We get up, brush the dirt off our skinned kness, and we keep pressing on. Each day. Don't get me wrong: the scans, the monthly doctors' appointments and blood tests, and especially the agonizing wait for the results - those things are often insurmountable and can cause me to toss and turn at night.

But the bottom line is this: Each day is a new start. It might be a difficult day, or it might turn out to be one of our best. Either way, with God in control of each day, I'll rest knowing that it's His gift to me. Now it's up to me to use His gift the way He wants me to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I Hate This Part

There's a song that my thirteen year old daughter occasionally listens to on the radio. It's not one of my favorite songs, but the title captures my thoughts completely -- right now. It's called "I Hate This Part."

Tomorrow I'm scheduled for my third MRI scan, a test that I have every year (for a total of five years). And this is the part that I hate; it's the time when you are simply anticipating having the test or scan the following day. I wish I could just wave a magic wand, or blink, or just close my eyes and not have to think about this part -- this part of cancer. The tests, such as this one that requires an I.V. to be inserted into my nearly invisible veins (thanks to the effects of the chemo three years ago), will determine if there is any "suspicious activity" in the breast tissue.

After my poor arms are poked numerous times with the I.V. catheter in search of a "good" vein, I will walk into the cold, sterile-looking room and lie on my stomach, while positioning my small breasts into two, neatly cut holes in the table. My breasts will just hang there, suspended oddly through the holes. If they had brains, I'm sure that by this point my breasts would be very confused.

Then the technicians will push a few buttons and I'll feel the table moving into position within a tubular-shaped machine. Within a few minutes, the clicking and banging noises will begin, all the while my arms must remain "locked" into position above my head. I'll stay this way for about 30 long minutes, trying to remain as motionless as possible. And I'll also be trying to ignore the unrelenting ache in my neck and shoulders that I know I'll experience as a result of maintaining this position for so long.

The banging noises around my head will continue and I'll pray throughout it all. And I'll continue to pray some more until I run out of things to say to God. I'll be the only human being in the room; the technicians will have already scurried out to sit in their chairs which are located behind the glass enclosure, and they'll be watching me through the window, pushing more buttons, and at times talking to me through my headphones. The only thing that gets me through this part is believing that God will carry me through, and that He hates this part, too, because He loves me and doesn't like it when I suffer. He knows my thoughts - even before I think them. And He cries when I do, too.

But I don't have that wand, and closing my eyes won't change a thing. I do have cancer, however. And I do have the Lord's assurance that He'll get me through this part. But I still hate it. And there are some days when I'd do almost anything to hold that wand, even for just a little while.

Is there anyone out there who hates this part, too?