Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Another Auld Lang Syne

In his 1980 hit song, "Same Auld Lang Syne," the late singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg offers up a melancholic nostalgia. The autobiographical lyrics detail a chance encounter with an old girlfriend over the holidays. The pair catch up over beer and compare what's gone right in their lives and what's gone wrong. In the end, they part ways. If you listen closely to the song, the final chord in the lyrics never resolves. We are left with the picture of the singer standing in the rain, longing for what once was and wondering about what could have been.

I have often felt this way on New Year's Eve. I think about what is over and done with. I think about things left undone, words left unsaid, and loved ones who didn't make  it to ring in the new year.

But this year gives me the opportunity to try something different. It's not only the end of the year, but the end of a decade. Time to take stock and look at accomplishments. To be sure, the 2010s is not a decade I'd care to repeat, but along with the struggles came triumphs.

The middle of the decade found me fighting for my health. In 2013, I was suffering from an infection that necessitated the removal of part of my large intestine. I thought I was on the path to good health, but a year later I was diagnosed with breast cancer (you can read more about that by clicking on the topics in the left menu of the blog).

Over the next two years, I had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. What I remember vividly is the hot, sharp pain I was in for months. But just as vivid is the late fall morning when I woke up feeling just a little bit better. The lesson: Nothing lasts forever, not pain, not bad times. Life is a circle.I learned just how strong I am, and I'm currently set up to meet any challenge that lies ahead.

By 2017 I was dissatisfied in the job I'd held since 2005, a scary place to be in your late 50s. I decided to try something new. I was scared. I thought a lot about the adage about old dogs and new tricks. I did it anyway and now do work that fulfills me in ways I didn't expect. The lesson: Jump in. The water's fine. I just needed to remind myself that I'm a good swimmer.

My husband and me in Paris, July 2019
The past 10 years have taught me to hold my family tighter. My stepfather died in 2011 and my mother now lives with me. It was a big adjustment for both of us, but this is the season of life we are in. I've watched other family members struggle with serious illnesses, heartbreak, and career challenges. The lesson: Take no day for granted. Do it now, whatever it is. Celebrate today. In my case, it meant taking a trip to Europe. Nike is right - Just Do It.

Midnight tonight will find me ringing in the new year with the same friends I've been doing this with for the past 20 years. We saw the millennium together. We partied like it was 1999 and wondered if it was the end of the world as we know it. It wasn't. We are lucky. We are all still here and in good health. Tonight "we'll take a cup of kindness yet/For Auld Lang Syne."

I will not wish you a happy new year. I wish you a new year that is filled with challenges met, strength, and contentment. Peace.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Life Goes On ...

If you had told me five years ago that cancer wouldn't dominate my every waking moment, I would have told you that you were crazy.

If you had told me I wouldn't be constantly planning and recovering from surgeries to heal and repair the damage cancer had done to my body, I wouldn't have believed you. If you had told me that pain and pain management wouldn't be an ongoing part of life, I would have said that's impossible.

But here I am. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the day I got the diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a bright, sunny summer day, but it quickly turned dark when I received the phone call from my doctor and then had to sit my family down and tell them that life was about to get very complicated.

I honor this day because the five-year mark is an important milestone in cancer recovery. With each passing year, the likelihood of the cancer returning diminishes. I'll celebrate on Oct. 21, the fifth anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy. That was the day I began to get well.

The months that followed were trying ones. Pain and fear are terrible weights to carry. I still vividly remember removing the bandages from my chest to take my first shower after surgery. What I saw made me feel ugly and deformed. "This is what healthy looks like," my husband reassured me. The subsequent reconstruction confirmed what he already knew - I am strong and beautiful. (For more about my husband, click here. ) The surgeon who performed my reconstructive surgeries told me that in about 18 months, my new implants would feel like a regular part of my body.

Here I am.

I got through it.

My reconstructive surgery has long been completed. The scars have faded. In fact, if you saw me changing in the gym locker room, you would have to get very, very close to me to realize I have implants. I see my surgeons annually, my oncologist every six months. I am vigilant in taking the anti-cancer drugs she has prescribed. I eat a plant-based diet, I exercise most days. In short, I am living my life.

During those early months, writing this blog was therapeutic for me and, I hope, helpful to some readers. I drew much strength from reading similar blogs of women who had gone before me. But I have been quiet for some time. As I said, I've been living my life.

But as I reflect, I wonder how I had the strength to get through that experience. "You did what you had to do," a friend told me. Everything since then has seemed easier, changes easier to cope with.

Me seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. The smile says it all.

There have been many changes.

  •  I've gone from parenting a teenager to parenting an adult. I saw my son off to college, where he is thriving.
  •  I took a new position in my job, one that is very challenging, but extremely rewarding. My colleagues are the best group of people and I am blessed to work with them.
  •  I met a group of refugees from Bhutan who now live in my area. Together we started a community garden at my church.
  •  I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting London and Paris. I wasn't sure I was ever going to see these beautiful cities, so it was an emotional experience to be able to see Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower.  

A magical last night in Paris
I will continue to look for new challenges in life. All of us will face obstacles and hardships in the future. But my message is this: You will get through this.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Time I Almost Met Mother Teresa

More than 30 years ago, I was a young reporter working for a large metropolitan daily newspaper. I covered a small town that had a major medical center located in it, so I occasionally got some medical stories out of it.

A press release turned up on my desk to announce that Mother Teresa, the famed Roman Catholic nun known for her work with some of the world's poorest people in Calcutta, India, was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser for the center.

I was extremely excited. The event was set to attract many local luminaries, including the governor of the state of Connecticut. And I would perhaps meet this extraordinary woman.

But, alas, this was not meant to be. I was pretty low on the pecking order at the paper, and the metro desk scooped up this plum assignment. I was disappointed, but that's the way the news business works.

Then, something else happened.

Just hours before her scheduled appearance in Connecticut, Mother Teresa cancelled. Already in New York City, she fell ill and felt unable to travel to the hospital's fundraiser. Because it was such short notice, people around her tried to convince her that she had an "obligation" to make the appearance. She declined. She needed to rest and recuperate, so that she could be strong enough for the work God had given her to do  on this earth - minister to the poor. The Connecticut cocktail party was off.

Her single-minded vision was a lesson to me. How many times had a said yes to something that I was unable or unwilling to do? How many times had I put my needs aside because I felt an "obligation" to do something?

Mother Teresa served as a reminder that we cannot fully live our potential if we don't take care of  ourselves. It's like on an airplane, when they tell you that you should put your own oxygen mask on before you try to assist others in an emergency. You can't  serve from an empty vessel.

If I have learned nothing in the past two years of breast cancer treatment, it is the importance of taking care of myself through rest, proper diet, and exercise.

But Mother Teresa was not yet done with me that day three decades ago. The story had changed.

St. Teresa of Calcutta
Because of the last minute cancellation, the food for the party had already been prepared. The medical center decided to donate the bounty to local homeless shelters. I got the assignment to cover this part of the story.

This was the early 1980s and homelessness was on the rise. Many mental health institutions had been emptied out and their clients put on the  streets. The homeless had the reputation as being lazy or crazy. After interviewing hospital officials about the donation, I returned to the bureau to write my story. My bureau chief told me I wasn't finished reporting - he told me to follow the  food.

In the arrogance of youth, I didn't want to hang out with the homeless (it was also Friday evening, and Happy Hour beckoned). My editor insisted, and I called one of the faith-based shelters for men in the city that received a portion of the food to ask if I could come for dinner.

The people I found there were not what I expected. To be sure, there were men there suffering from mental illness, as well as those whose addictions had torn apart the foundation of their lives. But the men who gravitated to me during dinner wanted to tell me their stories. They were not lazy grifters looking for a handout, they were hardworking people who had stumbled and needed a hand up.

Several men I spoke with had families. They had lived paycheck to paycheck, and when that check suddenly disappeared, they were turned out of their apartments. One was working three low-paying jobs in an effort to save money for the security deposit on a new home for him and his family.

They spoke eloquently about the sting of feeling they weren't good providers and the pain of being separated from their loved ones because so-called family shelters didn't allow men.

The donated crudites were added to a hearty soup and the fresh fruit was added to dessert. Over our bowls of soup, we had a laugh about how we were eating food originally intended for some of the most famous and wealthy people in the state. One man remarked about how long it had been since he had eaten a fresh strawberry. I made sure to let them know that it was all Mother Teresa's doing.

I came away from the encounter much smarter and more compassionate. I had a new resolve to tell the stories of those who had no voice or platform. I was less willing to give in to my knee-jerk judgments about people who are different from me. "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise," Mother Teresa said.

The story I wrote that night led the newspaper the next day.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Teresa

I tell this now because I believe we need renewed vigor in caring for each other - particularly the poor and the immigrant. We must follow Mother Teresa's example.

I never got to meet Mother Teresa. She passed away in 1997 and has since been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church She is now known as St. Teresa of Calcutta. Among the requirements of sainthood is to live a life of virtue and have a certified miracle.

Perhaps I witnessed a miracle over a bowl of soup on that warm summer evening. Perhaps I am one.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Lessons Cancer Taught Me

I recently visited my plastic surgeon as part of a regular check-up on my breast reconstruction. I told him I was having a bit of an identity crisis.

I don't know who I am, I told him, if I wasn't having surgery, recovering from surgery, or preparing for more surgery. I have been having operations almost every six months for the past year and a half as part of my treatment for breast cancer. The final piece - nipple reconstruction - came last December. This part of my treatment is now over (By the way, I'm extremely happy with the results!).

I thought I would take this time to reflect on the last two years.

In August 2014 I was diagnosed with Stage 1a grade 2-3 mixed invasive ductal and lobular carcinoma. I had two tumors in my right breast - one was 1.5 cm, the other 1 cm. After consulting with a breast specialist I opted for a bilateral mastectomy the following October. At the time of my initial surgery, I received tissue expanders to create a pocket for silicone breast implants. Since then, I have been receiving hormone therapy to keep the cancer from returning. You can read my initial thoughts about cancer by clicking here.

I could not go around cancer. I had to go through it. Although there have been difficult times for me and my family, I'm not sorry to have gone on that rough ride. I learned a few things.

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Right before my diagnosis, I had set a goal to do some form of exercise five days a week. I had fallen out of the exercise habit and gained quite a lot of weight. It seems strange that I accomplished this goal while going through cancer treatment.

I learned that exercise can play a key role in preventing a recurrence of cancer. If that doesn't get me off the couch, I don't know what will. Exercise also plays a role in mental health. Hormone treatments can wreak havoc on the emotions, too. Regular vigorous exercise makes me feel good. 

After each surgery, I was limited with what I could do with my upper body. No weight bearing exercises were allowed as I recovered, and some arm movements were difficult. But there was nothing hampering my lower body! So I concentrated on cardio. I pulled out my old step bench and also discovered Zumba. Zumba turned into my ultimate feel-good activity because it got my heart pumping and I could do as much or as little as my body allowed while recovered. I have since found a great class at the YMCA that I attend twice a week. 

Understanding the  importance of exercise also led me to the LiveStrong at the Y program at my local YMCA. This wonderful program, which you can learn more about by clicking here, put me in touch with four wonderful trainers who helped me and my group in our recovery process. Their influence helped me solidify my goal to be a regular exerciser.

Cancer taught me to keep active.

Staying Positive

I am not by nature a cock-eyed optimist. But I knew I could not wallow in fear and negativity because of cancer. It doesn't feel good and could have affected my recovery. There were times when I was scared. There were times after the mastectomy when I thought the pain wouldn't end. There were times when I questioned some of my surgical decisions. But in the end, I knew to put one foot in front of the other and reassure myself that everything was okay - no matter what happened.

Writing this blog also helped me stay positive. After my diagnosis I scoured the web for information and came across many different blogs written by women who were going through the same thing. They gave me hope. They gave me the clarity to understand that I, too, had a story to share that may help quell the fears of someone else.   

Having a great team of doctors, nurses, and physical therapists also helped me maintain a positive outlook. The support of my family and friends has also sustained me during difficult times. And then, there is my husband - read about him here.

Cancer taught me to stay positive.

Listening to Body and Soul

When I went in for that mammogram in July 2014, I knew something was up. But I had no indication or any symptoms of cancer - just a nagging little feeling in the back of my brain. My body must have known before I did that I was sick.

Since then, I have had lesson after lesson in trusting my gut instincts and what my body was telling me. 

Pain taught me to be patient. While I wished for an immediate return to my normal physical self, that wasn't possible. If something  hurt, I had to stop doing it. I do remember crying one morning after my mastectomy because I had to ask my son to help me slice a bagel. I just didn't have the arm strength to accomplish this seemingly simple task. "Mom, it's just a bagel," he  said. Indeed. It seems silly now. I know now to listen to my body, do what I can and push when appropriate, and ask for help when I need it.

I had to listen to my soul, too. My first team of doctors wasn't right for me - in fact, they were just a disaster. My soul knew this almost immediately. I could have saved some time and frustration if I hadn't let fear drown out those feelings. I know better now.

Cancer taught me to listen to myself and trust myself.

Going Forward

I am not naive enough to think cancer is done with me - it might return, it might not. But one thing I do know now is not to be afraid. I can handle anything. 

Everyone will encounter some kind of pain in life. It is our response to it that makes the difference between fulfillment and suffering. Many times I have asked "Why me?" But I have not asked it while shaking my fist in anger at the universe. I have asked because I want to know why I went through this. How does this experience help me find clarity in my life? 

This is what cancer taught me.

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Sunday, November 29, 2015

One Hundred Percent

One hundred percent. That's an A+, a completion, one whole.

It's also a percentage I've been striving for in my own life. I'm preparing for what I hope will be the final leg of the marathon I've been running with breast cancer for more than a year. After a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction and an implant exchange, I'm scheduled for a nipple reconstruction and scar revision surgery next month.

I've gone back and forth during the past year on whether I wanted this last operation. Surgery is hard on the body, and this one will have me laid up during the holidays. But I finally put the green light on it because I'm shooting for 100 percent. I want to feel like 100 percent of me again.

Pain Management

This past year has been filled not only with physical pain, but psychological pain, as well. A mastectomy is disfiguring and I was troubled by the way I looked immediately after the surgery. Going from DD cups to nothing was difficult to say the least.

There has been an upside. Some of my clothes fit better with my D cup implants. My breasts no longer sag. I don't have to wear a bra if I don't want to. The downside is my chest no longer has any feeling to it. It is a strange sensation. I have slowly, but surely, come to accept what I look like now. The scars are fading quickly. My breasts are the same pretty shape they were when I was younger.

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Milestones Along the Way

I have hit a few milestones recently that have helped me along to my 100 percent goal:

  • I bought a "real" bra for the first time in more than a year. I had been wearing sports bras and the compression bras I had to wear after surgery. I had to screw up some courage to go into the lingerie store and ask an associate to measure me. 
  • I put on a swimsuit. This was a bigger deal than I thought it was going to be. At my local YMCA, I have spent the past three months participating in their LiveStrong program for cancer survivors. Our group decided to try an aqua aerobics class in the pool. I wasn't even sure my swimsuits would fit me. When I tried them on, I really liked the way the look. I gained a few more percentage points after this one. The experience also reiterates the need to push my personal boundaries.
None of the healing I have achieved this past year could have happened without wonderful doctors. For those of you who may be making decisions about treatment for breast cancer, it is important to remember that you don't need reconstruction if you don't want it. Insurance companies are legally bound to cover reconstruction if they cover a mastectomy. For people like me, reconstruction is an important part of the healing process. For other people, further surgery is unacceptable. The decision is yours, but a consultation with a plastic surgeon will go a long way in helping you decide.

If you choose reconstruction, choose your plastic surgeon with care. I've heard far too many stories from fellow survivors who have had to sit through crass and demeaning exams (Gentlemen, clean up your act!). My plastic surgeon is the doctor I have seen the most this past year. I am fortunate to have met him. He is kind, funny, knowledgeable, and has always given me the truth about my treatment. He has been compassionate and supportive when pain and doubt have invaded. Although the office visits could be difficult, I never dreaded going. His office staff has been equally kind and supportive.

When I first met him - when my head was still reeling from my diagnosis - he told me it generally takes 18 months to start feeling "normal" again. I'm right on track.

I'm at 98 percent and I'm aiming for that A+.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Survival Mode

It strikes in the middle of the night.

I awaken with a start. As my mind drifts inward in my darkened bedroom, I start to wonder if a rogue cancer cell may have escaped from my breasts. Will it multiply?  Will I have to do all this again? Will it kill me this time? I think about those funky little aches and pains. Are they really just "funky" and "little?"

I have since learned this thinking is perfectly normal. 

I have shifted gears in my cancer experience - from treatment to survival. I recently met with a nurse practitioner with Hartford Hospital's cancer survivorship program. I would encourage anyone in recovery to participate in this kind of program if you have access to one.

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My breast surgeon referred me to her as part of the follow-up to my breast cancer diagnosis, bilateral mastectomy, and reconstruction surgery. It has been more than a year since my diagnosis and nearly a year since the surgery that removed both my breasts.

Re-Hearing My Diagnosis

In our meeting, we took it from the top.

She reviewed my original lab reports with me. It was interesting to hear them again from the other side of  my treatment. In August 2014, I didn't know as much about breast cancer as I do now. The emotional devastation also clouds perception. I knew my cancer was in its early stages and my tumors were very small. What I didn't hear back then was how aggressive my form of cancer was. I dodged a bullet.

Another issue we tackled was anxiety. I characterized my fears of recurrence as mild. I have them, but they don't interfere with my daily enjoyment of life. She made sure I had information on where to turn if I feel overwhelmed. Time, she said, heals these feelings.

Also as a result of our meeting, she gave me a written summary of all my treatment. It was forwarded to my breast surgeon, my primary care physician, my oncologist, and my plastic surgeon. If I should need to tell a new doctor or other healthcare professional about my illness, it's all right there.

Moving forward

We also talked about ongoing follow up care and resources that are available to me to maintain ongoing good health. I had several takeaways:
  • Nutrition - I took a one-night class on nutrition after cancer, given by a dietitian and health coach in the hospital's Integrative Medicine Program. I have been on a healthy-eating quest for some time, but this class clarified a number of things. The goal of post-cancer nutrition is to create an inner terrain that is as inhospitable to cancer as possible. To do that, eat G-BOMBS - greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, and seeds and nuts. Plant-based diets can help prevent recurrence. I also shop with a list of the produce that is best purchased from organic farms.
  • Exercise - This message keeps coming at me. Exercise is one of the best and most effective ways to prevent cancer in the future. I have been a faithful home exerciser for many years, but I felt like I needed extra help as I continue my recovery from the surgery. I was referred to the LiveStrong program at the Farmington Valley YMCA, an exercise program that is tailored to cancer survivors. Twice a week, I attend a class that includes 30 minutes on cardio equipment, followed by 30 minutes in a small group with a trainer that focuses on building strength, flexibility, and balance. The final 30 minutes are for stretching and relaxation. I can't say enough good things about this program. It provides cancer survivors with a free family membership to the Y for three months. It is wonderful to be with a group of like-minded people. There are certain things I don't have to explain to them. An added blessing - my first evening at the program I discovered one of my trainers is a former colleague whom I haven't seen in several years. It was wonderful to see her!
  • Chemicals - I had never given much thought to the products I put on and around my body. I have now checked most of the cosmetics I use with the Environmental Working Group website. Parabens, sulfates, and phthalates have been associated with breast cancer, and I will avoid products with them. Many of my favorites are made without those potentially dangerous chemicals (Sadly, my favorite cleanser isn't one of them. It contains parabens. But the manufacturer is in on the conversation, and they are trying to formulate the product with a healthier preservative.) 
"A cancer survivor is defined as anyone with a history of cancer, spanning from the time of diagnosis and for the remainder of life, whether that is days or decades." - National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship

With the survivorship program, I feel I have regained an important sense of control over what is happening to me. I feel like I am taking good care of myself. I've even started to feel pretty again.

So when those middle-of-the-night moments recur, I can banish them by listing the ways I am safeguarding my health.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Death of a News Crew

Like everyone else, I  reacted with horror at the deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, the journalists who were gunned down on live TV in Roanoke, VA. It is another senseless episode of gun violence that will have us questioning (again) the role of guns in our society.

But Alison and Adam's murder struck a much deeper chord with me. I, too, have been part of a news team that had to cover the murder of one of their own.

Fast Friends

In 1987, I was a reporter with the Journal Inquirer, then the third largest newspaper in Connecticut. A new reporter had just joined the staff. Her name was Kara Laczynski. Like Alison, she was 24 and at the beginning of a promising news career. Kara was bright, beautiful, and talented. We quickly became friends and then neighbors when she rented an apartment in the building next door to mine in Hartford, CT.

That October, she had planned a weekend away in Philadelphia, where she was meeting up with friends from her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. She had been looking forward to the trip for a while. My last glimpse of her was in the newsroom, when she turned to wave goodbye to me and promised to tell me of her weekend's adventures.

A Tragic Day

That Monday morning, she wasn't at her desk and hadn't called in sick, very uncharacteristic of this dedicated, hard-working professional. After being unable to reach her, her editor - knowing we were neighbors - asked me to check on her. My fear was that she was ill and needed help.

When I got to her building, I saw her car parked in the lot. I called her phone, rang her bell. No answer. I then called the property manager and relayed my concerns. She sent over a member of the maintenance crew to unlock the door.

He and I had the horror of discovering Kara's naked, lifeless body sprawled on the floor of her living room. Her hands were bound, and a belt around her neck strangled the life out of this beautiful woman. Strangers gained access to her apartment. Her death was likely the result of a sexual assault gone wrong.

The next days, months, and years passed by with a blur. An investigation resulted in arrests in Kara's murder, but the case became bogged down in a racial, cultural, and political morass. Some say Kara's murder marked a tipping point for Hartford, damaging its reputation and sending it into a tailspin. Mistrials were declared, and no one was ever convicted of murdering my friend. The justice system let her down, and it let me down.


It is difficult to gather news when you are part of the story. "I feel like this happened to my little sister," one reporter covering the case remarked. Another - a seasoned crime and court reporter - struggled with his emotions when the crime scene and autopsy photographs were entered into evidence. I interviewed Kara's father for a piece, still one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

My thoughts and prayers are with the WDBJ7 team. These next days and weeks will be dark ones. They are coping with the sudden, tragic, and very public loss of people they cared about. There are still stories to be written and broadcast about Alison and Adam. It is difficult to properly mourn when the cameras are on you. The apparent suicide of the suspected shooter will spare them a lengthy investigation and trial. But this won't be easy. They will never get over it.

The effects of a murder are long and far-reaching. Alison and Adam's coworkers will likely have sleepless nights and other emotional repercussions. They may spend years looking over their shoulders every time they are out in the street. They may relive those terrible last moments of their colleagues' lives,
made worse by the fact that the incident was on live television. The news business is a transient one, and those working for the station will likely move on to other jobs. But they will all have this one important and horrible day in common for the rest of their lives.

Finding Peace

I hope they will be like me - able to make peace with tragedy. At first I agonized over what Kara had to go through as she died. Her memory brought pain. I had trouble listening to the music of U2, her favorite band. I had a lot of what-ifs in my head.

But after nearly 30 years, her memory brings a smile to my face. I remember her beautiful broad smile, curly black hair, and sparkling brown eyes. I remember her intelligence and humor and the way she valued learning. I remember that she loved journalism because she wanted to stand up for the underdogs in life. What I remember now is the vibrancy of her life.

But even after so many years, I still have difficulty talking about this period in my life.

 To all those who are grieving this day,. I wish you peace.