Friday, August 29, 2014

Schrodinger's Cat

In the 1930s physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment in which a cat was placed in a sealed box, along with a Geiger counter, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source. If even the smallest particle of radioactivity was detected, the flask would crack open and the cat would die (this is all hypothetical, by the way). Schrodinger posited that before the box was open the cat could be thought of as both dead and alive, simultaneously.

The experiment is more complicated than I have laid out and meant to illustrate a theory of quantum mechanics. But to a non-scientist like me, it speaks about the power of the unknown and the devastation that can be wrought on even a microscopic level.

 I write about it here because I feel like I have been inhabiting the netherworld of Schrodinger's cat. As I have awaited the results of medical tests, I feel like I have been both healthy and sick simultaneously. The results were not what I had hoped.

I have #breast cancer.

A routine mammogram detected a suspicious mass. A biopsy revealed it to be stage 1/grade 2 invasive ductal carcinoma. I have consulted with an oncologist and a surgeon. I have had another biopsy, with a third scheduled for next week and then we decide on a course of treatment.

While cancer is a disease that can still strike fear, the most difficult part of this journey is the unknown. Even though I have a diagnosis, I still don't know exactly what treatment is in store for me. I know the possibilities. Cancer at this stage is very treatable, but a conversation with the surgeon this morning revealed complications. An MRI, showed a second suspicious mass, close to the tumor that was already biopsied, and a third spot that requires a stereotactic biopsy next week. Only then will I have a surgery date and a treatment schedule.

The unknowns are legion: how much pain will I be in, how much time will I have to take from work, what will I look like, and more. No one can answer some of those questions - I will have to experience them. I have spent many hours reading about breast cancer treatment and reading the blogs of those who have gone through what I am going through now. To those women, I say thank you. Reading your stories has made me less afraid. I can only hope to pay it forward with my writing.

This all comes at a time when I have been feeling good. I thought health problems were behind me. It is hard to think of something so tiny (1.2 cm) causing so much trouble.

Some of you reading this have been aware of my diagnosis. Others will be hearing about it for the first time. Still others don't know me at all. I invite everyone to come along with me on this deeply personal journey.
The cat is out of the box and she'll be just fine.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Rest and Recreation

Saddleback Lake, Maine
For me, there is no place more restful than beside a lake in the northern woods of the United States. My family and I spent last week in the Rangeley Lakes region in Maine's Northwest Mountains.

I don't know what it is exactly that I find so appealing:
Small's Falls, Maine

  • The delicate white birch trees that arch toward the water
  • The perfectly-formed triangles of firs that dot the shoreline like so many scattered Christmas trees
  • The gentle swish of the canoe as it glides through the water
  • The sunset turning the glassy water into liquid rose gold
  • The haunting trill of the loons that have nested lakeside

Perhaps it is the tranquility that comes from being surrounded by so much quiet and majestic nature. The abundance makes one's problems feel much smaller. A history book I found inside our cabin told of a 1930s-era brochure for the region that said the lake's pure crisp air whetted the appetite, cleared the mind, and strengthened the muscles. This was clearly so last week. I returned rested and ready to tackle the trials to come.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Of Drugs, Depression, and "Demons"

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Robin Williams. A brilliant comedian and actor, his struggles with drugs and depression had been well-documented. But during the coverage I heard something that stopped me in my tracks.

A correspondent on CNN admitted that earlier in their coverage, she had said that Williams "battled demons." She was cautioned by someone in the treatment community against using such a pejorative description. She apologized and said she should call it what it is - a disease.

It was certainly not the first time such a phrase has been used. It evokes colorful and dramatic imagery. It is also medieval-sounding and dark. It is imprecise, inaccurate, and has no place in a discussion about 21st Century health care.

 It got me wondering why we still draw a distinction between mental health care and health care. Why is brain disease looked at in a different way from heart disease? Mental health providers must work to identify and successfully treat disease, but they also must battle stigma. There are still people who don't get the health care they need because of the shame associated with mental disorders and addiction. We still live in a culture that tells people with depression to "cheer up" and kids with ADHD to "just sit still."

In a 2001 essay found online at the Partnership for Drug-free Kids website (,  journalist Bob Curley writes that there are "wrong" ways to describe addiction and recovery. Such misnomers hamper the goal of providing better health care for all. For example, he wrote, describing someone as a "substance abuser" places the responsibility solely on the individual, ignoring other factors such as genetics, environment, and economics. It's also easy to "abuse the abuser," he wrote.

I grew up in an era when smoking cigarettes was referred to as a bad habit. "Kick the Habit!" the slogan said. Those words must be cold and cruel to someone trying to quit a drug that is as powerful as heroin.

In Connecticut, we are are still struggling with policy changes in the aftermath of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said the solutions to the problem of gun violence require a multifaceted and multidisciplinary approach, including better access to mental health care. Portraying the shooter as struggling with demons does nothing to promote that cause.

We must start by aligning our language with our goals. Yes, they are just words, but I am a writer. I know that words have power. As John Keating, Williams' character in Dead Poets Society, tells us, "No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world." One of the gifts Williams leaves us was his candor about his disease and the matter-of-fact way he discussed his treatment.

Let's not let Robin Williams become another brilliant flame-out, taken from us too soon - and forgotten.

May your soul find the peace that eluded you here on earth, dear Robin. May your shining example inspire us all to do better.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Return of the Pilgrim

My typical weekday afternoon conversations with my 15-year-old son usually go something like this:

Me: How was school today?
Boy: Good. (exits to play basketball in the driveway)

Or this:

Me: How was school today?
Boy: (grunting noise; exits to play basketball in the driveway)

So it was a slightly new and improved teenage son I encountered upon his return home from a seven-day trip to Oregon this week, one who was a bit more outgoing and confident. He traveled west with his church youth group on a pilgrimage that has been two years in the making. It was the first time he'd traveled for any great distance or time without a parent or other family member with him.

It was interesting to hear him speak with great animation, detail, and excitement about exploring tide pools on the Oregon coastline, about the beauty of the waterfalls he saw along their hiking trails, and about "riding the bull" on the rapids of the DesChutes River. There are photographs of that last one. It involves riding the raft with your legs hanging over the front of the raft. In one, all I could see were his feet and rushing whitewater. It was all safe and properly supervised, but I think I have a couple of extra gray hairs.

 He also led the group in a vespers service one evening and presented their local leader with a group gift. On the way home, during a layover in Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the boy saw former University of Connecticut basketball star D'Andre Daniels. He introduced himself to Daniels, told him how much he enjoyed watching him during UConn's epic run to the national championship last spring, and asked him to pose for a picture of the two of them together.

All of this adds up to a boy becoming a man who is comfortable in his own skin. I probably will never hear every detail of the trip. There are some things that belong just to him. But I had two big fears as I put him on the plane last week: 1) That he would miss me and 2) That he wouldn't. Neither of my fears came to pass. He thoroughly enjoyed his experience and returned home happy to see me.

I think I handled all of this quite well.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

But How Do You Get Your Protein?

That's a question just about everyone who's tried vegetarian living gets. I've certainly been asked. There are many plant-based sources of protein that are often overlooked in the standard western diet.

I decided to become vegetarian last January, and I've been leaning toward veganism. After nearly a year of being ill and eventually having surgery on my colon, I became much more aware of how food affected me. Following my surgery, I was able to eat anything I wanted, but I found that I just didn't feel good after eating meat. I felt like I'd swallowed a brick. I don't feel that way after a plant-based meal. One vegetarian friend suggested the enzymes used to digest meat may have been disrupted from my illness. I don't know, but I decided to listen to my body.

I have several vegetarian and vegan friends at work and at church. They have never tried to "convert" me to their way of eating; rather they have stood as good examples. They bring luscious food to any gathering and the fact that they are all fit, healthy, and beautiful isn't lost on me either (Yes, I'm talking about you, Lisa, Kristen, and Ulka).

So I embarked on some research about vegetarian and vegan cooking. For those who don't know, vegetarians don't eat meat. Vegans don't consume any animal products, including milk, cheese, eggs, and butter. The internet and social media have a plethora of resources to offer. Keepin' It Kind and Finding Vegan have great recipes, some of which have become family favorites. Mayim Bialik (TV's Blossom and Amy Farrah Fowler!) has a terrific book, Mayim's Vegan Table, that provides research, resources, and recipes. Her book is particularly helpful because she is a mother raising her children vegan and she has recipes that appeal to families.

Speaking of families .. That's been a complication. While I'm vegetarian, the rest of the household is still omnivorous. And I do all the cooking. So there has been some negotiation. If I make a meat dish for them, I fix an alternative for me. There's always rice, quinoa, and beans in my kitchen.

 But lately, I've been trying new recipes on them. Curried Vegetable Stew (it features cauliflower, chickpeas, and canned pumpkin), Leek and Potato Soup, and Black Beans and Rice have all been added to the dinner rotation. Last night's experiment was a vegan lasagna recipe I found online. I could almost feel the skepticism, so I was prepared for the worst. But, lo and behold, it was a HUGE hit - even my devoutly carnivorous spouse raved. Hmm.

There are too many aspects to this subject, both moral and political, to tackle in one post so I'll continue to share my journey. Let me know if you have any recipes!