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.


Monday, August 10, 2015

A Year Has Passed

It's been one year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The past year has been a thrill ride with many peaks and valleys. Although it was difficult, I'm not sorry I have gone through this experience.

I spent most of July 2014 in a whirlwind of tests. First came my routine mammogram; then a second-look mammogram; then an ultrasound, and biopsy. Finally the phone call from my doctor came. "Are you somewhere you can talk?" she asked me. That's never good.

Breast cancer is a difficult disease. It strikes us on a part of our bodies that is uniquely feminine. It is fueled by the hormones that make us women and mothers. As one friend put it, "It messes with your head." So I had much to reflect upon as this one-year anniversary approached.

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I was afraid of a lot of things - dying, pain, sickness, being unable to be present in the lives of my friends and family. I faced down a lot of them and have come out the other side. After you've had cancer, it hard not to be fearful and mistrustful of your body. There are days when I worry about every little ache and pain. But I now know how resilient my body and mind are.


Where would I be without them? On my last day of work before my leave of absence, my colleagues (all of them women) gave me a surprise lunch. During lunch they gave me several gifts - a beautiful shawl, a soft pink bear, and an assortment of teas. The shawl was like having their arms around me. The bear caught a few teardrops, and the tea sustained me when eating was difficult. Because of their kindness, I was able to embark on my journey with a light heart.

"Breast cancer strikes us on a part of our bodies that is uniquely feminine. It is fueled by the hormones that make us women and mothers."

Then there are my church friends. Our family is part of an Episcopalian community. The prayers for me were palpable. The day before my surgery I attended our Sunday service. They gave me a laying-on of hands to bless me 24 hours before my surgery began. The morning of my surgery, I awoke early and checked Facebook. There Amy, one of my church friends, and her young daughter posted a picture of them wearing pink sweatshirts in my honor. Throughout the day, church members posted to my husband and me that prayers were ascending. During my recovery, home visits were made, communion offered, and meals delivered.

Another friend, who is an executive for a major hospital, stepped in when I had to change doctors and facilities. I was unable to see ahead. She solved all my problems before the end of that difficult day.


You can read about my husband's support by clicking here. We are fortunate to have a close relationship. The rest of the family rallied behind me. My two young nieces posted a picture on Facebook in pink t-shirts
to let me know they were thinking of me. My mother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, and cousin went to work stocking my refrigerator and freezer with meals for the next month. My house was kept clean. All I needed to worry about was getting better.

Ultimately, I have had to arrive at a peaceful place. I can't live in fear, but I have to live in reality. One day I will die. I don't know when. I don't know if cancer will take me. Today, I am alive and healthy. I wish you all good health!

You can read more about my experience with breast cancer by clicking on the topics in the sidebar.

Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Reconnect With Your Body After Breast Surgery

We've all had these moments. You look at a photograph of yourself at a family wedding and are shocked by how much weight you've gained. You've lost weight, but still are surprised when you look in the mirror and see your thinner self. Then there were the almost-daily changes during pregnancy that had you wondering what was going on in there.

These are times when we have not truly connected our bodies and our minds. Breast surgery can bring about that same kind of disconnect.

I had a double mastectomy last fall to treat breast cancer. I've undergone months of reconstruction and still face one more surgery. I have been struggling with my body image ever since.

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Those days following my surgery were difficult ones. My breasts were a part of my body that I've always been happy with. My first reaction upon seeing my chest for the first time was "This isn't me." Then I cried. A lot. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband, who hugged me and reassured me. "This is what healthy looks like." It is hard to fight the feeling that your body has betrayed you. 

In addition to emotional difficulties, I faced physical ones, too. My posture was thrown off. I couldn't reach my hands over my head (brushing my hair was an ordeal). I tried to get as much activity in each day as my battered body would allow. Lifting anything (including cats and coffee cups) was hard.

Once the healing process was begun, I began to find ways to make friends with my new body. The following are some of the things that have worked for me. I'm not a medical professional and you need to speak to your doctor during your recovery. I also have not been compensated by the makers of any of the goods and services I write about here. They are simply things I've found helpful.

Reconnect With Your Body Through Exercise

One of the best things I did for myself post-surgery was ask for physical therapy. I was sent to a therapist who specialized in mastectomy recovery, and she proved a valuable resource. She gave me information about things like lymphedema. She reassured me that I was recovering normally. She was a shoulder to cry on. She also helped me get back the use of both arms, improve my posture, and build up my strength. She stressed the importance of ongoing exercise, particularly the emotional benefits of movement.

I've been a dedicated home workout fan for many years (remember Jane Fonda's Workout?) I have a space set up in our basement where I can exercise. But following my surgery, there were many videos in my library that no longer worked for me.

I had to take a look at workouts that I could do and that felt good. I (literally) dusted off my old step and got out my old video from 1992. Stepping worked for me because I still had a strong lower body. I could modify the movements of my upper body according to what I could do each day. It's still one of the sweatiest, heart-pounding workouts out there if you load up the risers.
Some of my favorite videos, both new and old

I was also able to do a little mat pilates work and discovered Zumba for the first time. I had very strict weight lifting limitations from my doctor following both surgeries. I can't stress this enough - it's important that all your doctors know what kind of exercise you are doing. 

Reconnect With Your Body Through Nutrition

I start the day with a healthy smoothie
This has been an ongoing journey for me. I suffered some health complications even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Those led me to becoming a vegetarian. Research has shown there may be some benefits to following a plant-based diet for cancer patients. But the biggest difference for me is how I feel. Since giving up meat, I have more energy and my skin and hair look healthier. This diet may not work for everyone, but it's helped me. (Once again, your doctor's advice here is crucial).

I start nearly every day with a green smoothie. It includes leafy greens and some kind of fruit, fat, and protein. This morning's drink was kale, pineapple, banana, flax meal, and coconut oil. It fueled my workout and kept me going until lunch. I feel like this starts my day right. For other meals, I have rice, beans, lentils, and quinoa, along with lots of vegetables.If you choose this kind of diet, there are many resources on line to help you. Perhaps the most important bit if nutrition advice I can give is "Listen to your body." Pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods. Develop a way of eating that will keep you healthy.

Some fruits and vegetables from the local fruit stand. Buy local and in-season!

Reconnect With Your Body by Showing Emotion

I get it. We all want to be the brave "pink warrior," able to cope with life and our illness. We don't want our friends and family - especially our children - to worry. But breast cancer is big, serious, scary stuff. Keeping all our emotions inside can be detrimental to our overall health and recovery. 

I felt very guilty when, during a particularly difficult day before my surgery, I began crying and couldn't stop. My son saw me like that. I worried about the effect it would have on him (he's 16). A friend reassured me. "He saw you being real," she said. He also saw that the sad and angry moment passed quickly, perhaps a good life lesson. 

I relied on friends who have recovered from breast cancer. My mom, a survivor herself, lives with us and helped reassure me during some dark times. And there is, of course, my husband. I've written about his loving support here.

Showing your emotions can be the first step in asking for help. There were things I simply couldn't do without help. I needed to really understand that. It was temporary, as I continued to build back my emotional and physical strength.

I still don't feel like I'm all the way back. My reconstructed breasts don't quite feel like "mine" yet. My plastic surgeon reassured me this is normal. He's found that patients take about 18 months to feel some kind of normal again.

Cancer was a reminder that I need to continue to be vigilant with my health. I wish you all good health!

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Coming Out of the Comfort Zone

I'm one of those people who likes to know what's expected of me and exactly what will happen in a given situation. While this personality quirk means that I'm always prepared and ready, it also means that it's difficult for me to drag myself out of my comfort zone.I have been faced with many out-of-the-box situations in the past year during my treatment for breast cancer.

I was reminded of the value of trying new and different things in life during a recent dinner date and concert with my husband.


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A Birthday Gift

For my birthday this year, my husband got us two tickets to see Todd Rundgren. Those of you who are a certain age will remember the lanky, long-haired mega-talent from '70s hits like "Hello, It's Me," "I Saw the Light," and "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference." 

Rundgren's seminal double-album, "Something/Anything?" was a hit just as I was beginning to appreciate and listen to popular music.The album's big single "Hello, It's Me" is a near-perfect love song.  

In addition to his solo career, Rundgren fronted several bands (The Nazz and Utopia) and was a highly sought-after producer and engineer. He was known for his meticulousness in the studio and his ability to experiment with different sounds. He was one of the first artists to recognize that video could enhance his message. His Utopia Studios was renowned as an early innovator of music videos, and videos produced there found their way into the early rotations of MTV.

Rundgren's fingerprints are on a lot of music that chugged its way through my college and young adult years. Among the artists he produced are Patti Smith, Hall and Oates, XTC, the New York Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, the Tubes, and Meatloaf (he was the driving force behind "Bat Out of Hell."). 

Pre-concert selfie outside of Infinity Hall
A multi-instrumentalist, Rundgren plays most of the music on his albums, which often feature eccentric, but surprisingly meaningful sounds. His work paved the way for such artists as Prince and Beck.

His new album, "Global" is no different. This time, Rundgren experiments with electronica. I've often found this kind of music cold, but underneath the complex electronic sounds are the soulful Philly-style harmonies he's known for and the warmth of the themes of community and protecting the earth. I had not heard any of his new music before the night of the concert.

A Concert to Remember

My husband and I headed out to Infinity Hall, a small venue in northwestern Connecticut best known for its concerts on PBS. We had dinner in the bistro and took our seats about 15 minutes before the start of the show. 

The stage before the show started.
There was a single seat next to me in our row. It was soon filled. "Hi! I'm Jeff. Longtime Todd fan!" he said, extending his hand. He then regaled me with stories of other Rundgren concerts he'd attended, including one at the Bitter End in New York City that was recorded for the iconic "Back to the Bars" album in the late '70s.

Jeff said staffers at the hall had told him that the roadies had been setting up the stage since early morning. I told him I had seen an electrical generator parked out back. Clearly, something was going to need a lot of juice.

"This concert's going to be a little different," Jeff told me.

A Lasting Message

We soon found out what all the fuss was about. 

The lights dimmed and a guitar-toting Rundgren burst onto the stage to the tune of "Evrybody," which is reminiscent of "Bang the Drum All Day" from the '80s . The tall, black monoliths on the stage came alive with video, as two Afro-wigged singer-dancers backed up Rundgren. 

Rundgren was dressed simply in jeans, sleeveless t-shirt, and sneakers. His signature long hair is still there. Like all of us, he's gotten older. He's now 67 years old. But the sheer energy he exuded was nothing short of inspirational. 

There was little banter with the audience. The music spoke for itself. "Blind" and "This Island Earth" warn of climate change. He celebrated women (including Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai) in "Earth Mother." He sang about the joys of finding a grounding love in "Terra Firma." The ballad "Soothe" sounded like an older, wiser sequel to "Hello, It's Me."

He ran through most of the new album, sprinkling in music from Utopia and his older hits. By the time he did the song, "Rise" I didn't want the concert to end. As the music thudded, lights flashed, and the choreographed videos played, I felt bathed in a creative force.

When the encore  finished and the lights came up, my new friend Jeff was as ecstatic as I was. "Did you hear what he did with the classics?" he asked me. I was in awe that Rundgren could surprise a longtime Todd fan like Jeff with his concert innovations. It left me with several important messages about my own life.

  • Keep it fresh. I'm sure there have been a few disappointed concert-goers who expected An Evening With Todd Rundgren and older tunes. But I was amazed at the freshness of the sound.  
  • Keep an open mind. I didn't know what I was expecting from this concert. After the surprise of the opening number, I just went along with this thrilling ride.
  • Age makes no difference. The guy is 67 and up there still rockin' it out.His music - both new and classic - is very relevant.
This concert reminded me that I've been blessed with the ability to hit the curve balls life has thrown at me. I need to keep things fresh in my own life. And I can still be on my feet, clapping my hands, and dancing to the music like it's 1976.

Here's the song "Rise," off Todd Rundgren's "Global" CD.


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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The 3 Things I Learned From Blogging About Breast Cancer

Happy first birthday to The Middle of the Journey - and what a journey it's been.

I started this blog a year ago as a creative outlet. I had been looking for a way to write more, but hesitated about starting a blog. What did I know about setting up a website? It turns out, it's pretty easy to get started. So off I went with my new blog.

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My first posts last July were about parenting and other observations. I didn't worry about finding topics to write about. Inspiration is usually around the next corner. Then, I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. In the last year, I've undergone a double mastectomy and reconstruction and I'm on a course of Tamoxifen for the next five years.

The diagnosis abruptly changed my blog's mission. In those first few days after my doctor's phone call I scoured the internet for information. I came across the blogs of women who have gone before me. They bravely shared their pain, sorrow, and, yes, joys with their readers. I found them a tremendous comfort and from then on, I hoped my blog could "pay it forward" to others who find themselves in the same situation.

Here are three things blogging has done for me in the past year.

I learned to stay positive

Although I'm known for my sense of humor, I am by nature a bit melancholy. I can quickly assess the downside of any situation I'm in. But I didn't think anyone would want to read sad blog posts on an ongoing basis, and I certainly did not want to paint myself as a victim. In order to fulfill my new blog mission, I had to find the positives. I shared some painful moments, but my ultimate message to readers is "You will get through this." The blog helped me cultivate a positive attitude.

I learned there is power in sharing our stories

Breast cancer treatments are as individual as we are. No two are the same. But I learned from seeing how others got through their treatments and continued on with their lives. Those blogs also helped me in making decisions. By seeing how other women chose their course of treatment, I was better able to choose my own. 

I learned that blogging is a very social activity

At first blush, it would seem that blogging is a solitary activity. In some ways, it is. But writing my blog has put me in touch with a rich and varied community of other bloggers. Unfortunately, in a group centered on breast cancer, sometimes people die. I have mourned for those I never met in real life. I have also admired the courage and stamina of those who are battling the disease. I have also "met" bloggers from all over the world who write about a plethora of subjects - art, photography, parenting, education, religion, running. There are people out there who are willing to mentor new bloggers like me. They are all fascinating people. The blog brought me to them.

I'm still smiling!
If you are considering starting a blog of your own, I highly recommend it. You will find it more rewarding that you thought, and it will probably be more work than you thought. I started this blog with a feeling of trepidation - would it be good enough? Would anyone read it? Today my feeling is triumph!

If you'd like to read more posts about my experience with breast cancer, click on the topics in the sidebar. My journey started with a post titled Schrodinger's Cat. 


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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Blog Gets Some Sprucing Up

If you've visited my blog in the past, you may have noticed I've made changes in its appearance.

When I started The Middle of the Journey nearly a year ago, my goal was to make it easy for me to post. I used a standard Blogger template and graphics and concentrated on writing for it consistently.While I have been a writer for many years, my technical skills were pretty basic.

My new goal for the blog - and the reason I made the changes - is so that it will be easier for you, Dear Reader, to find what you'd like to read and, hopefully, share with others.

I've organized my posts according to a few categories. For example, if you'd like to read more about my experience with breast cancer, it's a simple click in the sidebar. I've also changed fonts, colors, and graphics so they reflect more of "me." I've removed a bit of clutter (including ads) that slowed the page down and made it more difficult to read.

Check out the colorful Blog Makeover Challenger badge in my sidebar. These blog changes are thanks to this challenge and to Daniela Uslan. She is what I would describe as a blogger's blogger. Her mission is to help writers like me clarify and improve their blogs.She has gathered bloggers from all over the world and given us advice, homework, and a community where we can exchange ideas. We're mid-way through the challenge, and it has been a wonderful learning experience for me so far! If you're a blogger - especially if you're new - check out her website for some great advice.

So, what's working and what isn't working for you? I'd love your feedback.


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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The End of an Era

Our backyard playscape has sat empty and unused for a number of years now. The toddler for whom it was built is now a 16-year-old. The swings, ladder, tower, and sandbox call out for little ones to play with them. Fortunately, the rector of our church and his wife have two young and energetic children who would love to have their own backyard playground.

So on a rainy Sunday afternoon, volunteers arrived to disassemble it and move it to its new home. The move gives me pause to reflect on the passing of the years.
A lonely playscape

We were living in a condo in our Connecticut town 17 years ago when I found out I was pregnant. Our son arrived on a sunny June day in 1999. The condo was a perfect home - for a while. We knew we needed a yard for our little one. The real estate market was good to us, and we quickly sold the condo and purchased our current home.

Moving is hard on a little one. To make the transition a little easier, we promised that as soon as spring arrived, we would build him an awesome swing set.

The swing set in its heyday on my son's 4th birthday
I was an older mommy and there were to be no more babies, so I was fortunate to be able to stay home with my son for six years.I look back on  them as some of the happiest of my life. Not everyone can make that choice or wants to, but it was right for us.

The swing set was often swarming with children from the neighborhood. It hosted birthday parties and heart-to-heart talks. It was a launch pad for tiny plastic paratroopers, a pirate ship, and the Millennium Falcon. Those interests have given way to basketball, baseball, and now cars.

Moving Day
I am proud of the man my son has become. The pudgy toddler has been replaced by a tall, lanky, teen. He is kind and thoughtful to others. He has a sharp sense of humor and is a solid student in school. I have watched him bloom this year with an interest in theater production. He joined the high school's Unified Theater program, where he worked with students of varying abilities (check out the hashtag #katygaga on Twitter to see what his group did for one of their own).

So the empty space in the backyard represents growth, both for my son and me. I look back fondly on the warm, sunny days spent in our own backyard fantasy land. I look forward to the new adventures to come.I hope the swing set's new owners enjoy it as much as we did.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

June Transitions

June is a complicated month for me.

In my younger life, June meant the end of the school year, lazy warm days in the backyard, staying up late, and summer enrichment programs. Later, the month became an end to classes, the beginning of summer jobs and internships, graduations. Now June is the month of my wedding anniversary and my son's birthday (16 years old today!)

But for me June is also flavored with wistfulness, a feeling of letting go, of leaving something behind.

Since being hired in a public school system 10 years ago, I often mark my life by school year, rather than calendar year. September is the time for New Year's resolutions, when we start fresh. June is for good-byes - to high school seniors, to my fifth-grade students who start middle school next year, to retiring colleagues.

This June, I feel like I am also leaving behind the trials of this year.

 Last June I attended a friend's wedding, a beautiful affair held lakeside on a sparkling early summer day. It was a happy, joyous, carefree day, one of the last ones I would have that summer. Weeks later I was going through tests and biopsies that resulted in a diagnosis of breast cancer.

My school year was interrupted for six weeks while I recovered from a bilateral mastectomy. The winter and spring were filled with doctor appointments and eventually more surgery to reconstruct my breasts. Today, I'm looking forward to several months of no doctor appointments and no procedures.

This June, I can see how far I've come. I look back on the dark days of fall and winter and wonder how I made it through.  I feel better today - despite everything I've endured - than I have in years. It makes me wonder if I was sicker for longer than I thought. I know how strong I am - I came through a physical and emotional battering. Once you have breast cancer, other stuff looks pretty small.

I have left behind my old self, but it feels more like a butterfly leaving behind a cocoon. This June, I am healed.

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Monday, June 15, 2015

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Monday, May 25, 2015

In Memoriam

Another Memorial Day is coming to a close. We had our usual round of backyard barbecues and a relaxing day off from work and school. I want to thank those of you, particularly in social media, who remind us that this day isn't just "the unofficial start of summer." We do not wish each other a "Happy Memorial Day," rather this day is solemn, respectful. We remember our war dead.

Sadly, our family has experienced the loss of someone in uniform.

Edward Eugene Hennessay was my mother's older brother. A tall, lanky red-head who had a gift for math and numbers, he was highly regarded by everyone. He was a considerate and loving brother and son. As the only boy in the family he was not obligated to serve overseas in World War II. My grandmother had hoped he would serve by defending their island, Bermuda. But the Nazi threat was too great, he said. He needed to fight.

Edward was a corporal in the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, attached to the Lincolnshire Regiment. He was sent for training in Europe, eventually landing in Belgium. There, he was billeted with a local baker and his family. He wrote home about how lovely it was, after living in primitive conditions, to sleep in a bed with fresh lavender-scented sheets and to awaken to the tempting aromas wafting from the bakery downstairs. It was there that he fell in love with the baker's daughter, Julia, who became his fiancee before he was shipped out to combat.

Julia immediately began corresponding with my grandmother, her future mother-in-law, always addressing her letters Dear Mother. But Julia was never to become an official part of our family.

Edward was killed in combat in March 1945 at the Battle of Winnekendonk in Germany. It was part of Operation Veritable, which was designed to clear German forces between the Maas and the Rhine. Records describe fierce hand-to-hand combat between Edward's regiment and the Nazi forces. The family was told that he died trying to save a fallen comrade.
Edward's gravesite

Despite efforts by my family to bring his body home to the island, he is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.

His death resonated through the family. My grandmother was heartbroken, She never visited his grave in Germany. A family friend placed flowers there, bringing my grandmother one of the blooms from the bouquet. My mother, just 11 years old, was devastated. Julia continued to be in contact with our family. She eventually married a man who understood about this love and loss she experienced. Their first son is named for my uncle.

I'm sorry I never knew him, but I am proud that he was a part of keeping our world safe from a terrible threat. When I married my husband, I didn't carry a bouquet of flowers. I carried my grandmother's Book of Common Prayer. Pressed in its pages, a dry and flat blossom, labeled simply in my grandmother's handwriting,  "flower from Edward's grave."

A Brief Update

The big part of my breast reconstruction has been accomplished.

I had surgery April 23 to remove the tissue expanders, which had been in place since my mastectomy on October 20, and insert the permanent silicone implants. I love the results. I am about a C-cup now (I had been a D verging on DD pre-surgery). I like how they look, and I especially like how they feel. It was a painful process, but one I feel is worth it.

For those who may be reading this because they are exploring their own options for #breastcancer treatment, I have a few words of advice:

  • The decision is yours. You are not required to have reconstruction surgery. For some, it may be necessary for their mental health. For others, further surgery is unacceptable.
  • Know your options. I was fortunate that I had a plastic surgeon who took a great deal of time with me to discuss the various techniques for reconstruction - yes, there are a lot of them. He also made sure that I knew one option was to do nothing. In the end, I chose how to rebuild my breasts and I have been happy with my decision.
  • Don't discount the rigors of surgery. Placement of the new implants required day surgery. But my body was still under general anesthesia, and it takes time for the body to process those chemicals. Plan extra time for rest and recovery. I was surprised by an allergic reaction to the surgical tape used. It developed a few days after the surgery. It was minor, but uncomfortable.
  • Talk to other women. Just as breast cancer treatment is individualized, so is reconstruction. We all have different reasons, different experiences, and different viewpoints. Reading blogs can be helpful. I've read several posts recently about reconstruction by fellow breast cancer bloggers. Chloe Messanges talks about her decision against reconstruction at here. Em Callaghan talks about her cancer experiences, including reconstructive surgery,.here. Both are thoughtful reads.
The bottom line is we are all working toward health and wellness

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Deconstructing the Reconstructing

I've never considered myself to be a vain person.

Yes, I care about the way I look, and I understand the power of appearance in our society. But my parents raised me to value intellect and character. Be confident in your appearance, and then, hit 'em with your smarts.

So if you had told me just a year ago that I would be sitting in a plastic surgeon's office discussing breast implants, I would have said you were crazy. To me, plastic surgery - boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts - were for the very rich, very self-obsessed Real Housewives in our society. The portrayal of plastic surgery in popular media borders on the grotesque. I didn't understand people who would go through the risks of an operation for a strictly aesthetic result. It seemed the ultimate in vanity. No, this was not something for me.

Of course, I have never been unhappy with my appearance - until now. Believe me when I tell you that looking at my reflection in the mirror days after undergoing a double mastectomy to treat breast cancer was one of the toughest moments in my life. I now know what it feels like to look at myself and think I'm ugly. I now know the impact that can have on one's life.

I was lucky in that moment to know that the way my body looked was temporary. My plastic surgeon placed tissue expanders in my chest during the surgery, beginning the process of reconstruction.

For the past six months, those expanders have been gradually filled to create a capsule for the silicone implants that will be placed there next week. The process has involved some discomfort, a little pain, and a lot of self-questioning. More than once, I have left the doctor's office wondering why I'm doing this. I'm 55 years old - why do I need to have breasts, especially ones that have no function? Why am I putting myself through the risks of another surgery for a strictly aesthetic result? I can't entirely answer those questions except to say this breast reconstruction is helping me to heal on a deep psychological level.

Despite the questioning, I feel like I have made a good decision, one that is right for me. I spent a lot of time with a doctor I trust going over my options. I understand why some women choose not to have reconstruction. A colleague at work, who had a unilateral mastectomy 10 years ago, chose not to have her breast rebuilt. She met with a surgeon, but decided it wasn't for her. She told me she thinks of her altered body like a Picasso painting. It is a strikingly beautiful image.

I have also since learned more about plastic surgery. Much of what I thought of as plastic surgery is a small subset - cosmetic surgery. The field encompasses much more. This type of surgery restores form and function to a body that is either formed improperly or damaged by disease or trauma. It includes craniofacial surgery, microsurgery, hand surgery, reconstructive surgery, and the treatment of burns. It is much bigger than I thought.

And those people who choose to have cosmetic surgery to feel better about themselves - I get it now. This has been another lesson learned on this complicated journey. Any time I get to learn to be less judgmental of others is a good thing.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring Forward

"It's been a long hard year, 
But now the good times are coming
And we should be feeling fine.
But it only reminds us, as our fortunes are turning,
Of the passing of the time."
- Wendy Waldman "Prayer for You"

The clocks have changed, the sun shines higher in the sky, but the temperatures still dip to uncomfortable levels. The first purple flowers of spring have popped in the front garden, but are surrounded by the detritus of winter. The back deck beckons, but a pile of snow still stands with fortitude in the middle of it.

The purple harbingers of spring
Spring in the Northeast United States has been hard coming this year - after a long winter, it's been a laborious spring.

The stubborn snow on the deck
I, too, feel mentally frozen, stuck in the snows of coping with cancer surgery. I feel stuck on October 20, a sunny day with autumn foliage turned up full blast. That was the day I had a double mastectomy to remove the malignant cells that had invaded. The next six weeks, I was in the weeds, mostly housebound, mostly in bed, determined everyday to do a little bit more. The season changed to winter without my even noticing. I've felt cold ever since.

My scarred chest has remained undercover in long sleeve shirts and sweaters. It is hard for someone to notice any difference. But taking off my shirt at the end of the day is still a jarring experience. Tissue expanders have created breasts of sorts, but they are hard and unwieldy. I have visited the plastic surgeon's office every other week for the last four months to fill the expanders. It is a painful process, but designed to create a capsule for the permanent implants to come. For now, my breasts are sort of an odd, lumpy shape, with a certain Barbie-doll quality to them.

I have dreaded putting on the spring clothing I last wore when I had breasts.But last week I pulled out a sleeveless, scoop-neck turquoise dress that had never failed to make me feel good. While the smaller bust size made it a little lower cut than it used to be, I looked - pretty! And my husband certainly enjoyed the low-cut part.
Our front garden in full bloom, May 2014

I had the last fill of the tissue expanders last week. The surgery for the implants is scheduled for later this month, with nipple reconstruction to follow. I'm nearing the end of this part of the journey.

I saw my first robin yesterday. The thaw has begun.

Please enjoy this song from one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Wendy Waldman. It's from her 1976 album, The Main Refrain. I had it on vinyl and enjoy it today as much as I did when I was a teenager..

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Six Months Gone

It was six months ago today that I got the phone call.

I had spent most of the month of July telling myself everything was all right. I went into my annual mammogram in early July with a vague, uneasy feeling. There was no explanation for it. Then I was told to come back in for more imaging. Then an ultrasound. I was still telling myself everything was all right, even when the radiologist said there was an area that needed to be biopsied. In mid-July, I spent a week of mornings having fun with children at our church's vacation Bible school, and the afternoons having more tests. All the while I kept telling myself everything would be all right.

On August 7, my ob-gyn called to tell me things were not all right. I had breast cancer. Additional tests revealed a second area in my right breast. I made the very difficult decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy. It turned out to be a good one - pre-cancerous cells were picked up in my left "unaffected" breast.

The surgery went very well, but recovery was extremely challenging. Just lifting a coffee cup to my lips was difficult. Brushing my hair seemed an insurmountable task. There was pain and pain medication. There was nausea. There was looking at incisions and scars where there were once beautiful breasts. Shoulders, arms, chest, and back were all affected, but physical therapy has given me back full range of motion.

An Oncotype DX test revealed that chemotherapy and radiation were not recommended for me. The risks far outweighed the benefits. I'm on a five-year course of tamoxifen to increase my chances of long-term survival. I am currently undergoing reconstruction of both my breasts. While it's not the same, I am very pleased so far.

Here are a few things I have learned.

  • Life got simpler. Previously I often felt pulled in many directions in life, as a mother, wife, daughter, teacher, friend, colleague. I am now moving in one direction - toward health and life. Everything else will fall into place.
  • I look better. I thought it was my imagination, and I have no explanation for it, but my skin is glowing, my hair looks smoother, I have lost some weight. I have a lot of energy. I look at pictures from just a year ago, and I see puffy, chalky skin and dry hair. Maybe my body had been sick for a while. Maybe the lifting of the burden of worrying about my health has paid off.
  • I only worry about what's in front of me now. When I first received my diagnosis, I began to worry about chemotherapy. I worried about the pain, I worried about the sickness, and I worried about being unavailable to life. Guess what? No chemotherapy. All that worry for nothing. Lesson learned.
  • I can't live in fear. I know my odds for getting cancer again. They might be better than yours. I can't worry about it. I can only do what I can to maintain my health. I get up at 4:30 most weekday mornings to exercise. I don't eat meat, and I try to consume lots of healthy fruits and vegetables. I manage stress.
I don't want to be defined by my experience with breast cancer, but I don't want to forget either. I lost a lot, but gained just as much.

 And everything is all right.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Resolving the Resolutions

"When you die, it does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner you live." - Stuart Scott

Stuart Scott died early on January 4, but he beat cancer. Scott continued to live his life as a partner, father, and ESPN anchor, despite his struggles with the disease. His words resonated even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer last August.

When you have a life-threatening condition. Scott told us, you don't want to leave everything behind and travel. You want normal. You want your day-to-day life. He fought for seven years to live his normal life. Making long-term goals doesn't always make sense because none of us is guaranteed a long term. 

We are now in the season for long-term goal-setting, the New Year's resolution. I have resolved to look at them in a different way. 

On New Year's Eve 2013, I had big plans for 2014. I had struggled with diverticulitis that year that eventually resulted in surgery on my colon. I was feeling better than I had in a long time. I was going to focus on my work and on my health.

Instead, I found my job in jeopardy and I was battling breast cancer. I was a different woman on New Year's Eve 2014, one whose priorities are definitely different. It doesn't make sense to make plans for the next 12 months, when undoubtedly I'll be different again.

I may rip a page from the 12-Step Program - One day at a time. I could concentrate on how I keep myself healthy just today, how to make a difference for my family, my colleagues, and my students just today. Those goals might mean different things a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now.

Trainer and motivational speaker Chalene Johnson ( advocates re-writing 10 life goals every week. The ones that recur are surely important to you. She also says there will be one or two that, once achieved, will allow the others to fall into place. Being healthy and cancer-free winds up at the top of my list every week, and it will allow me to achieve my other goals.

These kinds of resolutions will allow me to beat cancer in the way I live and how I view the world. When the ball drops on 2015, I will be different. Two things will be certain: Don't mess with me and I am capable of everything. 

Rest in peace, Stuart Scott. My prayers are with your family, your friends and colleagues, and your fans.