Monday, June 23, 2008

Vacation Begins!

I'm writing this at 9 AM on Saturday, June 21--though it won't be posted until Monday, when I'll be in Boston (Somerville, actually), visiting Nate and Meghan. Nate doesn't know it yet (as I'm writing), but I'm planning to leave Madison very early tomorrow morning, arriving at his house in time for his birthday party tomorrow afternoon. As I explained in last Monday's post, in my mind this is almost as much a celebration of my 27 years as a cancer survivor as of Nate's thirtieth birthday.

Speaking of cancer survivors: here's a photo of some of the members of TEAMSurvivor Madison and the TSM dragon boat, which has been moved to Rutabaga's back lot--but has not yet been in the water. The man in the picture holding the dragon head is the boat's builder, Jim Caldwell, who donated hundreds and hundreds of hours to the project, beginning in March. You can get an idea of how big the boat is when you realize that you can't even see all of it in the picture.

So vacation has begun! In about a half hour, I will disconnect from my chemo pump, and with luck, I won't have any more chemo until after Labor Day. And tomorrow will be the first of six trips, big and little, I have planned for the next two months: two to the east coast, two to Chicago, one to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and one to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. That one ends with a day at the Dragon Boat Festival in Superior, Wisconsin.

Sounds like a lot of fun. Now, if the tumors will just behave.....

Monday, June 16, 2008

27 years and counting....

Lots of fun this past week: a wonderful bike ride with new TEAMSurvivor friends; paddling practice on the Yahara River; a great party, co-hosted with good friends, to celebrate various people's retirements, pending retirements, and/or resistance to retirement. The last guests left after midnight--and I was sorry to see them go! Who says "seniors" (I guess that's who we are, now) can't party hearty?

And best of all, a meeting with the marketing department at UW Press, where we were encouraged to bring out Facing Fear this fall, instead of next spring. The official publication date will be December 15, but we hope to have books in hand by the time of the Wisconsin Book Festival in mid-October. Of course, this depends on the production process moving smoothly and swiftly, but we have reason to believe that it will. I'll keep you posted!

But what's really been on my mind the past week is my younger son's impending Big Birthday. He'll turn 30 next Sunday. This means I will no longer be able to trust either of my sons. (Those of us who came of age in the '60s understand that we can't trust anyone over 30--ourselves excluded.) But seriously--and much more important--it means that despite having had two cancers, I've seen both my sons into their thirties. They were only 3 and 6 years old when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1981. I didn't spend a lot of time worrying that I wouldn't live to see them grow up--but I'd be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind. So here I am, 27 years later, and here they are, all grown up (and then some). Amazing. I feel very lucky. And as I've said before, it's a lot easier for me to cope with the stomach cancer, which was likely caused by the radiation treatments for the Hodgkin's, knowing that the radiation also made it possible for me to raise my sons.

So Nate may be worried about getting old (though he told me the last party he and Meghan hosted didn't break up until 6 AM, so he couldn't be feeling too old!) But I'm thrilled that he's turning 30, and that I'm around to see it happen.

Monday, June 9, 2008


I was trying to decide how to title this post, which--as you'll see--is about a variety of things: a chemo vacation, anxiety, anger, (lack of) control. And about dragon boats, too. So I decided to call it "dragons," and as I typed that into the title box, I realized how apt a title it is for a chronic disease, which drags on, and on, and (hopefully) on.... And which is, or can be, a drag on energy, spirit, etc.

So "dragons" it is.

Last Thursday I saw Dr. Holen, my oncologist, for what we both hope will be the last time until September. I have one more chemo treatment (on June 19), and then I'm on vacation from treatment for the rest of the summer--unless something comes up before then. Dr. Holen warned, "You must be very vigilant about your health." And of course it was last summer, when I was on vacation from chemo, that the tumor attacked my vagus nerve and my voice began to disappear.

I was pretty anxious, going in to the appointment. What if the doctor discovered something going on when he listened to my lungs? What if he ordered a CT scan (which he'd mentioned last time I saw him), and it showed the tumors growing? It seemed entirely possible that all my plans for a summer of fun (including several trips with friends and family) would have to be scrapped.

But they weren't. In fact, Dr. Holen suggested that the next CT scan be in September, rather than this month, precisely because if something nasty showed up, they'd have to treat it, and if it showed up now, that would screw up my summer. Sometimes it's better not to know.... even (or especially) if you're a doctor!

A day or two after this appointment, I had a dream that revealed to me how angry I am at the cancer and my inability to take control of it and banish it from my life. In the dream, I was furious, screaming at the symbolic stand-in for the cancer, "You are so selfish; you don't take my needs into consideration, it's all about you, you, you." Oddly, until this dream, I never realized I was angry about being sick. Sad, yes, but not angry.

But the dream also pointed out that I can (and do) still control some aspects of my life, however small--in the dream, I went to a diner for breakfast when I was hungry because I'd had to rush out of the house without eating--and that means quite a lot. It's really important to do what one can, when one has the ability. Ultimately, none of us is going to be able to walk away from all the dragons!

In fact, this past week I took a big step toward a dragon--a dragon boat, that is. I went to my first training session for the Dragon Boat regatta that will take place on Lake Superior on August 23. (A dragon boat is an elaborately decorated huge canoe-type boat, that holds a crew of about 20 paddlers. The first, and maybe only, one I ever saw was poking around the Capetown, South Africa, harbor, but I think the sport is growing rapidly in popularity, world-wide. The Superior regatta attracts a hundred boats.) I will be part of TeamSurvivor's crew--TeamSurvivor is a group of Madison-area women cancer survivors who do a variety of physical activities through the year. The dragon boat program, which is generously supported by Rutabaga, a local paddle sports shop, involves weekly paddling sessions on the Yahara River. Right now, until our very own dragon boat is completed in mid-July, we train in Moby, a white war canoe on loan from Carl's Paddling (another local shop) that holds about 10-12 paddlers. I was afraid that I wouldn't have the stamina, upper body strength, or aerobic capacity necessary to paddle, and I was delighted to discover that none of that was a problem. And it certainly would have been, six months ago. So all the strength training I've been doing at the gym is really paying off! And I can't wait for the next training session, this Wednesday. It's really wonderful to be out on the water in the early evening.

As for the tumor dragons--I'll just have to trust I can fend them off for another two or three months. Right now, I definitely feel strong enough!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Poetry Camp

I'm back from Poetry Camp, the class Robin Chapman and I teach at The Clearing, a wonderful adult education center in Door County, Wisconsin. (Door County is the "thumb" of Wisconsin, a peninsula extending into Lake Michigan.) The Clearing, which was started in the late 1920s by Jens Jensen, a Dane who emigrated to Chicago and became a well-known and influential landscape architect, is modeled on the Danish Folk School idea. He conceived it, originally, as a place to train young landscape architects, much the way Frank Lloyd Wright conceived of Taliesin as a hands-on school for architects. The summer classes at The Clearing these days range from the arts and crafts (writing, water-color painting, glass fusing, photography, weaving, woodworking, etc.) to nature studies (bird watching, plant identification). And more. Check out their catalog on line!

The Clearing's grounds are beautiful--over 100 acres on the Green Bay (western) shore of the peninsula, close to the very tip. The view is much the same as that from my former mother-in-law's cottage, which is just a bit to the south on the shore path. But the grounds, of course, are much more extensive, and include open meadows as well as woods, which this past week were crowded with trillium. The season is about three weeks behind Madison's--it was fun to watch the early spring unfold again as we drove north--and it has been a very cold spring up north, as well as here, so the yellow lady slippers, lovely orchids which usually have appeared en masse by the time we're in Door County (we teach the same week each year), were just beginning to come out as we left. Most of the week was quite chilly, though on Thursday, the temperature climbed above 60 and the sun was warm, so I headed off to the east side of the peninsula and lay on the sand beach, reading, and wearing only a turtleneck and jeans (no fleece) for about an hour and a half. Heaven!

Poetry Camp itself was wonderful: small (there had been several cancellations due to illness), but full of enthusiastic poets whose writing clearly improved over the week. Robin and I do all the exercises along with the students, so I ended up with a few poems that might even have a life beyond camp. One of the advantages of being at a retreat with artists from other genres is a kind of cross-fertilization that goes on, and a Sudoku-inspired quilt, pieced by an independent study resident (the wife of one of the Photoshop class instructors), found its way into one of my poems, much to my surprise.

I'm somewhat reluctant to post the poem (or any unpublished poem) on my blog, since one interpretation of the "rules" of poetry says that posting on the internet constitutes publication and precludes any appearance in a print journal. (And in response to Matthew, who asked in a comment why not self-publish, I have to say that for me there's a constant tension between the desire to have my work "out there" for others to read, and the desire for acknowledgment and acceptance of that work by editors and other gate-keepers of the poetry community, and I generally have resolved that tension in favor of professional validation.)

But I don't want to be a tease, either-- so here's the poem:


Such a bore--digits, no words,
pure exercise of logic and, since
I never cared enough to advance
beyond the easy ones

just a routine of trial-by-error
penciling-in of tiny numbers
in empty squares, erasures,

But Carol's Sudoku quilt!
Three rows of three squares each,
no color repeated in any column
or row. Nothing to solve

except the problem of creativity:
how one perceives
without either numbers or words.