The Springtime of this Journey

I’m sitting in my favorite chair that looks out to our backyard—one that is filled with 75’ cypress and pines and backs up to a 300-acre nature preserve—and am still stunned at all that has happened in the past six weeks.  The photos show you what it is I see as I look out a window.  My azaleas have budded, bloomed, faded, and now are back to being the green bushes they will be for most of the year.  My pansies have finished blooming and lantana flowers have emerged and now are filling spaces around the pool with vibrant oranges and yellows.  Old life; new life. I look around and see how quickly this yard has changed in the past six weeks and cannot help but think about how these visible changes mirror the changes in me.

Six weeks ago I had barely absorbed the word cancer before heading off for surgery exactly four weeks later that left me cancer free.  I hear women say they are ten-year or fifteen-year or three-year cancer survivors and I wonder if I can say I am a one-month cancer survivor?  Hardly seems worth mentioning.  And yet…and yet that one month changed me and I am surviving—something.  It was only last week that was I finally brave enough to look into a mirror.  I’m scarred and changed and though my plastic surgeon assures me I will like the way I will eventually look, “eventually” is not a word I like right now, and I grimace each time I see what I have become.  My girlfriend Suzanne reminds me that I now have the flat tummy of an 18-year-old and once all reconstruction is finished will have boobs that can once again enjoy Victoria’s Secrets.  The problem is, I liked myself the way I was.  I was probably one of a handful of women who looked in the mirror and liked herself.  It was the body of a 52-year-old, and so it had its lumps and bumps, but it was mine.  Mine.  It had borne my children, nursed them, enjoyed too many evenings with friends that centered on good wine, hot bread, steamed crab legs, melted butter, and gooey brownies with ice cream (Blue Bell, says the Texan) for dessert.  It wasn’t some model’s perfect body, but it was mine.  And now, a part of it is gone and another part has shifted to another place and there are tugs that don’t feel right and scars that haven’t yet faded and there is still a drain attached inside me and as I look in the mirror, sometimes a glance and other times a stare, I know there is something I am surviving though I cannot yet give it words.

Mostly days are good.  Mostly I find something that is worth if not a full-out laugh at least a smile.  The other day, the plastic surgeon asked me which part of “patience” is hard for me.  “The patient part,” I admitted.  And we all laughed.  A good laugh.  One that made the incision across my abdomen hurt.  He nodded and said he liked that I was honest.  And then, he invited Brad out for a scotch, said he was quite sure Brad had earned it.  Brad said he would go—anytime.  I suggested it wasn’t quite right for my surgeon to like my husband more than he liked me, and neither guy seemed to mind my jealousy at their friendship.  But then he redeemed himself when he held my hand and said, “I’m called a reconstructive surgeon because something got hurt.  Stop thinking you aren’t supposed to grieve what you lost.  I rebuild because something got taken, destroyed.  You lost a part of yourself.  It’s ok to grieve that loss.”  I suppose others have said the same thing or something similar, but there was something gentle and caring and so very understanding that finally let loose tears that had needed to fall.  An hour later, sitting calmly with one of his nurses who has come to mean much to me, life seemed better.  I seemed better.  Brad was still there. None of this has scared him away.  And my surgeon still promises that given some time, I’ll look in a mirror and like what I see.  And both remind me that I am, under all the bruises and scars, drains and bandages, cancer free.  Both remind me that all that I knew before this happened, I still know.  All that I was, I still am. And all that I might wish to become, I still can become.  Cancer free. And with a Victoria’s Secret bra.

And so, I sit here in my favorite chair and look out to a spring that in some ways is already giving way to summer, and I think not only of myself but of all the people who have helped me through this season.  And I think of students who sit in our classrooms with their own scars and bruises, their own visions of themselves that the world sometimes says is damaged and I think of the many, many teachers who reach out and tell them that the world is wrong, that they are ok, and that all will be better.  Plastic surgeons reconstruct, take what has been hurt and make it better.  So do teachers.   Every day.  Do you know what a gift that is to hand to someone, to promise them that with a little patience, hard work, and skill, tomorrow will be better?  It’s a great gift, a great and healing gift.  I look forward to tomorrow.  I hope you do as well.

A PS:  There’s an obvious lag between the last post on this site and this one.  I shifted for a while to CarePages.com and posted updates there.  Though I’m no longer posting updates on that site, there are some funny exchanges (see especially the ones from Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Bob Probst) that English teachers might enjoy.

An Unexpected Gift on this Unexpected Journey, update 3-29-2010

We are given these unexpected gifts in our lives.  They arrive suddenly, with little or no warning, and warm us for a moment, or if we are lucky, for a lifetime.

There is no way I am ready to name, perhaps will ever be ready to name, cancer a gift.  Some are more generous-hearted than I and will find their journeys with cancer as some sort of gift.  I am not that person.  This doesn’t feel like a gift, nor does it feel like a burden.  It is simply what is next.  Someone pointed out that this was proof indeed that life is not fair.  “This what?” I asked.  “That you ended up with cancer,” he replied, his eyes brimming with tears.  “It’s just not fair.”

I so appreciate his care and concern, but me having cancer has nothing to do with life not being fair.  Life isn’t fair, but that is proven every day in ways far more important than this diagnosis. I am reminded of life’s inequalities each time I walk into certain schools in New Haven, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Miami, Nashville, Dallas, Fairfax, Murfreesboro, Louisville, Detroit, Boston, or–well, the list goes on and on.  I am reminded of life’s discriminations each time I drive through the neighborhoods of those schools.  Too many of the schools I visit are filled with children and teens whose lives are dominated by hunger and bounded by fears.  I recall a ten-year-old boy who walks up four flights of stairs to a three-room apartment that has no air-conditioning save an oscillating fan, and no heat except the toaster oven that his mom leaves on in the winter.  He shares a mattress with two brothers and one sister and he knows that the night will be good if his mom is humming when she comes up the stairs because it means she will have earned enough tips at her job to bring home something she thinks will be special for dinner.  Life is not fair.  Why does this kid go hungry and that kid not?  Why does this little boy attend a school where, no matter what the teachers want to do with the students, the daily reminder from the principal is to make sure they can pass THE TEST and so their days are spent drilling with test-prep materials while students on the other side of town (literally) focus on growing vegetables in their school garden, reading novels of their own choice, and spend afternoons Skyping with kids in Alaska to talk about how oil-drilling in that state could affect their environment?  These are inequalities that matter.

There is no fairness that from the moment I thought something was wrong until the moment I was meeting with one of the best surgeons in town, less than a week had passed, while other women must wait weeks as they move from concern to test to diagnosis to plan. During my one week of waiting and wondering, I talked with a woman, a black woman, a dental aide, who, now divorced, has no insurance and has felt a lump in her breast but the Planned Parenthood clinic where she once could have gone to get a mammogram has closed and the closest one is several bus rides away and she can’t get there after her work before it closes.  She’s hoping to get into a free clinic that is closer to her home on Saturday, but for now, she tells me, she just worries and then she hugs me and wishes me well.  She hugs me and wishes me well.

And there it was: the unexpected gift.  That gift of a wish from someone who knows firsthand, in a way far different from the way that I know it, that life is not fair.  She asks if I know the health care bill passed the night before.  I tell her I do.  I tell her that my son, a freshman in college, called at midnight, asking me, “Mom, did you watch it? Did you see it? It passed!”  She nodded and said, “It’s going to help me.  I’ve been following it.  It’s going to be helping me.”  She smiled and concluded, “It won’t solve everything and I suppose it still has problems but it’s going to help me and that makes me breathe easier, for my kids, you know?  They need their mom to be able to keep working.  To pay the rent, you know?”

This past week, the House passed the health care bill.  Some of you reading this will be disappointed that it passed.  For some of you that will be because you have actually read the bill or at least made your way through detailed articles in news magazines or newspapers and can point to very specific provisions of the bill that you wish had not been included, or you will be able to point to gaps where you can say, with specificity, what else it is that the bill should have included.  Others of you reading this will be happy that it passed simply because it means that Democrats won and Republicans lost; some will be dismayed because it means the opposite.  But I wonder, just wonder, how many of us reading this and passing judgment on the passage of the bill do so in the context of being uninsured, being dependent on free clinics, and knowing that if we hear we have cancer we understand that lack of immediate care will make a difference in the length and the quality of our lives.

I’m carrying around her hug, a hug given without any commentary on the unfairness of life, without any strings attached.  I see teachers hand out this type of gift to students each day—the words of encouragement on a paper hesitantly turned in, the star next to the one answer on a test that showed real understanding, the nod of support as that shy student finally decides to speak up, the note home to the parent that only mentions reasons why that student is a pleasure to have in class, the willingness to say to the student who pleads for another day to get in the report to remember that sometimes life is not fair and we have the ability to level the playing field a tiny bit by saying one more day is just fine.  No new set of standards will be what makes a day feel just a bit more fair to these children; no new races to the top and certainly not one more mandate or test.  Teachers will make the difference.  And, of course, a hug won’t be enough.  We’ve got to make sure we know enough about each student’s progress to understand how to help each move forward.  We’ve got to make sure we understand enough about our own content to know how to teach and re-teach and, if necessary for that particular student re-teach yet again.  But we can’t ever forget that alongside the teaching we do, the unconditional and at times unexpected support and encouragement we offer to children who know firsthand that life is not fair is a gift that can warm a heart for a moment, or, if we’re lucky, a lifetime.

3-23-2010

Well, these surgeons!  They actually like to be the ones to set the schedule for the surgery.  They told me the date.  I said, “Hmm.”  I explained there were workshops to be given.  I explained deadlines to be met.  I talked about speeches.  I even showed them my calendar.  Neither cared (though both are certainly caring men).  There was a bit of humoring me as people explained why, “No, this can’t be sooner” and “NO it can’t be later” so that with hardly any negotiating on my part (um, none), their date for surgery soon seemed acceptable:  Tuesday, April 13.

Lots of work between now and then on new book due out in late October (and thank you to Bob Probst, co-author supreme for showing tremendous support and flexibility of his time during this time).  And do we all remember our chant?  Clean sentinel nodes. I guess adding in “And steady hands for surgeons” isn’t a bad idea either!

Bob and I are in New Jersey today with 200+ of the smartest, smartest teachers around.  I think we were both taken by their concern not only about how to best help students, but how to work in a proactive way so that policy makers might better understand that testing doesn’t improve learning; better teaching does.  These teachers are facing huge financial cutbacks in their districts that will affect their own financial lives, and yet, they were here, at our workshop to learn more.  Cutting professional development opportunities is one powerful way to make sure that learning for all students does not improve.  These teachers showed me today what dedication to the task is all about—and sometimes it’s about doing things the hard way, (and for some today that meant paying for this workshop out of their own pockets) and finding the time you didn’t think you had to get done what needs to be done.

Oh, right!  Finding the time you didn’t think you had to get done what needs to be done, and doing things even when they will be hard.  Perhaps a lesson I’ll remember as I think about April 13.

Notes on An Unexpected Journey

3-14-10

Dear Friends,

I wanted to let you—all a part of my wonderful extended family—in on some less than good news.  On Friday, I got the unsettling preliminary news of breast cancer.

On Friday afternoon, knowing something didn’t feel just right, I went into to the women’s diagnostic imaging center at St. Luke’s Hospital for what I had hoped would be a quick, routine mammogram.  But one thing led to another and soon I was with a wonderful radiologist who spent the next several hours with me as we moved from mammograms to ultrasounds to biopsies to hearing not so good news.  By that time, I was surrounded by the radiologist, four great nurses, Brad, and my dearest friend Suzanne and we were beginning to absorb the difficult word cancer.  The good news at this moment is these initial tests show no lymph glands to be involved, though there are problems to be dealt with in each breast.  We’ll move to an MRI on Monday and more detailed reports on Tuesday and I hope to be meeting with an oncologist and surgeon late in the week—but it might be that I actually have to let other people’s schedules dictate some of these next steps!

This is, of course, what no person ever wants to hear.  But, once heard, it’s amazing how quickly you discover that the faith of friends holds you up when your knees buckle and that friendship is indeed a security blanket that is warm and comforting. I’m doing fine (though I did give myself a pass on an important Monday meeting!) and expect that, surrounded by great friends and family with all their positive thoughts, I will get through all before us just fine.

Brad, Meredith, and Baker continue to be the amazingly strong people they are.

We’ll let you know what happens next.  Though I will try to handle a lot of correspondence, Bob Probst will become my carrier pigeon extraordinaire for much of what happens over next few days.

My very, very best thoughts to each of you–

Kylene

3-15-10

MRI and then conversation with the radiologist confirmed again all that was seen on Friday.  Many good friends stepping forward to help with a myriad of details.  Staff at St. Luke’s Hospital The Woodlands is made up of angels.  And many more friends from distances sending powerful messages of support.

I can’t help but breathe easier.

3-16-10

And because we must laugh…two of the great doctors who have been recommended to me are Dr. Boozer and Dr. Redwine.  Surely, SURELY, one of those guys would work well with Beers!

Pathology report today confirmed what the radiologist had said we’d see—cancer on one side that is still encapsulated (great news) and cancer on the other that is invasive but lymph glands not showing any swelling (so very good news) and that nodule is less than 1 centimeter.

POSITIVE THOUGHTS all!   PET CT scan (I think I’m spelling that right) is on Thursday at 10:45.  That’s to make sure we don’t see any malignant cells any place else.  I bet we all can figure out the prayer for Thursday!

Many thanks, all.  Many, many thanks!  Special thanks to Linda Greene being with me as path report read.

3-17-10

Great day today (loved my quick chat with Suzy and many thanks to Francene for continuing our phone tag game!) and wanted all to know the plan for tomorrow because it feels big to me.

10:30:  Meet with Mark Schusterman, the reconstructive plastic surgeon
1:15:  PET scan (where the prayer is NO signs of anything that has spread).  NADA. NOTHING.
3:30:  Meet with Bill Redwine, the breast surgeon

So, deep breath for tomorrow about the PET scan.  Keep your prayers focused that what’s in the boob stays in the boob (with apologies to Vegas ads!).  Let your prayer groups know….

Thanks to all for the love and support.  Can feel it here, in my study, looking out at trees a’ budding…LIFE everywhere!

Kylene

3-18-2010

Hi all,

We’re home after the three-stop tour that included meeting some great people and learning some more information, but not yet having a surgery date.

I really liked the plastic surgeon, Mark Schusterman.  In the small world department (for Trinity Houston friends), his uncle-in-law is Norman Kittrell and he knows Murray Powell and we Trinity Episcopalians won’t hold it against him that he goes to St. John’s.  He’s an amazing man who pioneered the reconstructive process I’ll use, was the Chief of Plastic Surgery at M.D. Anderson, now has his own practice, is a clinical professor at Baylor, and does surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital.  He started his visit with us at 10:30 and two hours later was still talking with us.  When we began to look at schedules, his first available time for surgery is April 5 and I mentioned that if he could move this up some, I’d like to get to Winnipeg, Canada, on April 10.  He looked at Brad and asked if Brad was going to tell me or if he was.  Brad laughed and said 31 years of marriage had worked because he had rarely tried to tell me something I could not do.  Mark, not having this history with me, had no trouble telling me that thinking I’d be on a plane 5 days after a bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery just wasn’t going to happen.  I looked at him and he looked at me and I looked back and after a moment, he said, well, he didn’t expect it would happen.

Then we hit the PET Imaging center where they put some sort of radioactive something in me and then put me in the MRI machine to see if I glow anyplace else.  We still don’t know the results of that.  So, folks, I still appreciate prayers that are about no spread of this disease to any other part of my body.  I felt the peace all were offering because, though I could have sworn I was nervous, I fell so deeply asleep for a part of the test they had to shake me to wake me up.  I’m counting on you folks who obviously did a good job praying I be peaceful with all this will also use that same prayer power to make sure what’s in the boobs stays in the boobs.

From there we went to see the breast surgeon, William Redwine.  He’s not only a brilliant breast surgeon but is Chief of Staff for St. Luke’s Hospital.  I thought Brad and I might be in for a bit of marital setback when he walked into the examination room and immediately looked at Brad and said, “I know you.”  Brad shook his head no.  Bill was adamant that he did, said he had just met Brad.  I looked at Brad and asked him which other woman he had been with for breast surgery.  Brad denied again and then Redwine said he remembered it was two weeks ago at Camp Allen where the St. Luke’s Hospital had its retreat.  Brad’s on the Board for St. Luke’s Hospital (The Woodlands) and that’s where they met—actually sat beside each other at lunch.  OK.  That sounded acceptable.

Redwine was thorough, methodical, and he (just as two other doctors have been) was dubious when I explained that a pain in my breast on Thursday night was what sent me in for a mammogram on Friday afternoon.  As he explained, cancer doesn’t hurt.   I know that.  Most women I know understand that when a woman has a pain in her breast it means some sort of fibrous cyst and we should cut back on caffeine.   But I also knew that this pain felt odd and I—who never go to the doctor—knew I had to get in that day, right then.  He doesn’t doubt I felt a pain, but just wanted me to understand that the cancer hadn’t caused a pain.  That’s fine.  I figure I’ve been a big enough pain to God over the years that the Almighty didn’t mind getting my attention with what needed to be done with a little pain back at me.  Seems fair.  Certainly worked.

Redwine, too, was less worried about my schedule than I was!  He didn’t like April 5 as a date because of some pre-surgery stuff I have to do the day before and the day before is a Sunday—Easter Sunday.  He and Schusterman, who know each other well, will talk tomorrow and figure out the date they want. I kind of like the idea of having this done Easter week.  Rebirth.  New life. Even non-English majors get the symbolism of that one!

It will be long surgery—about 6 hours—and of course we will let all know when it is the moment we know.  I don’t want Bradley there alone, so Houston folks, pack some lunches and I hope some of you will be there with him.  Until then, please keep Meredith and Baker in your thoughts and prayers.  They need to know I’m in good hands so they can keep their thoughts on their studies where they need to be.  Keep Brad in your prayers that he can continue to put up with my inability to remember much beyond about 10 minutes.  And keep me in your prayers, that the cancer we’ve found early has not spread and that surgery solves this problem.

My good friend Keith Younker sent me an email I keep with me that says, “We are standing on holy ground, and we know that there are angels all around….” You are all my angels and I feel each of you all around.

Love to all and many thanks–

3-19-10

Results from the PET scan were great and then greater.  Great news was no sign of spread of cancer to any other organs.  Even greater was some tumor activity marker that came back with an extremely low count.  You’ll forgive my ability to absorb only a certain amount of new vocabulary at a time.  (By the way:  This experience is reinforcing all my thoughts about how we should teach vocabulary in the classroom.  I’ve been saying for years to set aside those 20-words-per-week vocabulary lists.  Now I’ll shout it from the mountaintops:  teach only a few words each week, critical words. When learning new words, no matter how important they are, the brain can only absorb so much at a time!)  The marker came back at .3, which was great as people are often up at 8 or 9.  This was great news.

So, now, folks, the prayer is simple:  Clean Sentinel Nodes.  Chant it.  Prayer it.  Hum it.  Think it.

We’re taking Meredith, coming in from Tulane, and three of her friends to dinner tonight where several of our Woodlands friends will join us.  I’m hoping you, too, each have those you love and adore around you tonight.