Saturday, July 13, 2019

Integrated care.

The first person I met with following my diagnosis last summer was my breast surgeon. She said, during that initial discussion, that cancer has physical, emotional and spiritual repercussions. She stressed the importance of tackling all aspects of care. Cut to a couple months post-chemo, and I was sitting in this soothing office, meeting with the integrated care doctor. I went in knowing he was vegetarian and encourages a plant-based diet. I was pretty stoked to tell him about my changed diet and he was really pleased with it. But the tweaks he urged on me were surprising. Eat more fat. Increase the amount of fatty fish I'm eating. Lay off the raw vegetables and salads. When I do eat salads, load them up with fats like avocados, nuts and fish.
Him: "And you need to eat more than you probably think you do."
Me: "I already eat more than my husband."
Him: "That's good, keep doing that. If he ate as much as you need to, he'd gain weight. You're a hummingbird."​

So there you have it, my diagnosis is "hummingbird."
My personalized wellness plan started with "Great job on your super healthy pescatarian diet." Based on my Aryuvedic body type, he wants me to eat a "vata pacifying diet," which means eating and drinking things hot or warm as much as possible. I'm supposed to eat warm, moist, heavy, nourishing meals. Even water should be no colder than room temperature. Obviously I will make an exception for beer. Veggies and greens should all be cooked. Will that make a difference? I'm skeptical. But it turns out I actually like having a cup of warm water in the afternoons at work and I figure it can't hurt to try it.

I'd told him I wasn't interested in taking a bunch of supplements, so he suggested I add a teaspoon of spirulina 3-4 times a week. I struggled with how to take that with something warm. I'm here to tell you that you do NOT want to mix spirulina into oatmeal. That's just nasty. Finally, after some experimentation, I discovered that if I dissolve a little miso in hot water and mix in the spirulina, it makes a tasty broth. Spirulina is blue-green algae and jam-packed with nutrients, apparently. And also, I'm to eat a sheet of nori seaweed every day, to help lower estrogen. No problem there, I love seaweed. And for lifestyle, he gave me a handout and then wrote in my plan to also "Continue your awesome PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)" and "Keep Living out your Mantra :)" I'd shown him my appointment book where I'd written this years mantra for me: "I am fierce. I am strong. I am healing. I am grateful for this day." He LOVED that. And at our second and final visit, he hugged me, and said he loved me. He has a real young hippy vibe but you know what? It's sweet and you definitely leave feeling cared about.
As I was researching something for a friend, I read a huge NCBI meta-analysis about environmental links to breast cancer. When I was first diagnosed, I used to joke that maybe it was caused by running in the mist of the DDT truck spraying our neighborhood when I was a kid in Boston in the '60's. According to the article, DDT exposure has been definitively linked to breast cancer. Oh. It got me thinking about other carcinogens I might be exposing myself to. In particular, I was taken aback by the research about phthalates and parabens in many cosmetic products. I went through everything I owned. See the little set with three items? That's what passed. Everything else got tossed, along with a bunch of shampoos, conditioners, lotions, sunscreens, and anti-perspirants, It was a little sobering. Now I use coconut oil and olive oil as moisturizers, baby shampoo, and zinc-based sunblocks. I have very limited cosmetics, all of which got safe ratings from the Environmental Working group. It's exhausting being careful about what you are exposed to! Of course, I can't control the environment, but since the effects of carcinogens are cumulative, I will control what I can.
I think community is also vital for recovery and well-being, and I've taken advantage of two groups in town. One is the Cancer Support Community where I attend various programs. In one, we made gorgeous silk scarves. I picked out sea-like colors and a wave pattern for mine. And best of all, every program is free to people with cancer and their families/support people.
Pretty cool, huh? My husband and I have also gone to a cooking demonstration, live music, and various talks. The informative programs count as continuing ed credits for me, which is a sweet bonus.
Additionally, I go to survivor hangouts with Breast Connect, a local breast cancer group. They provide dinner and a speaker at get-togethers every couple of months. In the last one, we heard about breast cancer research and had wine and appetizers (really good bread with hummus and salmon spread). The dinner was chicken so I took the option of requesting their vegetarian meal. I had a really great salad when I waited for it, and then was thrilled when they brought me roasted butternut squash with caramelized onions and spinach. It was so good that I came home a re-created it for my husband a few days later.
It's not that I'm focused on cancer all the time, but I figure I might as well do what I can to minimize my risks. Or at least, to stay as healthy as I can for as long as I can. And it's hard not to think about it.  For one thing, my crazy hair is a daily reminder. Lately, my husband has been calling me Mrs. Heat Miser.
And he has a point. I know it will go back to being straight eventually, but for right now, my hair just gets wilder by the day. Rather than fighting it, I've decided I'm just going to ride this train wherever it takes me.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I know, I keep disappearing.

Spring has morphed into summer and still I feel an overwhelming compulsion to work in the yard. I have spent more hours than I should probably admit pulling ground ivy (AKA creeping charlie) out of the back yard, in an effort to allow grass, clover and other weeds I like to grow. I want my yard as bee-, butterfly- and bird-friendly as possible. And besides, there is something wildly satisfying about systematically purging something invasive and damaging. Cue the "oh, it's a metaphor" music.
In other news, we are embroiled in a surprising dispute with a neighbor who is the epitome of an entitled, rich, white guy. Last weekend, my younger son was at our house using his forge to do a little blacksmithing. He'd wrapped up and was having dinner with us on the back deck when we heard a crash. Turns out the neighbor across the street had backed out of his driveway without looking and bashed into my son's car. That's my son walking back to our driveway after getting a photo of the damage, and the neighbors' driveway is across from us, on the left side of the photo. See how very far away my son's car is? First the neighbor said my son's car was "so small" he couldn't see it. It's a standard four-door sedan, but the neighbor and his wife both drive what my husband calls "urban assault vehicles." And neither of them are good drivers - she's knocked over our trash bins a number of times. It was bad enough that he couldn't be bothered to apologize, but worse that he called the police hoping to prove it was my son's fault for being parked on the street. Which, for the record, is NOT illegal as he is claiming. The guy's just being a dick because he said his rates will skyrocket if the claim goes on his insurance. Right - that makes it okay to try to screw over the neighbors' kid. He's like a spoiled child who breaks another child's toy and then blames the other child for having a shoddy, breakable toy. At any rate, we're not rolling over on this one and the neighbor is mightily pissed. He's started doing things like parking their behemoth vehicles directly across from our driveway to make it difficult for us to get out. And yet somehow, we're able to do it without crashing into them. Why? Because we freaking watch where we're going.
Deep breath. In happier news, the 4th of July is also our engagement anniversary. So rather than doing the standard patriotic thing of barbecues and so on, we stayed in and cooked. Let me tell you, I make a mean seafood risotto. This one had Argentine red shrimp and crab and it was the kind of dish that makes you saying things like, "Holy fuck, that's good." Seriously. I'd also made a loaf of sourdough bread that day and my husband put together the salads and served as my sous chef for the risotto.
And the previous day I'd soaked strawberries in bourbon and then coated them in dark chocolate. We sat out on the deck eating them and drinking prosecco, and watched the fireflies emerge from the ground while the bats swooped above our heads. As it got darker, we could see fireworks set off is several directions around us. And felt lucky. I'll be popping in and out through the summer, but I am enjoying having my life be too full to spend much time in front of a computer.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

One Year NED.

So a funny thing about invasive breast cancer - there is, at this time, no actual cure. Instead, there is the designation NED - No Evidence of Disease. Sort of like "You're in remission as far as we know." In my case, chemotherapy was indicated because the biology of my tumor showed it to be very aggressive. "A wolf in sheep's clothing," as my breast surgeon put it. There was no sign of cancer in my sentinel lymph nodes, but there was no way of knowing if cells had slipped out in my bloodstream. The chemo was for those cells. And maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, we just don't know. Still, all the cancer we definitely knew to exist was removed in my mastectomy, a year ago today.
And now I take my tamoxifen, try to eat a healthy diet and minimize exposure to carcinogens, and wait. The most common sites for breast cancer to metastasize are to the bones, lungs, liver and brain. The other day, I went to see my new optometrist to get an eye exam and make sure I had no lasting damage from the chemo. I still have perfect distant vision and very mild presbyopia for my age. He took this cool photo of my eyes and walked me through all the positives: no macular degeneration, no glaucoma, no cataracts, no chemo-induced retinopathy, no ocular metastasis. Hold up, no what? He told me that metastasis to the eye was most common in breast and lung cancer. Eyeball mets! I didn't even know that was a possibility. I'll just add that to the nightmare rotation.

Eye exams notwithstanding, there aren't regular tests or scans to see if the surgeries or chemo or any other treatments worked. You just wait for symptoms of metastasis. It's kind of like getting your house treated for termites and then after that, the exterminator just parks, looks at your house from the street, and says, "Nope, don't see any termites from here so we're going to call that 'termite-free.' But call if your house starts to fall down!"
My husband and I spent some time last night remembering the day of the mastectomy and the difficult period following. I was frankly terrified of the surgery. It seemed so primitive. Barbaric, even. And such a long recovery for both of us to deal with. And yet, we got through it. So tonight, rather than focusing on the losses and scary uncertainty of what might lie ahead, we went out to celebrate me being a year NED. We got four kinds of tacos - fried avocado and salmon tacos for me and curried tofu and blackened flounder for him.
And then, because I noticed they had one of my very favorite bourbons for a ridiculously good price, we had the Weller Special Reserve and toasted our health in every language we knew, including à votre santé, sláinte mhaith, skál! For however long we have, to our health and to life.
"I didn't battle cancer, 
Yeah, you know it battled me.
But it did not win,
I'm still standing, don't you see?"

Thursday, June 6, 2019

On the Bourbon Trail.

This past weekend, we made a quick trip up to Kentucky for the weekend. Saturday morning included a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. I love touring wineries and breweries, too, but distilleries win hands down for the smell. It's heavenly.
We just missed the cut-off for the 9 am tour, and were shunted into the 9:15 group. This gave us a little time to wander around on our own, looking at some of the stone and brick warehouses (you can see the barrels of whiskey stacked up through the window).
It turned out to be a good thing we were in that group - there were only 10 of us, compared to the much larger 9:00 and 9:30 groups of a couple dozen. This distillery occupies land that used to have a river crossing for the herds of buffalo in the area. Whiskey began being distilled on that site in 1775, and the distillery inteslf was built in 1812. It's been in continuous operation since, even through Prohibition. At that time, when other distilleries were shut down, it was allowed to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes, requiring a doctor's prescription.
In the 1886, a steam heating system was added to regulate the temperatures in the warehouses. See the wooden flower pots? They have ornamental corn that I've never seen before.
Complete with tiny ears of corn and variegated purple leaves. I'd love to have that planted in my garden.
We watched a video about the history of the distillery and our guide answered questions. This display shows how bourbon evaporates as it ages, with the oldest bourbons being reduced to just a small bit. The part that is lost is called the angel's share. (Incidentally, one of my very favorite bourbons is Angel's Envy.)
Warehouse V, a single barrel warehouse, was originally built to store their two millionth barrel of whiskey. It now houses, I believe, their 7 millionth.
We toured inside one of the warehouses. Did I mention how heavenly the whole place smelled?
Wellers are another favorite of mine, also a wheated bourbon. We have bottles at home of both the Old Weller Antique 107 and the W. L. Weller Special Reserve, but have yet to track down a bottle of the W.L. Weller 12-year. Some day! I did, however, have a couple of glasses of it at the family gathering after my father's funeral. It was as good as I'd imagined.
Wellers are one of the brands of bourbons bottled by hand at this distillery. I like their slogan "We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon."
We toured the hand-bottling building, which isn't in operation on weekends. They have a display case a variety of their bourbons. That top shelf has some rare bourbons included.
The barrels are uncorked and rolled to empty into this trough. Our guide scooped out a handful of char from the inside of the barrel for us to smell. I wished I could take a bag of it home to keep out in a bowl.
The guide demonstrated how bottles of Blanton's single-barrel are filled and then capped with one of a series of distinctive metal racehorses. Each is marked with one of the letters in Blanton's, and some collectors try to amass all the letters. Which seems a little nutty to me. It's another bourbon that can be really difficult to find in stores, so when we saw one a year or so ago, we nabbed it.
The barrels get transported through a series of sloping tracks, so gravity can do the work of moving them along.
And then the tasting. Sadly, none of my favorites were on offer. Not the Wellers and certainly not anything from the Van Winkle family (made from the same mash bill as the wheated Wellers, using wheat with the corn and barley instead of the standard rye). And there was most definitely no sign of the absurdly elusive Pappy Van Winkle. It's the holy grail for whiskey drinkers and is sold by lottery each year.
Instead we tasted their vodka (I'm not really a vodka drinker except for an occasional vodka tonic), and the White Dog Mash, the unaged spirits that go into making their bourbons and rye. I don't know why anyone would drink the stuff - it tastes a lot like moonshine. And then tastes of Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, which are just okay in my book. And some bourbon cream. And of course, chocolate covered bourbon balls, which I could eat until I died.
Our guide was a curmudgeonly sort who picked on one poor guy in our group. Until, that is, he turned his attention to me. I think he felt badly about it afterwards, though, because he gave me one of the Blanton bottle toppers to make up for it. I showed it to the guy he'd originally tormented and he called me the teacher's pet.
Eventually we'll probably visit all the distilleries on Kentucky's bourbon trail. It's a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a beautiful morning.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Mamma mia! A glimpse into my family of origin.

My family is a little nuts. For my mother's 80th birthday (and also my oldest sister's 60th), mom requested that we throw a murder mystery party at her house. If you don't know of these, people are assigned characters and given costume suggestions, then the murder unfolds as scenes are read and clues revealed. This one had to do with a murdered Italian restauranteur, Pepi Roni, so we started with antipasti and also took a break mid-way through for a pasta meal. My brother-in-law makes picture books out of these parties and distributes them to all the participants.
I played Angel Roni, the young daughter with mob ties who dresses in mourning with no sense of propriety. My husband was Bo Jolais, a French vinter who runs the winery for the murdered man's brother Roccoi. Who also happened to be my boyfriend.
My mother with her five living children, a rare gathering since we're spread across the country. In character, my oldest sister is Tara Misu, the upstairs maid-turned-fiancée of Rocco. Mom played Mama Rosa, the grieving widow and restaurant's head chef. My younger brother was Marco Roni, the soccer-loving son who is resisting taking over the family business. My baby brother was mafia man Tommy Ten Toes, who boasted four toes on one foot, six on the other. And my older sister was Claire Voyant, Rosa's friend and astrology advisor.
The brothers-in-law: Rocco Scarfuzzi, the identical twin of the victim, Father Al Fredo, priest to the family, and Bo Jalais. Three extroverts who threw themselves into their roles. The funny thing is that most of my sibs (and I) are solidly introverted. But we all set that aside when we're playing a role.
The game is hilarious. Clues get more absurd as the game progresses, with intrigue rampant. Affairs! Mystery illness! Criminal activity! We take on ridiculous accents and throw accusations around with glee.
In the end, it turns out that my boyfriend Bo was the character who'd killed my character's father. That's okay, I'd broken up with him after he tried to throw me under the bus because of the extortion ring I was running and I discovered he was only after me for my money.
The wine flowed freely, of course, so we wrapped up with a dance party. Two hours of a bunch uninhibited souls cutting loose to 80's music. Silly? Absolutely. But holy cannoli, was it fun.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Random scenes from my yard.

Mostly, I've been in the yard every possible minute the past few months, trying to undo the damage that was done in my year of forced inactivity. It's astounding how quickly things become over-grown and choked with weeds. Even so, the lushness appeals to me.
In the backyard is the tree I call the Dogwisteria. It's an old dogwood, covered in a wisteria vine and English ivy, along with a forsythia growing out of a rotted place in its  trunk. I mean, seriously - does it get more magical than that? In April, both the dogwood and the wisteria bloom at the same time.
In the shade parts of my garden, I have my own trillium, to remind me of the mountains. This one gets dark purple flowers.
All the varieties I have were bought at garden sales, NOT dug up out of the Park. It's illegal and wrong-headed to harvest wildflowers from the GSMNP.
The ajuga, when it's in bloom, echoes the purple of the wild violets in the yard. Behind it is an enormous snowball bush that I had to cut back. My next-door neighbor threatened to shoot me if I cut too much of it down.
Hostas, hellebores, and ferns, among other things. All the wild violets mixed in there are in the process of being weeded out.
I took this shot right after it rained and in the morning light, the yard looked absolutely electric.
Another weigela, like the fuschia-colored on in the photo abaove it.
Clematis growing on the mailbox post, with dianthus on the ground around it.
I didn't get photos of many of the tulips, but I did like these red and yellow ones.
The lilacs by the front door aren't in bloom long, but when they are, the air smells heavenly.
This giant old rhododendron by the garage gets masses of blooms.
I believe those are spider lilies behind the hosta. They were planted by the former owner.
I put in an apricot-colored rose bush by the crabapple tree, and it seems to love that spot.
A little desert-in-a-pot by the walkway. It has a variety of succulents, some of which have spilled over to the ground below it.
The mock orange bloomed for he first time this year, along with some Carolina geranium I swear I did not put there. Behind it, you can see the clover is now in bloom and is generally hosting roughly a million happily buzzing honeybees and bumblebees.
And back to the Dogwisteria, now all leafed out. Have I ever mentioned how much I love spring?