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?

Friday, May 10, 2019


I got into a discussion recently with a group of women who all started chemo the same month I did, when one of them said she was now a one-year survivor. She counted from the date of her diagnosis. Which seems to me a bit like counting a child's life from the date of a positive pregnancy test. That day may be emotionally meaningful, but it's irrelevant in terms of the actual birth. A year ago today, I found out I had cancer. But the tumor was already there, and it continued to be there in the month of testing and appointments leading up to my surgery. I wasn't a "survivor" at that point, I was a cancer patient. And all week I've felt edgy and sad as this day approached, reliving the painful biopsy, the terrible phone call, the decisions about treatment, and telling my children. So I'm marking this day not as a point of survivorship but in remembrance of the day my life was forever altered.
Because I won't ever look at life the same way. It changed me. Not just the obvious things of forfeiting my breasts and allowing myself to be repeatedly poisoned. Not just going bald or having my formerly straight hair turn into fluffy curls. Not just agreeing to take endocrine therapy for at least the next decade and accepting all the side effects that go with that. It's that from the day I heard "invasive cancer," the long life I expected was no longer a reasonable certainty. Invasive breast cancers do not, at this time, have a cure. You can reduce your risk of it returning, but you can't ever be sure it's not quietly brewing in your bones or liver or brain. And given the aggressive cell biology of my particular cancer, I can't say that I like my odds.
When I received this gardening catalogue last month, I started to pitch it into the recycling bin but stopped short when I saw the date. Seemed like a reminder that on the anniversary of my diagnosis, I can still invest in the future. And so I sent my order in this morning, and will be planting bulbs in my yard come fall.

Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and died shortly afterward, wrote in his book When Breath Becomes Air:

“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

I don't think I'd have fully gotten that before, but I sure do now. The possibility of an earlier death than I used to imagine has heightened my awareness of life. One year into this, I'm grateful to be here.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

I'm not dead, I promise!

True to my word, my blogging has slowed down this spring. To the point of stopping for a bit so I could put in as much time outdoors as possible. But I'm alive and well, truly. So to start back, I'm posting some photos from a hike we took in the Smoky Mountains last month, on Porter's Creek Trail.
We were there while the white-capped phacelia were in bloom, turning the woods in to a fairy land.
One of my favorite wildflowers is Turk's cap lilies. They just seem so whimsical.
We hiked two miles to Fern Branch Falls, which drop 60 feet down the ridge.
 This big flat rock at the base of the waterfall was our picnic spot.
The trillium, another favorite, were not yet in bloom. I love these so much I have several varieties in the shaded parts of my garden.
Hiking back out, we crossed the boulders into the river and sat for a while just enjoying the sun and the sound of rushing water.
These are just wild violets, but they're called halberd-leaved violets because their leaves are shaped like the axe head of an old long-handled battle weapon. I thought that was interesting.
At one point on the hike back out, another couple was hiking in. The woman in the couple was walking, but the man had stopped to take a picture of the phacelia and was standing there staring at them with a goofy smile on his face. I know a fellow nature-lover when I see one, and I asked him, "Isn't it magical?" He turned to me and said, "It's amazing!" I've traveled all over the world and I sometimes forget the beauty in my own backyard.
We hiked close to five miles all told, our first real hike since my ankle surgery. And it was great! I feel like I am slowly getting back to my old self. And I'm not kidding about being a less dedicated blogger for the time being - I need to be outside healing.