Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Grass Clippings

For most people, cutting the grass is not a significant event.  As a matter of fact, as much as we wish for the grass to become green after the cold of winter, wishes become complaints of time spent mowing it.  Prompted by the noise of lawn mowers and the smell of grass clippings, I went to the garage to begin the first chore of spring.  Today, for me, was a significant day of grass cutting.  Not only is it the first time the grass needed cut for spring, it was the first time I was able to do it in two years.  The last time that I cut the grass is deep in my memory.  It was a turning point that would begin an unknown journey down the road of cancer.  Isn't it strange how certain things like that trigger a memory?  A chore, a sound, a smell?

Two years ago, the tractor broke down while my husband (who usually cuts the grass) was out of town.  I got the push mower working and began the task of making our yard match the neighbor's fresh cut level.  I was tired that day and so the work seemed difficult.  The fact that I had to use the push mower added to the difficulty.  That, and our yard exists on a slope.  By the time I was done, my arms were stiff  and my chest felt the pain of pushing a mower up a hill for two hours.  The pain I felt lasted for days.  I was a little out of shape and so like anyone else, I figured the pain would diminish in time to cut the grass again.   That was the last time I used the lawn mower. 

That pain never went away and led me into the beginning of my journey of illness.   Other symptoms arrived shortly after cutting the grass that day two years ago.  My arm swelled and the sleeves on my tops grew uncomfortably tight.  My fatigue continued that summer and the yard became a burden.  Normally I have spent hours in the garden, unaware of the sun setting on the day.  That summer I could no longer even pull the weeds.  Finally I was treated for a case of cellulitus in my arm, and went on a few rounds of antibiotics.  Later, a lump found in the shower and swollen lymph nodes proved to be cancer.  The grass continued to grow longer than usual that summer.  I spent fewer days outside in the sun.  As the grass grew and the weeds replaced a garden absent its tender, the neighbors noticed.

Last year, the grass grew.  The neighbors came and cut the grass.  Friends came and pulled the weeds.  Sunflowers grew in the untended garden from seeds that had fallen over the winter as birds fed.  As I went to the hospital for chemotherapy day after day, the chores got done by those who stepped in to help.  My husband too, found relief in the care of friends and neighbors who got the things done he had no time to do while caring for me.  All summer last year, our lawn mower sat cold in the garage.  The old tractor that didn't work that one day I needed it to, was adopted  and found a new home.

After many spring rains, the grass has grown tall after a long winter slumber.  A day of sun mixed with storms offered a short window to get outside.  The gas container was still full after sitting untouched for two summers.  A new strength has replaced my fatigue this season.  It feels strange to begin to do the things others have done for me for so long.  I have no time line to complete my chores as I once did before I became sick.  My priorities have shifted, but my new strength enables my independence again.  I must find my way back into the habits of the seasons. 

With a few pulls of the string, the cold mower resists.  I'm about to give up, when the last pull starts the engine.  It sputters after being silent for two years.  I begin the all too familiar walk into the plush new grass with the storm brightened sun on my back.  The engine bogs down with the thick tall grass still soaked from the storms of the previous day.  The sound of the mower and the smell of fresh cut grass triggers my memory.  I smile as I realize what I am remembering, knowing how far I've come.  Thick grass clippings accumulate under my wet shoes and I feel happy that tending my yard is no more a burden.  I am anxious for my young children to return home from school and enjoy the new soft yard.  This spring is ready for the playfulness of children and the scented memory of fresh cut grass.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Self Portrait

"The self portrait has captivated artists and photographers for centuries—with good reason. In making a self portrait, you become, simultaneously, the subject and the object, the creator and the creation, the hunter and the hunted. Certainly, many artists have practiced it for self promotion and self aggrandizement. But self portraiture can also be a tool for introspection and self exploration. Of course, it may simply be a record of your physical appearance at a given time and place, if such a thing as a simple record is possible."  Excerpt from an Art Textbook

Self Portrait   April  2011

What do you see?  Does a picture really say a thousand words?  I have been judged by my appearance on many occasions in my life.   I have judged my own appearance on more than one occasion in my life.  I've gained weight.  I've lost weight.  I've had a hair style I didn't like.  I've worn clothes that made me feel confident.  I've worn those magic boots that make me feel kick ass for the day.  I've changed my mind ten times as I've peered into my closet hating everything I see.  I've bothered to ask someone how I look when I've already decided I don't like what I see in the mirror. 

We focus on our appearance.  It is a part of our identity.  It is the first thing that others know about us.  It is the first place we are judged by others.  Our appearance can be something we embrace or fear.  As much as a self portrait can be a study of introspection, it also can be an opportunity to step back and look upon what others may see.  It is not the same experience as when we look into a mirror.  When we look into the mirror, it is too easy to look away or change what we see.  A self portrait is a moment captured.  A work of art.  An emotion expressed.  A message left for interpretation.

The beginning of knowing someone usually comes in interpreting the first impression.  We look upon others and begin the story.  It seems to be something that we do, even if we are not aware.  I have always attempted to go through life accepting those I meet without judgement.  I like to know more of the story.  Sometimes the outside package doesn't tell the whole story, or the real story.  How many times do we find ourselves caught up in the moment, making assumptions and without realizing, an impression is formed. It is a natural human reaction to prepare ourselves or protect ourselves for how we are to relate.  How we see ourselves and carry our posture in front of others can help us find our way into relationships; or leave the wrong impression.  Sometimes, if we are patient, what we find on the inside leaves us in complete surprise.  For some, the outer mechanism of body language and appearance is a camouflage of defense.  Still, it can also reveal the inner psyche of struggle or strength. 

When I was a child, I learned the lesson, "don't judge a book by it's cover" when I met a girl in my class that for all outward appearance, seemed conceited.   For a time she seemed rude and overly confident as she turned her back to me ignoring my obvious attempts to communicate.  I simply wanted to ask her to play and find out if she would be interested in being friends.  I quickly formed a negative attitude when she seemed cold and distant.  One day as she turned her head and her hair blew over her shoulder, I noticed a strange contraption on her ear.  It was then that I learned she was deaf.  Suddenly, my impression of her changed with one detail.  We became good friends.  Play mates.  I learned how to communicate with her.  She taught me that what you see at first, isn't always the whole story.

When I became sick with cancer and began chemotherapy treatment, my body quickly changed.  It was difficult for me to accept as each day I looked into the mirror and saw the ugly changes treatment had shaped.  My diagnosis of breast cancer brought a shift in my perception of self.  It was not just about my breasts or the culture of sexualization that shaped my thoughts.  I looked even deeper inward as the outer me began to fall apart.  Cancer began in that part of my body, but it changed a greater whole.  Others treated me differently. 

I have since seen many photographs and projects demonstrating the truth about breast cancer.  Each one is different.  Most I have seen so far, express the disease process sharing the changes surgery and treatment have shaped.  Upon my diagnosis, I found an urgency to pick up my camera.  As a photographer, it is rare that I am featured in my family pictures.  My comfort zone is behind the lens looking outward.  I asked my husband to take the camera from me before I began treatment.  Trading places, he understood.  I wanted my young sons to have recorded memories of time spent together as life stood unchanged, for that moment in time.  I knew that as time marched on, without the assistance of photographs, my sons would one day struggle to remember what life looked like before cancer took hold.  One day, memory would not be enough.

I was diagnosed around Mother's Day, May, 2009 with stage 3, metastatic breast cancer.  I found a hard lump in my left breast after a sore arm and chest pain prompted me to do a self exam.  For months I had been suffering pain and swelling and had undergone treatment for cellulitis.  My tumor was a large grade 3 rapidly growing high risk type.  Tests revealed that my cancer had metastasized and immediate treatment and surgery was imperative.  The treatments left my body bloated, scarred and weak.  My long thick hair was gone in two days.  It has not grown back the same and continues to thin on my current medications.  In the past several months, I have been recovering from all of my treatments and surgeries.  I have been working hard to take back my health and build strength.  Chemo and radiation were effective, but also caused alot of damage.  My heart tissue was scarred by radiation and my heart capacity pumps 50% less than it did before treatment.  I breathe much harder to get the oxygen to my muscles now.  With each hard breath, I am determined to keep moving.  I have a new identity as a survivor.  Currently in history, there is no cure for cancer.  I do not know what the future holds.  My past has shaped me.  I live in the present.  Survivorship is a fight, not a free ride.  Life is a gift.

I decided to get my first tattoo in July of 2010 to celebrate getting through radiation, surgery and chemo.  Cancer has been one of my hidden dragons.  It hides within.  The Chinese words mean Dragon Slayer.  I never thought I would be someone who would get a tattoo.  And now as it rests on my shoulder,  it is hidden from me unless I turn back and look into a mirror.

See what you see in this portrait.  I have learned to see that my strength has been built by my weakness.  What is hidden from my own eyes is what makes me whole.

Leave comments and expressions.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I had the TV on one mid afternoon while I was making lunch and stopped what I was doing to watch one of those prescription drug advertisements.  I always love at the end of those commercials when they speed read a host of warnings and possible side effects making you wonder what is helpful about the drug in the first place.  It made me think of all of those product labels and health warnings out there on the market.   Everything from foods, paint and Christmas lights have some warning about cancer.  Even some cell phones and common electronic devices we use every day come with warnings.  One such warning reads:
WARNING: This product contains chemicals, including lead, known to the State of California to cause cancer, and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.
The above warning label is 10 times its original size.  I seem to remember a brief time in recent history, the only place I saw such labels warning about cancer, was on cigarette packaging.  I thought I was washing my hands every single time I use the remote control because of all those nasty germs.  So far though, it seems only the State of California knows about this.

These warning labels seem to be on everything anymore.  Do we really heed these warnings or think about them?  When it says cancer, do we consider what that means or do we ignore it thinking "that won't really happen to me"?  Cancer has become such a common word.  When people hear the word, does it really strike fear and loathing that the labels should evoke?  I know, it is really more of a disclaimer than a real warning.  But should we dismiss it so easily?  Have we become desensitized? 

We may not yet understand everything that causes cancer, but there is one thing that remains clear:  remission is not a cure. 

Maybe instead of the usual warning label: "known to cause cancer", it should read:

Chemotherapy may not be right for everyone. Women who are pregnant or nursing should not use Radiation. Women who are trying to get pregnant, may not be able to after receiving many miserable months of chemotherapy and/or radiation.  If you've never worn a wig before, now is your chance.  These treatments are horrible, not fun and include all of the following and possibly more that are too numerous to mention below.  Chemotherapy may help you survive longer, but is not a cure and does not guarantee quality of life.

Side effects may include:
- Dizziness
- Nausea
- Vomiting day after day after day
- Balding, loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, body hair and loss of dignity 

- Soft, brittle nails which may fall off
- Attention focus issues and severe mood swings
- Swelling of joints and unbelievable pain
- Overall weakness and inability to get up off the couch
- Loss of relationships and friends who don't like to be around sick people
- Loss of the ability to enjoy life, go on walks or play
- Loss of money

- Anxiety, depression and fear
- Loss of employment
- Insurance rejection
- Headache

- Shortness of breath
- Chronic fatigue and misery
- Dehydration
- Dry mouth

- Dry skin and chronic infections
- Horrible pain that will make Morphine seem like water
- A permanent room at the cancer ward 

  • Chemotherapy may last several months causing all of your veins to collapse
  • Chemotherapy may make you sterile if you are pre-menopausal or haven't had a chance to have kids yet
  • If you survive Chemotherapy, you may need to continue taking pills that you can't afford and cause similar side effects for the rest of your life.
  • Radiation may cause lasting tissue damage and pain.
  • Chemotherapy is not a cure and may not prolong your life.
  • All chemotherapy and radiation does not work the same for everyone and you still may require surgeries to remove cancerous growths
  • If you don't like blood work, needles, surgery, medical tests, MRIs, bone scans, X-rays, CT scans, or lying motionless on a hard surface in an uncomfortable position for hours day after day...you are pretty much screwed.
  • Don't believe all the statistics you hear.  It doesn't matter when you get your hospital ID bracelet.
I don't know how or why I got cancer.  I don't know if it started with a gene, a virus or exposure to some environmental hazard I ignored.  Perhaps if I heeded all warnings we know of, and took away all of the possible blame,  I still might be fighting cancer anyway.  As much as we do know about cancer these days, it seems we know even less about it.  Are people living longer after going through chemotherapy and radiation than they did 40 years ago?  Perhaps the statistics don't matter much when you're sitting in the hospital under an IV pole wondering if you'll become a statistic.  If you don't know what it's like living with an illness like cancer, just read the warning label again above.  It's not comprehensive, but it gives you an idea.
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