Friday, January 23, 2009


I think about my parents, my mother mostly. I think about the years gone by. My great grandfather died at age 27, before the days of penicillin . My mother, who had lung cancer, left this world at age 53. When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, I was sure I was going to copy her. But here I sit, staring 55 in the face. Today is my birthday and I think about the past and dare to look into the future. I don't know if I'll have a happy birthday, but I'll have a birthday and that's enough.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back in the Classroom

Last night I did something I haven't done in 20 months (yes, I count them!). I stood in a classroom at the library and taught an English class to a group of adults whose native languages are not English. The topic for the month of January is health, so I decided to focus on nutrition and diet. I had so much fun, I floated out of the classroom at the end.

Three of the women had been my students in the past, so it was a wonderful reunion. Twice I had had to leave teaching: in 2006 when I was first diagnosed with leukemia, and then again in May 2007 when I relapsed. My return to teaching was a homecoming of sorts. It was also another milestone on my road to recovery. If I can teach in a public library, I figure I've reached a new level of wellness.

I never intended to be a teacher. I doubt I could teach children because they bring out the W.C. Fields in me. Teaching adults who are highly motivated is easy and fun. I identify with their struggle to learn a new language in adulthood, as I had when I found myself living in a Spanish-speaking country in my 40's. I also love language, and playing with it. Here are some of the quotes I put on the board last night.
  • One should eat to live, not live to eat.
  • I'm on a seafood diet. I see food and I eat it.
  • Stressed spelled backwards is desserts.
  • Bigger snacks, bigger slacks.
Not one of my students knew the meaning of the word slacks. We native English speakers assume it's a common word, but it's not. Homophones (seafood, see food) can be a minefield for new language learners. More than once I've tripped upon the Spanish word papa, which depending on the syllable you stress means daddy or potato.

I'm teaching again tonight, although this is only a substitute gig, not a permanent return. I've asked my class to come in prepared to share a recipe, something easy to make that's healthy. I hope they tell us how to make foods from their own countries. If there's time, I may explain how to make granola.

I like these comebacks. I crawled through part of the trip, then shuffled. But last night I stood there tall, smiling, and full of energy.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Guest Speaker Urges: Give Blood

I did something new yesterday. I was the guest speaker for the Rhode Island Blood Center at a meeting of a local Rotary Club. The older I get, the more I appreciate new experiences, and this was certainly one of those.

Not so much the speaking part--I've done that here and there--as the glimpse into a convivial fraternal order, complete with rousing songs and corny customs. Lunch was served, and even the scary meatloaf was quite tasty. The only thing missing was festive hats, although I think that's a different group.

I was given 15 minutes to talk up the importance of donating blood. The jocularity of the crowd made me realize I should spice up the serious nature of my remarks with not humor exactly, but at least something compelling. I informed the audience that I would tell them two stories.

First, I told the story about my husband and how he's been regularly donating to the RIBC since 2003. He has numerous mugs and posters to show for his generosity. I told them how he actually enjoys the once-monthly platelet donations, relaxing in a comfy chair, nibbling cookies and sipping juice, chatting with the nurses and other personnel he's come to know over the years, maybe reading or snoozing. It's not a bad way to end a hectic day at work.

Story number two was my leukemia story, the play by play of my diagnosis and treatment, with an emphasis on my reliance on the local blood supply to keep me alive when my counts were in the basement. Readers, I had them. I told them you never know what lurks around the corner, an accident or illness or emergency operation where suddenly you or a loved one must have access to a safe and adequate blood supply.

I'm hoping that my give blood-get blood stories opened a vein in the members of my audience and that the blood flow will be copious. While I had their attention, I also made a shameless plug for cord blood donation and signing on to be a bone marrow donor with the National Marrow Registry.

I look forward to speaking to potential donors in the future, especially high schoolers. It's good to get people hooked on lifesaving when they're young. I have the hook, sharpened by the irony of my two stories.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Two Down, One To Go

My clinic visits have been stretched to every three months now. When I went from every month to every two, I started experiencing relapse anxiety at the midway mark. I was so sure I'd relapsed, it took a winch to yank me from the mucky funk. By the time I finally saw my doctor on November 5th, the post-Election Day high had displaced most of the remaining worry. My counts were fine, and my doctor said he'd see me in three months. Three months? Shouldn't I have a monthly blood test or something? Not unless you want to. I decided to be brave little patient.

Today marks two months since my last appointment, which means I have another month to go until I see my doctor and have my blood tested. I think about relapse at least once a day, but I seem to have developed a few coping mechanisms--tricks really--that keep me from dwelling on the cursed "r" word as much as I once did.

I have to admit I was getting a little too close to the edge earlier today. I developed a cold two weeks ago, and although it's been gone for a while, my nose still runs from time to time and I occasionally cough. Since I "normally" recover from colds in a day or three, I started thinking maybe something was wrong. I felt my forehead. No fever. I looked for bruises while I was in the shower. Not a one. I'd run two miles earlier this morning at my usual pokey pace, and I hadn't had any trouble breathing. My energy level has been excellent. As a matter of fact, I spent Saturday in marathon mode, cramming in so many activities I'd make you tired if I recounted them all. You might also think I'm insanely driven, and you'd be right.

The bottom line? I haven't relapsed. At least I don't think I have. Once diagnosed with leukemia, you never have 100% certainty. Like a recovering addict, you're day-to-day, constantly facing and checking the temptation to indulge your anxieties. You try to keep busy. You try to keep your mind as far from the dark place as possible through meditating, exercising, writing, knitting or whatever it is you do to keep your negative thoughts in check. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Maybe someday I'll get so good at banishing r-anxiety I'll merely conjure a word or image that will bounce me off the worry pit's rim like a red rubber ball. This is nearly impossible to imagine right now, but I want to believe it can happen.

I have 30 days to practice the concept. Wish me luck.

Friday, January 2, 2009

2008: A Year Without Leukemia

I got into this leukemia business in March 2006. With much toasting and anxiety-tinged hope, I looked forward to 2007 being a much healthier year for me. It started out that way. I was teaching ESL classes, and I'd been appointed the library's first grant writer. I was looking forward to new challenges and most of all, staying in remission.

Unfortunately, the blood cancer bus pulled up next to me in May 2007 and I had no choice but to board that dark beast once again. I spent the remainder of that year as a science experiment, receiving a double umbilical cord transplant at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in September. Bald and somewhat broken, I gingerly walked toward 2008.

Many people would like to forget 2008, the year in which their financial health seriously deteriorated. Our personal finances are ailing like everyone else's. Our retirement now stands on one leg and is hopping further and further into the future. Our home lost value; medical expenses were up; employment was down. For the next 4 years, we'll have two kids in college. The money we started putting aside for tuition when the kids were babies has, like most
investments, decreased in value while tuition steadily rises. This is the stuff that wakes you in the middle of the night with chest pain.

No matter how bleak the financial picture was in 2008 (and continues in 2009), I cannot let the calendar turn without observing that for me, it was a very good year, a year in which I didn't have leukemia. Remission is a fragile truce, but I'm approaching 18 disease-free months.

Here's to health in 2009, for all of us.