Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Yesterday, with nothing on my stomach but a homemade ginger-ale, I headed up to Skokie to purchase a cranial prothesis. Jerome Krause Fashion Hair, a promising name if ever I heard one, is located in grayish little medical building. There were nearer fake hair emporiums, but Krause was recommended by a friend who knows a couple of women with alopecia, and they swore by the place. It's also in center of the Orthodox Jewish community in Chicagoland, and those woman know from wigs.

Our introduction to wig-shopping was a little rocky at first, since our stylist Linda had not been informed of our appointment. But she dropped the hank of premium Ukrainian hair she was dyeing at the time, and served us with enthusiasm one rarely sees directed at chunks of inert protein. She brought out boxes and boxes of wigs, some hand-sewn, some machine-sewn, some synthetic, some human. Oh, the Russian hair is the best, she said. I patted some Russian hair, and it was sexy, smooth, and oh god...whose head did this hair belong to? Too disturbing. I started hearing that Wallace Shawn monologue The Fever in my head, and I couldn't consider wearing it. Let's buy some hair made in a sweatshop in Thailand, shall we? Much bettah..

I always knew I had an enormous head, confirmed every time I tried on Easter bonnets at Marshall Field's, and all of them perched on the top of my skull, like those comical little hats you see on lady clowns at the circus. Linda measured my head. "Is it huge?" I asked. "No, no..you are in the average range, 22 inches." What was the large range? "22 1/4 inches and above." My head was only largeISH. I also had, Linda informed me, a pronounced occipital bone, which was why wigs that looked great on most women made me look like I had a football coming out of the back of my head.

Because of the "hump," we decided to go with sleeker wigs, although I think this one goes a bit too far. It makes the fashion statement: I'm a high-strung German Philosophy doctoral candidate who chainsmokes and uses the word "bricolage" in regular conversation.

Then, there's this wig. I believe it was called "Cheryl," but I like to call it "MILF." No, no and no.

This was called "Danielle." I call it "WTF?"

Finally, we save the best for last. My husband modeling the "Phil Spector." Actually, it was "MILF" turned a little sideways.

I finally settled on a sassy red bob, and Linda clipped and styled it into a more hairdo-like shape. I'll post that later, since I still think it needs a few tweaks.

Kiddie Cocktail Time: Ginger-ale

In light of my recent discovery that all of my once favorite beverages, such as Pilsner Urquell and Knob Creek do not go with chemo, I've been trying to bring back a little excitement into my drink-deprived life by investigating the making of syrups.

Yes, I could buy soda-pop, or the insipid corn-syrup flavored liquid candy which is marketed as such. When I was a kid, you could go to any gas station, and there it was: the Coke machine, a humming, steel megalith wearing an enticing veil of condensation. For 25 cents, (at least in 1965), it would give you a tiny Coke, in a returned (not recycled) bottle as polished and blue as seaglass. It too would be covered with a fog of cool droplets. You cracked open your tiny Coke with an opener on the side of the machine. It tasted so good it hurt, as the carbonation and "secret ingredients" of the searing brown liquid (Some folks unclogged drains with warm Coca Cola) hit your soft palate. Then you tasted the sweetness, the clean sweetness of cane sugar, which blended perfectly with the slightly bitter back-taste of cola and those "secret ingredients." Refreshing, so refreshing.

But, most things were better in 1965. Except civil rights, the cold war, Vietnam... but still, Coke was damn good back then.

Last week, I had lunch at the Custom House, a restaurant located in the hotel where I had my final bourbon as a single woman. The name has changed, and the restaurant has been extensively remodeled, but there it was: the bar where I sat in my wedding dress and threw one down with Laurie and Marjie. Miss you, ladies. When I asked about kiddie cocktails, the barman recommended the house homemade ginger ale. I've used his hints and swiped a few more off of the internet for my own brew. It packs a punch, so give to real kiddies with caution.

Ginger Ale


2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups fresh ginger, peeled and cut into coin-sized slices
Club soda
Lime or lemon wedges

Boil 2 cups peeled and sliced fresh ginger in two cups water for five minutes. Allow to cool and steep for 20 minutes.

Strain ginger slices out, and bring ginger-infused water to a boil over medium heat. Slowly stir in two cups of sugar (or less, depending on thickness and taste preferences). Cook until texture thickens slightly, about five minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
Some recipes recommend straining in a fine sieve to remove sediment, but I like the murky, medicinal quality of its appearance.

To make ginger-ale, pour over ice in a glass. Start with 1/4 c to for an ice-tea sized glass, and more to taste. Squeeze in two lime or lemon wedges, and fill the rest of the glass with club soda or sparkling water. Spicy and refreshing!

*additional spices can include cloves, a cinnamon stick, Asian anise/liquorice, and, per the barman at the Custom House, bay leaf and cayenne pepper.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Chemo 2/8

I'm in no rush

My husband took this picture, but only under duress. I wanted to demystify the process and show me, happy chemo patient, during infusion. However, it's difficult to crack a real smile when something called Cytoxan is being dripped into your veins. Cell poison, that's essentially what the name means. Nice if it's just the cancer cells it's going after, not so nice if the poisoning is more indiscriminate. The drug stops or slows cancer cell growth, but also interferes with bone marrow, hair and nail growth.

Speaking of hair growth: I better get some flattering pics of myself in short hair while I still have some. Last night, as I tried to pluck a few wayward eyebrow hairs, I realized that I didn't really need tweezers. I could pull them out with my fingernails. I tested a leg hair. Yep, came out with hardly any resistance. It seems that every time I get used to something, a new freak-out is waiting just around the corner.

My chemo wasn't scheduled until later in the morning, so the earlier appointments were for blood work and a meeting with the oncologist, Dr. G. He once again left us alone in a room, but this time we sat there until someone collected us. When the pager for my chemo therapy vibrated, we then trooped up to the treatment door to wait for a technician. A distressed-looking woman and her husband blocked our path. "Do you need water?" The technician asked. The woman nodded mutely, her face desperate. The nurse led us into a treatment room, which this time was a shared space, with threadbare recliners and a curtain separating the two room halves. The water woman and her husband came in behind us and sat on the other side. She peeked around the curtain, putting a hand on one of the large medical wastecans on our side of the barrier. "Sorry folks, I need to borrow this. It isn't gonna be pretty." She barely got back to the other side of the curtain before vomiting.

While waiting, I had been reading one of the cancer-oriented magazines strewn around the oncology center. I think it was called CancerWoman. In it, an article described the importance of dignity for patients, especially those with terminal diagnoses. Dignity was in short supply in our shared chemo room that day, as the poor woman retched uncontrollably next to two complete strangers. The nurse came in, and said "all the private rooms are full right now." The oncologist then arrived and asked about antinausea drugs. No, she hadn't been given any yet. I heard him say "Ativan drip." There where whispers assuring the couple that it was inexpensive. Oh God, to be uninsured or underinsured with this illness. Forget me, pray for them. In half an hour, she was snoring peacefully.

Loaded full of my own dose of Ativan, I had no objections to a stop at our local diner, Clara & James (although some say James got the heave-ho), for a post-chemo omelette. I have a lot of affection for this little place, especially after a recent make-over involving kelly-green vinyl and a mural with dozens of unrelated cartoon characters. That's Yosemite Sam peeking out from behind the tree. And, that's my husband on the right. Two vegi omelettes with toast, a coffee, tomato juice and Sprite, under $20. Two thumbs up!

Although I ate with gusto, I will probably feel pretty lousy later on, especially later tonight. Already, the Cytoxan has my head pounding, and nausea is creeping its way back into my consciousness. Chemo is like that, and you take your pleasures when your stomach will have them. Although he was not exactly referring to omelettes, I think these lines from Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress are still appropriate:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cancer + Not Cancer =

Here's one of those messy non-narrative posts that I hoped to avoid. We not-so-proudly present the following mix of news and administrativa:

A friend mentioned to me that when he saw posts titled "Not Cancer!" he at first thought it meant my diagnosis had been a mistake. He's got a point: from now on, I'll use the tag "not cancer" when I'm posting something unrelated to my illness, but will omit it from the title.

Also, I recently discovered that people without a Blogger account were blocked from commenting. I corrected that setting, so comment away as yourself, or as your evil twin.

A couple of recent FAQs about my illness:

When is your next chemotherapy session?

We're going in tomorrow (Monday) morning. They scheduled the rest of my treatments for every other Monday.

How's the nausea/your appetite?

The drugs do a great job, but it does come and go. Last week the odor of garlic salami, which I normally love, induced gagging. Also, I can't drink more than two swallows of beer before something in my body (probably my overtaxed liver) says "enough." Then, I have my good days. Yesterday, we went to Hot Doug's, possibly the only hotdog stand in the world with a reputation among fine-dining gastronomes. FYI, the Catalonian pork sausage with saffron rouille and 12-month Montelarreina Manchego cheese was excellent, as were the duck fat fries.

Someone else's photo set from Hot Doug's

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sexxxy Lady

The reviews are in! The short hair is hit, especially with the lady who begs for change outside the Walgreens at Jackson and State. "Nice and easy to care for, isn't it?" She pointed at her own nearly shaved pate. "Oh, and I tried to tell you this morning when you were comin' off the train, but you was wearing headphones, that those are great shoes." She's right, they are great shoes.

That reminds me: Yesterday, as I was walking out of Reckless Records on Madison, I heard a hissing sound. It was coming out of a man leaning against the wall of a store a few doors down, and was directed at me. For those who have never experienced Chicago-style street harassment, this pneumatic sound is the lazy man's version of a wolf whistle. I always wondered: does that ever work? Does a woman ever stop and say "You know, I like the way you hiss."

It's the first hiss directed at me in quite some time. Street harassers, much like salon salesmen, prefer younger targets. When I was in my 20s, summertime was an ordeal of street harassment. As I waited at any Lakeview bus stop, wearing a slutty pair of khakis and a loose golf shirt, men drove by not only hissing, but shouting and making kissy sounds. I received compliments(?) about my appearance, for example: "You got some big-ass calves there, girl!" Or, my favorite mixed message: "Nice legs, bitch!" There were also many rhetorical questions, one of the printable being "Can I suck on your toes?"

Then there's the scary shit, where you are pretty sure you're going to get raped. One night, some creep ran after me down deserted Damen Avenue, his feet hitting the pavement heavily. I spun around, full of enough adrenaline to lift an SUV. Panting, he came near me. "I just wanted to catch up with you and tell you that you're beautiful." I screamed that he was lucky I didn't have a gun. "F***in' C**t! You think you're too good for me!!!" But, he did retreat. Safe at home, I poured myself three shots of bourbon with shaking hands.

But dear readers, do not think I entirely shun appreciative comments from random dudes, especially if they are hilarious. Some of the nicest compliments I have received were from older, usually indigent-looking men. In most cases, these were African-American men, and I only mention that because of the kind of playful, southern-gentlemanly quality of this particular brand of street macking.

One day in Lincoln Park, wearing a new outfit and sunglasses which I thought made me look very chic, I encountered a homeless man. I say he was homeless because he was a little dirty, and was picking up cigarette butts and inspecting them, just like a bum out of Central Casting. As I walked down Webster, intoxicated by my own coolness, he took notice and stood up. He faced me, arms akimbo, as if preparing for a confrontation. I stopped, alarmed at what was about to happen. Then he said, smiling, "Well, Helloooo, Miss Total Sophistication." After I stopped laughing, I continued down the street, this time like a normal person.

Another day, I wore a new purple beret. As I waited to cross the street, what looked like a heap of rags near the corner building suddenly stirred. "I loves the chapeau," he said, before sinking back into his Wild Irish Rose induced slumber.

These men are my heroes. They may own nothing, and may be loved or valued by no one, but still, they got game. I think Oscar Wilde said it best: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A rag, a spleen and a hank of hair

I am troubled by a recent awareness of my spleen. For the last two or three days, I've awakened with a dull backache on the left-hand side, and a feeling that there isn't enough room in my thoracic cavity for all the things that want to fill it. It is probably a side-effect of the drug Neulasta, which I self-injected on Wednesday. The drug, which is intended to stimulate white blood cell production, also causes spleen enlargement.

In ancient humoural medicine, the spleen was regarded as the source of black bile, or "melancholia," an excess of which could lead to a dark and brooding disposition. This last month has given me much to brood about. The dark thoughts, mostly about the big dirt nap..those have been with me as well, although daylight and friendship can usually dispel the worse.

In light of such spleenic thoughts, it seems silly to dwell on that ephemeral crown of women, or at least for yours truly: hair. I was always good at growing hair. Even in my mid-30s, I had a thick cascade of the stuff that fell to my waist. It was a powerful feminine totem: in absence of a high cheekbones or hourglass figure, I was still the woman with the big braid. It may not have been the most flattering look, I'll admit. In my wedding album, there are a couple of photos of my husband in blissful pas de deux with what looks like Cousin Itt from the Addams Family. I tried short hair before, but was always dispirited by the number of times I was called "sir," and the feeling that I just wasn't really pretty enough to pull it off.

In anticipation of hair loss due to chemo, I had a little hair-cutting party at Big Hair, in Roscoe Village. My friends Celia and Kerri provided emotional support and also documented the shearing. It wasn't as traumatic as expected. Just remember to call me "sir" with a smile, and I promise not to hit...very hard.




More from Celia's album

C & K: love and thanks

Friday, July 20, 2007

Everything Gives You Cancer

Here's something new to worry about: the possible link between exposure to artificial light and cancer. During the course of one of the most significant womens' health studies every conducted, now known as the Nurses' Health Study, researchers noticed an unusual factor which seemed to correlate with higher rates of breast cancer.

Several years later, members of Willett's team reported that women who frequently work night shifts seem predisposed to develop breast cancer.

It was just as Stevens had suspected. He had hypothesized that nighttime illumination, by interrupting the body's mainly nocturnal production of the hormone melatonin, might increase the risk of breast cancer. Animal experiments and surveys of people over the past 2 decades supported that hypothesis without proving it, says Stevens, currently at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

Breast cancer rates in industrialized countries are significantly higher than those in undeveloped countries. Of course, exposure to environmental toxins and other factors could be at play. But, the melatonin theory is intriguing.

And sleep itself is not a factor, but actual hours spent in darkness.

"Blind women, by contrast, have unusually low rates of breast cancer and high average melatonin concentrations."

Whole article here:

Bright Lights, Big Cancer. ScienceNews Online. Jan 7, 2006.

I guess all women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer go through a period of being angry about their previous treatment by the health profession. I am no exception. I am over 40, childless, and (ahem) have been known to have two or more alcoholic beverages per day, all factors which are associated with a greater chance of getting breast cancer. My youngish ob/gyn, Dr. CB, for whom I have less affection on a daily basis, always seemed accusatory as she recited them. Perhaps she spoke blandly, but I always could hear the meta message: "If you would just have some babies and stop boozing it up, like the mother nature intended..." Perhaps it was all the baby magazines in her office, as if the only point of maintaining my reproductory health was to make one of those possible. Since there are men reading this, I'll spare you some more graphic comments which also led me to believe that she may have considered my existence as a woman superfluous.

Looking at the research, one can see that all the above factors do have a similar result: denser breast tissue. Having babies, breast-feeding them, and (for some reason) minimal alcohol intake all serve to reduce breast tissue density. Every time I've had a mammogram in the last ten years, it's always been the same thing: Oh, we couldn't get good pictures, so now we have to give you an ultrasound. Each time, I've been needlessly exposed to radiation which could only serve to put me at higher risk, while having to wait to get a diagnostic procedure which could actually take a picture of any potential tumors. If any women out there have been getting the same message about breast tissue density, I suggest trying to get an order for an ultrasound right away.

And if you have the name of a good ob/gyn who actually is interested in women's health, as opposed to catching babies, I'd much appreciate the referral.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

CTA Stories: Division Bus

I've already told my three favorite Division bus stories, but there are a few left which warrant mention. In the summer of 1995, the rain stopped falling. And it got hot: very, very hot. Over 600 people died, most of them elderly, too terrified to leave their barricaded inner-city homes to seek comfort. It was insufferable, inescapable heat. The wind felt like a furnace blast, and rubber shoe soles became sticky when pressed against the broiling pavement. I had the good fortune to live in a a place with central air, albeit in East Village, a neighborhood that lacked comfort for most. Poor people in the neighborhood came up with strategies to survive: sitting in their cars with the motors idling, the air on a full blast, and of course, the open fire hydrant. So many fire hydrants were open that my landlords, living on the third floor of our building, had zero water pressure. I showered in a trickle. It only added to the stress, the feeling that something awful was about to happen.

So it was with an air of utter submission that we trooped, like cattle, on to the un-airconditioned #70 bus on a Sunday afternoon. I spotted one empty window seat--sweet! I then discovered why it was empty: the window was stuck. Looking around at the sweaty heads of my fellow passengers, all of them enjoying the roasting "breeze" coming in through the window, I decided to suck up and take a nice perspiration bath in my airless space.

I noticed that Moustache Guy was sitting in front of me. I saw him on the #70 bus all the time. He had an elaborate, waxed handlebar moustache, the ends of which projected far out from the sides of his face. I always wondered if it was some early version of a hipster ironic moustache, or perhaps a gesture of solidarity with then-Polish president Lech Walesa. A woman seated at the window in front of him was reading a book, her neck glossy with sweat. It was a nice day to enjoy a book while taking a bus ride through Hell.

The floor of the bus was wet. I wondered if some kids wearing bathing suits could have made it so. It seemed like a lot of water, some of it sloshing up and down the grooves in the rubber floor mats. The bus slowly rumbled west until it reached the outskirts of Cabrini Green, the massive high-rise housing project on the near west side. The driver stopped at the light at Larrabee. I noticed that his shoulders were shaking, as if he were laughing.

At the curb, two teenaged girls positioned themselves on either side of the bus. They had huge buckets of water which stood higher than their knees. The light turned green. "One, two, three!!!!" and they sloshed the bus on both sides at it moved forward. Behind my closed window, I could only see, not feel, the action. Inside the bus, much screaming. The woman held up her ruined book. Right in front of me, water streamed off of each side of Moustache Guy's handlebars. I noticed the bus driver's window was closed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Overheard on Saturday night, while walking south on Lincoln:
"I work with straight people all week, I hang out with straight people all weekend. No wonder I don't have a boyfriend!"

Chemo 1/8

Terrified, I sat in the oncology center waiting room, reading the Big Pink Breast Book given to me by the surgeon. Tears started welling out of my eyes and down my cheeks. It seems like I can always locate something in that book that causes me to cry right before meeting with the oncology staff.

This time, it was the illustration of a chemotherapy port. A chemo port turns you into a human juice box for duration of your treatment. Instead of finding a suitable vein on your arm, the technician can just pop off your cap, and voila!, you're ready for infusion with the toxic chemical du jour. Throughout my testing and diagnosis, more than one medical staff person mentioned the port, insisting that I could "shower and swim, and if I wore high-cut tops, nobody will even know it's there." That seemed beside the point, considering the fact that if I got a port, it would require me to ignore a tube that appears, from the illustration, to be going pretty deep into one of my chest veins. It made my flesh crawl. If they tried to push this port thing on me again, I was going to fight it.

Imagine my joy when Nurse L, examining my arm, cried "Oh, you have BEAUTIFUL veins! I can't imagine why anyone would suggest a port for you." I will still enjoy hearing "you have pretty eyes," but no complement on my appearance can ever recreate the elation of that moment.

Nurse L, who was patient and genuinely caring, was an enormous help. She at first sat down with us and explained both the therapy and the many, many bottles of antinausea medicine I was to take home. Nurse L. also minimized, in my case, the possible side-effects of chemotherapy, explaining that many people, especially those previously healthy as myself, have relatively little nausea or weakness. Still, I had to inject myself with Neulasta, a bone-marrow stimulant, within 24 hours. After a brief demonstration, I was sure I could do it.

The little private chemo room was a comfortable as is possible with such a procedure. I sat on a hospital bed, headboard up, so I could read, and my husband sat in comfortable upholstered rocker with a footrest. We also had a tv with dvd recorder; maybe a good way to knock off those Sopranos we missed. Nurse L. inserted the I.V. needle into a vein on my right hand, and secured it with a butterfly clip and tape.

I started with a saline drip, then a liquid form of anti-nausea medicine, Ativan. Ativan is also an anti-anxiety drug and sedative, two effects which were spot-on considering the circumstances. Then, the cancer-killing stuff: Adriamycin and Cyclophosphamide. The medicine was a dark rose color, and I was warned that I would urinate a lighter shade of this for a while.

While I infused, I played the Snake game on my cell, having discovered that reading was nearly impossible. My husband compensated for my anti-intellectualism by digging into the latest issue of New York Review of Books. Suddenly, the woman receiving chemo across the hall leaped up, and grabbed her I.V. stand, and hustled to the bathroom. I haven't heard retching like that since my husband got food poisoning at a cook-out in Minneapolis. It was horrible-sounding, since it was clear she had nothing in her stomach left to expel. Nurse L. ran back to our room, ostensibly to adjust something on my I.V. "I don't believe her vomiting has to do with the medications." she said, mysteriously. Wow. If it had nothing to do with the chemo drugs, then what were the alternatives: the flu? morning sickness? watching The View?

The entire procedure took about two hours, including the question and answer session at the beginning. Nurse L. warned me that the second cycle (probably starting with Chemo 5/8), will take about four hours. She also started the process of setting up regular appointments, although she has to coordinate first with the oncologist. We are shooting for Monday mornings at 7:30, since in medical care, the early bird gets the worms, or waits as little as possible, that is.

I felt great at this point. Ativan, I heart you. I meandered into the parking garage, more than willing to climb into any open car door. Everyone seemed so nice. Fortunately husband poured me into the Escort, and we were off to pick up two equally drugged cats, both of which had suffered tooth extractions earlier in the day. When we arrived, we were surprised to find out that Alma had a little impromptu mastectomy as well. The vet had tried to contact us, but our cells didn't work deep inside the walls of BCH. They found lumps near two of her mammaries, and decided to remove the entire side as a preventative measure. So much for the theory that breast-feeding lowers the risk of cancer. During an eight-month period, she had twelve different kittens latched on to her. Her boobs became so pendulous, the vet who spayed her just worked around them as best he could. After she came home, all shaved and (finally) sterile, she reminded me of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.

The nausea hasn't been unbearable, it's more like that inkling that you may be coming down with something. The fatigue is a bigger issue, and they warned me that my white blood cell count would probably bottom out next week. At times, red blood cell counts drop as well, and patients become anemic. The Neulasta, which I self-injected this morning, will cause bone aches as my marrow goes into overdrive to produce more white blood cells.

Discussing medical conditions is one of the more deadly forms of discourse, IMO. If given the choice between hearing someone's dream or hearing about their gall bladder surgery, it's always a toss up. I promise more Not Cancer! stories, including those involving the CTA in the near future.

Love to all,

Monday, July 16, 2007

Can you make me look like Uma Thurman*, except bald?

Today is my late day at work, and I used the morning to run some errands in the Loop, including getting my driver's license renewed. At Monroe and Dearborn, a couple of husky young men approached me. One of them said, "Excuse me, ma'am. Can I ask you a question?" I could tell he was gearing up for a sales spiel. "Do you get your hair cut at a salon here in Chicago?" Yes, I answered.

Some of the big chain salons stir up business by trying to solicit new customers off the street. I was surprised this time, because they usually target areas near college campuses, and frankly, I am the wrong age. This is the first time I've been approached since I hit 40. Not that I mind being ignored; a couple of times after I rebuffed sidewalk hair hawkers, they insulted my current cut. One time, near the end of my run as part of the youth demographic, one of them muttered "Ah..you're too old for us, anyway," as I walked away.

Back to this morning: For a second, I was tempted to mess with him. Perhaps listen to the entire script, looking at first slightly skeptical, then show a little more interest, and finally ask him if the salon had any special deals for bald people. Instead, I put a hand on his meaty arm, and gently interrupted his pitch, "I don't think we can do business, sweetie. I'm starting chemo tomorrow."

*I am not trying to increase hits to my blog by using Uma Thurman as a tag. If I wanted to do that, I would use Scarlett Johansson, instead.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

CTA Stories: Division Bus Extravaganza

I recently placed an ad in craigslist for people to share their best CTA stories. For the uninformed, that's the Chicago Transit Authority. I received a couple of good entries, but most were pretty lame. Yeah, yeah...you and your buddies mooned some girls from the Addison bus. Yawn. I moved to Chicago in 1984, and had the pleasure of taking public transportation when the city was still pretty rough around the edges. I have about a dozen stories, and keep thinking of more every time I have a chance to reflect. But, the #70 Division bus holds a special place in my heart.

For a period in the early to mid 90s, I lived in East Village, and took the Division bus to and from work. This took me from the swanky Rush Street/Gold Coast area, through the projects at Cabrini Green, and into my neighborhood, at that time still full of addicts, hookers and gang-bangers. The first week after I moved into my place, a gang headquartered across the street set our garbage cans on fire and pushed them against the back door of the building. Fortunately, the back door was steel, which (newsflash, morons) does not burn. Unfortunately, we had no garbage cans for three weeks.

As I mentioned, the route has provided me with endless anecdotes, like the time a woman stood on the sidewalk at Clark and Division, shouting to a man who had just gotten on the bus. "Turn yourself In! Darnell!!! TURN. YOURSELF. IN." Darnell opened the window, and said that he couldn't turn himself in until he bought Christmas presents for all the shorties. She countered by saying that he could get all his
charges dropped if he just turned himself in now. Who told her that, he asked. "Some guy."

Then, there was the man who, seeing me at the bus stop, across from his room in the Mark Twain Hotel ("Radio in every room"), was so enamored that he shouted at me out the window, ran downstairs, and crossed Division--all to touch my long hair, which I was wearing in two braided pigtails. Ewww. This was a comfortable style for hot weather, but a pervert magnet, as I soon discovered. I started wearing my hair in a bun, and my troubles vanished.

Another night, while waiting for the west-bound bus, a man took out a wicked-looking butcher knife and carefully sharpened it on a whetstone. The rest of us all gave him wide berth when we got on the bus. In retrospect, he was probably a worker at one of the small slaughterhouses on the west side, and was just getting his tools in order for the evening. But, hell.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Republic of Pinkastan

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and pink as a nursery*

My friend Annie recently forwarded Barbara Ehrenreich's excellent article/rant, Welcome to Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch

I squirm at the mass-market girliness that masquerades as breast health care. After my diagnosis, my surgeon gave me a pink book (with roses!) titled "All About Breast Cancer." The pink thing is truly bizarre.
I associate the color with babies, and resent seeing my disease swaddled in it. The oncology center (and cancer in general) is unisex, so at least there I am spared the indignity of having my cancer branded like a dish soap.

Oh, yes...I start chemo on Tuesday. It's still feels like its happening to someone else. Tonight, I went to the Pitchfork Festival and listened to amazing performance by Sonic Youth. I looked around at all of the mostly younger faces, and honestly felt not a day over...well, 30. It is difficult to get my mind around the concept that I am very ill.

*From Annie Get Your Gun

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stupid Doctor Tricks

Did you know that when a physician shakes your hand and says, "It was nice meeting you," and leaves the room, that you're supposed to stay there indefinitely? Neither did I.

On Monday, my husband and I paid our first visit to the oncologist, Dr. G* at Big Chicago Hospital (BCH)*. The entire oncology center at BCH must be enormous, if the ballroom-sized waiting room is any indicator. A number of patients in various stages of treatment waited with us. One man, about 35 years old, played cards with a woman who was probably his wife. He looked like a fitness buff, with a broad chest and bulging biceps. He was also completely bald and his skin was a deep, jaundiced yellow.

After an oncology fellow took my history and examined me, Dr. G arrived and re-examined me. Since BCH is a teaching hospital, I am nearly always examined by more than one person. Two years ago, I was admitted to their emergency room with chest pains. While I was awaiting the results of a blood test, a small group of what looked like teenaged boys, dressed in doctor costumes, came into my curtained "room," eyed me warily and then listened to my heart. Interns, apparently.

My husband and I were directed to a conference room to await the arrival of both docs for further consultation. I decided to take a bathroom break, and immediately became lost in the rabbit warren of offices, examination rooms, and labs. I stopped in front of a desk where two women wearing lab coats sat. "Excuse me, can you tell me where Dr. G's conference room is located?" They both stared at me. And said nothing. For an uncomfortable length of time. Finally one of them broke out of her trance and said "Are...you one of his patients?" Apparently, because I now carry all my medical records and notes in an uber-nerdy accordian file with a handle, they thought I was there to do a presentation. I doubt that my jeans, WLUW tshirt and Dansko sandles were consistent with the normal attire of an medical oncologist.

After I had been safely led back to the patient conference room, Dr. G and fellow appeared. Dr. G recited his chemotherapy script, the rote quality of which was entirely understandable considering how many times he has to do it each week. We had many questions for him, and after fifteen or twenty minutes, he and the fellow were showing signs of restlessness. My husband however, was not going to be rushed. He kept up with the questions, while Dr. G attempted to struggle to his feet two or three times. Once we finished, Dr. G. extended his hand to me and my husband and said it was nice meeting us. He mentioned that his nurse would contact me within 36 hours (why such an curious range?) to schedule my chemo. As he was leaving, he told the fellow that I needed a prescription for a "cranial prosthesis." She nodded, and then herself bid us goodbye in a formal manner which seemed to indicate "you're not seeing me again, either." Neither of them asked us to wait. We continued to sit in the conference room for a little while, confused. After a five or six minutes, we left.

Two days later, after never receiving a call from Dr. G's nurse, I located her number and left a message on her voice mail. She returned my call, and said that the fellow told her that we had left the room and that she "didn't know where we went." Never mind that all three of my phone numbers are in their files and I signed a waiver to allow them to share this information. The nurse tried not to sound appalled when I informed her that I had not received a prescription, nor had anyone ordered the tests required before chemo can commence. Did anyone mention self-injection with a drug called neulasta? No...I definitely would have remembered hearing about that. Anyway, I'm now scheduled for tests and a call-back is promised tomorrow for the chemo appointment. Lesson: when it comes to actually coordinating treatment, make sure you talk to the nurse ASAP. The doctors just do the fancy stuff.

*Names of people and institutions are changed because...I don't want them to find this using google.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Cancer: Executive Summary

At first, I found it weirdly exhilarating to tell people about my cancer. When someone asked, "so, what's new?", I now could share a stirring narrative. This doesn't mean I was happy about getting cancer, just that it was dramatic, and god knows I love drama and attention. Then, it began to sink in: this isn't happening to someone else--it's my cancer. After about a dozen emotionally draining conversations with different people, I realized that I was going to go nuts if I had to answer the same questions over and over. Thus, I hope this summary will help all of us deal with something that scares the hell out of me, and causes a lot of anxiety among those who care about me.

What kind of cancer is it?

I have breast cancer. The primary lesion is in my right breast, with additional malignancy detected in at least one of my axillary (armpit) lymph nodes.

At least you caught it early

I wish it had been caught sooner. I have had history of benign lumps, and must admit that I became pretty cavalier about having things checked on a regular basis. My OB/Gyn recommended an ultrasound in August of 2006, and I neglected to follow up. The lump had been previously examined and appeared to be cluster of benign cysts. I hope my experience will be instructive to others and get a few of you in for a screening. The final diagnosis was confirmed by biopsy two weeks ago.

What finally made you go in for a screening?

The lesion started to feel and look different than benign breast lumps. Benign breast tumors are often (but not always) tender or painful. This produced very little pain. Also, it started to pull my skin inwards, producing a visible dimpling on the outside of my breast. Skin dimpling is often an indicator of malignancy.

Are you getting a mastectomy?

Research has shown that survival after mastectomy is not significantly better than after a lumpectomy, a procedure which removes only the lesion and a ring of tissue surrounding it. My problem is that I have small breasts, actually smaller than an "A" bra cup, and a lumpectomy would be the same as taking off half of my breast. Because of the poor cosmetic outcome, and more importantly because of the spread to my lymph nodes, the surgeon and oncologist both recommended that I receive chemotherapy before surgery. Chemotherapy may shrink the primary lesion, allowing a lumpectomy, and also address the spread of the cancer. Of course, there are no guarantees when combating this disease, but it seems like my best option.

After chemotherapy and surgery, I most likely will have to undergo an additional series of radiation treatments, and then take the drug tamoxofen for five years.

Yes, this is serious stuff.

Will the chemotherapy make you nauseous and lose your hair?

I will lose my hair. The oncologist will give me a prescription for a cranial prosthesis, in other words, a wig. I plan on having my hair cut short to minimize the mess and emotional trauma. He reassured me that the nausea medications available now have eliminated the loss of appetite and vomiting previously associated with chemotherapy. That means I will probably have to decline one friend's kind offer of some "herbal" remedy, alas.

Chemotherapy has other undesirable side effects, including "chemo brain," or cognitive effects such as memory loss and slower information processing. This varies depending on the age of the patient and the level of treatment, and can be minimized with proper nutrition, exercise and adequate sleep. Chemotherapy usually causes menstruation to cease during treatment, and in women of my age, premature menopause. The next person who tries to comfort me by telling me that I was close anyway, will get slapped.

Will you stop working, exercising, going out to live music, traveling, eating sushi, drinking alcohol...?

I have been asked all of the above. No, I won't stop any of those activities, but I will make adjustments based on my physicians' recommendations and on how I feel. Aside from some intermittent fatigue, and interruptions to my schedule from medical appointments, I should be able to do all of the above. But, my work/life balance will tip toward life, and the things which give me pleasure and reduce stress. Do invite me to social events or out for the evening. If I'm feeling up to it, I and my bald head would be delighted to attend.

Is there anything I can do to help?

Please be understanding of my mood swings during this time. It's nothing personal. I've experienced flashes of anger at myself, and most irrationally, at people who are simply not sick. I'll get over it, but I'd like to apologize in advance if I act like a jerk now and then. There are a number of things to not say to a person with cancer, and I'll include some of them in a subsequent post. If you simply tell me that you're thinking about me...you can't imagine how much that means to me. Heck, you can even pray for me. I'm an atheist, but feel free to cover all bases. If you want a unique prayer assignment, I don't believe anyone has spoken to Ganesha on my behalf, yet.

On a more practical note, I may need rides from chemotherapy. I don't have my schedule of treatment at this time, but it will probably start next week. If you're available during the day, let me know and I'll pencil you in on the cancer calendar.

Love to all,

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cancer T-Shirt

I thought of this one:
"When life gives you cancer, make canceraid"
Then, I googled it, and discovered that someone already had done it.