Monday, December 31, 2007

Le Chou de Bruxelles

"How do you say 'brussels sprouts' in French?" one of my nieces asked the foreign exchange student staying with her family. Everything sounds sexy in French, including the names of vegetables.

By request of my brother-in-law, here's the very free-form "recipe" for my Christmas Eve brussels sprouts.

Chou de Bruxelles Elisa

Prepare in: One large covered sauté pan. I've seen similar recipes using stock pots or even woks; it's important to have just one layer of sprouts and a small amount of liquid.

Ingredients: brussels sprouts, water, 6-8 TB unsalted butter, sugar, prepared horseradish, caraway seeds, salt.

Step 1: Steam
Clean sprouts, removing stems and damaged outer leaves. Place in one layer in the pan, and add about 1/4-1/2 inch of water, and about 2 TB or a quarter stick of unsalted butter. Cover the pan and heat on Medium until water is boiling. Reduce to a simmer, and leave the lid ajar. Periodically stir and turn the sprouts, making sure that all of their surfaces get sauteed/steamed.

If you figure the liquid out just right, there will be no need to drain it once the sprouts are tender. Keep looking for color to change from a light green to a bright green, and then to a slightly duller color, indicating that the sprouts are tender. Take care to not over-cook, because they need to be slightly firm to withstand the sauté.

Step 2: Sauté
Once most of the water is gone, add the remaining butter. Remove the cover and sauté the sprouts on Medium, stirring often. After about five minutes, add 1/2 tsp sugar, or more to taste. Sugar will reduce bitterness and also help create a golden-brown appearance. Continue sautéing sprouts until they do start to "glow," about 10-15 minutes. Add 2 TB (more or less to taste) prepared horseradish and stir, coating all the sprouts. Sprinkle with caraway seeds and salt, and serve hot.

Bon appétit!

photo by Kent Wang

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pilsen at Dusk

Near Cermak and Halsted, December 28, 2007.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Week from hella

Stop the world, I want to get off. Well, not really, but I'd like to pause the ride for a little while.

Early on Christmas eve, I had a festive visit with Dr. K, the radiologist. Before I consulted with her, a resident took a history and examined me. "Dr. B did your surgery? Oh, he's good. His patients usually don't have much scarring." Afterwards, Dr. K came in to complete the examination, and to describe the course of treatment. I'll be getting six weeks of radiation, five days a week. Each treatment will take about fifteen minutes.

The first step was to create a treatment plan, part of which would be to determine if it was safe to zap the lymph nodes lying along my sternum. If the lymph nodes overlap the lungs, it's a no-go, since radiation can cause damage to lung tissue. Dr. K checked the schedule that day. "There's been a couple of cancellations. Would you like to get your planning CAT scan right now?" Six months of cancer treatment has taught me a couple of things. First, if they give you a blanket, do not give it up until they allow you to get dressed again. Second, if they offer you an appointment for the same day, accept it immediately.

Off we went to the CAT scan thingy. After looking at the images, Dr. K came in to speak with me. Unfortunately, my lungs were partially under my sternal lymph nodes, so she recommended against targeting that area. Instead, they would hit my axillary, mammary and clavical nodes. A technician tattooed three blue dots at target points on my chest and armpit, and then photographed my naked torso. Tattoos and nude photos all in one hour! It was like mini spring break, only without beer bongs.

I drove home and started cleaning the house in preparation for my in-laws arrival that evening. Christmas is sort of a mixed blessing for those of us afflicted with seasonal affective disorder. I could feel my mood darkening along with the days, but the flurry of activity preceeding the holidays kept me too busy for a free-fall into the Abyss. One serious misstep was, while shopping for gifts, to purchase the book Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person, by Miriam Engleberg. I had read about Engleberg's collection of cartoons a couple months ago, and all of the reviews were right on: the book was an often very funny account of what its like to be a cancer patient. However, I secretly hoped that Engleberg was not like me. You see, she died last year, after cancer spread to her bones and brain. As I read the book, I couldn't avoid noting the eerie similarities. She had the same type of breast cancer as me. She had a lumpectomy, with chemotherapy and radiation. In 1979, we both had a boyfriend named Roger. OK, I had a boyfriend named Roger in 1980, but you get the idea. If she were alive, we would be the same age.

After I read the book, fear lay in my heart like lead. Between her first diagnosis and death, Miriam had only five years. I am already enduring the bittersweet realization of midlife. Much is behind me, and what is ahead will pass quickly. What if the cancer comes back? In Greek mythology, the three Moirai, or Fates, determine the length of life. Atropos,"the inexorable," cuts the life-thread spun and measured by the other two goddesses. I feel like I've glimpsed the shears, still without really knowing the measure.

Like my father before me, movement through space provides me some respite. If my dad was anxious, sad or angry, he would drive and drive and drive until he put some distance between himself and his troubles. Being a city-dweller, the train is my neurotransmitter of choice. Pink Line, take me Pilsen, which is where I took the photo above. Pilsen is an old Bohemian (as in Czech and Slovak) neighborhood on the south side of the city. It's now Mexican, with a growing art gallery district in its eastern section. The main drag, 18th street, is heartbreakingly beautiful. Tall Mittel-european stone and brick buildings line the street, while little houses off of it reflect a more peasant vernacular, with charming, crude flowers carved in the window lintels. One is prevented from complete transport back to old Bohemia by some of the eye-popping exterior paint jobs, mostly in shades more common to Oaxaca. The colors could cheer even Kafka. And so it did me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I visited Dr. B yesterday, and as I hoped, he removed the drain. So why do I feel so lousy? Ever since Monday, I've been afflicted with a general malaise, and more concrete symptoms, such as aching joints. Others have told me that healing from surgery can be draining. Every conversation I had today seemed to have been broadcast from some distant planet.

With the drain removed, and swelling reduced, I can better see the end results of surgery. There will be a little dent on the outside of my right breast, and any illusion of symmetry between the girls is now officially over. In fact, asymmetry is very common. When it comes to breasts, "normal" includes countless shapes and sizes. The previous link, a site advocating public breastfeeding, is probably NSFW. Breasts, despite doing unsexy things like feeding babies and getting cancer, are still officially dirty in this country.

And not having breasts is dirty, too. Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy found that, despite having a double mastectomy, going topless while swimming was not an option. It upset the other women at the pool, apparently. Although I'm not as bold as Twisty, I wondered if I would feel self-conscious undressing after a mastectomy, even in front of other women. When I exposed my bald head in public, it most often was women who stared at me. Although some of the scrutiny was friendly, though artless, some was cold, without a spark of kindness or concern. Perhaps a cancer patient who chooses to not cover her bald head, much less her mastectomy scars, is considered to be weird and threatening.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Recovery and Gratitude

I took the last week off work for recovery, and have pretty much exhausted my ability to amuse myself. One thing that does keep me preoccupied is my drain, which clogged up on Wednesday evening, nearly ruining the shirt I was wearing. A painful but instructive visit to the surgeon cleared things up, and I now coexist more or less peacefully with my little bag o' body fluid. The upside to cancer treatment is that for every procedure you dread, there's always something, very often the end of said procedure, which you can joyfully anticipate. DOE Day, or Drain Out of Elisa Day, is expected to occur this coming Tuesday.

My recovery would have been a lot more boring if it weren't for my excellent coworkers, who chipped in for a care package. Heather, who did the actual shopping and delivery, really got inside my head--at least the part that eats. She brought me such delicacies as a box of clementines, Lebanese flat bread, baba ganoush and dark chocolate with dried cherries. Thanks for everything, my friends! You're the best.

Monday, December 3, 2007


My hair is now visibly returning, although it will take a while for the stuff on the head to look like "hair." Downy eyebrows and eyelashes are sprouting as well.

Other good news: Dr. B, the surgeon, called today. He had the results of the pathology reports. The perimeters showed no additional cancer. Eleven lymph nodes were removed, and of those, six were cancerous. He told me this was not surprising or necessarily bad news, since they presumed that several lymph nodes would be involved. So, in his words, "no addition excision is required." That means, no going back for a mastectomy, at least not during this particular battle with the disease. Now, I have to look forward to radiation and hope that cancer will never return.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Three Days After

I finally got up the nerve to remove the dressings and take a look at Dr. B's handiwork. Considering how much he had to remove, and the paucity of raw material (I have less than an A cup), it doesn't look too bad. I have two incisions, one on the breast itself, and the other on the inside of the armpit. The swelling and bruising has increased over time, and my right arm has limited mobility.

Now for the really gross part: the drain. The device, which I now know is called a Jackson-Pratt drain (link not safe for the squeamish), consists of a flexible silicone bulb attached to a long tube, part of which is stitched into the incision. The bulb is meant to be squeezed flat and capped, and the resulting suction helps drain the wound. That means that every six hours or so, I empty the bulb into a specimen jar and note how many cc's of stuff leaked out of me. It's a simple but ingenious device, and if I pin the bulb under a jacket, nearly undetectable. However, it's a pain in the ass to try to shower with it, as I was advised I could. I ended up binding it to my torso with the only thing I could find, some clear packing tape. Later, my husband scrounged up a little gauze and surgical tape, and we were able to dress it properly. I think sponge baths are the way to go from now on.