93 steps

by Karen on August 3, 2015

IMG_0142 - Version 3Ninety-three steps. That’s the length of the glass-enclosed walkway from the parking deck to the cancer center at the teaching hospital where I get occasional checkups. It’s not long – about the distance from our front door to our mailbox and back. Yet three years ago, it felt like 93 yards. Or 93 miles.

After a recurrence of ovarian cancer in 2012, I spent eight days in the hospital following cytoreductive surgery (aka debulking) and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (aka – no kidding – shake and bake). I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll just say I’m in awe of modern medicine, the procedure was successful, and I was feeling great when I was released.

However, in the days between my release and follow-up visit, I began to feel increasingly tired. At first I thought I was just overdoing it at home. But by the time my appointment rolled around, even a short walk left me weak and out-of-breath.

I tried to hide my nervousness as I waited for the doctor. Were my lungs damaged? Was there something wrong with my heart? Or – and this was my real fear – had the cancer somehow come raging back in less than a week?

Imagine my relief when the doctor told me I was simply anemic. Well, actually severely anemic; I would need a blood transfusion. But that was it. He even agreed to call my longtime oncologist and arrange for the transfusion at my local hospital close to home.

My heart was fine. My lungs were fine. I was fine!

I left the doctor’s office with renewed energy. But it quickly became clear that even very good news is no match for anemia. As I made my way down the walkway, I kept having to stop and sit down. My mother – who had driven me – asked if I wanted a wheelchair. I told her I most certainly did not. (My mother is a saint.) I don’t know how long those 93 steps took me, but I was determined to take them.

Since that day three years ago, the walkway has become a sort of victory march for me. Every time I take those 93 steps – now at a good clip and in under a minute – I remember that day. And I think about the countless cancer warriors who are walking or wheeling the same path.

Just over a week ago, I had a routine CT scan and checkup at the teaching hospital. The results? CT scan: Clear. Checkup: Perfect.

And those 93 steps? They were like walking on air.

Calm amidst the storm

by Karen on July 20, 2015

IMG_0796July is always an unusual month for me. In the heart and heat of summer, work slows down and play picks up.

Last weekend, Jim and I spent a couple of days with dear friends at their house at Lake Santeetlah. Tucked amidst the Great Smoky Mountains near the intersections of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennesee, it is stunningly beautiful. While there, we took walks and boat rides, and we visited other friends nearby. But mostly we just talked and laughed and caught up with one another’s lives.

Other highlights of July: A Minor League baseball game with friends we’ve been meaning to catch up with all summer. Lunch with a close childhood friend and her family, in town for a visit. The always-anticipated annual girls’ trip to the mountains. A beach trip with my extended family last week and later this month with Jim’s.

Oh, and my annual CT scan.

That’s the only part of July I dread. Maybe dread isn’t the right word, since there’s a part of me that – in a perverse sort of way – looks forward to it. Because after it’s over, I’ll know. I’ll know if I have another battle to fight or if I can breathe easy for awhile.

So, the timing of all this treasured time with family and friends couldn’t be better. In between all the power-relaxing, I do a bit of work and catch up on general grown-up responsibilities. But like a kid on summer vacation, I don’t have time to worry.

Late last Saturday afternoon, a storm blew in at the lake. We listened to the thunder echo against the mountains and the rain wallop the lake. From our cozy porch haven, we sipped wine, nibbled honey-drizzled brie and watched a scattering of kayakers scurry to get out of the storm.

Soon enough, the darkness lifted, and sun-sparked striations filled the summer sky. Fluffy white, feather-light clouds settled amidst the curves of tree-carpeted mountains. We watched the sun set from our friends’ boat – silvery blue giving way to purple and pink and orange and gold.

There’s no reason to expect that the results of my scan later this week will be anything but good. After all, I visit my oncologist every two months, and my check-ups, especially since I’ve been taking a groundbreaking new medicine, have been stellar.

Just the same, it helps to know that family and friends and even people I’ve never met are supporting me as gently as the mountains cradle those whispery clouds.

The things that keep us up at night

by Karen on July 6, 2015

IMG_5584 - Version 2

The Angel Tree, near Charleston, S.C.

So, here’s what I was dealing with two weeks ago. Just when the temperature hit record highs, our downstairs air conditioner died. There was no reviving it. And worse yet, a new one couldn’t be installed for more than a week.

During that week, the local weather forecasters predicted continued highs in the upper 90s and low 100s – with no rain in sight. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be so bad, since we have an upstairs AC unit working just fine.

But here’s the thing. My cousin was on her way to visit from the still relatively cool state of Connecticut. She would be staying with us, and I’d planned a big family dinner for the night of her arrival. Oven on, stove on, a houseful of people, and no AC? Nope.

So as I scrambled to come up with a new menu of cold salads and moved our party to my ever-gracious mom’s condo, I was a little put out by this whole air conditioning thing. I was still scurrying around, getting ready for my cousin’s Thursday arrival, when the news broke Wednesday night.

Nine people had been shot dead at a prayer meeting in Charleston, SC. Nine people. Murdered. In the city my daughter lives in. For – at the time – no discernible reason. [click to continue…]

Mattie with Daisy Boone 2004 2 - Version 2Jim and I saw a TV news segment recently about a cat library in Las Cruces, New Mexico. To clarify, it’s not a library for cats or a library about cats. It’s a library of cats – or, more specifically, kittens – that employees in the offices of Dona Ana County can check out when they need a little stress relief.

Now, I’m not a cat person – I mean, I like cats just fine, but I wouldn’t want to live with one – and even I want to work for Dona Ana County, which houses its “library” in a big kitty condo in the reception area. (The kittens, by the way, come from a local animal shelter, and about 100 have been adopted from the cat library in the last two years.)

What is it about animals – dogs, cats, horses, even birds – that so often make us feel better when we’re a bit down?

At Duke University Hospital and Duke Cancer Center, trained therapy dogs visit cancer patients regularly. Research shows that pet therapy can reduce stress and depression and may even facilitate healing and rehabilitation, according to the Duke website. [click to continue…]

The gift of girlfriends

by Karen on June 1, 2015

©Lindsay Chambers 2015

©Lindsay Chambers 2015

I took a brisk walk with a friend first thing Friday morning, and I felt great afterward – ready to take on the day and the world. Yes, I know at least part of that feeling came from the boost in feel-good endorphins that exercise naturally provides. Not to mention the fresh air and sunshine.

But another part – maybe most important to me – was that I got to spend an hour with my friend. We walk many mornings, and we talk, sometimes about pressing issues or personal crises but mostly about bits of life so inconsequential we’ll have forgotten them by mid-afternoon. We laugh a lot, and we’re quiet sometimes, too, especially when we hit a particularly challenging hill. But what we say – or don’t – doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re together.

I’ve been thinking about girlfriends lately, partly because I recently caught up with two childhood friends – one I hadn’t seen in about 15 years and another with whom I had lost touch after seventh grade. I was amazed, in each case, how quickly we returned to the comfortable cadence of our former friendship. Our lives had taken vastly different paths, yet we reconnected immediately and intimately.

What is it about friendship – and specifically friendship with other women – that fills such an important place in our lives? [click to continue…]

Ordinary good news

by Karen on May 18, 2015

IMG_3101 - Version 2I got good news from my oncologist a couple of weeks ago. It was just a regular every-other-month checkup. Just ordinary good news.

But sometimes, ordinary good news is the best news of all. It feels like permission to begin life anew – to make more plans and dream more dreams. It’s the sort of good news that’s particularly apt this time of year, when flowers are blooming, bumblebees are buzzing and robins are nesting.

The grass seems to grow even as my husband mows it, and the weeds pop up faster than I can pull them. There’s a soft dusting of fine, yellow pollen on the windowsills, and every now and then a whirlygig red maple seed twirls to the ground. I sneeze a lot, but I am well, and that’s good. [click to continue…]

100 percent chance of rain

by Karen on May 4, 2015

IMG_0914 - Version 2This past Christmas, my husband and I received a fantastic gift from our kids. (Yes, they’re 21 and 24, but humor me, I still think of them as kids.) They surprised us with a late April weekend at a bed-and-breakfast in Asheville, NC.IMG_0928 Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is a vibrant, quirky town with everything we adore – unrivaled natural beauty, fascinating history, and outstanding local art, music and food.

Plus, there’s something extra special about the mountains in springtime. After the fiery fanfare of fall and the brittle cold of winter, the mountains are especially alive in spring. I love the rolling expanses of green that make the sky seem so breathtakingly blue and the sweet surprise of wildflowers waking up along woodland paths.

IMG_0869 - Version 2So, as I began to pack last Friday morning, I was a bit dismayed to discover the weekend forecast: Cool and mostly rainy – with a 100 percent chance of rain Saturday. [click to continue…]

Letting go of what’s broken

by Karen on April 20, 2015

IMG_5661 - Version 2We’ve been cleaning out some drawers and cabinets lately – a gargantuan task at our house and one that often makes me a bit incredulous.

The weirdest thing we found was a ZipLoc bag full of rumpled napkins I’d written notes on and tucked into our son’s elementary school lunchbox each day. On the plus side, I don’t think he actually ever used a napkin, so they were at least clean. But on the other hand, why did I – or more likely, our now college-age son – save them?

We also found a few things that once had sentimental or monetary value but were now broken. There was the small porcelain box that was the casualty of a loose ball that bounced from the top of the stairs to a chest in our foyer. Sure, I liked that little box, but why did I save the pieces?

I know exactly why I saved the remains of a simple ceramic canister. And I remember vividly the moment – so many years ago – when it slipped from my hands to the kitchen floor. I cried as I picked up the pieces, which had been lovingly adorned with fingerprint animals from my daughter’s kindergarten class.

It got me to thinking about all the other broken things I’ve clung to through the years. I won’t list them all, but as a cancer survivor, here’s one I need to get over: a broken perception of my own healthy, quite capable body. [click to continue…]

Fighting cancer with polio

by Karen on April 6, 2015

Stephanie Lipscomb, from CBS 60 Minutes "Killing Cancer." ©CBS News

Stephanie Lipscomb, from CBS 60 Minutes “Killing Cancer.” ©CBS News

My husband was flipping through TV channels about a week ago when we heard the voice of CBS 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley mention “a discovery for the 21st century.”

Onscreen, in blood red and white letters against a black backdrop, were the words “Killing Cancer,” an attention-grabbing graphic that ordinarily would have made me insist we change the channel. I don’t like cancer stories with my relaxed Sunday night suppers. There’s something about the (real or imagined) tone of alarm, mixed with pity and manufactured hope, that gives me indigestion. Jim knows that.

But something about this particular story made us both stop and listen. I’m glad we did.

According to the report, which you can watch here, Duke University researchers are testing a new medical treatment using a modified form of the poliovirus to kill cancer. Yes, that poliovirus. The one that once crippled children. [click to continue…]

You have breast cancer. What now?

by Karen on March 16, 2015

©Karen Gooding 2015

©Karen Gooding 2015

It’s the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last thing on your mind before you fall asleep. You have cancer.

Your brain is spinning, your gut is churning, and you’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other. Yet you’re expected to absorb information and make decisions and plan and, oh yeah, do all of the gazillion things we women do on any given normal day.

I remember my breast cancer diagnosis, 19 years ago, as if it were moments ago. I remember the room and exactly where we were sitting – my doctor, my husband and me. I remember a few of the words: malignant, tumor, early, surgery. But mostly I remember a fear so tangible I could feel it move from my gut to my chest to my jaws to my fingers.

Thinking back to that December day, I’ve tried to recall a few of the things I’ve learned since. No two journeys are the same, but here are a few things that worked for me: [click to continue…]