Lesson 2: Make friends with your cancer

Ahem.  Picture, if you will, Bill Murray as Nick the Lounge Singer singing the following:

Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me,
Happy Cancerversary to me-eeeeeeeeeee,
Happy Cancerversary tooooooooooooooooooooo me!!!!

It has been one year since I lay in bed at 2 am unable to sleep (perimenopause, am I right?) and thought, “Hmmm, I haven’t done a self-breast exam in a while.”  That was followed by, “Huh, I don’t think that’s supposed to feel like that,” and — one year ago today — a trip to the family doctor and a biopsy the next day, and the big reveal that this is was not the benign lump scare that so many of my friends have had, it was the real deal.

One strange thing about breast cancer, unlike some cancers, is that you can have no symptoms, can feel absolutely fine, when the doctors tell you that your life is in peril.  So how do you make sense of this unseen, unknowable threat? In Memoir of a Debulked Woman, Susan Gubar describes the legion of metaphors for what lurks within the body:

Despite Susan Sontag’s admonition against illness metaphors, images insist on creeping back. “Ovarian cancer is like a cockroach, defying an arsenal of poisons,” the fashion editor Liz Tiberus declared about her sense of infestation.  Systemic, cancer can morph from a cockroach to an astrological crustacean to an insane avenger…. Christina Middlebrook explains that the shifty and mobile crab-cancer “never takes the direct path, preferring to move sideways and furtively….

The heroine in Gail Godwin’s novel The Good Husband pictures her ovarian cancer as a “gargoyle” munching on her internal organs.  To Katherine Russell Rich, cancer becomes “a panther, voracious but willing to bide its time,” but also “a cellular part of you turned wild, ungovernable….” A cankerworm, eel, embryo, or cockroach; a wilding twin, bully, emperor, beast, assassin, or demon, cancer strengthens itself at the expense of the weakened and unsuspecting human being whom it attacks and within whom it lodges to gain strength.

Eesh, is it any wonder that I found solace binge watching Stranger Things?

One of the first things that you hear when you tell people that you have cancer is to “fight hard”; war is probably the most common metaphor for the cancer experience.  And, sure, if you’re a doctor it makes sense, as you’re going to use “everything in your arsenal” to “defeat the enemy.”  But what if you’re not a warrior by nature, and what if you don’t want your body to be a battleground?  What if critiquing militaristic narratives is kind of your thing? What if someone tells you to fight, and your  first instinct is, “Can we just … not?”  I could not go to war with my body. I found it unbearable to walk around holding my enemy within my body, right next to my heart.

In a few places, I read about people attributing a less venal attitude to their cancer.   One woman imagined her cancer as “a bumbling, confused lout who postured a lot but hung around the home.”  In Life over Cancer, Keith Block recalls a man with prostate cancer who would talk to “his little cancer” every day, offering it love and acceptance in exchange for staying small and contained.

A pathologist I know provided the image above to help me understand what was going on inside of me.  Look at the large, unruly nuclei in the rapidly dividing cells, disorganized, trying but unable to form breast ducts and other proper tissue structures.  It dawned on me that my cancer was just a collection of wayward cells trying their hardest to live and grow.  They didn’t know that they were overstepping sensible limits and threatening the very terrain in which they had taken root.  I felt towards them the way that I felt about some of my more challenging students from my days as a teacher: You’re making things hard for me,  and you’re making things hard for you, but I can see that you’re just trying to get by here and that you have no evil intent.

These metaphors matter because it’s hard to find a sense of equanimity and grace when you feel that you are under constant attack.  In Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life, David Servan-Schreiber argues that the research that shows that feelings of persistent stress inhibits the immune system’s normal mechanisms for identifying and destroying cancer cells.  Rats who were implanted with cancer cells and made to feel helpless when subjected to random electric shocks were half as likely to fight off their cancer as rats who were empowered with a lever to reduce their electric shocks.  I’ll take that lever now, thanks.

For my cancerversary I got an awesome gift – an MRI and a CT scan showing that my cancer is stable and tiny.  With Stage IV, stable = WINNING.  What were once active tumors are now small lesions or smudges on the scans that may be dead cancer cells or inflammation, or may be small, contained tumors.  We don’t know exactly what the remaining cancer cells are doing, whether they are dying off or plotting their next move.  I like to think that they are mollified, enervated, kicking back on their little malignant couch, watching Netflix.

Once again, I give thanks for being one of “the lucky ones,” for the time being.  Have I made friends with my cancer?  A year ago I was curled up in a fetal position in a surgeon’s exam room, physically unable to face the truth of my body.  Now I sit calmly waiting to hear the results of the latest scan.  I can share good news: “My incurable cancer is barely detectable!” with only the slightest trace of irony or despair.  And I know that if bad news comes my way, I can face it with courage and strength and love, as so many others have done.  After all, illness is an essential human experience.  As Arthur Frank wrote in At the Will of the Body,

The ill have already fulfilled their responsibility by being ill.  The question is whether the rest of us can be responsible enough to see and hear what illness is, which ultimately means seeing and hearing what life is.  Being alive is a dual responsibility: to our shared frailty, on the one hand, and to all we can create, on the other.  The mutual responsibilities of the ill to express and the healthy to hear meet in the recognition that our creativity depends on our frailty.  Life without illness would not just be incomplete, it would be impossible.  

Have I made friends with my cancer?  Not entirely, but I know who the enemy is.  It’s not illness, and it’s not death.  The enemy is shame.  It is judgment.  The enemy is the voice that tells you that your fragile life lacks meaning and dignity.

Lately I’ve been reading Nina Riggs’ beautiful new memoir The Bright Hour, about her year after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  A poet and mother of two young boys, she makes the experience vivid and poignant and memorable.  Nina was not one of the lucky ones.  One night early in the year, when her husband said he couldn’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal,’ she responded with fierce determination: “I have to love these days in the same way I love any other.  There might not be a ‘normal’ from here on out…. These days are days…. We choose how to hold them.  Good night.”

What I’m cooking: Chinese Noodles for All Occasions, including Falling in Love

Summer has finally arrived!  This means that most days I do not feel like turning on the oven or generating much heat.

Do you remember back in the day when we used to buy cookbooks, with money, in bookstores?  Today you can find any recipe you can conceive of in a Google heartbeat, but there was a time when recipes had to be tracked down, collected, catalogued ….  I have a paperback cookbook called Fresh Ways with Pasta that I picked up for $5 from a Barnes and Noble bargain book table a couple of decades ago, and it has stuck with me ever since.  I was younger then and still learning how to cook.  Not a great improviser, all I knew about cooking was this: Find a great recipe, follow the recipe to the letter, and do not lose that recipe.  What I was learning was that some recipes just work, and they are crowd-pleasers, and you hold on to them.

This particular recipe is named Szechuan Noodles with Beef, but the title is dubious. They are more like generic Chinese noodles.  What is fabulous about this recipe is that the longish ingredient list gives it a lovely, balanced, light flavor with some umami from the beef and mushrooms.  They can be made ahead and served warm, cold, or in between.  You can swap out the beef for edamame or tofu to make them vegan.  If you double the recipe you can easily feed a crowd, so I take this to potlucks, where people slurp up the noodles and ask for the recipe.

This recipe also has a special place in my heart because it’s the first dinner I ever made for my husband.  I don’t know why I chose it except that it was probably the best thing that I knew how to make at the time.  I still remember sharing these noodles with him by candlelight in my small Cambridge apartment, where the table was in a little nook surrounded by windows that gave it the effect of being inside a lighthouse, especially on a dark January night.  Afterwards we went to see Princess Mononoke at the Kendall Square Theatre.

But it’s not just for sentimental reasons that I am still making these noodles.  I keep making them because they are perfect, and when you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  This week we celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary.  A lot of people say that marriage is hard work, but my secret, which makes for the worst relationship advice ever, is this:

If you are lucky enough to find the right person, then it doesn’t feel like work at all.

Life is work.  Life is hard.  But for reasons that I do not understand at all, being married to Rob is easy.  For years I thought that we were just lucky because we hadn’t been tested by real misfortune or challenges.  But then this past year happened.  And even as the whole world became warped and unfathomable and menacing, our marriage was as solid and warm and comforting as ever.

You know how in every romantic comedy the two leads bicker adorably to create dramatic tension?  Well, we don’t do that.  We’re more like the sidekicks to the two leads, like Carrie Fisher and That Other Guy in When Harry Met Sally, like Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in Down with Love.  So, if you’re looking for your Mr. Darcy, my advice is STOP. Start looking for your Mr. Bingley.  As Mr. Bennet says to Jane, “I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on….”  That’s me and my sweetie.

In our wedding ceremony 15 years ago today, Rob’s sister read part of Haruki Murakami’s short story, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning.”  So Gen X we were, tempering our romantic idealism with a self-conscious wink to the absurdity of finding “the 100% perfect girl/boy.” Even today, I delight in the unnecessary, goofy assertion of 100% perfection.

When you find something perfect, you hold onto it.  Ooo, that’s what they should be called.

100% Percent Perfect Chinese Noodles

Ingredients

1 lb Chinese egg noodles or rice noodles (I use white rice spaghetti from Pasta Joy)
12 oz lean beef sirloin
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in very hot water for 20 minutes and drained

Sesame-soy marinade

4 T soy sauce or tamari
2 T Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
2T rice vinegar
1-2 tsp chili paste with garlic
1-2 tsp grated fresh ginger root
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dark sesame oil
2 T canola or other neutral oil
2 T toasted sesame seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
5 spring onions, very finely chopped
handful fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped

Garnish

1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
toasted sesame seeds
fresh cilantro

  1. Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
  2. Cut the beef across the grain into julienne about 1.5 inches long and 1/8 inch thick.  Cut off and discard mushroom stems and slice the caps into thin strips.  Combine the beef, mushrooms, and spring onions with one third of the marinade.  Let this mixture sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put water on to boil cook noodles.  When they are finished, drain them and rinse with cold water so that they do not stick together or overcook.
  4. Heat 2 T of oil in a heavy frying pan or wok until very hot.  Add the beef/mushroom/onion mixture to the pan, allowing excess marinade to drain off into the bowl.  Saute just until beef loses its pink color, about 2 minutes.
  5. Place the noodles in a large serving bowl.  Add the ramaining marinade and toss with noodles.  Make a shallow well in the center of the noodles and spoon the beef mixture into the well.  Garnish with cilantro, sesame seeds, sliced cucumber.

Love Letter to Bojack Horseman

Back in the 90’s I was in a very famous TV show
I’m BoJack the horse
BoJack the horse
Don’t act like you don’t know

And I’m trying to hold on to my past
It’s been so long I don’t think I’m gonna last
I guess I’ll just try and make you understand
That I’m more horse than a man
Or I’m more man than a horse
BoJack

I recently finished watching the third season of Bojack Horseman, and I have to say, this show is brilliant.  It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s deep, it’s therapeutic.  It’s the story of a half-horse, half-man comedian who, as the oddly haunting theme song exposits, had a very successful banal sitcom in the nineties called Horsin’ Around. The show made him rich and successful, but he is haunted by his inability to recapture the magic of that early success.  In other words, BoJack Horseman is a show about the particular pains of middle age.

First world problems, you say?  Why yes, the trevails of an obscenely wealthy misanthrope may seem to be unworthy of your scarce prestige tv-viewing time, even if he is half-horse and half-man and is voiced by the brilliant and unsparing Will Arnett.  But hear me out.  The show’s emotional range is bigger than anything else on television.  The show’s humor includes ridiculous dumb jokes about its many animal characters, like how Mr. Peanut Butter, a yellow labrador retriever, drives his car with his head hanging out the window, tongue out, face radiating pure joy.  It also includes sharp satire of entertainment and celebrity culture, as in the episode in which Mr. Peanut Butter’s wife Diane accidentally tweets that she is going to have an abortion, but because she’s got a gig writing tweets for celebrity pop star killer whale Sextina Aquafina, she actually tweets that Sextina is getting an abortion, and hilarity ensues as Sextina rides the wave of social media approval that goes with her owning her fictive abortion.  And with emotional clarity, the show manages to represent the urgency of Diane’s need to end her pregnancy, the tenderness of Mr. Peanut Butter’s feelings for Diane, the absurdity of a culture in which the extremely privileged can be celebrated for pretending to have the struggles of ordinary people, and the continued relevance of women’s right to control their own bodies.

Much of the show is about the divide in the world between two types of people: those like BoJack and Diane who lead lives of quiet, overthinking desperation and those like Mr. Peanut Butter and Todd, Bojack’s houseguest/entourage/hanger-on, who are just along for the ride.  (Which camp am I in? Do you even have to ask?) Todd joins up with Mr. Peanut Butter to launch an ride-sharing service called Cabracadabra when a girlfriend mentions that as a woman she is sometimes creeped out by her Uber drivers.  In another beautiful moment of social satire, Todd tells Mr. Peanut Butter, “Turns out there’s a huge demand for a safe space for women — WHO KNEW???”  This plotline celebrates the cluelessness of corporate masculinity, as Todd decides that their safe ride-sharing service for women should move into the untapped market of male consumers, but first they need to hire more sexy drivers to attract their new target rider… and hilarity ensues.  Dark, feminist hilarity (a.k.a. the best kind).

A lot of the show builds on the contrast between Bojack and Mr. Peanut Butter, who also had a successful sitcom in the nineties called Mr. Peanut Butter’s House.  According to Bojack, that show was a pale imitation of Horsin’ Around, but that doesn’t seem to bother Mr. Peanut Butter, who, true to his lab personality, is just happy to be Bojack’s – and everyone’s – friend.  While Bojack ruminates about the hollowness of fame and obsesses about whether his life is of value and has a romantic interest in Mr. Peanut Butter’s girlfriend-then-wife, Mr. Peanut Butter just greets each day as proof of the goodness of the universe.  Bojack yearns for another career success, but he agonizes that nothing he does will ever be good enough.  Mr. Peanut Butter, on the other hand, would seem to have all the same problems as Bojack, yet he’s content to keep working on commercially successful drivel, hosting a reality show called, J. D. Salinger Presents: Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities! What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out! 

Why “Hollywoo”? In an early episode of the show Bojack steals the D from the Hollywood sign as a grand gesture for Diane, thus turning Hollywood into Hollywoo for the rest of the show.  All of the characters can be broken down by the extent to which they recognize and are troubled by the hypocrisy and emptiness of Hollywoo.  Bojack is troubled to the point of being immobilized, as is Diane.  Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s cat-agent, understands the machinations of Hollywoo as a grand game that she chooses to play, until she doesn’t anymore.  Most of the minor characters appear to willfully ignore the bullshit because the promise of success is a trade-off they’re more than happy to make.  And there’s Kelsey, a smart indie film director who refuses to surrender her intellect and integrity.  Kelsey is visibly wearied and worn down by the system, but continues to work within it using anger and bitterness as her outlet.  The show poses the question, if you are sensitive enough to see the cracks in the system, how do you continue to exist hoping to find fulfillment and meaning within that system?

So you see, it’s not just about Hollywoo, it’s actually about the human condition.  (Does anyone even say that anymore? Whatever, bear with me.)  I don’t know how you watch this show if you are under the age of 30, or 35, or 40, or 45.  You could enjoy the goofy animal jokes and the sharp satire, but how do you understand BoJack’s predicament if you are not conscious being in what Richard Rohr calls the Second Half of Life?  Rohr writes that the first half of life is the part where you build your identity, your career, and your place in the world.  This is utterly necessary and part of the human drive to have security and a sense of self.  The second half is the part where you interrogate the meaning of it all, where you face tragedy, loss, fall from grace.  I can’t quite swallow Rohr’s argument whole – after all, there’s plenty of existential contemplation in the first half of life.  But there’s something that happens to a person at a certain age, once the career path is set, the children are birthed/not birthed, relationships settle down/unravel, and one stops creating and producing for long enough to look in the mirror and face uncomfortable truths and questions.  If any of these strike a chord, you may be in the second half of life:

  • Your human needs are largely met – for food, shelter, love, stability, social support, and yet you wonder what your purpose is.
  • You have attained your goals for creating a family, a home, a career but are uncertain about how these became your goals.
  • You wonder whether you should have aimed higher, succeeded more fully, or taken a different path.
  • You wonder whether you have lived up to what you were meant to be and whether the world is better off for having you in it.
  • You wonder how you could be a more generous parent, friend, spouse, daughter, sister, colleague, intellectual to the people and world that you love with all your heart.
  • You have been so many things to meet the needs of so many different people and institutions that you wonder which is the authentic self.
  • You have to decide what to do with the rest of your life, and the path that you are on, even if it has served you well, may not be quite right.

I have a special dispensation for all of this navel-gazing, by the way.  It’s called “the cancer card.” It gives me license to live with my nose pressed up against the windshield of my own mortality (to borrow and mutilate a phrase from Susan Gubar’s wonderful memoir).  But I’d be lying if I said these thoughts weren’t lurking in the edges of my consciousness before my diagnosis.

Or maybe you don’t worry about any of this.  Maybe you’re more like Mr. Peanut Butter, who tells Diane, “Sweetie, you know I support you, whatever you want to do, but you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for in these awful made-up places. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”

Bojack’s own spiritual and psychological darkness does not stop him from pursuing and achieving continued career success, as he lands his dream role playing Secretariat and earning critical acclaim.  It’s his personal life that suffers.  In Season 3 we watch Bojack attempt to reach out to the important people in his life with authentic caring.  He tries to have a grown-up relationship and has moments of genuine grace when he moves toward accepting his past self, acknowledging the mix of pride and shame that he has for his early work on Horsin’ Around.  But the strain of caring for others is ultimately too much for BoJack and the season ends with a tragedy and BoJack’s life once again in shambles. As the brilliant Emily Nussbaum observed, “It does what ‘BoJack Horseman’ does best, allowing the most heartbreaking parts of life to leach into the genre that’s meant to soothe them.”

Except I’m not sure that Nussbaum has it right.  The absurd elements of BoJack are not just the spoonful of honey that makes the existentialism go down.  They are more like a door offering passage to truth and maybe even redemption.  They pose the question, How can you be so hard on yourself when you are making your way in such a ridiculous and nonsensical world?  We live in absurd times.  We live in a time when the leader of the most powerful nation on earth regularly lies, defames, and spreads hatred for fun and profit. It’s enough to break your heart, but joking about it allows us the consolation of seeing that we are not alone as we carefully pick our way towards a reconciliation with ourselves.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

 

What I’m cooking this week: Ramps and Rhubarb

Last fall and winter, when I was so completely devoid of energy, because chemo, I had wonderful friends and family cooking and bringing us food, and I swear I didn’t cook a single dinner for like four months.  Thank goodness.  At the end of each day (which was 4:00), I was tired enough to cry, and I often did.

Being on the receiving end of the love that dear ones put into cooking for us made me see anew how cooking is a form of care and of self-care, and eventually I was eager to get back to cooking.  I’m still pretty tired at the end of the day, so instead of cooking during the week I set aside time on Sunday to cook things that I genuinely enjoy making.  This often means trying out new recipes.

These past few weeks have been full of Ontario spring staples.  Sundays we have slow roasted fish for dinner with ramp pesto, which was a revelation when I discovered it, especially since I’m only moderately fond of traditional pesto.

The farmer’s market is full of rhubarb, so we made rhubarb compote, which is great on oatmeal, yogurt, and ice cream, and these carrot and rhubarb muffins (GF&V).

Who knew rhubarb and carrot are such a great combination?  The carrot and spices are warm and comforting and then there’s a pop of tart, juicy rhubarb.  To cap it all off, for my veggie-loving son’s birthday this weekend, I made Smitten Kitchen’s rhubarb upside down cake.  And it even popped out of the cast iron pan in the perfect upside-down shape!

This week I made these black bean and sweet potato burgers for the first time; I got the recipe when Susan the World’s Best Next-Door Neighbor made them for us last fall.

With the rest of the beans I’m going to make a black bean salad with black beans, olive oil, red onion, lime juice, corn, and cilantro. Sarah Waldman claims that you can turn a slow cooker full of black beans into a week of dinners.

Rhubarb Compote

  • 1 bunch rhubarb (about 1 lb or 6 cups), chopped
  • 1 cup sugar, or more to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • lemon zest, to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 T tapioca

Combine all ingredients except tapioca in a saucepan over medium heat.  Once it reaches a steady simmer, stir in the tapioca and reduce heat to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.

Breakfast Cookies: vegan comfort food without gluten, dairy, soy, or nuts

There are at least two ways to think about diet after a cancer diagnosis.  One way is to say, “Look, I have CANCER.  I’m going to eat whatever makes me happy,” and the other is to say, “I have cancer, FFS, I’d better find out which foods promote cancer growth and which inhibit it.”   Guess which approach I’m taking?  (My friend Rachel’s response: “I guess this is what happens when a Type A person gets cancer.”)

If you’re interested in learning more about food and cancer, a good place to start is Foods That Fight Cancer by Richard Béliveau and Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber.  It turns out that foods that promote cancer are just about ALL THE COMFORT FOODS, including dairy, sugar, gluten and refined grains, alcohol, and meat.  So I’m seriously limiting these foods, which is not as drastic a change as it may seem, since I’ve actually been eating dairy-free and gluten-free for 4 years.  The big adjustment was going from meat-loving quasi-paleo omnivore to nearly vegan.  Fortunately, there is a vegan renaissance happening, a.k.a. a “new veganism” movement, a.k.a. “vegetables forward” cooking, evidenced by a number of popular blogs and cookbooks and even a number of vegan restaurants popping up in my small Ontario city.  I’m in the midst of a deep dive into these cookbooks and food blogs, and I bring you the fruits of my labor.

Behold: The Breakfast Cookie!  This recipe is from Sarah Britton’s My New Roots. Here’s what I love about it: it’s a grab-and-go food, it provides the comfort of an actual baked good, but it also meets my onerous dietary restrictions.  Since it’s nut-free, I can put it school lunch boxes, and it has less sugar than granola bars.  (Even the healthiest home-made granola bar recipes rely on a lot of honey/agave/maple syrup to hold them together.)  This one is held together with white beans, coconut oil, and soaked chia seeds.  The orange zest gives it a really nice flavor.  However, Rob would want me to add the caveat that these are not really cookies in the sense of being sweet, sticky treats.  They’re more like healthy snacks that are shaped like cookies.

I tested this recipe with different gluten-free flours in place of the processed oats, and the texture was too heavy.  I also tried replacing the 1/4 cup melted coconut oil with one egg because I think it’s better for binding and browning, and that worked fine, though it makes the cookies not vegan.  I tried different combinations of dried fruits, and all were good.  I also tried replacing the applesauce with carrot and beet pulp from our juicer, and that was fine, too, if you’re looking for something to do with all of that vegetable pulp.  No doubt you can go to town with nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips, whatever you fancy.  If you want it sweeter, you could easily double the maple syrup.  It’s a pretty flexible recipe.

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Breakfast Cookies from Sarah Britton’s My New Roots
Makes 10-15 large cookies or about 24 small ones

1 tablespoon chia seeds
3 1⁄4 cups / 325 g gluten-free rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1⁄2 cups / 250 g cooked white beans, such as navy, white kidney, or Great Northern (about one 15-ounce / 250 g can)
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml coconut oil, melted, or 1 egg
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml pure maple syrup or raw honey
Grated zest of 1 organic orange
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml unsweetened applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1⁄3 cup / 60 g chopped unsulphured dried apricots
1⁄4 cup / 30 g  raisins
1⁄4 cup / 35 g pumpkin seeds
2 cups / 60 g organic, non-GMO cornflakes (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
    Combine the chia seeds with 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl, and set aside for 15 minutes to gel.
  2. Pulse 1 1⁄4 cups of the oats in a food processor until they resemble a very rough flour. Transfer the flour to a large mixing bowl and whisk in the remaining 2 cups oats, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. Pulse the beans with the coconut oil in the food processor until the mixture is creamy. Add the maple syrup, orange zest, chia gel, applesauce, and vanilla extract, and pulse until smooth.
  4. Add the bean puree to the oats mixture and stir until everything starts to come together. Add the apricots, raisins, pumpkin seeds, and cornflakes and stir to combine—you may need to use your hands at this point.
  5. Shape the dough into balls, and then flatten each one into a patty shape. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the bars are golden. Let cool completely before enjoying.

My young assistant demonstrated that these can be shaped as round cookies of different sizes or elongated bars or irregular lumpy masses.

Pickled Eggs

In the first trimester of both of my pregnancies, I craved deviled eggs.  I’m not sure why, but it was so strong that I irrationally worried that people around me who didn’t know I was pregnant would guess based on the insane quantities of deviled eggs that I was eating.

Anyway, we don’t celebrate Easter, on account of being Jewish, but I do love eggs.  And I love colors.  So my interest was piqued when I got a Food 52 newsletter with a recipe for pickled eggs In Every Natural Flavor and Color Under the Sun.  Using beets, red cabbage, and turmeric, we got pink, yellow, and purple pickled eggs.

If you crack the shell and leave it on, you get this:

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A nice spin on deviled eggs.

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Lesson 1: Feel your feelings

My dear children, upon learning that they were not allowed in the chemotherapy clinic, asked me to bring their teddy bear and hedgehog with me for love and comfort, and they have been at my side for every treatment. Now Pink Willy, Hedgie, and I have been through the physical and emotional wringer of 6 months of chemotherapy together, and we have felt some things.  We will indulge in sharing some of these things with you.

Friends, there are a lot of feelings that come with a cancer diagnosis, and it can be overwhelming.  The initial feelings are often of shock, disbelief, and fear.  Arthur Frank said it well in his memoir At the Will of the Body: 

What was it like to be told I had cancer? The future disappeared. Loved ones became faces I would never see again. I felt I was walking through a nightmare that was unreal but utterly real. This could not be happening to me, but it was, and it would continue to happen. My body had become a kind of quicksand, and I was sinking into myself, my disease.

It can take months or years to work through what is happening to your body and to your life story.

Many people can tell you the exact date that they were diagnosed with cancer, and they use that date to mark and celebrate their survival.  I was diagnosed with cancer in July, and that was hard, but the story really took a real turn on August 26, 2016, when the oncologist told me, “There were suspicious lesions on your liver.  We need to confirm with a biopsy, but this has implications for our goals of care.”  Goals of care.  With those three words, my heart sank.  From my work researching medical communication, I knew what they meant—that my cancer was no longer considered curable.  I went home and looked up Stage IV Breast Cancer and Metastatic Breast Cancer and found even more frightening phrases like “palliative care” and “supportive care,” terms that are familiar to me in the context of the medical care for dying.

The things that had previously occupied my mind suddenly took on a hazy, unreal quality as it became clear that the story of my life had taken a turn into cold and uncharted territory.  And the most dominant emotion was fear.  It’s natural to be afraid when you find out you have a serious, gravely serious, illness.  Afraid of what might happen.  Afraid of not knowing when the next bit of bad news will strike or what it will be.  Afraid of seeing my loved ones bear the pain and emotional burden of my illness.  Afraid of losing the life that I have crafted for myself.  Afraid of not having a place in the world now that the story I thought I was living had been put through an imaginary shredder.

The thing is, it’s hard to live in fear.  It immobilizes you and numbs other emotions.  In actuality, I was more afraid of fear than of anything else.  I was afraid that if I let myself be afraid that it would mean that things were really as dire as I thought they were.  And if I was afraid now – when I’m actually quite healthy – then how would I be able to cope if things took a turn for the worse?  Turns out that it takes more effort to push fear away than to feel it.  Facing any of life’s challenges is hard enough without the added shame of harsh judgement on one’s own emotions.  Once I let the fear in, it gave way to the grief that I needed to feel over the loss of my life as I knew it, as well as gratitude for all that I have, particularly for the love that fills my life.

Reading How to Meditate by Pema Chödrön helped a lot.  Many introductions to meditation emphasize the practice of focusing on the breath and letting go of thoughts, but Chödrön’s book is an instruction manual for what to actually do with your mind while you are meditating. She offers a series of exercises, including some that train your mind to experience emotions, even difficult ones:

You need to breathe with the emotion; you don’t breathe it away. If the emotion does dissipate, fine. That’s what just happened—and it does happen. Let it be like that. But the point is to go to our experience rather than to go to our strategies or conceptual ways of exiting. You’re breathing the emotion in, and so you’re being with it. You are it, actually. You could even imagine that you are breathing the emotion in to the heart. Imagine you are breathing it into the heart—the large heart—if that helps you.

… Over time, when we stay with our emotions and breathe with them, the emotions can morph. Here is where we really develop the undersatnding that emotions are just energy; we see that emotions are simply energy that we attach our thoughts and stories to. Anger morphs into sadness, or it morphs into loneliness, or perhaps it even morphs into happiness.  All of this can happen.

There was one fear that I was able to put to rest, and that was the fear of suffering alone.  Being diagnosed with cancer can make you feel like a non-being, cast out of society.  It is as if you have literally failed at life, as the diagnosis says, “Sorry, no life for you!”  I don’t know, maybe it’s due to some kind of primal instinct to withdraw when facing illness, or maybe it’s our late-capitalist society telling us that our worth is contingent upon our promise of productivity.  But so many people responded with love and compassion that reassured me I was very much in their hearts and still worthy of love.  I drew strength from the gifts of kind words, food, books, gifts, errands run, good company, and visits from near and far.

My worst fears have not materialized yet.  I’ve been tired, grumpy, happy, sad, silly, and run down, but I’ve made it through half a year of this cancer meshugaas.  Last week I got the results back from my latest scans.  My cancer has responded as hoped to my drug regimen, with the cancer shrinking to the point of near-invisibility.  Even my experienced physicians cannot feel the tumors when they examine me.  For now, at least, this makes me one the “lucky ones” with an “excellent response” to chemotherapy.  The joy that I feel at being one of the “lucky ones” among metastatic breast cancer patients is tinged with more than a hint of irony and poignancy.

So here I am, 6+ months in, and I can (often) say that I have Metastatic Breast Cancer without shedding even a single tear.  It turns out that the thing to do when your story has been put through the shredder is to start telling your story all over again, even if you’re not a very good storyteller, and even if you’re not sure where it’s going.  I’ve been inspired by others who have told their stories, like here and here.  And now, clumsily, I tell mine.