December 03, 2013

Reading with Cancer

The fatigue of cancer treatment made it hard for me at times to watch a movie let alone read a book.  I also often suffered from cancer brain fog and a racing mind from thyroid hormone replacement.  I interviewed in my book, Everything Changes, young adult cancer patients who have ADD like symptoms from chemo brain.  Each of these circumstances can make it hard to follow the content of a great non-fiction tomb or a long novel, and lend themselves well to the cyclical, mind-numbing loop of facebook, youtube, and super trashy reality TV.  At first these can feel like a great salve.  Cancer brings so much stress and checking out from the intensity of life can feel healing.  But there is only so much quick fix social media and addictive reality TV I can take before I start feeling even more depressed about my brain turning into a trash can.

I am a person with intellectual inklings.  I like to read and learn, even when my body and mind aren’t in their prime.  Once while waiting an excruciatingly  long time for test results that would decide if I needed more surgery, I began reading short stories.  They have become my go-to reading ever since.  I have come to deeply appreciate the craft of short stories because every word counts.  No image, plot line, or detail is frivolous.  Everything matters.  This subtle sense of urgency in writing helps to keep my mind more engaged.  There are fewer avenues down which my mind can wander.  I like feeling this sense of focus.  It reminds me that my brain is not shot to hell; I can latch on to content and follow it through.  And, because a short story can be completed in only one or two sittings, I am more apt to remember the characters than if I am constantly picking up and putting down longer fiction.

Alice Munro is my favorite short story author.  Some readers complain that all of her stories begin to sound the same.  I agree, but instead of a detriment, I find it an asset.  I feel as though I am submerged in her world, and while living with the uncertainty and stress of a chronic illness, I am so glad to escape my world and join hers.  I almost cried when this year on my birthday it was announced that she won the Nobel Prize for literature.

If you are new to short stories and don’t know where to start, two very good collections are the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories.  These are both published yearly and can often be found at your local library.  Also, if you know anybody who subscribes to the New Yorker, ask them to stock pile their old copies for you as each issue has a short story.  The New Yorker is weekly, slender, and the perfect light weight to carry in your bag to chemo or for an extra long wait at your next doctor appointment.

For more practical tips on handling body and mind changes that accompany cancer, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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January 18, 2010

Handling Cancer, Illness, and Wedding Season?

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I love weddings (almost obsessively so) and am thrilled for anyone who is currently engaged.  But, sometimes it is damn hard dealing with wedding planning season when you’ve got cancer or a chronic illness.

Being single with cancer and no date at my brother’s wedding was hard.  I was in the midst of breaking up with a guy who couldn’t say the word “cancer”.  I was so happy for my brother and didn’t want to feel like a self-pitying sister or that I was detracting from his moment.  I tried to keep my mouth shut about it all.  I also dreaded all of the guests telling me how grrrreat I looked in that wacko-cancer-pity-adoration way.  But for all of my angst leading up to it, I decided to go totally solo, not even bring a friend date and it was the most fun wedding I’ve been to.

When it rolled around to my own wedding a few years later, I thought hard about whether at I would thank the people in my life who have been there for me during “hard times” (code words for “cancer”.)  I decided to thank people for other things, that cancer didn’t belong at my wedding.  But sometimes it isn’t possible to compartmentalize life like that; life just bleeds on through.   It’s challenging to hide baldness at a wedding or scars decorating your body.  And you can’t hide your absence at a wedding because you were too sick to go.

It’s hard to transition from staring death in the face to embracing unlimited love. Take for example Dana, a leukemia patient in my book Everything Changes, who said: “At my rehearsal dinner, I went into a bathroom stall and sobbed my eyes out. I could not believe I was at my own rehearsal dinner after everything that I went through. My friend came into the stall and sat with me. I just needed her to be there while I got it all out. It was like I suppressed all of these feelings because they were too big for my brain. It was like, ‘Look at where I’m at, I’m alive, I’ve met this man.’ I had to let them out.”

Wedding budgets, gifts, puking on your bouquet.  As a bride, groom, member of the wedding, or just a guest, what are some of the challenges that you’ve faced because of your  illness?  Do you have any weddings coming up this year?

Read about being engaged with cancer in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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January 08, 2010

Smart Responses to Stupid Comments?

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It’s frustrating and soul corroding when friends, family members, co-workers, even doctors shower you with stupid comments about your disease.    And it’s even worse to think of the perfect comeback three hours later when you are laying in bed.  Venting online with like minded patients about how we’d like to smack these people is all fine and dandy. But, I’m actually more interested in realistic responses that will make us feel better.

I’ve started trying to turn these situations around. Here’s an example: A friend recently said: “You gotta think positively and it will make your test results come out okay.”  I replied in a really nice tone: “I know, I hope everything is okay.  But did you know that studies show positive thinking doesn’t really impact cancer growth? I guess I usually just let myself feel nervous and then deal with the results when I get them.” She was surprised to learn this piece of information, became even more interested in what I was actually feeling and going through, and we had a cool conversation. So, here’s what I’ve learned to include in my comebacks.  I know this all may sounds a bit therapisty – so forgive me:

I get friendly instead of confrontational. Being a smart-ass only shuts the door. I think of my response as an invitation to more conversation, rather than a statement that will put someone in their place.

I try to teach them one thing about my life, my illness, or my reality. Not a lecture, but just one little nugget of info that helps them better understand what my life is actually like.

I start by saying something simple like: “Actually, that’s interesting I have the opposite experience…”

Does this work with everyone?  No.  There are some people I don’t have the energy or desire to deal with.  With these folks, I just note in my head, “This person’s so wacko I don’t really care what they have to say.”

What are there smartest, most useful responses that you’ve said (or could have said) to people’s stupid comments?  Am I full of it or do you think my ideas are actually applicable to situations you find yourself in?

Want to learn more especially about how to communicate with your docs?  Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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December 21, 2009

School Me on Illness and The Holidays

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I was asked to write a guest blog post for Dear Thyroid about having cancer around the holidays.  But being an atheist-Jew, I truly was at a loss for words. I had to pass. This is just not a subject I know much about.

So I thought I would turn it over to you guys to educate me a bit more about what the holidays hold in store for anyone who is facing illness.  Have at it.  Leave a comment with stories, kvetching, tips, rants, or good memories about what it is like to be sick and dealing with:

Family, food, lethargy, expectations, looking like crap, feeling like crap, feeling great when others think you should feel like crap, travel, germs, sibling rivalry, office parties, being broke, being grateful to be alive, wondering if this is your last Christmas, being on chemo or in the middle of scans or treatments or staying in the hospital during X-mas, low-iodine diets during X-mas, feeling like a loser for not having New Years plans, not caring if you have New Year’s plans, or anything else your heart desires.  School me about illness and the holidays!

Learn more about how young adult cancer patients cope with family encounters in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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October 26, 2009

Addicted to Your Illness?

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I have spent the last six years reading, researching, and writing about cancer.  I am so fulfilled by this work, but sometimes I wonder if it is always the healthiest choice of how to spend my time.

My cancer has never been in remission and it could be with me for a long while yet. Cancer is an uninvited companion in my body, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be on my mind.  Usually my expertise about young adult cancer seems like a great asset that benefits my own care and helps others too.  But lately I’ve been wondering if I have built a little cancer trap for myself.

Right now I have the luxury of feeling well.  I don’t look or feel like a cancer patient, but I think and write like one.  What would I write about and how would I spend my time if I moved cancer from the front burner to the back burner in my mind?  I don’t even know the answer to this question. And that’s a bad sign. Perhaps while I’m feeling well, I should focus a bit more on the world beyond cancer.

So I’m giving myself a little assignment.  For the next few weeks, I’m going to write one post per week that is not about cancer.  Just for the hell of it.  Just to break my little addiction to the small world of illness I’ve built up around myself.  I hope you’ll still read and comment as I experiment with the great beyond.

Do you ever feel like you need a break from focusing on illness or that it consumes too much of your identity? Do you volunteer for cancer organizations, work in the healthcare field, blog or write about illness on top of being a patient too? I’m taking requests: What would you like me to write about in my non-healthcare posts?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn more about coping with life beyond illness.

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August 14, 2009

Meshing illness and intimacy?

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This post is much longer than usual but is so raw, eloquent, and well worth taking the time to read.  Leslie Rott is a 23 year-old lupus patient and grad student at University of Michigan.  She’s the creator of Getting Closer To Myself blog. Take it away Leslie:

I have been struggling for a while, feeling like I needed to write a post about sex/relationships, but it never felt like the right time, until I read the book Everything Changes in which Kairol writes: “In my first two years of living with cancer, the number of men I slept with had more than doubled”.

When I read this sentence, I stopped cold. This line got to me because it is me – the same thing happened to me in my first two years of living with lupus. Well, if you go from zero sexual partners in 23 years, to one or two in just a few months, it might not seem like much, but for a straight-laced person like me, it caused quite a stir.

The way the people around me were acting, you would have thought I had murdered someone. Maybe murdered myself. But this has nothing to do with self-respect. Because the truth is, I was being judged on terms that no longer applied to me. Yes, the “old” Leslie, the “healthy” Leslie, would probably have never done any of that. But it was about feeling good in a single moment, one moment without pain was worth far more than the potential consequences of my actions. Feeling wanted, needed, loved (doubtful), and even “normal,” was something that I yearned for, and that was the only place I found it. To be held, to not feel alone, to feel like someone else in the world other than myself and my immediate family had a stake in all this, that was what it was about.

Illness has, at times, clouded my judgment and filled me with a sense of urgency that I never had before. Because the fact is, illness is a major head-trip. If you’re not fully secure in who you are as a person, there’s no telling what will happen.

Kairol quotes Wafa’a, a young adult cancer patient: “Cancer makes you feel really alone, and you just want to be held and feel loved. Or maybe it is a coincidence, and I’d just really want those things right now even without cancer, and it’s just part of being twenty-four. I want to matter to someone else. I want to feel like someone is thinking about me. Since being sick, I’m just looking for a bit of stability, and I think maybe having someone else to love me is it. You can’t control life so maybe you can just date and control that, but you can’t control that either.”

When I first got really sick and no one could figure out what was wrong with me, I didn’t tell anyone, but the biggest thing I was concerned about was that I was going to die a virgin. And somehow, in my mind, this singular event seemed insurmountable.

I can only imagine the reaction had I ever expressed this fear out loud. It would probably have gone over as well as telling my rheumatologist that I didn’t want to be on prednisone because it made me fat and moody. A 40-something man certainly can’t understand where a 20-something woman is coming from in these terms – to him it makes me seem shallow, ridiculous, and heaven forbid, noncompliant (probably the worst thing in the world a patient can be labeled). Because apparently, when you are sick, you aren’t supposed to think about “normal” person things. You’re supposed to transcend all that, and see that life as a mere mortal is fleeting and fragile, not something that should be squandered away worrying about the things you haven’t accomplished. Just like I didn’t think anyone around me would understand that the fear of death was overshadowed by the fear of not having lived. So, when, in a moment of no thought, I decided to end my relationship with celibacy and make sure that dying a virgin wasn’t a possibility, it’s no wonder that the people in my life, the healthy people, didn’t understand the urgency and all of the emotional work that went with it. It wasn’t about sex. It was about what came with it, what came after, and unfortunately, what was very short-lived.

I used to be the one that people envied for having my shit together. Now I’m the one fighting for control of just about everything. I don’t feel like the envied one anymore. And if the people in my life haven’t realized that this isn’t about morals or character, that it isn’t about being that kind of girl, then they can get the hell out. Because if you haven’t been sick, I don’t really think it’s your place to judge.

I think when healthy people hear about a sick person engaging in behavior uncharacteristic for them, the first thing that comes to mind is risk taking. Oh, that person is sick or dying, they feel like they have nothing left to lose. But it’s not about taking risks. It’s about living, and attempting to feel like you matter, like life is worth fighting for.

It wasn’t until I turned to a complete stranger for support that anyone in my life realized that I needed anything at all. And this is my own doing, because I was scared and confused, didn’t know what to ask for, and didn’t really want to have to ask for anything at all. But the truly ironic part is that it wasn’t until this incident that anyone in my life realized how unhappy, how depressed, how scared, and how alone I had felt for nearly two years, and how truly nonexistent my coping had become.

There were a few people in my life who applauded these efforts, who said it was about damn time. But what I really needed, was something that I rarely got, which I think could only come from other sick people, is to understand that it wasn’t about sex. It was about having lived my life a certain way for 23 years, to get burned by illness, and to be left feeling like I needed to refigure things out. So I started with the new, with the untouched experiences in my old life that had hung over my head for years, thinking maybe that’s what was missing. And what I realized, is that what was really missing was a part of myself that no one, other than myself, could give me.

Kairol talks about what it’s like to find love in the face of cancer. Finding love is hard enough. Finding love in the face of illness is definitely something to envy and hold dear, if and when you find it.

Another patient in Everything Changes says: “Be a little selfish and don’t feel guilty. Tell people how you feel and be open. Remember to tell people that you love them. Don’t play games, don’t be fake, don’t try to be tough all the time.”

Kairol herself, says: “[T]he most remarkable cancer patients are not those who are climbing mountains but those who have found a way to climb into bed at night and be honest with themselves about staring fear in the face”.

More than anything, “Everything Changes” made me realize that I have yet to really grieve about my illnesses. I tried to stay strong for everyone else around me that I forgot that maybe being strong for myself means not being strong at all. Maybe some of us never come to terms with illness. Maybe we remain forever wondering why we picked the short straw, or why our genetic makeup failed us. What I realize now is that anger – at ourselves, at G-d, at the world – is a necessary part of this process.

Kairol writes “[If] a broken heart caused cancer [or lupus, or any other disease] […]”, then all my friends would have understood my situation far better than they have. If illness could be explained in terms that even healthy people could really, deeply, intimately understand, well, maybe none of this would have happened in the first place. But I am attempting to live with no regrets, and to not beat myself up for the mistakes, er, I mean choices, I have made.

Are you as blown away by Leslie as I am?  What parts of her writing could you relate to?  Has your intimate life changed dramatically since being diagnosed with an illness?

For practical tips and resources on having sex with illness read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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July 29, 2009

Patients for a Moment

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Patients for A Moment is a blog carnival by/for/about patients.  Every other week Duncan Cross, blogger extraordinare, solicits posts from patient bloggers.  He then features them all together in a singular post on his blog.  Now he is passing the torch.  Twice a month, a new blogger will host Patients for A Moment.  This is my week to host.  Catch the next one on August 12 on Adventures of a Funky Heart.  To learn more or read the Patient for a Moment archives, visit:

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Patients for a Moment #4

In his post The Albatross, Duncan Cross writes profoundly about my favorite illness subject: s-e-x.

I used to take pride in being an overachiever, now I balk at it.  Read Baldylocks’s Exceeding Hyperdrive on The Adventures of Baldylocks: hula hoop video included.

Did you know more patients die each year from medical errors than from breast cancer?  Patient safety receives far too little attention, so I was excited that Florence dot Com wrote about it in her post I’m So Very Sorry.

On Brass and Ivory, Lisa Emrich asks an in-your-face, utterly informed, and armed with statistics kinda question about prescription drug coverage to a panel of doctors at the National Press Club, in Not Your Typical Patient. Lisa is my hero.

Novel Patient takes a flipcam to record her second infusion in Rituxan Take Two, where we watch a mundane hospital routine become personal.

Aviva from Sick Momma has been asked 100 times by her 4-year-old daughter “Mommy, when are you going to die?”  Here’s her answer in From The Mouths of Babes.

Leslie, from Getting Closer to Myself, fuses sociological perspectives on health and illness with her most recent flare of lupus, in What Does It Mean To Live In  A ‘Remission Society’?

Laurie Edwards at A Chronic Dose writes about blogging in the illness community and how it has made her a less judgemental person in On Listening and Judging.

Kate at After Cancer, Now What writes about Scars As Fashion Statements.

Cathy Bueti writes about olfactory senses and PTSD in What’s That Smell?? on her blog In My Life.

If you’re ever terrified of getting an endoscopy, Kim from Emergiblog will put your mind at ease with her post I Went, They Scoped, Now Starbucks is History.

I’d love to know which posts you’ve read and what struck you the most.  Leave a comment below.

The Everything Changes blog is a companion to my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.  Both book and blog are resources for anyone living with chronic illness.  All are welcome!

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July 01, 2009

How I’m Coping With My Incurable Cancer

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Today’s post is longer than usual. I get great emails from people who have read my book Everything Changes. I thought I’d share this one with you and my response:

Dear Kairol,
You’re the only other person I’ve found with a tricky case of thyroid cancer with no cure. How did you deal with it? Having my cancer labeled as “recurrence” worked because then we could do something about it. But now it is seen more as incurable.  The constant monitoring and the knowledge that it’s lingering sucks. Lately I’m always thinking about it. Did you just accept it at some point? How long did it take? Blogging helps a bit to get the thoughts out of my head, but it’s sort of driving me nuts. Any suggestions, advice? – Robin

Dear Robin,
You’re in territory familiar to anyone living with chronic disease. It is very unusual for papillary thyroid cancer to be incurable, but here you and I are. I’m living with two tumors in my neck and am not receiving treatment (I’m refractory) and won’t have surgery unless they grow significantly. I’m doing this under close supervision of a top-notch doc at Memorial Sloan Kettering. This approach is a recent shift for me. Your question made me reflect on how I’m coping with incurability.  Hold tight, some of this seems nauseatingly Oprah-esque but just stick with me:

Acceptance and relief. My experience is opposite yours. Knowing that my cancer is incurable has dissipated my fear and anxiety somewhat, which is hilarious considering what a high-strung freak I can be. When we still thought there was a cure, I was hyper-stressed wondering “Will treatment work this time?” “Will my scans show me as cancer free?” It seems twisted, but in this world of being incurable, I find relief in not having to grapple with these unknowns and in not having to recover from the continual and exhausting disappointment of bad news. Of course I’d rather have good news, but I’ve rarely received good news in nine years of cancer and I’m sighing with relief at calling a spade a spade.

I now mark success not by the absence of cancer but by whether the tumors have grown or stayed the same (I want to include shrinking as an option but I feel too jinxed to do that.) This is a big change that I’m still adjusting to.  And yes, waiting for blood test and scan results still SUCKS but is getting ever so slightly easier with time.  Either that or my distractions are just getting better.

Expert Care. My new doc primarily sees patients with challenging cases. He has no pity, confusion, or odd curiosity about my case. He has seen tons of patients in my shoes and can tell me what to expect. This is tremendously reassuring.

Deep Distraction. I’m good at feeling my feelings, and at finding supreme distractions: a person can only take so much wondering if cancer has spread to other organs. My book Everything Changes hit the shelves while the reality of my chronic condition was unfolding. Keynote speaking, blogging, answering fan mail, and having book parties around the country are incredible distractions. (Anyone who wants to host a book party for me – just say the word!)  There is a fine balance between running from reality and plunging into a well deserved, therapeutic lifestyle of perfectly legal distractions.  Find that balance.

Simple Comparisons. 98% of the time comparing oneself to other cancer patients is a supremely bad idea and only leads to jealousy, guilt, or worse – forced gratitude. I have found a small exception. I live daily with the intimate stories of 25 people who are in my book.  Their cancers are faster growing than mine (most papillary is very slow growing) and my survival rate is still very good.  I may or may not have to deal with some more complicated medical hell in the future.  And that scares the crap out of me.  But I know I still have a good chance of living, and compared to these other patients I have come to adore, I’m down right grateful.   I do not make these comparisons to force myself to feel better – again, horrible idea – but the comparisons are just happening naturally for me and result in some deep appreciation for my struggle and theirs’.

Being Myself. Who I am changes because I’m growing up, adjusting to cancer, and seeing the world differently as life moves on. How I feel now about my cancer today will not last forever. What’s easy for me to digest now may become harder, and then will become easier again. That’s why I love the mantra Everything Changes. It is just true.  When I’m in an hideous headspace about my cancer, I don’t beat myself up about feeling like crap. I let it be and know that it will change. Relieving this pressure helps. Seeing a therapist can be helpful too, as can my current system of therapy: baking strawberry cobblers, talking out my fears with Shannon, renting espionage movies, and remembering that Everything Changes.

Does anyone else have advice for how to live with recurrences, incurable disease, or what to do with cancer fear in general? Have you made the shift from acute to chronic and how did you deal with it? If you have other questions for me, send them my way. I’d love to answer them.

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s to learn  how Wafa’a, Geoff, Greg, and Holly Anna have dealt with illness over the long haul.

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June 12, 2009

Widening Your Cozy Cancer Community?

Being a freak in the dating world, wondering how long our futures will last, wresting with fertility, interrupting our work lives, our school lives.  Young adult cancer patients aren’t the only ones who get to lay claim to this nasty package of dilemmas.

I get incredible emails from patients who have read this blog and my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. These emails are not just from cancer patients but people who are living with cystic fibrosis, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis, diabetes. Our diseases are so different, but the similarities of our lives are astounding.

Yesterday, on the New York Times Well Blog, Tara Parker Pope had an incredible slide show called Voices of Cystic Fibrosis. Check it out. It reminded me how much I can learn by expanding beyond the little shell of the cancer community.

There are other people out there our own age who get what it means to be a virgin because nobody wants to sleep with the sick girl, or who understand all too well how to tactfully enlighten employers about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It makes me wonder if we limit ourselves too much by hanging out in the comfy cancer world. A lot of young cancer patients live in small towns where there are no cancer happy hours. So what if you go have a beer with the guy at school who has diabetes? A lot of us are struggling with health insurance or medical debt. So would young adults have more political power to advocate for change if we hooked up with other disease advocacy groups?

Do you read this blog and have a disease that is not cancer?  If you are a cancer patient, have you connected with other young adults who have different diseases?  What was it like?  What do you think about opening up happy hours, support groups, radio shows, and other young adult programming to people who are survivors of diseases other than cancer? Or, am I getting too kumbaya? (I have obsessively been watching the I’d like to buy the world a coke commercial lately).

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