I’ve long made my peace with Sundays. Working as I do at home, when I’m not teaching, every day can turn into a work day. But in the last few years, Sundays have become a litany of pleasures, from my favorite radio program–Selected Shorts on NPR–at seven in the morning, followed by NPR’s Sunday Morning edition, followed by CBS Sunday Morning which lasts until 10:30, after which I might go get the New York Times with my friend Tom.

In the afternoon I might watch a football game with friends or paint something I have no business painting (like this of me with dance partner Marty), or read a good book without guilt. In warm weather I might hike the State Park, go mushroom hunting, walk around the bridges in town, eat icecream.

Sunday nights I meet friends, talk, and most fun of all, dance. I drink beer on Sunday nights, instead of my usual glass of wine, and dress up a little, in high-heeled boots if the streets aren’t icy. Bay City has proven a friendly place, a good place to make art and a life, but I like it best on Sundays.

Happy to Be Here

That old moodstone Luck can go from light to dark and back several times in a day. Being the one out of the seven women out in the real world to get invasive breast cancer isn’t a lucky lottery to win–but when I’m in the health care system, I feel positively fortunate. Many of the women I encounter are dealing with worse odds than mine. After four surgeries on the same breast, lord have mercy, it’s still there. How amazing is that? Scars transform it from just another copy into art.

Balance Act

Yesterday morning I was persuaded by the nurse, who measured both my arms and found them to be exactly the same, that I did not have lymphedema. This was followed by a long visit with the doctor who convinced me that my risk of getting lymphedema is something like three or four percent. So not only was I convinced on both counts–that I didn’t have it and that I likely wouldn’t get it–I was also impressed with my thoughtful, cutting-edge (so to speak), and careful treatment. So I agreed to get zapped after all. Today was Day 7 out of 33.

But it was no surprise that I freaked out at the first sign. I’ve been getting double messages on the subject of lymphedema. During my first visit I was handed an article that warned of more ways to get lymphedema than you could shake a stick at, my grandma would have said. Even a hang nail could set me up with a fat arm for life! How could I not panic? I’ve been without my right arm function for as long as a year and it is, for me, as painter, writer, and college English teacher, a special place in hell.

Despite the many ways to get lymphedema, including showering in water too hot or too cold, washing dishes, touching a hot pot, insect bite, small cut or scrape, apparently only a small percentage of breast cancer patients ever get it. If we are so vulnerable, how come more of us aren’t running around with a fat arm?

It’s all a balance act: Being unusually careful of my arm but not worrying too much; allowing myself to grieve my losses while aware that most patients at my treatment center are facing worse; being grateful for caring people while forgiving them things they say or don’t say that irritate me–I can be so self-absorbed that I don’t always find out what’s happening with them. Life is beginning to resemble those computer games my son used to love so much–there are many levels of difficulty.


I was told that there’s only a one chance in ten that I’d get lymphedema, but here again, I’m not doing so well with the odds. I wonder what the odds are that I’d get invasive breast cancer (one in seven) AND suffer lymphedema (one in ten after surgery plus radiation)?

I’d been doing just fine, but suddenly, I’m very upset. I can’t risk permanent lymphedema because I make my living with that arm. I may decide to quit radiation if I find that my nodes are being radiated. I had no cancer in my nodes and did not give permission to have them radiated. So today I’m skipping treatment and going to physical therapy and seeing both my radiation oncologist and my surgeon.

It turns out that the hardest thing about serious illness is not just dealing with pain, loss, or even the threat of death, but the decisions that come up, often without warning, many of which are not much different than betting on odds, or deciding between the risk of one bad thing against the risk of another. Which bad thing would I hate most? What are the odds of that happening given my present treatment?

Things can change, for better or worse, on a dime. One minute I’m not in the woods, the next I’m not out of the woods.

About the picture: Here’s “She’s So Brave” after I scrubbed off all the paint layers. I’m feeling kind of raw right now, so I’ve left it that way.

She’s So Brave

OTPION A: Having found a lump in my breast, I ignore it and pretend I’m okay. OPTION B: Having found a lump in my breast, I check it out, consult the appropriate health professionals, research my treatment options, and decide to refuse treatment. OPTION C: I go with Option B, except that I accept treatment. OPTION D: I kill myself.

Seems to me that all my options require courage, even Option A–I’ve watched two friends die a long and horrible death after going with Option A, and they were as brave as they come. There is no one answer: any one of these options might be an appropriate measure at one time or another. When you suffer (good word here) large, unescapable losses, as any disease will bring, you don’t really have a choice: You have to be brave.

I have noticed, however, that I do seem to live with a little more grace than usual. I always wanted more grace but, being an extravert who reaches for the telephone under stress, I’ve spent my life envying introverts, whose withdrawal under stress appears to protect them from being observed during life’s more undignified moments. Not me. I am loud about pain. I’m even on the internet. Still, after facing some of my biggest fears, I find myself still here. Compassion, one of the gifts of grace, is unavoidable as most of the people I encounter are (at least up to now) facing far worse than I am.

During the last three days, I have tried to paint myself being sort of brave but not really, and the painting came out pretty well–it was actually recognizable as me–except that I didn’t quite like the expression and the right eye was too high. Thankfully, I photographed it before I “fixed” it beyond all recognition. I could never make it look like me again. I really do like this painting and next time, before I go fixing something that might not be so bad after all, I’ll just start with a clean slate. Can’t do that in life very often, but art is more forgiving.

Special Powers

I may not be getting endowed with special powers, but my jokes might be. Last week, I told my two young, patient techs that I’d just experienced a "wardrobe malfunction" in the hall. They knew exactly what I meant. The worn, faded, often tie-less gowns provided for us breast cancer patients were designed to tie in the back, but we are instructed to tie them in front and our breasts keep flopping out of them, sometimes in public places.

I was making a joke. Who cares who sees me–I’m fast losing my modesty and anyway it was the breast that is still there, thank heavens, and looking good. So, taking advantage of their embarrassment, I suggested I just wear a cardigan. It’d be easier for all of us. “Sure,” said my affable tech, “Why not?”

So now I do. Meanwhile, two days later, a pile of pink tie-in-the-front mammogram gowns showed up in the ladies’ dressingroom. Did my joke cause this to happen? Who cares. We joke a lot, we in this cancer boat. Our humor genes get exercised and muscled up pretty good. I may cry more these days, but I laugh more too.

Bluehead Wrasse

The wrasse family, which frequents coral reefs, including those off Florida, should be a main contender for the fish fashion award. The entire bunch boasts a smashingly varied wrasse wardrobe–even the parrotfish family, style stars as well, can’t quite compete. If I were designing for the Paris runways, I’d start with a Wrasse Collection.

Radiation Begins

Then, my right breast began to ache. It hurt inside, hurt to press my arm against it, not terribly painful but disturbing. I began painting, a distraction. I’ve decided to paint fish portraits because it’s kind of mindless and absorbing at the same time. There are so many fabulous fish that I will never run out of them, never have to think up a new idea for the day, and I’m at least doing something.

I ate a good breakfast, painted for awhile, and then I began to feel, not tired, but weepy. I couldn’t stop crying for several hours. My breast hurt and everyone said it wouldn’t so what’s wrong with me? Am I making this up? Is it psychosomatic? Am I just creeping out?

I just kept painting my fish. Now, about eight hours after my treatments, I am feeling better, not hurting as much, calming down. At least I finished this Queen Parrotfish. I saw several of these, each about as large as my shoe, two weeks ago with my friend Rowland from a glass-bottomed boat off Key West.

My Friend Tom

I had a hard time getting the colors in this portrait right. I did it in acrylic on a 15- x 22-inch sheet of gessoed 140-lb. watercolor paper. I’m not painting on that flimsy stuff any more. Watery paint kept gathering in the valleys of buckling paper. I’m beginning to prefer acid-free illustration board or 300-lb paper that will take almost anything. Canvas is good, too, but then I’m stuck with the format–I can’t crop out anything if the composition doesn’t work. And sometimes it’s fun to run some pastel over things, which I doubt would hold well on canvas.

I took my finished portrait over to show Tom this morning and he was, as I’d hoped, highly amused. Anyone who knows Tom would recognize him here, and just that I find pretty funny.

Life on the Toadtanic is part of a series I’m doing celebrating friends (and maybe me). (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

Radiation Simulation 2

I seem to be full of dread at the idea of being invisibly but effectively pinioned prone on a table by huge machines. I’ve been x-rayed more times in the last week than probably in my whole life. (And I was worried about dental x-rays?) But here’s the thing: I’m probably better off than anyone else I see coming and going at radiation oncology, although I probably ask more questions. I think all my doctors consider me a difficult patient.

Last night I talked to a friend who endured the same series of 33 (5 times a week for almost 7 weeks) radiation treatments for breast cancer as I am about to, and at the same radiation oncology center. She handled it, she said, by detaching, numbing out, and pretending she was a robot. She claimed that she never said boo, just went in and did it.

So each of us handles stress in our own way. I find everyone I meet there, staff or the women coming for their 12-minute zap, bald or wigged, starting treatments or almost finished, all of them good-natured and kind.

¬†Tomorrow I start the real thing–1/33. I’m really feeling terrific these days. Let’s see how long that lasts.