HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO STEVIE… by Britt

When Kim suggested we fete Stevie for an unexpected 49th birthday surprise, I was ALL IN. I bet most of us are double booked for any Saturday during the holi-daze, but this is one of the few things I actually wanted to do. Can’t think of many better things than joining a gaggle of Lovers of Steve to raise a glass in his honor.

That event prompted me to go back—way back—through hundreds of Facebook messages where Stevie and I became buddies. Reading these silly essays over the past five (FIVE!) years, one might assume Stevie and I have been besties since the ‘80s. But we weren’t. Back in college, I was only loosely connected to Steve. He was the popular older boy, wickedly smart and funny, a writer for Trinity Tripod, and “in” with all of the pretty, talented people. I’m sure I hardly registered on his radar in the ‘90s. I was a younger, dorky Biology major with Sally Jesse Raphael frames and no fake ID. I would never be game show cool.

remote-control

Remember Remote Control? Stevie was on it, and won.

But by 2008, I was a stay at home Brookline mommy with 3- and 4-year old boys. One day my gorgeous, Swedish babysitter set up a Facebook account to message her for gigs. Email was for, like, old people, Ingrid said. Within months, the Facebook algorithm matched Stevie with me, and once we learned we sort of knew each other, lived only a few miles apart, and had similarly inappropriate things to say to each other on line, it was instant friendship.

Three years later our text messaging and occasional in person catch-ups became something deeper. I got breast cancer. Stevie was divorcing and then… dating. There was much to discuss. Reading through those old Facebook exchanges I can feel the comedic relief Steve was sending me through the interspaces. Surrounded by stifling, helpful, baffling, wonderful, and hilarious Asian relatives, I maintained sanity trading short messages with Steve that still make me giggle. I swear he suffered through at least one date with a crazy woman merely to provide stories for my amusement. Bald, poisoned, mutilated, and badgered by relatives insisting I eat papaya soup, I retreated to my bedroom and laptop to laugh with Stevie. This little exchange was about a woman we nicknamed “Chinatown.” That thread is too racy for even this crowd… but here’s a sample.

SS:  Black leather jacket or peacoat?











BL:  It’s fucking cold and leather is trying too hard.











SS: Agreed











BL:  And you don’t want her to think you’re one of those guys that is always hot and sweating. Wear a jaunty scarf. We like those, too.




 We, meaning me. And it’s optional.











SS:  I don’t like this online thing– I’d much rather a reference from you: “He’s a little hairy and out of shape, but worth it.”









 I don’t do jaunty scarfs. Do I need to get one? What color/style?

BL:  Forget the scarf. I’ll get it for you.




 She is welcome to message me any time on Friday. I have no biopsies planned. And I will totally vouch for your worthiness.




 And who wouldn’t take to heart the words of a hot, dying girl?










 SS: “My friend and shiksa goddess Britt has cancer, but is more focused on me. As it should be.”











 BL: Too much? I’m not dying. Really. But you can use it to get into Chinatown.











 
SS:  I can work up a tear. You would have wanted it that way.











BL:  But if my Komen fight can get you laid, then you’re coming to Church with me on Sunday.











SS:  If I can get laid after LUNCH, I am accepting Jesus as my Lord, Savior and King.

We didn’t realize this was the start of our back and forth blogging at the time, but I quickly recognized Steve’s appearances in my comments were just as popular as my on line posts. So did he. This message preceded one of our first shared writing ventures that was featured by WordPress and continues to be circulated.

SS:  The blog keeps getting better. I think you should invite guest bloggers. I think I should be one. Because I always try to make things about me. And I’m pretty fucking funny.

I agreed heartily. Still do.

Last year, in a devastating show of solidarity and commitment to the blog and our friendship, Stevie got cancer. The mutilating surgery, go bald kind. Seriously, Stevie… this was above and beyond. As a veteran, I had an arsenal of right things to say. I had experience, expertise, and empathy. But I was angry and sad and scared and terrified. Fuck cancer and the rogue cells and fates that choose its victims. To date Steve has written funny and poignant essays about love, loss, life, death… and, you know, marshmallow fluff.

And now our friendship is the stuff of books and movies and really something that we are too lazy to actually capitalize on. We’ll tackle that in 2017. But tonight, celebrating the eve of his 50th year on the planet, knowing he is marinating in love and friendship, I want to tell the world (or at least our limited readership) that I love him dearly and think somehow ours is the most special friendship. And I’ll bet many of us feel exactly like this—that we have a particularly funny and fantastic friendship with Steve that is unmatched. Thank you for making me feel special by inviting me to be a part of your weird and wonderful world.

Happy Birthday, Stevie.

xoxo

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Committees

Sitting at a cute café in Brookline this morning, sipping my chai latte and waiting for the rest of the committee to arrive, I thought, “In the New Year, I resolve to be on fewer committees.” A minute later my phone reminded me that today is the 19th, and our committee meeting is on the 20th. So although I have an extra shopping day (yay!), I still have another committee meeting tomorrow morning (boo).

For someone who doesn’t “work,” I have seven different committee meetings on the calendar just in December. If I count all of the Boards and focus groups and nominating and discerning and development committees, there are 11 different tables I’m scheduled to appear, drink the coffee, offer my input, take the minutes, and probably plan something. And I’m definitely forgetting a few. Why am I on umpteen committees? I’m going to figure it out in the New Year.

There are upsides to being a Committee Girl, and the first is that most of these groups include people I adore, lots of giggling happens, often there are baked goods, and Important Things are accomplished. If you know me even the teeniest bit, you know I’m a cheerleader for Steps to Success which supports and champions kids who live in public housing in Brookline. Most people think Brookline is flush with millionaires, and they’re not wrong. Tom and Gisele live here. But 13% of our neighbors are living in poverty, and until that number is zero, I’m going to keep talking about Steps to Success. Steps to Success. Steps to Success. Steps to Success. Get your checks in the mail.

I’ve also urged the local lot of you to Shop for Jesus, also known as the Christmas Market at the Church of the Redeemer. Since 2008, we’ve raised and given away a half million dollars to Boston’s “unhoused,” food pantries, St. Stephens Church, and oodles of other worthy organizations. So if you came and bought a sweater or some chocolates or commissioned Pete to draw your house or dog, you “gave,” too. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Though the work is rewarding and the people are wonderful, when staring at a calendar riddled with meetings, even the most chipper committee girl begins to wonder if someone else could take her place at some of these tables. Recently, I met one. Though we’d been friends-of-friends on Facebook, in person this was a seriously gorgeous gal. I mean, she is totally television pretty having been, you know, on television. She was all cute and tiny after giving birth, like, a minute ago. And with her handsome doctor doting husband sitting by her side, she admitted she wasn’t returning to work in the media, but was looking for a meaningful volunteer job once the kid got a little bigger.

This girl is low hanging fruit, thought Chipper Committee Girl. I braced myself to assail this unsuspecting beauty with poverty factoids and inspire her to devote her time and checkbook to my causes. Already I fantasized tapping into her media savvy and got excited about the possibility of having someone without an AARP card on my development committee.

I want to do something with animals. Pretty soon we’re getting a pig.

A snort might have actually been expected from me, because I am a terrible person. But after watching her delight talking about animals and her husband’s bemused acquiescence to the certainty of imminent pig ownership, Chipper Committee Girl crumpled up her pitch and vowed to stop trying to recruit everyone. Certainly the animals need their champions, too. And although cats make me sneezy, doggie poop bags make me dry heave, and anything in a tank doesn’t belong indoors, even I have to admit those teacup pigs are irresistible. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing them on Facebook already.

The second upside to being Crazy Committee Girl is, occasionally, a welcome distraction. A creepy and actually not so very nice elementary school teacher often said, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Ten year old me would picture a tiny horned dude in a red suit engaged in odd carpentry inside my lazy, lazy head. And if I go back to posts from five years ago, I can read the dark thoughts of an idle mind trapped indoors and awash with cancer fighting poisons. This year, I was too busy with meetings to wallow in Cancer-versary memories. But it’s been five years, y’all. I should probably plan a party. Who wants to be on Britt’s Party Planning Committee? We’ll only meet once. And there will be cocktails.

Merry Christmas, friends! And may the New Year find you only on committees whose work blows your hair back… or makes you more excited than a kid on Christmas morning (who just got a teacup pig). Snort snort.

teacup_pigs

What is cuter than a teacup pig? TWO TEACUP PIGS.

Cancer, Facebook, and Harley Quinn’s Ass

Dear Facebook Love Your Spouse Challenge,

It’s not you; it’s me. Typically happy to over-share and post flattering photos of my beloved and me holding cocktails on decks and beaches, I’m not going to do this competitively. Like many, I am exhausted of arguments that we can’t do anything if it alienates, triggers, ignores, belittles, or otherwise doesn’t include everyone on the planet. But your recent “challenge” made me mindful of how my newly widowed, freshly divorced, or not perennially-euphoric-about-her-spouse friend might dry heave at seven separate updates of Bernie and me being, well, Bernie and Me. Also, if you’ve ever read EMB (now B&B), the early years are more a tribute to my husband than Suicide Squad is a 2-hour homage to Margot Robbie’s ass.

I realize I just compared Bernie to a perfect posterior. And though he’ll appreciate that, it’s probably not what your Challenges intend us to do. Seven days of Prove You Love Your Spouse means posting pictures holding Solo cups in dorm rooms, cutting the wedding cake, blissfully unflattering moments with the first baby, and then finally the whole family at the beach/on the boat/in front of the Eiffel Tower. I don’t have any of these (where I look fantastic). So forgive me if I don’t play.

Truth be told, I avoid anything that smacks of audience participation. I ignored the Ice Bucket Challenge. I have zero interest in riding a bike from P-town to kingdom come– even in the name of Cancer. I won’t come up on stage or whoo hoo. I will raise one limp arm for The Wave. When asked to high five my neighbor in spin class, I’ll give an enthusiastic slap… but secretly I’m irritated to be pulled into her endorphin moment and peer pressured to touch her gross, sweaty hand.

It’s not you. It’s me. I’m outwardly sunny, inwardly a little bit awful. Recently, a beautiful friend who I honestly enjoy introduced me as “the nicest mean person I know.” And I started wondering when that happened. Thing is, Facebook, Cancer made me kind of a jerk. Touched with scary disease at a young-ish age, I was launched prematurely into that personality given to older, barely-tolerating-you characters (Dowager Countess, Emily Gilmore, most of the cast of Steel Magnolias). Breast cancer knows no “remission” and so there is a might-be-dead-next-year slogan stamped in the darkest parts of my psyche no matter how favorable my five-year statistics. So I do not pretend to like or join in or ride or run or care if I don’t.

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A sweet neighbor keeps offering up inventive ideas for Family Fun. My consistent answer: “That sounds tiring.” Others might promise to visit that lighthouse, take that cooking class, or brave that water park teeming with Pseudomonas, even if they never would. But like the Dowager, I won’t feign enthusiasm for their exhausting activities for entertainment and betterment. The Olympics are on! And someone needs to hold down this couch.

And so, Facebook, when you playfully challenge me to Prove My Love for My Husband, my answer is, “Nope.” I wonder if other Cancer victims have adopted this gave-at-the-office sort of approach to peer pressured pursuits, no matter how silly or innocuous or feel-good they might be. And I honestly adore seeing Kodak moments of the people I love as they post seven days of lovey doviness. But my inner Cancer bitch (is this a thing?) prefers me on the sidelines, even if a teeny part of me knows that if I enter any Love Your Spouse Challenge… I. WILL. WIN. Because it’s Bernie, a husband lovelier than Margot Robbie’s butt.

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They’re probably asking her if she does SoulCycle…

 

 

Stabbing Myself in the Back… by Steve Safran

I lied.

I said I wasn’t going to write about cancer anymore, but the after-effects have become overwhelming and it’s time to share a little more.

So here it is. My back catches on fire.

Ok, I mean that figuratively, because this “burning back” feeling has a name: neuropathy Neuropathy is common in chemo patients– about one in three get it. Think of it as pins and needles, only the pins are sticking you from the inside and the needles are hot enough to push through steel.

It comes in attacks, and there’s generally no way to know when. I have a few indicators: I’m more prone to neuropathy when I’m hot. Even having hot soup can bring on an attack. I get more attacks when I’m tired. I get it if I’ve been walking. So as long as I don’t move or go to sleep, I’m fine.

Now, I’ve had all sorts of side- and after-effects from chemotherapy and I’m happy to make the trade in exchange for the not-having-cancer bit. However, I’m finding the nerve damage to make for a terrible Catch-22.

Some background: During treatment, cancer docs want you to keep eating. This is to keep the nausea at bay. Also, nearly every local loved one is delivering casseroles, soups, baked goods, and lasagnas. Unfortunately, eating is the last thing you want to do during and after chemo. But they recommend 2,000 – 3,000 daily calories and avoiding an empty stomach. You know that lightheaded, skipped lunch, nauseous feeling when you’ve slogged through a busy day on coffee alone? Imagine that times chemo.

But they say you need to eat. And you can eat anything. Really? 3,000 calories of Ben and Jerry’s? OK, you’re the doctor. So I ate. I ate without joy. I ate in bed. Not good.

Truth: I’m heavy. I’m 5’7” and weigh 230 lbs. Not quite Homer Simpson, but more than the standard, doughy “Dad Bod.” My ideal weight is 150-175 lbs. When I found out I had cancer, I weighed 226 lbs. When I was finally declared cured, I weighed… 227 lbs.

I put on weight while I had cancer.

If I can’t lose weight on cancer, what chance does Weight Watchers have?

So now, with “remission” and NED (no evidence of disease) notations in my medical chart, it’s time to get back into shape. Only– the neuropathy. My energy is low. The cure? Exercise. The bad cholesterol is too high, the good one is too low. The way to reverse that? Exercise. My blood sugar needs to come down. The remedy? You get it.

Except as soon as I start moving, my back, legs, and shoulders start a conflagration suitable for a Fourth of July bonfire. Get your marshmallows on your sticks, kids. Stevie’s on the treadmill.

Oh– did I mention what else helps neuropathy? Exercise.

I’m taking a fibromyalgia medicine they give those poor folks who are in a constant, unrelenting nerve pain that I cannot imagine. I get bouts of the fire needle attacks, but they go away. To feel like this all the time? Insane. I’d rather vote Trump.

I’m going to try swimming: cooler water, less pressure on the joints, less overheating. Maybe it will do some good. My Body Mass Index indicates I’m certainly buoyant enough.

The list of things that happen after cancer is getting long and, unfortunately, interesting. It may be time for a book. Working title: “Cancer: So, You Think The Disease Was Bad…”

funny-fitness-cartoon-1

My (Mostly) Final Word on Cancer… By Steve Safran

I don’t want to be known for the rest of my life as “The Cancer Survivor.” I don’t even want to be known by that label for the rest of the year. So this is my final post– more or less– on the topic. It’s not that I’m going to ignore cancer. It’s just that it’s time to get back to the regularly scheduled programming in this space.

Cancer can make you that person on social media. You know that person:

“The One with Four Thousand Pet Pictures”

“The One with ALL the Opinions about Obama/Trump/Vaccines/Guns”

“The One Who Posts Photo Memes” (so many photo memes)

“The One Who Should be Flogged with a Selfie Stick”

Admittedly, since I was diagnosed in May, my essays have been narrowly focused on reacting to that. But moving on, I don’t want to be “The One Who Only Posts About Cancer (but Didn’t He Used to Have a Sense of Humor)?”

For someone who didn’t immediately disclose his diagnosis on line, I guess I’ve come full circle wanting to give my timelines a break from cancer. For someone who has been paid to advise people to tweet and share and like and network, I wasn’t sure this felt right back in May. So I asked a friend, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, how they decided to update everyone via social media.

I can boil down his advice as follows: People are going to find out anyway, so they may as well hear it from you. And once you decide to share, you owe it to your friends to update them on your progress. In the absence of information, they’ll assume things are getting worse. And vague updates are a really quick way to anger, worry, and annoy your “followers” even when you don’t have cancer.

So, I wrote. I shared the stories about the diagnosis, the weird hospital experiences, the humiliation and, yes, the very dark humor there is to be found in cancer treatment. My friends, supportive blog readers, and my growing circle of cancer survivor allies kept responding positively, so I kept writing. It was the only aspect of The Cancer I had any control over.

This past month, I’ve been raising money through a very silly cancer fundraiser called The Movember Foundation. I’ve grown a mustache, and friends have donated money—many have ignored their razors in hairy solidarity, too. The generosity has been remarkable: My friends have donated $3,200 to charities that concern themselves with testicular and prostate cancer, as well as other men’s health issues. I am honored, humbled, and grateful.

I’m cured now. “Movember” ends tomorrow. It’s time to get back to life without chemo and end the run of cancer-centric posting. I need to write about the new experiences, humiliations, and dark humor that 2016 will bring. I need to find a job. I need to post stupid jokes, mock Britt’s gardening obsession, poke fun at Debby’s height and Jason’s bald head (now that my hair’s back) and, possibly, be a little nicer too.

I want to be known as a lot of things: a friend, a dad, a colleague, a wiseass, a writer, an off-key singer, and a Sox fan. I’d like people to know I’m one of the world’s most average ukulele players. I want to be known as trustworthy, sincere but a little too sarcastic, open to new ideas and yet still set in my ways. I even like being known as “The One Hit by the Bat at Fenway.”

As for now, I’m finished being “The One Who Had Cancer.”

Steve Movember

‘Stash-tastic Stevie

A Guide for Post-Cancer Patients and their Caregivers, by Steve Safran

First, a thank you. I am overwhelmed by the reception I received for my article “After the cure, the cry.” Britt tells me 1,000 people read it. Many people—friends and strangers– have contacted me and shared their personal stories with cancer, recounting their own illness or remembering a family member who went through it.

Grappling with my own, complicated emotions in the post-treatment period, I found a great many resources out there for people suffering through “Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress.” The important message in all of these is this: You are not alone. These words from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) ring true.

“Symptoms of post-traumatic stress usually begin within the first 3 months after the trauma, but sometimes they do not appear for months or even years afterwards.”

(Mine began about three days after learning I was in remission.)

I kept asking myself, “I’m in remission. So why do I feel so miserable?” The NCI list of key triggers for PTSD made me wonder how anyone escapes this. As a cancer patient, you’re hit with a series of terrifying events, any one of which would be stressful. Combine them, and they make a mighty cocktail of traumatic triggers:

– Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness

– Receiving treatment

– Waiting for test results

– Learning the cancer has recurred

To that, I would add that only doctors on TV ever say, “You’re cured!” so we live with “Learning the cancer may recur.”

Side bar from Britt: Still reeling from these events, you can imagine how odd and occasionally irritating all of these Stay Strong Be Positive Awareness campaigns can be. With everyone gleefully praising the bravery and strength of cancer patients, while walking their own healthy bodies all over town for a happy cure, we might feel a bit of guilt or anger that we’re unable to pretend it’s all over. We might have (temporarily) beat cancer into some undetectable submission, but it is an albatross to our peace.

Cancer patients aren’t the only ones subject to PTSD. Caregivers are susceptible, too.

“PTSD can also affect caregivers. Learning that a loved one has cancer, seeing a loved one in pain, and experiencing a medical emergency are traumatic events that may contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms during treatment or years after the person has survived the cancer.”

So families and caregivers need support, too. For me, cancer was a full participation, family event. My parents, my sister, and of course, my kids weren’t shielded from the times I was in pain or scared. We’ll need to keep “checking in” to gauge the fallout of this on each one of us. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into how my disease would influence their feelings in the future. Now I will.

What should we do about this? Is there a way to proactively safeguard our loved ones in the aftermath? Actually, yes. There are a few recommended steps. The first is everyone should have an opportunity to talk to a psychiatrist. Having a trained professional define the trauma and help identify its effects on your worldview can be enormously helpful. Also a doctor can and will, if necessary, prescribe medication. It’s been my experience, so far, that making sense of things with a psychiatrist is as much a part of healing as growing new hair. Holding in feelings of any sort is not healthy. Exorcizing those thoughts with a trained professional– not just your friends– is the way to metabolize them. This is just as important for caregivers and loved ones to consider as well. While your best friend or loyal sister is a great listener, a third party relieves her of trying to comfort and be comforted: You can’t be the patient and the therapist.

Another way to heal? Mindfulness. I’ve only just started to learn about this, so forgive me for being new to the effectiveness of this practice. Mindfulness, to be reductive, is yoga and meditation without all the New Age, crystal-waving, stand-on-one-leg, astrology-reading bits. And there is scientific proof that it works:

“A controlled study published in 2000 looked at 90 cancer patients who did mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation for 7 weeks. They found that people who meditated had 31% lower stress symptoms and 67% less mood disturbance than people who did not meditate.”

I love controlled studies. They beat the heck out of well-meaning friends who say, “I have a cousin who only eats pomegranates and he’s been in remission for 30 years.” I went so far as to switch to a specialist trained in mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness isn’t faith-based, and doesn’t actually require that you post inspirational quotes over blurry skies on Facebook. A good friend observed: “So those cultures that have been doing this for thousands of years probably knew something after all?” Go figure.

If you are in cancer recovery or in caregiver remission, please pay attention to signs of PTSD, take advantage of the many resources available to you, and never forget that you are not alone. I’m overstating the point, but as I’ve said before: “You think the treatment is bad? Wait until you’re cured!”

Britt cannot resist science puns...

Britt cannot resist science puns…

After the Cure, the Cry… by Steve Safran

I broke down crying in Target today. Just started blubbering. People must have thought I was really upset they were out of the $9.99 sale sweatshirts.

This will be heavy. This is not the usual, lighthearted stuff I want to write. But this blog has always been weirdly honest, even when Britt and I have been at our jokiest. I like to think we’ve put stuff out there that’s tough to discuss, and more uncomfortable to admit. And right now, things are difficult for me.

I didn’t cry much during treatment for testicular cancer. Not when I was diagnosed. Not when I was in pain. Not when I spent endless hours in the hospital, frustrated at the lack of attention, information, or prompt pain management. Hardly a tear. Now that I’m in remission and feeling well enough to shop for sweatshirts at Target?

I can’t stop crying.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, as Londoners were faced with being obliterated by the Luftwaffe, the incidence of mental illness dropped. Fewer people visited psychiatrists. Even as the Germans tried to kill them, Britons actually experienced less stress and need for psychiatric care. You can chalk that up to the famous British stiff upper lip, but it’s likely something more universal: when you’re under attack, you don’t have time to worry.

This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Soldiers don’t get depressed in the field. But for years after– even for the rest of their lives— they can be haunted by the trauma they saw and endured. It’s only after the battle is done that your mind takes a beat: “Hey. Wait. What just happened?”

Thus, me, cancer… and the crying.

Right up to the moment they were rolling me into the operating room, I felt absolutely fearless. I was even indignant that the surgeon was running late. I was pretty drugged up, but I know, I absolutely know, I didn’t feel scared at that moment. I said, “Let’s do this” with all the bravado of a warrior. Let’s go in and smoke out the enemy. The camo was on, the war paint was smeared, and I had readied myself for battle, albeit wearing a backless nightie in a sterile room with polite nurses and soft rock.

Of course, I had an initial cry of relief. The release. It felt good. Someone with CT scan results and authority said, “remission,” that no more treatment was needed, and boy was that cry-worthy. But within just a couple of days, I switched into a very different gear. And things got dark. And I started to think…

My body tried to kill me. Twice.

First it betrayed me with cancer, and then a week later it attacked me with a pulmonary embolism. I’m having a hard time forgiving my body for that. To be struck by an enemy soldier is one thing; to be attacked from within? My body tried to kill me and when it wasn’t successful the first time, it tried again.

Bastard.

Now my body has scars. They embarrass me and they will never go away. I have had far more difficult emotional days since being cured than I did while undergoing chemo. I have hospital flashbacks, picturing needles and bags full of chemicals and it’s all horrible like some sort of far-off, war-torn jungle. Also, now I get a lot of eye boogers. Apparently chemo messes with your tear ducts. Not enough to stop the crying, apparently, but another daily reminder that I needed tear duct-poisoning medicines to ensure my survival.

I’m getting help. I talk with a psychiatrist who says he’s a “big fan of crying.” I see what he means. It metabolizes the pain. Crying is the most human response to all of the loss: losing parts of my body and, at least for now, any sort of confidence that it won’t betray me again.

There is appreciative crying, too. These tears spring from a different place. I think back on all the people who helped me–  all of the people who volunteered their time or simply gave a thumbs up to a posting. Cancer can remind you that you’re actually very loved, and the overwhelming gratitude in the aftermath makes it occasionally hard to speak without choking up.

It has been about four weeks since I learned the chemo worked. And I’ve gone from crying all the time to maybe once a day. So maybe there’s something to this business after all. It’s not manly, at least not in the traditional “suck it up and be a man” sense. But I think I get a little leeway on the “manly” front after getting the kind of cancer that requires the removal of an intimate chunk of physical manliness. The chunk, by the way, that was trying to kill me.

How do I forgive my body for attempted suicide? How do I come to terms with forever being branded a “cancer survivor,” or letting go a carefree notion that serious illness is something that happens to old people that aren’t me? How the hell do I get over this?

I don’t know. For now, I cry.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news.

Happy, grateful crying when Stevie got the good news. Also, another example of how nurses are awesome.

WTF, by Steve Safran

An oft-viewed post on this little site is What to Say to Someone with Cancer. That gets a lot of hits as October nears and everything from eggbeaters to sock garters is dipped dyed pink as otherwise good people Sympathize for Awareness. The best reaction to my crap news was similar to Steve’s. Matt phoned just to say, “FUCK. Should we go get drunk?” Stevie outlines the reasons why these expletives are the best.

Of all the reactions I received telling people I had cancer, the most empathetic came from my cousin, Gregg. He called right after he heard the news.

“WHAT THE FUCK?” said Gregg, getting right to the point.

It was absolutely the right thing to say. That’s not to discount the many sympathetic calls I got in those early days. People expressed their love, concern, prayers, and hope for my speedy recovery. And that was nice. It’s just, well, “What the fuck?” was on a closed, repeating loop in my head and it was a relief to hear it aired aloud. Gregg nailed it.

Hence, the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Sympathy says, “I’m sorry to hear it. But you’ll get better.”

Empathy says, “I’m coming over.”

Sympathy says, “Don’t cry. You’ll be fine.”

Empathy says, “Cry. This is something to cry about. I’m getting more Kleenex.”

Sympathy says, “I know you’ll be fine. I had a friend who had this, and he got better.”

Empathy says, “Scootch over. Let’s watch Netflix.”

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with sympathy. Sympathy comes from a good place. And oddly, a cancer diagnosis quickly reveals that there are people who actually struggle with sympathy. These are the ones who say stuff like “At least you don’t have double cancer” or other it-could-be-worse scenarios. They say, “You should stay positive” or “Get over it” when you’re sad. When was the last time you “got over” anything—much less cancer— on demand? “Let it go” is another doozy. Oh, I was going to hang on and stay scared and angry, but since you said “Let it go,” I’m just gonna let it go. Thanks. Who wants to go for sushi?

Empathy doesn’t require solutions. It doesn’t even want them. “What the fuck?” says a whole lot. It says, “I’m mad, too,” “This sucks,” “I hear you,” and it respects a shitty moment with appropriately angry humor. Sympathizers are sorry, and you’ll feel that; but empathizers are already pouring you three fingers of scotch or queuing up Breaking Bad episodes.

People will try to come up with solutions when there aren’t any. This is human and forgivable– it comes from a feeling of helplessness. But there’s a better way to help: don’t make any suggestions at all. A cancer patient (or someone who’s depressed or stressed or addicted or mourning or any number of afflictions) is already losing sleep over possible solutions. What helps is having someone just to be there and share those uncomfortable feelings.

“Why the fuck is this happening to me?”

“I have no idea. Sucks, though. And I hate that it is.”

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Making Memories

My iPod is kaput. It’s (supposed to be) waterproof. I need it while swimming laps, so instead of being BORED OUT OF MY MIND, I can just tell myself I am freestyling for seven songs. I could endure any number of unpleasant activities for seven songs. Probably. If three of them were Rhianna. Oh na na… what’s my name. Or if even one was Justin Timberlake. Mirror starin’ back at me… whoa. But today I pushed off from the wall in the lap lane without a single top 40 accompaniment to lessen the obvious torture of exercise. And 30 minutes of nothing but your own thoughts and breathing is an eternity, so I stop a bit short of that. And dammit if Barb and Arnie, my elderly swim noodle bobbing exercise pals don’t notice.

“Cut it a little short today!”

Yeah yeah yeah. I know, cancer-surviving Barb and Arnie, with your plastic visors, million grandchildren, lovely personalities, and sweet inquiries about my boys. BUT I CANNOT SWIM WITHOUT BEYONCE! So it’s only twenty minutes of back and forth and back and forth until I quit the pool to sit on the decking and swap Chinese restaurant recommendations with Barb and Arnie. Octagenarian Jews who snowbird in Florida know every dumpling dive like there is some Old Testament footnote that thou wilst be cashew chicken connoisseurs.

And this is how mornings go here in the summer… and the occasional evening, too. I find myself chatting up the oldest person in the pool, bar, or grocery aisle. The cancer-ed part of me is charmed by longevity and experiences, because I occasionally and morbidly wonder if I might not get to see that later version in the mirror starin’ back at me… whoa. But mostly it’s because we can trade gardening tips and cluck disapprovingly at the maxi dress espadrille moms ignoring their bratty kids who encroach on the lap lane. Cluck cluck.

I do have some lovely summer mommy friends, though. I might have written that I like children about as much as exercise, so it’s rare for me to share a Chardonnay with someone whose spawn I can stomach. Also, I might be a terrible person. But my boys play tennis with a gaggle of tweens that off the courts are like a pile of ever-hungry puppies that remember to say please and thank you. Our house looks like this. Every day.

Ours is the house with the yummy snacks.

Ours is the house with the yummy snacks.

We are in the sweet spot of parenting here and know it. In a few years, these boys will never choose to spend an entire night playing board games and video games and those made up games with the complicated scoring and occasional broken window… certainly not with moms upstairs. They’ll want to troll for cuties at the movie theater. In five years time, they’ll all be driving and dating and sneaky and smelly. The very idea that these kiddos once let us Twist and Shout with them during an impromptu dance party will be a remotely fond memory. We’ll miss them begging for brownies, sleepovers, and just five more minutes after spending untold hours together. But if we have Barb and Arnie luck, we’ll share these memories over our swim noodle bobbing routines in the lap lane.

Happy summer, friends. May all the bikes stop at your door.

The Chemo Nausea Pizza Scale, by Steve Safran

How much pain are you in right now? On a scale from 1-10? Probably none, right? Now– and this is for the sake of science and also my amusement– put yourself in some pain. Any pain. Pinch yourself. Bend your finger back a little too much. Stub a toe. Now how would you rate your pain? A one or a two? What if someone stepped on your foot really hard? Bet that’s a four or five. Step on broken glass? A six.

What if you had a tumor in your back?

I don’t want to get all heavy here. I’m just trying to illustrate how relative pain is. Suddenly getting your foot stepped on is, at most, a two. That’s the problem with that smiley-to-full-agony face pain scale that’s ubiquitous in hospitals. They ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1-10 without any words that describe what a four, six or ten feel like. During my first admission to the hospital for what turned out to be testicular cancer, I was in the worst pain in my life. It was a full 10 on the Steve Scale of Experience. But… I didn’t have a compound fracture or gunshot wound. I imagine those are worse. They sure look worse. Are they two agony faces worse? I bet they’re four agony faces worse. But my pain was more than a four, right?

The numbers needed descriptors like:

  1. Isn’t this a lovely day? Sorry to bother you, but I need a Band-Aid.
  2. Eh… not so bad, but I thought this should be seen

and maybe

  1. This is worse than the time in preschool Kim threw a rock at my head, but not as bad as when she threw the second one because the first one didn’t bounce to her liking

and

  1. That’s not enough morphine and I question your training that you’re only giving me that dosage

I need a scale that is more relatable. During chemo, you have to keep eating. You need to eat so that your stomach stays full and you don’t get sicker. It’s pretty cruel. I’ve shed tears at the thought of having another meal. So with cancer treatment, pain isn’t really the problem. Cancer is a nausea experience. And so every day at the chemo lab, this question: “From 1-10, how nauseous are you today?”

I have designed a system I feel is more precise than the smile-to-agony face sliding scale of misery. It’s the Chemo Nausea Pizza Chart. In essence, “Given the way you feel right now, how opposed would you be to eating some pizza?”

Why pizza? It’s pretty universally loved. And there’s precedent. You eat pizza when you’re drunk, so we’ve established you’ll have it when you don’t feel great. Also, it’s mostly bread, which is pretty easy to digest. You can make it through a slice if you really have to. Here’s the scale:

THE CHEMO NAUSEA PIZZA SCALE

From 1-10 How Opposed to Eating Pizza Are You Right Now?

  1. Pizza? Fantastic. I love this hospital. Another Yelp star for you!
  2. Sure, why not?
  3. Seems like an odd question, but I’ll have a couple of slices.
  4. Yes, but it better be really good.
  5. Well, I know I’m supposed to keep eating. Make it the thin crust stuff with a side of IV anti-nausea drugs going.
  6. Sure, if by “Pizza” you mean “Saltines.”
  7. You have some nerve asking that. Have you ever been nauseated? Force it on me if you must.
  8. Is your degree honorary?
  9. Awesome idea! Why don’t we get a make your own sundae bar and a moon bounce in here, too?
  10. No, and I will never eat again.

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From the always awesome Hyperbole and a Half  http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/02/boyfriend-doesnt-have-ebola-probably.html

Cartoon credit to the always awesome Hyperbole and a Half